Stephen Witmer

No Problem Is Too Small for Prayer

He sees and cares, no matter how humble and hidden the issue. God took on flesh and came to earth as a tiny, fragile, helpless baby born to a manual laborer. By doing so, he was saying, loud and clear, “I care about small people. I was one myself.” Let’s bring our problems, big and small, to him.

Do you ever feel too small for God, as though your worries don’t deserve his attention? As though he has more important things to do than tend to that tricky relationship, those hidden regrets, that dwindling bank account? If you’re tempted to believe such lies, consider an overlooked story in 2 Kings 6 — a story of small people, small problems, and a small miracle that can transform our understanding of God.
Small People
The story that comes just before this one is about a great man, a highflier, a Very Important Person: Naaman, the commander of Syria’s army (2 Kings 5). And the passage that immediately follows is about an even more important person: Naaman’s boss, the king of Syria himself (2 Kings 6:8–33). Both men have corner offices, fly first class, and live in gated communities. They’re big deals.
But not the people in this story. They’re referred to as “the sons of the prophets,” a group gathered around a prophet such as Elisha, learning from him and serving him. These are the guys who work in a cubicle, fly economy, and live where the houses are small and close together. They’re not famous or important — in fact, we’re not even told their names.
And yet this passage tells their story. In between the internationally significant narratives of a great military leader and a famous political leader is an episode about no-names involved in a purely local affair. This surprising interest in small people seems to have been a recurring feature of Elisha’s ministry (see the stories in 2 Kings 4). It’s also a hallmark of the larger biblical story (notice, for example, the focus on unnamed minor characters throughout the Gospel of Mark).
What’s more, the Bible doesn’t just show an interest in small people for whom things are going well — people who might be a net gain, even in their own small way. Rather, it demonstrates genuine care for small people with problems. That’s certainly the case for the sons of the prophets in 2 Kings 6. In fact, they have two problems.
Small Problems
The first problem is a housing issue. “Now the sons of the prophets said to Elisha, ‘See, the place where we dwell under your charge is too small for us’” (2 Kings 6:1). I get this. Several years ago, with our kids getting older, our house felt cramped, so we moved to a larger one. I wouldn’t deem our housing needs worthy of inclusion in Holy Scripture. Maybe the sons of the prophets felt similarly. But here’s their story — in the Bible. Apparently, the small problems of small people matter to God.
In this case, the sons of the prophets come to Elisha not just with a problem, but with a proposed solution. “‘Let us go to the Jordan and each of us get there a log, and let us make a place for us to dwell there.’ And he answered, ‘Go’” (2 Kings 6:2). Sometimes God meets our needs through miraculous means (he’ll do that in this very story). Other times he helps us through our own activity. Elisha doesn’t make a new house appear out of thin air. Instead, the sons of the prophets mount a logging expedition and build a house.
God often works this way. According to Jesus, God feeds the birds of the air —
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No Problem Is Too Small for Prayer

Do you ever feel too small for God, as though your worries don’t deserve his attention? As though he has more important things to do than tend to that tricky relationship, those hidden regrets, that dwindling bank account? If you’re tempted to believe such lies, consider an overlooked story in 2 Kings 6 — a story of small people, small problems, and a small miracle that can transform our understanding of God.

Small People

The story that comes just before this one is about a great man, a highflier, a Very Important Person: Naaman, the commander of Syria’s army (2 Kings 5). And the passage that immediately follows is about an even more important person: Naaman’s boss, the king of Syria himself (2 Kings 6:8–33). Both men have corner offices, fly first class, and live in gated communities. They’re big deals.

But not the people in this story. They’re referred to as “the sons of the prophets,” a group gathered around a prophet such as Elisha, learning from him and serving him. These are the guys who work in a cubicle, fly economy, and live where the houses are small and close together. They’re not famous or important — in fact, we’re not even told their names.

And yet this passage tells their story. In between the internationally significant narratives of a great military leader and a famous political leader is an episode about no-names involved in a purely local affair. This surprising interest in small people seems to have been a recurring feature of Elisha’s ministry (see the stories in 2 Kings 4). It’s also a hallmark of the larger biblical story (notice, for example, the focus on unnamed minor characters throughout the Gospel of Mark).

What’s more, the Bible doesn’t just show an interest in small people for whom things are going well — people who might be a net gain, even in their own small way. Rather, it demonstrates genuine care for small people with problems. That’s certainly the case for the sons of the prophets in 2 Kings 6. In fact, they have two problems.

Small Problems

The first problem is a housing issue. “Now the sons of the prophets said to Elisha, ‘See, the place where we dwell under your charge is too small for us’” (2 Kings 6:1). I get this. Several years ago, with our kids getting older, our house felt cramped, so we moved to a larger one. I wouldn’t deem our housing needs worthy of inclusion in Holy Scripture. Maybe the sons of the prophets felt similarly. But here’s their story — in the Bible. Apparently, the small problems of small people matter to God.

In this case, the sons of the prophets come to Elisha not just with a problem, but with a proposed solution. “‘Let us go to the Jordan and each of us get there a log, and let us make a place for us to dwell there.’ And he answered, ‘Go’” (2 Kings 6:2). Sometimes God meets our needs through miraculous means (he’ll do that in this very story). Other times he helps us through our own activity. Elisha doesn’t make a new house appear out of thin air. Instead, the sons of the prophets mount a logging expedition and build a house.

God often works this way. According to Jesus, God feeds the birds of the air — but as one of my seminary professors used to say, you don’t see birds lying on their backs, waiting for God to drop worms into their beaks. He feeds them through their own worm-finding efforts. Yes, God can provide manna from heaven and bread by raven (1 Kings 17:3–6), but his normal means of provision is our own hard work (2 Thessalonians 3:10).

“Ask God for his help. Give him your burden. Surrender your problem. He wants you to ask.”

The second problem involves a lost axe head. “But as one was felling a log, his axe head fell into the water, and he cried out, ‘Alas, my master! It was borrowed’” (2 Kings 6:5). Of course, this is a tiny issue in the grand sweep of things. But when a problem happens to us, we don’t feel that way about it. When it’s our injured leg, our dented car, our negative job review, our extended sickness, the comparatively small problem can feel big. The unnamed man in verse 5 “cried out” — a term connoting real distress. He cries out, “Alas!” He can’t afford to replace that borrowed axe head.

Yes, it’s a relatively small problem — but not to him. Will God even notice? Look what happens next.

Small Miracle

“Then the man of God said, ‘Where did it fall?’ When he showed him the place, he cut off a stick and threw it in there and made the iron float. And he said, ‘Take it up.’ So he reached out his hand and took it” (2 Kings 6:6–7). The description of Elisha as “the man of God” reminds us that Elisha, though a prophet, is a man. He needs to ask where the axe head fell (apparently, the miracle doesn’t include actually locating it!). But the term “man of God” also reminds us that Elisha represents God, speaks for God, does miracles by the power of God. God himself, in the person of his prophet, is involved in this small miracle.

Elisha throws a stick into the water; the axe head floats. We’re not told why a stick is used, but this is undoubtedly a miracle. Iron doesn’t float. As miracles go, it’s a small one. No one is raised from the dead. The fate of a nation doesn’t hang in the balance. There are few witnesses. Even the ending of the story is undramatic. “And he said, ‘Take it up.’ So he reached out his hand and took it.” That’s it. End of story.

So, here’s a summary of this little story: Some small people have a couple of small problems, and God meets their needs — in one case through their own planning and effort, and in the other through a small miracle. Maybe the story doesn’t seem all that important, yet I’m glad it’s in the Bible. It demonstrates that God cares about us and our everyday problems. He acts on our behalf. If we’re attentive, we’ll see that in our own lives.

No Prayer Too Small

I’ve seen God act this way in my own life. I’m a pastor, and a few years ago, I agreed to lead a graveside service for the deceased brother of a friend who lives in town. My friend isn’t a follower of Jesus, so this seemed like a great opportunity to serve him and deepen our friendship. The service was scheduled for 1:00, but somehow, I got it into my head that it began at 1:30. That day, I drove to the cemetery and arrived at about 1:20, thinking I was early. But as I walked toward the grave, I saw many cars and a crowd of people. I looked at my notes, discovered I was in fact twenty minutes late, and felt sick to my stomach.

