David Mathis

Go Where God Walks: The Everyday Paths of Astonishing Grace

This message is part 1 of a three-part seminar on practicing the habits of grace in a hectic world. See here for the other two messages:

Let me start with a text before we do some more orienting work on where we’re going this weekend. Let’s get a little glimpse of the early church, the church that endured these various heresies and challenges of legalism, distraction, and competition in the first century. We get this little glimpse, like a little honeymoon moment, early in the Book of Acts. Peter has preached, three thousand people have come to faith, and then we find this out in Acts 2:42–47. Here’s what they do:

And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.

This is an amazing, shining, warm, bright moment. Early in the church, before persecutions come one after another, and before the Book of Acts moves from one obstacle to the next, we have this little, early moment. Who wouldn’t want these things? Awe coming upon every soul? Many wonders and signs? People want to sign up for signs and wonders. They want to see the spectacular.

And they were sharing their stuff. They weren’t forced to have all things in common. They chose to do this. They were selling their possessions. They were attending the temple together. They were receiving their food with glad and generous hearts. It was so ideal. They were praising God, and they had favor with all the people (that will change). God added to their number day by day those being saved.

Who doesn’t want to be part of a church like this? What’s the recipe? We want to know. What were they doing that had the Holy Spirit flowing through them like this? We want to be part of a church like this. We want to have lives like this. People want to sign up for numbers increasing and signs and wonders being performed.

Spectacularly Unspectacular

In Acts 2:42, it’s just so unspectacular. It’s so normal. In Acts 2:42, what did they devote themselves to? “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching.” The apostles were teaching the word. They had this message about Jesus called the gospel, and they were teaching Jesus from the Old Testament Scriptures. This is the apostles’ preaching and teaching about Christ and how we should live. Then it mentions “the fellowship” — we’ll say more about that tomorrow morning, and focus on it as a means of grace.

We have teaching. We have the word being taught. We have the community, the fellowship, the company, the congregation. There’s the breaking of bread. (I take this to be a reference to both the sharing of their meals and to the Lord’s Supper.) And we have the prayers. It’s very basic, normal stuff. It’s Bible teaching, prayer, the gathering of the congregation, and fellowship. And in the midst of that, they share food and the Lord’s Supper. These are very unspectacular things.

And yet, that’s what our focus is going to be on this weekend. As we think about distraction, competition, and legalism, we don’t want to just survive but to thrive in the Christian faith, with joy. So we’re going to talk about these seemingly mundane, very ordinary, electric-with-power means of grace for the Christian life.

This is our outline here for tonight and for tomorrow. As we’re breaking this into three sections, it’s important that we do some introductory work here first tonight. Tonight is going to be the most principled, theological, or visionary component of the three sessions. Then I’m going to try to get way more practical tomorrow morning and afternoon.

Tonight, we’ll start off with an introduction to the means of grace. We want to get our theology right at the outset. What’s the deal with the means of grace? How does that relate to our habits of grace? And tonight we’ll introduce God’s “chief” and “soul” means of grace: the word. That’s what Jonathan Edwards called it. Tomorrow morning, God willing, we’ll come back and do some practical focus on the word, and I’ll introduce prayer. Then in our final session, I’ll focus on some practical aspects of prayer, and then tackle this remarkable and often forgotten means of grace called “the fellowship.”

Clarify, Simplify, Inspire

Let me state here my aims for us in our time together tonight and tomorrow. Here’s my aim for these sessions: I want to clarify, simplify, and inspire. I’d like to clarify the source of the Christian life in God’s ongoing grace for us and how to access that grace. Then I want to simplify our pursuit of God’s grace through his appointed means. God has told us how he means to bless us. He has told us how he means to have the flow of his grace coming into our lives. I want to rehearse those things and then seek to sync up the habits of our lives with the remarkable flow of his grace.

Then I want to inspire you to cultivate habits of grace in your life, whatever season of life and whatever your personal bent, so that you can develop habits that would help you to know and enjoy him. And in knowing and enjoying him, to glorify him. It’s all so that he would be glorified in our delight in him and in the expressions of that delight, as it works its way out into our lives. It’s so that we would let our light shine in such a way that others would see our good deeds and give glory to our Father (Matthew 5:16).

My hope here is to keep the gospel and the energy of God at the center. As we talk about these actions, these efforts, and these initiatives we might take, we don’t want to fall into our own version of Christian legalism. We’re going to put the gospel at the center and the grace of God at the center.

Then we’re going to want to emphasize corporate dynamics as well. This is often overlooked in discussions of the spiritual disciplines. It becomes a very me-and-God-oriented thing, which is good. That has its place, but there are also amazing things in the Christian life that are corporate. There are means of grace that are corporate.

I want to present God’s means of grace and your own habits that develop around those means as not just accessible and realistic but truly God’s means for your knowing and enjoying Jesus, for a lifetime. That’s where we’re going, as our goal: we want to know him, enjoy him, be close to him, and hold fast to him, that he would be the great, personal life and source of our spiritual survival and thriving — and do so for a lifetime.

This is what we aim at: we aim at lives that glorify God through hearts that are happy in him, through souls satisfied in Jesus. That’s going to happen through his ongoing supply of grace to our lives, and he has given us his appointed means of grace. Then we’re going to seek to have our own habits and corporate habits whereby we access his grace and know, enjoy, and glorify him. We want to see God glorified through our joy by God’s threefold means of grace in our own habits of grace.

Primer on the Means of Grace

Session one is an introduction and a focus on the word. I want to introduce “the means of grace,” this concept, and then talk about God’s first and foremost means of grace for our Christian lives. Just to set this up, let me talk about Proverbs 21:31, which is a great means text. One danger in applying Christian theology and human responsibility would be that we think our means — the things that we do — just bring about our ends no matter what, as if it’s just a closed system, as if it’s pure cause and effect. We’re responsible; we get it done. That’s it.

Or we could have a more fatalistic view, thinking, “Well, it really doesn’t matter what we do because God’s the one who does things decisively.” So, we need to bring these two together theologically and experientially when we talk about the means of grace. It’s just a little glimpse of glorious means all throughout the Bible, once you see it:

The horse is made ready for the day of battle,     but the victory belongs to the Lord.

Now, a godly king gets his horses ready for the battle. If he has a battle, he prepares for the battle. Get your soldiers ready for the battle. Prepare, execute, have a strategy, engage. And he’s not so naive as to think that there are no prayers to be prayed and a God to be leaned on and seen as the One who decisively does it. You can have the best army and chariots and guns and tanks, and if God decides you lose the battle, you lose the battle.

Means are important in the Christian life. If God appoints that a nail be in a board, he also appoints a hammer and a hand driving it into the board. Or as a father and a homeowner, I can’t help but think of faucets and light switches. One reason I think about this is that I have a father-in-law who’s a plumber. I did not grow up in a plumber’s family — my dad was a dentist. He did stuff around the house, but he also hired other people to do stuff around the house. I didn’t grow up a handyman. So, when I became a homeowner for the first time fifteen years ago, it was all new to me, and I felt all this pressure because my wife’s dad is a plumber. If something goes wrong, she just expects me to fix it. I’ve had a lot of learning to do.

But an amazing thing about the plumbing or the electricity in the house is that if you want some water, you don’t just walk around the living room going, “Water, fall on me. Water, give me water.” No, the home has been plumbed and wired, so to speak, in a certain way. You go to the sink to get water, and then you turn on the sink. You do the action. You engage the means, and hopefully, water comes out of the spigot. When you do that, you don’t celebrate and say, “Look what I did. I made it water. I made the water come out.”

Or maybe you walk into a room to turn on the lights. By the way, Canadians — you guys are funny sometimes with the hotel lights. The same thing happened to me in Montreal. I could not figure out the lights in Montreal, and it took me about ten minutes last night to figure out the lights in the hotel. There are mood lights, and there are all sorts of different lights. When the lights come on, because I flick the switch, I don’t celebrate that I did it. The city provided the electricity, and some electrician wired up the walls and got the outlet installed.

But it would be silly for me just to walk around and demand that light to come on or to have water without engaging the appointed means. That’s the kind of thing we’re dealing with here in the Christian life. God has told us that he has provided power, he has wired things up, and he has provided various switches. He provides faucets where we engage the means and get the flow of water.

Now, here’s where we’re going in this session. First, we want to talk about the God of grace. We have to start with him. He’s the personal provider of this grace. It’s not this rogue thing, a power that you try to access and find. It’s his power through his Spirit. Second, he has given us his appointed means of grace. Third, we’ll talk about various habits in our lives for accessing his grace. Fourth, we want to emphasize the end of the means as well. To have a means implies there’s an end. You have to have an end of the means. We’ll talk about that and introduce his first and foremost means: his word.

1. Know the God of grace.

First, let’s celebrate the God of grace. First Peter 5:10 says,

And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.

Our God is a God of grace. When he reveals himself to Moses, he reveals himself as “a God merciful and gracious, full of steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6). This is the kind of God who is overflowing. He’s eager to help his children. He wants to shed his grace. The very coming of Jesus is the climactic expression of his grace.

So, we have a God of grace. That’s a very important starting point in coming to the means of grace — that we see that we don’t have this miserable God who’s holding back his stuff. He wants to give. He’s happy, he’s generous, and he wants to give his grace to his people, especially as they come through his means.

First Timothy 1:11 says, “Sound doctrine [is] in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God.” I just want to linger over the word makarios, which means “blessed” or “happy.” Our God is the infinitely happy God. He’s not miserable up in heaven. He’s infinitely happy. He lives for all eternity in the infinite bliss of the Trinity. He’s the happy God who radiates out with his glory and, because of that, has a gospel to save sinners.

And then in 1 Timothy 6:15 he says of this God, “He is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal dominion.” Our God is overflowing in his riches, in his goodness, in his fullness. That fullness comes to us and meets us in his grace toward us sinners.

So, first and foremost, we have the God of grace. And then very importantly, we need to recognize how this grace manifests in our lives, and how it comes to meet us.

The Grace of Justification

The God of grace justifies us. You may be familiar with this language of justification, of God justifying us. If you’re not, I’ll try to explain it. If you are, glory with me in it, that the God of grace does this for his creatures.

Romans 4:4–5 says, “Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due.” So, if you work, you get wages, and they aren’t given to you as a gift. They’re what you are due. You deserve the wages. You enter into this arrangement, and you get the wages.

Then Paul continues, “And to the one who does not work but believes—” The opposite in this contrast he sets up is that one is working for it, and the other is believing. He is contrasting belief here. He says, “To the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness” (Romans 4:5).

Justify means he counts them righteous. He accepts them fully. He declares them to be in the right with him. “Faith,” at the end of the verse, goes back to “belief” at the beginning of the verse. This is justification by faith. This is coming before the holy God for his acceptance not on the basis of anything we do. We are coming to him to believe in him. We come as the ungodly, and by faith — because of Jesus and his righteousness in our place — we are justified. We are declared to be in the right. Working is one path, and belief is another. That’s the realm of justification.

Here’s more of his blessedness, his fullness, his riches, his goodness, and his lovingkindness. Titus 3:4–7 says,

But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us [justification], not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.

Not only is he excluding from our acceptance with God poor works, partial works, or flawed works, but he is also excluding works done in righteousness — the best works you can do. God justifies us by his grace. Our full acceptance before the holy God is not based on anything we do. Our habits of grace, however good, even if they’re done in righteousness, do not earn our right standing with the holy, rich, blessed God. That comes through faith in Jesus Christ. God justifies.

The Grace of Sanctification

You might just say, “Well, that’s enough. That’s enough grace for me. I’ll just take that grace and go home.” But God says, “I’m the God of all grace. I have more grace than that. That justification is spectacular good news, and I’m not done.” This is double grace — what Calvin called duplex gratia. This is the grace of God that sanctifies. Sanctification, our own becoming holy, is not an annoyance or a burden; it is another grace.

Titus 2:11–12 uses the same kind of language. He just talked about the appearing of God’s mercy and goodness and lovingkindness in Jesus. Now we’re talking about how the grace of God has appeared. Jesus is God’s grace, embodied and personal. The passage says, “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people —” Then you might say, “Oh, that’s great. Grace means there’s nothing for me to do, right?” Well, there’s some grace here for your training. He continues,

The grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age. (Titus 2:11–12).

Brothers and sisters, self-control, uprightness, and godly lives — these things aren’t burdens. This is more grace. God is more gracious than to just save you from your sin, forgive your sin, reckon you righteous, and then leave you in the misery of your sin. He says, “I want to save you out of your sin, I want to forgive you of it, and then I want to pull you out of the misery of your sin.” Ungodliness is miserable. Worldly passions are miserable. Self-control, uprightness, and godly living empowered by grace is double grace.

Now we’re getting into how this grace works in our lives as a means, and how we might work. We don’t work in justification. We only believe. But in sanctification, we get to work. We act, and we put some effort in by grace. Here’s how it happens. Paul says, “By the grace of God, I am what I am” (1 Corinthians 15:10). So you might think, “Oh — grace. Does that mean you’re going to find the apostle Paul on a couch?” Probably not with Paul. (It’s not that the couch is a problem. There’s a time for couches, though I don’t know if Paul had any time for it.) Instead he says,

But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. (1 Corinthians 15:10)

Now, when Paul said he “worked harder than any of them,” do you know what he’s talking about here? He’s not talking about bums in Crete or the lazy folks in Galatia or whatever; he’s talking about the other apostles. Paul must have had such a gargantuan work ethic that he could say something like this in utter humility. I don’t think there’s any posturing here. I don’t think there’s any pride. I think it was just so well-known. Paul was just wired differently. Peter is not the same. John is not the same. But Paul is just Herculean.

But you know what? Paul says, “That’s the grace of God. It’s not I.” All these long journeys, all that he went through, all the labors and works — he does it by grace. I’m not saying you have to be as tireless as Paul. What I’m saying is that the grace of God empowers us to make effort. There’s no effort for justification. You cannot earn God’s acceptance. But in grace, you can experience the joy of walking in real holiness.

Here’s the dynamic as Paul talks to the Philippians about it:

Beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. (Philippians 2:12–13)

He didn’t say work for it. That would be in the realm of justification. If he said work for it, that would be a breach of justification. He’s saying, “Work out your salvation. God is saving you. You’re righteous in Christ. Work it out.” How? Is it that in your own effort you work it out? No, he says, “For it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13). God works in you.

We saw this in the Titus text about the Holy Spirit being given to us richly. The reason that justified sinners don’t become lazy or antinomian is that with this gift of justification, which you did not earn with any of your works, another gift comes. His name is the Holy Spirit, and through him God loves to continue to pour out his grace.

He’s at work. He works in you by the person of his Holy Spirit, both for your willing and working, which is deeper in us than we can sense. We’ll see that tomorrow when we talk about the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is deeper in us than we can even sense. He’s at work in us for our will and for our work, for God’s good pleasure.

The Grace of Glorification

We’ve spoken of the grace of justification, the grace of sanctification, and then there’s a triple grace (and another one, and another one, and another one). This is the last one we’re going to do for right now. The grace of God glorifies.

Second Thessalonians 1:11–12 says, “[May God] fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you—” At this point we think, “Amen. To him be the glory. Glorify Jesus.” Then Paul surprises us here and says, “. . . and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Thessalonians 1:12).

So, Christ is being glorified in us Christians, and we are being glorified by grace in him. There is a coming glory, a glory that’s already happening in our lives as we grow in holiness and Christian maturity. Second Corinthians 3:18 talks about moving from one degree of glory to the next. There’s a final glory coming, and it’s coming by grace. It’s when the groom glorifies his bride with himself. Ephesians 2:4–7 says,

But God, being rich in mercy [more “richness” language], because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ — by grace you have been saved — and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.

This is what he has begun in you if you have faith in Jesus, and this is what he will do for endless ages. He will lavish on us the immeasurable riches of his grace in Christ Jesus. So, the God of grace justifies, sanctifies, and glorifies. We are in a matrix of God’s grace in Christ in the Christian life. And God has given us appointed means of grace.

