Serious Bible students ask sober questions about hard texts. That’s what I love about this podcast and our listeners. Sober questions about hard texts get asked and answered here. That will be especially true for the next two weeks as we narrow our attention to three hard Bible questions from you related to eschatology, questions on the first two chapters of 2 Thessalonians. We have three of them.
Namely, is God present or is he absent in his eternal judgment? Second Thessalonians 1:9 seems to say he’s absent. That’s today. Then many of you have asked about the man of lawlessness in chapter 2. Who is it? That’s on Friday in APJ 1803. And then a question about God sending strong delusions into the world. Does he do that today? How so? That’s a question on 2 Thessalonians 2:11. And that will be on the table two Fridays from now in APJ 1806.
So today, we have sober questions on the nature of God’s judgment. A listener named David writes us, “Pastor John, thank you for taking my question. It’s a serious one. Namely, is the presence of God in hell? Second Thessalonians 1:9 seems to say no. Is that right?” And Josiah writes us this: “Pastor John, hello. I read that hell includes the presence of God, per Revelation 14:10. Or is it away from the presence of God, per 2 Thessalonians 1:9? Can you help me understand which is right?”
Whenever I am asked a question about hell, I always feel the need to take a deep breath, so to speak, and step back and make sure that we are not handling this reality in a breezy, easy, superficial, cavalier way. So, let me say a few things by way of preface so that we can feel the appropriate weight of the question.
Thinking About Hell Too Little
It’s possible, I think, to think about hell too little and too much. To think about hell too little would mean that it rarely comes into your mind and therefore has little effect upon your life. But the Bible’s teaching on hell is not just for the sake of random, occasional curiosity. It’s for the sake of sober-mindedness, to keep us from thinking that distrusting God and disobeying God are matters of little consequence.
“The biblical teaching on hell is a reflection of the infinite worth of God and the outrage of scorning it.”
The knowledge of hell is intended to help us feel the moral outrage of preferring God’s creation over God, which is, I think, the essence of sin. The biblical teaching on hell is a reflection of the infinite worth of God and the outrage of scorning it.
The reason hell is eternal is not because the sin that sends us there was eternal, but because the offense against an infinitely worthy God is an infinite offense. So when we think of hell too little, we probably don’t tremble at the majesty and justice of God the way we should. Hell has a way of making life more serious, and thinking of hell too little will probably result in a moral and emotional life that is not in sync with the greatness, and the beauty, and the worth, and the justice, and the wisdom, and the grace of God.
Thinking About Hell Too Much
But it is also possible to think of hell, I think, too much. Hell really is a horrible reality. Consider the descriptions of it in the mouth of Jesus: “unquenchable fire” (Mark 9:43), a place of “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 24:51), a place “where their worm does not die” (Mark 9:48), a place of “outer darkness” (Matthew 25:30), a place of “anguish” (Luke 16:24), a place of “eternal punishment” (Matthew 25:46).
Or as Paul calls it in 2 Thessalonians 1:9, a place of “eternal destruction,” with “wrath and fury” (Romans 2:8). Or as John describes it in Revelation 14:11, “The smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night.”
These descriptions are terrible beyond words. But some people try to soften the horror by saying, “Well, words like fire and darkness are symbols.” And I want to say that the problem with that is, if they are symbols, they’re symbols of something, and it’s not less. I mean, symbols are an effort to put into words the unspeakable. That’s what symbols are for. To call something a symbol of fire means it’s worse, not better. Realities correspond to symbols.
It is possible, however, to think about this reality too much. I don’t think the human mind and heart are equipped in this fallen world to think for long periods of time on the reality of hell. God has a mind and a heart that can keep this reality in focus and in proportion to other realities so that it has no ill effect on him. I don’t think our minds and our hearts, in this age, can properly ponder such horrors for very long. We need glimpses — yes, we do. We need reminders, yes, but we don’t need continual consciousness of sufferings too great to endure.
Is God Present or Absent?
Now, David and Josiah in their questions both asked, more or less, about the presence of God in hell. And they point to two very relevant texts. Revelation 14:10, which gives the impression that the Lamb of God may be present in hell, says that those who worship the beast “will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb.” And the other text is 2 Thessalonians 1:9: “They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.”
So, first, a word about Revelation 14:10. When it refers to the torments of hell in the presence of the Lamb, the term “in the presence of” means “in the sight of,” not “in the same space as.” The Greek word used literally is “before the Lamb”; they will be tormented “before the Lamb.” The same word is used in Revelation 3:2 like this: “I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God.” That’s the same exact construction: “in the sight of my God,” “in the presence of my God.” He can see. It’s before him in that sense.
