“It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). The words of Jesus, quoted in the book of Acts, are some of the most famous in the Bible. They celebrate the goodness and blessing of generosity. The Christian virtue of generosity, however, is surprisingly nuanced, involving both receiving and giving, and doing so in particular ways.
To understand generosity, we might begin by considering the opposite vice — greed or avarice. Dante’s treatment of this sin in Inferno shows us how greed corrupts both receiving and giving.
When Dante arrives in the fourth circle of hell, he sees two mobs rolling large stones at each other and jeering. Both are greedy, but the form of their greed is different. On one side are the misers, those like tightfisted Scrooge, whose philosophy is best summarized as “Get all you can; can all you get; and sit on the can.” Opposed to them are the squanderers, those who fritter away their goods in wastefulness and luxury. Dante’s keen insight is that while these two groups may outwardly look different, at heart they are the same. Both are in the grip of greed, since greed can either manifest as ill-receiving or ill-giving.
In both cases, the greedy have gone cross-eyed in the mind; they can’t see reality rightly since they are fixated on earthly goods.
Receive, Don’t Take
Recognizing that both our receiving and our giving can be corrupted helps us to see the wisdom and beauty of the biblical virtue of generosity.
Perhaps surprisingly, generosity begins with receiving. And not just any kind of receiving, but a particular kind. We can grasp it if we consider the difference between receiving and taking. In both cases, we end up with some good, but there is a difference between gratefully receiving the good and sinfully seizing the good. Thus, one of Paul’s many exhortations to generosity begins with, “Let the thief no longer steal” (Ephesians 4:28).
“The first step toward Christian generosity is to receive what God has supplied with deep and heartfelt gratitude.”
But theft is only one form of taking — or rather, there are many kinds of theft. The obvious kind involves plundering your neighbor’s goods, but we also can steal from God. When we refuse to receive his gifts with gratitude, but instead act as though the things we have are ours by birthright, we rob him of his rightful glory as the Giver. So Paul can rebuke the Corinthians by saying, “What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?” (1 Corinthians 4:7).
Thus, the first step toward Christian generosity is to receive what God has supplied with deep and heartfelt gratitude.
Receive to Give
It’s not enough, however, to merely gratefully receive. Grateful reception can quickly turn into ill-keeping or ill-giving. The thief who stops stealing must now labor honestly in order to have enough to share with others (Ephesians 4:28).
Here we consider the difference between sharing and wasting, between well-giving and ill-giving. James 4:3 warns of the danger of asking God for blessing with the wrong motives: “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.” Desiring wealth in order to selfishly spend it on our passions is wasteful. God loves a cheerful giver, not an indulgent squanderer.
Wealth is a gift from God for the sake of his mission. He gives to us that we might give to others.
As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life. (1 Timothy 6:17–19)
God has richly provided us with everything for four purposes. First, for our enjoyment; it is good for us to gladly receive what God supplies and to enjoy it for his sake. Second, he provides so that we might do good, that our wealth might serve the joy of others. Third, he provides so that we would be rich in good works. Not just rich in wealth, but rich in deeds of charity and mercy. He meets our needs so that we can gladly meet the needs of others. Fourth, he provides so that we would be generous and ready to share.
This readiness is crucial. It challenges the greed in our hearts. When we have good gifts, are our eyes locked onto the gifts alone? Like the avaricious, have we gone cross-eyed in our fixation on earthly goods? Or are our eyes up, looking around for opportunities to share what we’ve received? Is there an eager readiness to be generous, or is there a selfish miserliness on our part?
Christian generosity begins with grateful receiving and then moves to ready giving. We receive in order to give.
Give to Receive More
This isn’t the end of the story. Christian generosity doesn’t terminate in the giving of our goods; it terminates in the good we receive from God in the giving of our goods. We must not lose sight of the fact that it is more blessed to give than to receive. Receiving is a blessing. Receiving and then giving is a greater blessing.
“Receiving is a blessing. Receiving and then giving is a greater blessing.”
But what is this blessing? Our giving is also a storing up. Paul puts it clearly in 1 Timothy 6:19: “They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life.”
The key word is thus. In doing good and being generous with God’s provision, we are, in that very act of giving, storing up treasure for ourselves. Giving here and now stores up treasure for the future. This is the treasure in heaven that Jesus promises. This is the “better possession and abiding one” that gladly fortified the early Christians in the face of the plundering of their property (Hebrews 10:34–36).
Christian generosity isn’t simply receiving in order to give. It’s gratefully receiving in order to generously give in order to gladly receive more in the future. Our hope is ultimately in God, not in our wealth. What we take hold of is not the fleeting pleasures of this life, but the eternal pleasures of the life to come.
And we are taking hold of true life when we loosen our hold on the goods of this life. This is Christian generosity.
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By Greg Lanier — 3 months ago
ABSTRACT: What many call “the Septuagint” today was a collection of varied Greek translations of the Hebrew Old Testament that circulated among Jews and Christians in antiquity. The apostles both read and referenced these Greek translations often, especially as they wrote to Greek-speaking churches throughout the Greek-speaking world. Sometimes, their use of the Septuagint comes across through translations of key words; other times, they quote directly from the Septuagint rather than the Hebrew. Their familiarity with the Greek Old Testament also exerts a behind-the-scenes influence on broader New Testament themes. Familiarity with the Septuagint, then, offers a fresh window into the study of the Scriptures, for pastors and engaged laypeople as well as for scholars.
For our ongoing series of feature articles for pastors and Christian leaders, we asked Greg Lanier, Associate Professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, to offer an introduction to the Septuagint.
If your personal Bible is the ESV or NIV, you first come across it in a footnote at Genesis 4:8. If you are using the NET, you will spot it even earlier in a translators’ note at Genesis 3:15. But if you cut against the grain and use the CSB, you will see it make a cameo as early as Genesis 2:2. In fact, you will bump into it roughly 96 times in the CSB’s footnotes for Genesis–Deuteronomy.
It is called the Septuagint, or LXX for short: in a nutshell, the Greek form of the Old Testament (OT). Often ignored or misunderstood, it is one of the more important words in your Bible’s footnotes.
Septuagint studies has enjoyed a bit of an academic renaissance in recent decades, but many pastors and laypersons still know little about it. It sounds esoteric, especially with its difficult-to-say title — which scholars do not pronounce uniformly anyhow — and fancy nickname. The aim of this article is to bring it out of the shadows of footnotes and into the light, focusing on clarifying what it is and why it matters to everyday Christians.
What Exactly Is the Septuagint?
Before discussing its relevance, we have to clarify what is meant by Septuagint. But that is part of the problem. The term itself, when paired with the (the Septuagint, or the LXX), and combined with the fact that you can purchase a copy, might give the false impression that “the Septuagint” is a singular book, produced by a single committee, and published in a single place at a single time. But since we are looking back to a time before printing presses, publishers, computers, and online booksellers, little of this impression is accurate. It is better to think of the word Septuagint as a pointer to the process by which the Hebrew Scriptures circulated in the Greek language among Jews and Christians in antiquity. The details are complex, but some key ideas can be sketched.
Clear Starting Point
Most Christians know that their personal copy of the OT is a translation from the ancient Hebrew text, aimed at conveying God’s word to people unfamiliar with Hebrew. Jews in antiquity faced the same issue. After the conquest of Alexander the Great (d. 323 BC), much of the Mediterranean world adopted Greek as the functional language. Jews inside and outside Palestine followed suit to varying degrees, and competency in Hebrew began to wane. In the mid-third century BC, a group of Greek-speaking Jews in Egypt (likely Alexandria) undertook translating the Torah (or Pentateuch, Genesis–Deuteronomy) from Hebrew into Greek, not only to give their own people access to Scripture in their daily language for use in worship but also (possibly) to provide a copy of their law code to the Ptolemaic rulers.
The embellished account of this translation (in the Letter of Aristeas, from the second or third century BC) states there were 72 translators, which, over the course of time, became 70 — the Latin of which is septuaginta or LXX. Strictly speaking, then, Septuagint or LXX refers only to this initial endeavor.