2. Grasp the means of grace.

How do we pursue sanctification? How do we pursue one degree of glory to the next? There are God’s appointed means of grace. Now, sometimes people talk about the spiritual disciplines. It’s a common term. It’s a subtitle in my book because I tried to set it up within the genre of spiritual disciplines.

But I like the term “means of grace” because I want to try to coordinate our actions with God’s actions. I want to see that first and foremost, we have the God of grace, and then in light of who he is, we’re now taking action from a creaturely posture of receiving his grace, rather than only the language of “spiritual disciplines.” Spiritual disciplines could begin and end with you. They could be about what you have to do.

“My most pressing need is not to master the Bible but to be mastered by God through his word.”

This is why D.A. Carson says, “Means of grace is a lovely expression less susceptible to misinterpretation than spiritual disciplines.” That’s your good Canadian brother right there. Or consider J.I. Packer. (Look at all these Canadian voices! He’s originally from England, but he spent a lot of time in Canada.) I first got onto this term “means of grace” from this quote from Packer: “The doctrine of the spiritual disciplines is really a restatement and extension of the classical Protestant teaching on the means of grace.”

Then Packer gives us a little helpful summary. What are these means? We have to know what these means are. Packer is going to help us here. There are four means of grace, he says: “The word of God, prayer, fellowship, and the Lord’s Supper.” He gave us four. We’ll keep coming back to that.

Here’s another quote by J.C. Ryle. As far as I know, he never lived in Canada. He’s a good British brother. He says,

The means of grace are such as Bible reading, private prayer, and regularly worshiping God in Church, wherein one hears the Word taught and participates in the Lord’s Supper. I lay it down as a simple matter of fact that no one who is careless about such things must ever expect to make much progress in sanctification. I can find no record of any eminent saint who ever neglected them. They are appointed channels through which the Holy Spirit conveys fresh supplies of grace to the soul, and strengthens the work which he has begun in the inward man . . . Our God is a God who works by means, and he will never bless the soul of that man who pretends to be so high and spiritual that he can get on without them.

Don’t you want that? Don’t you want fresh supplies of grace to your soul from the Holy Spirit? Thank you, J.C. Ryle. We’ll come back to Ryle.

So then, how might we approach these means? I think there’s a helpful paradigm here in Zacchaeus and Bartimaeus. They’re back-to-back stories in the Gospel of Luke. I wonder if Luke’s putting them back to back to get at this very purpose. Whether he’s trying to do that or not, let’s look at the story of Zacchaeus and Bartimaeus.

Bartimaeus and the Road

Jesus drew near to Jericho, and there was this blind man sitting by the roadside, right? He was by the road. That’s significant. He didn’t think, “Well, let me just go wander in the wilderness, and maybe I’ll bump into the Messiah.” He’s by the road. You’re going to get help by the road. Position yourself by the road. Then it says,

And hearing a crowd going by, he inquired what this meant. They told him, “Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.” (Luke 18:36–37)

Because he was by the road, Jesus was going to come by him. The passage continues:

He cried out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” And those who were in front rebuked him, telling him to be silent. But he cried out all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” And Jesus stopped and commanded him to be brought to him. And when he came near, he asked him, “What do you want me to do for you?” He said, “Lord, let me recover my sight.” And Jesus said to him, “Recover your sight; your faith has made you well.” And immediately he recovered his sight and followed him, glorifying God. And all the people, when they saw it, gave praise to God. (Luke 18:38–43)

The reason the grace comes to Bartimaeus is that he’s by the road. He went to the place where grace was passing. Jesus wasn’t over there in the wilderness. He was coming down the path, and Bartimaeus was by the path, and so he has the encounter with Jesus. He asks for mercy and receives the grace of healing because he’s by the path where Jesus is passing.

Zacchaeus and the Tree

Now, let’s see what happens with the wee little man, Zacchaeus.

He entered Jericho and was passing through. And behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus. He was a chief tax collector and was rich. And he was seeking to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd, he could not, because he was small in stature. So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him, for he was about to pass that way. And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried and came down and received him joyfully. (Luke 19:1–6)

Zacchaeus doesn’t run out into the desert and hope to encounter the Messiah out there. He hears Jesus coming. He comes to see Jesus. He sees he’s too short and there’s too big of a crowd, so he goes up to a sycamore tree by the road, gets up in the tree, and gets Jesus’s attention. He positions himself along the path where the grace of God will be passing. Here’s what Jonathan Edwards had to say:

Persons need not and ought not to set any bounds to their spiritual and gracious appetites.

By that, he means that you can’t want too much to be happy in God. You don’t have to curtail that. There are no bounds on your desire to be happy in God, which is what you were made for. He continues:

Rather, they ought to be endeavoring by all possible ways to inflame their desires and to obtain more spiritual pleasures. Endeavor to promote spiritual appetites by laying yourself in the way of allurement.

In other words, cultivate your desire for God’s grace and for God’s Son by laying yourself in the way of allurement, along the paths where Jesus will be passing. If he tells us where he is going to be passing, we should position ourselves along those paths.

His Voice, His Ear, His Body

So then, what are these means? How do we put ourselves on the path of God’s grace? Why don’t we come back to Acts 2:42 where we started? It says,

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

Remember that we saw Packer mention the word of God. We saw Ryle mention Bible reading and the word being taught. “The apostles’ teaching” is mentioned here. The apostles were doing word-ministry and teaching. Then you have “the fellowship,” the body of Christ, the corporate dynamics of the covenant people together in relationship with each other. They are a means of God’s grace to each other, which is an amazing thing. It’s not just God’s word that is a means of grace, but we are means of grace to each other, back and forth. And finally it speaks of “the breaking of bread and the prayers.” I think the Lord’s Supper as a means of grace fits in the context of the fellowship, in the corporate life of the church.

Here’s how I organize them. Here are my three principles, my way of doing it. You could take a pie and cut it into twelve pieces, or eight pieces, or four pieces. I like to cut my pie into three pieces. I’m cutting the pie of the means of grace into three pieces, and I have reasons for that. I’ll show you those briefly. Here’s my summary:

Hear his voice in his word.
Have his ear in prayer.
Belong to his body in the fellowship of the local church.

I’m making the effort to make it personal here. We hear his voice in his word. Don’t hear his voice out in the wilderness. Don’t close your Bible and “hear his voice.” That’s your own voice talking to yourself. You hear his voice in his word. You have his ear in prayer and belong to his body in the context of the local church.

Matrix of Means

So, where does this threefold matrix come from? I think it’s a whole-Bible doctrine for me. This is a whole-Bible synthesis. You test it this weekend or next week, for months and for the rest of your life. See if this is a viable three-part summary of God’s means of grace.

I do think it’s Trinity-like, in the sense that it’s a kind of whole-Bible synthesis. I think God is very clear that his first and foremost means of grace is the initiative he takes in revealing himself in his word and climatically in his Son, who is the Word. Clearly, he means for his people to respond in prayer, and he doesn’t create those people as individuals alone, but in the context of the church. So, there’s my three-dimensional bringing together of his means of grace that we will be walking through tonight and tomorrow.

I think you can observe the pattern in Hebrews. This is what I’ve often done. I love Hebrews. If you’re allowed to have a favorite Bible book, mine is Hebrews. Hebrews does a really good job of summarizing these. Some of the best texts on hearing God’s voice are in Hebrews. We’ll see those in a minute. We also see this amazing passage about drawing near to the throne of grace with confidence, which means at least a kind of prayer and having his ear. And then regarding fellowship, I don’t know what to say except that Hebrews has probably the two best texts on fellowship.

Hebrews does this so well. You can see God’s means of grace in wanting the Hebrews to persevere. He commends God’s ongoing speaking through his word by the Spirit, approaching the throne of grace in prayer, and then enduring in the context of the local church.

Over time, I think the Psalms shaped me the most, and I started to see this more and more. There are so many texts in the Psalms about God’s word, God’s ear, and the congregation of the covenant fellowship. We could spend hours on it, but we won’t spend hours on it. I’m going to race through it in a few minutes. Here’s the pattern.

God’s Voice in the Psalms

In the Psalms, hearing God’s voice comes from his word. Psalm 19:7–8 says,

The law of the Lord is perfect,     reviving the soul;the testimony of the Lord is sure,     making wise the simple;the precepts of the Lord are right,     rejoicing the heart;the commandment of the Lord is pure,     enlightening the eyes.

The Bible is God’s personal revelation of his law, testimonies, precepts, and commandments. Psalm 29:4 says,

The voice of the Lord is powerful;     the voice of the Lord is full of majesty.

And Psalm 46:6 says,

The nations rage, the kingdoms totter;     he utters his voice, the earth melts.

It’s a symbol of his power. It’s a sign of his power that he doesn’t take out the divine sword or the divine muscles. All he has to do is speak. He’s that powerful. The nations do their raging, their plotting, and he just speaks, and it all melts. As Psalm 68:33 says, “Behold, he sends out his voice, his mighty voice,” and with it comes much grace for its people.

On the flip side, sin is not listening to his voice. The Psalms lament those who do not listen to God’s voice. It’s very basic. Our Father says, “Son, daughter, listen to my voice. You will be safe if you listen to your daddy’s voice and obey your daddy’s voice. You have a gracious daddy who’s speaking so that you can have joy and be protected and not go into misery. Listen to my voice.” But he says,

My people did not listen to my voice;     Israel would not submit to me.So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts,     to follow their own counsels.Oh, that my people would listen to me,     that Israel would walk in my ways! (Psalm 81:11–13)

He speaks to the wilderness generation. They’ve come out of Egypt, they’ve been through the Red Sea, and they’re on the cusp of going into the promised land. God has given them promises. He has said, “Go take the land.” They see the giants, and they’re getting fearful. Psalm 106:24 says,

Then they despised the pleasant land,     having no faith in his promise.

He had promised, saying, “I’m going to give you this land. Obey the promise.” The passage continues:

They murmured in their tents,     and did not obey the voice of the Lord. (Psalm 106:25)

It’s a tragedy when his people do not attend to his voice, and it’s delight, joy, glory, and life when his people attend to his voice.

God’s Ear in the Psalms

The Psalms are also a massive example of having his ear in prayer. The psalmist prays,

Give ear to my words, O Lord;     consider my groaning.Give attention to the sound of my cry,     my King and my God,     for to you do I pray.O Lord, in the morning you hear my voice;     in the morning I prepare a sacrifice for you and watch. (Psalm 5:1–3)

And Psalm 17:6 says,

I call upon you, for you will answer me, O God;     incline your ear to me; hear my words.

Don’t you see it in the Psalms over and over again? The psalmists know that God stoops, and he listens. He wants to hear from his people. Not only does he reveal himself in his word, but he wants to hear from his people. He wants this to be a relationship. He doesn’t just broadcast it. He speaks and then wants to hear from his people in prayer.

The psalmists pray for his ear. They ask:

Hear the voice of my pleas for mercy,     when I cry to you for help,when I lift up my hands     toward your most holy sanctuary. (Psalm 28:2)

O God, hear my prayer;     give ear to the words of my mouth. (Psalm 54:2)

Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord!     O Lord, hear my voice!Let your ears be attentive     to the voice of my pleas for mercy! (Psalm 130:2)

I say to the Lord, You are my God;     give ear to the voice of my pleas for mercy, O Lord! (Psalm 140:6)

And as they ask for his ear, as they pray for it, they’re already confident that he hears. So they not only pray for his ear; they declare that they have his ear:

The Lord hears when I call to him. (Psalm 4:3)

O Lord, you hear the desire of the afflicted;     you will strengthen their heart; you will incline your ear. (Psalm 10:17)

I call upon you, for you will answer me, O God. (Psalm 17:6)

The eyes of the Lord are toward the righteous     and his ears toward their cry.The face of the Lord is against those who do evil,     to cut off the memory of them from the earth.When the righteous cry for help, the Lord hears     and delivers them out of all their troubles.The Lord is near to the brokenhearted     and saves the crushed in spirit. (Psalm 34:15–18)

The psalmists celebrate having his ear:

In my distress I called upon the Lord;     to my God I cried for help.From his temple he heard my voice,     and my cry to him reached his ears. (Psalm 18:6)

Blessed be the Lord!     For he has heard the voice of my pleas for mercy. (Psalm 28:6)

You heard the voice of my pleas for mercy     when I cried to you for help. (Psalm 31:22)

Come and hear, all you who fear God,     and I will tell what he has done for my soul.I cried to him with my mouth,     and high praise was on my tongue.If I had cherished iniquity in my heart,     the Lord would not have listened.But truly God has listened;     he has attended to the voice of my prayer. (Psalm 66:16–19)

You might say, “Well, maybe he would listen to David because David was a king. David had this special role. But does this apply to me?” The answer is that this applies to us all the more in Jesus. We have all the more reason, because of Jesus, to know that the Lord hears our prayer.

We’ll talk about that foundation. We’ll talk more about Jesus’s high priesthood, his coming into the throne room, and his pouring out his Spirit so that even as we cry out, it is God himself, the Spirit, crying out in and through us. You have all the more reason than ancient Israelites and Davidic kings to know that he hears your prayer if you are in Jesus.

God’s Body in the Psalms

Belonging to his body and having fellowship appears in the Psalms as well. This is the congregation of the righteous in the Psalms:

I will tell of your name to my brothers;     in the midst of the congregation I will praise you. (Psalm 22:22)

I will thank you in the great congregation;     in the mighty throng I will praise you. (Psalm 35:18)

You get the point. Again and again, the psalmist is not alone. He’s with fellows, covenant fellows, which has pretty clear application for us.

3. Practice habits of grace.

God’s matrix of grace for the survival and joy of his people’s souls includes hearing his voice in his word, having his ear in prayer, and belonging to his body in covenant fellowship. What about these various habits of grace? If those are the means of grace — word, prayer, and fellowship — what about our habits? What is a habit?

This is from Charles Duhigg’s book, Power of Habit. He says,

Habits emerge because the brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort. Left to its own devices, the brain will try to make almost any routine into a habit because habits allow our minds to ramp down more often so that the mind can attend to something else.

This is from Gretchen Rubin:

The real key to habits is decision-making, or more accurately, the lack of decision-making.

So, if every time you get in a car, you have to go through the process of thinking, “Should I put the seat belt on or not?” habit comes along to help with that. Or when the light turns red, do you want to stop at that moment and have a decision-making party and ask, “Well, the light turned red, what should I do about this?”

No, the life-saving habit is to just hit the brakes. The life-saving habit is to say, “It’s Sunday morning. Let’s worship with God’s people.” We don’t need to have a decision-making party here on whether to go this week. Or if it’s Saturday morning, do you ask, “Should I start the day with God’s word?” It’s a good habit to form.

What do good habits do? Habits free our focus to give attention elsewhere. They protect what’s most important. They keep us persevering. They’re person-specific, and they can change in various seasons of life. You may have habits that are not lifelong but just for this season. Habits can change. They’re driven by desire and reward. Your brain generates habits because there’s some reward that you’re looking to, however consciously or subconsciously, which is very important for forming spiritual habits.

Habits also change us. They condition us. You’re not hardwired in such a way that habits themselves aren’t part of changing you. Habits are part of a process of you being changed, your neural plasticity, and the changing of your soul and your heart by these habits.

As we already saw, “the grace of God has appeared . . . training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions” (Titus 2:11–12). We are being trained by God’s grace. God’s grace should form various habits in our lives for the ongoing flow of his grace and the ongoing changing of our souls, of our hearts. It’s reforming us for self-control, for upright and godly lives.

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness. (2 Timothy 3:16)

If I had more time, we would talk about training and the importance of it. We’re in an Olympic city. When you train for the Olympics, it changes your body. You condition the body. And when you are trained by grace, or you train in righteousness, it changes your heart, it conditions your heart, it makes you more able to delight in God rather than all the stuff of the world.

A big question for Christians as we look at the various habits and patterns of our life is this: Am I conditioning my soul to delight in God or the world five years from now? You may be believing right now, but if we audited the habits of your life, perhaps you are conditioning your soul to no longer believe in five years. The question for us, if we want to delight in God, is this: Am I conditioning my soul to delight in Jesus?

4. Long for the end of the means.

This relates to the end of the means. It’s the reason why we’re doing it. There’s an end. And the end is John 17:3, which says,

And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.

