Desiring God

What Makes God Happiest? Enjoying His Signature Joy

I was wondering if I had discovered a new world.

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

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

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

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

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

Ground Zero for God’s Joy

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

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

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

Delight in His Eternal Son

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

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

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

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

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

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

Delight in His Incarnate Son

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Delight in His Crucified Son

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

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

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

MANY SAVED

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

GLORY VINDICATED

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

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

REDEMPTION ACHIEVED

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

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

SON SATISFIED

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

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

Our Delight in Jesus

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

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

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

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

Heaven Remembered: Learning to Long for Home

Have you ever wondered why we don’t think about heaven more? In fact, if heaven is all that Scripture says, how do we manage to think about anything else?

Observing this tension, C.S. Lewis wrote, “There have been times when I think we do not desire heaven; but more often I find myself wondering whether, in our heart of hearts, we have ever desired anything else” (The Problem of Pain, 149). In other words, all our longings find their true home in heaven. And yet, if we are honest, we spend far more time thinking about almost anything else. Why?

I suspect we don’t think much about heaven because we don’t think well about heaven. Until we learn to think well about heaven, we won’t think more about it. But if we learn to think well — ah, then it will be impossible to avoid thinking more. We must learn to rightly imagine heaven.

The Heaven Satan Loves

One of the main reasons we do not think well is because Satan hates heaven and wants us to do the same. Randy Alcorn explains, “Some of Satan’s favorite lies are about Heaven. . . . Our enemy slanders three things: God’s person, God’s people, and God’s place — namely, Heaven” (Heaven, 10–11). Satan is the father of lies, and some of his most damning lies involve the life to come.

Satan promotes the floaty no-place of Far Side cartoons, where ghostly figures sit on clouds strumming harps. This image, built on gnostic (anti-body) assumptions, induces utter boredom, and so Satan loves it. Saints may enjoy a bodiless heaven now, but it will not always be so. Satan knows no body-soul creature could be fully content to spend endless ages like that. And there’s the point. If Satan can get us to buy into a heaven unearthly, ghostly, or (God forbid) boring, we won’t think about heaven. And if we don’t think about it, why would we tell others or orient our lives toward it?

That final vision of heaven is an illusion, a dark enchantment cast by an envious Satan to extinguish our excitement about heaven. We don’t long because we don’t look, and we don’t look because we have believed lies. So, we must learn to banish this hellish hoax by thinking biblically about God’s place.

More Real, Not Less

Paul was a man who thought well about God’s place, and so it dominated his thoughts. In Philippians alone, Paul says, “My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better” (Philippians 1:23) — a Christ-centered way of saying, “I long for heaven.” Later, he says we are citizens of heaven (Philippians 3:20). And he describes his whole life as a sprint toward a finish line: “One thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13–14).

That “upward call” is the heavenward call — the summons to come higher and higher. Like the saints in Hebrews, Paul desired to reach “a better country, that is, a heavenly one” (Hebrews 11:16). The hope of heaven consumed Paul. Why? Because he thought well about heaven.

When our thoughts run in biblical tracks, we begin to understand that the joys of heaven will be full and deep and exuberant — pleasures enormous! We will not float as disembodied spirits strumming harps for eternity (however that works). Heaven will brook no boredom. It will be more solid, not less — more physical, more tangible, more diamond-hard, more real than anything we experience now. And yet, everything we experience now helps us imagine what is coming.

This, but Better

Paul himself teaches us how to think about heaven when he says, “No eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9). From these verses, we may infer that paradise will be better than the best things we experience now, better even than the wildest joys we can imagine.

“I suspect we don’t think much about heaven because we don’t think well about heaven.”

Now, I take Paul’s statement as a challenge because it means I can look at every good thing now and every good I can envision, and I can say of it, “Heaven will be this, but better.” You can learn to think well about heaven by enjoying all the good things in this life now, lifting them as high as your imagination can go, and saying, this, but better. After all, the best things now serve as a mere taste test, as echoes of the music or bright shadows of the far better country to come.

Let me apply this way of thinking well about heaven to three of the best gifts God gives now.

1. This Body, but Better

In heaven, we will enjoy new bodies. Christ “will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body” (Philippians 3:21). Secular propaganda leads us astray on this point and tries to make us more “spiritual” than God. But he made our bodies. As a master artist, he judged them very good (Genesis 1:31). He took a body for himself — and by taking, forever hallowed. When God became man, he definitively declared the permanent goodness of the body. No approval could be more final than the incarnation.

And so we will enjoy both souls and bodies for eternity — new bodies, better bodies, bodies like Jesus’s right now, bodies with glorified senses, bodies without disease or pain, bodies that can run with joy, work without exhaustion, see without glasses, live without aging — or better! And so when you enjoy your body at its best now in holy eating and sleeping and sex and running and sports and singing and hugs and work and laughter, think to yourself, this body, but better.

2. This Earth, but Better

Biblically speaking, when we talk about our eternal heaven, we mean the new heavens and the new earth. In the end, heaven is not the opposite of earth; heaven is earth redeemed and remade and married to the new heavens. As Alcorn says, “Heaven isn’t an extrapolation of earthly thinking; Earth is an extension of Heaven, made by the Creator King” (Heaven, 13).

Oh, what good news for those homesick for Eden! God created us to enjoy God’s presence with God’s people in God’s place. An earthly place with glorified trees and garden mountains, with unfallen culture and undiminished art, the taste of chocolate and the smell of bacon, with majestic thunderstorms and soul-stirring apricity — the warmth of the sun in winter. One day, paradise lost will become paradise regained and remade into a garden-city.

The new earth will be just that — new. Like our new bodies, we will recognize it. It will be free from the bondage of corruption and the ravishes of sin, but it will not be utterly different. When God renews this earth, no good will be finally lost, no beauty obscured, no truth forgotten. And so, every time you glimpse the gigantic glory of God here, think to yourself, this earth, but better.

But of course, the place is nothing without the person.

3. This Joy in Jesus, but Better

As Christians, we enjoy Jesus now. That’s what it means to be a Christian. We seek to enjoy Jesus in everything and everything in Jesus. But in heaven, our joy in Jesus will increase. It will grow deeper and sweeter. It will bloom and blossom. Our happiness will expand forever in every conceivable way. Why? Because we will see Jesus face to face. Our King will dwell with us bodily. We shall behold the Word made flesh.

This was the hope Job harbored amid his suffering:

I know that my Redeemer lives,     and at the last he will stand upon the earth.And after my skin has been thus destroyed,     yet in my flesh I shall see God,whom I shall see for myself,     and my eyes shall behold, and not another.     My heart faints within me! (Job 19:25–27)

Job fainted for the beatific vision, which will undoubtedly be more than physical but not less. If this hope of heaven is yours in Christ, then one day you, with the saints of all ages, will bask in the smile of Jesus himself. Our new knees will bow on a new earth, and we will join in the cosmic praise of Christ with new tongues. Can you imagine that?

Fullness of Joy

If you can, you are beginning to think well about heaven. You are learning to anticipate the place where God will satisfy all our longings with the pleasures at his right hand. When we finally set foot in the far green country, everything good we ever wanted — the longings we have cherished since childhood, the desires we downplay as adults, the yearnings that visit us in the silent moments and echo endlessly in our hearts, that sweet something we have searched for, reached for, listened for, hunted after — God will satisfy all. My whole being — body and soul — will cry out, “This is what I was made for. Here at last, I am home!”

Friend, we cannot hope for what we do not desire, and we cannot desire what we have not imagined. Therefore, let’s exercise our imaginations — our Bible-saturated, Spirit-empowered, Trinity-treasuring imaginations — to think well about heaven.

Heaven will be like this, but far better.