The Plot Thickens
The Greek Pentateuch may have been first in the pool, but over the next centuries more swimmers entered, the water itself began changing, lane markers started crisscrossing, and so on. Five overlapping developments are worth mentioning.
First, more books of the traditional OT were translated from Hebrew into Greek, starting perhaps with Psalms, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and the minor prophets. The precise sequence, location, and timing are unknown, but most, if not all, were completed by the time of the early church. Swimming in this same pool of activity were the writings known as Apocrypha. Their association with the Greek copies of scriptural books greatly influenced how, in due course, they were designated as deuterocanonical books within Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy.
Second, translation strategies evolved over time. Some books were translated in a way similar to today’s NASB (stricter correspondence to the Hebrew) while others were closer to the NLT (less strictness, more paraphrastic). The translations are all adequate as Greek but had different philosophies, needs, and audiences in view.
Third, existing Greek translations were not carved in stone but began to be revised (or even retranslated), often with the goal of bringing them closer to the Hebrew. Some books like Daniel and Esther even branched into two distinct Greek forms. Such activities are traditionally associated with the Kaige movement, Aquila, Symmachus, Theodotion, Origen, Lucian of Antioch, and possibly others. One could compare these translations to the different editions of, say, the NIV (1978, 1984, 1996 NIrV, 1999, 2002 TNIV, 2011).
Fourth, manuscripts of the emerging Greek versions of the OT themselves took on a life of their own, as they were copied and passed on by Jewish and, in turn, Christian scribes. No scribe was perfect, and accidental or intentional changes entered the stream over time.
Fifth, running through all these developments is the fact that the Hebrew source text itself — which translators were attempting to capture in Greek — was itself not 100 percent stable at the margins. The Hebrew text was passed on with exceptional accuracy, but there is no guarantee that any given translator was working from an identical copy of the Hebrew. (This is why modern Bibles sometimes mention alternative wording found in certain Hebrew manuscripts like the Dead Sea Scrolls — as, e.g., the ESV at Psalm 22:16.)
We could go further into the weeds, but this suffices to prove the point: there really was no such thing as the Septuagint. Talking about it as such is like asking a churchgoer where to find the Bible. Do you want the ESV? NIV? KJV? RVR (Spanish)? A study Bible? Devotional Bible? Interlinear? App? Audio Bible? Even for those who can read the biblical languages, there are multiple options.
Septuagint, then, is at best a kind of shorthand for the complex but fascinating history by which God’s word in Hebrew made its way throughout the empire in various Greek forms.
Why Is It Relevant to the Study of the NT?
Precisely here — the use of Greek Bible(s) in antiquity — the relevance of the so-called Septuagint for us today becomes evident.
By definition, it is clearly relevant to studying the OT, particularly for reconstructing the authentic OT text (e.g., ESV at 1 Samuel 10:1; 14:41), exploring canon-related issues, and tracing early Jewish interpretation — vital topics that would merit a standalone article.
But it is also of great relevance to studying the New Testament (NT), which is our focus here. Early Christians, like their Jewish predecessors, were immersed in a Greek-speaking world. We see this not only in how some of Jesus’s disciples bore Greek names alongside Semitic ones (Saul/Paul, Levi/Matthew, Simon/Peter) or were from Hellenistic backgrounds (Acts 6), but most clearly in the writing of the entire NT in Greek. It should come as no surprise, then, that the authors sometimes make direct use of the Greek form of the OT in addition to or even in place of the known Hebrew form. Just as a Korean-speaking pastor would naturally quote from a Korean Bible in a sermon to a Korean congregation, so also the Greek-speaking apostolic authors would often default to a Greek Bible when writing to Greek-speaking congregations.
Matthew offers a helpful example to prove the point. On the one hand, he uses the specific Hebrew form of Hosea 11:1 (“I have called my son”) and not the Greek (“I have called my children”) in Matthew 2:15. On the other hand, he draws on the Greek form of Isaiah 40:3, even where it differs from the Hebrew, in Matthew 3:2. Since Matthew was a bilingual tax collector, it makes sense that he would be able to navigate the OT in both Hebrew and Greek.
In short, the Greek tradition of the OT influenced the writing of the NT in various ways alongside the Hebrew tradition, which means that today’s student of the Bible would benefit to know something about it. I will trace three ways we can detect this influence, offering brief implications at each step.
The Greek OT shaped the contours of certain words.
When my church congregation prays the Lord’s Prayer, I self-consciously avoid using thy and thine embedded in memory from the KJV. Your Bible influences your theological vocabulary. Similarly, the Greek of the Septuagint texts shaped to varying degrees the specific ways certain words were used by NT authors.
A marquee example is the use of ekklēsia for “church.” Other options existed, and in secular Greek ekklēsia often carried the sense of a civic assembly. So why did this term get applied immediately (and with no apparent debate) to the spiritual gathering of believers (Matthew 16:18; Galatians 1:2)? The Jewish community had already settled on this word as a suitable way of translating Hebrew terms for the congregation or gathering of the Israelites for religious worship and instruction (e.g., Deuteronomy 4:10; Joshua 8:5). Indeed, ekklēsia is used for the assembly of the Israelites in Acts 7:38 and, only a few breaths later, for the early church in 8:1. Knowing something about the Greek OT, then, is crucial to grasping the identity of today’s church as the people of God.
Another key example is “gospel” or “good news.” Euangelion vocabulary was often used for reports of military victories in antiquity. But in the Greek tradition of the prophets (especially Isaiah), it was applied to spiritual good news related to the saving work of God, doubtless shaping the apostolic authors. For instance, Mark 1:1–3 traces the good news directly to Isaiah 40, and Paul treats the good news as something pre-promised to the prophets as well (Romans 1:1–2).
A final example is the term used in the Greek OT for the “sin offering,” namely, peri hamartias (e.g., Leviticus 5:6). Strictly speaking, this phrase means “concerning sin,” but it became a technical term for the specific Levitical sacrifice (see Hebrews 10:6). Its influence can be felt most vividly in Romans 8:3, where Paul refers to Jesus as peri hamartias; though some English translations take this as “for sin” (KJV, RSV), it is more accurate to render it “sin offering” (CSB, NIV), which concretely captures how Jesus’s blood fulfills the Levitical sacrificial system.
Implication: Students of the NT can benefit from adding the Greek OT to their set of tools for studying the semantic ranges of NT words (from covenant to mercy seat/propitiation and beyond). The Greek OT may not answer every question for every word, but it can be a window on common use in the first century — and sure beats using Merriam-Webster!
The Greek OT was often used in specific quotations.
Additionally, NT authors often use wording from the Greek tradition when directly quoting an OT passage. When studying such reuses of the OT in the NT, it is important to keep four basic patterns in mind.
The wording matches both the Hebrew and the Greek, particularly if the latter is a straightforward rendering of the former (e.g., Leviticus 19:18 in Matthew 19:19).
The wording matches the Hebrew more closely, and not the Greek (e.g., Zechariah 12:10 in John 19:37).
The wording matches neither fully but appears to involve apostolic retranslation or interpretation (e.g., Psalm 68:19 in Ephesians 4:8).
The wording matches the Greek more closely, even where it deviates from the Hebrew.
The fourth category is of most interest here, since it demonstrates the vital importance of the Greek translation(s) of the OT to NT study. I will provide a few examples to illustrate the point.
Let us begin with instances where the use of the Greek OT is important Christologically.
In Jesus’s visit to the Nazareth synagogue, his reading of Isaiah 61:1–2 as recorded in Luke 4:18–19 includes “and recovering of sight to the blind,” found only in Greek Isaiah and not the known Hebrew. This line is important to the Lukan context because it frames Jesus as the Spirit-anointed deliverer who will, indeed, bring healing to both physical and spiritual blindness.