Surprisingly, though, as I neared the grave, I saw pallbearers pulling a coffin out of a hearse and carrying it toward the grave. My friend greeted me and told me what had happened. An out-of-town funeral home had driven the coffin to the wrong cemetery in our town. A grave had been dug at that cemetery for a different funeral the same day, and they had lowered the coffin into that grave. It took time to discover the error, get the coffin out of the grave and back into the hearse, and drive it to the right place. In fact, it took them twenty minutes. Which meant I arrived right on time. I believe that was the work of God. He knew every little detail, cared for me, and prevented an unintentional offense against my friend. God did a small miracle for a small person (me).

Psalm 147:3–4 says that God “heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds. He determines the number of the stars; he gives to all of them their names.” God does big things (like creating and naming the stars) and little things (like binding up the wounds of sad people). So, here’s an invitation: Ask God for his help. Give him your burden. Surrender your problem. He wants you to ask. He sees and cares, no matter how humble and hidden the issue. God took on flesh and came to earth as a tiny, fragile, helpless baby born to a manual laborer. By doing so, he was saying, loud and clear, “I care about small people. I was one myself.” Let’s bring our problems, big and small, to him.

Jesus Loves That You Love Jesus: How to Recover Joy in Salvation

“Rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” In Luke 10:20, Jesus tells his followers to rejoice that their eternal future with God is assured. It may seem odd that he commands such joy. If someone said he was sending you to a tropical paradise for an all-expenses-paid vacation, wouldn’t you rejoice without being told to do so?

And yet, there are many reasons we may not rejoice frequently or fervently in our salvation. Perhaps we’ve lost sight of the glories of heaven because we’ve become absorbed with the joys of this world. Or maybe present anxieties have jostled out future realities. It could be that we’ve been Christians for so long we can hardly remember a time when we weren’t following Jesus. Our salvation feels like a comfortable old T-shirt — safe and familiar, but not a cause for great excitement.

Here’s another possible reason for not rejoicing in our salvation: we think of our personal conversion as a normal and, therefore, boring one, as not a very big deal. I understand the sentiment: I was converted as a little boy. Unlike some of my friends, I wasn’t dramatically delivered from highly visible sins. At four years old, my drink of choice was milk or orange juice, and my most serious habit was overeating Pez. If your story is like mine, you may be tempted to consider your conversion simply as a continuation of the path you were already on, rather than as a dramatic break with your unconverted life.

Whatever the reason, Jesus comes to our aid in Luke 10. He doesn’t just command us to rejoice in our salvation; he himself rejoices over the salvation of souls. And then he provides reasons for his joy — and ours. Jesus says that our salvation is (1) the work of the Father, (2) the choice of the Son, and (3) the climax of the ages. If we press into these three realities, they can fuel our own deep and daily joy.

1. Our salvation is the work of the Father.

Your conversion moment may have looked outwardly humdrum. For me, it was kneeling with my dad and brother on a brown rug in my bedroom on Center Street in Monson, Maine. I heard no voice from heaven. The roof didn’t split open. I didn’t even get to extend my bedtime later than normal that night! Others of us can’t even point to the moment of our conversion, it seemed to happen so gradually. You just know there was a time when you didn’t love Jesus and then a time when you did.

No matter what your conversion looked or felt like, Jesus declares that it was a direct work of God the Father: “In that same hour [Jesus] rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said, ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will’” (Luke 10:21).

In the context, “these things” includes the offer of gospel peace and the coming of God’s kingdom. Jesus is saying that God has revealed the gospel to some and hidden it from others. He’s referring to an inner revelation from God whereby he causes the gospel not only to make sense to us, but also to be desirable and attractive. The only reason someone comes to faith is because God inwardly opens that person’s mind and heart to the gospel. Our salvation is the result of God’s will: “Yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.”

Think about what this means. If you’re a Christian, it’s because God the Father willed that you would be. He was directly, personally involved in your conversion. There are no insignificant conversions, because everything God does is highly significant. I experienced a miracle on the brown rug of my childhood bedroom. I prayed to receive Jesus because the God of the universe knew me and drew me.

Notice that Jesus responds to God’s concealing and revealing work with gratitude. He thanks God, calling him “Father” to emphasize his goodness and trustworthiness and “Lord of heaven and earth” to highlight his sovereign authority. Moreover, the very joy Jesus calls for from his disciples in verse 20, he experiences and expresses in verse 21: “He rejoiced in the Holy Spirit.” This is a remarkable moment of intra-Trinitarian joy: the Son rejoicing in the Holy Spirit and praising the Father.

What began these fireworks of joyful gratitude? It was my prayer on the brown rug, along with every other conversion of ordinary, unimpressive people — “little children.” Jesus joyfully thanks God for your conversion, which is an exquisite miracle wrought by God’s own hand. Your salvation is the will and work of the Father.

2. Our salvation is the choice of the Son.

Jesus then provides another reason for rejoicing in our salvation. He says, “All things have been handed over to me by my Father” (Luke 10:22). He then immediately identifies one of the things the Father has given him — the right to reveal God to those whom he chooses: “No one knows . . . who the Father is except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” We learn three things from this remarkable verse.

First, Jesus says he “reveals” the Father. He makes God known. When we’re saved, we don’t just come to know facts — we come to know God himself. Our salvation isn’t about winning a ticket to heaven. It’s about enjoying an eternal relationship with God.

Second, only Jesus can reveal the Father to us, because only Jesus fully knows the Father. If you want to know God the Father truly and deeply, you must know him through Jesus.

Third, the only way Jesus will reveal the Father to us is if he chooses to do so. We can’t coerce Jesus to reveal the Father to us. It’s his decision.

Again, consider what this means. If you’re saved, it’s because Jesus chose to reveal God the Father to you. There’s nothing normal, boring, or humdrum about that! Your conversion is a supernatural event, a direct result of the Father’s will and the Son’s choice.

3. Our salvation is the climax of the ages.

In Luke 10:23–24, Jesus begins to speak privately to his disciples, helping them to see the extent of their enormous privilege: “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see! For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.” Though the Old Testament prophets and kings enjoyed great access to God and his ways, they longed to see the Messiah and the coming of the kingdom of God. But it’s happening in the disciples’ day — that’s why they’re “blessed” by God.

Like the first disciples, we live after Jesus’s first coming and before his second coming, in the time of God’s inaugurated kingdom. We read in the Bible of Jesus’s words and works. We know the love of God through Jesus’s atoning death on the cross. We know the grace of God through the gospel message of justification by grace alone through faith alone. We know the power of God through Jesus’s resurrection. We know the presence of God because his Holy Spirit lives within us.

As Christians living when we do, we’re nothing special in ourselves, but we are specially blessed.

Miraculous News

Every single time the triune God writes someone’s name in heaven, it’s a divine miracle. Your conversion, whatever it looked or felt like to you, was nothing less than supernatural. There are no ordinary conversions.

And this leads us back to Jesus’s command in verse 20: “Rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” If we understand the miracle of our conversion, then like Jesus himself we’ll respond with exuberant thanks to God. We’ll rejoice in the fatherly love and sovereign goodness of the Lord of heaven and earth.

Good Preaching Can Be Such Hard Work

In a recent geeking-out-on-baseball moment, I watched a video explaining why Shohei Ohtani, one of baseball’s biggest stars, is able to generate the extraordinary power with which he routinely crushes home runs. I won’t bore you with all the details, but the answer involves the placement and timing of planting his front foot, which in turn allows his hips to whip around, generating the enormous force that launches the ball over the fence.

It’s interesting to consider that a small fraction of Ohtani’s time as a baseball player is spent doing the activity for which he is so well-known (actually hitting the baseball). A much larger part involves his preparation before (and at) the plate and then his follow-through, including both the motion of his bat after it hits the ball and his postgame mental and physical cooldown. That full package of activity — preparation, execution, follow-through — requires skill, concentration, and hard work.