Or consider Philippians 3:7–8, which says,

But 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.

Knowing Jesus and enjoying him is the reason that we talk about the means. We could have gathered this weekend and done meditations on the glory of Christ (which is my preference). That’s what we want to do, and that’s where this is going: enjoying Jesus, delighting in Jesus, talking about Jesus. But I’m hoping that by focusing on the habits of grace we’re preparing ourselves for how to enjoy him and conditioning ourselves for enjoying him so that we can see him, know him, and enjoy him. He, enjoying him, is the great end of all these means.

Engaging His Voice

Finally, I’m going to close by introducing the word, and then we will come back tomorrow morning to talk more practically. How do I engage the word? If the word is God’s first and foremost means of his grace — God reveals himself through his speaking — how might I go about accessing his word? Tonight, let’s introduce the principle. God’s first and foremost means is his word. I told you Hebrews had great texts:

Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son. (Hebrews 1:1–2)

This is the Book of Hebrews’ way of saying that Jesus is the Word. He’s the speaking of God. He’s the climactic revelation of God.

Then, in Hebrews 3–4, taking up the Old Testament text from Psalm 95, it says, “The Holy Spirit says . . .” (Hebrews 3:7). This is so important. When he’s talking about Old Testament Scripture, he doesn’t say, “The Holy Spirit said this once.” Rather, he says, “The Holy Spirit says . . .” He’s saying it right now. He said it then, and he continues saying it right now, as you hear it. The passage continues:

The Holy Spirit says, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion.” (Hebrews 3:7–8)

That’s what he’s talking about, then, when he says, “The word of God is living and active” (Hebrews 4:12). It’s not a dead word. It’s not like God spoke in the past, but he’s not saying it right now by his Spirit to his people.

The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account. (Hebrews 4:12–13)

The Holy Spirit continues to speak God’s word. Then the last warning in Hebrews 12:25 says, “See that you do not refuse him who is speaking.” He is speaking. It’s amazing to see this live, present doctrine of God’s ongoing speaking by his Spirit here in Hebrews. Our God is a talking God. He’s a speaking God.

What Is God’s Word?

Let me give you a quick summary of God’s word, because what I want to do is get outside of our thinking only of God’s word as this book that we flip through. The book is infinitely precious. But sometimes, if we just think about the letters on the page and not the larger concept and all that it means for God to reveal himself and speak to us, we may not appreciate what we hold in our hands. Our God is a talking God.

He spoke to create. That’s how he created the world. It was not a show of power with his hands, but speaking. And he speaks through creation. In Psalm 19:1, it says, “The heavens declare the glory of God.” He spoke in human words through his prophets, like the text we already saw about his law, testimonies, precepts, and commandments from Psalm 19:7–11. He speaks definitively in his Son, who is the Word, as we saw in Hebrews 1. John also says, “In the beginning was the Word . . . And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:1, 14). That’s the climactic revelation of God.

So, what is the word of God? Here’s my summary. Just think about the concept of God’s speaking. He speaks, he reveals himself, he’s communicative, he’s talkative. Isn’t that amazing that we have a God who speaks? Where would we be if he did not speak? He speaks to create, he speaks through creation, and he speaks particularly through his prophets. And then his word, spoken through the prophets, is written down and preserved in Scripture. When you hold that book in your hand, this is the preservation of God speaking.

Next comes his incarnate word. That’s his word made personal in his Son. Jesus is the Word of God. I put this in because I was marveling over that this morning in Matthew 17. Moses is there, Elijah is there, and Peter is like, “Oh, let’s build three tents. Moses can have a tent, Elijah can have one, and Jesus can have one.” And the voice speaks from heaven,

This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him. (Matthew 17:5)

I mean, how amazing is that? In the presence of Moses, he says, “Listen to him, the beloved Son.” That’s what Moses was anticipating. The great prophet Elijah anticipates the coming of the Son.

Then we have the word preached or spoken. That’s the gospel. This is the main way the New Testament uses the word word. In the New Testament, when you see “word,” it’s usually not referring to Scripture. That’s the word Scripture. The word word usually refers to the gospel.

Then Christ’s spokesmen, his apostles, write down their letters and their Gospels — the New Testament. So we have the prophets’ word, and we have the word about Jesus, captured by the apostles. So when we take up our Bible — this is such an amazing thing — we have here not only a record of what God has spoken into the world for his people, but we have the speaking. This is the Holy Spirit speaking to us in God’s Word.

Gather a Day’s Portion

Let me give you this last thing as we go. I want to give you one practical thing because, between now and tomorrow when we talk through the practicals, there’s a morning. I’d like to influence your morning tomorrow, if you would let me, before you come out. I call this “gather a day’s portion.”

This is my reminder for me in a world of distraction, competition, and legalism — in a hectic world — to have my focus be where it should be when I pick up my Bible in the morning. A temptation for me is, “How much can I do here?” rather than, “Can I feed my soul? God, would you feed my soul this morning?”

This comes from Exodus 16. God’s people are in the wilderness. They’ve come out of Egypt, and he’s going to give them this gift called “manna.” This is not exegesis that I’m doing here. This is a parallel, an analogy.

Behold, I am about to rain bread from heaven for you, and the people shall go out and gather a day’s portion every day. (Exodus 16:4)

Here’s what’s behind it. Your Father wants to provide food for you every day. Don’t store it for tomorrow. Don’t store it for next week. Don’t fill a barn. These are daily provisions. The passage continues:

Whoever gathered much had nothing left over, and whoever gathered little had no lack. Each of them gathered as much as he could eat. (Exodus 16:18)

Lamentations 3:23 talks about how his mercies are new every morning. And Jesus prays, “Give us this day our daily bread” (Matthew 6:11). Sometimes God gives you daily bread in five minutes. Usually, it’s a little longer than that. Sometimes it’s twenty minutes. Sometimes you may really wrestle with him like Jacob, and it might be an hour.

But I want to encourage you tomorrow morning to come before him and pray, “God, would you give me a day’s portion? Would you feed my soul this morning? Even more than my stomach is hungry, because I slept all night and need breakfast, my soul is hungry. Would you feed my soul this morning in your word?”

So, “gather a day’s portion” is my reminder not to try to do too much in morning devotions and have them get hectic. I don’t want to miss the main thing. My most pressing need is not to master the Bible in a few short months or weeks but to be mastered by God through his word, just a little each day, on the arc of a lifetime.

Developing a daily habit of feeding on him in Christ is more like a marathon than a sprint. It’s not hectic and hurried, but it’s coming before him saying, “Father, would you feed my soul this morning?”

‘Enter into My Happiness’: Jesus’s Invitation to Infinite Joy

Imagine that moment when Jesus first opened his mouth to begin his Sermon on the Mount.

The Gospel of Matthew sets the scene. Jesus has been baptized by John (3:13–17) and endured forty days of wilderness fasting and temptation (4:1–11). He has quietly begun his public ministry in the region of Galilee and called his first disciples (4:18–22). He started by teaching in synagogues. But now as his fame spreads, the crowds swell, and his ministry is increasingly consigned to open air (4:23–25).

Seeing the crowds, Jesus goes up a mountain. The gentle slope will serve as a natural theater where he might be seen, and his words heard, by the masses.

Has humble Galilee ever seen anything like this — anyone like this? Not only does this tradesman’s son heal, but he speaks with a captivating weight. The scribes borrow their authority (as they should) from Scripture as they teach and explain God’s word. But this man, perfectly in sync with Scripture, somehow speaks on par with Scripture — and even in some enigmatic sense, his authority seems to rise above it.

There are whispers. Might this be the prophet to come? Might this be the Messiah himself? It all makes for an electric moment — the air thick with energy and excitement.

A hush ripples through the crowd. He is about to speak. What will Jesus say? How will he start? What will be the first topic he addresses at such a poignant moment?

He opens his mouth and says, “Blessed . . .”

Ninefold Happiness

Remarkably, Jesus’s first topic — his repeated first topic — is to the blessedness, the happiness, of his hearers. He assumes they want to be happy, and he makes an extended appeal — a holy, perceptive, profound appeal — to their happiness. Not just once but over and over again.

The refrain of these precious opening words, which will come to be known as “the Beatitudes,” addresses the deep and enduring desire of the human heart to be happy — that is, blessed.

Blessed are the poor in spirit. . . . Blessed are those who mourn. . . . Blessed are the meek. . . . Blessed . . . Blessed . . . Blessed . . . Blessed . . . Blessed . . . Blessed . . . (Matthew 5:3–11)

Nine times Jesus makes his stunningly hedonistic appeal and tops it all off with the exhortation — for those in the face of persecution no less — “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven” (5:12).

The opening salvos of Jesus’s most famous sermon promise true happiness. His refrain is reward; his charge is “rejoice and be glad.” Many of us today are so familiar with these Beatitudes that we miss the shock, the scandal, the gall of a preacher unleashing such a pleasure-seeking manifesto on an unsuspecting audience.

Our Blessed God

Part of the reason we miss this edge in Jesus’s message is because our word blessed has lost much of its power. In the first century, blessed was no overused hashtag. It wasn’t Christianese, suffering from overuse and shallowness. “Blessed” in the Hebrew Scriptures was “the man [whose] delight is in the law of the Lord” — so rich and full and sweet a delight that “on his law he meditates day and night” (Psalm 1:1–2). Blessed was no small promise from the mouth of Jesus to the ears of the crowds.

“The kingdom of heaven is, first and foremost, the sphere of God’s happy smile and favor.”

The Greeks had mused about the “blessedness” (makarismos) of their gods as “the transcendent happiness of a life beyond care, labor, and death . . . the happy state of the gods above earthly sufferings and labors” (TDNT). In 1 Timothy, Paul applies the term to the Father of Jesus Christ. He is “the blessed God” who has entrusted Paul with “the gospel of his glory” (1:11). He is “the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords” (6:15).

Accordingly, Peter van Mastricht, favorite systematician of Jonathan Edwards, would come along centuries later and define divine blessedness as God’s

perfect enjoyment of his own self, from which there is said to be fullness of joys with his face (Psalm 16:11). In it is contained not only an exact knowledge of his own self, a knowledge proper to him alone (Romans 11:34; 1 Corinthians 2:11), but also a fullness, repose [rest], and joy in himself, in the communion of the persons, and in all his works (Proverbs 8:30; Matthew 17:5). (Theoretical-Practical Theology, 2:489)

In other words, to be God is to be happy — infinitely, unshakably happy. Because what makes him happiest — who makes him happiest — is infinite and unshakable: himself. God is not an idolater; he has no greater joy than himself. He is supreme being — highest, infinitely so, in value, glory, beauty, and happiness. God is far and away, utterly unrivaled, the most valuable and most delightful reality. And before anything else existed, through his creative mind and hands, he was fully satisfied in himself. He alone is the bottomless source of all delight, even for himself. He is God, and to be God means to possess and enjoy infinite bliss. And apparently, to be inclined to share it.

Our Blessing God

What’s so stunning in Jesus’s repeated call to true happiness is that it presupposes God’s willingness, even eagerness, to extend his own happiness to his creatures. The blessedness Jesus promises is the blessedness of God himself shared with his people. In fact, as his disciples and their expanding circle come to learn, Jesus himself stands among them as the fully human (and divine) expression of God’s happiness.

Jesus comes as an extension of his Father’s own blessedness, and he offers that blessedness to those who hear him in faith. The kingdom of heaven — so prominent in Jesus’s teaching — is, first and foremost, the sphere of God’s happy smile and favor.

Unexpected Conditions

Still, the repeated invitation to such blessedness is not yet the end of the surprise. Nine unexpected, seemingly upside-down qualifications follow Jesus’s ninefold promise of God-given happiness. Counter to our natural expectations, these promises are not for the strong, the glib, the proud, the vindicated, the exacting, the worldly triumphant. This happiness, the happiness that comes from God himself, is on offer to the weak, the lowly, the despised, the ones who look foolish and shameful in the eyes of the world —

the poor in spirit . . . those who mourn . . . the meek . . . those who hunger and thirst for righteousness . . . the merciful . . . the pure in heart . . . the peacemakers . . . those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake . . . . (Matthew 5:3–10)

The blessed God is not into icing the cakes of otherwise happy people. He takes the empty and fills them, from the very bottom, with his surpassing blessedness. He takes the needy and shares with them his own boundless bliss. He recruits those who lack, that he might fill them. He receives the dependent, that his own joy in them might be seen to be as rich and full and thick as divine joy really is.

The happy God, in his fullness and bounty, in his infinite joy and delight, generously overflows to give, enrich, comfort, feed, extend mercy, show himself, adopt, vindicate, and reward all who will abandon the pretense of being fine without him and gladly receive the lavish abundance of his grace and mercy.

Happiness Rewards the Humble

Jesus’s opening lines in this sermon call us to acknowledge the depth of our emptiness, recognize the extent of our neediness, even glory in our lack and our dependence, and acclaim the fullness of God’s generous provision and contagious happiness.

He is both the blessed God and the blessing God, who sent his own Son not only to speak of our blessedness in him but to secure it. The happy God is the giving God — giving mercy, the kingdom, the whole earth, and great reward (Matthew 5:3, 5, 7, 12). He comforts and satisfies (5:4, 6). He reveals his own heart to his children and calls them his sons (5:8–9).

This happy God and Father makes his sun rise, and sends his life-giving rain, even on the evil and unjust (Matthew 5:45–46). He rewards those who seek him in secret (6:4, 6, 17). Indeed, he knows what his children need before they ask, and he is eager to give good things to those who ask (6:8, 32; 7:11). He feeds them far better than the birds (6:26) and clothes them far better than the lilies (6:30). He gives daily bread, forgives debts, and delivers from evil (6:11–13, 15).

“Blessed . . . Blessed . . . Blessed . . .” Jesus says. And he invites us into the very happiness of God.

What Makes God Happiest? Enjoying His Signature Joy

I was wondering if I had discovered a new world.

Home from college after my freshman year, I was pondering what makes God happy. That spring I had read Desiring God and had my soul turned upside down for good. The book exposed how duty-oriented my approach toward God had been, and in the exposure, God’s Spirit opened the floodgates to delight in him, on the rock-solid foundation of the glory of God — since God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.

After a few weeks of catching my breath, now I dared to take up what seemed to be the sequel, called The Pleasures of God (but found it more like the prequel). To that point, I had hardly thought deeply about human happiness. Now I found myself captivated by a theme I had not previously considered: what makes God happy. And I was finding that few things satisfy a human soul like meditating on the satisfactions of God.

Now, it’s one thing to ask, What makes God happy? It’s another to say, What makes him happiest?

Search through Scripture for the pleasures of God, and you’ll find many solid joys. He delights in his created world, and in all he does, and in his own renown. He delights in his people and in choosing them and in doing them good. He also delights in their prayers, and in their personal obedience and in their public acts of justice.

But lay those many divine delights side by side, and ask, What does God enjoy most? What makes him happiest? What is his signature joy? One clear answer emerges.

Ground Zero for God’s Joy

For starters, he is a God who was and is infinitely happy apart from his creation. His created world, and its history, is not the cause of his infinite bliss but its overflow.

At one level, the answer to our question of what makes him happiest is simply, Himself. God is not an idolater; he has no greater joy than God. He is supreme being — infinitely highest in value, glory, beauty, and blessedness (that is, happiness). And before anything else existed through his creative mind and hands, he was fully satisfied in himself. We rightly affirm, in simple terms, that God’s greatest happiness is God himself.

Yet Scripture unfolds even more. God is not only one but three. So, at another level, the answer to our question is, His Son. The eternal Son is ground zero for God’s pleasure, his first and foremost joy. No thing and no one makes the divine Father happy like his divine Son. This Son — eternally begotten, perfectly reflecting all divine excellencies, the full panorama of the Father’s perfections — has fully pleased and delighted his Father from all eternity. And he also entered into history to “add to,” as it were, his Father’s already infinite delight.

