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By David Mathis — 10 months ago
Sadly, a few professing Christians today seem only to see their God as fearsome. Meanwhile, and far more sadly, countless unbelievers seem not to fear their God at all.
This is a tragic reversal in our fallen age: that a few, who could feel safe, do not — while many, who should be frightened, are not. This tragedy will be remedied in the end, but those of us who know ourselves secure in Christ want to help, when we’re able, bring genuine emotional comfort, or appropriate discomfort. Perhaps recovering an often-overlooked attribute of God — that of his majesty — could help us unsettle sinners and freshly settle true saints.
Greatness of His Majesty
Scripture’s first explicit mention of God in his majesty came with what was the world’s greatest deliverance until Calvary. After ten horrible plagues, Egypt’s pharaoh had finally acquiesced and let the Israelites go. But then he changed his mind, made ready his chariot (with hundreds more, Exodus 14:6–7), pursued God’s people into the wilderness, and came upon them with their backs to the sea, and seemingly nowhere to flee. Then, to the astonishment of both Israel and Egypt — and all who would hear the account far and wide, for thousands of years — God parted the sea. The Israelites walked through on dry ground, and when the Egyptians followed, God brought the waters back upon them to their destruction. As Exodus 14 ends,
Thus the Lord saved Israel that day from the hand of the Egyptians, and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. Israel saw the great power that the Lord used against the Egyptians, so the people feared the Lord, and they believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses. (Exodus 14:30–31)
Exodus 15 then breaks into a song of praise to God for his stunning rescue — and here, for the first time in Scripture, God’s people praise him for his majesty:
Your right hand, O Lord, glorious in power,your right hand, O Lord, shatters the enemy.In the greatness of your majesty you overthrow your adversaries . . . .Who is like you, O Lord, among the gods?Who is like you, majestic in holiness,awesome in glorious deeds, doing wonders? (Exodus 15:6–7, 11)
The choice of the word majesty says something profound about the worshipers. Majesty attributes to God not only great size (verses 7, 16) and strength (verses 2, 6) but expresses awe and wonder in the mouths of his people.
God’s foes flee in terror, but his friends declare his majesty.
Through Two Sets of Eyes
Here, on the shores of the sea, a great distinction between “my people” and “not my people” emerges: God is “awesome” in the eyes of his chosen (Exodus 15:11), and awful in the eyes of their foes.
As early as the fifth plague, God had specified to Moses that he would “make a distinction between the livestock of Israel and the livestock of Egypt, so that nothing of all that belongs to the people of Israel shall die” (Exodus 9:4). God then reiterated this distinction when forecasting the tenth and final plague: “But not a dog shall growl against any of the people of Israel, either man or beast, that you may know that the Lord makes a distinction between Egypt and Israel” (Exodus 11:7).
So too, Moses himself, in the months to come, would plead this very distinction when interceding for the people, face to face with God on Mount Sinai: “Is it not in your going with us, so that we are distinct, I and your people, from every other people on the face of the earth?” (Exodus 33:16). This “distinguish[ing] between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean” would be institutionalized for centuries in the old-covenant tabernacle, sacrificial system, and priestly service of the nation (Leviticus 10:10; also Ezekiel 44:23).
Fearsome: For Them, Against Us
In Exodus 14, the Egyptians were the aggressors, hunting down Israel in the wilderness and charging into the sea after God’s people — until “the angel of God,” that is, the pillar of fire and of cloud, pivoted on them to their horror.
The pillar had “moved and went behind” Israel to protect the nation from the onslaught of Egypt (Exodus 14:19–20). But when God’s people had gone into the sea on dry ground, and the Egyptians pursued and went in after them, the pillar then “looked down on the Egyptian forces and threw the Egyptian forces into a panic” (Exodus 14:23–24). Now the tide turns, just before God releases the tides. In terror, the Egyptians turn to flee. But it is too late.
“Divine majesty terrifies those at odds with the one true God.”
Not only does God burn with frightening strength to scare Egypt, but the song of worship in chapter 15 celebrates that news of this event will soon spread to make all Israel’s foes tremble: Philistia, Edom, Moab, and Canaan (Exodus 15:14–16). Divine majesty terrifies those at odds with the one true God. Even as his people praise his majesty, so they mention the terror of those arrayed against him, or pondering flight from him. “Will not his majesty terrify you,” asks Job, “and the dread of him fall upon you?” (Job 13:11, see also 31:23).
