David Mathis

The Son Must Rise: What Made Easter Inevitable

“They have taken the Lord out of the tomb . . . ” These words from a breathless Mary Magdalene were the first breaking of the news that Sunday morning. “. . . and we do not know where they have laid him” (John 20:2).

Just as Mary herself had run to inform Peter and “the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved,” they then ran together to check for themselves. That Jesus’s body was gone, they now believed. But somehow, even with Jesus’s words to them, on multiple occasions, about his coming death and resurrection (Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:33–34), they, like Mary, “did not understand” (Mark 9:32).

On this world-changing Sunday morning, Jesus’s closest disciples first assumed his body had been taken and laid elsewhere. “As yet they did not understand the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead” (John 20:9). Must rise. In Jesus’s mind, and in the courts of heaven, and in the pages of holy Scripture, the suffering and subsequent resurrection of the Messiah were not just possibilities or likelihoods. These were not options. They were musts. Jesus had said it before, and later that day he would explain it again — that it was necessary, that it must have happened this way.

O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory? (Luke 24:25–26)

Everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled. . . . that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead. (Luke 24:44–25)

But when Peter and John first looked into the empty tomb, that necessity had not yet struck them. Fresh off the devastating grief of the previous two days — doubtless the two worst days of their lives — they still were coming to terms with his death, and assumed with Mary that he was still dead and “they” — some undefined group — had moved the body. Having seen the empty tomb, John reports, “the disciples went back to their homes” (John 20:10).

Only Mary stayed behind, and soon found Jesus alive. Then, with his commission, she “went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’” (John 20:18).

Christ Must Rise

However slow his disciples had been to understand the necessity of his suffering and rising, they soon became convinced — not just that he did rise (that was indisputable) but that he had to rise. It was necessary. It must have happened this way.

“Death could not hold him, restrain him, keep him. It was not possible. Christ, the Son, had to rise.”

Just fifty days later, when Pentecost came, Peter would preach this in public — not just the resurrection but its necessity. At the height of his sermon, Peter declares about his Lord — “this Jesus,” who was “crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men” — “God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it” (Acts 2:23–24). Death could not hold him, restrain him, keep him. It was not possible. Christ, the Son, had to rise.

Why, we might ask on this Resurrection Sunday, was it necessary? Why did Jesus have to rise? Acts 2, together with other New Testament texts, give us at least five reasons why the Son had to rise again.

1. To Make Good on God’s Word

First, the word of the living God was at stake. Through his prophets, God had long promised to send his people a climactically Anointed One, the Messiah, heir to David’s throne and rallying hope of Israel. And essential to that Messianic promise was an eternal reign (2 Samuel 7:13, 16). Not only would David’s line continue one generation after another, but one great heir was coming who would reign without end (Psalm 45:6–7; 102; 25–27; 110:1–4).

Even in his own lifetime, David himself had spoken of God not abandoning his soul to Sheol — and not letting his “holy one see corruption” (Psalm 16:10), which Christians, including Peter, came to see as one of many old-covenant anticipations of the coming Messiah’s resurrection. Which is how Peter argues in that first Spirit-anointed sermon (Acts 2:29–32).

God’s anointed king would fulfill the promise of God’s word. Jesus was, and is, that Christ. Therefore, it was impossible for him to be kept from that eternal reign. Not even the last enemy could keep him from it. Strong as the power of death may seem, it was, and is, no match for the omnipotent God working for his Messiah.

2. To Vindicate His Sinless Life

Jesus’s life was without sin. He was utterly innocent, and rising again vindicated his perfect human life. Death and Satan had no claim on him because Jesus had no “record of debt that stood against [him] with its legal demands” (Colossians 2:14). With respect to Jesus, Satan and his minions never had been armed; they had no hooks in him because he had no sin or guilt. Rather, in dying, Jesus gave himself, nailing to the cross our record of debt, because of our trespasses, and disarming the demons against us (Colossians 2:13, 15).

Luke sounds the note of Christ’s innocence again and again — three times in the mouth of Pilate, then again by the thief crucified next to him, and finally by the centurion who saw him breathe his last (Luke 23:4; 14–15; 22; 41, 47). Jesus’s innocence — that he did “nothing deserving death,” before man and before God — would be, as Paul celebrates, “vindicated by the Spirit” in Christ’s resurrection (1 Timothy 3:16).

3. To Confirm the Work of His Death

The resurrection also confirmed that Jesus’s death on the cross worked. It counted. It was effective. His dying declaration, “It is finished” (John 19:30), was shown to be true by his resurrection. Had he stayed dead, what confidence would we have that his sacrifice worked, that it was sufficient for us and all who believe? What firm hope would we have that he indeed was not only innocent of his own sin but that his death could count for us, in our place?

“The resurrection confirms that his death on the cross worked. It counted. It was effective.”

Paul writes in Romans 4:25 that Jesus “was delivered up” to death “for our trespasses and raised for our justification.” The resurrection shows that his work was effective — not only in covering our sins with his death, but in rising to be our righteousness — our justification — before the holy God. Which leads to another distinct but inseparable reason.

4. To Give Us Access to His Work

Not only did our sins require a reckoning — by Christ, outside of us — but we also needed to have access to his work, to have it applied to us. Potential salvation is not enough. We need actual rescue, which comes through the instrument called faith which unites us to a resurrected, living Lord.

However sufficient his self-sacrifice might have been to cover our sins, we have no access to that rescue if he is not alive that we might be united to him. But he is alive. As he says, “I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades” (Revelation 1:17–18). There is no great salvation for us if we are not united by faith to a living Lord to have the benefits of his work applied to us.

5. To Be Our Living Lord and Treasure

One final must or necessity is the final necessity: Jesus is alive to know and enjoy forever.

There is no final good news if our Treasure and Pearl of Great Price is dead. Even if our sins could be paid for, righteousness provided and applied to us, and heaven secured, but Jesus were still dead, there would be no great salvation in the end — not if our Savior and Groom is dead. At the very center of the Easter triumph is not what he saves us from, but what he saves us to — better, who he saves us to: himself.

Our restless souls will not find eternal, and ever-increasing, rest and joy in a Christ-less new earth, no matter how stunning. Streets of gold, reunions with loved ones, and sinless living may thrill us at first — but they will not ultimately satisfy, not for eternity, not on their own. We were made for Jesus. He is at the center of true life now, and he will be forever. If there is no living Christ, there is no final satisfying eternity. But he is alive indeed — to know and enjoy forever.

Did Jesus Need the Spirit? Pondering the Power of the God-Man

How did Jesus walk on water? How did he feed five thousand with five loaves and two fish? How did he raise Lazarus from the dead?

Unless we have been carefully taught, many Christians would be quick to say simply, Because he is God! And he truly is. But is that how the New Testament answers these questions? If we follow the emphasis of the Gospels, we might say that what Jesus’s miracles show is that he is God, but how he, as man, performs these wonders, is not quite as simple as we may assume.

In particular, what are we to say about the many texts that testify to the Holy Spirit’s presence in the human life of Christ? Did Christ, in his humanity, actually need the Holy Spirit if he performed such signs simply by virtue of his divinity?

When we recognize the surprisingly recurrent theme of the divine Spirit’s relationship to the divine Son in his humanity, we might understand Jesus (and the Gospels) better, and freshly marvel at what grace Christ offers us in the gift of his Spirit.

Jesus and the Spirit

First, let’s rehearse the string of biblical texts that lead us to what is often called a “Spirit Christology” — which is simply a term for recognizing the critical part played by the person and work of the Spirit in the person and work of Christ.

Sinclair Ferguson observes three distinct “stages” in the life of Christ, through which we might acknowledge the Spirit’s relationship to the Son (The Holy Spirit, 38–56). Those stages are as follows, with key texts.

1. Conception, Birth, and Growth

As we know from some of our favorite Advent readings, the Holy Spirit is present and pronounced in the angelic announcements to both Mary and Joseph. How will it be, asks Mary, that I, a virgin, will conceive and bear a son? “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you” (Luke 1:35). So too in Matthew’s account about Joseph, the Spirit both frames the report and is explicit in the angelic announcement (Matthew 1:18, 20).

Yet the Spirit is not only present, and explicit, at the conception and birth of Christ, but also specifically prophesied by Isaiah, seven centuries prior, as “resting upon” the coming Anointed One: “The Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord” (Isaiah 11:2).

“God’s word notes again and again the power of the Spirit as Christ’s inseparable companion.”

Now in Jesus of Nazareth, the long-promised shoot from the stump of Jesse has come (Isaiah 11:1), and “the Spirit of wisdom and understanding” upon him is seen even as early as age 12 as Jesus listens in the temple to the teachers and asks them questions. “All who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. And when his parents saw him, they were astonished” (Luke 2:47–48).

Even in childhood, as Jesus “increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man” (Luke 2:52), he was not on his own but had the Spirit as his “inseparable companion,” as the great Cappadocian theologian Basil of Caesarea (c. 330–379) captured it so memorably.

2. Baptism, Temptations, and Ministry

Isaiah’s prophesied anointing with the Spirit comes to the fore again at the outset of Jesus’s public ministry, beginning with his baptism. The forerunner, John the Baptist, tells of a coming Spirit-baptism that John’s water-baptism anticipated (Luke 3:16). But first, before baptizing others in the Spirit, Jesus himself will be the preeminent Man of the Spirit. When Jesus “had been baptized and was praying, the heavens were opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased’” (Luke 3:21–22; also Matthew 3:16).