Delight in His Eternal Son

Before tracking God’s delight in his Son in time and space, consider God’s first and foremost delight in the eternal Son. Jesus’s baptism, at the outset of his ministry, is a stunning introduction to the world of the Father’s greatest joy. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all use the language of pleasure and delight (Greek eudokeō, “to be well pleased, to take delight”), as in Matthew 3:17:

Behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” (also Mark 1:11; Luke 3:22)

At this point, no doubt, the Father is well-pleased with the human life of his divine Son, but here at the inauguration of Jesus’s public ministry, we see back through three decades of sinless humanity, to endless ages of divine perfection. The voice sounds from heaven, echoing the timeless Wisdom personified in Proverbs 8, lines the church has long connected to her Lord:

When he established the heavens, I was there; . . .when he marked out the foundations of the earth,     then I was beside him, like a master workman,and I was daily his delight. (Proverbs 8:27–30)

There has never been a time when the Son was not, nor when the Son was not his Father’s delight. “God’s pleasure in his Son,” writes John Piper, “is the pleasure he has in the breathtaking panorama of his own perfections reflected back to him in the countenance of Christ” (The Pleasures of God, 174). And long before the Son came as the long-anticipated Messiah, and long before there were even earthly days, the Son was daily his Father’s great joy.

In fact, it was this very delight — Father in his Son, and Son in his Father — that spilled over in the creation of the world and history, with the Father, overflowing with joy in his Son, appointing him heir of all things, and creating the world to give it to him (Hebrews 1:2).

Delight in His Incarnate Son

The Father’s eternal delight in his Son led not only to the gift of creation but also to its glory. That is, the world and its history glorify the Son as both rightful owner and rescuing hero. The Father sent his Son into the created world to be its Lord and Savior. And it pleased him to do this: “In [Jesus] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things” (Colossians 1:19–20).

Having sounded the Father’s pleasure at Jesus’s baptism, Matthew also mentions God’s delight in his “servant” as Jesus goes about his ministry of teaching and healing.

Many followed [Jesus], and he healed them all. . . . This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: “Behold, my servant whom I have chosen, my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased.” (Matthew 12:15–18)

Now the connection with Isaiah is explicit. Jesus also is the long-awaited “servant” of Isaiah 42, the one “in whom [God’s] soul delights” (Isaiah 42:1–4). In fully human flesh and blood, and anointed with the fullness of God’s Spirit, the Son’s human life and ministry make his Father smile with delight. And Jesus knows it, and himself delights in it. He says in John 8:29,

He who sent me is with me. He has not left me alone, for I always do the things that are pleasing to him.

Few joys rival the delight of a son in knowing that he pleases his father. And this Father is God. Such a life as Christ’s is ultimate freedom: delighting to do what delights God.

“Few things satisfy a human soul like meditating on the satisfactions of God.”

Also, the transfiguration underscores the Father’s delight in his incarnate Son. On the mountain with Peter, James, and John, Jesus is transfigured before them: “His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light” (Matthew 17:2). Moses and Elijah appear and are talking with him. Then the voice of God’s delight in his Son again rings out, clarifying who is Lord of, not peer to, Israel’s greatest prophets:

This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him. (Matthew 17:5)

Peter himself would write in his second epistle of being eyewitness to this majesty. His telling also centers on the Father’s declaration of delight in his Son (2 Peter 1:17–18).

Delight in His Crucified Son

Given this signature divine pleasure — the Father in his Son, infinite in greatness and depth for all eternity, and extended into the world in the incarnate life of Christ — how jarring is it to rehearse the prophecy of Isaiah that “it was the will of the Lord to crush him” (Isaiah 53:10)? And God’s willing here is typically under-translated in our English. Twelve times in Isaiah and throughout the Old Testament, this Hebrew word (ḥā·p̄êṣ) is rendered “delight in” or “take pleasure in.” The unnerving claim in Isaiah 53:10 is that the Father delighted to crush his Son.

How could this be so? How could the Father, whose signature joy is the life of his Son, not only permit but delight in the death of his Son and the horrors of the cross? Elsewhere I’ve answered at greater length, but here let’s capture a few key aspects of this surprising and revealing delight.

For one, the Father does not only delight in the Son’s death. He wills it, yes, and delights in it, yes, but he also looks in righteous anger on his Son’s mistreatment and murder. This is history’s worst miscarriage of justice. No man ever deserved death less than the sinless Son of God. The cross is history’s greatest sin, a violent and horrendous affront by sinners on God himself. In one sense, the Father indeed is righteously furious. Yet still, in it all, he sees his Son’s faith and obedience, and he rejoices. Why?

MANY SAVED

Surely one pleasure he had in view was the rescue, and God-glorifying pleasure, of the “many” whom the Son saves (Isaiah 53:11–12). The cross is good news to the sinner who hears in it the invitation of God’s rescue from eternal misery. At bottom, the good the gospel offers to sinners is the ultimate good of having God himself and sharing in God’s own joy. Such a Father rescues his children not reluctantly but gladly. He delights to save his people.

GLORY VINDICATED

Surely another pleasure God had at the cross was his Son’s love for his Father and his glory. As Piper writes,

The depth of the Son’s suffering was the measure of his love for the Father’s glory. It was the Father’s righteous allegiance to his own name that made recompense for sin necessary. So when the Son willfully took the suffering of that recompense on himself, every footfall on the way to Calvary echoed through the universe with this message: The glory of God is of infinite value! The glory of God is of infinite value! (Pleasures of God, 176)

REDEMPTION ACHIEVED

So too, the Father delighted in the magnitude of his Son’s achievement at the cross. Make no mistake, the cross is an achievement — the single greatest achievement in the history of the world, and one whose full magnitude we have only begun to grasp. We will celebrate it forever in our praises. When God delights in the death of his Son for sinners, he delights in his Son achieving the single greatest feat in history, making the worst Friday to be Good, making the horrible cross to be wonderful.

Which leads, finally, to the pleasure of the Son in being crushed.

SON SATISFIED

Jesus did not go to Golgotha against his will. Certainly, just about everything human in him recoiled from what lay ahead, and yet in the garden, he looked the horror and humiliation in the face, and looked through it to the reward — and “for the joy that was set before him endured the cross” (Hebrews 12:2). Even Isaiah foresaw this seven centuries before: “Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied” (Isaiah 53:11). The Son himself delighted to see his people saved, he delighted to see his Father honored, and, knowing his Father would raise him, he delighted to have his Father reward his achievement with the seat in heaven at his right hand.

So, the Father’s delight in the cross of his Son is not apart from his Son’s own delight in it, nor is it apart from the certainty of his Son’s resurrection.

Our Delight in Jesus

What difference does God’s signature happiness make for us? I close with just two of the many.

First, what greater confirmation could there be for our own signature delight than that of God himself? If the Son — eternal, incarnate, crucified, glorified — is the first and foremost delight of his Father, why would we not train our own best thoughts and longings on him? If Jesus is the focus of God’s foremost delight, how could we dare treat him as worthy of anything less than ours? And how hopeful might we be for truly finding what our souls long for as we take our cues from God himself?

Second, if the Father’s delight in his Son undergirds and leads to the extension of grace to sinners, then how secure might we be in this gospel? God didn’t only accomplish the gospel through his Son, but it pleased him to do so. God delights in the gospel. It makes him happy. In fact, it is an extension of his signature happiness. The happy God is securely happy about his Son dying (and rising) to save us. How secure, then, can we be in this gospel!

Salvation in Christ is not based on a whim or accident. The gospel is not a divine concession. It is a divine delight. God designed it, ordained it, arranged it, and it pleased him to do it. And neither Satan nor sinful man can change that.

Know Your Covenant: Christian Habits for the New Era

Greetings from Cities Church in the Twin Cities of Minnesota. We are a nine-year-old church with a century-old building not far from that great civic dividing line called the Mississippi River.

Just a few blocks north of us is an area known as Midway, which gets its name from being midway between Minneapolis and Saint Paul. Minneapolis is about three miles west; Saint Paul, three miles east.

I mention Midway because what I’d like to do this morning is linger at the midway point of the book of Hebrews. Chapter 8:1–2 is the seam that runs down the middle of the book. So, our passage is right at the halfway point. It’s like chapter 1 is three miles behind us, and chapter 13 is three miles ahead.

This midway point is a good place to give a little overview of the structure of Hebrews, starting right where we are, at the midpoint, and then moving outward, backward, and forward to get a sense of the whole letter.

Structure of Hebrews

The heart of Hebrews is chapters 5–10. These chapters focus on the person and work of Christ — or who he is as high priest and then what he does. Chapters 5–7 (with the aside in chapter 6 to warn sluggish hearers) make the case that Jesus is the great high priest that God, through the Hebrew Scriptures, has planned for and anticipated all along. He is not a priest in the Levitical line, under the terms of the first covenant. Rather, he is a priest of a different order, a king-priest, like that enigmatic king-priest figure in Genesis 14 named Melchizedek. So, chapters 5–7: Jesus is the climactic, final, great high priest to which the whole old-covenant system pointed and awaited.

Before moving on after chapter 7, Hebrews wants to make sure we’re clear on this. So he says in 8:1, “Now the point in what we are saying is this: we have such a high priest.” So, this is not theory or hypothesis or fantasy. This is reality. Chapters 5–7: Jesus is the great high priest. And we have such a high priest! Already. No more waiting. We have him now — the “one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, a minister in the holy places.” So, not only is Jesus a new kind of priest, but as a priest he must have some work, some ministry to do. That’s what chapters 8–10 are about: Jesus’s work as high priest.

So, that’s the heart of Hebrews, chapters 5–10, with 8:1–2 in the middle. And standing guard around the heart of this letter are two important and similar exhortations in 4:14–16 and 10:19–23.

Both passages, like 8:1, say, “We have a great (high) priest” (4:14; 10:21), and both name him as Jesus (4:14; 10:19) and say he has passed “through the heavens” or “through the curtain” (4:14; 10:20) into God’s presence. And both give this double exhortation: “Let us hold fast our confession” (4:14; 10:23) and “Let us draw near” with confidence (4:16; 10:22). So, these exhortations that mirror each other so strikingly are like two sentinels on guard around the heart of the letter in 5:1–10:18.

Then, still working outward, 3:1 and 12:1–3 bring to the exhortation the specific language of “consider Jesus” (3:1; 12:3) — that is, look to him, attend to him, meditate on him. Don’t ignore him or forget him or drift from him, but remember him, ponder him, contemplate him, set and reset your soul on him — and in doing so you will hold fast to your confession of faith in him and draw near to him.

Between the exhortations to “consider Jesus” and the pillar exhortations (in 4:14–16 and 10:19–23), we have a negative example in chapters 3–4 of the wilderness generation not enduring in faith, and we have in chapter 11 the train of positive examples of pre-Christian saints who persevered in faith, culminating with Jesus himself.

Chapters 1–2, then, we might see as an extended introduction about the exaltation and incarnation of Christ, leading up to that first charge to “consider Jesus” in 3:1. And chapters 12–13 are, in many ways, a kind of extended conclusion, following the high point of Jesus as the grand finale of the parade of examples of faith. So, here’s my summary, starting from the beginning:

1–2: Introduction: Jesus as exalted, incarnate, reigning3:1: Consider Jesus; look to Jesus; contemplate him3–4: Negative example (of unbelief): Israel’s wilderness generation4:14–16: We have a great priest; hold fast, draw near to him5–7: Who Jesus is: the true priest8:1–2: Midway — “Now the point in what we are saying is this . . .”9–10: What Jesus does: the true sacrifice10:19–23: We have a great priest; hold fast, draw near, to him11: Positive examples (of faith): from Abel to Jesus12:1–3: Consider Jesus, look to Jesus, contemplate him12–13: Extended conclusion

Hebrews communicates, again and again, that Christian faith perseveres as we look to Jesus. As the patterns of our lives, and the gaze of our souls, return again and again to contemplate Jesus, and draw near to Jesus, so we hold fast to him, and our faith in him perseveres.

So, having established Jesus as the superior priest in chapter 7, and made this transition from his person to his work in 8:1–2, we turn in Hebrews 8:3–6 to focus on three more superiorities of such a superior priest.

1. Jesus Serves in a Superior Place

Verse 2 introduced the notion of place. Jesus is now in heaven and “a minister in the holy places, in the true tent that the Lord set up, not man.” Verses 4–5 then expand on the location:

Now if [Jesus] were on earth, he would not be a priest at all, since there are priests who offer gifts according to the law. They serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly things. For when Moses was about to erect the tent, he was instructed by God, saying, “See that you make everything according to the pattern that was shown you on the mountain.”

The last part of verse 5 quotes Exodus 25:40. As Moses and the people of Israel went about constructing the old-covenant tabernacle, they were not to design it as they saw fit. Nor did God just make up something on the spot. Rather, God showed Moses a pattern to follow.

Which means that this tabernacle wasn’t the original; it was based on something else. The earthly tabernacle was patterned after the original place of God’s presence — namely, heaven itself, the true tabernacle. And so, according to Exodus 25, the holy place of the old covenant was not the original or final holy place. The tabernacle was a copy of the original. It was a shadow of some other substance. And now, the risen Christ has ascended into heaven itself, the superior place, and sat down at the right hand of Majesty.

And lest we assume, as many do in the modern world, that the superior place is down here — this world with its sights and sounds and smells and tastes and pleasures — and that heaven is the shadowy, ethereal, bland place, Hebrews confronts us with another way of thinking. Jesus isn’t less effective for us as king and priest because he’s in heaven, but more. “It is to your advantage that I go away,” he says in John 16:7.

The upshot is not that we would think any less of the realness of our world, but that we would reckon all the more with the realness of heaven, where Jesus is more real than our problems and obstacles and anxieties. Heaven is far more real, in the immediate presence of God, than this fallen world with all its many glories and sorrows.

Heaven is the superior place where our superior high priest ministers for us right now. And a day is coming when he will return, and bring his superior place with him, and remake this world into his new heavens and new earth.

2. Jesus Makes a Superior Offering

Verse 27, at the end of chapter 7, hints at Jesus’s superior offering. It says, at the end of the verse, “Once for all . . . he offered up himself.” Now verse 3 of chapter 8 says,

Every high priest is appointed to offer gifts and sacrifices; thus it is necessary for this priest also to have something to offer.

Remember: chapters 5–7 concern his priesthood; chapters 8–10, his offering. Verse 3 now begins the focus on his offering. What do priests do? They make offerings and sacrifices. If someone is appointed a fireman, what do you expect he will do? Put out fires. If someone becomes a mailman? Deliver the mail. So, when Jesus is exalted, in the words of Psalm 110:4, to the position of priest, what should we expect him to do? Have something to offer.

“In Christ, we are under a new covenant. Not renewed, not tweaked, not updated, not expanded. It is new.”

In the old covenant, the work of the priests was endless. They had to “offer sacrifices daily, first for [their] own sins and then for those of the people” (7:27). With each new dawn, more sacrifices awaited. The work never finished. So too, throughout the day, priests were on their feet; there were no chairs in the tabernacle. They had offerings to make according to the law.

But now Christ has come as the true priest, and of a new order. And since he’s a priest, we ask, What does he offer? What work does he do?

Chapters 8–10 have much to say about the offering and expand on Christ as the superior and final sacrifice. There Hebrews says more about the old-covenant place and offerings (plural) in contrast with the new-covenant place and offering (singular),

and its superior blood (Jesus’s, not bulls and goats),
and superior willingness (he offered himself, not against his will),
and superior frequency (once for all, not repeatedly),
and superior effect (eternal, not temporary; and the inner man or conscience, rather than externals).

The once-for-all self-sacrifice of Christ now finally does “take away sins” in a way the old covenant could not.

And all that comes together in one last superiority of Christ over what came before.

This is verse 6:

But [now, in contrast to the past], Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises.

If we want to know how much better is Jesus’s new covenant than the old covenant that came before, it might help to put them side by side. In some sense, the whole of Hebrews — but especially this passage — turns on the comparison of old and new. Consider the contrasts just in Hebrews 8:

First covenant vs. New covenant

Earlier vs. laterOn earth vs. in heavenCopy and shadow vs. original and actualEarthly tent vs. the true tentMan set up vs. God set upDirected through Moses vs. prophesied by David and JeremiahEnacted by sinful priests vs. enacted by a sinless high priestImperfect, incomplete vs. perfect, complete, finalReady to vanish away vs. will not endGood vs. (far) better, much more excellent

The end of verse 6 says that the reason Christ’s new covenant is “much more excellent than the old” is that “it is enacted on better promises.” What might those be? What are the “better promises” of the new covenant, compared to the old?