As a pastor who preaches most Sundays, I can’t help but feel somewhat similar: most of my work happens before (and after) I step into the box.

Pastors at the Plate

Early in my ministry, a parishioner told me, in all seriousness, that it must be nice to be a pastor since I had to work for only about half an hour a week. Of course, that understanding of preaching is similar to thinking that Shohei Ohtani simply strolls to the plate a few times a day, swings his hardest, and pockets millions of dollars for his trouble. Like good hitting, good preaching requires lots of hard work, including preparation and follow-through. Unlike professional baseball players, of course, preachers aren’t compensated with multimillion-dollar contracts! But the reward is far greater: not a baseball pounded over the outfield fence, but God’s word pushed deeply into human hearts, transforming lives for eternity.

The hard work of preaching occurs under and within the sovereign power of God. In preaching, as in many other activities of life, we do something and God does everything. “The horse is made ready for the day of battle, but the victory belongs to the Lord” (Proverbs 21:31). One of my preaching heroes used to pray before his sermons that the congregation would hear a better message than the one he preached; he brought into the pulpit the fruit of his diligent preparation (he prepared the horse for battle), and he relied on God to vastly improve what he offered (the credit for victory went to his Lord). A call to the hard work of preaching flows not from a lack of faith in God, but from a full sense of the awesome responsibility that God gives preachers: to declare his word.

So, what exactly does the hard work of preaching entail?

Hard Work of Preparing

In 2 Timothy 2:15, Paul urges Timothy, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.” Significantly, Paul considers Timothy ultimately accountable not to another human, but to God himself (“present yourself to God”) for his right handling of the apostolic gospel (“the word of truth”). Because Timothy answers to none less than God, he’s to “do [his] best,” a word that expresses zealous eagerness and intense effort.

Week by week, as we pastors begin preparing for yet another sermon, many factors may diminish our zeal, eagerness, and intensity of effort. We may be physically exhausted, emotionally weary, or personally hurting. We may be lured by temptations, distracted by hobbies, or overwhelmed by other important tasks. Sometimes we’ll be tempted to cut corners, to skate by, to work at fifty-percent effort. So, it’s good for us to hear Paul say, “Do your best.” “Be zealous.” “Work with intense effort.” We stand before God himself as we prepare to preach his word.

If we’re not already working eagerly and energetically, how might we begin to do so? Perhaps we should start by finally using that unspent vacation time to properly rest. Maybe we’d benefit from rearranging our weekly rhythms in order to do the creative work of sermon preparation during times when we’re physically freshest and most alert. We may need to confess our half-hearted, distracted efforts to some Christian brothers who can encourage us spiritually. What about finding two or three like-minded pastors with whom we can collaborate in studying the text and shaping a weekly sermon?

On some weeks, our hard work of preparation yields immediate and obvious results — our sermon outline falls into place like the tumblers of a safe, fresh insights spring out of the text, and the sermon seems almost to write itself. And then on other weeks, our best efforts feel like pushing a stalled car up a driveway — three hours of arduous labor produces one measly paragraph. In my experience, it’s never clear beforehand which texts will open like a flower and which will stubbornly resist. Both the painful and the pleasant weeks of sermon preparation are gifts from God. We need both. The weakness we experience in the grind keeps us reliant upon God. The relief we feel in those blessed weeks refreshes us with the kindness of God.

The hard work of sermon preparation certainly won’t be limited to understanding and explaining the text of Scripture. It will include feeling the glory of the texts we preach. The poet-pastor George Herbert advised preachers to dip and season “all our words and sentences in our hearts, before they come into our mouths,” so that their hearers could plainly perceive that every one of their words was “heart-deep” (The Complete English Works, 205). Heart-deep words require lots of prayerful dipping and seasoning. Preachers who do their best will engage the Bible with both mind and heart.

Hard Work of Preaching

As we stand to declare God’s word to God’s people, we’ll spend ourselves physically, perhaps even experiencing what George Whitefield called “a good pulpit sweat” (George Whitefield, 505). We’ll spend ourselves spiritually, aware that Satan doesn’t like preachers to declare God’s word and therefore often attacks us with doubts, fears, anxieties, and insecurities. We’ll spend ourselves emotionally, warning with earnestness, comforting with gentleness and affection, preaching our hearts out to some who may be straying, some who may critique us, some who will ignore us. We’ll spend ourselves intellectually, pushing through generalities to particulars — applying the text in ways that sing and sting, that wound and heal. We’ll push through abstraction to application — earthing and embedding the text in everyday life, thinking creatively and constructively, engaging externally with the broader culture and internally with the yearnings, confusions, and foibles of human hearts.

We’ll preach through hacking coughs, baby cries, stifled yawns, closed eyes, whispered conversations, passing sirens, puzzled looks, ringing phones, bored expressions. When a latecomer walks to an empty seat in the front of the sanctuary and every eye turns to him, we’ll keep preaching. When we see people glancing at the clock, we’ll keep preaching. Sometimes the power and presence of the Spirit will be manifest. At other times, our words will seem weak and faltering. Sometimes our own thoughts will wander. Sometimes our own hearts will be anxious. We’ll keep on preaching, earnestly and energetically presenting ourselves to God as we rightly handle the word of truth.

Hard Work of Following Through

We preachers are tempted to believe that, after the sermon has been preached, it’s over and done. After all, next Sunday is on the way, and we have another sermon to prepare! But in reality, much of the hard work of successful preaching may happen after the sermon has been preached. God calls us to several types of post-sermon work.

First, we have immediate heart work. Depending on our temperament and confidence levels, together with how we feel about the sermon we just preached, we may be tempted toward either pride or despair as soon as we step out of the pulpit. The initial moments following the sermon are an opportunity to surrender our work to God — to thank him for enabling us to prepare and preach the sermon, to receive his grace for our verbal stumbles and fumbles, to ask him to erase from the minds and memories of hearers anything that was unhelpful or untrue, and to give him credit for everything that went well.

Second, we have ongoing pastoral work. This labor begins immediately after the sermon and continues all week long, as we listen to those who listened to us. This ongoing pastoral work may require gently interrogating bland post-service compliments such as “Nice sermon, pastor!” (What exactly was helpful? Was anything unclear? Did the sermon raise unanswered questions?) It will require humbly sifting criticism to discern how we can serve the congregation more effectively. And it will certainly require remaining alert to every opportunity for follow-up. Can we speak with our family over Sunday lunch? Can we provide application questions for small groups in the church? How can we best pray the truth of our sermon into the hearts of our hearers, asking God to send it deep?

Third, we have long-term heart work. This work is vital both for the sake of personal sanctification and for preaching integrity. We stand before God’s people to proclaim his word, even though we ourselves are not fully obeying that word. But we’re not hypocrites if we’re constantly seeking to repent and grow — if we’re preaching every sermon to ourselves as well.

Preaching — preparation, execution, and follow-through — is hard work. Much of that work is unseen by our congregations. But it’s all vital, and the amazing promise of God is that he will use our humble efforts to make much of himself.

The Beginning and the End: Enjoying the God-Centeredness of the Bible

Do you want to know an inside secret about sermons? You may have noticed it already. If you haven’t, you probably will from now on. Here’s the secret: Preachers often like to begin with an image, story, word, phrase, or Bible passage, and then return to it at the end of the sermon. Those bookends emphasize the preacher’s point, pushing it deeper into the hearts and minds of a congregation.

The biblical authors understood this. King David begins Psalm 103 with an exhortation to himself: “Bless the Lord, O my soul” (Psalm 103:1). He ends the psalm in exactly the same way: “Bless the Lord, O my soul!” (Psalm 103:22). This bracketing (the technical term is inclusion) underscores the point of the whole psalm. David urges his own soul to praise the Lord. Everything in between provides reasons for praising the Lord, as well as exhortations for all of heaven and earth to join in praise.

If the borders of a psalm may point toward its main emphasis, what about the beginning and end of the Bible as a whole? When we examine the bookends of Scripture, what do we find?