So when we say that something happens “in the sight of God” or “in the sight of the Lamb,” we don’t necessarily mean that God or the Lamb is in the same space of what they are seeing. So, I think Revelation 14:10 does not say that God or Jesus or the Lamb has some kind of ongoing residence in hell. But they can and do see hell.
Now, when 2 Thessalonians 1:9 says that the punishments of hell will be “away from the presence of the Lord,” the word for presence there is face, “away from the face of the Lord.” In other words, hell is a fulfillment of the threat in Ezekiel 7:22, for example, where God says, “I will turn my face from them.” It’s the exact opposite of the blessing in Numbers 6:24–26:
The Lord bless you and keep you;the Lord make his face to shine on you and be gracious to you;the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.
“There is in hell an everlasting frown of disapproving justice.”
That’s the exact opposite of what happens in hell. That does not happen in hell. The gracious countenance of God does not shine upon them. And there is in hell an everlasting frown of disapproving justice.
Righteous Judgment Forever
So what shall we say, then, about the question whether God’s presence is in hell? I suppose you could say there are two senses in which God is “present.” First, he upholds everything by the word of his power through Jesus (Hebrews 1:3). So, hell would have no existence if God were not keeping it in existence. And second, hell is described as punishment and judgment — as not just consequence, but punishment. And so there will be an awareness of those in hell of God’s righteous disapproval present. His disapproval, his judgment, his punishment — that will be present to their minds forever.
But neither of those two ways of thinking about God’s presence suggests his personal presence. So, we can say that God is not present in this sense: His beauty will not be seen or known. His fellowship will not be enjoyed. His relief and his mercy will not be experienced. If there’s any sense in which God’s presence is felt as an upholding force, it will be the presence of his righteous judgment and wrath.
Hell is a reality to be avoided at all costs. And Jesus Christ, God’s Son, himself bore the greatest cost by becoming a curse for us on the cross (Galatians 3:13) — for everyone who would believe (John 3:16). Jesus became our deserved hell, and I urge everyone in the sound of my voice to fly to Jesus as your only hope of escaping these torments.
Before I try to define what I mean by “the uncommon virtue of humility,” let me give three clarifications that limit and direct my effort.
Clarification 1: Only uncommon humility is virtuous.
First, I want to get in step with the direction that President Rigney set for us on January 19 when he began this series of messages. During his talk, he explained to us what he meant by “the uncommon virtues.”
First he defined virtue as the habitual exercises and inclinations of the heart for good things. He said that virtue consists in the beauty of those heart-exercises and of the actions that flow from them. Then he described what he meant by uncommon virtues. First, and least importantly, he said that these virtues are uncommon because they are in short supply both in our culture and in the church. But mainly, and most importantly, what he meant is that uncommon virtues are those habitual exercises of the heart rooted in what makes us Christian. In other words, the uncommon virtues flow from our union with Jesus Christ through the work of the Holy Spirit.
Therefore, by definition, no unbeliever exercises any uncommon virtue. They exercise common virtues, which have external similarities to the uncommon virtues, but they are radically different because they have no roots in a person’s relation to Christ. They are like a shell of the virtue, with the virtue’s soul removed.
Most of us have learned to distinguish God’s “common” grace from his “special” or “saving” grace. God’s common grace enables unbelieving people to perform common virtues. At times the New Testament calls these common virtues “good” — that is, good with respect to the temporal, horizontal benefits that they are intended to achieve.
For example, in 1 Peter 2:14 it says that the emperor has sent governors “to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good.” Well, “good” in the mind of the pagan emperor is not what we mean by uncommon virtues, which are truly good, in every sense. The Bible is very radical in saying, for example, that “whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23).
In other words, even though from a human standpoint there are common virtues, from the ultimate standpoint of what is truly virtuous in the eyes of God, all common virtues are sin. They do not flow from union with Christ by faith through the Holy Spirit. They are not done in reliance on Christ. Christ’s word is not their guide. And they are not done for his glory. They are sin.
Therefore, in all our ethical thinking about and all our moral assessments of culture and daily life in this world, we must have a category for “good sin,” or “sinful good.”
If you think carefully and biblically, that’s not double talk. It is a “good” thing that my Muslim neighbor does not burn my house down. I am thankful for that “good.” But a Muslim does nothing out of reliance upon Jesus Christ and his work, nor is a Muslim guided by his word, acting for his glory. And so Paul says it is sin. It brings about a temporal good, but it dishonors the most glorious Person in existence — Jesus Christ.