Chapter 7 already has spoken of “a better hope” and “better covenant” related to the oath and promise of Psalm 110:4:

The Lord has swornand will not change his mind,“You are a priest forever.”

So, we might first say, the promises are final and forever. Final: God has sworn; he will not change his mind. Forever: Christ was raised from the dead, never to die again, with indestructible life, and will continue forever as the permanent high priest. Which means (more promises) he always lives to make intercession for us, and he is able to save us to the uttermost.

And as we’ve seen in Hebrews 8, the place of his priesthood is better, and his offering of himself, once for all, is better. The rest of chapter 8 shows more “better promises” in Jeremiah 31 — that God will put his law in our hearts by his Spirit (verse 10), we each will know him (verse 11), and he will deal decisively with our sin and guilt and remember our sins no more (verse 12).

How New Is the New Covenant?

But let’s end this morning with a question and some implications for our lives related to this new covenant, in contrast with the old. This is why I chose this odd text for a guest sermon: to end with this question and some applications.

The question is this: How new is the new covenant?

Look at verse 7:

If that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second.

Do you see that word second? A second covenant. And see that word first. Hebrews, here and throughout (like Jesus and Paul and John), speaks of two covenants, a first and a second, old and new. And when he says new, it’s plain he means new. Actually new. Not an update. Not an expansion. Not an appendix. Not a renovation. New.

There was old; now there’s new. There was a first; now there is a second. And in enacting a new covenant, through his death on the cross, the old is brought to a glorious end — its God-appointed consummation.

Change the Priesthood, Change the Covenant

This contrast between covenants in chapter 8 is an outworking of what Hebrews has already said briefly in 7:11–12: if you change the priestly order, you change the whole covenant.

Now if perfection had been attainable through the Levitical priesthood (for under it the people received the law), what further need would there have been for another priest to arise after the order of Melchizedek, rather than one named after the order of Aaron? For when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well.

Many Christians do not think this way; they think, essentially, that under the law, the people received the priesthood. But verse 11 says the opposite — that under the priesthood the people received the law-covenant from Moses. In other words, the priesthood is not founded on the law; the law is founded on the priesthood.

And now, in Christ, there has been a change in the priesthood. A priest of a new order has arisen. And verse 12 says, “When there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well.”

Brothers and sisters, know your covenant. Cherish your new covenant. In Christ, you are under a new covenant. Not renewed, not tweaked, not updated, not expanded. It is new. It is another covenant. Old has gone; new has come. Another priest has arisen, and with him, a new covenant. There was a first; this is a second. There was old; this new. The old has been “set aside” (7:18 ). Jesus “does away with the first in order to establish the second” (10:9).

And later, 8:13 says that Jeremiah, in prophesying of a new covenant, has made the old one obsolete.

So, the new covenant is such a superior covenant. It is not the same old covenant newly enhanced, edited, improved, renovated, or expanded. It is new. You cannot do justice to the argument of Hebrews if our covenant is not new.

New-Covenant Habits

But you might say, “So what?” Let’s close, then, with three implications for us living under this new covenant.

New-Covenant Bible Reading

First, we read the Bible as new-covenant Christians. Which means we distinguish between the Old Testament as our Scripture and our new covenant. All the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, is our Scripture, Christian Scripture. But the old covenant is not our covenant. Our spiritual heritage, sure. Our Scripture, yes — and to say more: the Old Testament is critical for understanding and appreciating our covenant. But the old covenant is not our covenant.

Ours is the new, enacted and mediated by Jesus Christ, our covenant head. And so, at the end of Gospel of Matthew, when Jesus gives what we call his Great Commission, he focuses his church on “teaching [the nations] to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:20) As we read the Bible as new-covenant Christians, we take the commands of Christ and his apostles as commands to us, in our covenant, in a way that we do not directly apply the commands of Moses to those under the old covenant.

One example would be the Sabbath command. As Christians, we exercise wisdom in light of God’s 6-and-1 pattern in creation, but we are not, as Christians, under obligation to “observe the Sabbath” as commanded of the Jewish nation under the terms of the first covenant. We do not live in that era. Christ has come, and we are under a new covenant, in which neither Jesus nor his apostles enjoin Sabbath observance. In fact, Hebrews 4 shows that the sabbath command has been fulfilled in the spiritual rest that is faith and in the climactic Sabbath rest coming at the end of our earthly days. As Christians, we wisely observe patterns of rest, seek to honor our Lord in it, and gather with the church to worship. Yet we are not under old-covenant constraints of Sabbath observance.

In Christ, we love the Old Testament and its types and prophecies and hints and foreshadowings, because they are God-breathed help for us to better understand and appreciate the antitypes and fulfillments and substance and spectacular glories of what we now have in Christ.

New-Covenant Prayer

Second, we pray as new-covenant Christians. We pray to a heavenly Father, as Jesus taught us. And we pray in Jesus’s name. And we pray as those indwelt by the Spirit of Christ, who “helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (Romans 8:26). What a glory it is to pray as a Christian. Don’t throw away “Father” at the beginning of your prayers, or “in Jesus’s name” at the end, or the opportunity to speak to the living God at any moment, not only as a creature but as his child.

How unspeakably great it is to “have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens,” that we may “with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:14, 16).

New-Covenant Fellowship

Finally, we belong to the body of Christ as new-covenant Christians. We are not in the new covenant alone. We have fellows. And so, very practically, local-church membership matters. And we covenant with each other, as an extension of our new covenant in Christ by faith, to be the church to each other in this time and place. Which means that we, of necessity, establish certain terms of this local membership.

At Cities Church, our formal fellowship requires what we call “a credible profession of faith” for baptism and church membership. We realize, and own, that those are (at least temporarily) exclusionary terms. That excludes adults, and children, whose profession is not yet credible or who are not yet able to profess faith. And we have established these terms, in part (among other reasons, including our understanding of New Testament commands), because this best corresponds to the reality of the new covenant, in contrast with the old, as we’ve seen in Hebrews 8.

The old covenant, at its core, was ethnic and tribal. There were provisions for proselytes (Exodus 12:48–49; Deuteronomy 29:10–13), but by and large, the covenant members were born into the covenant. The locus was a particular ethnicity. So, applying the rite of initiation, circumcision, at physical birth was fitting.

But now Christ has come, inaugurating a new covenant and bringing an end to the old, with its ethnic and bodily focus. The new covenant is not tribal and ethnically centered. Jew is an ethnicity; Christian is not. We Christians are under a new covenant.

Today the covenant locus is those who have experienced new birth, spiritual rebirth, by faith. And so, in our locality (as in yours), we try to make our church membership, as best as we can, more proximate to God’s new-covenant people rather than less.

We sure hope — in fact, we intend to make it sure — that being born into a Christian family is a priceless, inestimable grace: to be near to the life-saving and life-giving word, to be cared for by parents who have the Holy Spirit, to be part of a larger church community. And in accordance with the terms of the new covenant, we do not presume that birth into a Christian family means eventual new birth. And so, we do not believe that physical birth into a Christian family is the proper occasion for baptism or church membership, but rather new birth by the Spirit. Thus, we want our church’s membership to be as similar to new-covenant reality as we can reasonably discern. Which means baptizing and receiving new members based on a credible profession of faith in Jesus.

At the very heart of the new covenant, according to Jeremiah 31, is personally knowing God. And so, in light of Hebrews 8, to belong to the local-church body, we confirm the knowledge of God in Christ in view of a credible profession.

We Have Him

The glory of Hebrews 8, and the new covenant, is that those of us who have been born again and are in the covenant by faith can say — right now — we have Jesus. We have him as our great high priest. We have him as our once-for-all sacrifice.

For us who believe, this is no mere hope or prayer or longing for a reality that will only one day be true. It’s true right now. We have such a high priest.

For centuries, God’s people longed to have a king-priest like this — and now we have him! Christ has come, and he lived without sin, died in our place, rose in triumph, ascended to heaven, and sat down, his work complete, and he intercedes for us.

Know him, receive him, take him again as your God and great high priest. Trust him. Draw near to him. Delight in him. Have him.

Lord, Savior, and Treasure

Jesus is first shown to be majestic and mighty. He is king, ruler, the Lion. He is sovereign, and fulfills our longings for greatness, for a ruler strong and mighty to impress us with power and win our trust and protect us and provide for us and give us life. But we long not only for a great human king. We long for God himself. And this Lion of Judah is not just Messiah, a human king. He is God himself.

One of the reasons that we love Jesus is his paradoxes.
In Jesus in particular, we see realities come together that our human instincts do not expect to be together, and then we see, with surprise and delight, that they do indeed fit together, contrary to our assumptions — and it makes our souls soar with joy.
The beautiful paradoxes of Christ expose our false and weak and small expectations. They remind us that we did not design this world. We do not run this world. And we did not design God’s rescue of us. And we cannot save ourselves, but God can — and does, in the Word made flesh.
As Christians, we confess that Jesus is Lord. That is, he is fully God. He is the towering, all-knowing, all-wise, all-powerful God. As God, he formed and made all things, and every knee will bow, and every tongue confess, that Jesus is Yahweh — the sacred old-covenant name of God revealed in Exodus. Jesus is creator, sustainer, supreme Lord of heaven and earth, almighty in power, infinite in majesty, our Lord and our God.
And we confess that Jesus is our Savior. Without ceasing to be God, Jesus took our full humanity: flesh and blood, human body and reasoning soul, with human mind and emotions and will, and with all our lowliness and ordinariness. Jesus had a normal Hebrew name: Yeshua, Joshua. In the incarnation, he added to his eternal divine person a full and complete human nature and came among us, as one of us, to save us.
So, Jesus is glorious as sovereign Lord, and Jesus is glorious as our rescuing, self-sacrificing Savior. And we come to Revelation 5 to linger in the paradox and beauty of majesty and meekness, of might and mercy, of grandeur and gentleness, in this one spectacular person.
Our Longings Met in Jesus
In verse 1, the apostle John looks and sees — in the right hand of God, the one seated on heaven’s throne — “a scroll written within and on the back, sealed with seven seals.” These are the eternal and hidden purposes of God to be unfolded in history, the mystery of his manifold wisdom to be revealed in the fullness of time, judgments against his enemies and salvation for his people in the coming chapters of Revelation. Centuries before, God had said to his prophet (in Daniel 12:4), “Shut up the words and seal the book, until the time of the end.” Now the sealed scroll is in the hand of God, in full view of all of heaven, ready to be unsealed.
John is riveted. He wants to know what’s in the scroll. What mysteries does God have to reveal? What wisdom of God, what purposes for history, might now be made known in this scroll? Then John hears in verse 2 “a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice, ‘Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?’”
Now, at this point, it might be tempting to run right through verses 3 and 4 and miss the weight of this moment in heaven. Not so fast. This is what the seasons of Advent and Lent are for: to slow down and feel the weight in the waiting. Instead of racing ahead to Christmas, or Easter, we prepare our hearts by pausing to feel some of the ache of what God’s people felt for centuries as they waited for the promised Messiah. Or the horror and utter devastation of what his disciples felt in the agony of Good Friday and in what must have seemed like the longest day in the history of the world on Holy Saturday. The pause, the waiting, helps us see and enjoy the risen Christ as the supreme Treasure he is.
So, the angel asks, “Who is worthy to open the book?” And verse 3 says, “No one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it.” No one in heaven. None of the four great creatures around the throne. None of the angelic elders who lead in worship. None of the angels, in all the heavenly host. Not Gabriel. Not Michael. And get this: not even the one sitting on the throne opens the scroll. Not the Father. Not the Spirit. So, heaven waits.
And if no one in heaven, then of course no one on the earth or under the earth. None living or dead is worthy to open God’s scroll. Mere humans like us are not worthy to unveil his great mystery. And so, heaven waits. “No one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it.”
Weep No More
John begins to weep, loudly. Perhaps he even wonders, What about Jesus? Verse 4: “I began to weep loudly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it.” John doesn’t tell us how long he wept, but mercifully, the announcement soon came.
In verse 5 — what an amazing moment — one of the elders turns to John and says,
Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.
So, now through the lens of verses 5–6, let’s look together at three aspects of the longing and aches of our souls fulfilled in Jesus, our Treasure.
1. We Long for Majesty and Might
We long to see and admire and benefit from greatness. And the voice rings out in verse 5, “Behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered.”
“Lion of Judah” signifies that this is the long-promised king of Israel, the Messiah. In Genesis 49, as the patriarch Jacob neared death, he prophesied over each of his twelve sons, and said to Judah that his tribe would produce the nation’s kings.
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His Power, Your Body, Our Home: Three Marks of Christian Citizens

At age 43, I can still remember times when I felt like my body was improving. I could tell I was getting stronger, or running faster, or my overall energy was increasing.

But now the most recent and prevailing feeling has been that I’m getting older. I notice the incremental declines. I can feel movement slowly but surely becoming more challenging. New aches and pains come and linger. In recent years I’ve felt both the glory and the humiliation of the human body in this age.

C.S. Lewis wrote in 1960,

Man has held three views of his body. First there is that of those . . . who called it the prison or the “tomb” of the soul, [those] to whom it was a “sack of dung,” food for worms, filthy, shameful, a source of nothing but temptation to bad men and humiliation to good ones. Then there are [others], to whom the body is glorious. But thirdly we have the view which St. Francis expressed by calling his body “Brother Ass.”

Lewis says, “All three may be . . . defensible; but give me St. Francis for my money.” He continues,

Ass is exquisitely right because no one in his senses can either revere or hate a donkey. It is a useful, sturdy, lazy, obstinate, patient, lovable and infuriating beast; deserving now a stick and now a carrot; both pathetically and absurdly beautiful. So the body. (The Four Loves, 93)

As Lewis saw these three views sixty years ago, so we see them today. We have those who feel their body to be a prison; they accent the humiliation of the body. The body holds them back; screens and virtual reality and plastic surgery create new possibilities.

On the other hand, those same screens show image after image of meticulously sculpted and enhanced bodies — those for whom the body is glorious, or must be glorious, no matter how much dieting and exercise and surgery it takes.

Third, we have perhaps the road least traveled. Saint Francis’s road. Lewis’s road. Our road. The road of the cross: humiliation now, but not humiliation forever. And that mixed with glory now, but not the glory that is to come.

I mention “Brother Ass” because our passage this morning (surprisingly) mentions our bodies — our present bodies created for glory, now in a state of humiliation, with a spectacular glory still to come — and because we live in times in which we are especially prone to consider the earthly things the real things, and the heavenly things to be pretense or speculation or wishful thinking. What’s implicit in the world’s way of thinking is that the earthly is right now, and more real, and better, while the heavenly is distant, and less real, and less desirable. But Philippians 3:20–21 says exactly the opposite.

Stand Firm Like This

Last week, we saw at the end of verse 19 Paul’s warning about “the enemies of the cross” who have “minds set on earthly things.” This morning we turn to verses 20–21, where Paul makes a contrast between these enemies of the cross and those who are friends of the cross and citizens of heaven. Verse 19 speaks of mere citizens of earth: “their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame” — and especially significant is the final phrase “with minds set on earthly things.”

What we’ll see this morning is the contrast in verses 20–21. Last week was the warning: “Don’t be like this.” Now we catch another glimpse of true Christianity, of the friends of the cross, as we’ve seen other glimpses in chapter 3.

But before we linger in verses 20–21, let’s not miss the main point in 4:1: “stand firm thus in the Lord.” This idea of “standing firm” goes all the way back to 1:27:

Only let your manner of life [literally, your “citizening”] be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, and not frightened in anything by your opponents.

The idea of “standing firm” marks off the heart of the letter in 1:27 to 4:1. We have the citizen-language and talk of opponents (be they legalistic Judaizers, 3:2, or worldly “believers,” 3:18–19), and the call to stand firm — and do so together (“in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side”) and do so “in the Lord.” At this structural level, we might summarize the main point of Philippians as stand firm together in the Lord.