The End from the Beginning

Genesis 1:1 says, “In the beginning, God . . .” Before anything else existed — sunsets, seaweed, giraffes, algebra, lightning, tomatoes, laughter, supernovas, bubblegum, coffee — there was only the triune God, eternally happy within his triune self. Everything and everyone else came later.

At the other end of the canon, the close of Revelation describes an eternal future in which “the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God” (Revelation 21:3). Notice three truths about these bookends. First, God bestrides the Bible, vibrantly present at both the beginning and end. He’s the Alpha and Omega of the Scriptures, the first and the last. He never began to exist, nor will he ever cease to do so. He is absolute, unchanging reality. Of no one and nothing else is this true. Only God is present at both the beginning and end of the Bible.

Second, something important has changed from Genesis 1 to Revelation 21. At the very beginning of the Bible, God exists within the happy community of himself. At the very end of the Bible, he dwells with his people in a new creation. Where did those people and that place come from? God himself created and redeemed both the people and the place.

“The cry of God’s people is always for more of God.”

Third, it turns out that the story doesn’t end when the Bible does. It goes on and on and on, for eternity. The Bible’s penultimate verse is a cry from the heart: “Come, Lord Jesus!” (Revelation 22:20), which means that the Scriptures conclude on tiptoe, yearning toward a deeper, fuller, richer experience of the presence of Christ. God’s story is an eternal one. The cry of God’s people is always for more of God.

Story Beneath Every Story

The implication of all this is that the Bible is not ultimately our story but God’s. God himself is the main character — and also the author who dictates the action. The Bible tells primarily of God’s works, ways, and words.

Yes, there are lots of secondary characters and interesting subplots. We learn about the material creation, including the abundance and variety of plant and animal life that fills the world. We read fascinating accounts of Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, Nehemiah, Peter, Paul, and hundreds of others, who make big mistakes and accomplish great things. The Bible bursts with stories of human frailty, rebellion, intrigue, love, courage, and tragedy. But none of those stories is the main one. None of those characters is the hero.

The overarching story line of the Bible is the story of God — the only one present at both the beginning and the end. Everyone (and everything) else is there in the story as an invited guest, beyond their deserving. All the complexities of human existence, and the vast lifespans of galaxies, exist within the eternal story of God.

Overlooking the Lead Role

It may seem blindingly obvious to claim that the Bible is mainly the story of God, but how easy it is to miss. Years ago, a famous Bible scholar wrote an article called “The Neglected Factor in New Testament Theology.” In it, he argued that God himself was the neglected factor! God’s presence was so often assumed by those committed to studying the Scriptures with care and rigor that it was largely overlooked. Yes, this actually happens.

On a more everyday level, many of us could honestly admit that we commonly place ourselves at the center of the stories we inhabit. When we grant God a place (all too often we forget him entirely), it’s to notice how he fits in around our own story. We may be mystified or angry or sad that he hasn’t intervened more frequently. Or we may be genuinely grateful for what he’s done. But at the deepest level, we’ve flipped the script: God inhabits our stories, rather than the other way around. Maybe God-centeredness isn’t so obvious as we thought.

Our tendency to minimize and marginalize God is sometimes evident in our approach to the great Bible bookends of Genesis and Revelation. Both are battlegrounds for fights about how and when exactly God created, as well as the timetable of events for his return. These questions are not unimportant. But sadly, they’ve sometimes overshadowed God himself. Our fascination with how God has acted (or will act) has too often led to gross neglect of the central truth that he has acted at all — and what that says about him.

Even a brief look at Genesis and Revelation (which is all we have space for here) shows that these two great books tell the story of God.

At the Center of the Beginning

In Genesis, all things are from and for God. He’s the originator of all, and he’s the first enjoyer of all. He creates by speaking everything into existence. That means all else is derivative and has its source in him. Even as he creates, he observes and appreciates what he makes. Over and over, he sees that his creation is good (Genesis 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25), even “very good” (1:31). We get the sense that he’s really enjoying this. All things are from him and for him.

Moreover, humankind, the pinnacle of this “very good” creation, exists to display his worth. God’s creation of men and women in his image, after his likeness (Genesis 1:26), suggests that their vocation is to image him forth to the rest of the world, serving as agents of his rule. His command to be “fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28) demonstrates that their display of his worth isn’t meant to be merely local but rather global. And God is doggedly persistent in his project of blessing all mankind and displaying his worth everywhere. He doesn’t allow the rebellion of Adam and Eve to derail his project but persists in working with humanity. After the catastrophic judgment of the flood, he starts over with Noah’s family. Following the proud self-assertion of the nations (Genesis 11), he calls Abram to serve as a conduit of divine blessing for “all the families of the earth” (Genesis 12:3).

Throughout Genesis, God is the sovereign planner, the persistent initiator, and the main actor. He’s the one who sends the flood, calls Abram, blesses Abram, renews his covenant promises to Isaac and Jacob, and sends Joseph ahead into Egypt to preserve his people (Genesis 45:7; 50:20). He writes the story and moves it forward at every step.

God is also the sweetest blessing, the ultimate treasure, of his people. After Adam and Eve’s rebellion, their greatest punishment is exile from God’s presence (Genesis 3:22–24). More precious even than the blessing of land and offspring is God’s promise to Abram “to be God to you and to your offspring after you” and his promise regarding Abram’s descendants that “I will be their God” (Genesis 17:7–8).

Genesis is a profoundly God-centered book. In it, all things are from, through, and to God.

At the Center of the End

The seven blessings scattered throughout Revelation (the first in 1:3 and the last in 22:14) show that the main purpose of this book is not to satisfy end-time curiosity or to solve apocalyptic puzzles, but to bring divine blessing to God’s suffering people. God means to give grace, as is evident in 1:4 (“Grace to you”) and 22:21 (“The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you all”).

“God’s blessing is not a gift that is separable from himself. Rather, the blessing of God is God.”

Importantly, God’s blessing is not a gift that is separable from himself. Rather, the blessing of God is God. In the new creation, he will “dwell” with his people (Revelation 21:3), a promise that recalls his presence among Israel in the tabernacle. In fact, the description of the new Jerusalem as a perfect golden cube (Revelation 21:15–21) nods to the Most Holy Place in the temple, suggesting that in the new creation God’s people will enjoy his immediate presence, as only the high priest was permitted to do (and that only once a year).

In the new world, his people will see his face (Revelation 22:4), a staggering privilege not even Moses was permitted. The long and painful story of exile from God’s presence that began after Adam and Eve’s sin and banishment from the garden, and continued through Israel’s exile from the promised land, will finally end. God’s people will enjoy his perfect presence in the new creation and will never again be sent away.

Meanwhile, as God’s people await this promised future, Revelation steadies them by insisting that nothing happens by chance, but rather all things occur by God’s sovereign plan. The book is “The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place” (Revelation 1:1). That key word must expresses divine necessity. The book ends with the reminder that “the Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, has sent his angel to show his servants what must soon take place” (Revelation 22:6). It must take place because God has willed it. His sovereign control brings steady comfort and strength in the present.

Revelation is radically God-centered. The sovereign God ordains the ways of the world. The glorious, triune God is the aim and treasure of his people. His throne is set in the midst of worshiping angels and humans (Revelation 4–5).

Joys of a God-Centered World

The God-centeredness of the Bible’s bookends suggests that the whole Bible is, in fact, focused on God and meant to tell his story. And this is very good news for us. When we live for ourselves, life doesn’t go well. But when we live for him, we’re living along the grain of the universe, as he designed things to function. We therefore experience true, deep, lasting joy. When John the Baptist heard that Jesus was growing in prominence, he said, “This joy of mine is now complete” (John 3:29). John was happiest serving as the spotlight operator, shining his light on the one true star of the show.

The biographer Arnold Dallimore records a story about Charles Spurgeon, in whose day streetlights were gas-lit. Each had to be lit individually. One night, Spurgeon observed a line of streetlights being lit that went right up a hill, from its foot to the summit. He later described that moment:

I did not see the lamplighter. I do not know his name, nor his age, nor his residence; but I saw the lights which he had kindled, and these remained when he himself had gone his way. As I rode along I thought to myself, “How earnestly do I wish that my life may be spent in lighting one soul after another with the sacred flame of eternal life! I would myself be as much as possible unseen while at my work, and would vanish into eternal brilliance above when my work is done.” (Spurgeon, 162)

Let’s allow our joy to swell as we live within the one great story of the one true God.

