Jon Bloom

Be Still, My Soul: A Hymn for the Hardest Losses

After nearly two decades, the memory is still vivid: standing in the living room with the phone to my ear, listening as my friend and pastor, Rick, described to me through sobs how one of the young, vibrant couples in our church had just been in a terrible car accident. The husband had survived. But the wife had not. And neither had their unborn son — their first child, whose birth they had been anticipating with so much joy.

I stood stunned, trying to process this new reality. I could see her laughing with a group of people after church the previous Sunday. Now, she was suddenly gone — taken, along with her child, in a violent event that unfolded in a few seconds. Rick asked me, the leader of the worship ministry, to begin thinking and praying over possible music for the funeral that would likely be held the next week.

If my memory is accurate, the first song that came to mind, almost immediately, was one of my favorite hymns: “Be Still, My Soul.”

Song for Deepest Sorrow

I have loved this hymn since my late teens. When sung to a beautiful arrangement of the tune “Finlandia,” it has, to my ear, perfect prosody — that’s the term musicians use to describe how “all elements [of a song] work together to support the central message of the song.” And the central message of “Be Still, My Soul” is the resurrection hope Jesus gives us in the face of the devastating death of a loved one.

The powerful lyrics come from the pen of a German woman named Katharina Amalia Dorothea von Schlegel and began appearing in German hymnals in 1752. Little is known about Katharina. Some believe she may have been a “Stiftsfraulein,” a member of a female Lutheran “stift” (convent) in the town of Köthen (one hundred miles southwest of Berlin), and that she had been significantly influenced by a pietistic Christian renewal movement.

No record survives of the specific event(s) that inspired her to compose this deeply moving hymn. But such specifics aren’t necessary since we all experience the kind of devastating losses she writes about. And when they come, we often find ourselves enduring an internal hurricane of disorienting grief, in desperate need of the peaceful shelter of hope. And the gift Katharina has bequeathed to us — in the four verses most English hymnals contain (she wrote six) — is this profound poetic reminder of the one shelter for our sorrowful, storm-tossed souls: the faithfulness of God.

‘The Lord Is on Thy Side’

She begins in verse one by reminding us of the unshakable foundation on which we stand by faith:

Be still, my soul: the Lord is on thy side.Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain.Leave to thy God to order and provide;In ev’ry change, He faithful will remain.Be still, my soul: thy best, thy heav’nly friendThrough thorny ways leads to a joyful end.

The first line is a near quote of Psalm 118:6: “The Lord is on my side; I will not fear.” But the rationale for why we have any right to make this otherwise audacious claim is gloriously stated in Romans 8:31–32:

What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?

In the swirl of grief, we may wonder, “All things? Then why did God not spare my loved one from death and me from such anguish of separation?” To which the Holy Spirit, through the great apostle, graciously, hopefully, and gently replies,

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:37–39)

Soul, be at peace: your faithful Lord is on your side. And he will lead you through this vale of deep darkness to the eternally Son-lit, joyful land of everlasting love (Psalm 23:4, Revelation 21:23).

‘All Now Mysterious Shall Be Bright at Last’

In verse two, Katharina reminds us of the great promise purchased for us when the Father did not spare his own Son for us: freedom from the curse of living with the knowledge of good and evil — the knowledge we insisted on having, while lacking the capacities to comprehend or mange it.

Be still, my soul: thy God doth undertakeTo guide the future, as He has the past.Thy hope, thy confidence let nothing shake;All now mysterious shall be bright at last.Be still, my soul: the waves and winds still knowHis voice who ruled them while He dwelt below.

Now, God’s purposes in allowing evil to wreak such grievous havoc are largely shrouded in mystery, and so can appear senseless. But it will not always be so. For Jesus came to undo all of the effects of curse. First, he came into the world to undo the curse of death (Genesis 3:19). And then, when we finally experience life free from remaining sin and beyond the threat of death, we shall be given knowledge more wonderful than what we sought from the Edenic fruit: we shall know fully, even as we have been fully known (1 Corinthians 13:12).

Soul, be at peace: your faithful Lord will soon make all you now find so mysterious bright at last.

‘Jesus Can Repay All He Takes Away’

In verse three, when the sword of grief has pierced our hearts at the deaths of our dearest ones, Katharina applies the balm of gospel promise to our throbbing wound.

Be still, my soul: when dearest friends depart,And all is darkened in the vale of tears,Then shalt thou better know His love, His heart,Who comes to soothe thy sorrow and thy fears.Be still, my soul: thy Jesus can repayFrom His own fullness all He takes away.

That last line echoes the great faith-filled, worshipful declaration Job made upon the news of the deaths of his dear children: “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21). But Katharina’s words declare the biblical promise of a greater restoration than Job experienced on earth. For God has promised that even the severest losses will someday seem like “light momentary affliction” compared to the “eternal weight of glory” they produce (2 Corinthians 4:17).

“Your faithful Lord will never depart and will repay from his own fullness far more than all he takes away.”

But this verse also describes a Christian’s paradoxical experience in the very anguish of bereavement. For those who, while grieving, place their trust in their best and heav’nly friend receive a foretaste of the riches of Jesus’s fullness as they come to “better know His love, His heart.” They often experience new dimensions of the reality of what Jesus meant when he said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5), and “I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).

Soul, be at peace: your faithful Lord will never depart and will repay from his own fullness far more than all he takes away.

‘We Shall Be Forever with the Lord’

One week after that tragic car accident, we gathered in the sanctuary to remember the lives and grieve the deaths of that young wife, daughter, sister, friend, and expectant mother, and the baby boy she and her devastated husband had looked forward to bringing into the world. But we did not grieve as those “who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13).

My clearest memory of the funeral was being so deeply moved and comforted by the way I heard my brothers and sisters sing “Be Still, My Soul,” especially the last verse:

Be still, my soul: the hour is hast’ning onWhen we shall be forever with the Lord.When disappointment, grief, and fear are gone,Sorrow forgot, love’s purest joys restored.Be still, my soul: when change and tears are pastAll safe and blessèd we shall meet at last.

“There is coming a day when ‘we will always be with the Lord.’”

Here is every Christian’s “blessed hope” (Titus 2:13), the reason Jesus is for us “the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25). Katharina’s words helped us encourage one another in the hope that there is coming a day when “we will always be with the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 4:17–18). They helped us together preach to our souls,

Soul, be at peace: your faithful Lord will soon gather us all together again, safe and blessed, in his presence — where his full joy will be our full joy, and where all that gives him pleasure will be all that gives us pleasure forever (Psalm 16:11).

Then, having done our best to still our souls through faith in God’s faithfulness, we escorted the earthly remains of our sister and baby brother to the cemetery, where we sowed their perishable, weak, and natural bodies into the ground in the hope that Jesus will raise them with imperishable, powerful, spiritual bodies (1 Corinthians 15:42–44). And upon the grave’s marker, the loving husband and father, whose loss had been incalculable, yet who in faith believed Christ had greater gain for the three of them, had this text inscribed:

As for me, I shall behold your face in righteousness;
     when I awake, I shall be satisfied with your likeness. (Psalm 17:15)

We Call Him “Father”

God does not want us to relate to him as a mere subject relates to a king, or as a mere sheep relates to its shepherd. Fundamentally, he wants us to relate to him as a child relates to a loving, generous father who loves to give good gifts when his children ask him (Matthew 7:7–11).