Amid the rapid-fire set of quotations in Hebrews 1:5–14, the author writes, “When he [God] brings the firstborn into the world, he says, ‘Let all God’s angels worship him’” (Hebrews 1:6). This line is apparently drawn from the Greek tradition of Deuteronomy 32:43 and is absent in the standard Hebrew tradition, providing the author with helpful wording to express the divinity of Jesus. (Note: some English translations incorporate the line into the text of Deuteronomy, effectively blending the Hebrew and Greek.)
Hebrews also reflects the distinct wording of the Greek of Psalm 40:6–8 in order to capture the humanity of Jesus via “A body have you prepared for me” (Hebrews 10:5), whereas the Hebrew reads, “You have given me an open ear.”
These are but a few instances where the OT — and the Greek form, at that — is key to articulating the person and work of Christ.
The Greek OT is also missionally important to the NT authors. Occasionally, the ancient Greek translators had already enhanced how a given passage anticipates the inclusion of the nations/Gentiles in the plan of God, allowing the apostolic authors more readily to root the global mission of the church in Scripture.
Matthew draws on the distinctive Greek wording of Isaiah 42:1–3 to plant the seed that Jesus’s ministry is not only for Jews but encompasses Gentiles, too: while the Hebrew reads, “The coastlands await his laws,” the Greek form that is used in Matthew 12:21 reads, “In his name the Gentiles will hope.”
At the Jerusalem council, the decisive evidence in favor of not imposing circumcision on Gentiles comes from Amos 9:11–12. The wording of the quotation in Acts 15:17, “that the remnant of mankind may seek the Lord,” aligns more closely with the clearer Gentile-inclusive wording of the Greek of Amos rather than the Hebrew.
Among Paul’s string of OT quotations about the Gentile-embracing work of Jesus is another use of the unique Greek form of Deuteronomy 32:43 (see above), “Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people” (Romans 15:10), which is not found in the Hebrew.
No doubt other Hebrew Scriptures would suffice to make the same points, but the apostolic authors apparently opted to draw on Greek translations that were already ripe for use.
Lastly, knowledge of the NT authors’ use of the Greek OT is also helpful apologetically for today’s readers. On occasion, an OT quotation in the NT seems at first glance to contradict what one finds when looking it up in the English Bible (which, recall, uses the Hebrew). In such cases, the Greek OT can sometimes shed light.
Luke references a figure named “Cainan” in Jesus’s genealogy (Luke 3:36) as well as “seventy-five persons” emigrating to Egypt (Acts 7:14). The former figure is not found in the Hebrew genealogies, and the latter is presented as “seventy” in the Hebrew of Genesis 46:27 and Exodus 1:5. In both cases, however, Luke is seemingly drawing on the Greek tradition, which mentions “Cainan” at Genesis 10:24 and tabulates the descendants (via a different way of counting) as “seventy-five.”
The quotation of Psalm 95:7–8 in Hebrews 3:7–11 reads, in part, “as you did in the rebellion, on the day of testing.” This seems to contradict the Hebrew: “as at Meribah, as on the day at Massah.” But the author is using the Greek form that has translated those place-names.
Hebrews 11:21 states that the dying patriarch Jacob worshiped “over the head of his staff,” pointing to Genesis 47:31. The Hebrew reads “upon the head of his bed,” but the NT author has simply used the Greek form.
In these instances and a few others, any apparent misstep by a NT author is ameliorated by recognizing that he is drawing on a Greek form of the text known to his audience.
Implication: Students of the NT, when encountering an OT quotation, should consider consulting not only the English translation (from the Hebrew) but also the Greek form, to see if any specific nuances in the Greek tradition have influenced the apostolic writer. Those who are unable to read Greek can use a modern translation, specifically LES or NETS.
The Greek OT exerts behind-the-scenes influence on broader concepts/themes.
Finally, we see telltale signs of the formative influence of the Greek OT on the NT exegesis of Scripture beyond word-for-word quotations. In such scenarios, knowledge of the broader context of the specifically Greek form of an OT passage often enhances our understanding of what a given NT author is doing.
A simple example involves the Greek form of Numbers 24:17, picturing a royal star that “will rise” (anatelei) from Jacob (versus Hebrew “walk”). The Greek verb provides a clue as to why the magi seek a new Jewish king when they see a star “in its rising” (anatolē, Matthew 2:2).
A more potent example appears in John 12:41, where the evangelist comments that Isaiah “said these things” — referring to two quotations of Isaiah in 12:38, 40 — because he “saw his glory and spoke of him.” The “him” here is Jesus, and the key connection is “glory” (doxa). The quoted passages are from Isaiah 53:1 and 6:10, respectively, and the quoted wording is not otherwise notable. But if one reads each passage in Greek, light bulbs start turning on. In the Greek of Isaiah 52:13–53:12, the “servant” is “glorified,” but his “glory” is rejected (versus Hebrew “lifted up” and “form”); and in the Greek of Isaiah 6:1, the Lord’s “glory” fills heaven (versus Hebrew “train of his robe”). John taps into both “glory” connections in Greek to express what Isaiah “saw” in each scene: namely, the suffering-doxa and heavenly-doxa of the Son of God.
Sticking with Isaiah, another intriguing example is Isaiah 65:17–22, the grand vision for the new heavens and new earth. When the heavenly Jerusalem comes, death will be defeated and God’s people will rest secure. The Greek tradition includes a reference to the “tree of life” (65:22) — a rare mention of this Edenic plant — where the Hebrew reads only “tree.” This detail may to some degree influence the appearance of this same “tree of life” in Revelation 21:1–22:5 (specifically 22:2), where the author is capturing vividly the fulfillment of Isaiah 65.
Staying in Revelation, the initial vision of the “son of man” (Jesus) in Revelation 1:13–14 is intriguing because his attributes (e.g., hair as white as snow/wool) match those of the “Ancient of Days” in Daniel 7:9–14, where “son of man” first appears. In Revelation, the identity of the son of man seems almost to merge with the Ancient of Days, though in Daniel 7 they are distinct. Intriguingly, this close identification of the two figures already occurs in the older Greek tradition of Daniel 7:13, which has the “son of man” coming “as” the “Ancient of Days” (versus “to” or “before the presence of” in Aramaic). Perhaps such an exegetical tradition had taken root before John’s writing of the Apocalypse.
More examples could be mentioned, but the key point is this: in such cases, the influence of the Greek OT is felt not so much onstage (the wording of a given quotation) but more behind-the-scenes, reflecting the NT authors’ rich and multifaceted engagement with God’s word.
Implication: Students of the NT should strive to be sensitive to how the particular Greek form of the OT could shape an NT author’s argument or narrative at the conceptual level. One way to do this is simply to read the Greek OT (even in translation) regularly when studying OT passages that are instrumental to NT theology.
Septuagint and Scripture
Much more could be said, but the hope is that this brief survey has whetted the reader’s appetite to explore the texts of the Septuagint further (see here or here). It offers an exciting gateway to studying both OT and NT afresh, not only for scholars but for ministers and laypersons too.
Many Christians often ask at this point, “If the apostles sometimes used the Septuagint, does that make it inspired?” A common answer is that a NT quotation of the Greek OT does sanction its wording, even when it deviates from the Hebrew. This answer hits the rocks, however, when NT authors do not always use identical wording for the same OT quotations (e.g., Isaiah 6:9–10 in Matthew 13:14–15; Mark 4:12; Luke 8:10; John 12:39–40; Acts 28:25–27), making it hard to say which wording is “sanctioned.”
A better answer is this: the Jewish community and early Christians clearly privileged the Hebrew text as the locus of inspiration. However, there were no efforts (then or now) at linguistic Judaizing, whereby new converts would be forced to learn Hebrew to access Scripture. The Greek OT in its varied forms was seen as more than adequate as a translation of the word of God to reach a Greek-speaking world, and the apostles used it accordingly. Does this mean that apostolic use of the Greek OT where it appears to deviate from the Hebrew is an exercise in building theology off a faulty translation? Not at all — it simply means the NT writers felt that the Greek “pew Bible” (in modern terminology) familiar to their readers faithfully captured the theological intent of God-given words, so they used it accordingly.