So, in accord with President Rigney’s direction, I am riveting my focus on the uncommon virtue of humility, not the common virtue of humility. I am seeking to define humility in a distinctly Christian way — namely, in relation to Jesus. That’s my first clarification.
Clarification 2: Humility flourishes when we do not fixate on it.
Here’s my second clarification. In an article for Christianity Today in 2008, Tim Keller said, “Humility is so shy. If you begin talking about it, it leaves.” If you took that literally, it would mean it is impossible to talk humbly about humility. I don’t think that’s true, and I don’t think Tim Keller thinks that’s true. Jesus and Paul and Peter and James — indeed, virtually every biblical writer — talks about humility in one way or another, and we would not want to impute to them arrogance in their effort to say true things to us about humility.
“Christian humility flourishes in the human soul when we stand before the Himalayas of Christ’s grandeur.”
What I think Tim Keller is trying to communicate instead is this: Christian humility flourishes in the human soul when we are standing in front of a window that looks onto the Himalayas of Christ’s grandeur. And Christian humility vanishes when we close the window and stand in front of a mirror, trying to see the authenticity of our humility. It flourishes when we are looking away from it, to Christ, and it hides when we are looking directly at it.
So my goal is not primarily to focus your attention, in a mirror-like way, on your humility, but to provide you with an understanding of humility that will drive you to the windows of God’s word, which reveal the greatness of Christ. That’s my second clarification.
Clarification 3: Context determines meaning.
Here’s my third clarification. Words are dumb things. They communicate nothing clear or distinct until they are used in a context. When I say, “. . . until they are used,” I am implying a user. Therefore, when I prepare to talk about humility, I have to ask first: “Who’s the user of the words about humility, and what is the context?” Because there is no clear, distinct meaning of the word humility — or in any words about humility — apart from the user and the context.
For example, the false teachers at Colossae use the typical Greek word for humility in the New Testament, tapeinophrosunē, to promote asceticism and harshness to the body. So Paul says in Colossians 2:18, “Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism [tapeinophrosunē] and worship of angels.” In other words, Paul is saying, “Don’t be tapenophrosunē — don’t be humble — according to that use of the word!”
Then in Colossians 3:12, Paul says, “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, tapeinophrosunē [humility].” Now Paul is saying, “Do be humble according to this use of the word — according to my use of the word, in my defining context.” So before I can give a talk on the uncommon virtue of humility, I have to ask: “According to who’s usage?”
Also, as an important aside, here’s another clarification about words. When I am trying to understand someone’s use of a word in a context — and I will talk about context in just a moment — I don’t care ultimately about the word. I care ultimately about the reality that the user of the word is trying to communicate by the way he uses his words. Not only are words dumb things, but they are penultimate things, not ultimate things. They are signs. They point away from themselves to realities.
What we want to know when trying to understand words is the realities they are pointing to. My wife is named with a word, Noël. I care very little about the word Noël. I care ultimately about the reality, the person, that the word is pointing to — my wife. I care very little about the word love, but I care ultimately about the reality.
Now the last thing I have to ask is, “In what context?” My aim in this talk is to communicate to you my understanding of the reality of the uncommon virtue of humility as communicated by God, through inspired writers, by the way they use words, in several biblical contexts. So I’m going to commend to you a composite definition or description of the uncommon virtue of humility. I believe it is a faithful portrayal of the reality of humility according to the inspired usage of words in several contexts.
This is risky, because I’m drawing on dozens of passages of Scripture for this composite definition, and I can only take you to a couple of these passages. So I invite you to test this definition whenever you read all the other texts relating to humility. As you read, ask: “Is this definition the essence of humility, and what makes it distinctively Christian? What makes it uncommon?”
Let me give you my definition or description of this reality, and then I will take you to some biblical texts. The uncommon virtue of humility is the disposition of the heart to be pleased with the infinite superiority of Christ over ourselves in every way. And because we still have a fallen sin-nature in this world, that humility also includes the reflex of displeasure toward all the remnants of our old preference for self-exaltation, with all its insidious manifestations.
Notice carefully, I am not defining humility primarily in terms of our response to our self-exalting, sinful nature. I am defining humility primarily in terms of our response to the superiority of Christ over us in every way. The way we respond to our sinful love of self-exaltation is a reflex of our awakening to the beautiful superiority of Christ — or it’s not Christian. The greater our pleasure in the superiority of Christ over us, the more sorrowful our awareness that there remains in us the ugly craving for self-exaltation.
And the reason this is important to stress is that someday we will be completely delivered from every remnant of the love of self-exaltation. We will be finally purified to sin no more! And in that day, when there is no sin whatsoever to regret — to humble us — we will still be humble.