So too in the early prophecy of Isaiah. Three times in short space, he tells of those, set against God, who soon will seek to hide “from before the terror of the Lord, and from the splendor of his majesty” (Isaiah 2:10, 19, 21). The one who is “majestic in holiness” to his prophet will be threatening, indeed terrifying, to any who have set themselves against them, if they would only open their eyes and see.
Awesome: Against Them, For Us
As imposing and awful as this majesty will appear to his enemies, so it inspires a comforting and reassuring awe in those whom he protects. As Moses declares to Israel, who is on God’s side, seeking his help and protection, God will wield his strength for their good:
There is none like God . . . ,who rides through the heavens to your help,through the skies in his majesty. (Deuteronomy 33:26)
Again, his redeemed ask, “Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in glorious deeds, doing wonders?” (Exodus 15:11). For them, the same imposing size and strength that incites horror in their foes is majestic love and comfort. “You have led in your steadfast love the people whom you have redeemed” (Exodus 15:13). For his people, God’s majestic power inspires the awe of worship:
Let them praise the name of the Lord, for his name alone is exalted; his majesty is above earth and heaven. He has raised up a horn for his people, praise for all his saints, for the people of Israel who are near to him. Praise the Lord! (Psalm 148:13–14)
For his own, in his city, “there the Lord in majesty will be for us a place of broad rivers and streams . . . . the Lord is our king; he will save us” (Isaiah 33:21–22). The largesse [laar·zhes] of God which throws his foes into a panic means safety and salvation in the mouths of his friends.
More majestic still is Psalm 45:4, which speaks not only to a Davidic king on his wedding day, but also anticipates David’s greater descendant to come, the long-awaited Christ:
In your majesty ride out victoriously for the cause of truth and meekness and righteousness; let your right hand teach you awesome deeds!
It is the king’s own people — those who know him as their sovereign, and themselves as his people — who see their Anointed ruler as majestic. Majesty is a word of awe in the mouth of his redeemed.
Holy Fear to Holy Awe
What about those few professing saints today who seem only to see their God as fearsome? And what about the many unbelievers who don’t seem to fear God at all?
For both, time will tell. The unbelieving Egyptians didn’t exhibit any fear, until, all of a sudden, in an instant, the pillar of fire pivoted on them. Then they panicked. So will it be one day soon with all who set themselves against the majestic God. Then they will fear.
“Holy fear leads to holy awe.”
But for his saints, who claim the name of Christ, and yet find themselves dogged by seemingly intractable fear, rather than awe, when they think of God almighty, we end with good news. The holy awe of worshiping his majesty is not at odds with a holy fear of his size and strength. In fact, such holy fear leads to holy awe. Exodus 14 ends with holy fear: “Israel saw the great power that the Lord used against the Egyptians, so the people feared the Lord . . .” But knowing themselves to be his covenant people, this fear did not lead to panic, but faith: “. . . and they believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses” (Exodus 14:31). So Exodus 15 begins with praise.
When we glimpse the greatness, power, and glory of God’s majesty, we should indeed fear ever turning our back on, and fleeing from, such a God. And that is a holy fear we seek not to banish but follow its leading to faith, which leans into him, receives his stunning provision of safety in Christ, and enjoys his majestic final protection against any and every foe.
By Gerrit Scott Dawson — 6 months ago
The mother of a first grader asked me if she could have a minute. “I’m concerned about what’s going on in Sunday school.” I asked what she meant. “Last week my son came home and told me you’d been talking about the crucifixion of Jesus.” I nodded. “He told me the whole story.” Children retelling the Bible story to their families was just what we hoped would happen. What could be the problem?
“He cried as he told me,” she went on. “The cross upset him very much.” I wanted to be sympathetic, but I was too thrilled. The whole point of our program was to make the stories come alive for our students. Before I could stop myself, I said, “I wish I would still cry whenever I heard that story.”