Studying the Septuagint, if nothing else, is an illuminating exercise in tracing God’s faithfulness in using his word to motivate and sustain the early church in proclaiming Christ from the Scriptures to the ends of the earth (Luke 24:44–47).
By John Piper — 4 months ago
Twenty years ago today, at 8:14 a.m., American Airlines Flight 11 was highjacked. And with it began a nightmare no one who lived through it will forget.
I was roofing my house that Tuesday morning, radio on, when national broadcasters broke in to announce that the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York City was on fire. The cause was maybe a bomb. Other rumors said it was an accidental plane crash, though doubtful on such a clear day. We now know it was Flight 11. Twenty minutes later, the South Tower was hit by Flight 175, and all doubt was removed. America was under attack.
I remember the FAA grounding all flights immediately. I remember the roll call, as the flight paths of the last twenty commercial jets in the air were anxiously narrated on radio. I remember hearing fighter jets were scrambled to the sky if needed to shoot down hijacked jets. I remember looking up into the atmosphere for confirmation of what was unfolding 1,200 miles away, and finding a clear sky emptied of jets and condensation trails. I remember finding my way to a television in time to watch the towers fall. I remember street-level recordings emerging, the sound of glass raining down on concrete, and the sight of people fleeing from grey clouds of dust and copy paper pouring between buildings. I remember seeing the Pentagon on fire, evidence of a third attack, and unconfirmed rumors of a fourth flight that crashed into a field somewhere. I remember people pulled from rubble piles. I remember footage of jubilation and celebration in foreign places. I remember Air Force One flying the president to the military base sixteen miles from me. The shock of that day remains fresh, even twenty years later.
Meanwhile, in Minneapolis, as the news broke on Tuesday morning, Pastor John gathered his pastoral team into a conference room. They pulled out a radio and put it in the middle of the table. “We listened and turned it off and prayed and listened and prayed,” recalled Piper. The pastors interceded for about an hour total, mingled with radio updates. They asked God to pour out mercy “for wisdom in the mouths of Christian spokesmen who will be called upon to say something” and “for a widespread awakening from banal pursuits.”
Then the pastors gathered the staff and planned out the week. A 7:00 prayer gathering would be held that evening at Bethlehem Baptist Church. It was announced on local radio stations under the title “A Service of Sorrow, Self-Humbling, and Steady Hope in our Savior and King, Jesus Christ.” It was an evening for mourning and prayer. Two hundred attended.
The following morning, Pastor John was called on to be one of the Christians who would speak into the tragedy — for him, on KTIS, a local radio station. Where was God on 9/11? There, for about forty minutes, he spoke wisdom into the shock and sorrow.
We want to share the recording with you today on Ask Pastor John, on this twentieth anniversary. The interview covers the importance of grieving and creating space for sorrow, yet a sorrow under God’s all-encompassing sovereignty. Pastor John explains why 9/11 was a call for national humbling, a wake-up call. God was shaking the foundations of America and calling sinners to come to Christ — a global call not just for Americans but also for Palestinians, Saudis, and Afghans.
In the interview, Pastor John goes deep, explaining how God can, “in his sovereign, overarching providence of the world, ordain that something be permitted or caused” — even a “massive sin” like 9/11 — “and yet disapprove of the very thing that he has permitted or ordained.” The cross of Jesus Christ exemplified this truth, because, says Piper, “I don’t think New York — the hijacking, the terrorism — was a greater sin than the killing of the Son of God. The killing of the Son of God was more horrific, more terrible, more wicked, more horrible, than what we’ve just seen. And yet God planned it” (Acts 4:24–28).
The tragedy of 9/11 foregrounds God’s orchestrating providence, human sin, and the magnitude of the world’s daily suffering. It reminds us Satan is alive and active. And it gives parents an opportunity to explain that, ultimately, God has “billions of purposes,” doing an uncountable number of good things in lives through a tragedy at this scale. The whole interview remains instructive two decades later.
“God was so merciful to me and helped me,” Piper later wrote, reflecting on his studio visit. “I was tired and tense and aching with so many emotions. I think I said what God wanted said. What a kind God — in misery and gladness.”
The forty-minute interview has not, to date, appeared on the website until now. Here’s John Piper, the morning after 9/11, on KTIS, a local FM radio station in Minneapolis, being interviewed by hosts Jon Engen and by Chuck Knapp, whom you will hear first. Here’s the interview.
‘Make Us a Sacrificial People’
Chuck Knapp: Would you bring us before the Lord in prayer and lead us?
John Piper: I’d love to.
Father, make us a sensitive, compassionate, grieving, weeping people. There are so many who are wired not to be able to cry. There are so many, all day long, that if they’d given themselves one opportunity, would have wept like a baby, and they just held it back and held it back. And so, I pray for the capacities to grieve. Christians need to grieve better than we do. So help us to do that, I pray.
And then I pray for a great self-humbling in my heart and the heart of my church. Lord, guard us from anger: “The anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:20). Help us to “be . . . slow to speak, slow to anger” (James 1:19). Let us look to ourselves. O God, I pray that I would look to my own sin and my own bitterness, my own unforgiveness, my own disregard for God, my own indifference to your things that should bring judgment upon me. So grant the church and the country to be humbled before you, our great sovereign King.
And then, Lord, I pray for hope to abound, hope in our Savior and King, Jesus Christ. No hope in horses or chariots or the CIA or the government or the military, but hope in you. Some hope in horses, some hope in chariots, but we hope in the name of the Lord our God (Psalm 20:7). Build that hope into our land. Build that hope into our churches. You’ve gotten our attention. And now, O God, I pray that we would yield to your grace and your power and live for Christ, that we would make you the center of our lives, and not ourselves and not our business and not our vacations.
And then, Lord, make us a sacrificial, serving people, ready to lay down our lives to get the gospel to the unreached peoples around the world. O Lord, set our priorities straight, I pray. In Jesus’s name, amen.
God Has Our Attention
Knapp: We are visiting with Dr. John Piper this morning, and it’s a blessing to have you with us. He is the author of many, many books and pastor for the sheep and the lost. He is a Fuller Seminary graduate. There are so many things we could say. I’m just so thankful that you were here in town and able to come and lead us in a whole healing process that needs to occur.
Piper: Thank you.
Knapp: I saw pictures on television yesterday of young children in Israel in the Arab sections who were cheering. And there were adults there, likewise. And one can’t help but become upset on many levels — anger and frustration — at seeing that image of the world across the television screen. But as I look and as I listened to you talking about humbling ourselves, I think that so much of what the world sees of Americans is anything but humble. And I think that that gives them fuel for what they return to us, that anger that they feel toward us. And so, your message and that part about humbling ourselves really hits me in the heart as I think about that in particular.
Piper: I think one of the missing ingredients — I mean, it’s the main missing ingredient that makes that difficult for people — is that God doesn’t have the place that he needs to have in their lives. I mean, the Bible’s message of humility is not a horizontal message, mainly. It’s not “Humble yourself under terrorists.” It’s “humble yourselves . . . under the mighty hand of God” (1 Peter 5:6). If God doesn’t look mighty in your life, if he isn’t central and supreme and glorious, then humility is going to be a very artificial thing in your life. And if he’s there in his proper, central, supreme place, humility will come naturally.
Somebody said to me out in the hall that Anne Graham Lotz said, “God’s got our attention now,” or “Sometimes God withholds his protection so that things can happen to wake us up.” And I think that’s very, very true. And if you ask, “Well, what does he want to communicate now that he has our attention?” and we say that Jesus is calling us to repentance, you have to ask then what repentance is about. And repentance is turning away from sin. And what’s sin about? And sin is fundamentally about treason against God. But you can’t even grasp the meaning of sin if God isn’t viewed as worthy of infinite adoration and infinite delight and infinite allegiance and infinite love and infinite valuing — which he isn’t for most people in America. And so, the responses that are appropriate are almost emotionally impossible for people because God is so foreign to their experience.
“You can’t even grasp the meaning of sin if God isn’t viewed as worthy of infinite adoration and infinite allegiance.”