“Pleasure in Christ’s superiority will last forever.”
For our humility consists not essentially in brokenheartedness over preferring self-exaltation, but rather in being pleased that Christ is infinitely superior to us in every way. And that pleasure in his superiority will last forever.
Roots and Fruits
Notice also that I’m not locating the uncommon virtue of humility in the roots or in the fruits of humility. The roots of humility are (1) the infinite superiority of Christ and (2) the spiritual perception of that superiority by the eyes of the heart.
And the fruits of humility are the endless overflow of attitudes and words and actions that come from being glad that Christ is superior to us in every way. For example, Paul says in Philippians 2:3, “But in humility, count others more significant than yourselves.” He does not equate humility with its fruit. The fruit is counting others worthy of your lowly, sacrificial, self-denying service.
So between the roots and fruits of humility, I’m saying that the uncommon virtue of humility is the disposition of the heart to be pleased with the infinite superiority of Christ over ourselves in every way. It’s the heart’s gladness that Jesus is infinitely greater than we are in every way, mingled in this life with the groaning that self-exaltation still competes for our affections. For now in this life, the uncommon virtue of humility will always be a groaning gladness and a glad groaning.
Humility in Scripture
Now let’s turn to some passages of scripture to see if this description of humility represents the mind of God in those passages.
Isaiah 2: Gladness in God’s Exaltation
We will start with the prophet Isaiah, in the second chapter. I know this passage is not directly about Jesus Christ. But I’m going to argue that what the prophet says here about God and pride and humility are intentionally transferred over to the Lord of lords, Jesus Christ, in the New Testament. Let’s begin in Isaiah 2:8, with the indictment of Judah.
Their land is filled with idols; they bow down to the work of their hands, to what their own fingers have made.So man is humbled, and each one is brought low — do not forgive them!Enter into the rock and hide in the dustfrom before the terror of the Lord, and from the splendor of his majesty.The haughty looks of man shall be brought low, and the lofty pride of men shall be humbled,and the Lord alone will be exalted in that day.
For the Lord of hosts has a day against all that is proud and lofty, against all that is lifted up — and it shall be brought low;against all the cedars of Lebanon, lofty and lifted up; and against all the oaks of Bashan;against al the lofty mountains, and against all the uplifted hills;against every high tower, and against every fortified wall;against all the ships of Tarshish, and against all the beautiful craft.And the haughtiness of man shall be humbled, and the lofty pride of men shall be brought low, and the Lord alone will be exalted in that day.And the idols shall utterly pass away.And people shall enter the caves of the rocks and the holes of the ground,from before the terror of the Lord, and from the splendor of his majesty, when he rises to terrify the earth.
In that day mankind will cast away their idols of silver and their idols of gold,which they made for themselves to worship, to the moles and to the bats,to enter the caverns of the rocks and the clefts of the cliffs,from before the terror of the Lord, and from the splendor of his majesty. when he rises to terrify the earth.Stop regarding man in whose nostrils is breath, for of what account is he? (Isaiah 2:8–22)
I draw out two inferences from these words. First, God’s purpose in the world is that his splendor and majesty be exalted as superior over all human power and beauty and manufacture and craft, and over everything that man has made as a means of his own self-exaltation. Three times Isaiah refers to God’s thrusting forward “the splendor of his majesty” (Isaiah 2:10, 19, 21). Twice he says, “The Lord alone will be exalted in that day” (Isaiah 2:11, 18). This is the purpose of God in creation and history: to see that the splendor of his majesty is exalted above everyone and everything.
The second inference is the effect of that purpose, namely, as Isaiah says twice, “The haughty looks of man shall be brought low, and the lofty pride of men shall be humbled” (Isaiah 2:11, 17). And we can hear in Isaiah 2:22 the cry for this not to be the end of the story. The ultimate goal is not the punishment of pride, but a return to humility: “Stop regarding man in whose nostrils is breath, for of what account is he?” In other words, “Stop the insanity of being so pleased with what your fingers can make, and be pleased with the splendor and majesty of your God. The Lord alone is going to be exalted. Everything else is coming down.”
So when Isaiah writes, “The haughtiness of man shall be humbled, and the lofty pride of men shall be brought low” (Isaiah 2:11, 17), essentially he is saying, “Repent. Turn from your love affair with the work of your hands. Bemoan your arrogant idolatry. The Lord alone will be exalted. Be pleased with his exaltation! Be pleased with his infinite superiority! Let his exaltation be your gladness, your boast. ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord’ (2 Corinthians 10:17).”
