David Mathis

The Safest Soul in All the World: Rejoicing in the Risen Christ

The Lord is risen! The Lord is risen indeed!

Whatever the origins of our English word Easter — and they are apparently too ancient and complicated to trace with certainty, even for Encyclopedia Britannica — Easter has come to function for us today as a two-syllable designation for “Resurrection Sunday.” That’s a good abbreviation: six syllables down to two.

Easter is the highest day in the church calendar, the one Sunday that we specially celebrate the reality that we seek to live in light of every day of the year: Jesus, the eternal Son of God, who lived on earth in full humanity, and died on the cross on Good Friday, rose again bodily on Sunday morning.

And this Easter, we find ourselves at the halfway point of Philippians. In meditating on these verses, with Easter in view, I’ve paused over this word safe in verse 1. What does Paul mean that his “writ[ing] the same things . . . is safe”?

Appeal to Safety

As I was pondering Easter safety this week, I started seeing the word everywhere. Apparently, we are a people very conscious of safety, and very interested in safety, and we perhaps hardly realize how much. In the news just this week was more of the Boeing “safety crisis.” And I saw headlines that read,

“Eclipse safety: NYS task force has been working since 2022 to prepare for April 8”
“Senators say Meta’s Zuckerberg is slow-walking child safety inquiries”

And I found appeals to safety in my own inbox:

The city of Minneapolis directed me to get an HVAC “safety check” as part of a home inspection.
I saw a message from SportsEngine with this call to action: “Keep your athlete safe.”
And I received unwanted marketing emails that offered the option to “Safely Unsubscribe” (in small print at the bottom, if you can find it).

Some of our constant pursuit of safety is, of course, shallow and misguided and overly fearful. Our modern lives can be filled with petty and disordered desires for safety. And at the same time, there are wise, holy, reasonable desires for safety. That’s what Paul appeals to in verse 1:

Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you is no trouble to me and is safe for you.

Easter Joy

Before we focus on “Easter safety,” which will be our theme this morning, let me first say something about “Finally” at the beginning of verse 1. I know there’s a preacher joke here. “Just like a preacher! Paul says ‘Finally’ when he’s only halfway done!”

However, this “finally” is actually a loose connecting phrase that can mean “finally” in some contexts, but in others, it can be “so then” or “in addition” or “above all.” The key here is that Paul just mentioned joy and rejoicing in 2:28–29. And before then, he mentioned gladness and rejoicing, twice each, in 2:17–18. And before that, he made a double mention of his own rejoicing in 1:18. Have you noticed how often Paul not only talks about joy in Philippians, but does it in pairs? We’ll see it again in 4:4: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.” It’s like he just can’t say it enough. To say it just once doesn’t seem to do it. He needs to say it again.

And Paul is aware of how often he’s talking about rejoicing, and doing so in pairs, and so after saying “rejoice in the Lord” in 3:1, he adds a little bit of a defense for it. He wants his readers to know he’s aware he might sound like a broken record, but he means it, in the best of ways. He’s not being lazy or simpleminded. He doesn’t want to bore them, but to help them, to make them safe. He overcomes whatever dislike or distaste he might have for obvious repetition, and says, “To write the same things to you is no trouble to me and is safe for you.”

It’s safe to keep saying, “Rejoice in the Lord.” It’s for your good. You can’t overdo rejoicing in the Lord. Now, you can underdo all sorts of other things while rejoicing in the Lord. You can underdo sorrow and grieving. You can underdo seriousness. And you can overdo all those. You can overdo all sorts of good things. But joy in Christ, rightly understood, truly experienced, you cannot overdo. You cannot overdo rejoicing in Jesus.

Three Safeties

Our question this morning on Easter is, Safe from what? What does Easter joy — the double joy, the repeated joy, the great joy of the resurrection of Jesus, which is the beating heart of the joy of Christianity — what does joy in the risen Christ give safety from and how?

I see three threats in these verses, and so three safeties for us in the Easter joy of rejoicing in the risen Christ.

1. Easter joy gives us safety from foes.

To be clear, foes, or opponents (1:28), in and of themselves, are the least concern of these three threats. They’re still real, but the least troubling on their own. So, Paul says in verse 2,

Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh.

So, who are these “dogs” nipping at the Philippians’ heels?

“You cannot overdo rejoicing in Jesus.”

My family and good friends will tell you I’m not a dog person. I recognize that many of you are dog people. I can respect that — to a degree. Sometimes when dogs come up, I like to say, with a smile, Well, you know what the Bible says about dogs, don’t you?

Let’s just say the picture is very negative — but it does have a twist. Dogs were the scum of ancient cities. They were unclean and nasty, like we think of rats today. Dogs would devour dead flesh and lick up spilled blood. And perhaps related to this, the Jews came to associate Gentiles (non-Jews) with dogs. Gentiles were unclean, according to the old covenant; they were outsiders. You may recall Jesus’s interaction with the Canaanite (Gentile) woman in Matthew 15 (and Mark 7), where he says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. . . . It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs” — the Gentiles (Matthew 15:24, 26).

For Paul, there is an insightful irony in calling these foes “dogs,” because they presume that they are the insiders, and that Gentiles, like the Philippians and us, are the outsiders. We’re the dogs, unclean and unsafe, they think — unless we add old-covenant law-keeping (marked by circumcision) to faith in Jesus.

We call these opponents “Judaizers.” They tried to Judaize Christianity; they tried to put Christ-believing Gentiles back under old-covenant Judaism, rather than letting them just be Gentile Christians in the new covenant without the baggage of the previous era. These Judaizers went around telling Gentile Christians that, essentially, they needed to become Jews physically in order to be truly saved, and safe.

And these Judaizers often dogged Paul’s ministry. They followed him around. After he’d bring the gospel to Gentiles, and move on to the next town, they’d sweep in and try to get new Gentile Christians to think they needed to add Judaism to their faith.

So, when Paul calls them “dogs,” he’s not aiming to insult them but to use instructive irony for the sake of his readers. He’s turning the tables to make the point that believing Gentiles are actually the true Jews (spiritually), and these Judaizers have become the new Gentiles, the outsiders, the dogs. Now Christ has come, and been raised, and inaugurated a new covenant. With Easter Sunday, old is gone; behold, new has come.

And these Judaizing foes might think of themselves as doing good works, according to the old covenant, but in fact they are “evil workers.” In trying to circumcise Gentile flesh in obedience to the old covenant, they are, in fact, mutilators of the flesh. They have missed how Good Friday and Easter have remade the world.

So, how does Easter joy, rejoicing in the risen Christ, make us safe from such foes — these and a thousand others? Specifically, rejoicing in the real Jesus fortifies our souls against trying to add anything to the grounds of our rejoicing. In rejoicing in him — in who he is, in what he accomplished for us at the cross, in his rising back to life, and in that he is alive today and our living Lord on the throne of the universe — we come to know a fullness of joy that will not be flanked or supplemented by anything else. Being satisfied in the risen Christ keeps us from being deceived by other shallow appeals to joy, and keeps us from temptations to try to add to him.

Rejoicing in Jesus is practical. Are you seeking to rejoice in him? Do you aim at this, and pray for this? When you open the Bible, when you pray, when you gather with fellow Christians, and when we come to worship together on Sunday mornings, and when you go to work, and when you live the rest of life, are you seeking to rejoice, to be satisfied, to be happy in the risen Christ?

So, Easter joy gives us safety from foes.

2. Easter joy gives us safety from our own flesh.

This is a greater concern — the danger of self-ruin, the threat of our own sinful hearts, various habits and patterns that would lead us to trust in ourselves for salvation. Or, we might say, the way that foes are a real threat to our souls is through our own sin. Foes harm us by deception. Then, being deceived, we move to trust in ourselves. Verse 3:

For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh.

Remember from verse 2 that these Judaizing foes — who claim to be God’s true people, his Israel, the circumcision — they are actually the dogs, the new Gentile outsiders. Because, Paul says, in verse 3, with emphasis, we are the circumcision. We Christians, both Jews like Paul and Gentiles like the Philippians, who — and this is such an important “who” with the sequence that follows.

Here we get to the heart of the Christian life, which is the human heart. Oh, get this clear on Easter Sunday. Get this heart. Get what it means to be God’s new-covenant people. Circumcision of the flesh is not what makes and defines us. Human deeds and efforts and abilities do not make us and define us. Rather, what circumcision of the flesh had been pointing to all along is circumcision of the heart. That is, a new heart, new desires. A born-again soul. New creation in you. God opens the eyes of your soul to the wonder of his risen Son. He changes your heart to marvel at Jesus and rejoice in him. So, here in verse 3, we get three marks of what it means to really be a Christian.

One, we “worship [live, walk, serve] by the Spirit of God.” That is, God has put his own Spirit in us. He dwells in us. We have the Holy Spirit. Can you believe that? If you are in Christ, you have the Holy Spirit. God himself, in his Spirit, somehow “dwells in” you. We saw it in 2:13: “It is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” What power against sin! What power to rejoice in the risen Christ! What power for taking the initiative to love and serve others and gladly do what Christ calls us to do.

The risen Christ has poured out his Spirit, and ushered in a new era of history following Easter. Now, God’s people are no longer under the tutelage of the old-covenant law, but have his own Spirit at work in us. We do not worship and live in the old era but in the new, with God’s own Spirit dwelling in us.

And so, two, we “glory in Christ Jesus.” Which is more joy language, but elevated. “Glory” is literally “boast” — we boast in Christ Jesus. “Boasting” is tricky in English because it has negative connotations. So, the ESV translates it “glory” (as in 1:26). What makes boasting, or glorying, good or bad is its object. And so we boast, The Lord is risen! The Lord is risen indeed!

True Christians are those who glory in Christ Jesus as the sole grounds of our full acceptance with God. So, when someone asks, How do I get right with God? Or, How can I be truly safe — not in the little trivialities of this life but forever? We boast in Christ. “On my own, I’m ruined. But I glory in the risen Christ. I boast in the one who died for me and rose again. He is worthy. I glory in him!”

So, “boasting” or “glorying” is stronger language for the rejoicing of verse 1. This is Easter joy. This is double joy. This is joy intensified, joy magnified, joy heightened, joy expanded, joy enriched, joy elevated, joy resurrected.

Which means, third, by contrast, Christians are people who “put no confidence in the flesh.” We boast in the risen Christ, not self, for ultimate safety. And if you wonder what “flesh” means here, Paul will make it clear in verses 4–6, as we’ll see next week. In sum: putting “no confidence in the flesh” means not trusting in ourselves or any mere human effort or energy to get and keep us right with God. Not any privilege of our birth, nor any natural ability, nor hard work, nor achievement, nor human wisdom — nothing in us or related to us, whether who we are or what we’ve done. Rather, we glory in Jesus.

Which leads then to one last safety that’s implicit beneath the first two.

3. Easter joy gives us safety from God’s righteous fury against our sin.

This is the greatest threat of all: omnipotent wrath. The offense of our sin against the holy God is the final danger beneath the other dangers. The reason foes could be a danger is they might deceive us to put confidence in ourselves and our actions. And the reason putting confidence in ourselves is a danger is that this discounts the depth of our sin and leaves us unshielded, unsafe before the righteous justice of God against our rebellion.

When Paul says that rejoicing in the Lord “is safe for you,” what’s at bottom is ultimate safety, final safety, eternal safety, safety of soul, safety from the divine justice that our sin deserves.

But Easter joy keeps us safe from the righteous fury we deserve, because rejoicing in the risen Christ is the way we take cover in the Son of God who came, and died, and was raised, to deal with our sin and usher us safely with him into the very presence of God.

You might put it this way: the safest soul in all the universe is the one that rejoices in the risen Christ.

“Being satisfied in the risen Christ keeps us from being deceived by other shallow appeals to joy.”

Rejoicing in the Lord is a place of great safety, shielded from every real threat, even the greatest. God will not destroy those who delight in him. Delight in him is a stronghold (Nehemiah 8:10), a fortress, a safe place, because God always preserves those who delight in him.

So, Cities Church, rejoice in the risen Christ! To say it again is no trouble for me, and safe for you.

The Lord is risen! The Lord is risen indeed!

Seeds of Joy at the Table

As we come to the Table, let’s address a question some of us have on a high feast day like Easter, and in a book like Philippians, which accents the importance of rejoicing in the Lord. What if you’re not feeling it? What if you don’t feel happy in the risen Christ? Perhaps you want to rejoice in Jesus, you want to glory in him, but you’re a sinner; your heart’s not where you want it to be. One answer, among others, is this Table.

This Table is not only for those who are boiling over with Easter delight, overflowing with joy in Jesus. It’s also for those who feel their hearts to be sluggish, and know they’re not rejoicing in the Lord like they want to, or like they should. And yet, in the ache of that desire is the seed of joy. In the longing, in the wanting is the seed of Easter joy that we come to nourish and strengthen at this Table.

If you would say with us this morning, “I claim the risen Christ. However high or low my rejoicing, I know myself undeserving. I put no confidence in my flesh. But I do put my confidence, for final safety, in the risen Christ,” then we would have you eat and drink with us, for joy.

Wrap Your Soul in Truth: Under-Armor for Spiritual War

Given enough time, men and women of principle stand out. After waves of social pressure and the mounting cares of this life, such people are left standing, long after others around them have compromised and toppled.