If you primarily think of God as your Father, and if you usually address God as Father when you pray, you have Jesus to thank. For prior to Jesus, no one — not in Judaism or in any other religious tradition — spoke of God or to God as Father in the personal ways Jesus did.
It’s true that Old Testament saints occasionally referred to God as Israel’s father (Deuteronomy 32:6; Psalm 103:13) and even less occasionally called him their Father when they prayed (Isaiah 63:16). But the fact that they rarely did so reveals that they didn’t relate to God primarily as a Father. Certainly not in the way Jesus did — which was also the way he taught all his followers to relate to God.
“Abba, Father”
In all four Gospels, when Jesus speaks about God, he typically refers to him as his Father. And when the Gospel writers allow us to listen in on Jesus praying, we hear him addressing God as Father.
This wasn’t merely an endearing metaphor to Jesus. God as his Father was a fundamental relational reality to him. This is clear when, as we hear him pray in Gethsemane, he cries, “Abba, Father” (Mark 14:36). Abba was the most common term Aramaic speakers used when speaking to their earthly fathers — Jesus and his (half) siblings would have used it when addressing Joseph.
This familial way Jesus referred to God scandalized and outraged the Jewish leaders. They understood God as their Father the way a potter might be called the father of his clay creation (see Isaiah 64:8). But Jesus viewed God as his “Abba, Father” the way a child views the paternal parent who begot him. To the Jewish leaders, this led to blasphemy worthy of capital punishment, because “he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God” (John 5:18). Indeed, he was God’s own Son — a reality they tragically failed to discern.
And astoundingly, Jesus, the “only Son from the Father” (John 1:14), wanted all of his disciples, we who are not sons of God the way he is, to also relate to God as our “Abba, Father.” For when Jesus provided us a model or pattern for how to pray, what Christians down through the ages have called the Lord’s Prayer, the first thing he taught us was to address God as “our Father in heaven” (Matthew 6:9).
“Our Father in Heaven”
In quoting Jesus here, Matthew remarkably uses the Greek word pater, the equivalent to Abba in Aramaic — the common, everyday term that everyone used for father. Pause and ponder just how astounding the phrase “our Father in heaven” is, considering the reality it represents: God as our heavenly Pater, Abba, Father.
Unless you were raised in a different religious tradition, addressing God as “our Father” probably doesn’t strike you as presumptuous or offensive. It probably sounds normal, something we take for granted, like calling our earthly paternal parent our father. If we have lost our wonder over calling God our Father, it’s time to recover it.
“Holy Father”
Keep in mind that observant Jews have always considered God’s covenant name, Yahweh (Exodus 3:14), to be so holy that they dare not speak it aloud. When they write it, they abbreviate it to YHWH, so as not to profane God’s holy name through unholy human lips or hands. Even in English, many will write “G–d” instead of “God.”
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We Call Him ‘Father’: The Privilege of Christian Prayer

If you primarily think of God as your Father, and if you usually address God as Father when you pray, you have Jesus to thank. For prior to Jesus, no one — not in Judaism or in any other religious tradition — spoke of God or to God as Father in the personal ways Jesus did.

It’s true that Old Testament saints occasionally referred to God as Israel’s father (Deuteronomy 32:6; Psalm 103:13) and even less occasionally called him their Father when they prayed (Isaiah 63:16). But the fact that they rarely did so reveals that they didn’t relate to God primarily as a Father. Certainly not in the way Jesus did — which was also the way he taught all his followers to relate to God.

‘Abba, Father’

In all four Gospels, when Jesus speaks about God, he typically refers to him as his Father. And when the Gospel writers allow us to listen in on Jesus praying, we hear him addressing God as Father.

“If you usually address God as ‘Father’ when you pray, you have Jesus to thank.”

This wasn’t merely an endearing metaphor to Jesus. God as his Father was a fundamental relational reality to him. This is clear when, as we hear him pray in Gethsemane, he cries, “Abba, Father” (Mark 14:36). Abba was the most common term Aramaic speakers used when speaking to their earthly fathers — Jesus and his (half) siblings would have used it when addressing Joseph.

This familial way Jesus referred to God scandalized and outraged the Jewish leaders. They understood God as their Father the way a potter might be called the father of his clay creation (see Isaiah 64:8). But Jesus viewed God as his “Abba, Father” the way a child views the paternal parent who begot him. To the Jewish leaders, this led to blasphemy worthy of capital punishment, because “he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God” (John 5:18). Indeed, he was God’s own Son — a reality they tragically failed to discern.

And astoundingly, Jesus, the “only Son from the Father” (John 1:14), wanted all of his disciples, we who are not sons of God the way he is, to also relate to God as our “Abba, Father.” For when Jesus provided us a model or pattern for how to pray, what Christians down through the ages have called the Lord’s Prayer, the first thing he taught us was to address God as “our Father in heaven” (Matthew 6:9).

‘Our Father in Heaven’

In quoting Jesus here, Matthew remarkably uses the Greek word pater, the equivalent to Abba in Aramaic — the common, everyday term that everyone used for father. Pause and ponder just how astounding the phrase “our Father in heaven” is, considering the reality it represents: God as our heavenly Pater, Abba, Father.

Unless you were raised in a different religious tradition, addressing God as “our Father” probably doesn’t strike you as presumptuous or offensive. It probably sounds normal, something we take for granted, like calling our earthly paternal parent our father. If we have lost our wonder over calling God our Father, it’s time to recover it.

‘Holy Father’

Keep in mind that observant Jews have always considered God’s covenant name, Yahweh (Exodus 3:14), to be so holy that they dare not speak it aloud. When they write it, they abbreviate it to YHWH, so as not to profane God’s holy name through unholy human lips or hands. Even in English, many will write “G–d” instead of “God.” They consider it no small thing to speak of or to the “Holy One of Israel” (Psalm 71:22).

“It is no small thing for us to have the right to call the Holy One of Israel our Father, and ourselves his children.”

Indeed, this One whom we call “Father” is the One before whom the four living creatures “day and night . . . never cease to say, ‘Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!’” (Revelation 4:8). He “is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see” (1 Timothy 6:15–16). For no mere human can see him and live (Exodus 33:20).

Even the only begotten Son — he who “in the beginning was . . . with God and . . . was God” (John 1:1), he who is the very “image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15), he whom God has “highly exalted” and on whom he “bestowed . . . the name that is above every other name” (Philippians 2:9) — this holy Son of God (Luke 1:35), who called God his “Abba, Father,” also addressed him as “Holy Father” (John 17:11).

What gives us — we “of unclean lips, [who] dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips” (Isaiah 6:5) — any right to call the Almighty “our Father”? Our holy Father himself and his holy Son, our Savior, give us this unfathomable privilege.

See What Kind of Love

It is good for our souls to pause and ponder the astounding fatherhood of God to us, especially if the reality has become too familiar, so we can see with fresh eyes the father-heart of God for us. That is what the Holy Spirit, through the apostle John, wants for us:

See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. (1 John 3:1)

And what kind of love has the Father given to us?

In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. (1 John 4:9–10)

The Father so loved us that he gave his only begotten Son, that through believing in him we should not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16). And the Son so greatly loved us that he willingly laid his life down for us (John 15:13) to become the propitiation for our sins.

To all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. (John 1:12–13)

It is no small thing for us to have the right to call the Holy One of Israel our Father, and ourselves his children. For at great cost,

the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ . . . has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. (Ephesians 1:3–6)

See with fresh eyes what kind of wonderful love the holy Father and the holy Son have given to us, that we should be called children of God.