One of the things that troubles me about these calamities is that God comes onto the agenda suddenly in people’s lives, and where he finds himself is in the dock, being accused. It’s funny: Why don’t we have a radio program or a big call-in thing to account for God’s mercy every time the sun comes up on New York? Jesus said that God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45). This is an inexplicable grace to our land. Why not call God to account for treating wicked people so kindly?
I heard you say this morning, Chuck, when I got up, that you wanted to focus on the cross. And I love that. I love that. And I said, “Oh, good. Good. If we focus on the cross, we’ll be safe today.” But the text that’s most central about the cross in relation to this supremacy of God in all of our calamities is Romans 3:23–25, where it says,
All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood. . . . This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.
Now, if you just think about that for a moment, what he’s saying is this: God said, “I must sacrifice my Son in order to vindicate my righteousness, in view of how leniently I have treated sinners.” Now that’s the gospel. That’s the meaning of the cross that we want to make central here at KTIS. The cross is the moment and the means by which God vindicates his righteousness in the face of how unjust his mercy appears. What American worries about that? What American loses sleep over the injustice of God in the sun rising and people being spared? And when the stock market is climbing and when the interest rates are falling and when the commerce is flourishing, which one of us says, “How can God treat us this way? We’re so bad!” Who says that? But that’s what we ought to say.
Instead, when anybody gets their wills crossed or anybody endures pain — whether it’s cancer or a plane crash — God gets called to account. There’s something wrong here. And what’s wrong is that he’s simply not supreme, and therefore we don’t understand sin, and therefore we don’t understand the cross, and therefore our whole worldview is bent out of shape. So, when others, like I’ve heard in the hallway out here, say, “God’s got our attention,” I think he wants to say, “I am God. I am God. I love people. If they would bow to me, I have put my Son forward to forgive their sins and have them home with me forever and ever. But don’t toy with me.”
Knapp: People across the world see that of us: that we, as an American people, are not, for the most part, humble.
Piper: Right. And yet, they call us a Christian nation, and therefore Christianity gets made synonymous with all of America’s music and all of America’s movies. We’re the “Great Satan.” And I just want to, for one, on the air, say, I’m not speaking as an American. I am an alien and an exile on this planet (1 Peter 2:11). My citizenship is in heaven. I await a Savior who will come, who will transform this lowly body into a body like his (Philippians 3:20–21). I’m a foreigner in America. I’m a foreigner in Palestine and Israel and Russia and Indonesia. I speak, I hope, for another King and another allegiance. The Muslim world, the Hindu world, the Buddhist world, the secular world, they need to hear that Christians are not synonymous with Americans.
Knapp: What a perspective. I hope it causes us to stop and really think. I hope it causes us to assess where we all are, personally and in self-examination.
Jon Engen: This is what I was thinking when you were saying that: Colossians 3:16 says, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” And this is what you were just saying: “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:17). We are here as aliens, but we are his representatives.
Rebuilding the Foundation
Piper: Yeah, it’s so hard — I feel for you guys. I said to Neil Staven last night — he dropped over and visited us — “I don’t really look forward to being on the radio because it’s hard to talk theology and do pastoral care in this medium. And yet, these guys have to do it.” You’re stuck with it. You can’t run away like other people can. I said, “I feel for these guys. I want to join them there.” And I just want to encourage you to do that: to be representatives of Jesus Christ.
And what makes it so hard for you and me is that we’re speaking into an audience that doesn’t have in place the worldview to make sense out of things that would fall into place for us. I mean, they’ll ask you some just blunt, painful question about a piece of the tragedy, and you’ve got to take them back to the foundation. You’ve got to go deep. You’ve got to go back to the beginning and say, “Where did sin come from, and what has happened to humanity?”
What is the depravity that Romans 1 talks about, where God just hands people over to their own depravity?
What is the futility of Romans 8, where it says that God subjected the creation to futility, which means the pain and the suffering in the world? Even “we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons” (Romans 8:23). All of it awaits redemption.
What is death, which came into the world through one man? “Just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, so death spread to all men because all sinned” (Romans 5:12).
Those massive underpinnings of how we explain everything aren’t in place for your listeners, many of them. And so in order to answer questions at the upper level, we have to go down to the lower level and rebuild some foundations.
“The killing of the Son of God was more horrific than what we’ve just seen — and yet God planned it.”
I just want to encourage you: When you get a tough question, which no doubt you do — we all do — Jesus didn’t automatically just jump in at the level of the questioner. He sometimes just said something that must have made them scratch their head, because he knew they didn’t have the categories for understanding his answer. So we need to rebuild, and we’re doing that right now. That’s part of what we’re doing.
God’s Mysterious Sovereignty
Knapp: I was looking through several excerpts from editorials, and one from Oklahoma that struck me earlier this morning, a part of that article or editorial in the paper, said, “Some will blame God for Tuesday’s events. How could he not protect us from such evil?” So that’s how the world looks at this.
Piper: Right, and the very way that question is crafted is almost unanswerable. Because as soon as you use the word blame, you’ve implied guilt. Blame implies guilt. So they’ve muddied the waters, because they cannot make the theological, biblical distinction of ordaining that something be that you may, in fact, grieve over and disapprove of. See, now there’s a category that is very hard for people to get ahold of. And yet, I find it all over the Bible: that God can, in his sovereign, overarching providence of the world, ordain that something be permitted or caused — he’s involved causally in different ways in different acts — and yet disapprove of the very thing that he has permitted or ordained. People simply can’t get it.
So, the word blame immediately hangs you on the horns of a dilemma you don’t want to be hung on — because when you say, “No, you don’t blame him,” they think, “Oh, you mean he was on a vacation. He’s out there. He had nothing to do with this. He wasn’t watching. He fumbled the ball. He couldn’t manage it.” Or otherwise, you’ve got him as a sinner. I mean, those are your two options with regard to a question like that.
Well, those aren’t the biblical options. God is sovereign. And yet, when he wills and ordains that there be pain and suffering in our lives, he’s not doing it as a sinner or as an evil God. God has ways to ordain things in his mysterious sovereignty that are for our good, in spite of being incredibly painful and — here’s the mystery — in spite of involving massive sin. And the place where that is so vividly clear in the Bible is at the cross.
That’s why I’m so glad you’re staying here at the cross, because I don’t think 9/11 — the hijacking, the terrorism — was a greater sin than the killing of the Son of God. I think the killing of the Son of God was more horrific, more terrible, more wicked, more horrible than what we’ve just seen — and yet God planned it. It’s so clear. Acts 4:27–28:
Truly in this city [Jerusalem] there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.
All the biblical promises of the coming of the Son — to bear our sorrows and to bear our griefs — were predicted seven hundred years before they happened, and yet there wasn’t a more sinful act in the universe than the nailing of the Son of God to the cross. And therefore, if we’re going to be believers in the love of God for sinners at the cross, we have to believe that he has the capacity to ordain that his Son die, and yet not be a sinner in killing him. If he can do that, then I’m going to stand up on Sunday and say, “Though I don’t have all the answers, my God, and your God, reigned on September 11. And he is not cruel, he is not wicked, and he’s not a sinner. And the glory is that because he reigns, he can comfort every soul, he can answer every prayer, he can heal every disease, he can rescue from every calamity, he can hold back from us every harmful thing that would not be good for us. And if he weren’t sovereign, then I don’t know what hope we could ultimately have for our future. And we would lose our gospel.”
Engen: And let me just mention, I appreciate, dear sir, your heart on providing the answer. It’s not necessarily grabbing a piece of the tragedy, and then trying to define that little piece. You have to define it, first of all, in light of the tragedy as a whole, but also the foundation as a whole as well.
Where Was Satan?
And as God’s people, we are not simply representing this tragedy in the United States; we’re representing the whole of Christ and the offering of God and what sin does to us. And we were born broken, and we’re watching this happen again.