Here at the outset of his public ministry, the Spirit descends on him with new fullness for his unique calling, and the voice from heaven first connects the Anointed of Psalm 2 with the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 42. The Servant — and Son — not only enjoys God’s full favor, but he is also the one of whom it is said, “I have put my Spirit upon him” (Isaiah 42:1).

Freshly endowed with (“full of”) the Spirit, Jesus then goes to the wilderness. Not only is he “led by the Spirit” (Luke 4:1; Matthew 4:1) into the wilderness, but as Mark reports, “The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness” (Mark 1:12), not as a retreat but as an advance in war, to encounter the enemy and beginning taking back territory.

Once Christ has returned, victorious in his wilderness test — in the power of the Spirit (Luke 4:14) — he comes to Galilee and to his hometown of Nazareth. In the synagogue, they hand him in the scroll of Isaiah, and what does he read, as the first public act after his baptism? He begins with Isaiah 61:1: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me . . .” (Luke 4:18).

Jesus’s ministry then unfolds in the subsequent pages as by the Spirit he proclaims good news to the poor, liberty to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed, and the year of the Lord’s favor (Luke 4:18–19; Isaiah 61:1–2). Jesus will testify that it is “by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons” (Matthew 12:28). By the Spirit, he teaches with unusual authority. Fully man, he is fully dependent on his Father — having come not to do his own will but the will of him who sent him (John 6:38). And as Peter one day will summarize his life, in telling his story to Gentiles, “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power” (Acts 10:38).

In the words of John 3:34, and Isaac Ambrose (1604–1664), Jesus “received the Spirit out of measure; there was in him as much as possibly could be in a creature, and more than in all other creatures whatsoever” (Looking unto Jesus, 280).

3. Death, Resurrection, and Ascension

Significant as the testimony is about the Spirit’s work in Jesus’s childhood and ministry, we might expect that when he comes to die, and rise, and ascend, we would hear about the Spirit here too. Indeed we do. According to Hebrews 9:14, Jesus offered himself for sins at the cross “through the eternal Spirit.” As he set his face like flint toward Jerusalem, mounted the donkey on Palm Sunday, confronted scribes and Pharisees, and prayed with “loud cries and tears” in Gethsemane (Hebrews 5:7), Jesus was anointed, sustained, and strengthened by the Spirit to the end. And beyond.

In his resurrection, Jesus was “vindicated by the Spirit” (1 Timothy 3:16). As Paul writes in Romans 1:4, Jesus “was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead.” And promising a coming of, and baptizing with, the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:5, 8), Jesus ascended to heaven (Acts 1:9), to be glorified at God’s right hand, where he then would pour out the Spirit on those who believe (John 7:37–39; Acts 2:2–4, 17, 33). Amazingly, then, Peter would preach, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). Now, to receive Christ is to receive the Spirit, and vice versa.

In fact, the Holy Spirit has become such an “inseparable companion” for Christ that we find a striking identification of Jesus and the Spirit in the letters of Paul (1 Corinthians 15:45; 2 Corinthians 3:17–18). Not only is the Holy Spirit now “the Spirit of Jesus” (Philippians 1:19; also Acts 16:7), but the glorified Christ and the poured-out Spirit can be spoken of interchangeably, as in Romans 8:9–11: Christians “have the Spirit of Christ,” and in the Spirit, “Christ is in you.”

Jesus Did Not Cheat

Now back to our original question: How did Jesus walk on water, multiply loaves, and raise the dead? The New Testament witness to the Spirit as Christ’s “inseparable companion” and source of divine power is too pronounced to ignore. Jesus, the God-man, apparently needed the Spirit. The terms of the incarnation, in honoring the fullness of humanity, were that the second person of the Trinity did not immediately provide divine power and help to the human Christ. Rather, he did so mediately through the Spirit. It was the great Puritan theologian John Owen (1616–1683) who perhaps first ventured the formulation that now has stood for almost four centuries: “The only singular immediate act of the person of the Son on the human nature was the assumption of it into subsistence with himself” (The Works of John Owen, 3:160).

“Jesus, the God-man, apparently needed the Spirit.”

In other words, the eternal Son’s only direct act on his human nature was uniting that humanity to himself in the incarnation. “Every other act upon Christ’s human nature,” writes Mark Jones, “was from the Holy Spirit. Christ performed miracles through the power of the Holy Spirit, not immediately by his own divine power” (The Prayers of Jesus, 23). As Jones comments elsewhere, “Christ’s obedience in our place had to be real obedience. He did not cheat by relying on his own divine nature while he acted as the second Adam” (Puritan Theology, 343). The Holy Spirit has accompanied, supplied, and carried the Son in his human nature from conception to childhood to ministry, to the cross and resurrection, and now in his glory, fully endowed as the Man of the Spirit at God’s right hand.

Spirit of Christ in Us

Why make a point of what some might perceive as a technicality? Why note, as Kyle Claunch does, this “marked contrast” between the New Testament emphasis and “the tendency of post-biblical authors, who appeal to the deity of Jesus as the explanation for the extraordinary features of his life and ministry”?

For one, a Spirit Christology demonstrates the genuine humanness of Christ, which is vital not only for our imitation of his life, but even more for his perfect human life to count savingly and uniquely in the place of us sinners. Also, observing the critical place of the Holy Spirit with respect to the humanity of Christ helps us understand the Bible. From Isaiah, to the Gospels and Acts, and the Epistles, God’s word notes again and again, as we’ve seen, the power of the Spirit as Christ’s inseparable companion. If we want to know and understand God’s word, we will not want to read a phrase like “by the Spirit” as white noise but with meaning.

Finally, a Spirit Christology shows us, in a secondary sense, what is possible in us by the same Spirit who dwells in us — not mainly in terms of being the Spirit’s channel for displays of extraordinary power (though we might grow to be expectant of more than we have), but most significantly in terms of holiness and spiritual joy. Jesus was and is unique. The power of the Spirit in his human life pointed to his uniqueness as God. Still, the same Spirit who empowered Jesus’s earthly life, and sacrificial death, and triumphant resurrection, has been given to us today as “the Spirit of Jesus” (Acts 16:7). He not only works on us, and through us, but dwells in us (Romans 8:9, 11; 2 Timothy 1:14). He has been given to us (Luke 11:13; John 7:38–39; Acts 5:32; 15:8; 1 Thessalonians 4:8). We have received him (John 20:22; Acts 2:38; 8:15, 17, 19; 10:47; 19:2; Romans 5:5; 8:15; 1 Corinthians 2:12; 2 Corinthians 5:5; 1 John 3:24), to glorify the Son (John 16:14).

The very power of God himself, in his Spirit, has come to make himself at home in some real degree, and to increasing effect, in us. We are his temple, both individually and collectively (1 Corinthians 3:16; 6:19), and a day is coming when we, like Christ, will reign in glory, fully endowed with the Spirit, to enjoy life, and God in Christ, beyond what we’ve even imagined so far.

Roses Grow on Briers: Unsentimental Love in a Sentimental World

At present, I’m enjoying a slow walk through Middle-earth. We first toured some of this terrain together almost six years ago, as I read aloud The Hobbit to our twin boys. Now, they’re almost twelve. Harry Potter is behind us. The boys are almost teens, more grown-up, with maturing palates ready for richer fare — and the patience that Tolkien requires. At long last, we journey to Mordor.

The Lord of the Rings is striking for its contrasts. Suffocating darkness, then stunning bursts of light. Brooding evil, and resilient good. Yes, this tale has its greys — perhaps the most common color named in the trilogy. Yet beneath its cloaks is a marked world of stark contrasts. From the beginning, this is not a journey Frodo started from some deep urge for adventure. He doesn’t choose to go; he signs no contract. Pursued by Black Riders who have breached the Shire, he is forced to run, with life and death — and the whole world — in the balance.

When all the world is so quickly at stake, diverse races soon divide between Mordor and the West. Even Elves and Dwarves join together in the Fellowship. The horror of the White Wizard’s change in allegiance is that the chasm between Evil, and those who would resist it, is so stark. And in the meantime, one who is Grey is shown to be White.

This is one reason Lord of the Rings is a welcomed influence in many Christian homes. We teach our children first and foremost from Scripture that the real world is one of stark contrasts, with many voices vying to paint it all in shades of grey. Cloaked as it may be for now, ours is a world of darkness and light, of evil and good, of wrong and right. We need eyes for biblical reality — what God himself says about our world through the apostles and prophets and climactically in his Son — and we are happy to be helped along by some great stories, and wise voices, that echo the contrasts of Scripture.

God Put Roses on Briers

One such wise voice is Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758). No, I am not yet reading him aloud to my children, but I dream of the day. At least I hope some of his spine will come to them through their father.

Edwards, says biographer George Marsden, “saw all created reality as bittersweet contrasts, dazzling beauty set against appalling horrors, ephemeral glories pointing to divine perfections” (Jonathan Edwards: A Life, 136). And what is at the center of that contrast-filled reality and beauty?

At the core of Edwards’ outlook is a rigorously unsentimental view of love. . . . Edwards’ universe was similar to that of many of our own moral tales, from Star Wars and Lord of the Rings to countless lesser entertainments. (137)

Star Wars may be a stretch, but the point is well-taken in terms of contrasts between light and dark. Often we need to go back — to Tolkien and Lewis seventy years ago, to Edwards in the early 1700s, and most of all to the Scriptures — to escape the gently disorienting breezes of our own day, feel the great directional gusts of reality, and remember that life and death are at stake. The atmosphere of secularism rests so heavy on us that we are prone to take eternity so lightly. But the real world is one of briers and worms, of snakes and sharks, of death and hell.