The Reformed Bride: Margaret Baxter’s Unyielding Love

In 1655, a wealthy and godly widow, Mary Hanmer, moved to Kidderminster, a remote town in the west of England, in order to sit under the ministry of Richard Baxter. He was one of the finest preacher-pastors of the age. Under his ministry, Kidderminster had been transformed. Homes characterized by drunkenness and violence became places of joyful praise.
Mrs. Hanmer was eager to benefit from his preaching and zealous to serve in this rural community.

The situation was different for her rebellious teenage daughter, however. Margaret was initially appalled by the poverty and dreariness of life in Kidderminster, and she had no spiritual appetite for Baxter’s ministry. Yet here began a story that would turn this young woman from Margaret Hanmer to Mrs. Baxter, a wife of unyielding piety.

Living for Self

Sixteen-year-old Margaret had suffered immensely during the civil wars that tore England apart from 1642 to 1651. When she was just five, the family castle where she lived was burned to the ground, some men of the family were killed, and she was stripped and threatened.

Now that peace prevailed, Margaret wanted to enjoy herself. But she came from a higher social class than any of the inhabitants of this rural weaving community. There was no company or social life! She deliberately dressed as splendidly as possible in order to distinguish herself.

Mrs. Hanmer was distressed by her daughter’s disregard for spiritual realities. But at least Margaret now attended a church that proclaimed the gospel. After all, Baxter always preached “as a dying man to dying men.” He agonized in prayer for those who heard his preaching, and he diligently visited every home in his parish, urging individuals to turn to God.

Despite herself, Margaret began to experience profound conviction of selfishness, pride, vanity, and disregard of God. This conviction marked the beginning of her transformation from a rebellious teenager to a devout follower of Jesus.

Living for God

As Margaret’s attitude softened, she repented of looking down on the poverty of her neighbors. She began to take time to read the Bible and pray, and she recorded her new desire to live for God. Her private journal, discovered after her death, contained the “self-judging papers” written when she was twenty. She noted, for example, “ten marks of the person who has the Spirit of Christ” (In Trouble and in Joy, 54). For each of the ten marks, she also recorded her own sin and lamented that she did not yet have the Spirit of Christ.

Around this time, Margaret fell critically ill. Many in the community fasted and prayed that her life would be spared, and God remarkably answered their prayers. On her recovery, Margaret listed seven “great mercies” for which she wanted the church to give thanks. She also sent in several urgent prayer requests. She wanted greater humility, a tender conscience, power to resist temptation, and meekness to endure whatever other trials God might send her way.

In addition, Margaret made a secret “covenant with God” and a series of resolutions discovered only after her death. She wrote,

I here now renew my covenant with Almighty God, and resolve, by his grace, to endeavour to get and keep a fresh sense of his mercy on my soul, and a greater sense yet of my sin. (59)

Living to Serve Others

In 1660, Charles II was restored to the throne; thus, the Established Church of England was restored too. With the change, Baxter moved to London to try to influence the Church in a more biblical direction.

Mary Hanmer had moved to Kidderminster solely to sit under Baxter’s ministry. With no reason now to stay, she and Margaret also moved to London. But within a few months, Mary died, leaving Margaret alone.

Up to this time, Baxter had not considered marriage. He believed that if a minister served devotedly, he would not have the capacity to meet family demands. But then the 1662 Act of Uniformity, which demanded that clergy repudiate their Puritan distinctives, forced Baxter out of ministry. With his justification for celibacy removed, he married Margaret on September 10, 1662. He was 47; she was 23. He now had no means of making a living, and she had independent wealth. Gossips had a field day.

But Margaret was overwhelmingly happy. She would face persecution and uncertainty alongside her husband, but she and Richard enjoyed true partnership in the gospel. They shared a passion for offering Christ to needy sinners. She also took care of the practicalities of everyday life, freeing Richard for his writing ministry. He admired her wisdom and often consulted her judgment:

She was better at resolving a case of conscience than most divines that ever I knew in all my life. I often put cases to her, which she so suddenly resolved, as to convince me of some degree of oversight in my own resolution. (48)

Margaret was delighted to pour her financial resources into giving away good literature and helping the needy. She and Richard opened their home to neighbors in order for Richard to informally share the word (an illegal activity, but they did it anyway).

In June 1669, Richard was arrested and sentenced to six months in prison. Margaret insisted on joining him in prison, and a kind jailer allowed them a room of their own. They were released early but then had to find accommodation outside London due to the notorious Five Mile Act, which prohibited Nonconformist preachers from coming within five miles of any place where they had previously ministered.

In 1672, the King issued a Declaration of Indulgence, which eased the situation for Nonconformists. For the remaining years of Margaret’s life, she supported and encouraged Richard in his ministry. She used her wealth to hire buildings where he could preach and even paid for the construction of meeting houses.

Eternal Life

Throughout their nineteen years of married life, both Richard and Margaret suffered ill health. Both consciously lived in the light of eternity.

Back in 1647, Baxter had endured a serious illness. During that time, he wrote The Saint’s Everlasting Rest, in which he urged his readers to set aside time each day to meditate on heaven:

Go away into a private place, at a convenient time, and put aside other distractions. Look up towards heaven. Remember that your everlasting rest is there. Meditate on its wonder and reality. Rise from sense to faith, by comparing heavenly with earthly joys, until you are transformed from a forgetful sinner, and a lover of the world, to an ardent lover of God. . . . Meditate until your heart is weaned away from earth to heaven, until you are taken up with the delight of walking with God.

Margaret would be the first to enter her “everlasting rest.” After twelve days of intense illness, she died on June 14, 1681, at just 42 years of age. Richard was desolate. He immediately wrote a memoir of his wife, lovingly describing her devotion to God.

Richard honestly reflected on Margaret’s proneness to anxiety and fear and her often perfectionist, sometimes obsessive, tendencies. She drove herself to the limit. Her desire to serve overtook her strength and, in the end, both body and mind gave way under the strain. But he celebrated her compassion for the poor and needy, as well as her zeal to reach those who did not know Christ, as a shining example for others to follow. She was always popular with neighbors due to her cheerful and pleasant demeanor.

Baxter’s testimony to the devotion and godliness of his wife is so powerful that the Baxter marriage has often been lifted up as an ideal for others. Over three hundred years later, Margaret remains a woman to admire and emulate.

On Repetitive Worship Songs

Audio Transcript

Pastor John, as you well know, contemporary worship songs get criticized for their repetition. A lot of them do repeat refrains over and over. So, I think the overall critique is fair and should be addressed. But then, as we read along together in the Navigators Bible Reading Plan, we open our Bibles to Psalm 136 today — and it’s loaded with repetition! Psalm 136 is unlike any other chapter in the whole Bible, echoing the very same phrase 26 times: “For his steadfast love endures forever.” The psalm has never appeared in over two thousand APJ episodes, so it’s overdue I guess. What’s the point of Psalm 136? Why so much repetition? And what does it mean for our debates over repetition in our worship songs today?

I really enjoyed thinking about this psalm. We’ve read this antiphonally at church many times, with the congregation doing that refrain and the leader doing the narrative. But before I get into the substance, here are a few style observations about worship songs.

Rare Repetition

First, this peculiar psalm is really there. Let’s just say that. It’s there. It’s in the Bible. It’s got 26 repetitions of the English phrase “for his steadfast love endures forever” — or sometimes translated, “for his mercy endures forever” or “his lovingkindness endures forever.” So, it sounds like this:

Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,     for his steadfast love endures forever.Give thanks to the God of gods,     for his steadfast love endures forever.Give thanks to the Lord of lords,     for his steadfast love endures forever;to him who alone does great wonders,     for his steadfast love endures forever. (Psalm 136:1–4)

And onward for 26 repetitions.