‘Pray Then Like This’

This ocean of gracious love, this vast miracle of substitutionary atonement, this profound and mysterious gift of being both adopted by and born of God, is why when Jesus’s disciples asked him how they should pray to God, he began,

Pray then like this: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.” (Matthew 6:9)

God does not want us to relate to him as a mere subject relates to a king, or as a mere sheep relates to its shepherd. Fundamentally, he wants us to relate to him as a child relates to a loving, generous father who loves to give good gifts when his children ask him (Matthew 7:7–11). As Michael Reeves writes,

When a person deliberately and confidently calls the Almighty “Father,” it shows they have grasped something beautiful and fundamental about who God is and to what they have been saved. And how that wins our hearts back to him! For the fact that God the Father is happy and even delights to share his love for his Son and thus be known as our Father reveals just how gracious and kind he is. (Delighting in the Trinity, 76)

If you primarily think of God as your Father, and if you usually address God as Father when you pray, you have Jesus (and the Father) to thank — not only because he taught you to do so, but because he (and the Father) has given you the right to do so. And both Father and Son have provided you with the Holy Spirit — “the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’” (Romans 8:15). Make good use of this grace. For your Father in heaven delights in his children.

Born Between God and Man: Welcoming Our Long-Awaited Priest

“Noël, Noël, Noël, Noël, born is the King of Israel” is a glorious refrain from a much-beloved Christmas hymn. And of course, it’s true: Jesus, as the Messiah, was born a king.

Israel had hoped for a king to liberate her from her enemies. The people had long been expecting the Messiah’s arrival, and when he appeared, they expected him to ascend as their ultimate king. When the wise men reached Palestine, their first question was, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?” (Matthew 2:2). Herod slaughtered the Bethlehem innocents because he feared this new King of Israel. Jesus himself, in so many words, declared himself to be the King of the Jews to Pilate (John 18:36).

But when Jesus came into the world the first time, it was not, as his disciples had earnestly hoped, to “restore the kingdom to Israel” (Acts 1:6). He had a more pressing mission. Before his coronation, we need consecration; before his complete reign, he must complete our righteousness; before he becomes our Sovereign, he must become our sacrifice. Though Jesus truly was born our long-awaited King, he had appeared first to do the bloody work of a priest.

Prophet Then Priest Then King

This caught most people off guard. But Scripture foretold the pattern. When God delivered the Israelites out of Egyptian bondage to establish them as a holy nation, he did so in a specific progression. First came the great prophet (Moses) to proclaim the good news of liberation and call out the people. Then came the great priest (Aaron) to mediate the mercy of God by providing means for forgiving the people’s sins and cleansing them from unrighteousness. Then, quite a while later, came the great king (David).

“Though Jesus truly was born our long-awaited King, he had appeared first to do the bloody work of a priest.”

This old-covenant progression foreshadowed Jesus’s new-covenant progression. First, he revealed himself to be Israel’s great Moses-like Prophet (Deuteronomy 18:15; John 7:40), “proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction” as he began to call out his people (Matthew 9:35). Then he revealed himself to be Israel’s great Melchizedek-like Priest (Psalm 110:4; Hebrews 5:9–10), as well as the sacrificial “Lamb of God” (John 1:29), providing the ultimate forgiveness for the people’s sins and cleansing them from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9). And though Jesus bore marks of kingship throughout his ministry, and reigns now as king on heaven’s throne, we are still waiting for his full revelation to the world as Israel’s great David-like King (2 Samuel 7:8–16; Matthew 22:41–45).

In other words, though Jesus simultaneously occupies all three offices of Prophet, Priest, and King fully and eternally, on earth we are still living in the era of Jesus’s prophetic proclamation of the gospel (Matthew 28:19–20) and Jesus’s priestly mediation of God’s mercy toward sinners. Although everything is in subjection under his royal feet, “at present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him” (Hebrews 2:8).

Altar Before Scepter

We all, like our ancient forebears, long for our righteous King of kings to finally put an end to the evil that is the cause of such misery and grief in our lives and in our world. As we celebrate the first coming of Christ, we join Zechariah in praise as we look to the future grace of Jesus’s kingly reign:

Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,     for he has visited and redeemed his peopleand has raised up a horn of salvation for us     in the house of his servant David,as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,that we should be saved from our enemies     and from the hand of all who hate us . . .     that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear,     in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. (Luke 1:68–71, 74–75)

“If a merciful priest doesn’t precede a righteous king, a righteous king’s reign is not good news to us.”

However, if a merciful priest doesn’t precede a righteous king, a righteous king’s reign is not good news to us. Because on our own, we are not holy and righteous, as God is. We are sinful and wicked. We all know this deep down. To stand before God with our sin unatoned for is destruction.

That’s why we all need to encounter Jesus our High Priest before we encounter Jesus our High King. We need him to mediate God’s mercy to us by making “an offering for [our] guilt” (Isaiah 53:10) before he comes to “execute justice and righteousness in the land” (Jeremiah 33:15). We need him to serve at the altar before he wields the scepter (Hebrews 1:3).

Tender Mercy of Our God

Zechariah, being a priest, knew this. Which is why I think, as he turned his words to his infant son, the forerunner of the Messiah (Luke 1:16–17; Malachi 4:5–6), he ended his declaration of praise this way:

And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;     for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,to give knowledge of salvation to his people     in the forgiveness of their sins,because of the tender mercy of our God,     whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on highto give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,     to guide our feet into the way of peace. (Luke 1:76–79)

He knew the Messiah’s appearance wasn’t merely about God’s people being saved from their enemies, but about God’s people being saved from being God’s enemies because of the guilt of their own sins. The Messiah was coming to mediate the tender mercy of God, as well as his holy righteousness, that he might ultimately deliver us from all our danger.

Born Is the Priest of Israel

It is right for us to long for Jesus’s reign over all rebellious reality. It is right for us to “groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies,” which will come when Christ returns for his great earthly coronation (Romans 8:23). So, it is right for us to sing and celebrate the Advent of the “King of kings and Lord of lords” (Revelation 19:16).

But it is also right to think of Christmas as a day to overflow with gratitude and celebrate with feasting the fact that Jesus came to consecrate us before his coronation. He came to make us righteous before assuming his reign. He came to become our sacrifice before becoming our Sovereign. In the tender mercy of our God, Jesus “has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away [our] sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Hebrews 9:26).

So, I don’t think the anonymous hymn writer would be at all offended if we sometimes adapted the refrain and sang,

Noël, Noël, Noël, Noël, born is the Priest of Israel.

Having first come as our Priest, we now have every reason to look forward to when our King “will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him” (Hebrews 9:28).

A Time to Say Goodbye: A Father’s Gratitude as Children Leave Home

Remember how it felt as a kid at the end of the school year, when the long summer holidays stretched out before you? You knew it wouldn’t last forever, but fall seemed a world away.

That’s kind of what it felt like for me and my wife, Pam, during our early childrearing years (though it wasn’t a holiday). We knew this golden “summer” season of life would someday end. But for quite a wonderful while, it seemed like the “fall” of our kids’ departures into adulthood was a world away.

However, just as we learned as kids, summers aren’t as long as they first appear. Our parenting “fall” has arrived, and with it all the necessary changes. This is God’s design: “For everything there is a season” (Ecclesiastes 3:1). And as God pronounced, this design is good (Genesis 1:14, 18). I don’t begrudge it.