But critical to this letter is not just that they stand firm but how. See the “therefore” at the beginning of 4:1? It points us back to all of chapter 3, and even to chapter 2, back to 1:27. Also, see that word “thus” in 4:1? “Stand firm thus in the Lord.” That means, “Stand firm like I’ve been saying. Stand firm in this way, like I’ve been showing you. As I’ve been writing about Jesus in chapter 2, and Timothy and Epaphroditus, and like my own testimony in chapter 3 [which he expresses in such a way that he means for us to imitate him], stand firm in this way in the Lord.”

Stand firm like Paul stands firm: on the footing of Christ’s work for you. Stand firm against legalistic threats and worldly temptations, and press on to know Jesus now, and look forward to seeing and knowing Jesus face-to-face. And all that is especially captured and summed up in verses 20–21, which lead into 4:1 for a reason.

So, let’s linger in this vision. And what’s striking is that Paul casts this vision in terms of citizenship or civic belonging.

Our Commonwealth in Christ

The leading claim in verses 20–21 is that “our citizenship is in heaven.” Our commonwealth, our homeland, exists in heaven. Our place of true belonging is not just elsewhere on earth, but it is alive and well in heaven.

There is a match here between this citizenship theme in Philippians and what we learn about Philippi in Acts 16, when the gospel first came to town. Philippi wasn’t originally Roman but had become a Roman colony, and with Rome being the great superpower of the day, the citizens of Philippi naturally prided themselves on being Roman citizens.

How does Paul speak into that civic consciousness in Philippi? He says to those in the church: “our citizenship is in heaven.” No balancing word here about dual citizenship. Nothing like, “Ah, yes, you’re privileged to be Romans, of course (what an exceptional nation), and remember you’re Christians, too.” He says simply, without qualification or adjustment, “Christians, our citizenship is in heaven.”

Our commonwealth is heaven. Our homeland is heaven. Not “we have another homeland also.” But our homeland, our one homeland, in Christ, is heaven. Which is our deepest and most fundamental identity and place of belonging.

Ask yourself: Am I truly more deeply American or Christian? The spoken answer is easy. But what are the instincts of your heart? And if you can say in good conscience, “Oh, yes, Christian over American,” we might also ask, By how much?

Because we ourselves are not Roman, we don’t get nervous if a first-century Christian says, “I’m a Christian ten thousand times more than a Roman.” Amen! That’s right and good. But as Americans today, with all the socialization it involves — how we’ve been conditioned and songs we’ve sung and putting of our hands over our hearts and pledging our allegiance — do we hesitate to say, “I’m a Christian ten thousand times more than an American”?

Back to verse 20, where the key contrast is earthly versus heavenly. Our homeland being heaven contrasts with those who have “minds set on earthly things.” What does that mean to “set your mind on earthly things”?

“Press on to know Jesus now, and look forward to seeing and knowing Jesus face-to-face.”

There is a difference between dealing with earthly things and setting your mind on earthly things. Christians and non-Christians alike live in this world and deal with earthly things. But enemies of the cross “set their minds on earthly things.” They awake to earthly things, and reset to earthly things, and default to earthly things. They dream about earthly things and meditate on earthly things. They’re animated by earthly things. They have the mindset of the world, of natural man, rather than of the Spirit, and of heaven.

Three Marks of Heaven’s Citizens

But in contrast to those enemies of the cross, with minds set on earthly things, verses 20–21 give us three marks of heaven’s citizens.

1. Heaven’s citizens marvel at the power of our King.

Verse 21 ends with “the power that enables him [Jesus] even to subject all things to himself.” In our homeland of heaven, a King sits on the throne, a divine-human king. We have a king. If you are in Christ, you have a king — the King of kings. He already rules over all the universe by right. All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to him by the Father. And he exercises that power as he chooses, and works primarily through his poured-out Spirit, indwelling his own people. And one day, when he returns, he will rule over all in conspicuous, indisputable, manifest power.

In celebrating Jesus’s power, Paul uses this curious expression “subject all things to himself.” In the background are two famous psalms and a link between them.

Psalm 8 celebrates the majesty of God by marveling at his grace toward us lowly humans. And Psalm 8:6, remembering the creation, says about man, “You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet.” The trouble is, as we saw last year in Hebrews 2, “we do not yet see everything in subjection to him,” that is, man. This world, its creatures, its weather, its disasters, and even our own lives do not operate under our control. Not yet.

“But,” says Hebrews 2:9, “we see him . . . namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death.” We ourselves have not yet fulfilled the commission of Psalm 8, but Jesus is crowned with glory on heaven’s throne. Already, in principle, he rules over all, and in function, all is being put under his feet.

Which brings in the second psalm: 110. Verse 1: “The Lord says to my Lord: ‘Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.’” Psalm 110 is King David talking, and he says that the Lord God says to David’s Lord, the promised Messiah, “Sit at my right hand,” on the throne in heaven, “until I make your enemies your footstool.”

This is a picture of what’s going on in the world right now: God almighty is putting Christ’s enemies under his feet. And it’s not as if the Father has all the power and the Son sits back passively. But Christ himself, even now, wields “the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.”

His sovereign power is unstoppable, uncurbable, unthwartable. He will, with utter certainty, accomplish his will in the ways he sees fit and in the perfect timing he sees fit. His power — his ability to accomplish what he wills — is infinite power, which he not only wields over Satan and demons, and over nations and their rulers and their elections, and over technology and algorithms, and over hurricane-force winds and tsunami-size waves, but he also amazingly uses this very power, his infinite power, to benefit us, and not only in soul but also in body.

So, heaven’s citizens marvel at the power of our King.

2. Heaven’s citizens anticipate the spectacular upgrade of our bodies.

This is the first part of verse 21: Jesus “will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body.”

The phrase “lowly body” is the “body of humiliation” we mentioned earlier. On the one hand, our bodies are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14); they were created with a glory, and they have glories still. And on the other hand, because of human sin, God subjected all creation to futility (Romans 8:20), which we see not only in natural disasters but in our own bodies.

And so, we “groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for . . . the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:23). God’s glorious design and building of our human bodies has now become a “body of humiliation” for us in various ways. From aging to disability to sickness to disease, to the aches and pains that dog us or devastate us, our bodies are now not what they were — and not what they will be.

Now, this is a young church. Some of you have the most able, strong, healthy bodies that you’ll have in this life. Soon you will age, and your body will never again, in this life, be what it was. More acute bodily humiliation is coming.

And many in this room already deal with devastating disability and disease and weakness and sickness in this fallen world. Oh, you know well “the body of humiliation,” and how sweetly does this promise fall on your ears? Jesus “will transform your body of humiliation to be conformed to the body of his glory.” You will be changed. In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, it will all be gone — all the pain gone, all the frustration gone, all the humiliation gone.

The place where Paul lingers longest over this glorious, resurrection body that will be ours is 1 Corinthians 15, especially verses 42–49:

What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body [that is, a body fit for the fullness of human life in the Spirit]. . . . Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust [Adam], we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven.

Your resurrection body will be spectacular. No more aches and pains. No more colds and COVID. No more sprains, contusions, and broken bones. No more heart attacks and strokes and cancer. No more devastating physical and mental disabilities.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, you will shine like the sun, not as mere spirits floating like ghosts in heaven, but in your perfected, strong, imperishable, glorified, human body.

And the best part of it all isn’t what your body will be like, but who our imperishable bodies and souls will help us to know and enjoy and be near and praise: “the man of heaven.” Our focus in the new heavens and new earth won’t be our bodies. Our perfected bodies will get the distractions of our previous humiliations out of the way. They will enhance and support our making much of our King. But the focus in glory will be the one that we as Christians eagerly wait right now — the man of heaven.

So, we marvel at the power of our King, and we anticipate the spectacular upgrade of our bodies.

3. Heaven’s citizens wait eagerly to see Jesus face-to-face.

Back to verse 20: “our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Heavenly citizenship matters because Jesus is there as heaven’s King. And glorified spiritual bodies matter because they enable us to enjoy Jesus with full focus and without distraction. As Christians, our hope doesn’t terminate on perfect human societies or perfect human bodies. Our prevailing hope, as Paul says in Philippians 3:10, is “that I may know him and the power of his resurrection.” Seeing him face-to-face. Hearing him. Praising him. Knowing him. Enjoying him.

When he returns, the partial knowing of verse 10 will become the full knowing of verse 11 as we ourselves “attain the resurrection from the dead.”

Do you await him? That is, do you eagerly wait for him? Romans 8:19 says, “The creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God.” And Romans 8:23 says, “We wait eagerly for adoption as sons.” Galatians 5:5: “we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness.” And Hebrews 9:28: “Christ . . . will appear a second time . . . to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.”

Let me ask you this: What do you want more than Jesus coming back? Ask yourself; query your heart. Where are your instincts? How has your heart been conditioned by the conversations you have, the articles you read, the shows you watch, the podcasts you listen to, the allegiances you pledge, the anthems you sing? Have your habits of life produced a heart and mind that really are set on earthly things?

Do you say, from the heart, “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus”? What is it that makes you hesitate? What relationship(s)? What comforts and luxuries? What joys seem to you like they will be better if Jesus delays rather than returns this week?

Are you eagerly awaiting his coming? And how does it, or how might it, shape our lives as we await his coming?

Leave Here Looking There

Let’s close with the “mindset of heaven’s citizens.” The main contrast in this passage is that there are those whose minds are set on earthly things and those who eagerly await Jesus’s return. Enemies of the cross set their minds on earthly things, while friends of the cross, citizens of heaven, set their minds — where? Not merely on “the things of heaven” but on “the man of heaven.”

I want to offer two ways to set our minds on the man of heaven. Just two among many: one daily, one weekly.

Daily, we wake up and turn our early morning spiritual hunger to God’s good news, not the world’s news. In the words of Colossians 3:1, we seek the things above, “where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.” We open God’s word and set our minds on things above, not on things that are on earth. And not just early mornings. But the man of heaven, and his things, animate us, woo us, captivate us, spur us on in life.

Weekly, we gather here each Sunday to worship the man of heaven together. Which brings us back to Philippians 4:1, where we started. Isn’t it amazing how Paul talks with such over-the-top affection for his fellow believers in Christ?

My brothers, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm thus in the Lord, my beloved.

We are not lone citizens of heaven. Heaven is a society. Our love for Jesus, and longing for Jesus, and joy in Jesus, becomes a love of and longing for and joy in those who likewise eagerly await his return.

See Him Face-to-Face

We do not come alone to this Table week in and week out. And we do not come alone to know and enjoy Jesus. Together we come to him, love him, long for him, seek joy in him, and eagerly wait for him — spiritually now, by faith, in this bread and cup, and fully and finally and physically at his second coming.

Brothers and sisters, we will see him face-to-face. As surely as you hold and eat this bread, and as surely as you take and drink this cup, you will stand before him face-to-face. And so, at this Table, the friends of the cross eagerly await his return.

A Republic — If God Keeps It

“Well, Doctor, what have we got — a republic or a monarchy?”

So asked a curious lady on the streets of Philadelphia in September 1787, giving voice to the question of her fellow citizens. The “Doctor” to whom she directed her query was none other than the aging Benjamin Franklin, who was emerging from the Constitutional Convention. Delegates from across the colonies had met all summer in their city. Beyond Pennsylvania, twelve other colonies waited to hear from the Franklins, Washingtons, Madisons, and Hamiltons, What is it?

“A Republic,” Franklin replied, and then, with his typical wit, added, “if you can keep it.”

For almost 240 years, the collective American psyche has often suspected — sometimes mildly, other times more acutely — that the republic was fragile, and someday soon, an ascendant Caesar would take it away, as happened with Rome’s republic. Frequently, left- and right-leaning parties have suspected the other side. Franklin’s memorable condition “if you can keep it” has been explained against an array of looming threats.

No Christian Founding

Such suspicions played out ferociously in the 1790s, the Constitution’s first full decade. Some suspected Washington; more suspected Hamilton, his de facto prime minister. By 1800, the Federalists suspected Jefferson. Long had Jefferson and Hamilton suspected each other, and now both suspected Aaron Burr. Hamilton and Burr would soon suspect each other — even after both had fallen from power — and take it to the dueling grounds.

Those early administrations in the new republic were not idyllic, peaceful, and pristine, like we might presume from elementary history lessons. Nor were the 1790s as culturally Christian as many today might assume. An early form of what we might now call “secularism” was on the rise, and it was widespread, particularly in the halls of influence. (Conservative evangelicals at the time would have called it “infidelity,” their watchword for Deism and progressive, Enlightenment Christianity.)

The Declaration of July 4, 1776, had mentioned “Nature’s God” and “Creator,” but that is a far cry from any distinctively Christian notion. A decade later, in 1787, the drafters of the Constitution found no need to mention the divine at all. Jefferson, of course, made his own Bible of what he was willing to accept (and not) in the Gospels, and Washington, despite his public mentions of Providence, was conspicuously reticent to say the name of Jesus. Formally, the founding of the United States was not distinctively Christian. In fact, at the time, perhaps as few as 10 percent of Americans were church members.

That is strikingly low compared to almost 40 percent in 1860, on the cusp of the Civil War, and more than 60 percent in the post-WWII era of the 1950s and 1960s. So, what happened that made America feel so culturally Christian from the Civil War until Civil Rights?

God’s Surprising Work

Given the acute sense of decline that U.S. Christians today have lived through — from the heights of church membership and attendance in the 50s and 60s, to the subsequent dip in the 70s and 80s, the small uptick in the early 90s, and now the rapid decline of the last two decades — we should not be surprised that many alive today assume a simple declension narrative. That is, they observe the decline of the last twenty years, or the decline of the last seventy years, and project that trajectory back onto the full 250 years of the nation, presuming the founding to be the height from which we’ve fallen. But such is fiction.

For many, the present sense of alarm stems from a recency bias, comparing their own sense of the state of our union to what’s been mediated to them in their own lifetime — whether in school, in conversation, through television, or now through social media. But the 1950s proves to be a very different standard of comparison than the 1790s.

As for Christianity and the church, American history has been far less a smooth downward trajectory and far more a story punctuated by the surprising work of God. Some historians talk of third and fourth “great awakenings” in the late nineteenth century and in the 1960s and 70s. But most fundamentally, the Second Great Awakening significantly altered the landscape of American life in the early 1800s and produced a nation that felt different, more Christian, than the founding.

How was it that this Second Great Awakening made America feel more Christian? The answer isn’t government power. Neither the Apostles’ Creed nor even God was added to the Constitution. Governments at the national, state, and local levels did not newly mandate Christian professions or church membership, or censor free speech by those deemed heretical.

What changed the social landscape was widespread revival and Christian mission. It was the growing and bearing fruit of the Christian gospel — the power of God, not government, through the movement of his Spirit, making much of his crucified and risen Son. From around 1810 to 1840, the tenor of American life changed, in a way Franklin and Jefferson never would have foreseen, through a Second Great Awakening that lasted far longer and had a far greater impact than the First of the 1730s and 40s.

Religion Indispensable?

Whatever lay behind Franklin’s sly “if you can keep it,” Washington, through the pen of Hamilton, expressed his concerns for the republic in his 1797 farewell address. Framed as “the disinterested warnings of a parting friend,” he warned first of the destructive forces of partisanship, and he praised “religion and morality” as “indispensable” to the prosperity of the republic. And note again that the “religion and morality” in view is not expressly Christian.

“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity,” he wrote, “religion and morality are indispensable supports.” Moreover, “let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that National morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principles.”

Now, on the one hand, from a Christian point of view, these are surprisingly measured commendations of “religion and morality.” Our Scriptures, from beginning to end, aren’t the least bit affirming of paganism so long as it’s religious and moral. So too, Washington’s frame honors and appreciates religion not as true and valuable in itself, but in terms of its usefulness for the life and prosperity of the republic.