I’m referring to Christians who don’t play favorites and aren’t partisans of this age. They don’t bend the truth or sweep respectable sins under the rug. Rather, they call Jesus “Lord,” and standing with two feet on his soil, they call “spade” and “evil” to all sides of error and unbelief. Such men and women refuse to cut moral corners, or presume that strategic wrongs can make others right. They shun small compromises and may not stand out at first. But give it time, and their truth and good will be conspicuous (1 Timothy 5:25).

When justice is at stake, such people are not partial to the rich, or the poor. They don’t pick a favorite group, or preferred person, and twist truth and righteousness to fit their darling. Bearing the name of their God, and the Messiah he sent, they judge with impartiality and decide with equity.

And in the spiritual conflict in which we’re engaged, they “stand against the [plural] schemes of the devil” (Ephesians 6:11) that come from every side. They remember that our warfare is spiritual, not “against flesh and blood” (Ephesians 6:12) — and that this war cannot be fought with the weapons of the world.

If such men and women seem to be in short supply in some circles, we might ask, Where do such people come from?

God’s Armor and Ours

“God shows no partiality” is a striking refrain across Scripture, and particularly in the New Testament (Acts 10:34; Romans 2:11; Galatians 2:6; Ephesians 6:9; Colossians 3:25). The implication for God’s people is plain and explicit: do nothing from partiality (1 Timothy 5:21). This is James’s memorable teaching about rich and poor who come to worship: “show no partiality” (James 2:1). “If you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors” (James 2:9).

“The Christian who wraps his soul in the objective truth of Scripture shapes his subjective heart for the wiles of war.”

But all this truth and righteousness, precious as it is, remains downstream when we come to “the whole armor of God” — and what Paul lists first. Before we start reaching for God’s armor, we should know whose it is, and who wore it first.

Now, some of Scripture’s most magnificent passages can be lost on us through over-familiarity. Such chapters as Isaiah 53 and 1 Corinthians 13 are deservedly famous — and in that due emphasis and celebration, many of us need to move past our dulling acquaintance with them and see them with fresh eyes, and amazement.

The “armor of God” in Ephesians 6 is one of these stunning flourishes. This is Paul at his best, with dazzling Christian creativity, if we might call it that. In one powerfully rhetorical swath, he both pulls together Old Testament references to armor and presses them into Christian use (perhaps even against a Roman backdrop). This is instructive of the range of usages the apostles can make of the Hebrew Scriptures, not only as simple promise-fulfillment, but also illusions and types and patterns and artistic syntheses crafted to serve the holy designs of the authors and needs of their readers. Here the apostle is both poet and pastor.

Iain Duguid makes a compelling case that

each of the pieces of armor has a rich background in the Old Testament, where they describe God’s armor — the armor that God himself dons to rescue his people. The Old Testament, not the Roman legionary, provided Paul with his inspiration — and if we miss this background, we may misinterpret and misapply the various pieces of the armor.

So, we begin with the first — “the belt of truth,” which strictly speaking isn’t armor, defensive or offensive, but pre-armor or under-armor. Let’s see it first in its original context, and what it shows us of our Divine Warrior, and then how we, very practically, might “wear the belt” today as Christians in a world of half-truths.

Messiah Wrapped in Righteousness

Isaiah 11 tells of the coming “shoot from the stump of Jesse,” David’s father. The mention of Jesse recalls the humble origins of Israel’s greatest king. The wide trunk that is God’s first-covenant people may be felled by an invading army, but God will see to it that a stump will remain — and in time a new shoot of life will spring from David’s line.

The prophet anticipates that this coming Messiah, with the Spirit of God resting on him, will delight in the fear of God — and so will be no partisan king. He will not be deceived by appearances and personal preferences, “but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth” (Isaiah 11:3–4). Strikingly, he will not then take up the physical sword to enforce his will but exact justice with the word of his power: “he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked” (Isaiah 11:4).

Seven centuries later, when the apostle writes so memorably to Christians about putting on “the whole armor,” he draws first on Isaiah 11:5:

Righteousness shall be the belt of his waist,and faithfulness (truth) the belt of his loins.

Gracious and merciful as will be this Messiah to rescue his people, he will not act unjustly. He will not take bribes or underwrite half-truths. He will not treat wrong as right, or sweep injustice under the rug. Delighting to reverence his divine Father and cosmic justice, he will be a king who delights in right, does right, and is known for it. Even his opponents will have to admit, “Teacher, we know that you speak and teach rightly, and show no partiality, but truly teach the way of God” (Luke 20:21).

So here, looking to the righteous actions of Jesus, Paul notes our first step in dressing for spiritual battle.

Prepare Your Soul with Truth

Before reaching for breastplate, shoes, shield, helmet, or sword, first comes the under-armor. There’s technically no “belt” here in Ephesians 6:14. This first step of preparation is literally, “having girded up your loins in truth” (perizōsamenoi tēn osphun humōn en alētheia). We might say wrap your waist in truth.

In the ancient world, “girding up your loins” meant wrapping your waist with the excess fabric of a long robe as “preparation for vigorous activity” (O’Brien, Ephesians, 473). Drawing up the dangling garment, and securing it at the waist, enabled running, free movement, and unhindered combat. With this foundational fashion in place, warriors then could secure their armor and go into battle.

For spiritual war, the Christian first is to wrap his loins in truth. Now, as “the belt,” this is not yet truth on the offensive (that’s the sword of the Spirit), but this is God’s truth applied to oneself, to the inner man, the soul, the “inward being” or “secret heart” (Psalm 51:6). The Christian who wraps his soul in the objective truth of Scripture shapes his subjective heart for the wiles of war. He takes the divine word deep into his human center, for transformation and joy. He not only searches the Scriptures, but lets the Scriptures search him. He ingests God’s truth both to feed and to condition his soul, subjectively using the objective truth to shape his pliable affections.

Slowly, one day at a time, over months and years, this wrapping makes him a vastly different person, far better equipped to both identify truth and embody it.

Wrap Yourself in His Word

Wrapping ourselves in truth applies to more than personal Bible intake, but not less. Those best prepared for spiritual war are those who not only dip into the word briefly but saturate their lives with it. They wrap their souls in God’s truth through various habits and patterns, personally and corporately — through reading and rereading and study and meditation and memorization and discussion. They click on content that strengthens their bearings and their delight in truth, rather than error.

We all wrap our souls in something. Is it truth or error? And as we practice choosing truth daily, reading truth, clicking truth, meditating on truth, talking truth, then we become ready to discern truth from error, counterfeits, and half-truths.

“Those best prepared for spiritual war are those who not only dip into the word briefly but saturate their lives with it.”

And having wrapped our souls in truth, we become the kind of people who bring truth with us wherever we go. We not only speak truth but embody it, and even more, speak the truth of the gospel into places and hearts of unbelief. We are truth-tellers in our jobs, on our taxes, when we fill out insurance claims, when we serve as jurors, when we find a financial error in our favor, and when we hear someone speak a half-truth about someone else. Like Jesus, we will become agents of truth wherever we go: when we walk into a room, or stand up at a school-board meeting, or sit in a conference room, or engage in conversation.

Wrapped in truth, we’ll be the kind of people who say, in every crisis, Let truth hold sway. Let the unvarnished truth be discovered and known. Truth will not undermine the cause of our God and Christ, who is the Truth. Rather, the cause of truth — openhanded, not angling, full exposure, light into darkness — is an effect downstream of our knowing and enjoying the word of truth, the gospel, about the one who is Truth himself.

And so we call out spades and evil, and call on Jesus as Lord. We refuse to cut moral corners, cater to lies, or presume that some wrongs can make others right. First, we wrap ourselves daily in God’s truth. Then, we reach for the armor, and over time we grow increasingly bright and shine like the sun in the kingdom of our Father, and in this age besides.

Before Division Comes: A Playbook for Pastoral Unity

There you sit at the elder meeting. Some disagreement again surfaces.

Maybe you disagree about a potential elder candidate. He’s a good friend of one brother. But to you, he doesn’t seem sober-minded. You don’t think he’ll add to the team, but detract. He seems more like a liability than a blessing.

Perhaps you disagree about a troubled marriage. One pastor thinks the wife is mature and has been long-suffering with the husband, who is largely to blame; another pastor thinks the wife has come to imbibe an unbelieving perspective and is angling to be free from her marriage vows.

Perhaps it’s a doctrinal or exegetical disagreement. Let’s say female deacons. You’re on a counsel of eight. The other seven brothers have expressed openness to female deacons, and you’re the one that doesn’t see it in 1 Timothy 3. You think gunaikas there is deacon wives, not women deacons.

Or you disagree about priorities. How often should we inform the church about the latest pro-abortion legislative disaster in our state? How often do we call our people to prayer and some kind of action?

Or maybe it just seems to be the same brother all the time. Clearly the algorithms have the two of you on different feeds. Whatever the causes, you’ve been pulled into different ecosystems of digital influence. You wonder how much of this has been conditioned through these devices.

Our focus in this session is on seeking unity among pastor-elders. That is, unity in the lead or teaching office of the church, variously called pastor, elder, and overseer in the New Testament — three names for one office, the lead office (with deacon being the name of the assisting office). Our task in this session is handling disagreements among pastor-elders.

First, I’d like to make some preliminary assumptions explicit, and then give some practical counsel and reasons for hope.

Preliminary Assumptions

Now, a preliminary word about these “preliminary assumptions.” These actually may be the most important part. Many of the most important factors related to disagreements among pastors begin long before the specific disagreements emerge. I will try to speak to working for unity amidst disagreement, but I suspect the best working for unity happens before disagreement.

1. Church leadership is teamwork.

Even in rural settings, where the idea of a team of pastors may seem unrealistic, we still have the New Testament’s stubborn ideal of plurality. Twice Peter addresses the plural elders in 1 Peter 5:1–5; local church elders are plural in Acts (Acts 14:23; 20:17); so too in the Pastoral Epistles (1 Timothy 4:14; 5:17; Titus 1:5), and in James 5:14. In fact, every instance of local-church leadership in the New Testament implies plurality.

If I could give you a four-part summary of the New Testament vision for church leadership, it would have team at the heart of it: “local teams of sober-minded teachers.” Four parts: locality, acuity, didacity, and plurality.

“Our churches not only need good men as pastors; they need good men who are good friends.”

But not only plurality. The hope is not just that pastor-elder teams would be plural, but that pastor-elders would like each other, enjoy each other — that they would be friends, not rivals. Maybe “team of rivals” worked in Lincoln’s cabinet. But none of us is Lincoln, and besides, the local church is not the Lincoln administration. My experience has been that friendship, love, genuine affection among elders is not icing on the cake for good eldering. This is part of the cake. Our churches not only need good men as pastors; they need good men who are good friends.

Oh, “how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!” (Psalm 133:1). That is, not just put up with each other, but actually enjoy each other, and look forward to being together, rather than dread it. Whether the pastor-elders enjoy their fellowship will soon affect the church. And it will profoundly affect how we work for unity in the midst of the disagreements that will inevitably come.

If fact, related to working for unity, my counsel would be to always be working for unity through friendship, through investing in team dynamics, long before disagreements arise. Work for unity ahead of time, and seek to have such settled, stable unity, that when disagreements do arise, your unity isn’t soon called into question. Then you can give your focus to actually working through the issue, rather than working for unity prematurely.

And get this: when the relationships are strong and enjoyable among elders, you’re not so nervous about conflict and avoiding certain issues. Rather, you’re free to mine for conflict — to ask about it and talk about it long before it becomes an elephant in the room. You read a frustrated look on a brother’s face and ask him to say more, rather than barreling forward to get your preference in the moment. Your relationship is stable enough to try to surface potential disagreements early, rather than avoiding them and letting them fester.

So, church leadership is teamwork — and best done by friends, not rivals.

2. Good teams guard the gate.

That is, they are careful whom they add to the team. They don’t rush the process. They aren’t “hasty in the laying on of hands” (1 Timothy 5:22). So, we ask all sorts of questions up front. Ask about theology and theological hobbyhorses. Work carefully through the elder qualifications (take them seriously!). And ask each other, Do we think this man fits with the shared instincts of our team? Will he be a good teammate? Does he seem to have our chemistry? Or, how will he affect our team’s chemistry?

Remember, this is not “team of rivals.” There are plenty of issues in life and ministry to disagree about, in big and small degrees. Inevitably, some differing instincts reside in your team. They are there, and they will come. After a while together, you’ll be able to plot on a line who’s the most knee-jerk conservative, who’s most compassionate, who’s most hopeful about the world and culture. Those differences of instinct that make a team healthy and effective will emerge soon enough. But don’t try to staff for difference. Difference will be there and arise. Staff for chemistry. Try to build a team of friends who like each other and have significant shared instincts and genuinely want to spend time together, and so come to enjoy the often burdensome work of teaching and caring well for the church together.

At the gate, be clear about what you have in writing. What, if anything, beyond Scripture does your elder team commit to? Do the leaders subscribe to any confession beyond the membership covenant? Is there a pastors’ covenant? Any agreed-upon documents on ministry philosophy? I’d encourage you to have some things in writing (though not too much). Know what it is, and use it.

3. Unity does not require unanimity.

I’ve heard of elder boards who insist on unanimity in their decisions. I don’t think that’s necessary (or good). We need to be wise and patient regarding particular situations. If it’s a huge initiative in the church — say, a capital campaign — you might want to press for unanimity, or very close to it, not mere consensus. And in major decisions like that, don’t rush the process. And for lead pastors, I say don’t bring a fully formulated proposal to the team. Take the initiative. Point in a direction. Give time to think it over carefully. Ask all the brothers to speak in and develop ownership in the process. Give space for that. Mine for hesitations and conflict. Seek to refine the proposal. On major initiatives, do your best to rally the whole team together.