But I do grieve it, which I also believe is good. Because when God made “a time for every matter under heaven,” he included “a time to mourn” (Ecclesiastes 3:1, 4). The time to mourn is when someone or something precious to us passes away. And the precious season Pam and I were given to live together with all our children is passing away. It’s not easy to say goodbye.

“When God made ‘a time for every matter under heaven,’ he included ‘a time to mourn.’”

But something happened this year that provided our whole family a chance to say goodbye to that season together: we sold the family home.

Leaving More Than a Home

In June 2001, Pam and I bought a modest house on a small inner-city plot in South Minneapolis and moved in with our two young children (ages 5 and 2). Three more children came along over the next few years. So, for the better part of two decades, this house was the busy hub of our family of seven. It was a gracious provision from God and served us well.

As our kids began to reach adulthood, however, and as some began to leave the nest, Pam and I discerned the Lord readying us for another move. We weren’t sure when this would happen, so we kept it in prayer, kept it on our kids’ radars, and kept our eyes open.

Then, last January, the moment surprisingly (and suddenly) arrived. The right home for the next season of life at the right price became available. Both of us discerned the Lord was in it, so we pulled the trigger. This immediately threw us into high gear in order to get our house ready to sell and ourselves ready to move.

But getting our house ready to sell proved more difficult than I anticipated. I don’t mean the repairs, upgrades, and cleaning. I mean getting ready to leave the place. Because leaving this place really brought home the realization that we were leaving more than a home; we were leaving a wonderful era.

The Rooms Where It Happened

In the hustle and bustle of those busy years, I didn’t fully realize just how much that house was being woven into the fabric of our shared lives, but for 21 years it was where most of our most profound family moments occurred.

It’s where children were conceived and where they first came awake to the world. It’s where some first crawled, then walked, then ran; where some first spoke, then read, then wrote. It was where we spoke most about God and spoke most to God together. It’s where we spent the most time reading God’s word and singing to and about God together. It’s where we expressed our deepest longings for God — and our doubts about him — together. It’s where we shared our greatest joys and sorrows together, where we had the most fun and most fights together. It’s where we shared thousands of meals and washed hundreds of thousands of dishes together. It’s where our children grew up together, and where Pam and I grew noticeably older together.

This house framed our family life for most of our family’s life. These were the rooms where it all happened. So, I guess it’s fitting that as we packed up these rooms, the reality of all we were leaving behind really hit home.

Goodbye to Golden Days

For me, the emptier each room became, the more it seemed to fill with memories. I’d enter our bedroom and think how everyone used to crowd on our bed for evening book time. Walking through the living room might recall a bunch of Blooms enjoying Sunday sundaes. A glance at a basement wall could prompt, “You wrote her lullaby here, remember?” Sometimes I could almost hear my kids bounding down the stairs, giggling over something silly, arguing with their mother, tattling on a sibling, happily singing, letting the storm door slam while running out of the house, or calling for me from their bedrooms to come give them their nighttime blessing.

The last few days at the house, when it was mostly empty, it was as if ghosts of the past were released from some grey-matter basement in my memory to finally run free. Ghosts of past Christmases, Easters, birthdays, evening dinners, family devotions, chore times, movie nights, and Saturday special breakfasts would show up unbidden (and suddenly I’d be searching for Kleenex).

Well, perhaps not entirely unbidden. Consciously or not, I was looking and listening for them. And so was everyone else. Every family member was recalling them. We reminisced a lot together and did a lot of laughing and crying — often simultaneously. It was a sweet way (with the right amount of bitter) to say goodbye to our beloved house. But we all knew it was more than that. It was a cathartic way to say goodbye to a golden time of shared life, a wonderful “summer” season that was ending.

On the last night, we all gathered at the house, joined by our dear next-door friends, who had been so much a part of our lives for more than a decade, and together we went room by room, sharing recollections. Then, when only our family remained, standing in the entry, we thanked God for that house, for those beloved rooms where it had all happened, and for all the happenings that had made that season of life so precious to us.

Three Parting Thank-Yous

I loved being a father. I’m not done being one, of course. I just mean that I loved raising my children. I loved providing for them, protecting them, playing with them, comforting them, and teaching them. Those formative years were wonderful. I will miss them.

“Some things are so profound, we can only say them simply.”

But the next season is upon us. Three of our children have departed the home, and the two who remain (our twins) are high school seniors. Pam and I are already experiencing some of the new season’s wonderful gifts (like grandchildren — we now have three!). So, as a kind of benediction to mark the passing of a season I’ve loved, I want to offer a few simple words of thanks. For some things are so profound, we can only say them simply.

Thank you, heavenly Father, for the priceless gifts of our children’s lives, and for the inexpressible gift of allowing Pam and me to share with them their growing-up years. This remarkable quarter-century season came from you, and it was indeed good.

Thank you, Pam, for being, in my estimation, the primary human reason this season was so wonderful. From the moment you became aware of each child’s existence, you haven’t ceased to lovingly, faithfully, and sacrificially care for them. I couldn’t have asked for a better partner in parenting. Your steady faith in God, your patience and grace toward the rest of us, and your gentle, quiet spirit daily seasoned our home and made it a place of peace.

And to Levi, Eliana, Peter, Moriah, and Micah: thank you for the privilege of being your father. I realize you weren’t given a choice, but somehow it still feels to me like a gift from you because of how profoundly your lives have enriched mine. The years I was able to spend with you and your wonderful mother have been the best of my life. It was a golden time. I would do it all over again. But “for everything there is a season,” and God has faithfully brought us to the dusk of this one and the dawn of the next. And so, it only seems right to speak over you once more the blessing you each received from me nearly every night of your childhood:

The Lord bless you and keep you;the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you;the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace. (Numbers 6:24–26)

Disorient, Distort, Deceive: Satan’s Core Strategy Against Us

When it comes to resisting temptations to sin, there’s no one-size-fits-all strategy. Temptations arrive in many ways at many times, and the Bible gives many different strategies to defeat them.

But we can notice one fundamental similarity in all the temptations we face, a dimension that’s always present in satanic deception. Remembering this similarity will help us in the fight, whatever resistance strategy we implement.

To help us see this unifying theme in temptation, let’s examine history’s most remarkable example — the devil’s temptation of Jesus. This scene illustrates Satan’s core strategy, how Jesus kept his head clear, and how we can imitate Jesus’s example.

Anatomy of Temptation

Matthew, Mark, and Luke all record Jesus being tempted by the devil at the beginning of his ministry, but Matthew’s account provides the most details. He describes three specific temptations and Jesus’s response to each (Matthew 4:1–11).

Theologians down through history have pointed out that there’s a lot going in this particular temptation from historical and theological standpoints, but I’m not going to address those topics here. Instead, my goal is simply to identify a specific dimension common in all of Satan’s temptations.

Dialogue with the Devil

To begin, after Jesus fasts for forty days, the devil seeks to take advantage of his physical weakness and severe hunger.

Devil: “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” (verse 3)

Jesus: “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” (verse 4, quoting Deuteronomy 8:3)

Then, from the pinnacle of the temple, the devil seeks to take advantage of Jesus’s faith in a scriptural promise.