Philippians 2: Joy in Jesus’s Superiority
Now let’s go to Philippians 2:9–11, where this divine purpose to be exalted over all reality is transferred to Jesus for the glory of God the Father, with the aim that every knee will bow — in other words, with the aim of Christ-exalting humility.
Therefore, God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:9–11)
God exalted Christ “above every name.” That is shorthand for Isaiah 2:11: “The Lord alone will be exalted in that day.” That is, Christ alone — now God incarnate — will be exalted in that day. And the implications for man? “Every knee will bow.” Everybody is going down. Everybody humbled. But not everybody saved.
So who then will be saved? Which of the knee-benders will be saved? Answer: Those who go down gladly. Those who are pleased with the superiority of Christ — pleased with the universal Lordship of Jesus. Those who say with Paul in the next chapter: “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” — of knowing Christ Jesus my infinite superior (Philippians 3:8). Paul’s treasure was to know Christ as superior to him in every way, his infinite superior.
You can begin to sense the practical implications of this if you simply name some of those superiorities that we love, that we are glad about: Infinitely superior in grace and mercy and love. Infinitely superior in knowledge and wisdom. Infinitely superior in power and governance. Infinitely superior in goodness and righteousness and holiness. Infinitely superior in authority and freedom. And penetrating through all of these is his infinitely superior greatness and beauty and worth. He is infinitely superior in glory.
2 Corinthians 4: Treasure in Jars of Clay
To have the uncommon virtue of humility is to see Christ’s glory and to be pleased that it is infinitely superior to our own. According to 2 Corinthians 4:4–6, this is how it happens: Our blindness is taken away, and we see “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ.” We see the infinite superiority of Christ in greatness and beauty and worth.
“If you long for humility, beware of standing in front of the mirror to test your authenticity.”
And then in 2 Corinthians 4:7, Paul calls Christ’s glory our treasure. The glory of Christ is what we cherish. It is what pleases us. “We have this treasure [this glad sight of the glory of Christ] in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God.”
So I am commending to you a definition of the uncommon virtue of humility for you to test. Take it to every text on humility and see if this is not the essence of what is being said and of what makes humility distinctively Christian, uncommon:
The uncommon virtue of humility is the disposition of the heart to be pleased with the infinite superiority of Christ over ourselves in every way. It’s the heart’s gladness that Jesus is infinitely greater than we are, mingled in this life with the groaning that self-exaltation still competes for our affections.
If you long for this uncommon virtue, beware of standing in front of the mirror to test your authenticity. Go to the windows of God’s word, fling them open with everything you are learning in this school, and gaze on the all-satisfying superiorities of Christ.
We end the week with episode 1800. It’s an incredible benchmark for us, and it’s only possible because of you. So thank you for a decade of support and for your encouragements, email questions, and 250 million episode plays — and for hundreds of thousands of subscribes over the years. This podcast happens because you invest time with us — precious time that we don’t take for granted. That’s why we don’t have ads or sponsors, and it’s one of the reasons we don’t dillydally around with windy introductions. So, moving on to the episode.
Today’s question is a great one, Pastor John. Scripture gives us a constellation of ways to think of the Christian life. And a listener to the podcast named Jason wants to know how they relate. Here’s what he asks: “Pastor John, hello! Can you help me figure something out? Is the key to personal sanctification more about ‘looking to Jesus,’ as Hebrews 12:2 says? Or is it more about being united ‘to him who has been raised from the dead,’ as Romans 7:4 puts it? Or is it mostly about ‘beholding’ Christ’s glory, as 2 Corinthians 3:18 puts it? Or is it more about just obeying and doing the ‘work of faith,’ as 2 Thessalonians 1:11 says?
“I know the answer is likely going to be, ‘Yes, it’s all of those!’ But I am trying to connect them all in a way that is practical to teach and live. I find myself jumping from one to the other as though they are multiple things. Surely there are logical connections that make them all one and the same.” Pastor John, how would you put this puzzle together for Jason?
Wow, I just love this kind of a great question — not only this kind of question, but just this way of thinking. Taking different parts of Scripture — they use very different language — and asking, “Are there deep, common, unified, coherent realities here?” That is so helpful to do.
So let’s see if I can weave these four strands together into some kind of cord that the Lord might use to bring us along in our pursuit of sanctification. That’s what they’re designed for, and I think the Lord is very pleased when we try to put the different parts of his word together in order to see the common realities behind them, even when different words are used to describe those realities.