But on the other hand, in our increasingly secular climate, with immorality or amorality seemingly on the rise, Washington’s affirmation of “religion and morality” is met with enthusiasm by many Christians. Oh, for a return to virtue and order, for more men and women of principle, for a moral citizenry — the kind that Washington and Franklin believed would be necessary to keep a republic.

‘We Need to Work’

In a recent interview with Kevin DeYoung, Allen Guelzo (who, according to George F. Will, is “today’s most profound interpreter of this nation’s history and significance”) calls American Christians to remember the heart, and hands, of that Second Great Awakening that so transformed the nation’s life. When DeYoung asks, What can we do if it seems like interest in virtue, and the Christian foundations for that societal virtue, have almost disappeared? Guelzo answers, “We need to work.” He explains,

When I hear people say today, “Oh, if we could only get back to a Christian America,” my response is, Then we need to work as hard as the people who created the Second Great Awakening. We need to dedicate ourselves that way, rather than sitting on our hands complaining about it, whining about the situation we find ourselves in, and then imagining, as I’m afraid some of our friends do, that all we need to do is to put some kind of authoritarian regime in place that will enforce the Ten Commandments.

No, that’s the lazy way. If you really want to transform the culture, then you have to take on the culture itself, and you have to meet it on its own terms, and you’re going to have to arm wrestle with it. And my recommendation is that we take a serious leaf out of the book of the Second Great Awakening. If what we want are the recovery of those mores, then my recommendation is that this is a signal that some very hard work has to get done, and we are not going to accomplish it simply by waving our hands and introducing some kind of authoritarian solution.

To the degree that we would like American life to feel more Christian, or at least less anti-Christian, the lesson to take away — both from the New Testament and from our own history — is that of the Second Great Awakening and the power of God through conversion to Christ and spiritual revival and renewal. American life was first transformed not through any seizure of political power nor through the ballot box. Rather, it was transformed through Christian awakening, through the constant preaching of the gospel, through Christian disciple-making, through the widespread movement of the Holy Spirit to grant new birth and spiritual growth, and through Christian initiative and energy and hard work to plant new churches, and build Christian institutions, and establish gospel witness and vibrancy in new places.

Hands to Prayer and the Plough

Here on this 248th Fourth of July, we remember not only the nation’s markedly unevangelical founding, but also the remarkable societal changes brought about by Christian revival — and the prodigious evangelistic efforts and Spirit-blessed industry that served as kindling for that awakening.

On this anniversary of the Declaration, American Christians concerned for the state of the republic will do well not to settle for wish-dreams about seizing power but, like the evangelists and missionaries of the early nineteenth century, put their faith and hands to the plough, believing, in the Spirit, we need to work.

Revival and its lasting ripples has changed the social feel of this nation before. It remains to be seen how long we might “keep” this republic. I don’t presume it will endure until Christ’s return. But being real, rather than nostalgic, about our history, and God’s surprising work, might feed fresh hope that he could work the same remarkable changes in the days ahead, beginning in us.

Lord, Savior, and Treasure: The Complex Beauty of Jesus Christ

One of the reasons that we love Jesus is his paradoxes.

In Jesus in particular, we see realities come together that our human instincts do not expect to be together, and then we see, with surprise and delight, that they do indeed fit together, contrary to our assumptions — and it makes our souls soar with joy.

The beautiful paradoxes of Christ expose our false and weak and small expectations. They remind us that we did not design this world. We do not run this world. And we did not design God’s rescue of us. And we cannot save ourselves, but God can — and does, in the Word made flesh.

As Christians, we confess that Jesus is Lord. That is, he is fully God. He is the towering, all-knowing, all-wise, all-powerful God. As God, he formed and made all things, and every knee will bow, and every tongue confess, that Jesus is Yahweh — the sacred old-covenant name of God revealed in Exodus. Jesus is creator, sustainer, supreme Lord of heaven and earth, almighty in power, infinite in majesty, our Lord and our God.

And we confess that Jesus is our Savior. Without ceasing to be God, Jesus took our full humanity: flesh and blood, human body and reasoning soul, with human mind and emotions and will, and with all our lowliness and ordinariness. Jesus had a normal Hebrew name: Yeshua, Joshua. In the incarnation, he added to his eternal divine person a full and complete human nature and came among us, as one of us, to save us.

So, Jesus is glorious as sovereign Lord, and Jesus is glorious as our rescuing, self-sacrificing Savior. And we come to Revelation 5 to linger in the paradox and beauty of majesty and meekness, of might and mercy, of grandeur and gentleness, in this one spectacular person.

Our Longings Met in Jesus

In verse 1, the apostle John looks and sees — in the right hand of God, the one seated on heaven’s throne — “a scroll written within and on the back, sealed with seven seals.” These are the eternal and hidden purposes of God to be unfolded in history, the mystery of his manifold wisdom to be revealed in the fullness of time, judgments against his enemies and salvation for his people in the coming chapters of Revelation. Centuries before, God had said to his prophet (in Daniel 12:4), “Shut up the words and seal the book, until the time of the end.” Now the sealed scroll is in the hand of God, in full view of all of heaven, ready to be unsealed.

John is riveted. He wants to know what’s in the scroll. What mysteries does God have to reveal? What wisdom of God, what purposes for history, might now be made known in this scroll? Then John hears in verse 2 “a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice, ‘Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?’”

Now, at this point, it might be tempting to run right through verses 3 and 4 and miss the weight of this moment in heaven. Not so fast. This is what the seasons of Advent and Lent are for: to slow down and feel the weight in the waiting. Instead of racing ahead to Christmas, or Easter, we prepare our hearts by pausing to feel some of the ache of what God’s people felt for centuries as they waited for the promised Messiah. Or the horror and utter devastation of what his disciples felt in the agony of Good Friday and in what must have seemed like the longest day in the history of the world on Holy Saturday. The pause, the waiting, helps us see and enjoy the risen Christ as the supreme Treasure he is.

So, the angel asks, “Who is worthy to open the book?” And verse 3 says, “No one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it.” No one in heaven. None of the four great creatures around the throne. None of the angelic elders who lead in worship. None of the angels, in all the heavenly host. Not Gabriel. Not Michael. And get this: not even the one sitting on the throne opens the scroll. Not the Father. Not the Spirit. So, heaven waits.

And if no one in heaven, then of course no one on the earth or under the earth. None living or dead is worthy to open God’s scroll. Mere humans like us are not worthy to unveil his great mystery. And so, heaven waits. “No one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it.”

Weep No More

John begins to weep, loudly. Perhaps he even wonders, What about Jesus? Verse 4: “I began to weep loudly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it.” John doesn’t tell us how long he wept, but mercifully, the announcement soon came.

In verse 5 — what an amazing moment — one of the elders turns to John and says,

Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.

So, now through the lens of verses 5–6, let’s look together at three aspects of the longing and aches of our souls fulfilled in Jesus, our Treasure.

1. We long for majesty and might.

We long to see and admire and benefit from greatness. And the voice rings out in verse 5, “Behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered.”

“Lion of Judah” signifies that this is the long-promised king of Israel, the Messiah. In Genesis 49, as the patriarch Jacob neared death, he prophesied over each of his twelve sons, and said to Judah that his tribe would produce the nation’s kings:

Judah, your brothers shall praise you. . . . Judah is a lion’s cub; from the prey, my son, you have gone up. He stooped down; he crouched as a lion. . . . The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until tribute comes to him; and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples. (Genesis 49:8–10)

Like a lion, Judah’s offspring will rule the peoples. Lionlike he will be king, with majesty and might.

“Root of David” is much the same, prophesied centuries later, in Isaiah 11:1: “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse [David’s father], and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.”

So, Jesus is first shown to be majestic and mighty. He is king, ruler, the Lion. He is sovereign, and fulfills our longings for greatness, for a ruler strong and mighty to impress us with power and win our trust and protect us and provide for us and give us life.

But we long not only for a great human king. We long for God himself. And this Lion of Judah is not just Messiah, a human king. He is God himself.

Blaise Pascal (1623–1662) famously spoke of the “infinite abyss” in every human soul. We try to fill it with all the wonders and the worst this world has to offer — food, drink, luxuries, work, relationships, sports and championships, learning, children, and so much more. But that ache in us, that restlessness, that infinite abyss in us, can only be filled by the infinite God himself. As Augustine so memorably said, God made us for himself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in him.

“When majesty and meekness come together in one person, they accent each other. They burst with beauty.”

So, I ask you this morning: Have you found your soul’s rest in God? Have you found what your soul hungers for in his eternal, divine excellencies? Are you still searching? Are you still thirsty? Have you found the One in whom your soul, in all the ups and downs of this life, will be satisfied forever? Or perhaps, did you learn it in the past, but you now desperately need to come back to it? Behold the Lion of Judah.

God wired your soul for him. Hard as you may try, you will not be truly, deeply, enduringly happy apart from him.

We long for majesty and might, and Jesus is the Lion.

2. We long for meekness and nearness.

Look at verse 6. Having just heard with his ear the announcement in verse 5 about the worthiness of the Lion, John turns, and what does he see with his eyes?

Between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain.

In verse 5, John hears Lion, but in verse 6, John sees Lamb. And this is no disappointment. This is not a loss. This is gain. This is addition, not subtraction.

Jesus is the Lion of Judah, and no less, but he is also the slain Lamb. The Lion became Lamb, and gave himself to slaughter at the cross that he might rescue his people from their sins. His lamb-ness doesn’t take away from his lion-ness; it adds to it.

Jesus is not only majestic and mighty. He is meek and near, lowly, among us, as one of us. We not only want to see greatness from afar; we long to know greatness personally. We not only want a hero to admire. We ache for a brother to be at our side, a companion, a friend. And Jesus, as Lamb, is Immanuel, God with us. With us as one of us. With us to sacrifice himself for us. With us to shed his own blood that our sins might be covered and we might be forgiven. With us to befriend us and defend us.

God designed our souls not only for his greatness, but also his nearness and his meekness.

You might ask, If Jesus is God, and has been from eternity, what does his humanity have to add to his being our Treasure? His divine excellencies are infinite. Yet we are human, and his becoming human exposes to our view glories we otherwise would not see. This is why we love the beautiful paradoxes of Jesus. His paradoxes don’t take away from his glory; they add to it — and give him distinct glory.

In 1734, Jonathan Edwards preached a famous sermon on “The Excellency of Christ.” In it, he says,

Christ has no more excellency in his person, since his incarnation, than he had before; for divine excellency is infinite, and cannot be added to. Yet his human excellencies are additional manifestations of his glory and excellency to us, and are additional recommendations of him to our esteem and love, who are of finite comprehension. . . . The glory of Christ in . . . his human nature, appears to us in excellencies that are of our own [human] kind, and are exercised in our own way and manner, and so, in some respect, are peculiarly fitted to invite our acquaintance and draw our affection. (emphasis added)

So, the Lion, in becoming Lamb — the eternal Son in becoming man — while not enhancing his divine worth, became an even greater Treasure to us, who long for meekness and nearness, for a brother and friend.

3. In Jesus, we have it all in one person.

It is one thing to see and enjoy the divine excellencies of unmatched strength and knowledge. And another to see and enjoy the human excellencies of humility and friendship. And then greatest of all is to see and enjoy the full range of divine and human excellencies in one person. Because when majesty and meekness come together in one person, they accent each other. They burst with beauty. As Edwards says, they “set off and recommend each other.”

We see it first in verse 6: John says he “saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes.” This Lamb is not dead. He is not slumped over. He is not kneeling. He is standing, alive and ready. And he has seven horns — signifying the fullness of his strength and power. And seven eyes, meaning he sees and rules all. Nothing is hidden from him. That he is Lamb makes his lionlike work all the more glorious.

For the rest of Revelation, Lamb will be the main title for Jesus, as he displays his power and strength again and again. Here’s just a sample:

We’re told it is the Lamb who has conquered to open the scroll and seals (5:5; 6:1; 8:1).
The lowly Lamb ransomed people for God from every tribe (5:9).
This humble Lamb is declared worthy to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing (5:12–13).
The four living creatures and the angels of heaven fall down and worship the Lamb (5:8, 14).
Unbelievers tremble before the wrath of the Lamb (6:16).
The robes of the saints are made white in his blood, with the forgiving power of the Lamb (7:14).
The accuser of the brothers is conquered by the blood of the Lamb (12:11).
And this Lamb, in all his meekness, is seated on the throne of heaven (7:9, 10) and in the midst of the throne (22:1, 3).

And we not only admire the Lamb for his lionlike strength and power, but also the Lion for his lamblike gentleness and grace. He gives his own neck for our rescue.

We admire his greatness all the more in his nearness to us. And we enjoy his nearness all the more because of his greatness. Because he is the Lamb, and has drawn near to save us, we can enjoy his lionlike majesty and holiness without shaking in terror. And because he is the Lion, and wields the very power of God almighty, we can enjoy his lamblike humility and meekness and obedience to his Father — as man — without our worrying that he’s powerless to help his friends and brothers.

So, God designed our souls for Jesus. Not just a divine Father, and not just a human friend, but God himself in human flesh, fully God and fully man, in one spectacular person.

He is not only our Lord. And not only our Savior. He is our Treasure. He is the Pearl of Greatest Price. He is the one of surpassing value, for whom we consider all else loss. He is the Treasure hidden in the field worthy of selling all to have. Eternal life is to know him, the one true God, and Jesus Christ whom he has sent (John 17:3).

You were made not only for God, but for the God-man, for Jesus, who loved us and gave himself up for us and rose again to be our living, knowable, enjoyable King.

Work Out What Christ Has Won: The Christian Life as Gift and Duty

In the winter of 2001, I was a sophomore at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina.

As a freshman, I had become part of a ministry called Campus Outreach. Its theology was called “Reformed,” which I did not grow up with. In my teens, I heard talk about God being “sovereign,” but I had never wrestled with the extent of his sovereignty — that he was sovereign over all, over good and evil, over angels and demons, over sunny days and natural disasters, over my good deeds and my sin, and (most uncomfortably) over my own will and choices. But once I saw the verses, dozens of them (if not hundreds), I couldn’t deny that the Bible taught that God’s sovereignty was absolute, over all, no exceptions.

But what I also knew from two decades of human life, and from dozens (if not hundreds) of verses, is that I was accountable. I had thoughts and feelings. I had a will and made real decisions that mattered and had consequences. So, how do I reconcile these two — not just my experience versus what the Bible says, but what the Bible says versus what the Bible says?

So, that winter of 2001, a pastor from Minnesota, named John Piper, spoke at our Campus Outreach New Year’s conference in Atlanta, and not long after that event, I visited desiringGod.org to look for more messages.

There I listened to a sermon he had preached that Christmas Eve. And this one message put together for me — so clearly and memorably — how these major theological truths of God’s sovereignty and my human responsibility come together in my everyday Christian life and experience. The sermon was on the end of Romans 6 (verses 22–23), but at a key moment, Piper flipped over to Philippians 2:12–13 to explain this real-life dynamic. As he did so, lights went on for me one after another.

So, 23 years later, it’s personally significant for me to be assigned these verses, and I pray that for some in this room, new lights might go on like they did for me in those days. How the truth of God’s sovereignty and his choices relates to my responsibility and my choices, in fighting against sin and for Christlikeness, doesn’t all come together at once. Much of it is a lifetime journey. Yet, for me, there was a particular sermon, and a particular text — Philippians 2:12–13 — where new categories were created that have deeply affected my everyday life.

Humbled and Exalted

Last Sunday, we stood in awe at the foot of the mountain of Christ’s accomplishment for us in Philippians 2:5–11. First, he chose to become man. He did not cling to the comforts of heaven, but he emptied himself of that privilege. Precisely because he was God, gracious and merciful, full of steadfast love and faithfulness, he took on our creatureliness and limitations, and the pains and frustrations of our fallen world. His emptying himself was not an emptying of his deity, as if that were possible, but it was a taking, as verse 7 says. His emptying came through addition of humanity, not subtraction of deity. He

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. (verses 7–8)

Then came that amazing “therefore” in verse 9: “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name.” In the biblical pattern of self-humbling from Exodus to the Epistles, Jesus stands at the center as our greatest example: he humbled himself, and therefore God exalted him. Jesus went down, down, down: human, death, the cross. And his Father brought him up: up from the grave, up in the ascension, up to the very throne of heaven. So we walked through three truths about the example of Jesus.