Devil: “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’” (verse 6, quoting Psalm 91:11–12)

Jesus: “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’” (verse 7, quoting Deuteronomy 6:16)

Finally, after showing Jesus “all the kingdoms of the world and their glory” (verse 8), the devil seeks to take advantage of Jesus’s promised exaltation.

Devil: “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” (verse 9)

Jesus: “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’” (verse 10, quoting from Deuteronomy 6:16)

Three Essential Elements

Notice that the three temptations have three elements in common.

First, the devil sought to narrow Jesus’s focus specifically on each tempting proposition, so that Jesus would view each in a distorted context and therefore experience them as disproportionately compelling. More on this in a moment.

Second, each temptation promises both explicit and implicit rewards. I will paraphrase some that I discern, as if spoken by the tempter:

Bread: Jesus, if you miraculously create bread, it will relieve your starving agony and, more importantly, validate your claim to divinity.
Jump: If you demonstrate the truth of this audacious promise in the sight of all those witnesses down there, you will glorify both the trustworthiness of God’s word and the trustworthiness of your claim as God’s Son.
Worship: Since it is in my power, if you will bow to me, I will make sure that every knee will bow and every tongue will confess your lordship.

Third, each tempting proposition makes implicit threats. Again, I’ll paraphrase some that I discern:

Bread: If you’re unwilling to miraculously create bread, doesn’t it indicate your inability to do so? You’re no Moses, much less the Prophet, much less the Son of God. You’re just another self-deluded “messiah” — and you know what happens to frauds.
Jump: If you’re unwilling to demonstrate the truth of these promises, doesn’t it indicate that you don’t really believe them? You’re no Son of God. You’re just like every other hypocritical rabbi: teach, teach, teach, but you won’t risk your life to prove God’s word is true — and you know what happens to hypocrites.
Worship: The road you’re on is more than risky; it’s doomed. If you don’t bow to me, you will die. And I will make sure it is unspeakably horrible.

Satan’s Core Strategy

This dissection of Jesus’s temptation experience helps us examine not only the devil’s specific strategy with Jesus, but the core strategy he employs in every temptation.

“Jesus was not ignorant of the universal diabolical dimension of temptation: to disorient, distort, and deceive.”

What was the devil trying to do? Essentially, he was seeking to do with Jesus what he did with Adam and Eve and what he does with each of us: disorient Jesus’s perception of reality, so he could distort Jesus’s perception of reality and deceive Jesus into believing a false story about reality.

See if this doesn’t sound familiar. Satan comes when Jesus is in a weakened state — we humans are more easily disoriented when we’re physically, emotionally, psychologically weak. Think about how differently you’re prone to respond to various pressures when you’re weak, rather than when you’re strong and refreshed.

Then he poses to Jesus propositions that put a distorted twist on truth. The devil wove plenty of truth into his presentation of a false reality. Was it inherently sinful for Jesus to desire to satisfy his hunger? No. Was it inherently sinful for Jesus to demonstrate his sonship through miraculously making bread? No — he did this very thing later when he fed the five thousand (Matthew 14:13–21). Was it inherently sinful for Jesus to put his faith in a specific promise of Scripture? No. Was it inherently sinful for Jesus (in particular) to long to be highly exalted and for every knee to bow and tongue to confess his lordship? No (see Philippians 2:9–11).

All of these, given the right context, were good and righteous. What made the devil’s propositions evil was their distorted context. And I think it required more resolve from Jesus’s human nature to resist than we might at first assume.

Jesus Resists

But resist he did. How? One way to describe it is that he skillfully used the armor of God against the schemes of the devil (Ephesians 6:11). In Jesus’s responses, we see him lifting the “shield of faith” and wielding the “sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Ephesians 6:16–17).

Another way to describe it is that Jesus was “not ignorant of [Satan’s] designs” and therefore refused to be “outwitted” by him (2 Corinthians 2:11). Jesus was not ignorant of the universal diabolical dimension of temptation: to disorient, distort, and deceive. So he had his antennae up; he was anticipating it. And when it came, he expected it to sound appealing and appear life-giving, when in reality “its end is the way the death” (Proverbs 14:12).

“The devil tempted Jesus to see himself in a different story.”

The devil tempted Jesus to see himself in a different story, one he implied would be better if Jesus took matters into his own hands. Jesus discerned the insidious temptations by remembering the Real Story he was in, which is what his Scripture quotes reveal. He had come to undo the curse of the fall — the catastrophic result of the first Adam believing a perverted story — by doing only what he saw his Father doing (John 5:19).

Remember the Story You’re In

That is the crucial application point I want to draw from Jesus’s temptation: remember the story you’re in. All of us tend to respond to tempting desires or fears based on the narrative of reality we believe (or want to believe) at the moment. What will lead to more joy or less misery, according to the story we’re believing? If we allow ourselves to be disoriented and sold a distorted bill of goods, and if we then take the bait of a deceptively appealing false story, we will be “lured and enticed by [our] own desire,” which when “conceived gives birth to sin, and sin . . . [eventually] brings forth death” (James 1:14–15).

Many different strategies for fighting different kinds of temptations exist. But all of them require that we not be outwitted by Satan due to ignorance of his designs to disorient, distort, and deceive. God calls us, like Jesus, to “be sober-minded [and] watchful,” since our “adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). So, like Jesus, we anticipate what temptation will be like, and when it arrives we resist the devil by first remembering the story we’re in.

Lead Me, O Lord: Ten Prayers for Christian Leaders

Pastor is a strange and difficult calling. It’s strange because, to use the biblical metaphor, a pastor is a sheep to whom the Great Shepherd has entrusted certain shepherding responsibilities within a particular “flock of God” (1 Peter 5:2) — he’s a shepherding sheep. And it’s difficult because, in addition to carrying out his demanding shepherding responsibilities, he himself needs to be led by the Great Shepherd as much any other Christian. Indeed, he is to set an example of following for his fellow sheep (1 Peter 5:3).

In other words, a pastor is a lead follower, which puts the emphasis of his calling in the right places. He’s first and foremost a follower of Jesus, the Great Shepherd, like any other sheep. Lead describes not his exalted status or unquestionable spiritual authority or superior value within the flock, but his sober calling to follow his Shepherd in such a way that his fellow sheep can “consider the outcome of [his] way of life, and imitate [his] faith,” to speak to them “the word of God,” and to keep watch over their souls, as one “who will have to give an account” (Hebrews 13:7, 17).

Call to Prayerful Dependence

If understood correctly, a pastor’s calling is designed to keep him in a posture of prayerful dependence, with his fellow flock members praying on his behalf. For who is adequate for such a calling — accountable to Jesus for how he models what it means to be a Christian, how rightly he handles the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15), and how the souls under his care spiritually fare? A pastor’s calling should regularly send all the sheep to their knees, because how well a pastor leads hangs on how well he follows the Great Shepherd’s lead.

“How well a pastor leads hangs on how well he follows the Great Shepherd’s lead.”

To that end, the following are ten suggested ways pastors can pray to be led by Jesus, drawn from various psalms. And they can be easily adapted by church members as ways to pray for those who love them enough to serve as lead followers.

1. Following: Lead me as my shepherd.

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.     He makes me lie down in green pastures.He leads me beside still waters.     He restores my soul.He leads me in paths of righteousness     for his name’s sake. (Psalm 23:1–3)

Great Shepherd, the flock I am a part of is your flock, and I am only an “overseer,” a lead follower, by the appointment of your Spirit (Acts 20:28). Therefore, I am all the more dependent on you to shepherd me, since apart from you I can do nothing (John 15:5). Help me keep looking to you for everything I need (Philippians 4:19) and seeking to serve your flock in the strength you supply (1 Peter 4:11). Lead me in paths of righteousness for your name’s sake.