Second, it’s rare. There are a lot of psalms. It’s not like every psalm reads like this. There’s nothing like it again. It’s the rarity of it that gives it such force. If all the psalms did this, we would be worn out. Something unusual is happening here stylistically. It’s so unusual for the psalms, in fact, that we’re driven — which is what you asked — to ask, Why? Why is he doing this?

“Moods in worship should be awakened and sustained primarily by truth, assisted by music.”

Third, the English refrain “for his steadfast love endures forever” has ten syllables in it. The Hebrew has only six — kî lə·‘ō·w·lām ḥas·dōw. That’s a cumulative difference or increase of 104 syllables in English in the psalm as a whole. That might make it a slightly different experience. We just need to keep that in mind. It might have been a little easier to have the refrain kî lə·‘ō·w·lām ḥas·dōw rather than “for his steadfast love endures forever.” That’s a significant sound difference.

Songs with Substance

Fourth, repetition by itself is not the problem with contemporary worship songs. That’s not the problem. Old, great hymns use repetition, like “And Can It Be.” Five times:

Amazing love! how can it be?That Thou, my God, should die for me!

The issue’s not repetition per se but whether there is enough substance, enough rich content of truth about God woven into the repetitions to justify them, to warrant them. That’s the issue. There’s a difference between repetitions that are called forth by the repeated crescendo of new, glorious truth, and repetitions that serve as a kind of mantra without sufficient truth that is simply used to sustain or intensify a mood. Moods in worship should be awakened and sustained primarily by truth, assisted by music — not primarily by music with a little truth thrown in to justify the singing.

So, what strikes us about Psalm 136 is not just that “for his steadfast love endures forever” occurs 26 times, but that these 26 statements are woven into a truth-laden narrative of the history of Israel. Give thanks: he’s God over all gods. He created everything in the universe. He struck down the Egyptians and delivered Israel. He struck down the kings of the Amorites and gave Israel the land. He picked them up from distress and delivered their foes. He gives them food, and in fact, “He gives food to all flesh” (Psalm 136:25). Give thanks: he’s the God of heaven.

So, there’s the main impression you get. The steadfast love of God relates to everything, from the highest heaven of heavens to the nitty-gritty feeding of the birds and the animals. From wilderness wanderings to the destruction of kings, everything relates to the steadfast love of God. That can’t be missed if you’re paying attention.

Logic of Steadfast Love

But here’s what I had not thought of before that I think is so significant. He could have simplified. The psalmist could have simplified the refrain by saying, “His steadfast love endures forever.” That’s not what he said. In every single one of the 26 repetitions, he says, “Because his steadfast love endures forever. Because his steadfast love endures forever. Because his steadfast love endures forever.” He made the logic explicit 26 times. That’s cumbersome! It really is! When you use a “for” or “because” — I see that often in contemporary worship songs, where the logic seems belabored, and I say, “Just take that out and make it simpler. It would flow better.” The Hebrew word kî (“because” or “for”) is thrust forward, number one in every phrase, every time, 26 times.

In other words, all of creation, all of God’s superiority over other pretending gods, all of his destruction in Egypt, all of his patience in the wilderness, all of his victory over kings, all of his mercies in distress, all of his food provisions for creatures — all of it is not just vaguely related to the steadfast love of God; it is because of the steadfast love of God. In other words, the psalmist made the refrain more cumbersome with the word “because” in order not to short-circuit the theological depth that was being driven home — namely, everything God does in creation and history and redemption and consummation is flowing ultimately from his free goodness and mercy and love toward his people.

Mercy in Every Work

What makes this especially striking is that this includes his punitive justice against the enemies in Egypt and against the kings of the Amorites. According to this psalm, even when God is bringing destructive justice against his enemies, he has not ceased to act from his steadfast love. So, here’s the way Jonathan Edwards put it in his comment on this psalm (he just has one brief comment in his notes on Scripture):

The psalm confirms to me that an ultimate end of the creation of the world and of all God’s works is his goodness, or the communication of his good, to his creatures. For this psalm sufficiently teaches that all God’s works, from the beginning of the world to the end of it, are works of mercy to his people, yea, even the works of his vindictive justice and wrath, as appears by the Psalms 136:10, Psalms 136:15, Psalms 136:17–22. (Works of Jonathan Edwards, 24:537)

So, I conclude that the substance here in this psalm is so profound as to warrant 26 repetitions to force us, as it were, to dwell on the logic, on the fact that everything God does is because — because — his steadfast love endures forever.

Do You See Without Seeing? Isaiah’s Riddle and Christ’s Rescue

Isaiah 6 recounts one of the most stunning revelations of God’s majesty in the Old Testament. The prophet writes, “In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple” (Isaiah 6:1). The six-winged seraphim — fiery, flying heavenly beings — call to one another with booming voices, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” (Isaiah 6:3).

Isaiah responds to this awesome theophany with distressed confession: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Isaiah 6:5). One of the fiery angels touches Isaiah’s mouth with a coal from the heavenly altar to remove his guilt, and then the Lord calls and commissions his prophet. Isaiah’s initial zeal — “Here I am! Send me” (Isaiah 6:8) — turns to confusion — “How long, O Lord?” (Isaiah 6:11) — when the prophet considers his challenging charge:

Go, and say to this people: “Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.” Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed. (Isaiah 6:9–10)

While Revelation 4 recalls Isaiah’s vision of the divine throne, Jesus and the apostles more frequently cite the prophet’s commission to preach to a recalcitrant people unable to hear or see spiritual truths. These verses feature prominently in all four Gospels (Matthew 13:13–15; Mark 4:12; Luke 8:10; John 12:39–41), the book of Acts (Acts 28:25–28), and even Paul’s letter to the Romans (Romans 11:8). Why? This Old Testament passage helps to explain how the rejection of Jesus and his followers fulfills the larger biblical pattern of the maligned messengers of God.

Let’s review the context of Isaiah’s prophecy and then consider Jesus’s use of this passage in Matthew 13:13–15.

Isaiah’s Startling Commission

Isaiah 1–5 establishes Judah’s chronic idolatry, hardness of heart, and lack of spiritual understanding. Though there are flickers of hope about what God will do “in the latter days” (Isaiah 2:2–5), these chapters repeatedly expose the people’s rebellion and announce God’s coming reckoning. The people are like unruly children who have despised the Holy One of Israel (Isaiah 1:2–4). In their idolatry and immorality, Judah resembles Sodom and Gomorrah, the wicked cities God destroyed with fire and brimstone (Isaiah 1:9–10). The beloved vineyard of the Lord has yielded nothing but wild grapes (Isaiah 5:1–7).

For five tense chapters, Isaiah decries their sins and warns of judgment. Then, in chapter 6, Isaiah beholds God’s glory and receives his commission to blind the people’s eyes, stop up their ears, and harden their hearts (Isaiah 6:9–13). The prophet’s preaching would not merely warn the people but would confirm them in their stubborn rebellion against God.

The biblical prophets often speak of Israel’s malfunctioning eyes and ears to illustrate their inability to respond rightly to divine revelation. This imagery reflects God’s earlier word of judgment in Deuteronomy 29:4: “To this day the Lord has not given you a heart to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear.” Moreover, pronouncements about the people’s spiritual blindness, deafness, and dullness reveal that they now resemble the lifeless idols they have revered. Psalm 115:4–8 unpacks this biblical logic:

Their idols are silver and gold,     the work of human hands.They have mouths, but do not speak;     eyes, but do not see.They have ears, but do not hear;     noses, but do not smell. . . .Those who make them become like them;     so do all who trust in them.