“The atmosphere of secularism rests so heavy on us that we are prone to take eternity so lightly.”

In Scripture, God shows us the glory of his light against the backdrop of darkness. Slavery in Egypt accents the glory of his deliverance. His people regularly falling under foreign powers accents his rescues under the judges. The destruction of Jerusalem, and the horrors of exile, accent the glory of return and restoration. The death of his own Son precedes the glorious rush of resurrection life; and our own sin, the stark contrast of grace and the gift of new life. In it all, we learn our need for God, and learn to marvel in his light.

As Edwards wrote in one of his earliest entries in his journal,

Roses grow upon briers, which is to signify that all temporal sweets are mixed with bitter. But what seems more especially to be meant by it, is that true happiness, the crown of glory, is to be come at in no other way than by bearing Christ’s cross by a life of mortification, self-denial and labor, and bearing all things for Christ. (The Works of Jonathan Edwards, 11:52)

Our Trouble with ‘Love’

Another voice unafraid of God’s stark contrasts and God’s unsentimental love — and this one from our own day — is Don Carson.

In the opening chapter of his Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God, Carson five times uses the words “sentimental” or “sentimentalized” to characterize the prevailing notions of love in our age — in contrast to the rich, multi-dimensional portrait of God’s love in the Scriptures. Which means that when biblically-shaped Christians speak about the love of God today, we “mean something very different from what is meant in the surrounding culture” (10). What is more, writes Carson:

I do not think that what the Bible says about the love of God can long survive at the forefront of our thinking if it is abstracted from the sovereignty of God, the holiness of God, the wrath of God, the providence of God, or the personhood of God — to mention only a few nonnegotiable elements of basic Christianity. (11)

“When we listen to God’s own words, we do not find a portrait of his love that is simple or tame.”

Some today flinch at divine sovereignty — and divine wrath all the more. And set against these suspicions are shallow and sentimental notions of his love. Of course God will forgive me, it’s assumed, That’s his job. But when we listen to God’s own words, we do not find a portrait of his love that is so simple, one-dimensional, tame, or boring.

Unsentimental Love

How, then, is God’s love “rigorously unsentimental”?

God’s love toward sinners comes on quite different terms than his love for his Son. Carson points first to God’s intra-Trinitarian love with which he loves his worthy Son. But we are mere creatures, and fallen, and undeserving. God loves us not because of our worth, but despite it. Our sin deserves the justice of eternal separation. His love toward sinners shines out for what it is against the backdrop of our rebellion, and the hell we deserve. His love for us demonstrates, at bottom, his value and worth, against the common assumption that it preeminently echoes how valuable we are.

And divine justice and wrath are satisfied in the death of God’s Son. His is bloody, deadly, unsparing love — the kind that makes people squirm and some utter horrible phrases like “cosmic child abuse.” The hubris is staggering. Still, he tells us that he loved the world in this way: “he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). How does God show his love for us? “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). How do we know that he is for us, and no one, Satan included, can be successfully against us? God “did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all” (Romans 8:32).

Carson also observes God’s providential love — he makes his sun rise on the just and unjust — and his yearning love, holding out open hands to any sinner who will bow and received Jesus as his treasured Lord. But sinners, on their own, do not repent without God’s elective love — his special love for his people, his sheep, his bride. And just as unnerving as election, if not more so for some, is God’s provisional love, which is conditioned on obedience.

Twenty-first-century, Christ-haunted Westerners have their sentimental slogans, that God’s love is unconditional, or that he loves everyone the same. It is true that his elective love is unconditional, but certainly not his provisional love. And he does love everyone, in some respect, with regard to his providential love and yearning love, but certainly not in his elective love. As Carson writes, “What the Bible says about the love of God is more complex and nuanced than what is allowed by mere sloganeering” (24).

News Worth Sharing

In such biblical tensions, we find the deep and complex love of our God — his unsentimental love — a love which is not weaker than the world’s version, but stronger. The edges and hard-to-stomach truths do not dilute divine love; they distill it.

God does not promise his people temporal comforts and ease. Nor did he promise, and give, such to his own Son in the days of his flesh. Divine love, in this age, is not simple, sentimental, or predictable. Owning this now, before the next time this world roughs us up, will help us be ready to suffer well, for the joy set before us.

So, we relish contemporary voices with backbone. And we go back a century for Tolkien and Lewis, or back three centuries for Edwards, and four for the Puritans. And best of all, by far, we build our lives daily in this modern world in the firm words and stark contrasts of the Scriptures, as faithful Christians have for two millennia. Then we watch with compassion as our world tries to satisfy itself with a cheap, thin, sentimental counterfeit.

And we stand ready with such good news to share about the love of our God.

Talking Back to God

Prayer, by human persons to the living and personal God, is far more than transactional. It is relational, and often incremental, with measured, humble boldness. God leads us, like Moses, into prayer. We make our requests. He answers in time. We learn more of him, which leads us to ask to see more of him.

It is one of the most audacious, and awe-inspiring, moments in all of Scripture.
In the wake of Israel’s shocking rebellion against God — blatantly violating the covenant God just made with them — Moses humbly dares to mediate between God and his people. At the climax of his intercession, and his careful yet determined dialogue with the living God, Moses makes what is perhaps the greatest, and most perceptive, petition a creature can of his Creator.
And it is, after all, a prayer — a modest yet bold request, made by man, to God Almighty: “Please show me your glory.”
That this is, in some sense, a special moment is plain. We do not stand in Moses’s sandals. We are not prophets called to mediate a covenant, nor do we live under that Sinai pact. Yet Moses’s prayer still functions as a model for the godly after him. It will not be the last prayer in Scripture for a sight of God’s glory, and rightly do the faithful echo it today. What might we who are in Christ learn about our own prayers from the amazing sequence of Moses’s pressing into God in Exodus 32–33?
Can and Will God Forgive?
Before wrestling with the prayer itself, we need to first acknowledge Moses’s haunting question: Could and would God forgive the people such a horrific breach of the covenant? Moses was not yet sure. He heard stories of his forefathers, encountered God at the bush, and witnessed the plagues in Egypt and the rescue in the Red Sea. Moses knew a powerful God who had delivered his people, but would he also forgive them?
At first, it looked like he wouldn’t. When God first informed Moses, on the mountain, that the people had “corrupted themselves,” by making and worshiping a golden calf (32:7–8), God had said, “Let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them. . .” (32:10). As Moses began to plead that God withhold destruction, it was far from clear that any relationship of peace could be fully restored.
God did relent of immediately consuming the people (32:14), yet the covenant remained broken. Although Moses went down the mountain, confronted the people in their rebellion, burnt the calf, disciplined the people (32:15–20), and oversaw the purging of the three thousand who led in the rebellion (32:21–29), Moses knew this did not restore what lay shattered. The next day, he returned to meet God on the mountain.
What drives Moses’s sequence of prayer in Exodus 33 is the question he begins to ask in 32:32: Can and will Yahweh forgive? Will God restore the relationship, and dwell among them, after they had worshiped the golden calf? And as we will see, God draws prayer out of Moses, and then moves to answer Moses’s question, in a way far more powerful, and memorable, than if there had not been an unfolding, developing, deepening relationship with God.
Moses, Teach Us to Pray
Exodus 33 begins with God declaring to the people that even though he will give them the land promised to their forefathers, God himself will not go up among them (33:3). They mourn this “disastrous word.” They want him, not just the promised land. They humble themselves before God, taking off their ornaments “from Mount Horeb onward” (33:6).
Even though the people heard this disastrous word, however, Moses continues to enjoy remarkable favor with God. In a tent pitched far off from the camp, God speaks with Moses (33:9), and verse 11 comments: “Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend.” This sets the scene for Moses’s remarkable intercessory prayer in 33:12–18.
Observe, then, at least three lessons Christians today might take from Moses’s otherwise inimitable prayer.
1. Prayer responds to God.
The living God takes the initiative. He first announced to Moses the people’s breach of the covenant (32:7–10). And he revealed his enduring favor on Moses, prompting the prophet to reply. So too for us. We don’t just “dial up” God in prayer when we so wish. First, he speaks, as he has revealed himself in his world, and in his word, and in his Son, the Word.
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How to Pray Like Jabez

Jabez was more honorable than his brothers; and his mother called his name Jabez, saying, “Because I bore him in pain.” Jabez called upon the God of Israel, saying, “Oh that you would bless me and enlarge my border, and that your hand might be with me, and that you would keep me from harm so that it might not bring me pain!” And God granted what he asked. (1 Chronicles 4:9–10)

Perhaps you’ve heard of Jabez. If not, maybe it’s time for his story.

Just over twenty years ago, few other than careful readers of Old Testament genealogies would have known his name. Then that changed almost overnight. Still today, the mere mention of Jabez among older Christians may elicit quite a range of responses.

The full story is longer than I know well or wish to tell, but author Bruce Wilkinson — who cofounded, with his mentor Howard Hendricks, the ministry Walk Thru the Bible in 1976 — published the 90-page The Prayer of Jabez in 2000. In it, he tells of hearing a moving message in the early 1970s, while a seminary student, from pastor Richard Seume (1915–1986). (Interestingly enough, John Piper sat under Seume’s preaching at Wheaton Bible Church in the late 1960s when Piper was a college student. He says, “I recall how Pastor Seume would take the most obscure texts and find in them diamonds to preach on.”)