The Best Preacher for You

In our COVID-remapped world, commutes and work and family rhythms have been permanently altered. So have attitudes toward church participation. I spoke recently with a woman passionately committed to her Sunday-morning regimen of livestreaming her local-church service. Of course, many people have pulled back altogether from church involvement in favor of consuming the podcasts and broadcasts of well-known preachers.

This is not okay. Setting aside for a moment the Bible’s urging of every Christian to practice one-another ministry (an exhortation that’s difficult to obey from your couch), it’s clear that God has a different vision of how his people are to hear his word. We are embodied people.

Therefore, the best preacher for each one of us — the preacher we really need — is an embodied one, someone who stands in our physical presence to proclaim God’s word to us. We need more than a voice in our ears; we need a life before our eyes. Podcast sermons from people we don’t know are potentially a tremendous supplement — and certainly a terrible substitute.

Embodied Encounters

I’m a pastor and a preacher. On most Sunday mornings for the past fifteen years, I have walked onto a platform, turned to face the congregation, and proclaimed God’s word. But I have many more years of experience being pastored and receiving preaching. I was shepherded by many pastors before I became one. And as I recall those shepherds, certain memories stand out.

“We need more than a voice in our ears; we need a life before our eyes.”

I remember the many times when, as a young boy, I confessed to my dad (who was my first pastor) the sins I was ashamed of anyone else hearing. He would patiently, gently reassure me of God’s love. I remember when, much later, another pastor laid his hand on my head and prayed for God to heal me from sickness. Later still, two of my pastors huddled together, praying earnestly for me and my future ministry. I recall sitting at a table with the man who shepherded me during graduate-school years, engaging with him in passionate debate, and feeling somewhat miffed at him afterward. Each of these memories is vivid. Here’s what they share in common: all were embodied encounters with the men God had appointed to preach God’s word to me.

When I consider those who have shepherded my soul, I recall them expositing the Scriptures, and I remember times when their preaching spoke deeply to me, firing my passion for God. But I also remember the times when we sat together and argued, or I confessed sin and they reminded me of God’s grace, or they prayed for me. And these moments mattered for how I heard their proclamation.

Best Preacher for You

Our answer to the question “Who is the best preacher for me?” will depend in large part upon who we understand ourselves to be. If we consider ourselves to be mainly thinking beings, formed mostly through ideas, then spiritual formation will consist of finding and consuming the best thoughts about God and the Bible. In You Are What You Love, James K.A. Smith points out that this has been the approach of many evangelicals for many years. If we want outstanding content, why not turn to the well-known television/Internet/podcast preachers? After all, they’re well-known for a reason. They’re often more compelling, more interesting, and more informative than the preacher at your local church.

But this approach builds upon an inadequate view of human persons. Certainly, we’re not less than thinking beings. But we are far more. We are imaginative. We are intuitive. We are passionate. We are filled with longings and desires and affections. We are formed through habits and relationships. We are embodied.

In the Bible, teaching is understood not mainly as a conveyance of ideas from brain to brain, but as the formation of a person in the context of embodied relationship. The apostle Paul wrote to one of his congregations, “What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me — practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you” (Philippians 4:9). Notice, they didn’t just hear Paul — they saw him. Paul urged another congregation, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1).

He was voicing the conviction of the Jewish and Greco-Roman world of his day that learning is accomplished through hearing and observing a teacher. We learn best when we see behavior and imitate it. Peter told elders to be examples to the flock (1 Peter 5:3). The author of Hebrews instructed his readers, “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith” (Hebrews 13:7).

Life Shining Through Sermons

George Herbert, one of my favorite poets, compared preachers to stained-glass windows.

Doctrine and life, colors and light, in one     When they combine and mingle, bringA strong regard and awe; but speech alone     Doth vanish like a flaring thing,And in the ear, not conscience, ring. (“The Windows,” lines 11–15)

It’s better to hear words spoken through the embodied life of someone you know than to hear the disembodied voice of a stranger (even a very gifted and godly stranger) in your AirPods. Why? Because, to use Herbert’s image, when a life shines through words, it’s like the sun shining through a stained-glass window. The colors pop. You catch your breath. That beauty produces “a strong regard and awe.” Words backed by a life go deep into your inner person, your conscience.

I learned much from the lives of the pastors who shepherded me throughout boyhood and young adulthood. I watched them endure discouragement, criticism, hospitalization, a cancer diagnosis. I observed them during church services. More than two decades later, I regularly think of one former pastor who threw himself passionately into congregational singing. His preaching pierced deeper because I saw his heart for God before he entered the pulpit. I regularly receive Communion with my congregation just after preaching the sermon. It’s an opportunity for all of us together to admit our dependence upon Christ’s finished work. It’s important for my church to see that I’m as desperately in need of Jesus as they are.

It’s dangerous to allow ourselves to be spiritually formed mainly through a disembodied voice, through the preaching of a stranger. There’s no accountability or reciprocity. We can’t check words against character. Of course, even your local pastor can deceive you about his hidden character. Greater proximity does not always equal deeper authenticity. But within a local church community, there’s far more opportunity to perceive patterns of sin and defects in character. And as a fellow church member, you can exhort your pastor toward love and good deeds. You can help to form the character of the very man through whom you will hear God’s word.

The best preacher for each of us is the one we know. And it goes the other way, too. The best preacher is the one who knows us.

Pastors and Their People

Every time I turn to face my congregation, I’m preaching to people I know: the man who’s waiting for biopsy results, the mother of four who struggles with anxiety, the teenager working through the death of his dad, the young man hanging out with the wrong friends. I pray for them by name in the mornings. I’ve officiated their weddings and dedicated their babies. I’ve buried their spouses and, in some cases, their kids. There’s time and trust between us. We share investment and affection.

“There’s a special, irreplaceable value in sitting under the preaching of one who knows you.”

Of course, podcast sermons from gifted preachers can be immensely valuable. I’m not saying we should learn only from people we know personally (in this article, I’m communicating with many readers whom I will never meet). But think of all that’s lost in a sermon preached for mass consumption. When it’s intended to be universal and evergreen, it loses specificity and immediacy. When it needs to hit a certain time mark, it loses spontaneity. When the audience is wider, it loses a measure of vulnerability. By aiming to go far (not necessarily a bad aim), its substance will necessarily change. There’s a special, irreplaceable value in sitting under the preaching of one who knows you, is praying for you, is committed to you. Please don’t miss that gift from God.

Preachers, let’s never allow a desire to be heard by many people we don’t know cause us to waste the advantages of embodied preaching to people we do know. Let’s preach to the people right in front of us. Let’s love them in all their glorious specificity. Let’s pray for the word to pierce these particular people, in this particular place, at this particular time. This local preaching will go places where a streamed sermon heard by tens of thousands simply never can. Let’s be willing to preach as embodied individuals, weak and needy, reliant upon grace, eager for more of Christ.

This is the kind of preacher our people most need.

The Temple: A Reader’s Guide to a Christian Classic

The Irish poet Seamus Heaney once likened certain poets and poetry to fresh produce in a market stall — delightful, beautiful stuff that you enjoy looking at before moving on to the next display. Some poets and poetry, on the other hand, are like plants that grow inside you. “It’s not so much a case of inspecting the produce as of feeling a life coming into you and through you” (Stepping Stones, 50).

For many readers, George Herbert has been that second, transformative kind of poet: one who alters your perspective on the world and whose work remains inside you for a long time. The anguished William Cowper found solace in Herbert’s poems. C.S. Lewis included The Temple among the ten books that most influenced him. The philosopher Simone Weil said that during a recitation of Herbert’s poem “Love (III),” Christ himself came down and took possession of her. Other Herbert admirers include Richard Baxter, Charles Spurgeon, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, W.H. Auden, and T.S. Eliot.