The same pattern is at work in the book of Isaiah. The people have chosen oaks and gardens for their pagan worship, so they “shall be like an oak whose leaf withers, and like a garden without water” (Isaiah 1:29–30). They have trusted in and treasured carved idols, so God addresses them as “deaf” and “blind” (Isaiah 42:17–18). In this case, the prophetic word brings not salvation but judgment.

God’s Maligned Messengers

Matthew, Mark, and Luke each record Jesus’s famous parable of the sower, which challenges people to consider their response to God’s word proclaimed by God’s Son. The challenge is most clear in Mark’s account, which begins with the command “Listen!” (Mark 4:3). Jesus concludes the parable with this enigmatic exhortation: “He who has ears, let him hear” (Matthew 13:9). He repeats the word “hear” five times when explaining this parable (Matthew 13:18–23). The seed sown on good soil illustrates “the one who hears the word and understands it. He indeed bears fruit” (Matthew 13:23). The point is that Jesus’s teaching about the kingdom demands a response of obedience. True hearing entails bearing fruit.

Our Lord turns to Isaiah 6 to explain why he teaches in parables. His disciples are blessed because they see and understand the secrets of the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 13:11, 16–17). The crowds, however, see yet do not perceive; they hear yet do not understand the spiritual truths that Jesus teaches.

Indeed, in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says: “You will indeed hear but never understand, and you will indeed see but never perceive.” For this people’s heart has grown dull, and with their ears they can barely hear, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and turn, and I would heal them. (Matthew 13:14–15)

“Jesus’s teaching about the kingdom demands a response of obedience. True hearing entails bearing fruit.”

Jesus cites Isaiah’s commission to clarify why his own ministry is met with opposition. Here we have the filling up of a biblical pattern, not the fulfillment of a prediction. God sent Isaiah to a recalcitrant people unable and unwilling to see, hear, and understand spiritual truths, those who had become just like the lifeless idols they admired. Isaiah’s situation reminds us of Moses, who spoke God’s word to a nation without eyes to see or ears to hear, and it also parallels the ministries of Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and many other prophets who were disregarded and dishonored by their own people.

Throughout the Bible, Israel persecuted and killed the messengers sent by God, so it is unsurprising that the final prophet, the long-awaited Messiah, would receive a similar reception (see Luke 11:49–50 and Acts 7:52). Isaiah’s commission to the spiritually blind and deaf foreshadows the later and greater ministry of Jesus.

Jesus’s Superior Glory

There is also an important redemptive-historical development from Isaiah to Jesus. John 12:41 explains that Isaiah “saw his glory and spoke of him.” This means either that the prophet saw the glory of the preincarnate Messiah, who is “high and lifted up” (Isaiah 6:1), or that he foretold the exaltation of the suffering servant, who reveals God’s glory as he accomplishes God’s redemptive plan (Isaiah 52:13–53:12). In either interpretation, Jesus is not merely another messenger from God but the glorious God-in-the-flesh, “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). He is both the fulfillment of the rejected-prophet pattern and the one foretold by the prophets.

Isaiah announces coming judgment followed by an era of salvation, when “the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped” (Isaiah 35:5). This prophecy prepares the way for the message and ministry of the Messiah Jesus. Our Lord not only preaches good news about the kingdom of heaven but also opens deaf ears and gives sight to the blind. These miracles of reversal signal that the promised time of salvation has come (Matthew 11:2–6).

These miracles also serve as enacted parables illustrating the people’s need for God to grant them the spiritual capacity to recognize Jesus as the divine Savior and Lord, and respond with faith. The blind cannot make themselves see. Nor can people apprehend spiritual truths unless God illumines his word and enables them to see and believe. This is why Jesus says to his disciples, “Blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear” (Matthew 13:16).

Look and Listen

Thus, Jesus and his followers frequently quote Isaiah 6 to explain that the opposition they face fits into a larger biblical pattern of the rejection of God’s chosen messengers. Christ fulfills this pattern as both a true prophet and the suffering servant the prophets foretold. So then, look to and listen to the Lord Jesus, the long-awaited Savior who overcomes our resistance and opens our eyes to see him as the One full of grace and truth.

Know Your Covenant: Christian Habits for the New Era

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

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

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

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

Structure of Hebrews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Jesus Serves in a Superior Place

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Jesus Makes a Superior Offering

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is verse 6:

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

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

First covenant vs. New covenant

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

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

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

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

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

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

How New Is the New Covenant?

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

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

Look at verse 7:

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

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

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

Change the Priesthood, Change the Covenant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New-Covenant Habits

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

New-Covenant Bible Reading

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

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

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

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

New-Covenant Prayer

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

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

New-Covenant Fellowship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We Have Him

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

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

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

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

Save a Soul from Death: How We Bring Wanderers Back

Few things in life are as painful as watching a loved one drift away from Jesus. It may start as a seemingly small departure, nothing to be alarmed about. But one day you realize — and it takes your breath away to realize it — your loved one’s soul has been drifting away. He or she travels further and further away into unbelief and unrepentant sin.

The beginning of James 5:19 happens before your very eyes: “My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth . . .” Here we find the afflictive prepositional phrase — the one that keeps you up at night, sheds your tears, and breaks your heart: “if anyone among you wanders.”

Once he stood beside you as a brother born for the day of adversity. Once she would stay up all night praying with you. Once he even led you to the Lord Jesus. But now what is he? What is she? Shrinking back, lukewarm, rocky soil? Are they going out from us because somehow, someway, they were never truly of us?

The fearful soul that tires and faints,And walks the ways of God no more,Is but esteemed almost a saint,And makes his own destruction sure. (“The Almost Christian”)

Is Isaac Watts right? Are they proving themselves “almost saints”? Are they making their own destruction sure? You feel so helpless as you see them off in the distance. On some days, you may wish to have already been away from the body and at home with the Lord before seeing what your eyes now see. Hope deferred has made your heart sick.

Do you know someone who is wandering away from Jesus? God has a word for you, for us, in the concluding verses of James as he talks to the church of wanderers.

How to Bring Wanderers Back

The foremost thought for everyone who feels the relevance of this topic — you can still hear his voice, see her face, and recall better days — is, How do we bring them back? This is what we want to know — what we need to know. On the face of it, James doesn’t offer much help. Stare with me for clues:

My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back . . . (James 5:19)

Between the wandering and the returning, we have “and.” That’s it. We’re tempted to say, “Brother James, unquestionably you are a master of pith, but please, we need more details! How?”

I now realize that I have underestimated James to question him thus. Perhaps he would answer me, “Brother Greg, did you read my letter? I’ve been attempting this the whole time.” The last two verses are not a clumsy ending to the epistle, but a summary of a main purpose for writing: to bring back sinners from wandering away.

How were some of his recipients wandering? Weren’t so many wandering away from a gospel ethic? James addresses those wandering not foremost through bad thinking, but bad living. Not false doctrine, but false discipleship had led them astray.

Throughout his letter, James introduces us to such characters as Mr. Tossed To-and-Fro, Mr. Quick to Anger, Dr. Loose Tongue, Professor Dead Faith, Lady Soul Adulteress, and Lord Fattened for Slaughter. He points out the City of Useless Religion, the Town of Hearers Only, and the Land of Cozy with the World. He invites us to observe the Church of Faith Absolutely Alone, with its twin elders, Pastor You Sit Here and Pastor You Sit There.

But how exactly does James try to bring wanderers back? I want to commend three steps that attempt to capture his approach. To do so, I’ll draw from his imagery in 5:20. James uses path imagery, writing of an “erring way” or “wandering road” (translated as simply “wandering” in the ESV). A wayward road is in view.

1. Show them their road.

No one is a worse judge of sin than the sinner caught in it. Wanderers can be the last to know they are wandering. James rebukes, admonishes, and instructs to show his readers where they really stand. He shows them their road.