One Great Work of God
The realities in these four passages of Scripture would include these (I just made a list of them as I read these passages):
word of God
death of Christ
glory of Christ
law of God
faith in Christ
faith in his word
the Holy Spirit
All of those are realities, and they are all at work in these passages, and they are not doing contradictory things.
“There is one great work of God weaving all these realities together in the process of making us holy.”
There is one great work of God weaving all these realities together in the process of making us holy, making us sanctified, more Christlike. Different texts focus on different ones of these realities, but none of them leads us in a direction that would in any way contradict the other passages. We’ve misunderstood the text if one text is sending us off in a direction that flies in the face of the other passages. So, let me take them one at a time and just see if I can draw out some of the common connections.
Looking to Jesus
Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1–2)
So in this text, “looking to Jesus” is given as the means by which we run our race with endurance. That race, of course, includes becoming holy, staying on the narrow racetrack to the end. And when we look to Jesus, we see three things that affect our running.
First, he’s called “the founder and perfecter of our faith,” which means he has done the decisive work in dying and rising and sitting down at the right hand of God. Because of Christ, our faith is well-founded and well-finished. It’s as good as done. In other words, because of Christ, we’re going to make it to the finish line. He founded our faith. He’ll finish our faith.
“Because of Christ, we’re going to make it to the finish line. He founded our faith. He’ll finish our faith.”
Second, we look to Christ as inspiring our endurance because of his endurance — enduring the cross. He ran his race successfully through suffering. This emboldens us to run our race through suffering.
And third, when we look to Jesus, he shows us how he ran his race. He says he ran it “for the joy that was set before him.” Therefore, the key to our endurance is to stand on that finished work of Christ and be confident that all-satisfying joy is just over the horizon. He’s going to finish it. He’s going to bring us great joy. That’s how we keep going, because that’s how he kept going.
So this confidence in the joy that is set before us is called, in Hebrews, faith. In the chapter just before, faith is the substance of things hoped for, the joy hoped for. Faith is the foretaste, the substance (Hebrews 11:1). Right now you can taste it — the foretaste of the joy of the promise of God, over and over. In Hebrews 11, the saints obey by faith — that is, this faith, this confident hope of a joyful future, is the key to their obedience, just like it was the key to Jesus’s obedience. So that’s the picture, and that’s the reality of how we are sanctified, in Hebrews 12.
New Way of the Spirit
Now here’s Romans 7:4, 6:
You also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God. . . . We are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.
Now, the new reality that Paul introduces here that wasn’t in Hebrews 12 is the fact that when Christ died, we died. Specifically, we died to the law. We were released from law-keeping as the way of getting right with God, as the way of ongoing fellowship with God.
That’s new, right? Nothing was said about the law in Hebrews 12:1–2. So Paul is coming at sanctification with a different problem in view: not the need for endurance through suffering — that’s the issue in Hebrews; that’s not the issue here — but the need for liberation from law-keeping. That’s the issue here. How do we relate to God? How do we become holy without law-keeping as the foundation for our lives (because that we died to)?
And the other new reality that Paul introduces in Romans 7:4 is the Holy Spirit. He says that we “have died to the law . . . so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code” (Romans 7:6) And that wasn’t in Hebrews.
And I would say that this new way of the Spirit is precisely the way of Hebrews 12, describing the Christian life — namely, the life of faith in the promises of God to fulfill us, to fill us with hope for future joy. That’s the new way of the Spirit in Romans 7. That’s the alternative to law-keeping as a way of walking with God. So, they are complementary texts, coming at sanctification from two very different angles.
Beholding the Glory of Christ
Third, Jason introduces, or he brings up, 2 Corinthians 3:18. In this text, Paul combines the reality of the Holy Spirit (mentioned in Romans 7) and the reality of looking to Jesus (mentioned in Hebrews 12). And he adds the realities of glory and freedom, neither of which had been mentioned explicitly in those other two texts, but are mentioned here. So he says,
Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. (2 Corinthians 3:17–18)
What this text adds to the “new way of the Spirit,” described in Hebrews 12 and Romans 7, is that looking to Jesus in Hebrews 12 means not only seeing him as enduring the cross, but seeing him as glorious in all that he’s done.
The focus is on how beautiful and glorious and magnificent he is — and finding that glory so riveting, so satisfying, that it has the effect of transforming us. We tend to take on the traits of those we most admire. This is freedom, because it happens by the Spirit as a natural process.
This is what Paul called “bearing fruit for God” in Romans 7. Faith and hope and joy are not mentioned in 2 Corinthians 3, but I would say that they are implied in the phrase “beholding the glory of the Lord.” I think that transforming “beholding” is the sight of faith. That’s the way faith sees Christ. Faith beholds the beauty of Christ. Faith finds joy in him when it looks at him and all that God promises to be for us in him. And by beholding him that way, faith transforms. And that’s sanctification.