That one sermon on Jabez, from 1 Chronicles 4:9–10 — the only two verses in the Bible that mention Jabez — left such an impression on Wilkinson that he began to pray Jabez’s own words for himself on a daily basis. When he published the book in 2000, he had been doing so every day for thirty years. Rehearsing the Jabez prayer daily seemed to Wilkinson to release (a word repeated in the book) the floodgates of God’s blessings on his life and ministry. The book quickly became a runaway bestseller, and is one of only a few Christian books of all time to have sold more than ten million copies.

I read Wilkinson’s short book as a college student when it came out in 2000 (about the same time I was first exposed to Piper and Desiring God). I don’t remember in detail how reading Jabez landed on me then. I do recall some enthusiasm, and remember echoing the prayer at times as my own. For whatever reasons, though, I didn’t form the habit of praying it daily. The flash soon faded. So, I have not prayed Jabez’s prayer every day for the last twenty years, though I expect the book (and that brief season) did have some lasting positive impact.

Gospel of Jabez?

Looking back now (and admitting that hindsight is far clearer), I would summarize the Jabez phenomenon like this: imbalances in the book led to greater imbalances in many readers, especially those less anchored in Scripture. Many readers assumed they had found some long-overlooked prayer to unlock God’s blessings. As I reread the book recently, I found that the book did leave this door open, and even subtly tipped in this direction, at times. (As an editor myself, I wonder what role the coauthor played in making Wilkinson’s message punchy, jettisoning nuance, and stretching it for a broad-as-possible audience. The coauthor’s name did not appear on the original cover, or in the book at all, but now appears in tiny letters on the new cover.)

From the first lines of the preface, seeds are sown with words like “always” and “the key” — words we would be wise to use sparingly in a generation of language inflation like ours:

I want to teach you how to pray a daring prayer that God always answers. It is brief — only one sentence with four parts — and tucked away in the Bible, but I believe it contains the key to a life of extraordinary favor with God. This petition has radically changed what I expect from God and what I experience every day by His power. (7, emphases added)

I could pick at similar overstatements and imbalances throughout the short book. I also could point to some gold (which would have been easier to celebrate in 2000 before seeing the widespread effects on readers). For one, Wilkinson qualifies the word bless as “goodness that only God has the power to know about or give us” (23). In Wilkinson’s own words, he is not teaching name-it-and-claim-it theology, and he clearly disclaims what we now call “the prosperity gospel” (24). He also admirably mentions living by God’s will and for God’s glory (32, 48, 57) and raises this question about “the American Dream”:

Do we really understand how far the American Dream is from God’s dream for us? We’re steeped in a culture that worships freedom, independence, personal rights, and the pursuit of pleasure. (70)

Such a challenge emerges on occasion, yet it’s clearly not the emphasis. And many readers seemed to capture the drift and skip the disclaimers. They followed the “always” and “the key” and the many examples of temporal blessings, and did not find in Jabez a call to new desires, a new heart, and new birth — to become a new person and so offer new prayers in new ways that turn many natural expectations upside down.

Pray on Repeat?

While I could say more about both the good and the bad, let me boil it down to what may have been the chief imbalance in the book: the final chapter and charge.

Perhaps the biggest problem practically is taking a potentially good sermon on Jabez that might otherwise inform a dynamic, authentic, engaging life of prayer and ending with the charge “to make the Jabez prayer for blessing part of the daily fabric of your life” (87). This may be all too predictable in the genre of self-help, but it’s hard not to see an obvious imbalance when it comes to Scripture. Should we raise any passage to the level of “pray this daily,” not to mention two verses “tucked away” in a genealogy? Wilkinson continues, “I encourage you to follow unwaveringly the plan outlined here for the next thirty days. By the end of that time, you’ll be noticing significant changes in your life, and the prayer will be on its way to becoming a treasured, lifelong habit” (87).

Here, at least, is a serious problem of proportion — first to this prayer (and what of Scripture’s far more prominent prayers?) and then to doing so daily, and then following this plan unwaveringly. And with it, the promise that “you’ll be noticing significant changes in your life” in just thirty days.

In the end, we might say a serious flaw in this Christian book is how easily it accommodates unregenerate palates, appealing to mainly natural desires, even among the born again. Also sorely and startingly lacking is a scriptural vision of life’s pains and suffering in this age. (For those interested, Tim Challies tells the story of Wilkinson’s Jabez-fueled “Dream for Africa” and its “abject failure” a few years after the book’s “success.”)

Can We Pray with Jabez?

What are we to do today, some twenty years later? The antidote to vain repetition of Scripture would not be to throw out Scripture! Rather, we want to have all the Bible, and all its prayers — not just one or two — inform and shape our lives of prayer for a lifetime. With regards to Jabez’s prayer, we might ask what we, as Christians, indeed can glean from an inspired genealogy not by way of a mantra to repeat but through timeless principles to guide and energize a dynamic life of prayer.

Jabez’s story does jump out at us from its surroundings. It’s easy for me to imagine taking these two verses as a sermon text, as Seume did, to celebrate biblical principles found here and elsewhere in Scripture and seek to inform the whole of a Christian’s prayer life. One important reality that Wilkinson does not draw attention to — but makes Jabez’s story, and his prayer, perhaps even more inspiring — is its context in Judah’s line. This is the line of the kings. Jabez is surrounded by regal ancestry and contemporaries, and yet he was born in pain, as the name Jabez (similar to the Hebrew for pain) commemorates. Noting this context might go a long way in helping us see the effect on the original readers; read the story in light of redemptive history, culminating in the Lion of Judah; and receive today and learn from the prayer in balance.

Consider, then, what lessons we might take from Jabez, alongside the full testimony of Scripture, for our own prayer lives.

1. God Rescues from Pain (in His Timing)

His mother called his name Jabez, saying, “Because I bore him in pain.”

We are not told what the particular pain was. There’s beauty in that. Such unspecified pain invites us to identify with Jabez, and imitate him, whatever our pain might be. We all, after all, are born in pain (Genesis 3:16), born into a sin-sick, pain-wracked world, being sinners ourselves and “by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind” (Ephesians 2:3).

Whatever the source, Jabez’s life started hard. But apparently he didn’t wallow in it, or resign himself to victim status. Nor did he seek to make up for it with his own muscle and determination. Rather, he turned to God. “Jabez called upon the God of Israel,” and in doing so, he directed his focus, and faith, in the right direction.

“Many of the most admirable saints have endured great pains the whole of their earthly lives.”

Our God is indeed a rescuer. He does not promise to keep his people pain-free, but he does delight to rescue us from pain once we’re in it. And that, importantly, not according to our timetable, but his. Some divine rescues come quickly; many do not. Many of the most admirable saints have endured great pains the whole of their earthly lives.

2. God (Often) Grows Faithful Influence

Oh that you would bless me and enlarge my border . . .

It is good to seek God’s blessing, and, in particular, to do so on God’s terms. And seeking to enlarge one’s border, or expand space and influence, is deeply human by God’s design from the beginning: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion” (Genesis 1:28). Christ himself commissioned his disciples to enlarge the borders of his kingdom, making disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19).

Even one so exemplary, and humble, as the apostle Paul would testify to his holy ambition, under Christ, to enlarge the borders of his influence, going through Rome to Spain (Romans 15:23–24). Paul also writes candidly to the Corinthians about his team’s “area of influence among you” being “greatly enlarged, so that we may preach the gospel in lands beyond you” (2 Corinthians 10:15–16). God does mean for his people to pray for the enlarging of their influence, not for personal comforts, but for gospel advance, for the strengthening of churches, for the serving of Christ’s great mission and purposes in the world.

And these are prayers God often answers — but not always. Oh, what difference lies in such little words! And once we have prayed for the figurative enlarging of our borders, for Christ’s sake, we are wise to be ready for God to do very different reckoning and measuring than we might expect.

3. God (Often) Provides Strength When Asked

. . . and that your hand might be with me . . .

Yes and amen to asking God for his hand to be with us — his hand, meaning his power and strength and help. It is significant that Jabez didn’t just want a big, upfront donation from God to then turn and cultivate in his own strength. Rather, Jabez acknowledges that his own strength will not be sufficient. He needs God’s help every step along the way.

Perhaps his humbling and painful beginnings taught him this lesson earlier in life than most. Jabez was “honored” (more so than his brothers) not because of his noble birth, great wealth, and manifest ability, but because he owned his own weaknesses and limitations and asked for God to be his strength. That Jabez surpassed his brothers displays God’s strength. Jabez pleads that God’s hand be with him, and in doing so, Jabez admits (as every human should) that his own power and skill are not adequate.

4. God Keeps Us from (Some) Harm

. . . and that you would keep me from harm so that it might not bring me pain!

Finally, Jabez asked for God’s protection. It is good to pray to our God that he keep us from harm and pain — even as we know that he at times leads us, as he did his own Son, into the wilderness, and into the valley of the shadow of death.

“Who can fathom what temptations and harm countless saints have been spared because they humbly asked their Father?”

Jesus too taught us to pray, “Lead us not into temptation” (Luke 11:4), and in the garden, the night before he died, he instructed his men twice, “Pray that you may not enter into temptation” (Luke 22:40, 46). God really does keep us from some temptations in response to our prayers. Prayer matters. The sovereign God chooses to rule the universe in such a way that, under his hand, some events transpire (or not) because his people prayed. Who can fathom what temptations, and what harm, countless saints have been spared because they humbly asked their Father?

And our God does not promise to keep us from all harm, or from all temptations. In fact, we are promised that “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). So, we do not presume such protection, nor is it wasted breath to ask.