For example, “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless” (James 1:26). They assume they are good with God, religious; reality disagrees. So we, like him, implore wanderers, “My brother, my sister, do not be deceived!” We too hold up the mirror of God’s word (1:23) to show the sinner the seriousness of his state.

2. Show them the end of the road.

Show them where this road leads. I’ve heard of one pastor who set up a booth at a fair, claiming to know people’s future. When they come, he asks about their faith in Christ and tells them about their future accordingly. James believes in this kind of future-telling.

He shows us the child of our sinful desires growing up to kill us. He holds up dead flowers to show us the end of the rich man perishing in his pursuits. He pictures the defrauder’s heart as fat livestock being prepared for the day of slaughter (James 1:11, 15; 5:5). He shows them the end of the road.

3. Place God upon their road.

Show them their ways in relation to God. An erring path errs because it wanders from him and his standards. A hot temper is not just a hot temper; it is that which does not work God’s righteousness (James 1:19–20). Partiality isn’t just something we don’t hold, but we don’t hold it “as [we] hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory” (James 2:1).

Place God on the road behind them. They need to be “brought back.” Show them that their wanderings are wanderings away from God and his beloved Son. Remind them of their first love.

Place God beside them. They have not outrun him. God stands beside these Jonahs, even now, more willing to welcome them home than they are to return. Even to spiritual adulterers, he offers more grace (James 4:4–6).

Place God before them. Warn them that if they insist on deliberately sinning after receiving a knowledge of the truth — if they plan to trample “underfoot the Son of God” (Hebrews 10:29) — God stands at the door as Judge, and they shall die without mercy. But don’t forget to plead with them to take that other path with a crown of life.

Why Bring Wanderers Back

So, I’ve suggested that we show wanderers the road, the end of the road, and place God upon their road. Yet notice that in these final verses, James does not focus on how to bring back a soul, but rather why. In this very practical book, he ends not with principles but perspective. He wants to inspire them — not just instruct them — to be a community, a church that pursues fellow wanderers.

1. Consider what it means to bring back a wanderer.

Look again at the verses:

My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins. (James 5:19–20)

Here James wants the rescuer to know that as he successfully brought a sinner back from his sinful road, he saved the wandering soul from eternal death and that, in the wanderer’s returning, his sins are again forgiven before God.

“You, not angels, are given the eternal work of persuading, pleading, pastoring souls back to the narrow way.”

Have you considered what it is to save a soul? James wants you to consider the glory of it. “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul,” Jesus taught. “Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28). The unbreakable noose was nearly tied around their neck, the divine sword was being sharpened, they were chasing a death unutterably dreadful — and then you talked with them. God used your voice, your concern, your heartbreak, your pleadings, to call them down from the ledge.

Philip Doddridge summarizes it beautifully: “It is as if [James] had said, do but reflect what that is, and you will find your success is its own reward” (The Evil and Danger of Neglecting the Souls of Men, 27). Do you see it? It is such a great thing, an eternal thing, an essential thing, a happy thing to save a soul from death that to do so is its own compensation.

2. Consider whom God uses to bring them back.

James attributes agency to us in a way that may make us slightly uncomfortable. We cover sins and save souls?

Now, he has already attributed saving agency to several things in the letter: the gospel (1:21), faith (2:14), God himself (4:12), and perhaps prayer (5:15). James writes to bring home the utter astonishment, the sweeping grandeur, the vital agency in a Christian’s spiritual care for his fallen brethren. Though we are not the decisive agent, do not edit the verse in your mind and miss the force of James’s actual words: “Let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death.”

Me? Save a soul from death? I cannot seem to save a houseplant from death. We get to be instruments in the eternal destiny of God’s chosen people? What is our life? We are but mists that appear for a time and then vanish — but God uses mists to save souls!

You, not angels, are given the eternal work of pursuing, persuading, pleading souls back to the narrow way. Your tears are to fall. Your prayers are to rise. Your quivering voice is to speak. Your Bible is to be open. Under the sovereignty of God, undying souls exist that will not be in heaven apart from your bringing them back; they will not persevere without your perseverance to save them from death.

3. Consider your joy to bring them back.

Doesn’t James’s logic suggest anything but self-denial for its own sake? He assumes, in presenting to the rescuer the knowledge of his rescue, that the wanderer’s return satisfies the rescuer’s happiness.

Do you want to make a profit in this life? Do you want to make it count? Seek to be used by God to rescue souls. Don’t go down to such and such a town and trade; go down to such and such a town following your prodigal brother there and convince him to return home! Our Father uses famines, but more often he uses brothers and sisters.

To fearful souls that tire and faint,And walk the ways of God no more,God often sends another saint,To make the soul’s salvation sure.

“Beloved, you would not need any other argument, did you know how blessed the work is in itself,” Charles Spurgeon once said.

Would you grow in grace? Then, help others. Would you shake off your own despondency? Then, help others. This work quickens the pulse, it clears the vision, it steals the soul to holy courage; it confirms a thousand blessings on your own souls, to help others on the road to Heaven. Shut up your heart’s floods, and they will become stagnant, noisome, putrid, foul; let them flow, and they shall be fresh and sweet, and shall well up continually. Live for others, and you will live a hundred lives in one. (Pictures from Pilgrim’s Progress, 41)

Few things in life are as painful as watching a loved one drift away from Christ. Yet few things in life give as much pleasure as watching him or her return to Christ in repentance and faith — and to know you played a part. Don’t grow weary in doing such matchless eternal good; keep pursuing.

Let the Bible Smash Your Bad Theology

Audio Transcript

Happy Monday. Welcome back to a new week on the podcast, week number six hundred of APJ. Remarkable. And today we are praying, “Lord, let your word smash our bad theology. May the Bible turn into rubble every lofty thought about you and your ways that is false. Purge from us every error we believe.” A prayer like that was vividly answered by God in a season of your life, Pastor John. And that story is a theme on the podcast too.

When you came to discover God’s sovereignty in salvation, such a revelation shattered your assumptions. So, we’re not talking hypotheticals here today when we read Paul say, “We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5). These are moments when everything we thought was true crumbles to the ground. You’ll see how this worked in Pastor John’s life in the episodes I pulled together from the podcast in the APJ book (on pages 23 and 24).

So, how do we cultivate the mental discipline and fortitude that would position us to experience this for ourselves? This is huge. And it’s a wonderful question from a listener named Sarah. Sarah writes in to ask this: “Pastor John, hello to you! What does it mean to ‘take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ’? And how can I take this command and apply it to my incorrect or sinful thoughts, that I may obey Christ and have more joy in him?”

Well, here’s the text. Let’s read it and then we’ll see if we can figure this out. Second Corinthians 10:4–5, “For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh” — that is, they’re not merely human; this is not a mere battle between one philosopher with some human wisdom against another philosopher with human wisdom. “But [the weapons of our warfare] have divine power to destroy strongholds.”

And then he defines this powerful, stronghold-destroying activity in two steps. First, “We destroy arguments and every lofty [or proud] opinion raised against the knowledge of God.” And second, we then “take every thought captive.” So, you move in a battle and you destroy the fortress, and then you take captives. “We . . . take every thought captive to obey Christ.”

So, Sarah asks, how can she take 2 Corinthians 10:5, taking every thought captive, and apply it to herself to be more obedient to Christ in her thought life?

Capturing Whose Thoughts?

The first thing I think that needs to be said is that when we apply this to ourselves, we have to make sure we’re in the right place in the text. When Paul says, first, that he’s destroying arguments and arrogant opinions against God and, second, that he is taking thoughts or minds captive, we need to realize it’s the minds and thoughts of others. He’s not talking about taking his own thoughts captive; it’s the thoughts of others. “I’m moving in to these rascals in Corinth who are so boastful in their philosophical prowess that I am going to demolish them not by counter-philosophy, but by divine power. I’m going to show power, and they’re going to collapse in their thinking, and then I’m going to take their thoughts captive so that they now obey Christ.”