Though Herbert wrote almost exclusively religious poems, his appeal extends well beyond the faithful. T.S. Eliot argued that Herbert’s poetry is valuable for those with no religious belief. And several years ago, when asked to choose a poem he wanted to discuss on a podcast, the British actor and self-professed lapsed Catholic Andrew Scott chose a Herbert poem.

Orator, Pastor, Poet

Who was George Herbert, and what did he write? He was born in 1593 into a wealthy aristocratic family. Throughout the early part of his life, he achieved significant academic and professional success, distinguishing himself as a scholar, becoming a fellow at the University of Cambridge, and finally being elected to the prestigious post of Orator of the University in 1620. Then, in the years following, his life took some unexpected turns. The court career it seemed he might enjoy didn’t materialize. Following some years of uncertain vocational direction, living with wealthy relatives and friends, he became an Anglican vicar in the village of Bemerton, near Salisbury. After serving there in relative obscurity for three years, he died of sickness in 1633, shortly before his fortieth birthday.

In his own day, Herbert was respected for his polished Latin orations. His only prose work, The Country Parson, a short manual for rural pastors, was published posthumously, became widely influential for hundreds of years, and is well worth reading today. But neither the orations, nor The Country Parson, nor his collection of proverbs (more than one thousand of them), nor his Latin poems account for his major impact on contemporary readers. That influence rests on a slender volume of about 160 English poems (depending on how you count them), unpublished at the time of his death. On his deathbed, he sent the poems to his friend Nicholas Ferrar with instructions to either burn them or print them (as Ferrar saw fit). Ferrar read them, was deeply moved, and published the volume almost immediately, titling it The Temple. It was an instant success.

Why The Temple Endures

The Temple has three sections. The first, “The Church-porch,” consists of 77 stanzas of rather didactic, moralizing verse. It’s sometimes ingenious, amusing, and helpfully memorable, and it forms an approach to what follows in the center section, but it isn’t the main attraction. Neither is the final section, “The Church Militant,” a longish poem that deals with the history of the church and a vision of future judgment upon it. It’s the center section, “The Church,” that accounts for Herbert’s massive and enduring influence. It’s these poems that endear him to readers (Christian and non-Christian alike) and account for his reputation as arguably the greatest religious poet ever. Here are five reasons why.

1. Herbert speaks directly to God.

Augustine was Herbert’s favorite theologian (he owned Augustine’s works, bequeathing them to his curate at his death). Herbert’s biographer John Drury suggests that the autobiographical nature of Augustine’s Confessions helped to inspire Herbert’s own autobiographical poetry. Also like the Confessions, many of Herbert’s poems are directly addressed to God. This gives an attractive earnestness and urgency to the poems. They’re fresh, lively, and endlessly interesting. And they’re never trifling or silly, because they’re prayers. Richard Baxter said that “Herbert speaks to God like one that really believeth a God. . . . Heart-work and Heaven-work make up his Books”The English Poems of George Herbert, xxi). Many readers have agreed.

2. Herbert is deeply honest.

Contrary to mistaken notions of Herbert as a pious poet who wrote safe, sentimental verse, his poems are deeply honest and even raw. “The Collar” shows his Jonah-like rebellion. “Denial” begins, “When my devotions could not pierce / Thy silent ears; / Then was my heart broken, as was my verse: / My breast was full of fears / And disorder.”

According to his early biographer Izaak Walton, Herbert described the poems that form The Temple as “a picture of the many spiritual conflicts that have past betwixt God and my soul, before I could subject mine to the will of Jesus my Master” George Herbert: The Complete English Works, 380). He writes out of weakness, spiritual struggle, physical illness, and disappointment. This vulnerability allows readers to engage deeply with him.

3. Herbert is accessible and clear.

The poems are not simplistic or shallow. But Herbert often uses everyday images (a window, a flower, a storm, a pulley, a wreath) and simple words. One Herbert scholar refers to his “aesthetic of plainness” and another to the “extraordinary clarity” of his poems. This clarity allows ordinary readers to read and ponder fruitfully, discovering new depths rather than feeling frustratedly confused.

4. Herbert is a master craftsman.

Herbert is endlessly inventive, producing shape poems (which have the physical shape of their subject, as in “The Altar” and “Easter Wings”), a poem that hides a Bible verse within it (“Colossians 3:3”), as well as prayers, allegories, sonnets, and hymns. Within the many poems of “The Church,” the same stanza form is hardly repeated. This freshness of form is combined with a startling aptness and beauty of word and phrase. To offer just a few examples of Herbert’s evocative and memorable language:

“All day long my heart was in my knee.”
“The hand, which as it riseth, raiseth thee”
“Praise thee brimful”
“My joys to weep, and now my griefs to sing”
“Such a heart, whose pulse may be thy praise”
“Thy full-eyed love”
“Thou shalt look us out of pain.”

These words and phrases inspire, intrigue, and ignite on the tongue and in the heart.

5. Herbert believes in a big God.

Herbert was captivated by the greatness of God. Helen Wilcox writes, “The subject of every single poem in The Temple is, in one way or another, God” (The English Poems of George Herbert, xxi). More than that, it’s clear that Herbert saw the poems themselves as gifts for and from God. In his dedicatory poem, he writes, “Lord, my first fruits present themselves to thee; / Yet not mine neither: for from thee they came, / And must return.”

Herbert’s God was sovereign. Gene Edward Veith has shown that Herbert was a Calvinist whose theology and poetry were radically God-centered. He celebrated God’s power and presence as deeply good news. Here’s one stanza from the poem “Providence”:

We all acknowledge both thy power and love     To be exact, transcendent, and divine;Who dost so strongly and so sweetly move,     While all things have their will, yet none but thine.

“God moves both strongly and sweetly. His will is supreme, and that’s good news.”

Notice that God moves both strongly and sweetly. His will is supreme, and that’s good news. Importantly, Herbert’s embrace of the doctrines of unconditional election and effectual calling don’t undermine the universal nature of his appeal. Rather, as Veith argues, Herbert’s poems, rooted in the Reformation tradition, convey “from the inside” the positive vision of a sovereign God and thus connect with readers of all sorts.

Engaging with The Temple

How can new readers of Herbert engage with The Temple? Here are three suggestions.

First, find the poems you enjoy, whether for their content, form, language, or any other reason. Linger with them. T.S. Eliot said, “With the appreciation of Herbert’s poems, as with all poetry, enjoyment is the beginning as well as the end. We must enjoy the poetry before we attempt to penetrate the poet’s mind; we must enjoy it before we understand it, if the attempt to understand it is to be worth the trouble” (George Herbert, 28–29). Read enough Herbert to find some poems you love.

Second, read those poems within their immediate context and the larger context of The Temple. The order of Herbert’s poems matters. It’s significant, for instance, that “Grief” and “The Crosse,” both of which deal with Herbert’s sufferings and struggles, come just before “The Flower,” which speaks of God’s goodness in bringing him through “many deaths” to “once more smell the dew and rain.” The Temple includes clusters of related poems — for instance, one sequence includes poems on various parts of a church building (“Church-lock and key,” “The Church-floore,” “The Windows”). Reading individual poems within their context shows new resonances and sheds fresh light.

“Herbert loved the Bible, and his poems are laced with quotations and allusions to Scripture.”

In addition, read the poems within the context of Herbert’s larger corpus (there are significant connections between The Temple and The Country Parson), within the context of his life (John Drury’s biography Music at Midnight is especially helpful here), and within the context of the Holy Scriptures. Herbert loved the Bible (“O Book! Infinite sweetness!”), and his poems are laced with quotations and allusions to Scripture. Reading the poems within these broader contexts is fruitful.

Third, allow Herbert to deepen your understanding of God and yourself. His earnestness, insight, passion, honesty, and godliness will challenge and inspire you. The freshness and beauty of his language will lodge within your mind and heart. His poems will change the way you think and feel. Allow them, in the words of Seamus Heaney, to grow inside you.