But on other items, it’s simply not worth all the work to get to unanimity, and not necessary. One or two guys have a different opinion, but you have a clear consensus in the team. The decision needs to be made tonight, and so you move forward.

So, that’s one disclaimer on the idea of working for unity. Most things do not need unanimity.

Another disclaimer on working for unity is that true Christian unity is not something we first produce, and definitely not in a moment, but a grace we receive and then maintain and protect, even as we grow and deepen it. Consider Ephesians 4:1–3:

Walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

In Christ, we don’t produce our unity. The Spirit gives it. Once we are in Christ, we have in common with others who are in Christ the most important realities in the universe. Unity, then, is what we seek to maintain.

Yet also there is a sense in which it is attained. Ephesians 4:12–13: Pastors “equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood.” The Spirit gives it; we maintain it, even as we pastors lead the church in attaining the unity of full maturity.

“We are prone to move too fast or not at all. Moving forward with patience is most difficult, and most rewarding.”

In Philippians, Paul is writing to a church with some newly emerging unity issues. He wants them to “[be] of the same mind, [have] the same love, [be] in full accord and of one mind” (Philippians 2:2). He hopes to hear of them that they “are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel” (Philippians 1:27). How, then, might that happen? How might they practically seek to maintain their unity in Christ and together attain the unity of maturity? Philippians 2:3–4 (this text might be the single most important one on pursuing unity):

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.

(First Peter 3:8 mentions a similar cluster of virtues with “unity of mind”: “All of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind.”)

4. Different kinds of disagreement lead to different courses of action.

First, some disagreements on small or silly matters are overlooked by wise, peaceable, magnanimous men.

In 2 Timothy 2, before Paul gives Timothy some of the most pointed words in Scripture on how to deal with conflict, first he says in 2 Timothy 2:23, “Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels.” And 1 Timothy 6:4–5 warns us about

an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, and constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth.

Brothers, “not quarrelsome” is an elder qualification (1 Timothy 3:3).

It’s long been a live issue, but in recent years, online life has thrown gas on the fire. Brothers, you don’t always have to have an opinion. And you don’t have to express your opinion. (This is a particular temptation for word guys like us; words come so easy for some of us pastors.) Don’t let foolish, distant, impractical quarrels divide your pastoral team and ruin your trust with your own people.

Second, some disagreements are on clearly defined matters, like doctrine.

In Acts 20:29–30, Paul warns the Ephesian elders that wolves will rise up from within their own team:

I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them.

God made the souls of men in particular to rise to the unpleasant and essential work of protecting the flock from wolves, with its emotional and physical costs. (As an aside, the threat of false teaching, and the necessity of pastors protecting the sheep from wolves, may show plainest of all God’s building of men for the pastorate. God made men to be conditioned for this calling.) And of course, the worst of this is when such errors, doctrinally or ethically, arise “from among your own selves,” from within the team.

Brian Tabb recently wrote in Themelios under the title “On Disagreements in Ministry.” I’d recommend it. He says there,

Christian workers are sometimes morally obligated to separate when matters of essential biblical doctrine and practice are at stake. Some separations and divisions between professing believers are necessary to distinguish true faith and morality from counterfeit Christianity. For example, Paul exhorts, “Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers” (2 Cor 6:14), and he explains that “there must . . . be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized” (1 Cor 11:19). Likewise, John asserts, “They went out from us, but they were not of us” (1 John 2:19), and he warns against partnering with or receiving any teacher who “does not abide in the teaching of Christ . . . for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works” (2 John 9–11). It takes biblical wisdom, humility, and courage to practice “theological triage” and discern between those hills that are worth dying on, on the one hand, and matters where fellow believers may agree to disagree, on the other.

And even when you find yourself in such a conflict, remember the rest of Paul’s counsel in 2 Timothy 2:24–25:

The Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness.

Third, some of the most difficult are gray-area disagreements.

These are issues that matter but are not easily settled by texts of Scripture or shared statements of faith. One classic example is Paul and Barnabas disagreeing about John Mark and separating over their difference in assessment. This is Acts 15:36–41:

After some days Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us return and visit the brothers in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they are.” [So they’re agreed!] Now Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. But Paul thought best not to take with them one who had withdrawn from them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work. And there arose a sharp disagreement, so that they separated from each other. Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and departed, having been commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord. And he went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.

In another Themelios essay, Don Carson refers to “differences in vision and priorities. . . . Is it a case of a Barnabas and a Paul unable to reach an amicable agreement on a pastoral issue where both sides feel strongly and can marshal compelling arguments?”

Again, pastor-elders are to be men who are not quarrelsome, but peaceable. And peacemaking is very different from conflict-aversion. To be a peacemaker, one must be willing to engage in and endure conflict, and do so with Christian speech and conduct, but not as an end — rather, aiming for the restoration of peace on the far side.

Which leads us to the practical counsel (after all those preliminary assumptions!).

Practical Counsel

What more might we say about the Paul-and-Barnabas type of disagreement? I’m not here dealing with disagreements on clearly defined matters, or disagreements on trivia, or foolish quarrels insighted by the Internet, but real-life gray-area disagreements between brothers on the same pastor-elder team — and that from my limited perspective (fifteen years as an elder).

When the situation arises, when disagreement emerges that feels significant enough that it draws your attention as a disagreement, here are six counsels (among many others, I’m sure).

1. Rehearse what you share in common.

Hopefully you’ve been working for unity ahead of time: fostering relationships with each other; cultivating affection for each other; keeping short accounts; mining for conflict, rather than letting it fester underground until it erupts through the surface. Remember what you share in common as redeemed sinners, indwelt by the Spirit, caring for the good of this church. Consider how much doctrine and philosophy of ministry you share. And pause to cherish it afresh.

2. Query the disagreement in three dimensions.

In abiding disagreements, query (1) your own soul, (2) God’s word, and (3) the counsel of others.

When trying to discern between controversies to avoid and conflicts to engage with courage, you might query your own soul like this:

Is this about me — my ego, my preference, my threatened illusion of control — or is this relevant to Jesus, his gospel, his church? Am I remembering that my greatest potential enemy here is not others, and not even Satan, but my own indwelling sin?
What is the tenor of my ministry? Is it one fight after another? Are there seasons of peace? Am I engaging in conflict as an end in itself, or is preserving and securing Christian peace clearly the goal?
Am I going with or against my flesh, which inclines me to fight when I shouldn’t, and to back down when I should kindly, patiently, gently fight? As the “servant” of the Lord, not self, am I avoiding petty causes that an unholy part of me wants to pursue, while taking on the difficult, painful, and righteous causes that an unholy part of me wants to flee?
Am I simply angry at my opponents, desiring to show them up or expose them, or am I sad for them — better yet, compassionate for them — genuinely praying that God would free them from deception and grant them repentance? Am I more inclined to anger against them or tears for them?

Also, you might want to revisit the elder qualifications afresh related to how you are engaging the disagreement. Which of the essential pastoral virtues are live challenges or come into fresh light in the conflict? Ask, Which single attribute do I need the most help with in this brewing conflict?

3. Carefully ask others for perspective and counsel.

I say “carefully” meaning (1) not to violate confidentiality and (2) not to rally support. You are asking for counsel for you — what you might do, how you might grow and change — not simply for a verdict from a buddy that you’re in the right. You could ask others in the room, fellow elders. Or carefully ask for outside perspective — again with the goal of receiving counsel for how you can be a means of grace, how you might wisely humble yourself and faithfully navigate the situation.

4. Look for objective cues and clarity to go on.

Good decisions are not ex nihilo but “sub-creation” with various givens. You need some objective grist to work with. Perhaps the confusion and disagreement stems from awareness, or lack thereof, of objective givens related to the situation. Rehearse what you know for sure and is not speculation. One way to move toward agreement is to get more of simply a clear given on the table.

5 Give it more time (without negligence).

Related to looking for objectives, you may be stuck because you need more data, another given, another data point, to lead and guide — which might mean you are not yet to a wise point to make the decision. Resist the pressure to make decisions prematurely. Giving it more time means patience, not neglect. This is like untying knots on our kid’s ice skates or untangling a necklace: we are prone to move too fast or not at all. Moving forward with patience is most difficult, and most rewarding.

Also, related to time, if you do begin to discern you’re at an impasse, be careful not to part too quickly. But also don’t stay stuck in an impasse when both sides are really entrenched. From here, there likely is one party that, given the situation, and in hopes of the health of the church, should stand down. Humbly assess if you’re the one who should stand down.

6. Ask afresh how Scripture speaks to the issue.

You might be able to get to this right away, but with a gray-area or jagged-line disagreement, you may simply come across surprising insights as you continue reading, meditating on, and sitting under God’s word. So, the deliberate passage of time may shed new light on the issue, which is why I’ve put revisiting Scripture here at the end, rather than first in the list.

As time passes, you have the opportunity to keep meditating on Scripture every day. It’s amazing what clarity you might get on an issue and what discoveries of biblical wisdom you might gain over the course of a year, say, if it remains with you while you read the whole Bible through. You might start seeing connections you had not previously seen as new issues are raised and become personal through the presenting disagreement. There can be wisdom in letting disagreements pass through a few seasons of the year (especially through winter and seasonally affected places like Minnesota). And other than 1 Timothy 3, Titus 1, and 2 Timothy 2:23–26, another particular passage to meditate on for disagreement is James 3:13–18:

Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.

Every Conflict an Opportunity

Many disagreements will lessen, if not resolve, as you proceed patiently, query the Scriptures, query the situation, audit your own soul, and solicit perspective (and exhortation) from wise counselors. But some disagreements prove intractable. As you discuss and keep revisiting the issue, you seem to be getting further and further apart, not coming together. Some disagreements you may be able to live with. For others, it may be a matter of time before some parting will happen, like Paul and Barnabas.

“Disagreement is a chance for deeper harmony, greater friendship, wiser elder actions, and healthier churches.”

And when that happens, my counsel would be walk humbly and carefully as to who leaves and who stays. If the elder board is split ten to one, and deeply entrenched, it’s the one who needs to leave. Navigating a righteous departure demands great wisdom and perhaps even more energy in working for unity.

Let’s close with this hope: in Scripture, conflict is an amazing opportunity for God’s grace. Disagreement is a chance for deeper harmony in the end, greater friendship, wiser elder actions, and healthier churches.

We don’t know any more about Paul and John Mark from Acts. But we do see in Paul’s letters that they ministered together later on. And even this, from the last chapter of Paul’s last letter:

Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me for ministry. (2 Timothy 4:11)

May God give us such hope, and such reunions, even in this life — and even more, even better, together in the one to come.

Bring Your Grief to Gethsemane: The Healing Wounds of Maundy Thursday

Perhaps you bring no specific sorrows or griefs into this Maundy Thursday. Count it as God’s grace in a world as broken as ours — with the sober recognition that it will not always be so.

The rest of us find ourselves carrying some identifiable grief or pain this Holy Week. To you, I extend the invitation to join me in bringing your griefs to Gethsemane. They are welcome here on this holy Thursday. There is room for them in the garden. There is healing for them here, and at Golgotha, like nowhere else.

Not that our griefs are the focus. Which is why Maundy Thursday is so precious, and offers the real help and healing we need.

Loud Cries and Tears

Outside of the Gospels, Hebrews 5:7 is the most specific reference to Jesus’s evening of agony in the garden of Gethsemane:

In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence.

The mention of “loud cries” might flash our minds forward to the cross and his cry from Psalm 22:1: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And the mention of his tears might send us back to his weeping at the grave of Lazarus in John 11. But his offering up “prayers and supplications,” with the mention of “him who was able to save him from death,” brings us unavoidably to Gethsemane.

Hebrews says that Jesus “was heard because of his reverence.” Which raises the question, “Wait, didn’t Jesus die the next day? Was he really heard? Was he saved from death?” It doesn’t seem like he was saved from death. Or was he?

Three Times He Prays

In the garden, Jesus first prays for the cup to pass — that, if possible, he would not have to go to the cross:

He fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” (Matthew 26:39)

On his knees in Gethsemane, he pleads, “If possible, let this cup pass.” That’s his first prayer. Still, he concedes, “Nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.”

Then, Matthew 26:42 tells us that Jesus prays a “second time”: “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” This second prayer is different, subtle as it may seem. Now the accent is not on the cup passing, but on doing his Father’s will.

Finally, according to Matthew 26:44, Jesus goes away again to pray for a third time: “He went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words again.” So, Matthew reports no developments from the second to the third prayer; they are essentially the same. But the first and second are not the same. They are not contradictory; nor are they “the same words.” But there is a shift in emphasis between Jesus’s first prayer and his second. What happened?

Jesus Strengthened

The Gospel of Luke provides a further detail:

[Jesus] knelt down and prayed, saying, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” [This matches the first prayer in Matthew.] And there appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening him. And being in agony he prayed more earnestly [another distinct time of prayer]; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground. (Luke 22:41–44)

“The one who once prayed with loud cries and tears in Gethsemane, now prays for us with glorified sympathy.”

Let’s put the pieces together. We have a first prayer in Luke, which matches the first prayer in Matthew, with the accent on let this cup pass; remove it from me — and with the added concession, “Nevertheless, not my will be done but yours.” Then we have a second prayer (with the third being essentially the same). And in this second prayer, Jesus shifts his emphasis to what he conceded in the first: “Your will be done.”