So, he’s the warrior, and the enemy is these people whose minds and arguments are proud and lifted up against God. And when Paul defeats those minds and arguments in the power of the Holy Spirit, their thoughts and their minds are taken captive, and they become people with the mind of Christ or obedient to Christ.

“Lay yourself open to the risen Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit through the words of the apostle Paul.”

I think Sarah might be misreading just slightly. I’m going to come around and say she’s on the right track, but she just might be misreading the verse when she says, “How can I take this command and apply it to my incorrect, sinful thoughts?” It’s not a command. It’s a statement about what Paul is doing to his opponents. He’s demolishing their worldview and then taking their defeated thoughts captive for Christ so that they become right thinkers — they’re obedient in the way they think about Christ. So, 2 Corinthians 10:5 is not a command to do this ourselves, but Sarah’s question is still a very good question.

Humble Captives of Christ

There is a way to apply this to ourselves. We just have to get ourselves in the right place. And the place we belong in is the group whose opinions and thoughts Paul is trying to demolish. That’s where we belong. “We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive.” So, when John Piper reads that, or when Sarah reads it, I should say, or she should say, “Okay, Paul, here I am. Do your demolishing work on me. Do your captive-taking work on me. Destroy in my mind any faults or proud thoughts that I have about God.”

This means really two things, I think, that Sarah and I and anybody else, any Christian, should do.

1. Submit every thought.

First, we should listen to Paul, and submit all our thoughts and ideas and feelings about God and about life. We should submit them to Paul’s teaching, God’s apostle, for scrutiny. And if anything is out of sync with Paul’s teaching, we should let it be destroyed.

I have experienced this very painfully. I mean, if you put your mind and thoughts really at the disposal of the apostolic teaching and say, “Anything in my thinking that needs to be destroyed, destroy it,” it can utterly undo you. There have been seasons in my life where I have wept over the dismantling of what felt like really important structures in my brain. So, I think that’s the first thing we do. We listen to Paul. We submit everything we think — all our ideas, all our worldview, all our viewpoints — to God, and we say, “Paul, let your word dismantle me if necessary.”

2. Pray for power.

The second thing we should do is we should ask the Holy Spirit to work, because Paul said, “We don’t fight with mere human, fleshly arguments; our ministry has power.” So, we should expose ourselves to that power. Second Corinthians 10:4 says, “The weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power.” In other words, he’s tearing down arguments and God-belittling ideas, but he’s not doing it merely by argument. So, when I come to the Bible, there’s a lot of study I do, and I love to study, and I love to assess arguments and figure them out, but I should also be crying out, “O God, I know that mere intellect will not dismantle the deeply rooted errors of my mind. So, I avail myself, I open myself to the Holy Spirit, and I seek your face.”

Paul said in Romans 15:18, “I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me to bring the Gentiles to obedience.” Now, I think that’s the same obedience as in 2 Corinthians 10:4–5, when he brings our thoughts into obedience to Christ. And here he says, “I won’t speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished.” So, that’s what I’m getting at when I say to expose yourself, lay yourself open to the risen Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit through the words of the apostle Paul, so that everything can be dismantled, and then your brain, your mind, your thoughts can be taken captive, and everything brought into conformity to Christ.

Take Hold of Heaven: Lessons from the Puritans on Prayer

ABSTRACT: Prayer is one of the most crucial parts of the Christian life, yet often one of the most neglected. Even when we do pray, we may struggle to pray prayerfully, with fervency and faith. The Puritans provide a model for a praying life that regularly takes hold of the self in motivation, cultivation, constancy, and discipline, and that takes hold of God in dependence and faith. This earnest, engaged prayer is the kind the church needs in the present (and every) age.

For our ongoing series of feature articles for pastors and Christian leaders, we asked Joel Beeke (PhD, Westminster Theological Seminary), chancellor and professor of homiletics and systematic theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, to offer lessons from the Puritans on prayer.

The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit.

—James 5:16–18

In the epistle of James, we read that the prophet Elijah “prayed fervently.”1 Literally, the text indicates that Elijah “prayed in his prayer.”2 In other words, Elijah’s prayers were more than a formal exercise; rather, he poured himself into his prayers.

Christian prayer is holy communication from the believing soul to God. Thomas Manton (1620–1677) defined prayer as “the converse of a loving soul with God.”3 Similarly, Anthony Burgess (1600–1663) said that prayer is “the lifting up of the mind, and of the whole soul to God.”4 John Bunyan (1628–1688) offers another rich definition: “Prayer is a sincere, sensible, affectionate pouring out of the heart or soul to God, through Christ, in the strength and assistance of the Holy Spirit, for such things as God has promised, or according to his Word, for the good of the church, with submission in faith to the will of God.”5

Prayer should be the Christian’s great delight. As Matthew Henry (1662–1714) observed, prayer is the believer’s companion, counselor, comforter, supply, support, shelter, strength, and salvation.6 The true believer enjoys praying despite the attacks he faces from the world, the flesh, and the devil. As Henry wrote, “This life of communion with God, and constant attendance upon him, is a heaven upon earth.”7 Thomas Brooks (1608–1680) exclaimed, “Ah! How often, Christians, hath God kissed you at the beginning of prayer, and spoke peace to you in the midst of prayer, and filled you with joy and assurance, upon the close of prayer!”8

After studying the prayer lives of the Puritans, I am convinced that the greatest shortcoming in today’s church is the lack of such prayerful prayer. We fail to use heaven’s greatest weapon as we should. In our churches, homes, and personal lives, our prayer is often more prayerless than prayerful.

The giants of church history (such as the Puritans) often dwarf us in true prayer. Prayer was their priority. The Puritans were prayerful men who knew how to take hold of God in prayer and were possessed by the Spirit of grace and supplication (Isaiah 64:7). They taught that the solution to prayerless praying is prayerful praying, which happens in two ways: by taking hold of ourselves and by taking hold of God.

Taking Hold of Yourself

As with every other attainment in the Christian life, prayerful praying is not achieved automatically. The apostle Paul urged Timothy, “Train yourself for godliness. . . . Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called” (1 Timothy 4:7; 6:12). I thus plead with you to seek a more fervent and faithful prayer life, with effort, urgency, and dependence on Christ and the Holy Spirit, practicing the discipline of self-control, which is not a natural ability but a fruit of the Spirit purchased by Jesus Christ at the cross (Galatians 5:22–24).

We look to Christ as the vine who alone can produce good fruit in us, and then get a grip on ourselves and engage diligently in disciplined prayer. Let me suggest four principles for taking hold of yourself in prayer: motivation, cultivation, constancy, and discipline.

Remember the Motivation

Many infirmities choke our motivation to pray. Archbishop James Ussher (1581–1656) lists some of them: “Roving imaginations, inordinate affections, dullness of spirit, weakness of faith, coldness in feeling, faintness in asking, weariness in waiting, too much passion in our own matters, and too little compassion in other men’s miseries.”9 We can take hold of ourselves, then, by remembering motivations for prayer regarding its value.