2. Wisdom: Lead me in your understanding.

Give me understanding, that I may keep your law     and observe it with my whole heart.Lead me in the path of your commandments,     for I delight in it. (Psalm 119:34–35)

Great Shepherd, I believe that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” and that “all those who practice it have a good understanding” (Psalm 111:10). This is why I delight in your word: it is the source of understanding for how I and my fellow sheep may “walk in a manner . . . fully pleasing to” you (Colossians 1:10). So give me understanding that I may wisely observe your commandments with my whole heart, because I love you (John 14:15).

3. Teaching: Lead me by your Spirit.

Teach me to do your will,     for you are my God!Let your good Spirit lead me     on level ground! (Psalm 143:10)

Great Shepherd, you’ve called me, as a lead follower, to teach my brothers and sisters (1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:9). Help me remember that I have nothing to teach them that I have not received from you through others by your Spirit (1 Corinthians 4:7). And help me remember that I am responsible to teach not merely through what I say, but through what I do by the power of your Spirit (James 1:22). So lead me by your good Spirit, and teach me to do your will.

4. Purity: Lead me in your righteousness.

Search me, O God, and know my heart!     Try me and know my thoughts!And see if there be any grievous way in me,     and lead me in the way everlasting! (Psalm 139:23–24)

Lead me, O Lord, in your righteousness. (Psalm 5:8)

“Great Shepherd, lead me in your righteousness — don’t let me try to lead with mine.”

Great Shepherd, apart from your sovereign keeping, I am as vulnerable to temptation and as prone to wander as any of my fellow sheep. And you know the state of my heart and my inmost thoughts more thoroughly than I do. Do whatever you must to reveal any grievous way in me so that my precious brothers and sisters “who hope in you” never have cause to “be put to shame through me” (Psalm 69:6). Help me lead by seeking to be a lead confessor, lead repenter, lead grace-recipient, and lead holiness-pursuer. Lead me in your righteousness — don’t let me try to lead with mine.

5. Guidance: Lead me in your truth.

Make me to know your ways, O Lord;     teach me your paths.Lead me in your truth and teach me,     for you are the God of my salvation;     for you I wait all the day long. (Psalm 25:4–5)

Great Shepherd, all your providential paths “are steadfast love and faithfulness” (Psalm 25:10). But as a lead follower, I often do not know the right path to take. I and this flock are utterly dependent upon you to lead us. Make me humble enough to remember that “in an abundance of counselors there is safety” (Proverbs 11:14), patient enough not to move until you grant sufficient clarity, and bold enough to lead in following you when your guidance becomes sufficiently clear. Lead me and my fellow sheep in your truth and teach us.

6. Courage: Lead me because of my enemies.

Teach me your way, O Lord,     and lead me on a level path     because of my enemies. (Psalm 27:11)

Great Shepherd, you displayed such wise and gracious courage in the face of your spiritual and human adversaries. Train me in cultivating such courage. Teach me to be “quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger” (James 1:19), to courageously seek the glory of the one who sent me, and not my own (John 7:18). Teach me to truly love my enemies and seek their good (Luke 6:27) while remaining courageous enough to speak the truth in love when it is unpopular and despised (Ephesians 4:15). Lead me on a level path because of my enemies.

7. Discouragement: Lead me with your light.

Send out your light and your truth;     let them lead me. (Psalm 43:3)

Great Shepherd, when I do succumb to discouragement because of the opposition of adversaries, criticism from my fellow sheep, sorrow from tragedies within my flock, difficulties within my family, my besetting weaknesses, or fatigue from long, strenuous labors, have mercy on me. Send out your light and your truth, and let them lead me to once again “take courage” (Psalm 27:14).

8. Protection: Lead me to your refuge.

You are my rock and my fortress;     and for your name’s sake you lead me and guide me. (Psalm 31:3)

Great Shepherd, you laid down your life for your sheep to deliver us from our greatest danger: your Father’s wrath (John 10:11; Romans 5:8–9). You told us we would experience tribulation in the world, but not to fear because you have overcome the world (John 16:33). And you promise to “rescue [us] from every evil deed and bring [us] safely into [your] heavenly kingdom” (2 Timothy 4:18). Protect me and my fellow sheep from the true danger of faithlessness. Protect me as a lead follower from discouraging others by fearing what man can do to me more than I fear the destruction of faithlessly shrinking back (Hebrews 10:39). You are my rock and fortress; when I am afraid, lead me to seek my only safe refuge in you.

9. Overwhelmed: Lead me when my heart is faint.

Hear my cry, O God,     listen to my prayer;from the end of the earth I call to you     when my heart is faint.Lead me to the rock     that is higher than I. (Psalm 61:1–2)

Great Shepherd, I take comfort that such a faith-filled, strong, courageous lead follower as David at times felt overwhelmed by his circumstances and became faint of heart. And I take comfort that you know my frame and remember that I am dust (Psalm 103:14). When I become overwhelmed, “lift me high upon a rock” (Psalm 27:5), above the fray, where I can rest and regain perspective. Lead me to the rock that is higher than I.

10. Spiritual Desertion: Lead me through my darkness.

Where shall I go from your Spirit?     Or where shall I flee from your presence?If I ascend to heaven, you are there!     If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!If I take the wings of the morning.     and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,even there your hand shall lead me,     and your right hand shall hold me.If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,     and the light about me be night,”even the darkness is not dark to you;     the night is bright as the day,     for darkness is as light with you. (Psalm 139:7–12)

Great Shepherd, when darkness has covered me, and I have lost sight of you; when I can’t discern your presence, and your voice seems like a distant echo; when a spiritual storm overtakes me, and I become disoriented and confused, remind me that saints through the ages have also endured such experiences. Remind me that even my darkness is not dark to you. And reveal yourself — not only to me, but also to my brothers and sisters — as the Shepherd who never loses a sheep (Luke 15:4), even in the valley of the shadow (Psalm 23:4). Even there, let your hand lead me until the storm passes and “light dawns in the darkness” (Psalm 112:4).

How Can God Forget My Sins?

The new-covenant Passover meal we call the “Lord’s Supper” is not, as some believe, a re-shedding of Jesus’s blood for the forgiveness of our sins. Nor is it primarily a reminder of our sinful state. It is a remembrance of the once-for-all new-covenant sacrifice Jesus made for us. When we partake of this little meal, we hear God the Father say, “Because my Son has shed his blood for the forgiveness of your sins, I will remember your sins no more.”