Piper: Yeah, and not just the whole of Christ, but the whole of pain, because what’s so strange and irrational about the human heart is that it takes a pulling together, in one cataclysmic calamity, to awaken us to what’s happening every moment of every day, like in hospitals across the country. There are a lot of people right now whose mom or dad or wife or husband is breathing their last with pulmonary disease and gasping — just like some of those folks are gasping right now under the rubble. That’s not unique.
And so it’s awakening us to feel the magnitude of the world’s misery, which forces an issue that we ought to be dealing with all the time: What is this misery all about? And the biblical answer is this: it’s all about sin. And therefore, it’s all about the God who is moral and holy and just and who defined sin as sin and whether there’s redemption. That’s the message. And so, you’re right. We’re forced back to deal with huge things.
There’s a piece that we haven’t mentioned yet, that we probably should, as far as worldview goes, and that’s Satan. Satan is a massive part of the Christian worldview. And we ought to ask, Where was Satan yesterday? And of course, nobody knows precisely, except to say that the biblical picture is that Satan hates God. He hates his purposes. He wants people to dishonor God, mainly. He tries to squash the faith out of everybody’s life. He demanded, it says in Luke 22:31–32, to “sift [Peter] like wheat.” But Jesus says, “I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail.” Now I think that picture means this: just like you’d put wheat in a sieve, shake it, and it would tear at the wheat and rip off the outside to get the kernel, Satan wants to shake Peter, tear off his faith, and just have the natural Peter fall through and live the rest of his life in happiness and peace off in the suburbs somewhere. He’s fine — but without faith. And Jesus said, “I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail.”
And then he says this absolutely sovereign word: “When you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” In other words, “I know you’re going to turn, and I have effectually interceded with my Father on your behalf. You are going to drop three times tonight, but you’re going to stand again, my friend.”
So Satan is involved in all these things, and he’s moving people to do horrific acts. And I don’t doubt that he was stirring and moving in the evils on those planes and in the weeks and years that led up to it. But “he who is in [us] is greater than he who is in the world” (1 John 4:4). He holds Satan on a leash. He commands the evil spirits, and they do what he bids. So, Satan can never get outside God’s control. That’s the point of the book of Job, I think. He’s got to get permission to mess up this man’s life and take his children and put boils on his face and on his body (Job 1:6–12). And Job stands back and says, when Satan has done all this, “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21).
“Satan is to be hated. Satan is to be fought. Satan is to be resisted. But God reigns over Satan.”
Or when his wife says, “Curse God and die.” What in the world is Job holding fast to his integrity for? Job says, “You speak as one of the foolish women would speak. Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” And we’re kind of shocked, saying, “Wait a minute, Job. You missed it. Satan did that. It says Satan did that. What do you mean ‘shall we not receive evil as well as good at the hand of the Lord?’” And the writer adds, “In all this Job did not sin with his lips,” as though he knew we were going to misinterpret at that point (Job 2:9–10). What Job was testifying to is that Satan is to be hated. Satan is to be fought. Satan is to be resisted. But God reigns over Satan. He’s not running loose in the world without his leash in the hand of an Almighty, sovereign God. If he were, our hope would be very fragile — and, I think, non-existent.
Our Enemy Within
Engen: That’s the thought I had last evening as I was going to sleep: Satan did his work long ago on this one, on the people who were involved in such an incident. We read yesterday Psalm 36, where it says,
Transgression speaks to the wicked deep in his heart;there is no fear of God before his eyes.For he flatters himself in his own eyes that his iniquity cannot be found out and hated. . . .He plots trouble while on his bed; he sets himself in a way that is not good;he does not reject evil. (Psalm 36:1–2, 4)
Well, he did their work, and I’m imagining Satan just sat back and watched it happen.
Piper: Yeah, he sat back and watched it happen, or he did what he did to Judas: he “entered into Judas called Iscariot” (Luke 22:3). So, Satan has indirect and direct ways of working, and perhaps Satan entered in that morning; he just did a decisive work. But he also does these preparatory works.
Let’s not be too quick to say, “Oh, Satan did this.” Our flesh is plenty evil to do this sort of thing. The world is plenty evil to set things up so that we do it. Paul called sin a power, an indwelling power within us, that rises up and takes us captive (Romans 6:12; 7:9–10). So, we don’t need to blame Satan for every evil thing that happens, because we’re bad enough to do it without bringing him in as an explanatory factor. This is why I think Jesus didn’t focus on Satan when they brought him the news about the tower in Siloam falling on the eighteen or the mingling of the blood of the Galileans with their sacrifices. He simply said, “Repent” — not “Run away from Satan” (Luke 13:1–5).
Engen: On Sunday morning was our communion Sunday at church. And I preached on Paul’s warning to examine yourselves. Why have you come to this table? What have you brought with you? And of course, all the other things Paul talks about up to 1 Corinthians 11, dealing with divisions and dealing with sin in the church and the astonishment he has that they’re kind of pleased with themselves, that they’re accepting all these things. And then he comes to the table, and says that you must examine yourself if you come to worship. I walked away from the sermon on Sunday just beating myself, asking, “Were we too harsh in saying, ‘You and God have got to get this right’?” And this is exactly what you’ve been saying all morning: You and God have got to get this right. What we saw yesterday lies in the heart of all of us.
Piper: In fact, if you go on and read the rest of that passage, something absolutely stunning is said, that would really make you wonder if you’d been too harsh. Because he says that if you don’t discern the body and you don’t examine yourself carefully, “this is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died” (1 Corinthians 11:30).
Engen: We said that. Somebody said it’s the most dangerous service a church can hold because how you approach it has direct consequences.
Piper: But what makes it so mysterious and amazing and wonderful is that the death there is pictured as a way of not coming into condemnation. We are being judged by the Lord that we might not be condemned by the Lord. Even death — and this is relevant; oh, is this relevant — even death can be a mercy from God.
Hope for Everlasting Peace and Joy
Engen: Well, we’re talking to Pastor John Piper of Bethlehem Baptist Church. And we so appreciate you coming in and just opening the word and setting our eyes back on Christ. We mentioned this morning Hebrews 12:3, where the writer says, “Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself” — and that’s what we’re doing — “so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.”
Knapp: Well, now at three minutes before eight o’clock, I wonder, Dr. Piper, if you would lead us again in prayer for healing and understanding.
Piper: Father in heaven, our hearts go out to hundreds of thousands of family members who to this moment don’t know what’s become of their loved ones. And I pray that you would turn their hearts to you and that you would cause them to submit their wills and their hearts and their lives to you. And to look to you for help and strength.
“Jesus Christ died for all, so that whoever will believe of any color may have eternal life and escape perishing.”
I pray, O God, that you would bring your unique kind of consolation through Jesus Christ, who loved us and gave himself for us. I pray that you would pour out the Holy Spirit upon us, O God, as the church of Jesus Christ and upon the world for awakening. I pray that you would assert your glorious, gracious, kind, merciful, powerful, just, holy supremacy into the American life and make Jesus Christ the issue today and make people see him for who he really is and savor him and love him and trust him and treasure him and count him more precious than anything else in all the world.
O God, let this tragedy not happen in vain, but get people’s hearts for yourself, so that they not only have some relief in this world, but everlasting joy, everlasting peace, everlasting life. Lord, we want to see the greatest possible joy come. And that will come for eternity through Jesus Christ alone. So magnify your Son, Lord, in this calamity, I pray, so that people will reap a harvest of righteousness and a harvest of everlasting peace and joy. Through Christ I pray. Amen.
Knapp: Spoken from the heart. Amen. KTIS-FM in the Twin Cities at ten minutes after eight o’clock. We are visiting with Dr. John Piper, who is helping us “overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21).
God in His Rightful Place
Yesterday I was numb; I was just numbed by all of it. Twenty-four hours ago we were here watching the monitors and saw something go on. We didn’t know what it was. And we thought perhaps it was an accident. Well, then a second plane flies into the other tower. And then within minutes, here we are; we’re in the same shock that I felt as a kid when President Kennedy was assassinated. I felt it again when the shuttle exploded. There’ve been other times in my life as well: when Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated, when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. These are all things that I, in my twenties, have imprinted now. It just feels like it’s in my DNA, this shock. And then the plane goes into the Pentagon. And you realize this is an awful day.