So, first prayer: Let this cup pass. Second: Your will be done. And between them, Luke says, Jesus is strengthened by an angel from heaven.

Strengthened for What?

Let’s ask, “Strengthened for what?” and see how that brings us back to Hebrews 5:7. What is the strength Jesus needs here in Gethsemane? He needs strength for the task that now lies ahead. There is no other way to honor his Father and rescue his people and finish his course. He must go to the cross. This cup cannot pass or be removed. Now he is sure of it.

Perhaps the angel confirms this unavoidable path, or maybe Jesus himself freshly realizes it or comes to grips with it in some new way. Either way, the Father sends one of heaven’s finest to strengthen his Son’s human heart and steady his human will for the literally excruciating work ahead of him.

At one level, Jesus is strengthened simply not to run from the garden but to remain and give himself into custody. But at a deeper level, he is strengthened in his inner man to close with resolve on the work before him, to voluntarily choose, even embrace, his Father’s will — and in so doing, make the divine will to be his own as man.

The temptation of the moment is not just to flee with his feet, but to fail in his heart and soul. The peril in the hours ahead will be to abandon faith in the face of such terrible obstacles. Will his heart prove stronger than the horrors of his circumstances? Or will the sharp edges of these sorrows shatter into pieces his tender trust for his Father and his self-sacrificing love for their people?

In his second prayer in the garden, Jesus says, in effect, “Father, given that this cup cannot pass, help me to persevere through suffering and death.” Help my soul to endure in faith and not give out. Help me hold my original confidence in you firm to the end.

So, the angel visits. Jesus is strengthened — and, freshly resolved, he does not continue to pray for the removal of the cup. Now he prays for victory in drinking it.

Our Sorrows and Griefs

Now back to Hebrews 5:7. Jesus’s being heard by his Father, who was able to save him from death, doesn’t mean that God removed the cup of suffering and death, but that he saved his Son through it. The Father preserved his faith through the faith-assaulting cross. He kept his soul. He upheld him. He did not let Jesus’s heart or obedience fail. The Father saved his divine-human Son through the trial of death, and then saved him from death by raising him on Sunday morning.

This brings us back to our own sorrows and griefs this Maundy Thursday. I mean not only the regular pains of human life in a fallen world, but the specific pains and sorrows you are carrying, and the griefs you are bearing, even this week, even right now.

Our Father does spare us many sorrows. Oh, how many he does remove and let pass. But typically, he manifests his greatest power not in saving us from them on the front end, but first through them, and then from them on the back end. And as he brings us through them, he does not leave us alone in them without someone to strengthen us — both human fellows also rescued, and the one who is far better even than an angel from heaven.

Hebrews 5:7 is on the very cusp of this letter’s heart. The author will make the case in chapter 7 for Jesus as our Great High Priest, who sympathizes with us, and draws near to us, and graciously helps us in our time of need. And Hebrews doesn’t stop with Jesus as a sympathizing high priest. Chapters 9 and 10 show us that our Great High Priest is himself the great once-for-all sacrifice for our sins.

Jesus not only draws near, as priest, to have compassion on us in our sorrows, but he also goes to the cross on Good Friday, as our sacrifice, to solve the greatest problem we have, by far — which not only puts all our sorrows into perspective but guarantees they will not have the last word.

Grace for Every Grief and Sin

The gravest problem in my life, and in yours, isn’t our sorrows, great as they may be. Our greatest peril is our own sin. However terrible your griefs, the gravest danger to your soul is not how anyone else has treated you, or how unfortunate are your circumstances, or how weary and tired you’ve become. Your gravest problem, like mine, is how you have treated God, and that his righteous, omnipotent wrath stands against us in our sin.

Which is why, even in the descending darkness of Maundy Thursday, a bright ray of hope shines out. Jesus not only grieves in the garden as our priest, but he dies tomorrow as our propitiation. He sympathizes with our many sorrows, and he saves us utterly from our own sins through his atoning sacrifice. He draws near, and with his own wounds he heals ours (Isaiah 53:5), some of them in this life, and all of them in the life to come.

The one who once prayed with loud cries and tears in Gethsemane, now prays for us with glorified sympathy, on the very throne of heaven.

So, bring your griefs to Gethsemane. Bring your own loud cries and tears. Bring your sorrows. And bring your sins — and a prayer of childlike faith for his rescue. Draw near to this throne, where now sits your Great High Priest, ready to show mercy and give grace to help in your time of need.

Revival in the Making

For those of us longing and praying for awakening today, on this side of the greatest renewal in history — the coming of God’s Word incarnate and the pouring out of his Spirit at Pentecost — what might we take away from these remarkable renewals in Scripture? First, God will see to it that his people, in the ups and downs of their spiritual journeys in this sin-sick world, are renewed and revived. Even in our longing and praying for revival is already a great glimmer of God’s sovereign work. Then, second, when the Spirit’s fire comes in power, it falls on the wood of God’s word. 

I grew up in a revivalist church in the South. Every few years, we had a “crusade” with special weeknight services and a dynamic, out-of-town speaker. I remember singing “Revive Us Again” as our theme during one of those rallies. I didn’t realize at the time that we were singing Scripture, from Psalm 85:
Will you not revive us again,that your people may rejoice in you? (verse 6)
The history of God’s people, from the first covenant into the new, is a record of various seasons and undulations, corporate backslidings and surprising renewals. Easy as it might be to criticize aspects of the revivalist tradition, something is profoundly right and healthy in the Christian heart that longs for, and prays for, revival — that God’s people would freshly rejoice in him.
In every generation, our sense of the spiritual climate of our times is subjective, yet real. We find ourselves living in days either where true religion seems to be on the rise, or declining. When the tides are rising, we might pray that it become more than it already has. In times of apparent decline, we pray for the tide to turn. Either way, we pray for revival, broadly defined.
But then what do we do next? When our hearts swell with the longing, and with prayers, for God to send corporate renewal to his church, what might we devote our lives to, as we pray and wait?
Revival’s End and Means
An insight right there in Psalm 85, borne out across the Scriptures, gives us a critical and central component of every true revival of genuine religion. Verse 6 asks God for spiritual renewal (“Will you not revive us again . . .”) and clarifies what the heart of that renewal is (“. . . that your people may rejoice in you”). The end, or goal, of biblical revival is God’s people enjoying God, rejoicing in him, having him as our joy of joys.
Then verse 8 gives us a striking glimpse of God’s vital means in bringing about that end of his people rejoicing in him:
Let me hear what God the Lord will speak,for he will speak peace to his people, to his saints. (Psalm 85:8)
So, revival begins with God — through his speaking, his voice, his word. Man does not produce true spiritual revival; God does. And the way in which he does so is through his word. When God sends the fire of his Spirit to fall on the hearts of his people in some blessed local or regional renewal, the fire falls on the wood of his word.
Lay the Kindling
Psalm 85 is a precious testimony, but only one — and we have far more evidence across Scripture that God makes himself central in revival through his word. In every lasting renewal of true religion, God makes his own speaking, his own word, to be fundamental and prominent. Psalm 19:7 celebrates that the law of the Lord — his teaching, his word — revives the soul. The Spirit’s flame does not land without the kindling of his word, and so rallying to God’s word is a plain next step for those who long and pray for revival.
The central place of God’s word is pronounced in the revivals of true worship under the prophet Samuel and later under King Josiah. Samuel’s ministry begins with the acknowledgment that “the word of the Lord was rare in those days” (1 Samuel 3:1). So enter the young prophet, with God’s revealing himself “by the word,” and God’s word coming to all Israel through Samuel’s ministry (1 Samuel 3:19–4:1).
So too with Josiah, who became king in his youth, and walked in the ways of righteousness, but for years his efforts at reform only went so far, until “Hilkiah the priest found the Book of the Law of the Lord given through Moses” (2 Chronicles 34:14). As stunning as it is to us, somehow they had misplaced the Book! Apparently, spiritual dullness had led to neglect, and neglect led to misplacing God’s word. But when the priest and king discovered the Book and read aloud to the people “all the words of the Book of the Covenant that had been found in the house of the Lord” (verse 30), then the fire of national renewal fell.
Grant Us Some Reviving
We see the centrality of God’s word in the spiritual renewal of his people yet again (and with special emphasis) in the after-exile revivals under Ezra and Nehemiah.
Read More
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What (Not) to Preach: How to Build and Cut a Sermon

I love starting in on sermon prep.

Oh, the possibilities! Any passage in the God-breathed Book holds glories waiting to be spotted and meditated on and shared. And all the prospects for application! How might this text speak to our generation, and our specific church, and individual hearts, at this particular time? And what concrete illustrations and examples might I bring in from elsewhere in the Bible, or from history, or my own life, that would illuminate the text and hold the hearers’ attention? Brainstorming sermon possibilities can be thrilling.

Then, alas, comes the hardest part: narrowing down all those insights, questions, stories, warnings, and encouragements to what actually fits in the few minutes I have this Sunday. Widening out the prospects of what might be is one thing; narrowing it down to what actually makes it in — and what’s out — is often the most difficult work.

How, then, might we navigate this frequent trial and decide what to preach this Sunday? After wrestling hard with our text — and grasping its meaning in its context, in Christian theology, and in our lives — how do we decide what gold to leave on the cutting-room floor?

And if we find we’ve prepared an overlong sermon, how might we go about shortening it?

Tragedy of Boring Preaching

First, I’ll share a conviction: boring sermons are a great tragedy. Either the hearers did not hear well-preached glories, or the preacher did not proclaim them well.

Of course, on any given Sunday, the spiritual condition of those hearing the message will be all over the map. Some hearts are tender, full of the Spirit, ready to hear with faith; others are dull, apathetic, distracted. As pastors and preachers, we can help our people with this over time, but what we have most control over is ourselves. Ask first, Does the tragedy begin with me? To what extent is the sermon boring because of the preacher, rather than the hearers?

The word of God is objectively and emphatically not boring. The problem is never with God, his glories, and the revelation of himself in this book and in his Son. The problem is with us: in our minds and hearts, in our words and expressions, with our ears and dullness. God, his word, his grace, his mercy, his Son, his cross, his resurrection, his Spirit, his church, his coming return — these are truly the most thrilling and important realities in the universe. Who God is, and what God does, is never boring. It’s only because of our sin and weakness that we yawn at such majesties.

So, as a preacher — unable to control my hearers, but able to control myself — I’m resolved to do my level best, as far as it depends on me, not to bore the church with the most fascinating, amazing, wonderful, marvelous truths in all the universe. That’s the conviction.

How, then, might such a conviction prove practically helpful to preachers in our preparation? When faced with the predicament of what not to preach, how might this conviction help me know which glories to leave on the cutting-room floor for now and what to include in the few precious minutes of my sermon this Sunday?

What Are You Excited to Preach?

I’ll give the summary counsel, then put it in a larger framework to guard against abuse and distortion. First, the counsel: among all the possibilities that are true to your text and true to the needs of your church, prioritize the three or four you’re most excited to preach. In other words, let your own (hopefully sanctified) enthusiasm help you decide what to preach now, and what to leave for another time.

“As preachers we want to affect our hearers with the glory of God and the wonders of his grace.”

Now, your own excitement (however sanctified) to say something from a pulpit could prove dangerous without some qualifications. Critical to being able to trust your own enthusiasm like this are some real checks of holiness: the presence and influence of the ungrieved, indwelling Spirit; growing conformity over time to patterns of God’s word, rather than the world; a heart of pastoral love and concern for the church to care best for the people’s souls, to build them up, rather than entertain them and make much of the preacher.

To adequately check ourselves, then, we might bring in a triperspectival approach based on (1) the biblical text itself (the normative perspective), (2) the context and congregation (situational), and then (3) the heart and enthusiasm of the preacher himself (existential).

Norm: God’s Word

First and foremost, Christian preachers are stewards. We are not apostles, but we say with them,

This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found faithful. (1 Corinthians 4:1–2)

And if the apostles are servants and stewards, then how much more we lowly, local-church officers charged to preach the apostolic word?

As pastors, with “the aim of our charge” being love for our people (1 Timothy 1:5), our burden in the sermon will take its cues from the burden of our text. And our own hearts will pulse to “not shrink from declaring,” but expose our people, over time, to “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). We cannot let our personal preferences and weekly whims undermine our stewardship and undercut their diet. Our thoughts and desires are not the norm of our preaching; the word of God is.

To be clear, brother preachers, don’t presume your enthusiasm for God’s word. Check it. Ask yourself, Does the Book still excite me? Can I still sing along with King David, “More to be desired are [God’s words] than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb” (Psalm 19:10)? Do I savor the responsibility of laboring over these God-breathed words, discerning their meaning, and connecting them with real needs in my church?

Context: Church’s Need

Also vital to faithful and effective preaching is humbling ourselves to speak into the particular people and church and moment to which God has assigned us. We intentionally preach not only to “humans” (and all within internet earshot), but to our specific flock, the local church that is our lot, the little patch of earth where we’ve been assigned as undershepherds.

According to 1 Peter 5:1–2, good pastors are doubly among our people. And so, as both sheep and overseers, we are aware of and sensitive to the specific needs and temptations, right now, in this congregation. With a heart of love for this people, this Sunday, we ask, What would be most helpful to emphasize and visit from and through this text? How might the sermon serve as a bridge between the text God has given us this week and the needs of this flock this Sunday, this year, in this generation?