A Mystery Made Sense of Me

I eventually wrote a short book to help ordinary Christians understand the exciting and frustrating tension of being simultaneously restless and patient for the future new creation because of our assurance that it is superbly good and securely ours. In my teaching of seminary students, inaugurated eschatology has been a repeated theme. Throughout fourteen years of pastoral ministry, I’ve aimed to help the people of my church understand the story line of the Bible, the cosmic significance of Christ’s work, and the utterly practical implications of a future new creation that’s ours because of what Christ has already accomplished for us.

The Kingdom has come, but society is not uprooted. This is the mystery of the Kingdom.
I was converted at a young age and grew up in church. I heard expositional preaching and cut my teeth on Sunday School flannelgraphs, Vacation Bible School, and “Sword Drills” at Christian summer camp. At the encouragement of my grandmother, I read the Bible cover to cover as a teen. Later, I attended a Christian college, where I minored in Bible. So, by the time I hit my twenties, I knew lots of verses, could give you summaries of Bible books, and was very familiar with the message of salvation.
But never had I heard anything quite like what I encountered in a particular paragraph I read while preparing for ministry.
When Jesus Became Scandalous
I don’t remember how I came to be reading George Ladd’s A Theology of the New Testament, and I never read the entire volume, but these sentences (and the chapter of which they’re a part, “The Mystery of the Kingdom”) fired my imagination and permanently altered my understanding of God, the Bible, history, and my own life:
The coming of the Kingdom, as predicted in the Old Testament and in Jewish apocalyptic literature, would bring about the end of the age and inaugurate the Age to Come, disrupting human society by the destruction of the unrighteous. Jesus affirms that in the midst of the present age, while society continues with its intermixture of the good and the bad, before the coming of the Son of Man and the glorious manifestation of the Kingdom of God, the powers of that future age have entered into the world to create “sons of the kingdom,” those who enjoy its power and blessings. The Kingdom has come, but society is not uprooted. This is the mystery of the Kingdom. (94)
Until that moment in my life, I had read the Bible as a more or less static record of God’s revealed truth. I knew many important biblical facts, but had little sense of a larger story line, of a dynamically unfolding plan, of a developing work of salvation through time. Ladd began to put those pieces together, to excite me with a sense of the dynamism and progress of God’s redemptive work.
Before reading that paragraph, I hadn’t ever considered the ways in which Jesus’s ministry might be surprising or scandalous. Sure, it was extraordinary that he performed miracles and challenged the religious leaders. But having grown up hearing about those miracles and confrontations, they were familiar to me. Ladd opened my eyes to the mystery of the kingdom.
Through Ladd’s eyes, I now saw Jesus’s declaration that the kingdom of God had already come (but was not fully consummated) as the scandalous surprise it would have been to Jesus’s contemporaries. To liken the mighty end-time kingdom of God to a tiny, hidden mustard seed? Unthinkable! I had never truly understood the Matthew 13 parables of the dragnet, the mustard seed, or the leaven. Ladd’s teaching of the already–not yet kingdom unlocked them for me. Now 23 years later, I can still remember the excitement and satisfaction of awakened understanding.
Far Bigger Than Me
More than that, the teaching of the inaugurated-but-not-consummated kingdom helped me appreciate more fully the truly epoch-making significance of Jesus’s first coming. His life, death, and resurrection had inaugurated nothing less than a new age.
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Related Posts:

A Mystery Made Sense of Me: How I Discovered the Not-Yet Kingdom

The Kingdom has come, but society is not uprooted. This is the mystery of the Kingdom.

I was converted at a young age and grew up in church. I heard expositional preaching and cut my teeth on Sunday School flannelgraphs, Vacation Bible School, and “Sword Drills” at Christian summer camp. At the encouragement of my grandmother, I read the Bible cover to cover as a teen. Later, I attended a Christian college, where I minored in Bible. So, by the time I hit my twenties, I knew lots of verses, could give you summaries of Bible books, and was very familiar with the message of salvation.

But never had I heard anything quite like what I encountered in a particular paragraph I read while preparing for ministry.

When Jesus Became Scandalous

I don’t remember how I came to be reading George Ladd’s A Theology of the New Testament, and I never read the entire volume, but these sentences (and the chapter of which they’re a part, “The Mystery of the Kingdom”) fired my imagination and permanently altered my understanding of God, the Bible, history, and my own life:

The coming of the Kingdom, as predicted in the Old Testament and in Jewish apocalyptic literature, would bring about the end of the age and inaugurate the Age to Come, disrupting human society by the destruction of the unrighteous. Jesus affirms that in the midst of the present age, while society continues with its intermixture of the good and the bad, before the coming of the Son of Man and the glorious manifestation of the Kingdom of God, the powers of that future age have entered into the world to create “sons of the kingdom,” those who enjoy its power and blessings. The Kingdom has come, but society is not uprooted. This is the mystery of the Kingdom. (94)

Until that moment in my life, I had read the Bible as a more or less static record of God’s revealed truth. I knew many important biblical facts, but had little sense of a larger story line, of a dynamically unfolding plan, of a developing work of salvation through time. Ladd began to put those pieces together, to excite me with a sense of the dynamism and progress of God’s redemptive work.

Before reading that paragraph, I hadn’t ever considered the ways in which Jesus’s ministry might be surprising or scandalous. Sure, it was extraordinary that he performed miracles and challenged the religious leaders. But having grown up hearing about those miracles and confrontations, they were familiar to me. Ladd opened my eyes to the mystery of the kingdom.

Through Ladd’s eyes, I now saw Jesus’s declaration that the kingdom of God had already come (but was not fully consummated) as the scandalous surprise it would have been to Jesus’s contemporaries. To liken the mighty end-time kingdom of God to a tiny, hidden mustard seed? Unthinkable! I had never truly understood the Matthew 13 parables of the dragnet, the mustard seed, or the leaven. Ladd’s teaching of the already–not yet kingdom unlocked them for me. Now 23 years later, I can still remember the excitement and satisfaction of awakened understanding.

Far Bigger Than Me

More than that, the teaching of the inaugurated-but-not-consummated kingdom helped me appreciate more fully the truly epoch-making significance of Jesus’s first coming. His life, death, and resurrection had inaugurated nothing less than a new age. He had brought to initial fulfillment the end-time promises of God, securing the future new creation.

To that point in my life, I had read the Bible almost exclusively as an account of something that mattered on a personal basis. Jesus came to save souls. Jesus’s work was between Jesus and me. To come alive to the cosmic significance of Jesus’s ministry, to the newness that Jesus brought in the redemptive-historical work of God, to Jesus as the climax of God’s plan for all things — all this exalted Jesus more highly in my mind and heart.

For me, the intellectual stimulus of Ladd’s inaugurated eschatology was deep and enduring. It prepared me to discover the richness of biblical theology in seminary, and subsequently to pursue a doctorate focusing on Jesus’s fulfillment of God’s end-time promises.

Making Sense of Me

Beyond a deepened understanding and appreciation of the New Testament and God’s redemptive work and the centrality of Christ, Ladd’s words helped me to understand my own life more clearly. I could look at Ladd’s famous diagram of the overlap of the ages (the lines of the “Present Age” and the “Age to Come” overlapping between the first and second comings of Christ) and see exactly where I lived. I could imagine, like a map at the mall, a marker located in that overlap saying, “You Are Here.” And this made sense of my life.

It explained God’s justification of me and the Holy Spirit’s ongoing transformation of my heart. These miraculous events were possible because the last days had already begun through the work of Christ. It also explained my agonizing struggles with sin. Why did part of me want to access sexual images with my dial-up modem, while another part of me desperately wanted to be free from those images? Welcome to the overlap. It explained the sadness of suffering that had touched my life. Why was my father in a wheelchair, despite my many prayers for his healing? Why was anxiety a sometimes-paralyzing reality for me? Welcome to the overlap.

“The already–not yet of the kingdom guarded me from both over-optimism and despair. It offered hope in hard times.”

The already–not yet of the kingdom didn’t answer every question, but it provided a powerful framework for understanding my sin and my sanctification. It guarded me from both over-optimism and despair. It offered hope in hard times.