Work of Faith
One more. Jason refers us to 2 Thessalonians 1:11, where Paul says, “May [God] fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power.” So in the process of sanctification, we do make resolves. Yes, we do. We intend things. We will things. We exercise our will. But Paul says that all of these volitional actions are works of faith by God’s power. In other words, we are back in the realm of God’s empowering Spirit. We work by trusting God’s promise that he is at work in us.
So, Jason, good question. I think if you bore into the actual reality of these four descriptions of sanctification, you will find they are deeply unified and mutually illuminating. It’s a thrilling thing to meditate on the realities of Scripture until we see how beautifully they cohere.
Today on the podcast we look at God’s love to us. And we are going to look at his love to us when life hurts the most. This is one of those areas that proves especially challenging for us to grasp. But we must learn this lesson. And we do in the life and ministry of our Savior. Because it’s relatively easy to see and feel God’s love when things are going well in life. But what about when sickness hits? What about when we feel weak? What about when we come to the end of our resources? Even as we approach the end of life, how do we feel God’s love and his purposes in our pain?
For that answer, we turn to Jesus and watch how he handled the sickness of his good friend Lazarus in John 11:1–6. There are lessons here for all of God’s people. To explain, here’s Pastor John from a 2019 sermon, preached in Northern Ireland.
Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent to him, saying, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” But when Jesus heard it he said, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. (John 11:1–6)
Focus on John 11:1–2, just for a moment: “Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. It was Mary who anointed the Lord with her ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was ill.”
The striking thing about verse 2 is that that hasn’t happened yet in the Gospel of John. That’s odd. That’s going to happen in John 12:3, one chapter later — Mary’s going to anoint the Lord with her hair. And he says to the reader, “This Mary who’s asking him to come, that’s the Mary who did that. Now, I haven’t told you she did it yet. That’s the one I’m talking about.” What’s the point of that?
That’s the first instance in this text of how John is going to draw out the endearing, special, sweet, deep, precious relationship between Jesus and this family. He’s reaching forward to get a remarkable moment in the life of this woman, who’s going to love Jesus like that, and he mentions her that way here. So we can conclude, at least, that this is special between Jesus and this family, especially Mary.
Now, John 11:3: “So the sisters sent to him, saying, ‘Lord, he whom you love is ill.’” So this is now, I would say, the second instance of drawing out that he loves this family. Now he’s mentioning Lazarus in particular. This man loves this family, and Jesus is underlining it. He loves them, and he makes it explicit. He’s not dealing with a casual acquaintance, saying, “Please come. He’s sick.”
Glory of the Son
John 11:4: “But when Jesus heard it, he said, ‘This illness is not going to lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.’” So the first thing Jesus does is connect the news of Lazarus’s sickness with the glory of God. Not many people think this way, and we need to. He put it in relationship to the glory of God. It’s about the glory of God. It’s about the glory of the Son of God, who’s going to be glorified through it.
So, “Take a deep breath, Mary and Martha. This is all about my glory. It’s not going to go the way you think, and it’s not going to go the way you want. It’s about my glory.” “This illness does not lead to death [the point of this illness is not death]. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”
You probably remember chapter 9, the blind man, and the disciples say, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answers, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him” (John 9:2–4). All these years of blindness are about glory.
Same thing here. He’s going to die, and Jesus knows he’s going to die. He’s going to let him die intentionally. We’ll see that in just a minute. And it’s all about glory.
Love of the Son
Here comes the third mention of love, in John 11:5: “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.” So there it is the third time. He loved her. Loved Mary. Loved Lazarus. Loved Martha. “Now Jesus loved Martha.”
So I’m overstating it, aren’t I, when I say it’s all about glory? No, it’s not all about glory. It’s largely about love. And that’s what clobbered me in this text, right? This is about underlining three times, “He loved them. He loved them. He loved them.” He let him die. That’s what’s striking.
“Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.” So surely John the writer is writing this to help us come to terms in our experience with what the love of God is like for you. What is it like to be loved by Jesus? It’s like this. Love is not a minor theme in these six verses. It is a major theme. Three times he’s saying, “He loved them. He loved them. He loved them.” He doesn’t want you to miss that. And he wants you to put yourself in that situation and say, “Okay, I’ve been told that since I was little. Jesus loves me. Jesus loves me.”
“The world has no categories for understanding this kind of love.”