First, remember the purpose of prayer — the glory of God in the happiness of man. As Matthew Henry writes, in prayer “we must have in our eye God’s glory, and our own true happiness.”10 James Ussher explains the motivations for true prayer: “to use all other good means carefully; to seek God’s glory principally; to desire the best things most earnestly; to ask nothing but what God’s Word warranteth us; to wait patiently till he hear and help us.”11

Second, remember the privilege of prayer. William Bridge (ca. 1600–1671) observed, “A praying man can never be very miserable, whatever his condition be, for he has the ear of God. . . . It is a mercy to pray, even though I never receive the mercy prayed for.”12 Anthony Burgess also dwelt on the great privilege of prayer: “By praying holily we are made more holy; it’s like exercise to the body, which makes it more strong and active; it’s the rich ship that brings in glorious returns from God: heavenly prayer leaveth an heavenly frame, it keepeth a soul in longings after God.”13

Third, remember the power of prayer. “The angel fetched Peter out of prison, but it was prayer [that] fetched the angel,” wrote Thomas Watson (ca. 1620–1686).14 John Bunyan exhorted, “Pray often, for prayer is a shield to the soul, a sacrifice to God, and a scourge for Satan.”15 Remember that “when God intends great mercy for his people the first thing he does is to set them a praying,” observed Henry.16 As Ussher writes,

Because prayer is the voice of God’s Spirit in us, a jewel of grace bequeathed by Christ unto us, it is the hand of faith, the key of God’s treasury, the soul’s solicitor, the heart’s armorbearer, and the mind’s interpreter. It procureth all blessings, preventeth curses, sanctifieth all creatures, that they may do us good, seasoneth all crosses, that they can do us no hurt. Lastly, it keeps the heart in humility, the life in sobriety, strengtheneth all graces, overcometh all temptations, subdueth corruptions, purgeth our affections, makes our duties acceptable to God, our lives profitable unto men, and both life and death comfortable unto our selves.17

Finally, remember the priority of prayer. John Bunyan stressed the priority of prayer by asserting that we can do more than pray after we have prayed, but we cannot do more than pray until we have prayed.18 Prioritizing means ranking the value of something higher than other things. Is it possible that your prayer life suffers because something else ranks too high with you? Does your social life crowd out prayer? Is the use of electronic media hindering your prayers? Media may do so by absorbing too much precious time while your prayer life languishes; it may also fill your mind with worldly thoughts so that your prayers become shallow, cold, self-centered, materialistic, or unmotivated, and thus infrequent. Prioritizing prayer requires putting other activities in a lower place to make room for communion with God.

In the strength of Christ, strive to avoid prayerless praying, whether in private devotions or public prayers. Even if your prayers seem lifeless, do not stop praying. Dullness may be beyond your immediate ability to overcome, but refusing to pray at all is the fruit of presumption, self-sufficiency, and slothfulness.

Cultivate Your Heart

The Puritans taught that we must prepare our hearts to seek the Lord. Above all, prayerful praying requires the cultivation of a sincere heart. To pray with your mouth what is not truly in your heart is hypocrisy — unless you are confessing the coldness of your heart and crying out for heart-warming grace. Thomas Brooks touched on the importance of Spirit-worked sincerity and transparency in prayer: “God looks not at the elegancy of your prayers, to see how neat they are; nor yet at the geometry of your prayers to see how long they are; . . . but at the sincerity of your prayers, how hearty they are. . . . Prayer is only lovely and weighty, as the heart is in it. . . . God hears no more than the heart speaks.”19

If we want God to accept our prayers, then our prayers must be driven by attitudes formed in us by the Spirit of Christ. The more he forms us, the more our prayers will take hold of God and please him. These attitudes include a heart of faith toward God (Mark 11:24), repentance from sin (Psalm 66:18), fervent and holy desire (James 5:16), humility before God (Luke 18:13), boldness in Christ (Hebrews 4:16), love and forgiveness for other people (Mark 11:25), and overflowing gratitude for God’s goodness (Philippians 4:6).

Second, prayerful praying involves the cultivation of a childlike heart where we pray to “our Father in heaven” (Matthew 6:9). Thomas Manton (1620–1677) said, “A word from a child moves the father more than an orator can move all his hearers.”20 God is pleased by simple trust, love, and reverence. To come as a child to the Father is to honor him in the highest degree and to engage his deepest compassion.

Finally, prayerful praying requires the cultivation of a word-saturated heart. One reason our prayer lives droop is because we have neglected the Holy Scriptures. Prayer is a two-way conversation; we must listen to God, not just speak to him. We do so by filling our minds with the Bible, for the Bible is God’s voice in written form. Our Lord Jesus declared in John 15:7, “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” Every Scripture passage is fuel for burning prayers. As Thomas Manton wrote, “One good way to get comfort is to plead the promise of God in prayer. . . . Show him his handwriting; God is tender of his word.”21

Some years ago, an elderly friend brought me a spiritual letter from my father, who passed from the pulpit to glory in 1993. My father wrote the letter in the 1950s, shortly after his conversion. “I thought you might like to have this,” the friend said. “Like to?” I said, “I would love to have this.” I sat down and read it immediately with great pleasure; it was so personal because it was my father’s handwriting. How do you think your Father in heaven feels when you show him his own handwriting in prayer?

Matthew Henry once said in reference to Scripture reading, “Hear [God] speaking to you, and have an eye to that in every thing you say to him; as when you write an answer to a letter of business, you lay it before you.”22

Remain Constant

“Pray without ceasing,” wrote Paul to the Thessalonian church (1 Thessalonians 5:17). God desires his children to cultivate a spirit, habit, and lifestyle of prayerfulness; this command refers more to praying with your hat on and eyes open than to petitioning in private. Thomas Brooks described such constant prayer: “A man must always pray habitually, though not actually; he must have his heart in a praying disposition in all estates and conditions, in prosperity and adversity, in health and sickness, in strength and weakness, in wealth and wants, in life and death.”23

Whatever our calling or trade, prayer is our work throughout the day (Romans 12:12; Colossians 4:2). We fulfill this mandate in several ways. First, we maintain an attitude of prayer throughout the day. As Matthew Henry exhorted, we should seek to begin, spend, and close the day with God.24 Or as another man once said, when we finish talking to God, we don’t “hang up” on him but rather keep the line open. We live moment by moment in the presence of God and should be conscious of it.

Second, if we are to pray without ceasing, we can establish set times of prayer in our daily schedules. The Puritans taught us that we should begin and end each day with prayer, marinate family worship in prayer, and use mealtimes to give thanks and lift up our needs.

Third, we strive to be alert and ready to pray at a moment’s notice. Maintain a state of spiritual alertness (Ephesians 6:18; Colossians 4:2), like the soldier in the squad who carries the radio and is always ready to call in support. Whenever you feel the least impulse to pray or see a need to pray, do so. Even if you are in the midst of a difficult job that demands concentration, obey the impulse to pray (in a manner that is safe and wise). The impulse may be a groaning of the Spirit, and we must not regard the Spirit’s promptings as intrusions. Train yourself to pray inwardly while the outward man is busy with daily tasks.

Embrace Discipline

Prayerful prayer also involves discipline, requiring time, perseverance, and organization. First, disciplined prayer involves a significant investment of time. Theodosia Alleine, the wife of Joseph Alleine, wrote about her husband’s time commitment to prayer:

All the time of his health, he did rise constantly at or before four of the clock, and on the Sabbath sooner, if he did wake. He would be much troubled if he heard smiths, or shoemakers, or such tradesmen, at work at their trades, before he was in his duties with God; saying to me often, “Oh, how this noise shames me! Doth not my Master deserve more than theirs?” From four till eight he spent in prayer, holy contemplations, and singing of psalms, which he much delighted in, and did daily practice alone, as well as in his family.25

Disciplined prayer also requires perseverance. It is easy to pray when you are like a sailboat gliding forward in a favoring wind. But also pray when you are like an icebreaker smashing your way through an arctic sea one foot at a time. George Swinnock (1627–1673) said, “Wrestle with God . . . bending and straining every joint of the new man in the soul, that they may all help to prevail with God.”26

Finally, disciplined prayer requires organization. Paul modeled regular intercession for many different churches and Christians, including some that he had never met (Colossians 1:9; 2:1). It would have been impossible for Paul to do so without some system for intercession. In his epistles, he commands Christians to offer “supplication for all the saints” (Ephesians 6:18) and for all men (1 Timothy 2:1). Without a method of prayer, we will hardly pray for anyone on a regular basis.

