Part 3 Episode 212
Genuine worship treasures God above all things and fuels God-centered passion in people. What if our worship doesn’t look or feel like that? In this episode of Light + Truth, John Piper addresses this still relevant question from Malachi 1:6–14.
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By Brian Tabb — 1 year ago
ABSTRACT: Throughout the book of Acts, the apostles teach us not only what to believe about Jesus, but also how to read the whole Bible like Jesus did. Having learned from the risen Jesus himself how “the law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms” all speak of him (Luke 24:44), the apostles learned to see Christ and preach Christ from the whole Old Testament. Peter and Paul in particular display what a true Christ-centered reading of the Old Testament looks like in practice, showing in their sermons how all the Scriptures speak of Christ’s suffering, resurrection, and global mission. By giving careful attention to Acts 2, Acts 13, and elsewhere, Christians today can grow in seeing the Old Testament through the apostles’ eyes.
For our ongoing series of feature articles for pastors, leaders, and teachers, we asked Brian Tabb, academic dean and professor of biblical studies at Bethlehem College & Seminary, to show how Acts teaches us to read the whole Bible.
The first Christians “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching” (Acts 2:42), Luke tells us. This summary statement prompts us to reflect on what the apostles taught and why they emphasized what they did. My claim is that the apostles (1) instructed the early church about what to believe about Jesus, the crucified and risen Savior and Lord of all, and (2) modeled how to read the Scriptures as Jesus taught them.
The “task of biblical theology,” according to James Hamilton, is to understand and embrace the biblical writers’ “interpretive perspective” as “both valid and normative.”1 Said another way, the apostles teach us what to believe and teach us how to read the Bible. To understand how and why the apostles read the Scriptures in the book of Acts, we begin with their teacher, the Lord Jesus. Let’s turn to Luke 24, where the risen Christ offers a master class in biblical hermeneutics.
Luke 24: Christ’s Master Class
There are many lessons we could draw from Luke 24, which offers the most extensive account of the risen Lord Jesus’s teaching in the New Testament.2 Here I focus on three key points that lay the groundwork for the apostles’ preaching in Acts.
First, Christ gives a concise yet comprehensive course on understanding the entire Old Testament. He does not quote specific verses “written” in sacred Scripture in this chapter (as he does many times in the Gospels), but he makes claims about the teaching of the whole Bible:
“all that the prophets have spoken” (Luke 24:25)
“Moses and all the Prophets” (Luke 24:27)
“all the Scriptures” (Luke 24:27)
“the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms” (Luke 24:44)
“the Scriptures” (Luke 24:32, 45)
“it is written” (Luke 24:46)
Christ’s reference to “Moses and all the Prophets” is a variation of the common summary for the old-covenant Scriptures, “the Law and the Prophets.”3 “Everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms” is the New Testament’s most comprehensive reference to the three major units of the Hebrew canon — Law, Prophets, and Writings — with the Psalms as the largest, most cited book of the Writings.4 Note the repeated stress on “all” and “everything” in verses 25, 27, and 44 — Christ makes a sweeping claim that whole Bible, from beginning to end, is about him.
Second, the Lord’s biblical exposition focuses on his suffering, his resurrection on the third day, and the global mission in his name. We see this emphasis in Luke 24:46–47: “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” Verse 46 focuses on Christ’s saving work through the cross and empty tomb, while verse 47 prepares for the spreading work to be carried out by his witnesses.
Third, the risen Lord supplies spiritual sight and spiritual power to his people, so that they can understand God’s word and carry out Christ’s mission. The Gospels offer a checkered assessment of Jesus’s disciples. Positively, they leave vocations and possessions to follow him, they preach good news, and they cast out demons. Yet they also misunderstand Jesus’s teaching and plans — especially his calling to suffer and die. They are fearful in the storm, anxious about their next meal, competitive with one another, and sleepy when called to pray. Judas betrays his Teacher, the others run away when Jesus is arrested, and Peter denies him three times.
In Luke 24, Christ “opens” God’s word to the disciples and also opens their minds, giving them clarity about who he is and what the Scriptures reveal as well as the capacity to comprehend (Luke 24:31, 32, 45). He also announces his plan to send “the promise of my Father” to clothe his witnesses with “power from on high” (Luke 24:49), giving them courage to carry out his mission. Jesus reiterates this point in Acts 1:8: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses.” Christ keeps his promise by pouring out the Spirit on the day of Pentecost, ushering in “the last days” spoken of by the prophets and bringing salvation for all who call on the Lord’s name (Acts 2:16–21).5
Foundational Convictions of the Apostles
Luke 24 previews the mission and message of Christ’s followers, who preach near and far with Spirit-given courage and Christ-centered clarity. Their teaching reflects (1) their relationship with Jesus, (2) their empowerment through the Holy Spirit, and (3) their belief that the Scriptures are completely truthful and consummately fulfilled by Jesus, the longed-for Messiah and Lord of all.