And so we might check ourselves, Does my heart still rise to meet the needs in this church? Am I keeping watch over this flock “with joy and not with groaning” (Hebrews 13:17)? Am I still eager to see these brothers and sisters home to glory (1 Peter 5:2)?

Joy: Preacher’s Heart

With those qualifications in place, then, I’d like to encourage some preachers to consider taking more of their cues from the desires of their healthy, guarded, holy hearts. Given that your soul has been steeping in this text, and given that you deeply love your people and are sensitive to your specific context, ask yourself sometime deep into your brainstorming, with all these wonderful possibilities before you, What am I most excited to preach?

One reason for this self-check is that it’s hard to inspire others with what doesn’t inspire you. In general (without pushing this to extremes), the people will get more from you preaching what you are most excited to preach from this text. And besides, if the preacher has a good heart, and knows his text and congregation well, his heart will rise to meet their needs with faithfulness to the text. The burden of the text and the needs of the people will draw out the preacher’s heart and influence what he’s most excited to preach on this particular occasion.

Preach with Holy Affection

For most of us, the white-hot zeal of spiritual enthusiasm in our hearts rarely translates into white-hot zeal in communication. What we feel at an eight (out of ten), we might communicate at a five or six, and our hearers will experience in a range of intensity in their own hearts. Some get it at a five or six. A few blessed souls, already pulsing with the Spirit, might get the eight with us, despite the dampening of our communicative abilities. They might even glow with a nine. Others experience it at a two or three. Others still, apathetic or distracted, are totally unaffected.

But as preachers we want to affect our hearers with the glory of God and the wonders of his grace. We want to first be affected ourselves by the biblical text, and then, through the miracle of preaching, model how the Christian soul is rightly affected by our text. We want to help our hearers to be appropriately affected by the truth of our text, however much their personalities and momentary circumstances color and veil their responses.

And so we preachers will do well to say with Jonathan Edwards,

I should think myself in the way of my duty to raise the affections of my hearers as high as I possibly can, provided they are not disagreeable to the nature of what they are affected with.

How might we do this? By lifting up and pressing home the glories in our text that have raised our own affections highest.

The Most Important People in the World

The church is his chosen instrument for showing the cosmic powers, good and evil, “the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (Romans 11:33). The reality and existence of the church—this seemingly unimpressive, lowly, ignoble, unwise, unwealthy, unaccomplished body of local Christians, covenanted to each other—his ragtag church, this otherwise unremarkable church shows Satan and his minions that their time is short.

The word priority refers to “precedence in time or rank.” A priority is the “thing regarded as more important than another or others.”
Interestingly, according to the Google Books Ngram, the use of the word priority in English spiked in use around 1940 (leading up to and during WWII), then plateaued in the fifties. Then usage rose again sharply in the sixties and seventies, and priority enjoyed its heyday in the eighties and nineties. Since around 2000, usage has declined precipitously and returned about to where it was in the 1960s. And I can’t help but wonder if our ability to prioritize well, or the energy and attention we give to prioritizing well, may have declined with the use of the word. (And how it relates to the advent of the Internet in the same twenty-five-year period!)
Priority can be a tricky concept. To prioritize one entity over another clearly means something, but it services a range of applications. And in this session of talking about the priority of the church, however theological we take it, this inevitably relates to our priorities, both as Christians, and in particular as pastors—since this is a pastors conference. It would be one thing to speak to the priority of the church in a local-church congregation—or imagine this, to a gathering of Christian lawyers or athletes. And we could. I hope we will.
But brothers, this is a pastors conference. This is a message for lead officers in local churches (variously called pastors, elders, overseers—three names for one lead office in the New Testament). And the applications here of “the priority of the church” are especially significant for those whose breadwinning vocation is leading and teaching the local church. I know there are nonvocational pastors in the room with other breadwinning jobs. But for the vocational guys, the full-time pastors, there is no vocational disconnect between Christ’s priority of his church and ours. If Christ’s priority is echoed practically and substantiated anywhere, where will that be if not first and foremost in the lead officers who are the church’s preachers and teachers?
Paul’s Pastoral Priority
And so, we come to Ephesians 3, and especially verse 10, which is not a complete sentence:
…so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.
In chapter 2, the first half (verses 1–10) has celebrated our salvation in Christ by grace through faith, and then the second half has marveled at the stunning (horizontal) development of Gentile inclusion. For centuries, God focused publicly on the Jews. He prioritized Israel. By and large, Gentiles were separated from the true God, “alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (2:12). They were “far off” (2:13, 17).
But now, amazingly, in Christ, even Gentiles “have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (2:13). Jesus “has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility [between Jews and Gentiles] by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two” (2:14–15).
This reality, this “one new man,” made up of believing Jews and Gentiles, Paul has already called “the church” in 1:22, and that’s the term he uses again in 3:10 (and then 3:21 and then six times in 5:23–32).
In 3:1, Paul starts moving toward a prayer. He writes, “For this reason I, Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles . . .” Then he breaks off and gives us the glorious aside of verses 2–13. He’ll come back to his prayer in verse 14, but first he wants to make sure we understand his special calling, and then the church’s. Paul’s is “the stewardship of God’s grace that was given to me for you” (3:2). He then speaks about “the mystery of Christ”—which is not an unsolved mystery but one that now has been made known. Previously it was hidden, until Jesus came. Now, it’s revealed. What is this mystery, once unsolved, now made known? Verses 6–11:
This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.
Of this gospel I was made a minister according to the gift of God’s grace, which was given me by the working of his power. To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God, who created all things, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord.
I take it that our focus in this session is this: What is the priority of the church for Christians? And in particular, for pastors: What’s the priority of the church for us? That’s where we’re headed: “The Church Prioritized” in the hearts and habits of her members and her ministers.
But might we first get our bearings, and spend our best focus, on a far more important prioritizer? Ephesians 3 is not concerned with our prioritizing. Not yet. Rather, here we marvel at God’s prioritizing of the church. And not just God as one, but also God as three.
So, before we get to us, as Christians and as pastors, let’s look at the priority of the church for God the Father, for God the Son, and for God the Spirit. (And hopefully this will be an exercise in proper prioritizing!) So, four truths about the priority of the church, with our hearts and habits coming last.
1. The Father prioritizes the church in his plan and purpose.
Verse 9 mentions his “plan”; verse 11, his “eternal purpose.” Let’s pick it up at verse 9:
[Paul’s calling is] to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God, who created all things….This was according to the eternal purpose that [the Father] has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord. (verses 9, 11)
Verse 11 mentions God’s “eternal purpose” (prothesin), and verse 9, “the plan [oikonomia] of the mystery hidden for ages [and now revealed] in God, who created all things.” It’s the same language Paul has already used in Ephesians 1:9–11. In the gospel, he says,
[God has made] known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan [oikonomian] for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose [prothesin] of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will.
God the Father has an eternal purpose, before creation, and he has a plan that he works out, in his perfect timing, in history—as Lord of creation and Lord of history.
What is this eternal purpose and plan? Now we need chapter 3, verse 10. Paul says he preaches to bright to light God’s plan,
that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.
We have three parts here to verse 10 (working backward): (1) the rulers and authorities, (2) the manifold wisdom of God, and (3) how all that relates to the church.
Rulers and Authorities
In Ephesians 6:12, Paul will write—and this might be a helpful reminder in times when algorithms condition us for digital “culture war”—“We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” And we have “in the heavenly places” here in Ephesians 3:10 as well.
“The rulers and authorities” are minimally, or mainly, “spiritual forces of evil,” the devil and demons, “the cosmic powers over this present darkness.” They are not earthly creatures, but heavenly ones, in the upper register or another dimension (however it works). And we might assume that good angels are looking on as well, as Peter says of the good news of Jesus—of his sufferings and subsequent glories, of his grace and our salvation—these are “things into which angels long to look” (1 Peter 1:12).
So, Ephesians 3:10 expands the audience. Previously, Paul has talked of (potentially) preaching “for everyone” (3:9) on earth, Jews and Gentiles, but now he says that also in view (presently) are “the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.”
Manifold Wisdom of God
God’s wisdom is what lies behind and is revealed alongside this mystery long hidden and now revealed in Christ. Remember what we saw in verse 6: “This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”
God’s wisdom becomes evident in the great unveiling that is the preaching of Christ. And God’s wisdom is said to be manifold, many-sided, varied. The gospel may be a simple message, and yet the divine wisdom it reveals is no simple, basic, one-dimensional wisdom.
The gospel of Christ overturns and surpasses and puts to shame the wisdom of man, and does so over and over again. That God would become man, with an ignoble birth and childhood in a backwater; that he would live in obscurity for three decades, and be despised and rejected by his own people at the height of his influence, and be crucified (of all deaths!) as a slave; then, after rising from the dead, that he would ascend and be enthroned in heaven (not in Rome), and pour out his Spirit, and bring the far-off Gentiles near with believing Jews into his new-covenant church—this is stunning, multifaceted, many-sided wisdom!
In the simple gospel of Christ, the manifold wisdom of God is on display in turning upside down the world’s wisdom and strength and nobility. Christ crucified is “a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:23–24).
And that phrase “both Jews and Greeks”—in one body, one new man from the two—is at the heart of what makes the wisdom of God so horrifying to “the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” (As Paul preached in Athens, “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent,” Acts 17:30.)
Which leads us to the last key phrase in verse 10: “through the church.”
Through the Church
How does God’s making known his manifold wisdom, to the hosts of angels and demons, relate to the church?
My prayer here, for us as pastors, is that God might be pleased to lift our eyes up from the ordinariness and the smallness and the annoyances and the frustrations of everyday practical church life—that we might see the church more like our God sees his church. In the immeasurable riches of his divine and Trinitarian fullness—infinitely happy, and overflowing in joy and creative energy and redeeming grace—our God, in the gospel of his Son, is making known his manifold wisdom to the spiritual forces of evil.
And how does he do it? Verse 10 says “through the church”—not armies, not technology, not sports, not entertainment, not political maneuvering—but “through the church the manifold wisdom of God [is] now be[ing] made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.”
The church is his chosen instrument for showing the cosmic powers, good and evil, “the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (Romans 11:33). The reality and existence of the church—this seemingly unimpressive, lowly, ignoble, unwise, unwealthy, unaccomplished body of local Christians, covenanted to each other—his ragtag church, this otherwise unremarkable church shows Satan and his minions that their time is short. In effect: “You see the church, believing Gentiles joining with the Jews as one body? Checkmate.”
How does that work? God the Son takes human flesh and lives a lowly life in obscurity for thirty years. Then, just when he really begins to turn heads, Jews and Gentiles conspire to cut him down and end the story. The crucifixion looks like utter folly, not manifold wisdom. Then he rises again! But forty days later, he ascends to heaven and is gone. Now what? From heaven’s throne, the risen Christ pours out his Spirit, his gospel spreads through faith and repentance, and the church begins to grow and increase and multiply, and not only among Jews, but also Gentiles.
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The Thickest Joy on Earth: Why We Love Philippians

When the apostle Paul first came to town, the city of Philippi was famous for its connections to two of the greatest emperors of the ancient world: Alexander the Great and Caesar Augustus.

Paul came to Philippi in the winter 49–50 AD, to a population of about ten thousand (sizable but smaller than Thessalonica and Corinth), and when he wrote this letter ten years later, I don’t think it was lost on Paul how significant it was to be writing to “saints in Philippi.” That is, to Christians alive and well in no obscure city. The planting and growth and endurance of the church in the city of Philippi represented gospel advance deep into the Roman empire.

The city, founded about 350 years before Christ, was about 8 miles northwest of the port city Neapolis, in the region called Macedonia. The city was named for Philip II of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great. Alexander conquered Greece in 338 BC and spread its language around the known world. So, when this city, named after Alexander’s father, received a letter from Paul, almost four centuries later, in the Greek language, it was (in part) because of Alexander.

But long past were the days of Alexander. The Romans took Philippi in 168 BC, and the city’s real claim to fame came in 42 BC, at the Battle of Philippi, when armies of Brutus and Cassius, who had assassinated Julius Caesar, were defeated by the coalition of Marc Antony and Octavian (who would become Augustus). After that, Philippi became a Roman colony, and located along the queen of long roads in the Roman empire, the city became the gateway between Asia and Europe. Far more important than history, it was a strategic city in terms of travel. Then enter Christianity in the first century.

The reason the world knows and remembers Philippi today is not because of Alexander the Great, and not because of Julius Caesar and Marc Antony and Augustus. The world remembers Philippi because of Jesus. His apostle Paul showed up there and planted his first church in Europe, and then years later wrote them this letter which we have in the New Testament.

Who, Whom, and Why?

Let me just say, I love Philippians. I have a history with this book, and that in my most formative season of life. And I know I’m not alone. Many of us love this book, for a handful of reasons, and what I’d like to do in this sermon is celebrate several of those reasons why so many of us love Philippians — and why the pastors think this book in particular meets us in our life as a church here in the first half of 2024.

So, let’s take this twofold approach this morning, to introduce this Philippians series: First, I’d like to answer three questions from verses 1 and 2, and then finish with four reasons why so many of us love Philippians. So, here are three key questions from verses 1–2: (1) What do we know about the recipients of this letter? (2) Why is this letter from Paul “and Timothy,” and not just Paul? (3) What do they hope this letter will accomplish?