It’s beautiful and fitting that the first explicit mention of the new covenant in the New Testament comes from the mouth of Jesus. And he mentions it at the most fitting moment. After sharing his final Passover meal with his disciples, Jesus takes a chalice of wine and says to them, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20).
There is a world of meaning packed into those words that would change the world.
Great Pivotal Moment
Reclining around the table that evening, the disciples were observing from front-row seats a pivotal moment of redemptive history. The great Passover “Lamb of God,” who had come to “take away the sins of the world” (John 1:29), was inaugurating a new-covenant Passover meal of remembrance to go along with his inauguration of the long-awaited new covenant foretold by the prophet Jeremiah (Jeremiah 31:31–34). The author of Hebrews quotes it in full:
Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord,when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israeland with the house of Judah,not like the covenant that I made with their fatherson the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt.For they did not continue in my covenant,and so I showed no concern for them, declares the Lord.For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israelafter those days, declares the Lord:I will put my laws into their minds,and write them on their hearts,and I will be their God,and they shall be my people.And they shall not teach, each one his neighborand each one his brother, saying, “Know the Lord,”for they shall all know me,from the least of them to the greatest.For I will be merciful toward their iniquities,and I will remember their sins no more. (Hebrews 8:8–12)
It’s unclear how much the disciples grasped at the time. But when Jesus said the cup represented “the new covenant in [his] blood,” he meant he was far more than a Passover lamb whose blood would momentarily shield God’s covenant people from a momentary judgment.
He meant that he had “appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Hebrews 9:26). He meant that through his shed blood, he would completely achieve what centuries of the shed “blood of bulls and goats” could never achieve (Hebrews 10:4). He meant that his sacrificial death would make it possible for God to “be merciful toward [the] iniquities” of all his covenant people, for all time, and “remember their sins no more.”
Why the Old Covenant Became Obsolete
By all accounts, Christianity is now one of the world’s great religions, distinct from Judaism. But to Christianity’s Founder and the first generation or two of his followers, what we call “Christianity” was Judaism. It was Judaism with its great messianic hope fulfilled and without the old covenant’s caste of priests performing its required continual animal sacrifices. It was (and is) new-covenant Judaism.
The book of Hebrews provides the most in-depth explanation of why the old covenant had to be replaced by the new covenant. “If that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second” (Hebrews 8:7).
Read More
Related Posts:

How Can God Forget My Sins? What We Remember at the Table

It’s beautiful and fitting that the first explicit mention of the new covenant in the New Testament comes from the mouth of Jesus. And he mentions it at the most fitting moment. After sharing his final Passover meal with his disciples, Jesus takes a chalice of wine and says to them, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20).

There is a world of meaning packed into those words that would change the world.

Great Pivotal Moment

Reclining around the table that evening, the disciples were observing from front-row seats a pivotal moment of redemptive history. The great Passover “Lamb of God,” who had come to “take away the sins of the world” (John 1:29), was inaugurating a new-covenant Passover meal of remembrance to go along with his inauguration of the long-awaited new covenant foretold by the prophet Jeremiah (Jeremiah 31:31–34). The author of Hebrews quotes it in full:

Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord,     when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel     and with the house of Judah,not like the covenant that I made with their fathers     on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt.For they did not continue in my covenant,     and so I showed no concern for them, declares the Lord.For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel     after those days, declares the Lord:I will put my laws into their minds,     and write them on their hearts,and I will be their God,     and they shall be my people.And they shall not teach, each one his neighbor     and each one his brother, saying, “Know the Lord,”for they shall all know me,     from the least of them to the greatest.For I will be merciful toward their iniquities,     and I will remember their sins no more. (Hebrews 8:8–12)

It’s unclear how much the disciples grasped at the time. But when Jesus said the cup represented “the new covenant in [his] blood,” he meant he was far more than a Passover lamb whose blood would momentarily shield God’s covenant people from a momentary judgment.

He meant that he had “appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Hebrews 9:26). He meant that through his shed blood, he would completely achieve what centuries of the shed “blood of bulls and goats” could never achieve (Hebrews 10:4). He meant that his sacrificial death would make it possible for God to “be merciful toward [the] iniquities” of all his covenant people, for all time, and “remember their sins no more.”

Why the Old Covenant Became Obsolete

By all accounts, Christianity is now one of the world’s great religions, distinct from Judaism. But to Christianity’s Founder and the first generation or two of his followers, what we call “Christianity” was Judaism. It was Judaism with its great messianic hope fulfilled and without the old covenant’s caste of priests performing its required continual animal sacrifices. It was (and is) new-covenant Judaism.

The book of Hebrews provides the most in-depth explanation of why the old covenant had to be replaced by the new covenant. “If that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second” (Hebrews 8:7). So, what was faulty with the first? A full, careful study of the book of Hebrews is required to get the whole picture. But I’ll cover two major reasons.

Deficient Power to Defeat Sin

The first we see in Jeremiah’s prophecy: “They [the people of Israel] did not continue in my covenant, and so I showed no concern for them, declares the Lord” (Hebrews 8:9). That is, God “finds fault with them” (Hebrews 8:8), not the covenant itself. The history of Israel, from the time of the exodus from Egypt till the appearance of Christ, chronicles a continual breaking of the covenant that God had made with them at Sinai. This covenant inscripturated in the Law of Moses proved impossible for the people to keep because of their pervasive, inescapable problem: human sinfulness. As Paul explains,

The law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good. . . . [But] it was sin [rebelling against God’s holy law], producing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure. (Romans 7:12–13)

“The first covenant had the power to expose sin, but not the power to free people from it.”

In other words, the first covenant had the power to expose sin, but not the power to free people from it. And this produced in even the most conscientious, rigorous observers of the law the cry, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24).

Deficient Blood to Atone for Sin

A second reason the old covenant was not final and complete was because its sacrifices, continually offered every year, could never make perfect those who drew near. “Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered?” the author of Hebrews reasons. “But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Hebrews 10:1–4).

The old covenant made it clear that “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Hebrews 9:22). But as the old-covenant law lacked the power to free humans from sin, the old-covenant shedding of animal blood lacked the power to fully atone for human sin. All that these sacrifices effectually did was remind sinners of their “wretched,” inescapable sinful state — and point them forward to a coming, final, effective, once-for-all sacrifice.

Promise of the New Covenant

What we see foreshadowed in Jeremiah’s prophecy is the gospel the Messiah would bring: God’s intention to address these two major problems “once for all” (Hebrews 10:10).

Under the new covenant, God promised his people that he would “put [his] laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts” (Hebrews 8:10). This was a pointer to a superior law, “the law of the [Holy] Spirit of life” (Romans 8:1) who had the power set them free from their enslavement to their fallen sin nature, their “body of death.” It was a pointer to regeneration, where God’s covenant people would be “born again to a living hope through the resurrection of [the Messiah] from the dead” (1 Peter 1:3). God’s people would receive a new nature inclined to keep God’s righteous law, now written on their new hearts and transforming their renewed minds (Romans 12:2).

And under the new covenant, God would “be merciful toward [his covenant people’s] iniquities, and [he would] remember their sins no more” (Hebrews 8:12). This was a pointer to a superior sacrifice whose shed blood had the power to atone for all their sins. It was a pointer to “a single offering [by which God would perfect] for all time those who are being sanctified” (Hebrews 10:14). And if God no longer remembers his covenant people’s sin, they are no longer in the “wretched” sinful state for which they need reminding.

Do This in Remembrance of Me

This is the world of meaning in those few words Jesus spoke to his disciples as he held the cup. But this time, I’ll quote from the apostle Paul applying Jesus’s words:

“This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. (1 Corinthians 11:25–26)

“The Lord’s Supper is a remembrance of the once-for-all new-covenant sacrifice Jesus made for us.”

The new-covenant Passover meal we call the “Lord’s Supper” is not, as some believe, a re-shedding of Jesus’s blood for the forgiveness of our sins. Nor is it primarily a reminder of our sinful state. It is a remembrance of the once-for-all new-covenant sacrifice Jesus made for us. When we partake of this little meal, we hear God the Father say, “Because my Son has shed his blood for the forgiveness of your sins, I will remember your sins no more.”