God Gave What He Asked

That God granted what Jabez asked doesn’t mean God did it in the way Jabez envisioned or in the timing Jabez hoped. So too for us. God does delight to answer the prayers of his children, but we do not presume that he does so when and how we prefer. He is “is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think” (Ephesians 3:20). And he answers and exalts his faithful “at the proper time” (1 Peter 5:6) — and on his terms, not ours.

When his children ask for bread or fish or an egg, our God does not give them a stone or a serpent or scorpion (Matthew 7:9–11; Luke 11:11–13). He does not give them, in the end, worse than what they asked. But better. He knows how to give good gifts to his children, and far more than we typically ask — and climactically, he gives us himself. But not on our cue. And not in response to parroting biblical words.

Jabez’s prayer is no promise that God will do what we ask and when. However, 1 Chronicles 4:9–10 is a rousing call to the prayerless, and to the pained, to draw near to Judah’s greatest descendant. Our God does redeem his people. He brings joy to the bitter. He brings honor to the pained. He exalts the humble. He gives the crown of glory to the shamed. He raises his crucified Son. In Christ, God turns us and our world upside down, including our prayers.

How to Meet with God for a Lifetime

If the CROSS conference had existed twenty years ago, when I was a college student, I would have been here. So it feels relatively easy to put myself in your shoes. I’ve asked myself, What was it that I needed to hear as a young adult about how to meet God each day?

If it were just one thing, I think it would be this: gather a day’s portion. You might call it “faithful realism” in daily Bible intake. In short, not trying to do too much. Not trying to acquire a lifetime’s worth of Bible knowledge in a few short months, or weeks! (And not falling off the wagon and doing nothing when you get discouraged.) Rather, adopting a modest, realistic approach in seeking to meet with God, in his word, and seeking to be faithful over time. And coming to God, through his word, to be fed, to be nourished — to receive, not achieve.

So, gather a day’s portion. I’ll flesh out this vision in five brief aspects, but first let me set the scene for where the phrase “gather a day’s portion” comes from in Exodus 16.

Bread from Heaven

In Exodus 14, God’s people have just been freed from slavery in Egypt and passed through the Red Sea. Moses and the people erupt in a song of praise in the first half of chapter 15 (vv. 1–21), but in barely three days, the people already are grumbling (Exodus 15:22–24). God responds with grace — he “heals” the bitter water, and brings them to a place of plenty, an oasis with “twelve springs of water and seventy palm trees” (Exodus 15:27).

Once they set out from the oasis, soon they are grumbling again (Exodus 16:2), now to the point of delusion (Exodus 16:3). Again, God responds with grace. He says in Exodus 16:4, “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.”

This bread from heaven they call “manna,” and Moses gives the further instruction in verse Exodus 16:16, “Gather of it, each one of you, as much as he can eat.”

Gathering Every Day

Now, Exodus 16 is not first and foremost about Christian Bible reading today and how to meet God each day. But it does give us a glimpse into who our God is, and what it means to have him as our God and for us to be his people. He is the kind of God who provides for our needs on an everyday basis. He is the God who is with his people every step of the way, to give us, by his own hand, daily provision in the wilderness — any place in the world — to get us safely to his promised land. And he loves to feed his people a day at a time.

“God loves to feed his people a day at a time.”

Jesus taught us to pray to our Father, “Give us this day our daily bread” (Matthew 6:11), and he warns us not to adopt the build-bigger-barns mindset of the rich fool, who put his hope for the future in his own store rather than in the Father’s daily, active care (Luke 12:13–21).

God wants our sitting down with his Book, to meet with him each day, to be more like coming to dinner than going to the grocery store. Come to eat and drink, here and now, for today, not mainly to store up for someday in the future. God doesn’t mean for us to focus on developing our own stash and personal pantry, but to feed straight from his warehouse.

So, coming to God’s word to gather a day’s portion has come to have at least these five brief aspects for me.

Plan

First is a plan, which includes time and place. It was no accident that Jesus rose early, and the united testimony of centuries of faithful saints has been that the quiet of first thing in the morning is far and away the best time for far and away the most Christians. One way I think about it is that I want God’s voice, in his word, to be the first voice I hear each day. Most will find out over time that it is worth it to get off your screen the night before, and get to bed on time, and get up early — before all the people who stayed up too late on their screens — and meet with the living God, in his word, in those quietest and least-distracting moments of the day.

Plan also includes place, which I mean in two senses: in the world and in the word. In the world means the physical location in which you’ll open your Bible. For me, I want an uncluttered desk or table. In the word means a planned place in the Bible to open to. I would not recommend opening at random, or just bouncing around each day with whatever feels interesting on the spur of the moment. This is where a reading plan can help for balance in the long term and clarity about where to go today. Find a time-tested reading plan, and take each day’s assigned readings as God’s gift to you that morning for his feeding of your soul.

Pace

Second is pace. This is so important. I suspect so many seasons of Bible reading are ruined by rushing and impatience. Modern life can be so hurried. There are so many options and still just 24 hours in the day. So, we hurry. We hurry through meals. Hurry on the roads. Hurry to scroll through our feeds. Hurry when we read articles and books, often just skimming, because we feel like we’re always running out of time. But hurry ruins Bible reading. I think it hampers most reading, but Bible reading all the more.

In a life of hurry, let your daily season in God’s word be your first stance against the tides. Slow down when you open the Bible. Find the pace that accords with nourishing your soul for the day. God’s word is not fast food. For me, this means I need enough time to lose track of time. I need to find the pace that frees me to follow rabbit trails and check cross-references that come into my own head, or check the ones in the margin — that I have space to try to understand Scripture in the world of Scripture. What previous and later scriptures sound like this one, or use the same categories and language and terms and images?

Pause

Third is pause. What I want to highlight here is the importance of meditation. Not just reading. As you read, and slowly, find some place to pause, to linger and ponder some striking truth, some unexpected ray of God’s goodness, some glimpse of his beauty.

In meditation, you pause and ponder some truth, roll it around on the tongue of your soul, seeking to not only understand it but enjoy it, or feel the weight of it. Which leads, then, to addressing God (in prayer) as his word has addressed us and gone deep in us in meditation.

Prayer

So, fourth is prayer. Meditation is a bridge between Bible reading and prayer. Instead of doing your Bible readings over here, and then pivoting to prayer lists over here, let your Bible reading lead to meditation, and meditation then lead to prayer.

Here’s my little arc for what I’m seeking to do each morning with my Bible open:

Begin with Bible.
Move to meditation.
Polish with prayer.

To meet with God is not only to hear his words in the Bible, but also to speak back to him, in response to his word, in prayer. It’s a relationship. First, God speaks in his word, and we listen deeply and take it all the way in through meditation. Then, amazingly, God wants to hear back from us. In Christ, we have his ear. He means for us now, in light of what he says in his word, to address him in praise, thanks, confession, and supplication.

Person

Fifth and finally is the person, whose name is Jesus. Meeting with God, in his word, is no mere activity. It’s not mainly an exercise in learning. It is meeting with a person, who is not only God but also man like us. To see Jesus — by the Spirit, through the word — is to see the Father. To know him is to know God. To enjoy him is to enjoy God. To feed your soul on him is to have true life.

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

Bible reading and meditation and prayer are means to an end. They are God’s means of grace to the great end of knowing and enjoying Jesus as the Pearl of Great Price (Matthew 13:45–46), as the great Treasure hidden in a field and found in joy (Matthew 13:44), as the Surpassing Value worth counting all as loss to have (Philippians 3:8).

So, gather a day’s portion is my reminder not to try to do too much in morning devotions, and not to miss the main thing. Our most pressing need is not to master the Bible but to be mastered by God in Christ, through his word, in a day’s portion, for a lifetime.

The Humbled Win the World

Aspiring missionaries are often the kind of Christians who ask questions like “How do I humble myself?” They have read their Bibles, and have sat under faithful preaching, and have noticed that, from beginning to end, God commends humility and condemns pride. For instance,

“Seek humility” (Zephaniah 2:3).
“Put on . . . humility” (Colossians 3:12).
“Have . . . a humble mind” (1 Peter 3:8).
“Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another” (1 Peter 5:5).
“Humble yourselves . . . under the mighty hand of God” (1 Peter 5:6; James 4:10).

And so the kinds of Christians who tend to make good missionaries genuinely want to be more humble, and they ask questions like, “How do I humble myself?” And when we turn to the places in Scripture that talk about self-humbling, what we find is that the answer itself is humbling.

Let’s look at what may be the two most instructive passages in the Bible about self-humbling. The first is in Exodus; the second, in Philippians.

Will You Refuse to Humble Yourself?

The first mention of humbling in the Bible is in Exodus 10, with Moses standing before Pharoah. Let’s set the scene with Exodus 5:1–2 as Moses first approaches him and speaks on God’s behalf:

Moses says, “Thus says the Lord [Yahweh], the God of Israel, ‘Let my people go. . . .” To which Pharaoh replies, mark this: “Who is [Yahweh], that I should obey his voice and let Israel go? I do not know [Yahweh] . . .”

Okay, Pharaoh. You may not yet know Yahweh. But just you wait. You will know him, and perhaps all too well. Note here, as Pharaoh rightly perceives it, this is about obedience: He says, “Who is [Yahweh], that I should obey his voice and let Israel go?”

Then, as you know, ten terrible plagues follow as Yahweh makes himself known as judge to Pharaoh, and as savior to his own people, as he rescues them from Egyptian oppression.

Now, fast forward from Exodus 5 to Exodus 9:17, just before plague number seven. God says to Pharoah, “You are still exalting yourself against my people and will not let them go.” In refusing to obey God’s voice, Pharoah is “exalting self” — which is the opposite of “humbling self.” God then makes that explicit in the next chapter, before the eighth plague. He says again to Pharaoh in Exodus 10:3,

How long will you refuse to humble yourself before me?