Do you ever feel indifference during Holy Week? Perhaps the cross seems more like a formula than an event. A method for dispensing forgiveness rather than a horror our Savior endured for us. As a professional Bible-teller, I experience how detachment can set in during the most sacred of seasons. But I’ve found help in Christina Rossetti’s (1830–94) short poem “Good Friday.”
Impassive as a Stone
The poem, written in 1866, offers the relief of honest realism and an effective remedy for when I no longer connect to the sorrow of this day. Full of biblical allusions, it still speaks strikingly to us. Rosetti begins,
Am I a stone, and not a sheep, That I can stand, O Christ, beneath Thy cross,To number drop by drop Thy blood’s slow loss, And yet not weep?
Here’s the truth. This week I will sing, “Beneath the cross of Jesus, I fain would take my stand.” But instead of my heart roiling with awe, shame, sorrow, and gratitude, I may well just go through the motions.
“I can stare right up at Jesus from beneath his cross . . . and yet keep my face, my life, as impassive as a rock.”
If I let myself reflect on this indifference, I take up Rossetti’s opening question: “Am I as cold as a stone to Jesus? Am I unable to reach even the level of a mere sheep?” Though lacking in courage and common sense, a sheep at least knows the shepherd’s voice and responds. Through Ezekiel, the Lord described us as having a “heart of stone” (Ezekiel 36:26). I feel the truth of the description even as one who now has, in Christ, a new heart. It’s not just that I’m distracted. I can stare right up at Jesus from beneath his cross, close enough to see his blood leave him, and yet keep my face, my life, as impassive as a rock.
Standing Among the Weepers
Rossetti convicts me, because I know how a stony callousness grows over my heart. But she also relieves me, because I see I am not alone. Her admission invites me to bring the shame of my apathy into the light. Sometimes, when I imagine Jesus on the cross, I just don’t feel moved. We read the passion story in worship, and I just want to get home and watch TV. There. I said it.
Rossetti keeps driving home the point, but as she does so, she also offers a remedy for my indifference. Her strategy is to take us to those characters who did weep. Perhaps we cannot summon deep feelings for Jesus in his passion. But we may be moved by the women and men who cried during those dreadful hours. We might feel for them, and in so doing rekindle our emotions for Jesus. So Rossetti leads us deeper into the biblical narrative, with three allusions to Luke’s account.
Not so those women loved Who with exceeding grief lamented Thee;Not so fallen Peter, weeping bitterly; Not so the thief was moved.
First, we’re directed to the “women who were mourning and lamenting for him” (Luke 23:27) as Jesus carried his cross toward Golgotha. The loud, inarticulate wails of a Middle Eastern lament eloquently declared, “This is not right! This is so sad!”
Perhaps you’ve been at a funeral for a young person. For many teenagers, this is their first loss of a peer. They cry openly and loudly, not yet having learned how to live with ongoing grief. Their fresh dismay makes the death all the more devastating. Yes, I remember the girl who sobbed in my arms, and I feel the death once more through her. So could sympathizing with the wailing daughters of Jerusalem connect me anew to Jesus?
Luke’s simple, direct language about Peter’s denial cuts to the heart. “The Lord turned and looked at Peter. . . . And [Peter] went out and wept bitterly” (Luke 22:61–62). I remember telling one of our children I could not do what I had promised. The pain in his eyes just slayed me. I remember the disappointment in the look of a parent that cut me more deeply than any words. Worst of all, recalling the sorrow in my wife’s eyes from something cruel I had said devastates me still. I feel a bit of what Peter felt.
Could that lead me to see the pain on Jesus’s face from my participation in the world’s rejection of him? And then once again feel sorrow for him?
Luke does not tell us of tears from the thief on the cross. But the criminal’s words connect us to Psalm 88, the most hopeless of biblical laments. This thief painfully knew he was soon to die. He was condemned by the Romans, but worse, felt himself cursed by God. He felt as the psalmist before the Lord: “like those whom you remember no more, for they are cut off from your hand. . . . Your wrath lies heavy upon me” (Psalm 88:5, 7).
Fearing an everlasting separation, he called, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42). I can connect to the sickening feeling of being past the point of no return — beyond redemption — and from there look over to the Son of Man about to die and know that his punishment is unjust. He will be vindicated by his Father. So might he carry me with him through death? My desperate hope opens a channel to Jesus’s sufferings.