And these texts — this one in particular — is in the Bible to help turn our world upside down when it comes to understanding the love of Jesus, because the world doesn’t get this. The world has no categories for understanding this kind of love that we’re about to see, but you should. Apart from the Holy Spirit, this text is in inexplicable.
Lazarus’s Resurrection and Our Own
Here’s the second thing to think about. I think John, in writing chapter 11, is intentionally inviting us to see our own resurrection in relationship to Lazarus’s, our death and our resurrection as parallel to Lazarus’s.
Why do I think that? You might want to drop your eyes down to John 11:23–26. See if you think I’m right about this: “Jesus said to her [to Martha], ‘Your brother will rise again.’” So when he gets there, he gives them the hope he’s going to rise again. “Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’”
Now here’s the connection: Jesus could have said, “Yes, and isn’t that wonderful news?” What he said was, “I am that resurrection of the last day. I just showed up. That resurrection is coming to the world — that power, that control, that life-giving force is me. And I’m here. And let’s show you right now what that’s going to be like because I want you, Martha, and all of you, to put the connection between Lazarus’s experience and what you will experience.”
So he continues. “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die” (John 11:25–26). In other words, “My raising your brother from the dead will be what will happen to you.” Which means that the way to think about Lazarus’s death is as a forerunner, a little trailer, of ours — our death and our resurrection.
So now as you step back and think, “Lazarus has died, and Jesus didn’t go, and he let him die because he loved him,” you shouldn’t whitewash that, diminish that, minimize that by saying, “Oh, he is going to raise him four days later” — because he’s going to raise you, too. And the distance between your death and the coming of Jesus, when the resurrection will happen, is a length of time that compares to four days as nothing compared to eternity — as nothing.
So your death and resurrection and Lazarus’s death and four days later rising are virtually the same — except yours is better. You never die again. Poor Lazarus; he had to go through this twice. So if you’re going to minimize Lazarus’s experience, you better minimize your own, and say, “No big deal to die; I’m going to rise in four days anyway” — I mean, more or less.
And you don’t do that. You know you don’t do that. You don’t minimize your death. You don’t minimize your loved one’s death. You take it seriously. You groan and you grieve. You ache. And that’s the way we should feel this.
How Is This Love?
So let’s look again at the logic of verse 5 and 6, because this is the main point I want you to feel, because it turns your world upside down. Verse 5: “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. Therefore . . .” Because of that love — you with me logically? I don’t want to add anything here; I don’t want to make anything up. “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.” Therefore, because of love, “he stayed two days longer in the place where he was” (John 11:5–6).
And that’s what we have to understand. How is that love? How is it love? That’s what we’re supposed to see. John intends, Jesus intends, for everybody who reads this to ask that about your experience. He loves them; therefore, he does not heal them. He loves them; therefore, he does not save him from death. John intends, Jesus intends, for us to ask this about ourselves. How are we loved when we’re dying? He doesn’t heal him. He just lets him die. How is that love?
The answer is given, I believe, in verse 4. You just have to think a little bit. “This illness does not lead to death.” In other words, he’s going to die, but that’s not the point. What is the point? “It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” So the point of his death is not death. The point of his death is to reveal the glory of God, and particularly the glory of the Son of God, Jesus Christ.
So now you step back and you say, “Okay, the so at the beginning of verse 6 says that the meaning of the delay and the death is love. And verse 4 says that the meaning of the delay and the death is the glory of God.” And what would you do? I mean, how would you preach the sermon from here on out? What would you draw out for your life? Here’s what I draw out.
Show Me More Glory
The world doesn’t understand what love is. What is love? Love is doing what you need to do in order to reveal most fully and most durably the all-satisfying glory of God in Jesus. To be loved is to be shown glory — the glory of God. If we’re not a God-centered people, who see God himself in his Son as the greatest treasure, the most beautiful reality, the most all-satisfying friend, experience, and Father — if we’re not that way, that makes no sense.
“If God is the supreme treasure of life, then to have more of him is to be loved.”
You go out and do an average interview on the street with any unbelieving person in Belfast and say, “What is love?” They won’t go here. They won’t say to love is to have anything happen to me — life, death, sickness, anything — that will show me more of God. Nobody’s going to say that.
That’s true. If God is all to you, it’s true. If God is minor, if God is marginal, if your life is your most important thing, if your kids are your most important thing, your marriage is most important, your health is most important, that won’t make any sense. But if God is all, if God is beautiful, if God is the supreme treasure of life, then to have more of him is to be loved. That’s the point of the so at the beginning of verse 6.
So, here’s my definition of love based on this text: love is doing whatever you have to do, or whatever God has to do, at whatever cost, in order for the glory of God to be shown.