And this is the first mention of humbling self in the Bible. So, let’s pull together what we’ve seen in Exodus. Though Pharaoh pretends to be divine, the true God and Creator speaks to him as a creature. “Obey my voice. Let my people go.” And God refers to Pharaoh’s refusal as “exalting yourself” and instructs him to “humble yourself” in response to these painful, humbling plagues. That is, obey God. Acknowledge, Pharoah, that you are not God. He is God.

We might say that the basic confession of humility is “You are God, and I am not.” First, God acted; he humbled Pharaoh through plague after plague. Then, the question comes to Pharaoh, Will you humble yourself? Will you pretend that you are God and challenge or ignore Yahweh, or will you admit, “He is God, and I am not,” and obey?

God Acts First

This is the paradigm that then echoes throughout the Scriptures (especially in 2 Chronicles, and in the teaching of Jesus, Matthew 18:4; 23:12; Luke 14:11; 18:14), and is true for us today. God may not confront us with a knock at the door from a prophet like Moses, but God does confront us. He takes the initiative. His humbling hand descends. A family member, or brother or sister in Christ, confronts us. Or sickness in ourselves or in a loved one. Or death. Or the loss of a job. Or a breakup. Or whatever obstacles you will encounter on the mission field, or on your way to the mission field — and you will encounter them.

God takes the initiative in humbling us, and then the question comes: Now, will you humble yourself and receive what God is doing in your discomfort and pain, or will you push back?

Humility says, “He is God, and I am not.” Uncomfortable and painful as my circumstances are, I receive them as his humbling hand. That doesn’t mean I don’t pray for rescue. In fact, praying for rescue can be precisely the kind of self-humbling we’re taking about.

“The kinds of Christians who tend to make good missionaries genuinely want to be more humble.”

So, How do I humble myself? is a good question for aspiring missionaries to ask. And it has a humbling answer. We don’t just up and humble ourselves when we’re good and ready. We don’t take the initiative. Self-humbling is not an achievement. Rather, our self-humbling begins with God’s initiative. He takes the first step and humbles us. Then the question comes, Will you receive his humbling and humble yourself?

Jesus Humbled Himself

Now, let’s go to Philippians 2 and see it play out, in three great steps, in the greatest missionary who ever lived.

He Became Man

First, before he humbled himself as man, he first had to become man. Which is said to be an emptying of himself.

[being] in the form of God, [he] did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. (Philippians 2:6–7)

His emptying of himself was not an emptying of divine attributes, as if that were possible. It was an emptying of privilege or comfort — the privilege of not becoming man and not being subjected to the finitude and pain of human life, and the difficulties of living in our fallen world. And Jesus’s emptying here, Paul says, was not a losing but a taking: “taking the form of a servant.”

So, first, God the Son becomes man.

Obedient to Death

Then, second, once human, Jesus fulfilled the human calling before God: “he humbled himself.”

being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:8)

What did Jesus’s self-humbling involve? He humbled himself (1) by becoming obedient. We saw with Pharaoh the issue of human obedience to God’s will. Jesus, as man, obeyed God. As much as his humanity wanted to avoid death, and avoid bearing our sin (having none of his own), and feeling forsaken by his Father, he prayed in the garden, “not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42). And he was obedient, Paul says, (2) “to the point of death.” He endured. He didn’t hit eject when obedience got hard. He obeyed all the way through. And this self-humbling obedience to death went so far as (3) “even death on a cross.”

Exalted for Humility

Now, third and finally,

Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name . . . (Philippians 2:9)

As man, Jesus humbled himself in obedience to the divine will, and went to the cross — and God, in his perfect timing, three days later, raised him, and, forty days later, exalted him at his right hand.

Welcome God’s Humbling Hand

Let me close with two final words to you as 18–25 year olds at the CROSS conference:

First, your process from CROSS, to actually getting there — on the ground, into the cross-cultural ministry you aspire to — likely will take longer and be a more trying and patience-testing process than you imagined. God means to humble you along the way. And he means, as you seek to become a missionary — high a calling as it is! — that you learn obedience and humility, that you do not, in pride, jettison the call of Philippians 2:3–4, which verses 6¬–9 uphold, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”

Finally, my prayer for you is that you prepare ahead of time, daily and weekly, for God’s many humblings, for your good, before they come:

Humble yourself daily by sitting under (not over) his word and bowing before him in prayer;
And humble yourself weekly by sitting under faithful preaching and submitting yourself in covenant/committed fellowship in a faithful local church.

“Ask God to work a posture in your soul that is ready to receive, even welcome, God’s humbling hand.”

Ask God to work a posture in your soul — through his word, prayer, and covenant fellowship to his people — that is ready to receive, even welcome God’s humbling hand, painful as it may be when it descends.

Answering his call to invest your life directly in the Great Commission work of crossing oceans and borders and languages and cultures with the gospel won’t mean you avoid his humbling hand. It might mean, in his great mercy, his humbling hand descends in your life all the more. Read missionary biographies. Were they kept from his humbling hand? No, they were not.

Rather, his humbling hand kept them from vanity, from shallowness, from being ineffective, from laboring in vain, from walking away from Jesus, from being choked out by the cares of this life. God’s humbling hand was a painful and merciful means of his grace in sustaining and strengthening the souls of his missionaries, and in working through them to do his humbling and rescuing work in the lives of those they were sent to reach.

Talking Back to God: How His Promises Provoke Our Prayers

It is one of the most audacious, and awe-inspiring, moments in all of Scripture.

In the wake of Israel’s shocking rebellion against God — blatantly violating the covenant God just made with them — Moses humbly dares to mediate between God and his people. At the climax of his intercession, and his careful yet determined dialogue with the living God, Moses makes what is perhaps the greatest, and most perceptive, petition a creature can of his Creator.

And it is, after all, a prayer — a modest yet bold request, made by man, to God Almighty: “Please show me your glory.”

That this is, in some sense, a special moment is plain. We do not stand in Moses’s sandals. We are not prophets called to mediate a covenant, nor do we live under that Sinai pact. Yet Moses’s prayer still functions as a model for the godly after him. It will not be the last prayer in Scripture for a sight of God’s glory, and rightly do the faithful echo it today. What might we who are in Christ learn about our own prayers from the amazing sequence of Moses’s pressing into God in Exodus 32–33?

Can and Will God Forgive?

Before wrestling with the prayer itself, we need to first acknowledge Moses’s haunting question: Could and would God forgive the people such a horrific breach of the covenant? Moses was not yet sure. He heard stories of his forefathers, encountered God at the bush, and witnessed the plagues in Egypt and the rescue in the Red Sea. Moses knew a powerful God who had delivered his people, but would he also forgive them?

At first, it looked like he wouldn’t. When God first informed Moses, on the mountain, that the people had “corrupted themselves,” by making and worshiping a golden calf (32:7–8), God had said, “Let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them. . .” (32:10). As Moses began to plead that God withhold destruction, it was far from clear that any relationship of peace could be fully restored.

God did relent of immediately consuming the people (32:14), yet the covenant remained broken. Although Moses went down the mountain, confronted the people in their rebellion, burnt the calf, disciplined the people (32:15–20), and oversaw the purging of the three thousand who led in the rebellion (32:21–29), Moses knew this did not restore what lay shattered. The next day, he returned to meet God on the mountain.

What drives Moses’s sequence of prayer in Exodus 33 is the question he begins to ask in 32:32: Can and will Yahweh forgive? Will God restore the relationship, and dwell among them, after they had worshiped the golden calf? And as we will see, God draws prayer out of Moses, and then moves to answer Moses’s question, in a way far more powerful, and memorable, than if there had not been an unfolding, developing, deepening relationship with God.

Moses, Teach Us to Pray

Exodus 33 begins with God declaring to the people that even though he will give them the land promised to their forefathers, God himself will not go up among them (33:3). They mourn this “disastrous word.” They want him, not just the promised land. They humble themselves before God, taking off their ornaments “from Mount Horeb onward” (33:6).

Even though the people heard this disastrous word, however, Moses continues to enjoy remarkable favor with God. In a tent pitched far off from the camp, God speaks with Moses (33:9), and verse 11 comments: “Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend.” This sets the scene for Moses’s remarkable intercessory prayer in 33:12–18.

“In prayer, we respond to God. . . . First, we hear his voice in Scripture; then we access his ear in prayer.”

Observe, then, at least three lessons Christians today might take from Moses’s otherwise inimitable prayer.

1. Prayer responds to God.

The living God takes the initiative. He first announced to Moses the people’s breach of the covenant (32:7–10). And he revealed his enduring favor on Moses, prompting the prophet to reply. So too for us. We don’t just “dial up” God in prayer when we so wish. First, he speaks, as he has revealed himself in his world, and in his word, and in his Son, the Word. In prayer, we respond to him in light of his revelation to us. First, we hear his voice in Scripture; then we access his ear in prayer. We pray in light of what he has promised.

2. Prayer pleads God’s reputation and glory.

When God announces to Moses the peoples’ sin, and the intention to destroy them and start over with him, Moses’s reflex is to lean into God’s own reputation. This is a good reflex. “Why should the Egyptians say, ‘With evil intent did he bring them out, to kill them in the mountains and to consume them from the face of the earth’?” (Exodus 21:12).

Moses prays for God to turn from righteous anger and relent “from this disaster against your people,” for God’s own name’s sake. Moses does not plea the people’s worth — or their humanity, made in God’s image — but God’s choice and word. He chose them as his people.