1. Who Received This Letter?

First, what do we know about the recipients of this letter? Verse 1 says the letter is “to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons.” As for Philippi, Acts 16 tells the story of Paul first coming to the city, and the unusual circumstances of his coming there, and the conversion of Lydia and a jailer. But that was ten years before this letter, and I don’t think that amazing story actually plays much into this letter a decade later.

It is significant, however, that Paul writes “to all the saints,” that is, to the whole church. He could have written only or mainly to the leaders, but he writes to the whole church, “to all the saints” (as he usually does in his letters). So, we might say this letter is congregational, not presbyterian.

And yet, even though the whole letter is to the whole church, Paul does hat-tip the leaders and mentions two offices (and note both terms are in the plural): “with the overseers and deacons.” These two offices are the same two specified in 1 Timothy 3, where we find qualifications for both, with “able to teach” being the main difference in the requirements. Overseers (or “pastors,” or “elders”) comprise the lead or teaching office in the church, while the deacons are the assisting office.

2. Why Two Authors?

Why is this letter from Paul “and Timothy,” and not just Paul? The first part of verse 1 says the letter is from “Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus . . .” Paul is the apostle. He met the risen Jesus on the Damascus Road. Timothy is a younger associate that Paul picked up in Derbe not long before he first showed up in Philippi. So, why would Paul, the apostle (the one who really matters, it seems) have the letter come from both him and Timothy, his junior partner?

First, consider Paul’s magnanimous spirit. Rather than highlight his special authority, and exclude his collaborator, Paul is secure enough, and generous enough, to include Timothy with him. Now, Timothy (along with Silas and Luke) had been with him at that first trip to Philippi. So, the Philippians knew Timothy. And as we’ll see in chapter 2, Paul hopes to send Timothy back to Philippi soon to check in on them (Philippians 2:19).

Timothy also likely served as Paul’s assistant in composing this letter. He may have been the secretary as Paul dictated the letter. Ancient letter writing was not anything like writing emails, where you dash something off in a few minutes. Writing an epistle in the ancient world was like publishing a book — it was a long, involved, expensive process. Paul, together with Timothy, would have drafted the letter; then re-read and edited; then re-read again; then carefully written out a final copy. So, Timothy likely was involved significantly in producing the letter, like an editor and publisher would be for a new book today.

But again, Paul is the apostle. And generous as he is to include Timothy in the process and to name him here at the beginning, at the end of the day the letter comes under Paul’s apostolic authority. He signs off on everything in it. It represents him, and the risen Christ, from beginning to end. He speaks in the first person in verse 3, and speaks of Timothy in the third person in chapter 2.

So, with Timothy listed here with Paul, “apostles” doesn’t fit them together. But together they are “servants of Christ Jesus.” Servants here is the same word for slaves (douloi), which pairs with Lord or Master (kurios). For Paul and Timothy to call themselves slaves is to say something about their Lord. Jesus is Lord, he is kurios; therefore, they are douloi, slaves.

Jesus is said to be Lord at the end of verse 2 — grace and peace come from “God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” The one who was so clearly fully human, just two decades before walking the roads of Galilee and the streets of Jerusalem, teaching with wisdom and authority, performing signs and wonders, suffering and dying, and purportedly rising again — this man is exalted alongside “God our Father” as the divine source of the grace and peace Paul extends to the saints in Philippi. Which leads to our third and final question.

3. What Was the Letter’s Purpose?

What do Paul and Timothy want this letter to accomplish? Verse 2: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” As we’ll see in the coming months, Paul has some specific manifestations of Christ’s grace and peace in mind when he thinks of the present needs in Philippi. We might summarize it as fresh joy in Christ, leading to humility and unity (following internal conflicts), leading then to joyful, effective witness in this Roman colony.

This “grace and peace” Paul means to come to them through words, through this letter. So, the letter doesn’t just begin with a prayer for grace and peace; the letter itself is designed by Paul to be grace and peace to them. Epaphroditus will carry this letter back to his home church (2:25–30). He had brought a gift to Paul from the Philippians (4:10, 14, 18), which was not their first gift to Paul. From the very beginning, the saints in Philippi had supported Paul (1:5; 4:15–16). These are clearly some of his best partners, which explains why this letter gushes with affection and joy. Paul deeply loves this church, and they make him happy. They are his “joy and crown” (4:1). If only all the churches could be like Philippi’s!

This most recent gift (of perhaps food and supplies) they sent with Epaphroditus while Paul’s in prison in Rome, and apparently somewhere along the way Epaphroditus got sick, and almost died. Now he’s recovered and can go back, so this becomes an opportunity to write to the Philippians, and extend grace and peace to them in several ways: Paul thanks them for their gift, he updates them on his status in Rome, he commends Epaphroditus for his service, he prepares the way for Timothy to come soon, and he addresses the internal tension that has emerged in the church.

From the beginning, there had been external opposition to the gospel in Philippi. Paul and Silas were beaten and imprisoned at the get-go. Now the church in Philippi is about ten years old, and conflict is threatening from within. As we’ll see in chapter 4, two prominent women in the church are at odds (and likely others as well). So, Paul hopes that this letter, with its exhortations to pursue humility and seek unity will be a means God uses to bring about fresh and greater peace in Philippi, and that Paul’s words, his teaching, his letter, will be a means of God’s grace to this church, a church with so much to appreciate and a few things to grow in.

So, Paul loved the Philippians. And it’s a contagious love. I think that’s part of why so many of us love Philippians — how can you not when the apostle Paul loves this church so much and has so much grace to celebrate?

Four Reasons We Love Philippians

So, let’s close, then, with four brief reasons why we love Philippians, which relates to what we need as a church right now, and why the pastors are so excited for this focus in the weeks ahead.

1. JOYFUL

First, this is an epistle of joy. As we will see, this letter overflows with joy, with brightness, with warmth (in contrast with, say, Galatians!). In Philippians we have more explicit mentions of joy, gladness, and rejoicing in such a short space than anywhere else in the Bible. From the beginning, the whole epistle is warm and bright (even with the trouble that comes to the surface in chapters 1, 3, and 4).

And yet, in all this brightness and warmth and joy, this letter is written from prison in Rome. What an amazing person Jesus has made the apostle Paul. Singing at midnight in prison, after being beaten by rods. And now, ten years later, singing (in the form of this letter) while sitting in prison in Rome. So, don’t mistake the joy of Philippians for the thin pleasures of a carefree life. This joy is deep enough to survive and thrive in prison, in conflict, in struggle, in pain, in sickness, even in death.

Which really should put our lives — our little problems and our big ones, our complaints and pains — into perspective. The pastors’ prayer for us as we steep our souls in Philippians in these next five months is that Jesus would make us more like Paul. Beaten with rods, he sings. Imprisoned, he overflows with joy. Why? Not just because he had a buoyant personality, but because Jesus is Lord. The gospel is true. The Spirit is alive and poured out generously on those who love Jesus. God is sovereign. Christ is on the throne. He gives grace and peace and joy, even in the worst of earthly circumstances.

And I know it’s January, the coldest month. Winter is here, and we’re now entering into the thick of seasonal affective time (which is real, and especially in Minnesota). One of the reasons the pastors chose Philippians, bright, warm, deeply joyful, for such a time as this is to help us through this winter. So, we love Philippians because it’s an epistle of such deep joy.

2. BRIEF

Second, we love Philippians because it’s relatively brief (in contrast to, say, Hebrews!). Philippians is brief enough for a short, focused (but still deep) study. Philippians is just 104 verses, which, I promise you, is brief enough for anyone in this room to memorize — if you put the work in over time. There are 52 weeks in a year. That’s just two verses a week. You can do this. What better way to take on the sheer madness of a presidential election year than to memorize this brief epistle of deep, enduring joy?

3. ACCESSIBLE

Third, we love Philippians because it’s so accessible. It’s relatively easy to understand (in contrast to, say, Galatians, or Leviticus, or Hebrews — our last three series!).

We’ve been through a lot as a church. God’s grace has sustained us through a major capital campaign, and renovating our building, and losing three pastors last summer. The reason we chose Philippians for the first half of this year is that we hope this might be a time to refresh our souls. The last three books of the Bible have not been easy ones! Cities Church, you have done well, and it’s time for something more accessible. It’s time for Philippians, and we’re going to take it slow.

4. MEMORABLE

Finally, we love Philippians because of the memorable passages. From 1:6 to 2:12–13 to 3:12–14 to 4:19, how many remarkable verses and passages there are in Philippians. I made a list of my top 10 favorite verses in Philippians. It includes the four I just mentioned. It also includes 3:20–21 (on our citizenship being in heaven) and 4:4–8 (on not being anxious and setting our minds on the true, honorable, and just) and 4:11–13 (on all things through Christ who strengthens me), but let me end with my top three.

The first two reveal the heart of Paul for Jesus. As Christians, in our best moments, we want to be like this:

1:21: To me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.

3:7–8: Whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.

In our best moments, when we are thinking our clearest, and our hearts are their purest, this too is what we want: for Christ to be our life, and to see death as gain because to depart and be with Christ is far better than being distant from him. And, with Paul, to count as loss anything else of gain we have in view of the surpassing value of knowing Jesus.

And how do we know him? The last memorable passage reveals the heart of Jesus, and leads us to the Table, Philippians 2, verses 6–11:

[Being] in the form of God, [Jesus] did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

The death he died was not for his sin; he had none. The death he died was for ours. And he went to the cross, as we saw in Hebrews, “for the joy set before him” (12:2). He humbled himself, knowing his Father would exalt him. He was obedient to death, knowing his Father would raise him, and reward him, and honor him, and honor himself in and through him — and that he would win for himself a people who trust in him.

Revival in the Making: God’s Central Means for Spiritual Renewal

I grew up in a revivalist church in the South. Every few years, we had a “crusade” with special weeknight services and a dynamic, out-of-town speaker. I remember singing “Revive Us Again” as our theme during one of those rallies. I didn’t realize at the time that we were singing Scripture, from Psalm 85:

Will you not revive us again,that your people may rejoice in you? (verse 6)

The history of God’s people, from the first covenant into the new, is a record of various seasons and undulations, corporate backslidings and surprising renewals. Easy as it might be to criticize aspects of the revivalist tradition, something is profoundly right and healthy in the Christian heart that longs for, and prays for, revival — that God’s people would freshly rejoice in him.

In every generation, our sense of the spiritual climate of our times is subjective, yet real. We find ourselves living in days either where true religion seems to be on the rise, or declining. When the tides are rising, we might pray that it become more than it already has. In times of apparent decline, we pray for the tide to turn. Either way, we pray for revival, broadly defined.

But then what do we do next? When our hearts swell with the longing, and with prayers, for God to send corporate renewal to his church, what might we devote our lives to, as we pray and wait?

Revival’s End and Means

An insight right there in Psalm 85, borne out across the Scriptures, gives us a critical and central component of every true revival of genuine religion. Verse 6 asks God for spiritual renewal (“Will you not revive us again . . .”) and clarifies what the heart of that renewal is (“. . . that your people may rejoice in you”). The end, or goal, of biblical revival is God’s people enjoying God, rejoicing in him, having him as our joy of joys.

Then verse 8 gives us a striking glimpse of God’s vital means in bringing about that end of his people rejoicing in him:

Let me hear what God the Lord will speak,for he will speak peace to his people, to his saints. (Psalm 85:8)

So, revival begins with God — through his speaking, his voice, his word. Man does not produce true spiritual revival; God does. And the way in which he does so is through his word. When God sends the fire of his Spirit to fall on the hearts of his people in some blessed local or regional renewal, the fire falls on the wood of his word.

Lay the Kindling

Psalm 85 is a precious testimony, but only one — and we have far more evidence across Scripture that God makes himself central in revival through his word. In every lasting renewal of true religion, God makes his own speaking, his own word, to be fundamental and prominent. Psalm 19:7 celebrates that the law of the Lord — his teaching, his word — revives the soul. The Spirit’s flame does not land without the kindling of his word, and so rallying to God’s word is a plain next step for those who long and pray for revival.

The central place of God’s word is pronounced in the revivals of true worship under the prophet Samuel and later under King Josiah. Samuel’s ministry begins with the acknowledgment that “the word of the Lord was rare in those days” (1 Samuel 3:1). So enter the young prophet, with God’s revealing himself “by the word,” and God’s word coming to all Israel through Samuel’s ministry (1 Samuel 3:19–4:1).

“Something is profoundly right and healthy in the Christian heart that longs for, and prays for, revival.”

So too with Josiah, who became king in his youth, and walked in the ways of righteousness, but for years his efforts at reform only went so far, until “Hilkiah the priest found the Book of the Law of the Lord given through Moses” (2 Chronicles 34:14). As stunning as it is to us, somehow they had misplaced the Book! Apparently, spiritual dullness had led to neglect, and neglect led to misplacing God’s word. But when the priest and king discovered the Book and read aloud to the people “all the words of the Book of the Covenant that had been found in the house of the Lord” (verse 30), then the fire of national renewal fell.

Grant Us Some Reviving

We see the centrality of God’s word in the spiritual renewal of his people yet again (and with special emphasis) in the after-exile revivals under Ezra and Nehemiah. In Ezra, fire falls in chapter 9, but not without decades of preparation recounted in chapters 1–8. Some eighty years prior, the first wave of Jewish exiles had come back to Jerusalem after Cyrus’s decree in 539 BC. Ezra chapters 1–6 recount this first return and the quarter century that follows (until 515 BC), with the beginning and (later) finishing of the foundation and temple, and the restoring of worship and the feasts.