While Sun and Moon Weep
In the third stanza, Rossetti imagines nature itself recoiling over the cruel cross. Luke reports, “It was now about the sixth hour, and there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour, while the sun’s light failed” (Luke 23:44–45). So she writes,
Not so the Sun and Moon Which hid their faces in a starless sky,A horror of great darkness at broad noon — I, only I.
Rossetti invests the heavenly lights with personality, though she knows, as we do, that it was the Creator who caused this unnatural occurrence in his world. The phenomenon reflected the contradiction that creatures had hung up the Creator. Slaves of sin assassinated the Sovereign. The reliable day went dark over our audacious assault on Christ.
Again, we have resonance with this from our experience of nature’s power. We jump when thunder claps simultaneously with the lightning. We fall quiet at a solar eclipse. We shudder inside when solid ground trembles in an earthquake. When the normalcy we take for granted shifts suddenly, horror rises at our precarious position. Can I now feel very nature’s shame at our murder of the Savior? By now, some passion should be returning to my muffled soul.
Surrendered to Indifference
Rossetti does not let up. She voices the isolation that continued apathy creates. “I, only I” remain indifferent while men and women, disciples and criminals, sun and moon weep for Jesus. This sin of benumbed attention runs perilously close to the loneliness of very hell.
So she turns us from reflection to ardent prayer:
Yet give not o’er, But seek Thy sheep, true Shepherd of the flock;Greater than Moses, turn and look once more And smite a rock.
“This sin of benumbed attention runs perilously close to the loneliness of very hell.”
Scripture never fails to jolt me out of complacency when I read, “God gave them up . . . because they exchanged the truth of God for a lie” (Romans 1:24–25). “All right then, have it your way,” the Sovereign seems to say. “I’ll just leave you to it.” Suddenly, like a toddler, I am running back to the Father, begging for him not to walk away. Rossetti’s prayer bleats out from the lostness of a wandering sheep, “Don’t leave me here. Come find me! I am your lamb! Please. Don’t give me over to me.”
Lord, Smite a Rock
The poet knows what power it will take to crack through a hard heart. She recalls the Lord’s instructions to Moses when his doubting people cried out for water in the wilderness. “You shall strike the rock, and water shall come out of it, and the people will drink” (Exodus 17:6). Paul builds on the episode to connect Jesus to the rock. When he was struck upon the cross, living water flowed forth to quench all who would drink in faith (1 Corinthians 10:4). But another blow, this one to the stony heart, must crack open indifference so that warm responsive faith in Christ may flow.
Rossetti longs for the great prophecy of Ezekiel to be fulfilled anew in her: “I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you . . . and you shall be my people, and I will be your God” (Ezekiel 36:26–28). But she knows that heart transplant must begin with a mighty interruption. “Smite a rock.”
Maybe, in the end, the remedy to our indifference in Holy Week comes down to such a stark prayer. Just crack open my hard heart. Smack this boulder of a soul. Take me to those who wept for you, and let my jaded heart be moved by their ardor. Turn me from a stone back into a sheep. Let me hear your voice that I may with fresh tears love you in your passion.
By John Piper — 8 months ago
God was at work in my life when he saved me. Amen! But was God at work in my life before I came to Christ? And if so, how should we talk about God’s work in our lives before conversion? What does that season of my life before Christ tell the world about who God is? I’ve never really considered this, to be honest. And I suspect most of us haven’t really given it that much thought either. Well, the apostle Paul did. And he spoke with specificity about what his pre-conversion life displayed about the character of God.
Here’s the sharp question from a listener named Shawn, who lives in Canada: “Hello, Pastor John. I have a question concerning the life that we, as believers in Christ, lived before we came to faith. Paul writes about his life before conversion as being one of the largest opponents of God (1 Timothy 1:13). He later says his life as an unbeliever was used to display God’s ‘perfect patience,’ going from a persecutor of Christians to a Christian (1 Timothy 1:16). God was revealing his patience in Paul’s pre-conversion life. So, looking at Paul’s testimony, my question is this: Was God present and active in our lives when we were unbelievers? And should we too speak of what our pre-conversion life reveals about the character of God? Because, quite honestly, that’s something I really don’t do.”