“At the bottom of prayer to a God like ours is our longing for his face, not merely the provisions of his hand.”

Today we are in good company to pray for God’s own reputation in the world, and to take notice of, and pray, God’s own promises back to him. God loves for his people to pray in light of what he’s said to us, to make our pleas in response to his promises. And praying for his glory not only concerns God’s reputation in the world, but also, and most significantly, our own knowing and enjoying him. At the bottom of prayer to such a God is our longing for his face, not merely the provisions of his hand.

3. Prayer can be incremental and sequential.

We might even call Moses’s prayer “dialogical.” It is striking how relational his process and sequence of prayer is in these chapters.

At the heart of the “dialogue,” reverent as it is, is whose people the Israelites are, a topic God introduces and draws Moses into. First, to Moses, God calls them, after their sin, “your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt” (32:7). Then God introduces the surprising tension of his ongoing favor on Moses. God will consume the people and “make a great nation” of Moses (32:9–10). This favor, combined with calling the nation “your people,” presents Moses an invitation to reply in prayer.

Moses asks to know more about this God — “please show me now your ways” (33:13) — to discern whether God will forgive his stiff-necked nation. And Moses meekly, but importantly, appends this to this first plea: “Consider too that this nation is your people.” God answers positively, though briefly: “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest” (33:14). The short reply invites Moses to press in further, for the sake of the people. His “me” moves to “us.” He pleads for “I and your people”; then again “we . . . I and your people.” Moses identifies himself with the people, asking that God’s favor on him extend to them.

Prayer, by human persons to the living and personal God, is far more than transactional. It is relational, and often incremental, with measured, humble boldness. God leads us, like Moses, into prayer. We make our requests. He answers in time. We learn more of him, which leads us to ask to see more of him.

‘Show Me Your Glory’

Moses’s prayerful dialogue with God has become more and more daring — slowly, one incremental plea at a time: Don’t consume your people (32:11–13). Please forgive your people (32:31–32). Show me your ways (33:13). Count the people with me in my favor with you (33:15–16). And now, most boldly, “Please show me your glory” (33:18).

This short but daring plea will be Moses’s last. He will not speak again until 34:9, when he finally completes the plea for forgiveness he left unfinished in 32:32.

In Exodus 33:19, God begins to respond:

I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The Lord.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. (Exodus 33:19)

Moses receives his full answer, however, a chapter later in Exodus 34:7 with another revelation:

The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin. (Exodus 34:6–7).
The driving question has been answered, and so Moses bows in worship and prays with confidence, “O Lord, please let the Lord go in the midst of us . . . and pardon our iniquity and our sin . . .” (34:9). Having prayed, and seen the glory in God’s declarations about his character, his goodness, his mercy, his grace, Moses is confident that God will grant forgiveness and renew the covenant.

Christ, Our Moses

For Christians today, any Moses-like leveraging of God’s favor we know to be firmly grounded in his favor on Christ. More significant than our echoes and imitations of Moses is the fulfillment of his intercession, and final mediation for God’s people, in Jesus.

We may indeed glean some categories and concepts from Moses’s prayers. Yet, as we come in Christ to Exodus 32–33, we identify not only with the prophet, but with the people. They are “stiff-necked.” Rebellious. Deserving of divine justice. Desperate for mercy and grace. But in Christ, we have one far greater than Moses who intercedes for us, leveraging his own perfect favor with God on our behalf.

Jesus, our great high priest, “has passed through the heavens,” and calls us to “draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, [to] receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:14, 16). And he does so not only as new-covenant mediator and intercessor, but also as the very one in whose face we see the glory of God. What was unique in ancient Israel — speaking to God “as a man speaks to his friend” — is offered to all who are in Christ.

God now invites us to come to him as Father, and to come to Christ as husband — the deepest and nearest of human relationships — not to make requests, get what we want, pivot, and go back to life apart from him, but to come closer, and nearer, through prayer, and discover again and again that he himself, in Christ, is the great reward.

The Sin-Defying Power of Words

I won’t soon forget visiting “Angola,” the Louisiana State Penitentiary, and nation’s largest maximum-security prison. In November 2009, I accompanied John Piper as he preached in chapel to hundreds of inmates, broadcast to thousands. Beforehand, he spoke and prayed for half an hour with a man just seven weeks prior to his execution by lethal injection.

Much could be said about Angola, once considered the nation’s most dangerous prison, and its stunning transformation (not just morally but spiritually) under warden Burl Cain, beginning in 1995. Cain, a lifelong Southern Baptist, wasn’t shy about sharing his Christian faith and welcoming influences like Piper. He took fire for it over the years.

Doubtless, Cain instituted a breadth of important reforms and gospel-friendly initiatives, but he’s often remembered for prohibiting profanity from both inmates and guards. It was a striking decision. Seeing with unusual clarity the complex and catalytic relationship between words and behavior, Cain did the almost unthinkable: he outlawed cussing at the state pen.

How many of us would think a maximum-security prison of 6,000 murderers, rapists, armed robbers, and habitual felons had far bigger fish to fry than profanity? Why even bother?

Words Give Rise to Action

Cain believed that violent words not only express but also entrench, and cultivate, violent instincts in the soul that eventually give rise to violent acts. Giving voice to unrighteous anger puts us one step closer to acting on it.

Soon enough, even Cain’s many detractors found the results difficult to dispute. In 2004, The Washington Post reported on the rise in morale and the plummet in violence at Angola:

The year before Cain arrived, there were nearly 300 attacks on the staff and 766 inmate-on-inmate assaults, half of which were with weapons. . . . Since Cain took over as warden, inmate attacks on the staff have plunged nearly 70 percent, and inmate-on-inmate violence has dropped 44 percent.

“Giving voice to unrighteous anger puts us one step closer to acting on it.”

Surely, the ban against profanity didn’t do all the work. Hundreds of inmates, if not thousands, not only cleaned up their mouths, but testified to Christ’s cleansing their hearts — and that will transform any prison. Still, the correlation between words and eventual behaviors is not one to ignore. And it may be far more important to life outside of prison than many of us are prone to think.

Holy Fight and Flight

Healthy Christians do not make peace with sin. As we grow in love for Christ, we grow to delight in holiness. Yet we live in a world of sin, and still have indwelling sin within us. So, we often discuss various holy fight-and-flight tactics against temptation.

For one, we want to be ready to resist sin when we encounter temptation. Not only do we “resist the devil” (James 4:7; 1 Peter 5:9), but we also resist “in [our] struggle against sin” (Hebrews 12:4) — against temptations from without and from within. In a moment of temptation, we want to fight, resist, make holy war.

Another important strategy is flight. When Potiphar’s wife tempted Joseph, he fled. So too, the apostle Paul writes, “Flee youthful passions” (2 Timothy 2:22), “Flee sexual immorality” (1 Corinthians 6:18), and “Flee from idolatry” (1 Corinthians 10:14). If you find yourself in the presence of some temptation, and it’s in your power to leave, then by all means flee.

Avoidance is a third time-tested plan. Before the moment of fight-or-flight confronts us, we seek to avoid some temptations altogether. For instance, avoid divisive people (Romans 16:17; 2 Timothy 3:5). Avoid quarreling (Titus 3:2). Avoid “irreverent babble” (2 Timothy 2:16). Avoid “foolish controversies” (Titus 3:9).

However, one particular tactic we might be prone to overlook in the multi-front war against sin involves the power of words. Warden Cain was onto something — not just (negatively) to curb violence at a prison, but also (positively) for the Christian life.

Our Own Words Shape Us

Not only is it true, as Jesus says, that “what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart” (Matthew 15:18), but our heart-expressing words also echo back to move and shape us.

On the one hand, to speak evil is an additional step, subtle as it may be, to thinking and feeling evil. As we give vent and verbal expression to otherwise inaudible evil in us, we reinforce it. It takes root. One little word at a time, we habituate ourselves to sin. Now, we’re one small (but not insignificant) degree closer to acting on it. And on the other hand, when we speak against sin rising in us — and speak for the joy of righteousness — we marshal the power of words to mold our hearts for holiness.

To be clear, the point here is not “stop talking about sin” but rather, declare to your own soul sin’s deception, and miserable outcomes. In other words, do talk to yourself about your own sin. And in the moment of temptation, tell yourself “no” and why.

Evil Curbed and Smothered

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–1945) knew of the power of our own words in leading to, or away, from sin. He writes in Life Together,

Often we combat evil thoughts most effectively if we absolutely refuse to allow them to be expressed in words. . . [I]solated thoughts of judgment [against our neighbor] can be curbed and smothered by never allowing them the right to be uttered, except as a confession of sin. (90–91)

Before saying more about his insight, first note confession as an exception. To confess sin as sin is not to incline ourselves to relapse, but instead to make war against it. Which means that real confession is not mere admission, but a form of renouncing our sin.

“Real confession is not mere admission, but a form of renouncing our sin.”

But then notice the role our own words have to play in the pursuit of holiness, and the war against sin. Our souls can be cauldrons of good and ill. Dwelling in us, for now, is both remaining sin and the very Spirit of God. Evil thoughts grow as we voice them with approval, and they diminish — are “curbed and smothered” — as we deny them the dignity of utterance (or utter them only in spirit of confession).