And so now the shock — I don’t know if it’s wearing off, but now it’s like, How do we make any sense? Where do we start? How do we rebuild? And I know the focus needs to be on the cross because I’ve said that. I’ve been taught that in the last ten years, but that’s difficult too. So you’re helping to shape the perspective and then maybe just sharpen the image.
Piper: Well, I think you said it well — that the order is one moving from the immediate, personal experience of emotion, which the Bible cares a lot about, to the more reflective, quiet coming to terms with truth. We need both. We can’t just jump in with both feet at the theoretical, theological level at the most raw moments of life. There’s a time for silence and a time for speaking (Ecclesiastes 3:7). There’s a time for embracing and a time to refrain from embracing (Ecclesiastes 3:5).
And so, as the time goes by, pastors need to step up to the plate with fiber in their tree and give people a rock to stand on and a trunk for the branches to hang on. And whether we’re quite there or not, we’re forced to be there. And my passion is to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples. And so, the reason I come back, again and again, to the supremacy of God in these moments is because, I think, if we lose it, we lose the most precious thing in the world. We lose everything.
And one of the texts that’s been on my mind, in recent minutes especially, is the book of Lamentations. Now there’s not a more horrific book in the Old Testament because it’s after the carnage of Jerusalem by the Babylonians. And it is so horrible that women are boiling and eating their children (Lamentations 4:10). And out of that setting, Jeremiah writes two things that, I think, if you lose the one you lose the other. The one we all love is basis of the hymn “Great Is Thy Faithfulness.” Right in the middle chapter, he writes,
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end;they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.“The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.” (Lamentations 3:22–24)
I mean, how can he say that mercies are new every morning when things like this are happening? Mercies are new every morning. And just a few verses later in the chapter, he says,
The Lord will not cast off forever,but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love;for he does not afflict from his heart or grieve the children of men. (Lamentations 3:31–33)
So there you have, back to back, the Lord causes grief and his mercies are new every morning. So, my gut feeling is this: I want mercy in my life. I want to live by mercy. I want to give mercy. I want to embody mercy for people. And I think I’m going to lose verses 22–24, the mercy verses, if I lose the supremacy verses just a few verses later. Which is why I’m so zealous that God be given his rightful place in these moments and that we not kind of shuttle him to the side and say, “Well, let’s just deal with human misery here,” because my only hope in dealing with human misery is a great, holy, good, gracious, sovereign God who, with all of his mystery, can answer our prayers and can do miracles beyond what all humans can do.
He can restrain sin, like he did with King Abimelech in Genesis 20, when Abraham said, “She’s my sister. Sarah’s my sister.” And so she goes into the harem and could be slept with that night. And Abimelech doesn’t sleep with her. And in the morning, God confronts him, and he apologizes because he didn’t know what was up. And God says, “It was I who kept you from sinning against me” (Genesis 20:6). Now, God can do that. God can keep people from sinning. One puff of his breath, and the plane misses the tower. One slight restraint, and this guy falls down in the plane instead of going into the cockpit. God can do that. And that he can do it creates problems for us in dealing with the calamity, and it creates hope for us in coming out of the calamity into a life where we know he will not let anything befall us but what is good for us (Romans 8:28).
It’s so important to me that, even though it’s painful sometimes to hear in moments of crisis, we give God his rightful place as the sovereign, merciful Lord of the universe, so that we have a gospel for people.
More Than We Imagine
Engen: Well, it’s been quite the morning and, Dr. Piper, we just want to say thank you for sharing your heart with us. I know that it has been a part of the refuge that God has been using to bring some peace to some hearts — maybe raise more questions, I guess, as well. But I pray that they’re questions about the solid rock, the foundation that we’re all standing on as God’s people. When you were speaking about Lamentations, I was thinking of David’s words when he says,
I waited patiently for the Lord; he inclined to me and heard my cry.He drew me up from the pit of destruction, out of the miry bog,and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure. (Psalm 40:1–2)
Philosophy can’t do it. Determination can’t do it. Consensus can’t do it. And just a vote at a voting booth can’t do it. It’s God.
Piper: And he goes on and says,
He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God.Many will see and fear, and put their trust in the Lord. (Psalm 40:3)
Which means that the extended time of desolation was the means to a new song, which was the means to people trusting Christ. Those are the kinds of connections our people have just got to see, so that they don’t linger in the desolation without thinking that God has no good designs here.
Engen: Exactly — and that there is a rock, that there is a solid foundation. And as I was speaking to one of our listeners and staff members here on the college campus, he said, I think very vividly, “We’ve watched this house built on sand crumble to the ground. Now, what are we going to do? Are we going to build our new house on the rock, the firm foundation of Christ? Or are we going to try the sand thing again? Well, let’s go to the rock.”
Knapp: Does your life look like the World Trade Center coming down? The trigger word for me in all of that is fear. That’s the word: “Many will see and fear” (Psalm 40:3). And I see that word in so many places: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Psalm 111:10; Proverbs 9:10).
Piper: Right. And I just read in Isaiah when Christ is described. It says, “His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord” (Isaiah 11:3). If we find the covert in the cleft of the rock, where we’re safe in Jesus through the cross, the hurricane of God’s might ceases to be threatening and becomes gloriously satisfying. In the eye of the hurricane is a safe place to look at this mighty God. “Our God is a consuming fire,” Hebrews says (Hebrews 10:27). And yet, he doesn’t have to be frightening to the soul that is safe in Jesus.
And you mentioned to me on the phone yesterday, Chuck, about children and struggling. In fact, I heard on some station people talking about that this morning. I was just trying to find you this morning quick before I came over, and they were talking about children. And I just want to stress to parents that we expect too little of our children. They are capable of discerning and grasping some pretty weighty things about God, and they are probably willing to embrace them more quickly than many adults. When we tell them the story of the flood, we ought to tell them it’s about the judgment of God on humanity, and everybody drowned because of how horrible sin is.
“When you say, ‘What’s the purpose of God in these kinds of things?’ one answer is ‘Billions of purposes.’”
And when we tell them the story of the feeding of the five thousand, we shouldn’t tell them this is just about the sharing of a lunch. This is about a mighty Christ who takes five little loaves of your life and feeds five thousand people. He can do wonders with your little life. Give yourself to him. We need to get our kids into a big vision of God. And I’ve got a little 5-year-old girl. She’s sitting right outside that window there. This is a homeschool outing for her to see how radio works. And she said this morning, “Now a plane was stolen and hit a building?” And I said, “Do you know what happened? God allowed something very terrible to happen, so that he might bring about great good. Let’s pray that millions upon millions of divine, gracious, merciful purposes would happen in people’s lives. For example, Talitha, we’re praying right now. We’re praying. We wouldn’t have been praying like this before.”
I mean, when you say, “What’s the purpose of God in these kinds of things?” one answer is “Billions of purposes.” God is doing things that we can’t even imagine. And we just need to put our hands over our mouths, submit to him, and go back to the cross.
Greatest Thing in the World
I see the clock coming to an end there, and I need to go and you need to go, and I’m so glad Michael Smith is coming. But let me just end on the gospel. Can I?
Knapp: Yes, please.
Piper: I’ve been reveling in Romans for three years at Bethlehem and preached last Sunday: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). And I want the listeners to hear this and know it with all their hearts: the fact that there can be no condemnation is rooted not in our goodness, but in Christ’s sufficiency on the cross. The Son of God died for sinners. Everyone who comes to him can have absolute, total pardon and forgiveness. They can be clothed in a righteousness not their own (Philippians 3:9). When they’re faced with the last judgment or the accusations of Satan, they can say “No, there is over me no condemnation because I am in Christ Jesus.”