“Every Scripture passage is fuel for burning prayers.”

Organize your petitions by some system or list. Any system is better than none. Remember that you can adapt it over time. It may not seem very spiritual to use a prayer list, but it is eminently practical. Be reasonable and do not overburden yourself, but discipline yourself to pray much for your own church and other churches, for missions, and for many specific people. Praying may be your most valuable ministry.27

Taking Hold of God

Deep within us, we know that it is impossible to overcome prayerlessness by our own strength. The sacredness, gift, and power of prayer are far above human means. God’s grace is necessary for prayerful praying. Yet grace does not make us passively wait for God to grant it. Grace moves us to seek the Lord. As David sings in Psalm 25:1, “To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul” (see also Psalms 86:4; 143:8). Direct your mind and affections toward our covenant God in Christ, and draw near to his throne of grace (Colossians 3:1–2).

Just as Jacob wrestled with the angel of the Lord and would not let him go until he blessed him (Genesis 32:26), so we must take hold of God until he blesses us. The prophet Isaiah lamented the prayerlessness of his own generation, saying, “There is no one who calls upon your name, who rouses himself to take hold of you” (Isaiah 64:7). Will you stir yourself up to take hold of God today? Doing so will require dependence and faith.

Depend on God

Taking hold of God requires dependence on the Holy Spirit. We depend completely on the Holy Spirit, for we can do nothing without Christ working through his Spirit (John 15:5). As Anthony Burgess observed, “The heart is but as so much dull earth, till the Spirit of God inflame thee; thy prayer is a body without a soul, if there be words but not God’s Spirit in the heart.”28 David Clarkson (1622–1686) also explained the work of the Holy Spirit in the Christian’s prayer life: the Spirit “helps the weakness and infirmity of spiritual habits and principles, and draws them out into vigorous exercise. He helps the soul to approach with confidence, and yet with reverence; with filial fear, and yet with an emboldened faith; with zeal and importunity, and yet with humble submission; with lively hope, and yet with self-denial.”29

Second, taking hold of God requires dependence on the mediation of Christ. How can sinners take hold of God except in Jesus Christ? In the book of Hebrews, we read that it is only by Christ’s blood and intercession as our High Priest that we can boldly “enter the holy places” — that is, the place where God dwells on high (Hebrews 10:19–22). Thus, all our prayers must be offered by faith in Christ. Through him we have access to the Father, for Christ alone is the mediator between God and men (Ephesians 2:18; 1 Timothy 2:5). Furthermore, the adoption we have received in union with Christ is the foundation of our prayers.30

George Downame (1563–1634) wrote that we must ask “how it cometh to pass that man being stained and polluted with sin, and by reason thereof an enemy of God, should have any access to God, or be admitted to any speech with him, who is most just and terrible, a consuming fire, and hating all iniquity with perfect hatred.” He then answers his own question, saying, “Therefore of necessity a mediator was to come between God and man, who reconciling us unto God, and covering our imperfections, might make both our persons and our prayers acceptable under God.”31

Pray with Faith

Some fruits of living faith are reverence, fervency, confidence, Trinitarian piety, and the action of laying hold on divine promises.

First, the fruit of living faith is reverence. Only the Holy Spirit can work in us true reverence in prayer. As Thomas Boston (1676–1732) wrote, the Holy Spirit works in us “a holy reverence of God, to whom we pray, which is necessary in acceptable prayer. By this view he strikes us with a holy dread and awe of the majesty of God.”32

Second, the fruit of living faith is fervency. William Gurnall (1616–1679) exhorted, “Furnish thyself with arguments from the promises to enforce thy prayers and make them prevalent with God. The promises are the ground of faith, and faith when strengthened will make thee fervent, and such fervency ever speeds and returns with victory out of the field of prayer. . . . The mightier any is in the word, the more mighty he will be in prayer.”33

Third, the fruit of living faith is confidence. Joseph Hall (1574–1656) wrote, “Good prayers never come weeping home. I am sure I shall receive either what I ask or what I should ask.”34 The Holy Spirit is the ground of this confidence: “This is it that makes prayer an ease to a troubled heart, the Spirit exciting in us holy confidence in God as a Father.”35

Fourth, the fruit of living faith is Trinitarian piety. John Owen (1616–1683) advised Christians to commune with each person in the triune God in our prayers.36 He did so based on Paul’s benediction recorded in 2 Corinthians 13:14: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” In your prayer life, pursue a deeper and more experiential knowledge of the riches of grace in Christ’s person and work, the glory of the electing and adopting love of the Father, and the comfort of fellowship with God by the indwelling Holy Spirit.

In this way, you will pray not just for God’s benefits but for God himself, which will serve as a blessing both for you and for your church. Your sense of God-intimacy and God-dependency, experientially known in private, will spill over into your public life, so that you will also, by the Spirit’s grace, encourage other people to depend on God and seek intimate communion with him.

Fifth, the fruit of living faith is laying hold of divine promises. John Trapp (1601–1669) wrote, “Promises must be prayed over. God loves to be burdened with, and to be importuned in, his own words; to be sued upon his own bond. Prayer is a putting God’s promises into suit. And it is no arrogancy nor presumption, to burden God, as it were, with his promise. . . . Such prayers will be nigh the Lord day and night (1 Kings 8:59), he can as little deny them, as deny himself.”37 Similarly, Gurnall observed, “Prayer is nothing but the promise reversed, or God’s word formed into an argument, and retorted by faith upon God again.”38

Joys That Yet Await You

Prayer can be difficult and demanding work. Sometimes we get on our knees, then rise, only to realize we haven’t truly prayed in our prayer. So, we fall back on our knees again, praying to pray. At other times, prayer is amazing, glorious, delightful work. I suppose that there is scarcely a believer on earth who cannot identify with these extremes. Prayerful prayer will sometimes lead you to profound sadness as you see your wretched sinfulness, but it will also lead you to profound joy when you “know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge” and are “filled with all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:19).

The Puritans provide a rather ideal standard for true prayer. We certainly have much to learn from them. Learning to truly pray in our prayers is not just a matter of deciding to work harder or to find a new method in prayer. It involves trials, warfare, and the enabling Spirit of God. It is a process of growth inseparable from our sanctification, and thus unending until we reach glory.

Ask God to make you a praying Elijah who knows what it means to battle unbelief and despair, even as you strive to grow in prayer and grateful communion with God. Isn’t it interesting that James presents Elijah in James 5:17 as a person “with a nature like ours”? He “prayed in his praying,” but he could also despair in his despairing (1 Kings 19:4). When you hit low spots in your spiritual life, remember the tenderness of God toward Elijah. Sometimes the answer to depression, as it was for the prophet, is not more effort, but a good meal and a night’s sleep so that you can resume the battle tomorrow.

Press on by faith in Jesus Christ, dear believer. If you have fallen, get back up. If you stand, beware lest you fall (1 Corinthians 10:12). No matter where you are in your spiritual journey, the greatest danger is to stop and become complacent. Press on toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:14). Since the essence of prayer is communion with God, there are riches you have not yet discovered, depths you have not reached, and joys that yet await you.

His Power, Your Body, Our Home: Three Marks of Christian Citizens

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

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

C.S. Lewis wrote in 1960,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stand Firm Like This

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our Commonwealth in Christ

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three Marks of Heaven’s Citizens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leave Here Looking There

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

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

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

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

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

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

See Him Face-to-Face

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

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

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