The answer to both of those questions is yes. God is always at work in this world in everybody’s life. “He works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Ephesians 1:11). And when we come to Christ, we are given a perspective on that prior work that is true and helpful. It is cause for thankfulness in us, and it’s a cause for benefit to others. In other words, we experience it as worship, and we experience it, hopefully, as witness.
Before we turn to Christ, there is, so to speak, a veil over our eyes so that we can’t interpret what’s happening in our lives in its proper relationship to God before we’re a Christian. In a profound sense, we are blind to what God is doing in our lives. So we can’t tell any true stories about God’s work in our lives before our eyes are open to see what he’s really doing in our lives.
But when we come to Christ, the veil is lifted, and we see our past life for what it really is, both in its darkness and in the bright light of God’s work in it. So here’s the text that makes that amazingly clear. This is John 3:19–21:
This is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clear seen that his works have been carried out in God.
“When we come to Christ, the veil is lifted, and we see our past life for what it really is.”
That’s interesting. That’s really significant. In other words, when a person turns to Christ and comes into the light, he is able to see not only the path that is in front of him and how he should walk now that he’s a Christian, but he is also able to see for the first time what was really going on in his life before he was led to Christ and crossed over the line between unbelief and belief. The light of Christ shines in both directions: it shines forward to show us how to live, and it shines backward to show how God worked in our lives to bring us to himself.
God’s Perfect Patience
Now, one of the remarkable things about the passage in 1 Timothy 1:12–16 is that Paul shows that there’s a double reason for why we should think about God’s work in our lives before we became Christians. One is thankfulness. It should cause us, when we look back and watch the providences of God in our lives bringing us to him, to worship and be amazed at the great mercy of God that he did not let us go our own self-destructive way.
For example, Paul begins 1 Timothy 1:12 by saying, “I thank him who has given me strength.” So Paul worshiped — that’s his first response when he looks back on what God did in his life. If any of us rightly understands our true condition before we were called into Christ, we will respond the same. Oh yes, we will. Whether you were 6 years old or 66 or 86 when converted, the Bible makes clear, even if our memory doesn’t, that we were hopelessly dead in our sin and were made alive by sovereign grace.
“We were hopelessly dead in our sin and were made alive by sovereign grace.”
But the main thing Paul is doing in 1 Timothy when he recalls his former life as a blasphemer, persecutor, insolent is trying to help others who are despairing of their own salvation because their past life is so terrible they can’t imagine God ever being patient and merciful with them. Those are the people he’s really writing for when he talks about his past, and Paul’s point in telling of God’s work in his own past is to encourage them. “No one is beyond hope.” Here’s the way he does it:
I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. . . . But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. (1 Timothy 1:13, 16)
In other words, he speaks of God’s work in his pre-conversion life, first, in order to celebrate the greatness of God’s mercy, and second, in order to help strugglers who have no hope. He wants them to have hope.
Past Life of an Apostle
He did the same thing in Galatians 1. He knew that the churches of Galatia were struggling with whether they could really trust Paul as an authentic apostle. And one of the ways that he helped them trust him and his gospel as true was to tell the story of his past life in Judaism, and how the only reasonable explanation of why he’s risking his life now — to advance the faith he formally tried to destroy — is Christ’s amazing intervention in his life. Here’s what he says:
You have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers. But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone; nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus. (Galatians 1:13–17)
Before he was converted and before he became an apostle, God set him apart from his mother’s womb.
God allowed Paul to become a radical anti-Christian zealot, with zeal that surpassed everybody.
Christ appeared to him on the Damascus road and saved him.
Christ led him away to Arabia and turned him into a mighty apostle.
All that recounting of his past was to help the Galatians know he was true, he was an apostle, and that they could trust his message, his gospel, and hope in the truth.
So the answer to Shawn’s questions are yes and yes. (1) Was God present and active within our lives when we were unbelievers? Yes. (2) Should we speak of what our pre-conversion life reveals about God? Yes, and for those two reasons: both for the glory of God in our own thankfulness and praises, and for the good of others who might be helped to have hope in Christ by our story.