But here’s the note I think we need to strike this moment: That message goes out to every nation, every people group, every color, every ethnic group in the Middle East, in Saudi Arabia, in Afghanistan. And that same gospel saves every kind of person. So, I just plead with the church of Jesus Christ not to fall into the trap of starting to stereotype Arab people or Palestinian people or people of a certain color as having a certain bent. That is the essence of racism. It’s the essence of prejudice: lumping a group together, taking one lousy apple and making the whole barrel rotten. Oh, that the church would say, “Jesus Christ died for all, so that whoever will believe of any color may have eternal life and escape perishing.”
Whether they go down in a plane, whether they go up in smoke, Christians have a message in the midst of tragedy — they have a message at funerals, a message at weddings. And it is a glorious thing to be a Christian. I buried an old man when I came to the church 21 years ago, who looked up from the bed to me, and he smiled as he was dying. He said, “Pastor John, the greatest thing in the world is to be saved.” And we can offer that to every single person.
So bless you, brothers, as you keep offering the good news on this station. It was an honor to be here with you.
By David Mathis — 2 weeks ago
We have surrounded ourselves with screens. On the desk. In the family room. Even in bedrooms and kitchens. Increasingly in automobiles. One for every passenger on the airplane? And most importantly, hitchhiking on our person everywhere we go, the Precious in our own pocketses and handses.
Once upon a time, screens came attached to heavy, unwieldy boxes. Not anymore. Now they’re as thin as picture frames, and thinner. Some of us can count more screens in our homes than wall décor.
We are living in stunningly image-driven and visually-oriented times. We do well, then, to query ourselves regularly, and thoughtfully, about what images we’re allowing to pass before our eyes, and how they are shaping us. Moving pictures are powerful. They can arrest and extract attention we don’t mean to pay them (say, at a restaurant). And our habits related to screens don’t leave us unchanged.
Yet, in such days, it could be easy to be captivated by the screens and overlook the deeply formative and re-formative power of the great invisible medium that accompanies them: words. Words, especially spoken words, are the great unseen power that give meaning to our world of images and shape how we choose to live.
Words for Good, and Ill
Perhaps even more than our other four celebrated senses, our ability to hear makes us deeply human.
“Words are the great unseen power that give meaning to our world of images and shape how we choose to live.”
After touch (at three weeks), hearing is the next sense to develop in the womb, at about twenty weeks, and it is widely considered to be the last sense to go while dying. Which makes sense for us as creatures of the Creator who is (amazingly!) a speaking, self-revealing God. First and foremost, he made us to hear him, to receive and respond to his words. He created the world, through words, saying, “Let there be light.” He speaks new creation into our souls by effecting new birth through his word, the gospel (James 1:18; 2 Corinthians 4:6). And he grows and sustains our souls in the Christian life through his words (1 Corinthians 15:1–2; 1 Thessalonians 2:13).
When the serpent slid into the garden, he didn’t show Eve an Instagram video, or perform a TikTok dance. He spoke. He slid his poison into her heart through her ears. After all, God had spoken to create the world. He had given Adam instructions through words about how to live in the world. So too, when Satan attacked, he came with something more perilous than a sword or boulder. He came with words, leaning on the stunning power of the audible and invisible, seeking to unseat God’s words. “Did God actually say . . . ?” (Genesis 3:1).
Who’s in Your Head?
In our day of striking media saturation and consumption, we will do well to remember the profound shaping, world-changing power of words.
Whether they are the words accompanying television and YouTube, or the written words of articles and tweets, or the purely audible media of podcasts and audiobooks, words form and fill our inner person, penetrate deeply, and quickly shape our desires, decisions, and outer lives — the whole of who we are. It’s not a matter of whether words are shaping us but whose.
Whose voice — whether through audio or written words or video, or old-fashioned face-to-face talk — whose voice is most regularly streaming into your ears, and going down into your soul? Whose voice captures your finite attention, and focuses you, or distracts you? Which voices do you long to hear most? Whose words are you welcoming most to enter into your soul, to sow seeds of life — or death? Whom do you welcome into that intimate space that is your ear?
Do the words you hear and cherish most “follow the course of this world” (Ephesians 2:2)? Are you becoming “conformed to this world” (Romans 12:2) rather than “transformed by the renewal of your mind”? How “highly online” and “Internet-formed” are you? Some have entertained angels unawares (Hebrews 13:2), but are we showing hospitality to demons?
Two lines from a recent Gospel Coalition email stopped me in my tracks:
Internet-formed Christians are increasingly being catechized by partisan politics and secular pop culture. The result? Divided and fragmenting churches, declining church membership, and weary leaders.
It stopped me in my tracks as a spot-on diagnosis. Christian parents, pastors, and disciple-makers were once the most formative catechizers. What happens when the words, and perspectives, of television and the Internet shape Christians more than their churches? We’re already seeing it.
Whose Words Are Changing You?
For many, the fight for faith in this generation — to not only survive but thrive as a Christian — is about not just what we see, but perhaps just as pressing (if not more so), what we hear and to whom we listen.
God made us for the gospel, which is first and foremost a message to hear. “Faith comes from hearing,” says the apostle Paul, “and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17). And how did you receive the Spirit? “Hearing with faith” (Galatians 3:2). “He who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you” does so not “by works of the law,” he writes, but “by hearing with faith” (Galatians 3:5). The voices we habitually allow and welcome into our heads have profound shaping power. “In the sensorium of faith,” writes Tony Reinke in his book on today’s countless visual Spectacles, “the ear is chief” (148).
“Whom you hear with delight today will be who you become like tomorrow.”
A new year is as good a time as any to take inventory of the audible voices and written words we encounter daily, especially those we habitually choose. Whose words do you welcome? Whose words do you not only hear, but listen to with rapt attention? Whose words fill your social feeds and podcast queues? What do you listen to on the way to work, or while you walk, exercise, or clean? To whom do you turn for advice? What podcasts, what shows and series, what musicians, what audiobooks? Are your choices governed by the pursuit of entertainment, or the pursuit of God? Instant gratification, or progressive sanctification? Shallow, mindless consumption, or careful, thoughtful growth?
Whom you hear with delight today will be who you become more like tomorrow. As Jesus himself says seven times in the Gospels, and then seven times more in Revelation, “He who has an ear, let him hear.”
New Year’s Defiance
As we continue to sort out the effects of new media and algorithms, and how the Internet shapes Christians and our churches in particular, we do have one clear, simple, ancient, decisive act of defiance.
To those of us willing to hear and heed the cautions, the solution, of course, is not to plug the ears that God has so wonderfully dug, but to open them and eagerly receive words and voices that are true, good, life-giving, balanced, and Christ-magnifying. Even more important than what we keep out of our heads, and hearts, is what we fill them with — and none are more worthy than the words of God himself.
God made us to meditate, not flit endlessly from one message to the next. It is a remarkable design feature of humans, that we can pause and ponder, ruminate and think, that we can stew over truth (and not just lies), and over the good God has done (and not just the evil of others). Perhaps, if you’re honest, you find your mind fragmented. Texts and notifications, tweets and memes, audio and video ads and clips seem to have eroded your capacity for serious, meaningful attention, and you’re not sure where to turn next, but just hit refresh. Make the word of God be where you turn.
Make his voice, in Scripture, the first you hear each day. And his voice, above all, the one that you welcome most, and try to take most deeply into your soul through his words. Let his words be your unhurried meditation, in the morning, and the place you return to regain balance in spare moments. Pray for, and aim to have, his word be “on your heart,” and central in your parenting, and present in conversation, with you “when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise” (Deuteronomy 6:6–7).
Let meditation on God’s word be one great new-year’s act of defiance in our media-driven age. Half an hour of such unhurried, even leisurely, lingering over and enjoying God’s words just might fortify your soul for the unavoidable drivel of distant dramas, hot takes, and idle words we seem to encounter at every turn in this world. “Whoever gives thought to the word will discover good, and blessed is he who trusts in the Lord” (Proverbs 16:20).
You will find, over time, that God can indeed restore what the locusts have eaten. He can rebuild your mind, and your capacity for focus and sustained attention, and he can restore your heart, and give you wisdom and stability.
How different might the next year be because of what you resolved to do with your ears?