Renounce Ungodliness

At the height of his letter to Titus, the apostle Paul writes about the appearing of God, in Christ, and the disappearing of our sin, in time, as we pursue holiness. And he uses the word renounce to acknowledge the place our words can have in combatting sin:

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)

The grace of God — manifest and incarnate in Christ — not only saves sinners by covering our failings but also trains us. God’s grace is too great to simply forgive our sins and leave us in them. He loves his sons and daughters enough to train us for new and better life, for genuine holiness, for the freedom and joy of an existence less and less encumbered by sin. And here, remarkably, the link between God’s training grace and our godly living involves our own words as we renounce ungodliness.

‘Be Gone, Satan!’

The pattern is one we find even in Jesus, who leveraged the power of his words against sin and the devil. In the wilderness, he renounced temptation audibly as he quoted Scripture to combat Satan’s enticements, culminating with “Be gone, Satan!” (Matthew 4:10). So too he later responded to Peter’s foolish statement (that Jesus would never go to the cross) with “Get behind me, Satan!” (Mark 8:33).

There is power, for good and godliness, in a clear, settled “no” — whether in our own heads, or out loud to ourselves, and all the better in confession to God or neighbor. Liberated and energized by God’s grace, and looking to the reward of superior joy, we are given the dignity of participating in God’s decisive action in making us holy. And even before it involves our behavior, it can begin with our words.

The words we speak, especially when pointed, shape our souls for good or evil. Renouncing sin, as an expression of holy desires in a divided heart, is no empty act. When our renouncing of sin and Satan proceed from a heart growing in its disdain for sin, and delight in holiness, our words reinforce and buttress and fortify our hearts. Words of renunciation against specific sins and temptations are not time-outs from the actual fight but a valuable weapon in the campaign.

Declare Your No

Because of this power in the act of renouncing, some baptismal traditions, going deep into an annals of church history, ask the baptismal candidate, right there in the waters, as we do at our church, “Do you renounce Satan, and all his works, and all his ways?” Baptism itself is a kind of public forsaking of sin and Satan and a confession of Christ, but there is added power for shaping the soul, banishing demons, and strengthening the church, to not just depict it but declare it — and not just at baptism, but in the everyday waters of temptation.

When pride feeds us thoughts of being better than others, we respond with, “No, no good will come from boosting self, compared to others. I’m an unworthy servant, and any good in me is only by God’s grace. Pride, be humbled.”

Or, when feeling envious over another’s abilities or applause, “No, envy, my Father knows exactly what I need and when. Rejoice in his gifts to others.”

When tempted by lust, “No, God’s design and command is best: one woman, my wife, for life. Lust, you are foolish, and not welcome here.”

Tempted to gossip, “No, there is more joy in the self-control of holding my tongue than sinning against someone with my words.”

Or, when tempted by greed, “No, my Father owns it all, and I will share in it fully in due time. Greed, be gone.”

And all the better when we can renounce sin in the very words of Scripture: When angry with others, “No, the anger of man does not work the righteousness of God” (James 1:20). Anger, however righteous or not, be put away (Colossians 3:8).

Temptation thrives, and grows, when unacknowledged and unaddressed. But with the help of the Spirit, and through the power of words, we can say “No!” and drive it away with God’s better promises.

We Wish to See Jesus

“Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Little did they know how well they spoke — not only for themselves, but for the whole human race.

John 12:20 reports that “some Greeks” had come to worship in Jerusalem for that fateful Passover leading up to Jesus’s crucifixion. They approached his disciple Philip, who told another disciple, Andrew. Together, the two came to their Master with the request of the Greeks “to see Jesus” — to which Jesus gave this spectacularly unexpected response:

The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.

That was not the answer they were expecting — the disciples or the Greeks. But their wish to see Jesus was not rejected but redirected. It was an admirable wish, profoundly so — and if they remain in Jerusalem for the week, they will soon see the most important sight of him, crushing as it at first will be. His time has come to be “glorified” — which will not mean leading a charge to overthrow Rome and seize the crown, but laying down his life. Like a grain of wheat, he will not bear much fruit unless he first dies.

These Greeks will indeed see him, and glimpse a sight far greater than they could have anticipated or imagined — far more horrible, and far more wonderful. They will witness the depths of his humiliation that will prove to be the very height of the glory of the one who truly
is David’s long-promised heir to the throne, as shocking and unexpected as it will be.

And as they see him — in his divine and human excellencies, united in one person, and
culminating in the cross and its aftermath — they will have all they wished and more in the request they made expressing the deepest longing of every human heart.

Infinite Abyss

Famously, Blaise Pascal wrote in his Pensees of “the infinite abyss” in the human soul that we try to fill with all the wonders and the worst this world has to offer.

There was once in man a true happiness of which there now remain to him only the mark and empty trace, which he in vain tries to fill from all his surroundings, seeking from things absent the help he does not obtain in things present. But these are all inadequate,
because the infinite abyss can only be filled by an infinite and immutable object, that is to say, only by God Himself.

So also the great Augustine, more than twelve centuries before Pascal, had spoken of the great, undeniable restlessness of the human heart, until finding its rest in God: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”

Moses, seeking to leverage God’s remarkable favor on him, was so bold as to ask to see God’s glory. God permitted him a glimpse of the afterglow of divine beauty, not his face, and Moses made no complaints. Yet redemptive history was not done at Sinai. Centuries would follow. The kingdom would be established in the land, and decline. Human kings would rise and fall, and the nation with them. And the same Gospel in which the Greeks expressed their wish to see Jesus opens with one of the most stunning claims possible:

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.

The desire to see Jesus was far more profound than these Greeks could have guessed. They wished for amazement in the presence of someone great. And what they got instead anticipated the heavenly vision the apostle John would receive while in exile on the isle of Patmos.

Behold the Lion

In John’s vision, none in heaven, or on earth, or under the earth, is at first found worthy to open the scroll of God’s divine decrees of judgment (for his enemies) and salvation (for his people). Sensing the weight and importance of the moment, John begins to weep — perhaps even wondering if his Lord, the one who discipled him, the one to whom he’s dedicated his life as a witness, is not worthy. One of heaven’s elders then turns to him, and declares, in Revelation 5:5,

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.

Having heard the good news, John turns to look — and what does he see? Not a lion. He says in verse 6:

I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes . . . .

We might mistakenly assume this was a disappointment, that John, hearing “Lion,” experienced some letdown to see a Lamb. But that is not how John reports it. This Lamb is no loss. The Lamb is gain. The one who was just declared to be the only one worthy is no less the Lion of Judah. He is also the Lamb who was slain. The Lion became Lamb without ceasing to be Lion. He did not jettison his lionlike glories, but added to his greatness the excellences of the Lamb. He is a Lamb standing — not dead, not slumped over, not kneeling, but alive and ready — with fullness of power (“seven horns”), seeing and reigning over all (“and seven eyes”).

So too for the Greeks in John 12 who wished to take counsel with the purported Messiah and Lion of Judah. Whatever disappointment they experienced in the moment in not having their immediate request fulfilled, and whatever devastations they endured on Good Friday as they watched in horror, it all changed on the third day. Then their wish, and perceptive inquiry, was answered beyond their greatest dreams — not just Messiah, but God himself, the very Lion of heaven. And not just divine, but the added lamblike glory of our own human flesh and blood,
and that same blood spilled to not only show us glory but invite us into it — Jew and Gentile, Greek and Barbarian.

Looking to Jesus

Plain as it may seem, the author of Hebrews provides profound direction for the human soul when he says, simply, “Consider Jesus”. This is not a one-time exhortation, but continuous counsel, for every day and at any moment. And again, at the height of his letter, drawing attention to the great cloud of witnesses, Hebrews charges us to “lay aside every weight and sin” and “run with endurance the race set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2). There is unmatched power in the Christward gaze.
As Jesus himself would soon say, in John 14:9, to the same Philip who relayed the Greeks’ request: “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”

Paul too, in one blessed flourish in 2 Corinthians 4, would celebrate, and commend,
the unsurpassed glory of the Christward gaze: “beholding the glory of the Lord [we] are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.” Unbelieving eyes have been blinded to “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God,”
but we, by the mercy of God, have eyes of the heart opened to “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”

We might here speak of the manifest Christocentrism of the New Testament, and a kind of healthy asymmetrical trinitarianism in the Christian faith — “contemplating the Trinity through a christological lens,” as Dane Ortlund writes, “and Christ through a trinitarian lens.”
We wish to see Jesus. He is the interpretative key to the Bible, the pinnacle of history, and central in Christian preaching, evangelism, and sanctification, and so we fix our eyes on him. Biblical trinitarianism doesn’t constrain us to symmetrically parcel out our attention and focus to each of the three divine Persons, according to modern notions of fairness, balance, and equality. The New Testament is far from “fair” in this way. Rather, as humans ourselves, we receive a peculiar centrality of the God-man, as the one Person of the Godhead who has drawn near in our own flesh, taking our own nature, to no diminishing of the Father or Spirit, but precisely according to their plan and work to direct attention to Jesus.

“Sir, we wish to see Jesus” would be a happy refrain to echo at key junctures in the Christian life. Before morning Bible meditation: “I wish to see Jesus.” Before conversations with the unbelieving: “I wish them to see Jesus.” For pastors, preparing to preach, to imagine these words on the lips of our people: “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”

Made for Him

We were indeed made for God — with an infinite abyss only he can fill, with a restlessness of soul satisfied in nothing less than him. And even more particularly, we were made for the God-man — for the greatness of God himself who draws near, in our own flesh and circumstances, in the person of Christ. The lionlike greatness of God in his divine glory is sweetened, deepened, and accented by his lamblike nearness and human excellencies. And his glories as the humble, meek, self-giving Lamb are enriched and magnified in the register of lionlike poise and majesty.

We wish to see Jesus — to know him as both great and near, and enjoy him forever.

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