Purpose of My Life

Two years after my discovery of Ladd, I was a student at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. On a bright and blustery day, I sat by the Atlantic Ocean, on the rocks at Magnolia, and read these words in Richard Hays’s The Moral Vision of the New Testament:

The church community is God’s eschatological beachhead, the place where the power of God has invaded the world. All Paul’s ethical judgments are worked out in this context. . . . To live faithfully in the time between the times is to walk a tightrope of moral discernment, claiming neither too much nor too little for God’s transforming power within the community of faith. (27)

This paragraph became as seminal and shaping for me as Ladd’s had been earlier, because it offered me a life purpose. I already knew I wanted to be a pastor. Understanding the church as God’s “eschatological beachhead,” the focus of God’s end-time power rushing into the present, made that calling even more significant and urgent.

“The ‘when’ of our lives is meant to shape the how of our everyday living.”

Hays confirmed my developing conviction that ethics and eschatology are meant to go together, that the when of our lives (life in the already–not yet kingdom) is meant to shape the how of our everyday living. To help God’s people understand the in-between nature of their existence (the power of God is already available to them through the dawning of the last days, yet the consummated new creation is still future), to help them grasp the practical, ethical, daily significance of this reality — that seemed to me a good use of my life.

I wrote on a page in the back of Hays’s book, “[This is the] purpose of my life.”

Sharing the Life-Changing Mystery

In the years since, I’ve sought to live out that life purpose. I’ve sought to help people understand the book of Revelation, with its earnest encouragement of suffering believers through gorgeous portrayals of our final future.

I eventually wrote a short book to help ordinary Christians understand the exciting and frustrating tension of being simultaneously restless and patient for the future new creation because of our assurance that it is superbly good and securely ours. In my teaching of seminary students, inaugurated eschatology has been a repeated theme. Throughout fourteen years of pastoral ministry, I’ve aimed to help the people of my church understand the story line of the Bible, the cosmic significance of Christ’s work, and the utterly practical implications of a future new creation that’s ours because of what Christ has already accomplished for us.

I rejoice to be a son of the kingdom, to savor already in part the power and blessings that Jesus secured. I’m grateful to have glimpsed more of the purposes of God. And by his grace, I hope to help others rejoice in Christ as the all-satisfying climax of all the plans of God.

Finding Joy in the Dark: The Bold Prayer of Psalm 70

I recently spent three days with a group of pastors, almost all our time devoted to deep sharing of our life stories. We laughed at the silly things we’ve done. We marveled at the lineaments of God’s grace. We wept over sins, wounds, and struggles, both past and present.

I drove home pondering the fact that when ten tenderhearted, Jesus-loving, spiritually alive pastors get into a room and are honest with each other, we share stories of theft, pornography, broken families, paralyzing anxiety, suicidal thoughts, marital struggles, and unfulfilled longings. If there’s such brokenness in the histories and hearts of godly shepherds, what must be the inner reality of the sheep in our churches? Surrounded by such brokenness within and without, how can the people of God possibly hope to sustain their joy in God?

The odds seem long and the situation bleak. But Psalm 70 gives me strong hope.

May All Be Glad

I’ve been drawn to Psalm 70:4 for many years, because it brings together two awesome truths that thrill the heart of every Christian Hedonist:

May all who seek you rejoice and be glad in you! May those who love your salvation say evermore, “God is great!”

Only a capacious heart could breathe such an expansive prayer. Notice that David isn’t content for just a few (or even most) seekers of God to rejoice. No, he longs for all to experience God-centered gladness. And David’s requesting more than just a flickering, intermittent passion for the glory of God among the people of God; rather, he prays for their lips and lives to communicate God’s worth continually, at all times, without interruption.

This is a plus-sized prayer. It’s so big that many millions of people can (and have) fit inside it. David was surely praying it for himself. He was also praying it for those of his generation and all future generations. In fact, if we’re seeking God and loving God’s salvation, David’s prayer is for us. David is asking God to sweeten our joy and strengthen our passion for his glory. He doesn’t specify how these two prayers might fit together, but John Piper has helped many of us treasure the biblical teaching that they are in fact one. As we find our deepest joy in God (“in you”), we display his worth to the world.

Bold Prayer in Dark Days

Though I’ve loved Psalm 70:4 for years, it wasn’t until recently that I noticed the context. And it’s the context that has filled me with hope.

Here’s what I’ve noticed: Psalm 70 is not a sunny psalm. It’s not a walk in the park or a day at the beach. Life is not good in this psalm. Instead, it’s hard — very hard. In fact, the psalm is an almost-unremittingly desperate plea for God’s help. Verse 1 (the first verse) and verse 5 (the last verse) are bookends:

Make haste, O God, to deliver me! O Lord, make haste to help me!

Hasten to me, O God! You are my help and my deliverer; O Lord, do not delay!

There’s a focused urgency here. David sounds like a soldier pinned down by enemy fire, radioing desperately to central command. His enemies want David dead, and they gloat over David’s misfortunes (“Aha, Aha!” verse 3).

We’ve already seen David’s response to this dark situation. He feels two overwhelming desires, one expected and the other exceptional. First, David wants out of the situation. In four out of five verses, he pleads with God for speedy deliverance. This reaction is perfectly natural and completely understandable. Who wouldn’t want this? Of course, we’d all be asking for the same rescue.

Second, however, the intense pressure of David’s circumstances also squeezes from his heart another cry, this one much more unusual. Stunningly, the request in verse 4 is not just for himself, but for others. It’s nothing short of miraculous that David, in his foxhole, under heavy fire, prays not simply for personal escape, but for gladness among all God’s people, and for the continual glorifying of God. What is going on here?

Praying in a Sea of Suffering

Some of us hear the Bible’s repeated calls to pursue our joy and believe that it’s simply beyond us in our present state. For the moment, our attention is occupied by other matters: sin, sickness, loneliness, financial difficulty, opposition, relational pain. We feel we’re in the 101 class of “Surviving Our Problems” and not quite ready for the 201 class of “Pursuing Our Joy.” Verse 4, we think, is for people who have it all together (or at least more together).

“Christian Hedonism is as much for bleak days as it is for bright ones.”

And this is why the context of verse 4 is so challenging and so encouraging, because verse 4 exists in a sea of suffering. David doesn’t say, “Once I get free from my enemies, then I’ll start to care about the gladness of God’s people and the glory of God.” His foxhole prayer, in worrying and uncomfortable circumstances, is for gladness and glory. This is a real-world prayer. Christian Hedonism is as much for bleak days as it is for bright ones.

If God can work this extraordinary impulse in David’s heart, why can’t he do the same in us? Why can’t he implant a renewed passion for our joy and his glory even in the midst of intense suffering? Could it be that God might even use the desperation of our brokenness to drive us to him?

In his poem “The Storm,” George Herbert ponders how, like the violent force of a terrible rainstorm,

A throbbing conscience spurred by remorseHath a strange force: It quits the earth, and mounting more and more,Dares to assault thee, and besiege thy doore. (lines 10–12)

Our inner and outer conflicts may produce something good. “They purge the aire without, within the breast” (line 18). This was certainly the case for David in Psalm 70. His desperation yielded a passionate cry to God that continues to encourage followers of God to this day.

Seek and Rest

You can pray a David-like prayer in your own bleak situation by taking two cues from David himself.

“Joy and gladness are the unassailable possession of those who fix their eyes on Jesus in the storms of life.”

First, seek God. “May all who seek you rejoice and be glad in you!” Joy and gladness are the unassailable possession of those who fix their eyes on Jesus in the storms of life. Look more deeply and more often at Jesus than you look at your enemies or your troubles.

Second, love God’s salvation. “May those who love your salvation say evermore, ‘God is great!’” Consider frequently how God has saved you (and how he’s saving many others). Delight in this salvation. Rest in it. Love it. The more you love your salvation, the more readily your lips will spill over with natural praise of the God who saved you.

Please don’t wait to pursue your joy in God until God has healed your brokenness and resolved your problems. Verse 4 isn’t a postscript to Psalm 70; it doesn’t come after David’s crisis. It emerges from the midst of it. This is an example and invitation for us. Don’t wait to pursue your joy. Start right now.

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