And more than that, we hear God the Father say, “I will be your God, and you shall be my beloved child. And you shall know me” (Hebrews 8:10–11). For that, after all, is the heart of the new covenant. “Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18).

Give Me More of God: Why Spiritual Intimacy Can Feel Elusive

Deep in the heart of every true disciple of Jesus is a deep longing for more of God. But what is this more we desire? We might each describe our want somewhat differently, depending on how this longing refracts through our biology, history, and theological influences. To some degree, none of us has words for it. But at the core, what we desire is to really know God — to know him in the intimate ways that only love knows.

And we have this desire because, by God’s unfathomable grace toward us in Christ (Ephesians 2:8–9), he first has known and loved us (1 Corinthians 8:3; 1 John 4:19). It is his great desire, one he expresses in the promise of Jeremiah’s great prophecy (quoted in full in Hebrews 8):

This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more. (Jeremiah 31:33–34)

At the heart of the new covenant is God’s great desire that we “shall all know” him.

Known by Love

You don’t need to know Hebrew (or Greek) to discern the knowing God desires. It is the knowing of relational intimacy, of deep friendship — the kind of knowing that only love knows. For to truly know God is to love God.

“To truly know God is to love God.”

The role of love in intimately knowing someone is profound. On one hand, we cannot intimately love someone we do not know. So, knowledge must precede love. But on the other hand, the deep love of intimate friendship is the door to even deeper knowledge of the beloved, because intimate friends entrust themselves and so disclose more of themselves to each other. So, there is an intimate knowledge accessible only through the deep love that results from and produces even more profound trust.

We see one illustration of this dynamic in play at the end of John 6, when, as a result of hearing Jesus say offensive-sounding things, “many of his [wider group of] disciples turned back and no longer walked with him” (John 6:66). But the twelve didn’t leave him. Why? Because, to use Peter’s words, that they had “come to know” that he was “the Holy One of God” (John 6:69).

For eleven of them, this knowledge wasn’t merely intellectual; they had come to love him and trust him, even when he confused them. And because they trusted him, Jesus disclosed to them “secrets of the kingdom” he didn’t disclose to others (Luke 8:10). To really know Jesus was to really love Jesus, which was the door to knowing Jesus more. This is what Jesus is getting at when he later says to them,

Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him. (John 14:21)

The Way Is Simple

Notice the simplicity in those words: Jesus will manifest himself to whoever loves him. And two sentences later, he says, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him” (John 14:23). If we love Jesus, both the Father and the Son will manifest themselves to us through the “Spirit of truth” who “dwell[s] in” us (John 14:17).

These are precious and very great promises (2 Peter 1:4). The way to know the triune God intimately, to experience the relational communion promised in the new covenant, is not complex. Jesus calls us to keep his commandments, or keep his word, which is essentially what he means when he says, “Believe in God; believe also in me” (John 14:1). Jesus doesn’t give us a list of rituals, ascetic rigors, detailed prayer requirements, long pilgrimages, meditative practices, or instructions for creating special aesthetic environments to experience communion with him and the Father through the Spirit. The way is simple: “Believe in me.”

The Way Is Hard

The way may be simple to understand, but, as Jesus says elsewhere, “The way is hard that leads to life” (Matthew 7:14). The complexity and difficulty for us come not from the way itself, but from the evil we face: the internal evil of our unbelief or “little faith” (Matthew 17:20), combined with the effects of remaining sin dwelling in our members (Romans 7:21–23), and the external evil existing in a world that “lies in the power of the evil one” (1 John 5:19). Learning to overcome the obstacles presented to us by our sin-infected flesh and the devil-filled world (1 John 2:16) is very hard indeed.

But the way to more deeply knowing, loving, and trusting God is by faithfully persevering through the great difficulties, and through receiving God’s grace of forgiveness when we fail (1 John 1:9). For God uses these difficulties as opportunities to manifest more dimensions of himself to us. Through tribulations, we experience that Jesus has overcome the world (John 16:33), that his grace is sufficient in our weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9), and that he “is able to make all grace abound to [us], so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, [we] may abound in every good work” (2 Corinthians 9:8). We come to know more of him.

Through this hard way that leads to life, we also repeatedly encounter the reality that God is true to his “living and active” word (Hebrews 4:12). And we discover that the reality we’re encountering is not merely a set of propositions, but a Person: Jesus, who is the living Word (John 1:1). We discover, in fact, that Jesus is the way that leads to him, the life (John 14:6). And when it comes to our practical pursuit of God, we discover that the Lord most often and most profoundly reveals himself to us “by the word of the Lord” (1 Samuel 3:21).

For Those Who Want More

It’s possible that this may strike you as disappointing, as if the secret to intimacy with God is “read your Bible more.” Because what you long for is something more. You want to be near God and to encounter him more personally than you seem to experience when you read your Bible or hear God’s word preached and taught and discussed. If so, your disappointment could be resulting from one or all of the following possibilities.

First, it’s possible that your exposure to God’s word has outpaced your obedience to it. A familiar and accurate grasp of God’s word is only as good as your behavior-determining belief in it. Jesus said this to some of the most frequent Bible readers of his day: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life” (John 5:39–40). Jesus discloses himself intimately only to those who keep his word. It’s worth prayerful examination.

“Jesus discloses himself intimately only to those who keep his word.”

Second, it’s possible you have a misconception of what intimacy with God should feel like, which has given rise to expectations based on a kind of fantasy, not unlike the unreal expectations we can bring to romantic love or deep human friendships. Remember, our most intimate marriages and closest friendships usually result from a few intense experiences that punctuate many ordinary times that all build trust and deepen love.

Third, it’s possible we might think that the word of the Lord is a poor substitute for the Lord’s manifest personal presence. And in a sense, of course, that’s true. But think of what makes your most intimate, manifestly present friends so meaningful. Ultimately, the words through which you disclose yourselves to each other in mutual trust, along with the promises you faithfully keep, create the intimacy you enjoy. So it is with God.

Now We Know in Part

But it’s also possible that your longing for more is your inconsolable longing to be with your Beloved, the longing all true disciples of Jesus experience. You have come to know Jesus and love him and trust him, but you are keenly and sometimes painfully aware that the wonderful disclosures God has made to you are like a splash of the ocean of joy you someday will swim in (Psalm 16:11). You’re aware that now you only “see in a mirror dimly” what he’s revealed to you, that now you know only in part, but later you will know fully, “even as [you] have been fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12). There’s part of you that’s weary of the betrothal phase of your relationship with Jesus, and you long for the wedding, when the full marriage will at last be consummated.

For most of us, our discontent with our current level of intimacy with God comes from a mixture of the above: slowness to obey, misconceptions of what leads to our desired intimacy, and a longing that will be realized only when we finally see our Beloved face-to-face. But all these causes are reasons for great hope because they all point to the fact that there truly is more. There is more of God to know, more of God to love, and more ways we can deepen our trust and intimacy with him through faithfully keeping his word.

Whatever the cause of our longing, the Spirit is stirring in us a desire that comes from God. Because it’s his great desire, the very heart of the new covenant, that we all really know him. And someday, perhaps sooner than we think, God will bring to pass his precious and very great promise:

No longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. (Jeremiah 31:34)

In the meantime, “Let us know; let us press on to know the Lord” (Hosea 6:3).

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