Which leads us right into verses 12–18, and how Paul turns from Jesus’s obedience and his reward to ours. So this morning, we look at three truths about our following his example. Or how we become like Jesus.

1. We follow the one who obeyed and was rewarded.

There is a second huge “therefore” in Philippians 2. The first one was verse 9. Jesus humbled himself; therefore God exalted him. Now, verse 12: in light of Jesus’s self-humbling and God’s exalting him, therefore . . .

I can see at least two ways this “therefore” works in verse 12. One is the straightforward charge He is Lord; therefore obey. God has highly exalted Jesus. Now his name is above every name, and at his name every knee should bow and every tongue confess he is Lord. Therefore, Christians, obey. Simple as that. He is Lord; we are servants. He says it; we do it. Children obey their parents; servants obey their masters; and all the more, creatures, obey your Creator, and Christians, your Lord.

But there’s also another way this “therefore” works: as an appeal to desire, as a pattern and promise of reward. I say that because the word “obedient” just appeared in verse 8 (and “obey” in verse 12). Jesus was “obedient to the point of death,” and because he obeyed, he was rewarded. Therefore, Christians, obey like Jesus so that you might be rewarded like Jesus. Humble yourself, like he did, that you too might be exalted.

Which is crazy countercultural for self-exalting sinners! We want to be exalted, so what do we do? Exalt ourselves: in our own minds, in our words and humble brags, in what we post online, in how we angle for opportunities. And God says to us in our folly, “No, sinners. I do the exalting. Exalt yourself, and I’ll humble you. But humble yourself, and I will exalt you.”

So, “therefore” in verse 12 is an appeal to desire and a profound glimpse into what it meant for Jesus to endure the cross “for the joy set before him” (Hebrews 12:2). As man, Jesus humbled himself, obeying to the point of death, by looking to the joy of being exalted by his Father. And so too for us as we obey him. Christian obedience is not from sheer duty and force of will. We obey for the joy set before us.

And Paul puts his own joy on display in verses 17–18. Jump down there:

Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering [this is his self-humbling obedience] upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all. Likewise you also should be glad and rejoice with me.

Paul calls the Philippians’ obedience “the sacrificial offering of your faith.” This is like Romans 12:1: the Christian life of faith “as a living sacrifice.” God’s people no longer offer slaughtered animals as sacrifices, as they did under the first covenant, but offer themselves, all they are, their whole lives, in obedience to him. This is what Paul is giving his life to: that Christians — like the saints in Philippi, and like us — would be living sacrifices, obedient to Christ.

“Don’t presume that God will defeat your sins while you’re passive. And don’t presume to fight sin on your own.”

And Paul, in prison in Rome for his labor, says to them, “Even if I die in this prison, I rejoice.” The pursuit of joy got him into prison, and joy will be his if he never makes it out of prison — because he looks forward to the reward of being with Christ and having worked for others’ joy in Christ. And in this joy, Paul casts his work in self-humbling terms. The Philippians’ lives of obedience are the main sacrifice, and his labor is just the drink offering, the side offering, the supplement to their healthy, obedient Christian lives.

So, first, like Paul and like Jesus, we obey our Lord in joy, anticipating reward. We follow the one who obeyed and was rewarded.

2. We work out the salvation he worked for.

Now, the rest of verse 12:

Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling . . .

So, the obedience that Christ, through Paul, is calling for here is “work out your own salvation.” I realize that sounds like nails on a chalkboard for some ears. If so, perhaps I could just warn you: this might feel uncomfortable for a few minutes. Remember, we’re praying for biblical categories. And to get there, we may need to sit in the challenge of this “work out your own salvation.” It’s in the Bible. And this is a good translation. The Greek doesn’t fix our discomfort but might only make us cringe a little bit more. What if we said, “produce your own salvation,” or “give rise to your own salvation,” or “grind out your own salvation”?

As we sit in this tension, it’s okay to remember Christ’s obedience on the front end and underneath — and in just a few minutes, we’ll see that we have even more help on the back end. But we need to linger here. Just because there’s help in front and back doesn’t mean our lives in the middle aren’t real. We need to stay here in the call and dignity of the Christian life to be, to think, to feel, to will, to act. God is sovereign, and we are responsible.

This word for “work out” is a typical word for “work” but with an intensifying prefix. The kind of work we’re getting at here is not just overflow. Some work feels effortless. But this work means expending effort. It’s the kind of work that requires effort to move inward desires into outward acts. In other places, this word is translated “produce” or “accomplish” or “perform.”

So, this is not just overflow. It requires counting, reckoning, considering (as in verses 3, 5, and 6). There is effort to be given, energy to be expended, work to be done. “Work out your salvation,” Paul says. Not “work for” — Jesus uniquely worked for our salvation in verses 5–11 — but now we “work it out.”

Our Gift and Duty

An important question to ask at this point is, Salvation from what? Paul implies the Philippians need deliverance, but from what? Well, what’s clearly at stake in chapter 2, going back to 1:27, is their unity (their fellowship, their relationships in the church). Paul says he longs to hear that they “are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel.” And 2:2: “Complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.” He’s saying that because, at present, they’re not that. Then verse 3: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit.” Note that: two specific sins from which the Philippians and we need deliverance — selfish ambition and conceit.

And Paul has more specifics to give in verse 14: “Do all things without grumbling or disputing.” Okay, so now we have at least four specific sins from which Paul says to “work out your salvation.” Want it, will it, act it, produce it. Christ died to save you from grumbling — from constant complaining and criticizing and scoffing and wallowing. He died to deliver you from petty disputes. So, trust him and don’t grumble. Trust him and be free from disputing.

The new category this leads to is this: the Christian life is both gift and duty. Fighting sin is both a gift from God and a duty we act. Increasing holiness is both gift and duty. It is a gift of grace we receive from Jesus, and the way we receive a grace that involves our own thoughts and desires and actions is by having the thoughts and desires and doing the actions. That is, living out the gift, or working out your salvation.

Look over to Philippians 3:12. Two of the best texts for getting this dynamic of the Christian life as both gift and duty are right here in Philippians. So, first 2:12–13. Now 3:12:

Not that I have already obtained this [resurrection to eternal life] or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.

This is so important in getting the order right between God’s working and ours. Paul says, “I press on to make it my own” — I count, I will, I act, I choose righteousness, I fight sin, I press on. Why? “Because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” Mark this: I don’t become his by pressing on. Rather, because I am his, because he already took hold of me, I strive and strain and press on. He worked for my salvation. Now I work it out over sin. (Other key texts that show this gift-and-duty dynamic: Hebrews 13:20–21; Romans 15:18; 1 Corinthians 15:10.)

The Christian life is grace from beginning to end. Some graces we receive instead of our effort and action (justification), and some graces we receive as our effort and action.

Look, Trust, Pray, Act

This leads us to verse 13. But let me first try to make this more practical. Let me take you back to my time at Furman University. Now it’s the fall of 2002, my senior year, and I’m trying to figure out what to do after graduation. And I am awash in anxiety. I didn’t remember being so anxious in my life before then, and I don’t remember being as anxious since.

So, I needed deliverance from anxiety. What do I do? Just wait? How do you seek to be free from oppressive anxiety when God is sovereign and you are responsible? As one who is justified by faith in Jesus, how do I work out my salvation? First, I need truth to work with. I need a specific word to believe. So I found three biblical promises about anxiety:

Do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble. (Matthew 6:34)

Humble yourselves . . . under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. (1 Peter 5:6–7)

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:6–7)

I printed them out, posted them next to my bed, and reviewed them every morning when I woke up and every night when I went to sleep. And (with Christ before me and his Spirit in me), I worked out the grace of my deliverance from anxiety. God gave me the gift of deliverance from the dominance of anxiety in that season. And that doesn’t mean I don’t still fight anxiety as it comes in new ways in new times and seasons of life. But I know how to fight: recognize it, address it with promises of reward, pray for help, and act.

So whether it’s sinful anxiety, selfish ambition and conceit, grumbling and disputing, or sinful anger or lust or greed, work out the deliverance Christ has worked for you. Don’t presume that God will defeat your sins while you’re passive. And don’t presume to fight sin on your own. Look to the sovereign Christ, trust his promises, pray for his help, and act the miracle you seek to have from him.

Shining Unity

And just to comment very quickly on verses 15–16: I think Paul has in mind the relationship between unity in the church and witness in the world like he did in 1:27–28. There he said that our “standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel” leads to the church “not [being] frightened in anything by your opponents” — and this is “a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation.” In working out our salvation against the relationship-killing sins of selfish ambition, conceit, grumbling, and disputing, we come to stand out “in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation.” Unified in Jesus, we “shine as lights in the world.” How? “Holding fast to the word of life,” that is, the message about true life, eternal life — the life and death of Jesus in place of our death to give us life.

So, if ever you find yourself discouraged about the “crooked and twisted generation” in which you find yourself, remember two truths from Philippians 2: (1) this is nothing new for Christianity (this is how it usually is in this age), and (2) grumbling and disputing are not the Christian response. But exactly the opposite. The Christian response is this: hold fast to our word of life, work out our salvation from grumbling and disputing, and shine as lights in the world, not as more of the same darkness.

What about that last phrase in verse 12, “with fear and trembling”? Now our third and final truth.

3. We have his Spirit at work in us.

We finish with the end of verse 12 and with verse 13:

Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

What in the world could Paul mean here by “with fear and trembling”? Perhaps “fear and trembling” sounds only negative in your ears. Fear and trembling — yikes. How about “with hope and joy”? Why fear and trembling?

Scripture has a broader vision for inward fear and outward trembling than modern people do. Throughout the Bible, “fear and trembling” is what wise, in-touch, healthy humans do when they find themselves in the presence of God almighty. Like Moses at Mount Sinai, as we saw in Hebrews 12:21: “I tremble with fear.” And Paul talks about how the Corinthians received Titus as a messenger from Christ “with fear and trembling” (2 Corinthians 7:15).

Or perhaps most instructive of all is the way the Gospel of Mark ends: with the women who found the tomb empty and heard from the angel, “He has risen; he is not here.” Mark 16:8: “They went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them.” Or, as Matthew 28:8 reports, “They departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy.”

“Fear and trembling” is not only the response of someone taken aback by great horror, but also of someone struck with great joy. It’s the response of a believing heart in the presence of God himself — and it’s the appropriate response of a Christian who learns that God himself has come to dwell in me.

Verse 13 provides, essentially, a threefold confidence for us as we expend energy and effort to obey our Lord and live the Christian life. So, as we close, let me turn to verse 13 and address it to you.

First, brothers and sisters in Christ, you have God in you! How awesome to have the Holy Spirit, poured out on us, sent into our hearts, dwelling in us, leading us, working in us. You are not on your own to fight against sin and for Christlikeness. You have God in you! This is no standard joy. This is cause for fear and trembling.

Second, he is in you not only to will but even to work. God works in us to (will and) work our work. He gives us new desires and willing, and even then, he doesn’t leave us to ourselves. He is in us to prompt, to lead, to empower, to execute our working out those holy desires through the exertion of effort.

Third, all this stands on the rock of God’s own joy, his delight, his good pleasure. He is not reluctant in helping us fight sin and pursue Christlikeness. He is happy to do it, thrilled to do it. He delights to do it. He works in us, in our willing, in our working, for his good pleasure. We work with the grain of God’s own joy when we work out our deliverance from sin.

So, we close with this question: What sin or sins came to mind this morning in our time of silent confession? Or, what do you most often confess week after week? Brothers and sisters, don’t just say it again, move on, continue in sin, and make empty confession again and again. Work out your salvation. Act the miracle. With Jesus before you and beneath you, and his Spirit in you and through you — hemmed in on every side by his grace — work out your salvation. Will it, work it, act it, do it — with prayerful dependence in every step.

Jesus Willed and Worked

What makes possible our having the Holy Spirit at work in us to will and work is that first the Spirit was at work in Christ to will and to work. How he worked for the joy set before him is an example we follow. How he worked by the Spirit is imitable. But what he accomplished at the cross for us is inimitable.

At this Table, we do not mainly remember Jesus as our example but as the one who worked for us in a way in which we could not work for ourselves.

Found Faithful at Your Post: The Providence of God and Our Subordinate Identities

Our Lord, assigns us various “subordinate identities” under our primary identity as Christians…In a generation that likes to play dress-up with our own identities, we do well to regularly rehearse what our actual, objective identities are, rather than those that are aspirational, subjective, and not yet actual….He determines our nationalities, our families, our vocations, and the various “stations” in which we are placed.

Any big life updates? It’s a question that I ask old friends when we reconnect over the phone or at a conference or reunion. Taking a new job, moving to a new home, planting a church, getting married, having children—these are among the big life updates that we communicate in catch-you-up conversations and Christmas letters.
We live in especially mobile and transitory times. Now, in addition to the ageless major transitions of human life, many people regularly move from job to job, even town to town and church to church. Added to this complexity is the modern confusion about life’s givens and chosens. Our society has come to feign plasticity in precisely the places where we’re hardwired (such as biological sex) and to pretend hardwiring in the places where we’re actually plastic (desires and delights). We pretend that our desires are fixed while presuming that our stubborn, external worlds should adjust to the preferences of our inner self. In reality, the inverse is true. Our desires are far more plastic than we often assume, and the external world is far more fixed than we care to admit.
How, then, as Christians do we approach the big chosens in life, such as getting married or taking a new job? We want to live with Christ-honoring contentment in whatever station and season we find ourselves. How might we be content in Christ and yet move toward, and through, the various transitions in our lives?
Christ Assigns Our Stations
Before addressing the practical question, let’s first establish that Christ, our Lord, assigns us various “subordinate identities” under our primary identity as Christians, and let’s clarify what these secondary identities are. In a generation that likes to play dress-up with our own identities, we do well to regularly rehearse what our actual, objective identities are, rather than those that are aspirational, subjective, and not yet actual.
As Christians, we have our fundamental identity “in Christ,” servants of the Master, assigned to various stations in life. Paul’s orienting word to the Athenians in Acts 17:26 remains true for us today in all the complexities and confusion of the twenty-first century: God “made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place.” You live when and where you do by God’s good providence and design. He determines our nationalities, our families, our vocations, and the various “stations” in which we are placed, however temporarily or indefinitely.
Writing to the Corinthians, and for all Christians, Paul says: “Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches” (1 Cor. 7:17). Paul does not mean that some aspects of our assignments never change (more on that below), but he cautions us against overlooking or minimizing the posts where God has stationed us at this moment. So what are the various identities and stations He assigns?
Humanly speaking, our first identities are those into which we are born, in our homes and families. We are born either male or female, a son or a daughter. Also, many of us were born as brothers or sisters or cousins. Then, while still growing up, we acquired other secondary identities: student, congregant, teammate, employee, voting citizen. Later came leaving mother and father and cleaving in marriage to establish a new home and family—and so we become husband or wife, and then father or mother. With age and maturity come other identities as well: teacher, employer, governor, coach.
Among these various subordinate identities are peer relationships, such as brother, sister, cousin, teammate, fellow student, and fellow worker. But other identities are ordered, or we might say complementary, even hierarchical: wife to husband, child to parent, student to teacher, employee to employer, player to coach. So, too, in church life we find both symmetrical and asymmetrical relationships: fathers, mothers, brothers, and sisters in the faith (1 Tim. 5:1–2).
Many of us today are quite comfortable with peer relationships. We have learned a leveling, democratic instinct, and we expect profound (though not perfect) equality. At least in principle, we understand and appreciate largely symmetrical relationships among friends, brothers, sisters, cousins, and teammates, even as we acknowledge that among these, various small asymmetries are inevitable, depending on age, maturity, and other factors.
But many today struggle with the ordered, complementary, and asymmetrical identities. We have learned the leveling impulse so well. Our noses have been trained to sniff out inequalities in the more ordered and hierarchical relationships. These can make us uncomfortable, and in doing so, they reveal particular places in Scripture where we might freshly recalibrate our minds to be faithful to our callings.
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