Ezra doesn’t arrive until chapter 7, almost 60 years after chapter 6, and when he enters the scene, he’s introduced as “skilled in the Law of Moses that the Lord, the God of Israel, had given” (Ezra 7:6). Accent on the word given. Ezra received God’s word as given, and so studies it and obeys it and teaches it, not to amend or edit it, but as God’s given. “Ezra had set his heart to study the Law of the Lord, and to do it and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel” (Ezra 7:10).

Chapter 7’s description of Ezra as a man of God’s word sets the table for the revival to come. Ezra is “learned in matters of the commandments of the Lord” (verse 11), and even the Persian king, Artaxerxes, twice writes of Ezra as a “scribe of the Law of the God of heaven” (verses 12 and 21). Ezra, then, is expressly commissioned by the king to teach the word of God to the people.

Apparently, Ezra manifests such skill and familiarity with Scripture that even the pagan king recognizes that “the Law of your God . . . is in your hand” (verse 14), and so “the wisdom of your God . . . is in your hand” (verse 25). With the king’s blessing, Ezra gathers “leading men” (7:28), and they humble themselves with prayer and fasting, imploring God for safe travel (8:21), and come safely to Jerusalem (8:31).

In chapter 9, Ezra learns of the moral (and marital) compromise of God’s people with the surrounding nations (9:1–2). He is appalled and grieves, and “all who trembled at the words of the God of Israel” gather around him (9:4). Here the kindling is in place: a man of the word, now surrounded with those who tremble at God’s word. That evening, Ezra leads them in a prayer of repentance which has, at its heart, the nation’s infidelity to God’s word: “we have forsaken your commandments” (9:10).

As Ezra prays and makes confession, revival begins: “a very great assembly of men, women, and children, gathered to him out of Israel, for the people wept bitterly” (10:1). They plead with Ezra to teach them God’s word. The officials and elders issue a proclamation for all returned exiles, without exception, to gather in Jerusalem in three days — and so begins the work of renewal (10:11).

Awakening of Tears and Joy

This first renewal preserves the nation another thirteen years until the arrival of Nehemiah in 445 BC, with a new wave of exiles and a mission to rebuild the walls.

Nehemiah 1–7 tells the story of his authorization from Artaxerxes, coming to Jerusalem, overcoming opposition, and finishing the walls. Chapter 8 then bursts with the light of covenant renewal and spiritual revival under Ezra and Nehemiah working hand in hand — and now the centrality of Scripture is even more pronounced.

Ezra, the trained, skilled handler of God’s word, appears again among the gathered people “to bring the Book” (Nehemiah 8:1), physically and homiletically. He stands on a wooden platform and opens Scripture in the sight of all the people (and they stand in reverence of God). He reads from the Book and gives the sense (8:8) — that is, he and thirteen other priests, skilled in God’s word, explain and teach the Scriptures from early morning to midday. Strikingly, Nehemiah 8 characterizes the people, again and again, as attentive to, hearing, understanding, and responding to God’s word, first with mourning over their own sin and then, once further instructed, with joy — the very “[rejoicing] in you” of Psalm 85:6.

Ezra, Nehemiah, and the priests remind the people that this day is holy (not a fast day but the Feast of Tabernacles) and seek to replace the people’s grief with rejoicing in the mercy of God:

This day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength. (Nehemiah 8:10)

Here we catch an amazing glimpse into the heart of revival as rejoicing in God. Strength (Hebrew maoz) is literally “refuge” or “stronghold” or “fortress,” a place of God’s protection. Mourning over sin is necessary, but in view of the stunning mercy of God, grief must soon give way to rejoicing. And this joy in the Lord is a stronghold, a refuge, for his people. Rejoicing in God, they are finally safe and protected, even from their own sin and its consequences. As John Piper explains,

The light was dawning that you can’t honor Yahweh as holy if you only grieve in his presence. Grief is good. Fear is good. Penitence is good. Tears are good. But not if that’s all you feel. God’s holiness is the purity and perfection not only of his justice but also of his mercy and grace. And cowering people do not magnify the glory of grace. (“The Joy of the Lord Is Your Stronghold”)

A day later, the people return “to study the words of the Law” (Nehemiah 8:13), and the revival continues in the fuel and guidance of God’s word, day by day, as they read from the Book (verse 18). In the next chapter, they read from the Book “for a quarter of the day” (Nehemiah 9:3). When revival came, God’s word was at the center, God himself working in power through his Spirit by the word.

Heart of True Revival

For those of us longing and praying for awakening today, on this side of the greatest renewal in history — the coming of God’s Word incarnate and the pouring out of his Spirit at Pentecost — what might we take away from these remarkable renewals in Scripture?

First, God will see to it that his people, in the ups and downs of their spiritual journeys in this sin-sick world, are renewed and revived. Even in our longing and praying for revival is already a great glimmer of God’s sovereign work. Then, second, when the Spirit’s fire comes in power, it falls on the wood of God’s word. In our holy longings and fervent prayers, we open the Book. We read it, reread it, meditate on it, memorize it, study it, teach it, preach it, live it, spread it. It will be the word of God that fans the flicker of our burning hearts into a flame.

And in and through his word, God himself will be the great prize. God in Christ will be the greatest gain in any true revival. The end will be his people’s fresh rejoicing in him.

The Most Important People in the World: Why Christians Prioritize the Church

The word priority refers to “precedence in time or rank.” A priority is the “thing regarded as more important than another or others.”

Interestingly, according to the Google Books Ngram, the use of the word priority in English spiked in use around 1940 (leading up to and during WWII), then plateaued in the fifties. Then usage rose again sharply in the sixties and seventies, and priority enjoyed its heyday in the eighties and nineties. Since around 2000, usage has declined precipitously and returned about to where it was in the 1960s. And I can’t help but wonder if our ability to prioritize well, or the energy and attention we give to prioritizing well, may have declined with the use of the word. (And how it relates to the advent of the Internet in the same twenty-five-year period!)

Priority can be a tricky concept. To prioritize one entity over another clearly means something, but it services a range of applications. And in this session of talking about the priority of the church, however theological we take it, this inevitably relates to our priorities, both as Christians, and in particular as pastors — since this is a pastors conference. It would be one thing to speak to the priority of the church in a local-church congregation — or imagine this, to a gathering of Christian lawyers or athletes. And we could. I hope we will.

But brothers, this is a pastors conference. This is a message for lead officers in local churches (variously called pastors, elders, overseers — three names for one lead office in the New Testament). And the applications here of “the priority of the church” are especially significant for those whose breadwinning vocation is leading and teaching the local church. I know there are nonvocational pastors in the room with other breadwinning jobs. But for the vocational guys, the full-time pastors, there is no vocational disconnect between Christ’s priority of his church and ours. If Christ’s priority is echoed practically and substantiated anywhere, where will that be if not first and foremost in the lead officers who are the church’s preachers and teachers?

Paul’s Pastoral Priority

And so, we come to Ephesians 3, and especially verse 10, which is not a complete sentence:

. . . so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.

In chapter 2, the first half (verses 1–10) has celebrated our salvation in Christ by grace through faith, and then the second half has marveled at the stunning (horizontal) development of Gentile inclusion. For centuries, God focused publicly on the Jews. He prioritized Israel. By and large, Gentiles were separated from the true God, “alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (2:12). They were “far off” (2:13, 17).

But now, amazingly, in Christ, even Gentiles “have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (2:13). Jesus “has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility [between Jews and Gentiles] by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two” (2:14–15).

This reality, this “one new man,” made up of believing Jews and Gentiles, Paul has already called “the church” in 1:22, and that’s the term he uses again in 3:10 (and then 3:21 and then six times in 5:23–32).

In 3:1, Paul starts moving toward a prayer. He writes, “For this reason I, Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles . . .” Then he breaks off and gives us the glorious aside of verses 2–13. He’ll come back to his prayer in verse 14, but first he wants to make sure we understand his special calling, and then the church’s. Paul’s is “the stewardship of God’s grace that was given to me for you” (3:2). He then speaks about “the mystery of Christ” — which is not an unsolved mystery but one that now has been made known. Previously it was hidden, until Jesus came. Now, it’s revealed. What is this mystery, once unsolved, now made known? Verses 6–11:

This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.

Of this gospel I was made a minister according to the gift of God’s grace, which was given me by the working of his power. To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God, who created all things, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord.

I take it that our focus in this session is this: What is the priority of the church for Christians? And in particular, for pastors: What’s the priority of the church for us? That’s where we’re headed: “The Church Prioritized” in the hearts and habits of her members and her ministers.

But might we first get our bearings, and spend our best focus, on a far more important prioritizer? Ephesians 3 is not concerned with our prioritizing. Not yet. Rather, here we marvel at God’s prioritizing of the church. And not just God as one, but also God as three.

So, before we get to us, as Christians and as pastors, let’s look at the priority of the church for God the Father, for God the Son, and for God the Spirit. (And hopefully this will be an exercise in proper prioritizing!) So, four truths about the priority of the church, with our hearts and habits coming last.

1. The Father prioritizes the church in his plan and purpose.

Verse 9 mentions his “plan”; verse 11, his “eternal purpose.” Let’s pick it up at verse 9:

[Paul’s calling is] to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God, who created all things. . . . This was according to the eternal purpose that [the Father] has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord. (verses 9, 11)

Verse 11 mentions God’s “eternal purpose” (prothesin), and verse 9, “the plan [oikonomia] of the mystery hidden for ages [and now revealed] in God, who created all things.” It’s the same language Paul has already used in Ephesians 1:9–11. In the gospel, he says,

[God has made] known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan [oikonomian] for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose [prothesin] of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will.

God the Father has an eternal purpose, before creation, and he has a plan that he works out, in his perfect timing, in history — as Lord of creation and Lord of history.

What is this eternal purpose and plan? Now we need chapter 3, verse 10. Paul says he preaches to bright to light God’s plan,

that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.

We have three parts here to verse 10 (working backward): (1) the rulers and authorities, (2) the manifold wisdom of God, and (3) how all that relates to the church.

Rulers and Authorities

In Ephesians 6:12, Paul will write — and this might be a helpful reminder in times when algorithms condition us for digital “culture war” — “We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” And we have “in the heavenly places” here in Ephesians 3:10 as well.

“The rulers and authorities” are minimally, or mainly, “spiritual forces of evil,” the devil and demons, “the cosmic powers over this present darkness.” They are not earthly creatures, but heavenly ones, in the upper register or another dimension (however it works). And we might assume that good angels are looking on as well, as Peter says of the good news of Jesus — of his sufferings and subsequent glories, of his grace and our salvation — these are “things into which angels long to look” (1 Peter 1:12).

So, Ephesians 3:10 expands the audience. Previously, Paul has talked of (potentially) preaching “for everyone” (3:9) on earth, Jews and Gentiles, but now he says that also in view (presently) are “the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.”

Manifold Wisdom of God

God’s wisdom is what lies behind and is revealed alongside this mystery long hidden and now revealed in Christ. Remember what we saw in verse 6: “This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”

God’s wisdom becomes evident in the great unveiling that is the preaching of Christ. And God’s wisdom is said to be manifold, many-sided, varied. The gospel may be a simple message, and yet the divine wisdom it reveals is no simple, basic, one-dimensional wisdom.

The gospel of Christ overturns and surpasses and puts to shame the wisdom of man, and does so over and over again. That God would become man, with an ignoble birth and childhood in a backwater; that he would live in obscurity for three decades, and be despised and rejected by his own people at the height of his influence, and be crucified (of all deaths!) as a slave; then, after rising from the dead, that he would ascend and be enthroned in heaven (not in Rome), and pour out his Spirit, and bring the far-off Gentiles near with believing Jews into his new-covenant church — this is stunning, multifaceted, many-sided wisdom!

In the simple gospel of Christ, the manifold wisdom of God is on display in turning upside down the world’s wisdom and strength and nobility. Christ crucified is “a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:23–24).

“There is no more important gathering in the world than the church.”

And that phrase “both Jews and Greeks” — in one body, one new man from the two — is at the heart of what makes the wisdom of God so horrifying to “the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” (As Paul preached in Athens, “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent,” Acts 17:30.)

Which leads us to the last key phrase in verse 10: “through the church.”

Through the Church

How does God’s making known his manifold wisdom, to the hosts of angels and demons, relate to the church?

My prayer here, for us as pastors, is that God might be pleased to lift our eyes up from the ordinariness and the smallness and the annoyances and the frustrations of everyday practical church life — that we might see the church more like our God sees his church. In the immeasurable riches of his divine and Trinitarian fullness — infinitely happy, and overflowing in joy and creative energy and redeeming grace — our God, in the gospel of his Son, is making known his manifold wisdom to the spiritual forces of evil.

And how does he do it? Verse 10 says “through the church” — not armies, not technology, not sports, not entertainment, not political maneuvering — but “through the church the manifold wisdom of God [is] now be[ing] made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.”

The church is his chosen instrument for showing the cosmic powers, good and evil, “the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (Romans 11:33). The reality and existence of the church — this seemingly unimpressive, lowly, ignoble, unwise, unwealthy, unaccomplished body of local Christians, covenanted to each other — his ragtag church, this otherwise unremarkable church shows Satan and his minions that their time is short. In effect: “You see the church, believing Gentiles joining with the Jews as one body? Checkmate.”

How does that work? God the Son takes human flesh and lives a lowly life in obscurity for thirty years. Then, just when he really begins to turn heads, Jews and Gentiles conspire to cut him down and end the story. The crucifixion looks like utter folly, not manifold wisdom. Then he rises again! But forty days later, he ascends to heaven and is gone. Now what? From heaven’s throne, the risen Christ pours out his Spirit, his gospel spreads through faith and repentance, and the church begins to grow and increase and multiply, and not only among Jews, but also Gentiles.

And as the church spreads from city to city and nation to nation, the seeming folly of the incarnation and the cross and the ascension is shown visibly to be manifold wisdom. Not all the earth sees it yet, but all the heavens do. And as this gospel advances, and the church grows, and Gentiles stream into the church, the manifold wisdom shines ever brighter.

So, the church — normal, local, ragtag, seemingly unimpressive, including Gentiles — bursts with spectacular cosmic significance, demonstrates the manifold wisdom of God, and shows the evil powers the surety of their doom.

God channels his global glory specially through his church. He is making known his manifold wisdom, not just in the physical realm but also in the spiritual — for all the universe to see. And how? Through the church.

Brothers, the main thing happening in the world right now, and at all times, is what Jesus Christ is doing in and through his church. And you are pastors! Is this still your priority?

In reflecting on the Father prioritizing the church in his purpose and plan, I couldn’t help but think about how Jonathan Edwards, on several occasions, writes of how God made the world to prepare a bride for his Son:

The spouse of the Son of God, the Lamb’s wife . . . is that for which all of the universe was made. Heaven and earth were created that the Son of God might be complete in a spouse. (Works of Jonathan Edwards, 13:271)

God created the world for His Son, that He might prepare a spouse or bride for Him to bestow His love upon; so that the mutual joys between this bride and bridegroom are the end of the creation. (Works, 13:374)

The creation of the world seems to have been especially for this end, that the eternal Son of God might obtain a spouse, toward whom he might fully exercise the infinite benevolence of his nature, and to whom he might, as it were, open and pour forth all that immense fountain of condescension, love, and grace that was in his heart, and that in this way God might be glorified. (Works, 25:187)

Let’s say more, then, about the Son.

2. The Son prioritizes the church in his purchase and his presiding.

Enthroned in heaven, Christ now presides over the universe. He reigns over all. He rules over the nations and the angelic realm with sovereign power, all authority in heaven and on earth given to him. And as he presides, he prioritizes his church.

We could turn to John 17 to see his priority, but let’s stay here in Ephesians: first, chapter 5, verses 23–30.

Chapter 5 makes the connection between human marriage and Christ and his church. Now, Paul’s “mystery” language relates to marriage. What was hidden for ages, and now revealed, is that all along, from the garden until now, human marriage has been patterned on the Son’s love for his church. And in our considering how the Son prioritizes his church, we have here both the decisive act, at the cross, in the past (the purchase), and his present attention to the church, as he reigns in heaven (presiding), for the good of his church.

In the past, says verse 25, referring to the cross, “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” Jesus prioritized the church in his sacrificial death — to say the very least. He did not simply love humanity in general and so go to the cross to make salvation possible to any who might later decide to take him up on it. Rather, he loved the church, Paul says. He gave himself up for her. He had his bride in view, his people, his flock, his church. It was a particular redemption, a specific purchase, a definite atonement. Sufficient as his cross is for the sins of all, it is effective for his church. As Paul says in Acts 20:28, the Son obtained the church with his own blood.

But that’s not all. There are also present dimensions in verses 26–27:

[Jesus died] that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.

Then, verses 29–30:

No one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body.

The Son bought the church with his own blood. And the Son rules the universe to sanctify her, cleanse her, wash her, prepare her to be presented to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any smear or smudge. From heaven’s throne, he nourishes and cherishes his church as his own body. He builds her and protects her and upholds her. He pays special attention to his church and her progress and health and joy.

The old confessions refer to this priority of the church as his “most special manner.” Westminster and 1689 say, “As the Providence of God doth in general reach to all Creatures, so after a most special manner it taketh care of his Church, and disposeth of all things to the good thereof” (5.7).

But there is one more thing we might say from Ephesians about the priority of the church in the eyes of the Son — which Michael Reeves celebrated for us so well last night as the climax of Ephesians 1: the church is “the fullness of him who fills all in all” (1:23).

The church, as his body, not only receives his care; the body also acts for him and from him. The head acts through his body. The body extends the will and heart and grace and designs of the head out into the world. Christ fulfills Adam’s mandate to fill the earth as the church grows and increases and multiplies — as his fullness, the church, fills all in all.

What priority, what privilege, what an unimaginably elevated role for the church — not only as beneficiaries but as agents, actors, arms, legs, hands, feet.

“Pastoral work is ‘get to’ work, not ‘have to’ work.”

So, what is Jesus doing in the world today? He is building his church, purifying his church, nourishing his church, cherishing his church — prioritizing his church. Yes, he rules over wars and natural disasters, over human sin, and over Satan, over rulers and authorities — and in it all, and through it all, his priority is building his church, and through his church extending the fullness of his reign to every tongue and tribe and people.

We have observed Christ’s “most special manner,” his priority of the church. What about the Spirit?

3. The Spirit prioritizes the church in his power.

Talk as we might about how the Spirit is active in the world outside the church — upholding the natural order, extending God’s common kindness, inspiring and assisting works of justice and mercy, and even industry and art and literature — when we look at what the Spirit does in Ephesians, and throughout the New Testament, it’s fair to say at minimum that he prioritizes the church. (The language of priority feels grossly inadequate.)

Just in Ephesians:

Those who believe the gospel, he seals “for the day of redemption” (1:13; 4:30).
He is given to us, as “the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of [God]” (1:17).
He gives us access to the Father (2:18).
By him, we “are being built together into a dwelling place for God” (2:22).
By him, the gospel has been revealed to the prophets and apostles (3:5).
By him, we are strengthened with divine power (3:16).
He is “the power at work within us” (3:20).
He unifies the church (4:3).
He fills us, leading us to address “one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart” and to give “thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” and to submit “to one another out of reverence for Christ” (5:18–21).
“The sword of the Spirit . . . is the word of God” and our offensive weapon (6:17).
He even helps us pray (6:18).

And when Paul finishes his glorious aside in chapter 3 (verses 2–13) and begins his prayer in 3:14, he prays in essence for the Spirit’s work in the church. And just to round out chapter 3, this prayer for the Spirit’s work in the church, which comes with the confidence that he will indeed answer this prayer, spills over into the doxology celebrating God’s ability “to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think.” And again the priority of the church is striking:

Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen. (3:20–21)

How is God being glorified in our world today, and at this time? Stand in awe: in the church and in Christ Jesus. Through Christ, seated in heaven, and through his church, displaying him around the world in every major city and advancing on every tongue, tribe, people, and nation.

So, the Spirit seals, builds, reveals, strengthens, and fills the church. The bride of Christ is his priority (to say the least). However much he works (unsavingly) outside the church, his work is decidedly, emphatically, pronouncedly asymmetrical. He prioritizes the church.

4. We prioritize the church in our hearts and our habits.

Finally, then, what about the priority of the church in our lives?

Our Christian Priorities

1. We adopt the priorities of the Father, Son, and Spirit and resolve to rehearse the glories that our world conditions us to forget. Jesus Christ has triumphed and sat down at his Father’s right hand. He, our head, rules over the universe, and does so, amazingly, for and through the church. Don’t be snookered by the unbelieving world that what matters most is politics and sports, or whatever else seems for the moment so electric with importance. There is no more important gathering in the world than the church.

2. We prioritize the church over all other groups and associations in our lives, whether Christian or otherwise: institutions, workplaces, neighborhoods, teams, even ministries. In time, they all will perish. God will roll them up like a garment, but not the church. The church will remain. She will go through the final fire and endure. In time, the gates of Hades will prevail against all other societies, but not against the church.

3. We prioritize the church in the good we seek to do in the world. Among other good we might seek to do in our cities and towns, most important is our involvement in the body of Christ, in which eternal human souls find rescue from eternal suffering. As pastors, we help our people realize, whatever their vocation, that their single most important involvement for the good of others, among other noble causes, is engaging with and investing in the life, health, and mission of the local church.

4. We prioritize the church in our affection for individual believers. We learn to love with the eyes of Jesus: the weak, ignoble, and foolish (in the world’s eyes!) to whom we are joined, in Christ, in his church.

5. We take care to leverage what a resource we have in the church: for counseling and advice, for arbitration in disputes among Christians:

When one of you has a grievance against another, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints? Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? Do you not know that we are to judge angels? How much more, then, matters pertaining to this life! So if you have such cases, why do you lay them before those who have no standing in the church? (1 Corinthians 6:1–4)

6. We prioritize the church through covenant membership. Committing to a particular local church, and actively fulfilling our covenant, is the first concrete way the priority of the church takes root in our lives. We voice such a priority implicitly in our church covenants, as we make promises to each other to be the church for each other, not just in the good and easy times, but the bad. That’s what covenants are especially for: the hard times. It’s easy to stay with a church when it’s easy. It’s hard to stay when it’s hard. The priority of the church in our hearts finds expression in covenant membership in a particular local church. Christians will not adequately prioritize the church without committing to the fellowship and being held accountable.

Our Pastoral Priorities

Last, what about us as pastors?

1. Marvel at this calling. Brother pastors, without minimizing the righteous vocations of any non-pastors in our congregations, can you believe that we get to do this work? Pastoral work is “get to” work, not “have to” work. You don’t have to do this. You can get out of it if you’ve been stuck on “have to” for too long. I know there are hard days and hard seasons; there are stresses and strains that make our “get to” work feel like “have to” work. But brothers, in light of the Godhead’s priority of the church, is there any greater privilege and blessing in vocational life than getting to work on the one institution that has the special attention of God and over which the gates of Hades will not prevail?

If the rough and tumble of ministry has caused your vision of the church and its priority to get small and dull and boring, ask God to raise your head. Linger in Ephesians 1–3. Ask God to put his church back where it belongs on the map of your heart.

2. Seek to win your people to prioritize the church in their schedules. Some want “family-friendly churches” — to cater to their family idolatry. What if we cast a vision for “church-friendly families”? Instead of presuming the church adjust to dozens or hundreds of families, what if godly dads and moms adjusted their family rhythms to prioritize the church? What if we built our family lives around the few but important weekly flashpoints of church life?

3. Hold your people accountable to their membership covenant. The pastors set the tone for how seriously the congregation takes church membership. If the pastors aren’t diligent to oversee the flock, give regular upkeep to the roster, and pursue drifting members, your people will treat their church membership as a small, empty reality, and they will not prioritize the church.

4. In light of the priority of the church in the Godhead, we pastors might resist the temptation to ask less and less of people. When overly busy congregants complain that the church is doing too much or offering too much or gathering too often or for too long, we might patiently, graciously resist the impulse. We might say, “No, we’re not going to keep cutting and shortening and abbreviating and rushing. This is a priority in our lives as Christians — over work demands, over hobbies, over personal and family conveniences and comforts. We’re not going to apologize for opening the church doors. We’re not going to apologize for gathering Christ’s people for worship, for teaching, for prayer, for meals together. Church is priority enough to arrive early and stay late.”

5. In our own lives, exercise wisdom with news, social media, hobbies, and entertainment (including ESPN). Brothers, if you take out your phones and go to Settings, then Screen Time, you can see how many minutes per day are you on ESPN, or X (which is now largely overrun with politics), or some other social media, or YouTube TV, or Netflix. Do you know what you’re likely not doing well while you’re there in the digital world? Just a sampling: Communing with the risen Christ. Husbanding. Fathering. Pastoring a flock of eternal souls for whom you will give an account. That doesn’t mean there’s no space for rhythms of life and rest and pastimes and news. But that is a precious list to let slide.

Brothers, how much news? There was no telegraph until the mid-1800s. No radio until the 1920s. No television until the 1950s. No cable until the 1980s. No round-the-clock, nonstop news until 9/11, and until news (and commentary on it) essentially took over what was formerly social media, which continued the takeover of news by content that is more or less political. Today, without even trying at all (but just living in society), you will be far more informed and aware of national and world events than even the most diligent news-lovers could have been just two hundred years ago. Without even trying.

Would you fancy yourself a man “of Issachar” with “understanding of the times” to know what Christians ought to do and tweet about it (1 Chronicles 12:32)? Perhaps consider a serious audit and on your social media and news consumption. No wise, healthy pastor can just go with the world’s flow and saunter through the digital world without great vigilance.

6. If your priorities have drifted — over years, or through coasting, or through getting interested in other things, or through the disorientation of the pandemic and recent years — return to your former love and priorities. Perhaps as the years have passed, with complex influences and pressures, have you become “entangled in civilian pursuits,” to use the image of 2 Timothy 2:4?

What started as being where your people are, to provide spiritual leadership for them, has slowly become, over time, entanglement in secular affairs and undue distraction from your calling. I pray this conference is an opportunity to freshly see the glory of your work and make midcourse corrections, if needed.

7. Enjoy being a man of the Book. This last point is another “get to” point. Start your day in the Book. Linger over God’s word, without hurry, steeping your soul in it, meditating on it. And if you daily set your mind on the things above, you will become and remain the kind of man who prioritizes the church and whose instincts and heartbeat prioritize the church. You won’t first and foremost think of human solutions to the deepest, most intractable problems in our world, but you’ll think of conversion to Christ and life in his church — and perhaps God would be pleased to use that to restore to you the deep, durable joys of the pastoral calling.

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