Acts 4 illustrates these points well.6 Peter and John heal a lame man in the temple precincts and proclaim salvation in Jesus’s name, prompting outrage and opposition from the Jewish council — the same group that previously tried and condemned Jesus. To this hostile assembly, Peter boldly asserts that Jesus is “the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone,” and thus salvation is available only through Christ’s name (Acts 4:11–12). The Jewish leaders’ response is striking: “When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13 NIV).
These verses explain that the apostles’ clarity and courage come from their relationship with Jesus. They exhibit “boldness” (ESV) or “courage” (NIV) as they openly bear witness to their Lord even when experiencing resistance or persecution. These men aren’t just naturally gifted, charismatic leaders; they experience supernatural boldness as they are “filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 4:8). The disciples lack the formal biblical education of the Jewish scribes,7 but they were schooled by Jesus, the Master Teacher. Note that Peter’s claim that Jesus is “the cornerstone” (Acts 4:11) alludes to Psalm 118:22 — the very passage Christ himself cites in Luke 20:17 to explain the parable of the wicked tenants. The chief priests, scribes, and elders who questioned Jesus’s authority in Luke 20:1–2 interrogate his disciples in Acts 4:5. Peter identifies these opponents as “the builders” of Psalm 118:22, who have rejected Jesus — “the stone” whom God chose as “the cornerstone.” Throughout the book of Acts, Jesus’s witnesses demonstrate this same Spirit-given courage and Christ-taught clarity as they interpret and apply the Scriptures.
The apostles’ teaching and practice shows that they believed that the Scriptures were God’s true and authoritative word that Christ has fulfilled. Acts 4:24–28 illustrates this foundational conviction. The gathered believers cite the opening verses of Psalm 2:1–2 as the words of the sovereign Creator God spoken through David, by the Holy Spirit. They refer to the psalm’s human author, David, as “our father,” reflecting their belief that the sacred writings are relevant to them as God’s true people. The church appeals to the Spirit’s divine agency because they know that these inspired words reveal God’s wise purposes. They also cite this psalm to explain why Jews and Gentiles set themselves against Christ and his people. They recognize that this conspiracy against the Lord Jesus follows the script of the Scriptures and thus fulfills God’s secret plans. This conviction that God has spoken in the Scriptures and fulfilled his purposes in Christ emboldens his people to endure suffering and keep speaking with clarity and courage (Acts 4:31).
How the Apostles Teach Us to Read the Whole Bible
In Acts, the Spirit-empowered witnesses preach a message of salvation through Christ alone, while following Christ’s model of biblical exposition. While Luke’s second book is sometimes called “the Acts of the Apostles,” the book is not fundamentally about the disciples’ great deeds. Acts 1:1 explains that the Gospel of Luke recounts “all that Jesus began to do and teach” until his ascension, which signals that Luke’s second volume (Acts) is about what the risen Lord continues to do and teach after his ascension into heaven. Christ is not absent or inactive but carries out his work “through his people, by the Holy Spirit, for the accomplishment of God’s purposes.”8
“The apostles teach us not only what to believe but how to read the Bible.”
As Christ’s witnesses carry out his mission to “the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8), they also expound the Scriptures just as their Lord taught them in Luke 24. In Acts 26:22–23, for example, Paul reflects his Lord’s emphases on the fulfillment of Law and Prophets, the necessity of Christ’s suffering and resurrection, and the mission to the nations. While Jesus anticipates the outreach to the nations in Luke 24:47, Paul unpacks the biblical hope that the Messiah “would proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles” as he himself has been carrying out this mission, instructing the Gentiles “that they should repent and turn to God” (Acts 26:20).
Peter and Paul are the two most prominent preachers in Acts, so let’s examine their first recorded sermons (in chapters 2 and 13) to see how they interpret the Law, Prophets, and Writings with a particular focus on Christ’s suffering and resurrection and the global mission in his name.
Lord and Christ: Peter’s Message in Acts 2
The risen Lord promises to send the Spirit to empower his people (Luke 24:49; Acts 1:5, 8), and Luke records the dramatic fulfillment of this promise in Acts 2:1–4, when the gathered disciples are “all filled with the Holy Spirit” and speak in other tongues on the day of Pentecost. In response to the questions and confusion of the onlookers (Acts 2:12–13), Peter announces that Old Testament prophecy has been fulfilled. The apostle proves from the Scriptures that Jesus is the promised Messiah and risen Lord, that he has sent the Spirit as he promised, and that he saves everyone who calls on his name (Acts 2:14–36). Peter’s sermon focuses on three key passages from the Prophets and the Psalms.
First, he appeals to “what was uttered through the prophet Joel” to explain the events of Pentecost (Acts 2:16). The coming of the Holy Spirit is a crucial development in the biblical story line, fulfilling ancient prophecy and demonstrating that “the last days” have dawned (Acts 2:17). The Spirit’s work in the Old Testament focuses on select individuals, such as prophets, but Joel depicts a new era in which all God’s people would experience the fullness of the Spirit’s presence. Joel’s prophecy recalls Moses’s words in Numbers 11:29: “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!” This ancient hope is realized on the day of Pentecost, when the Spirit is poured out on “all flesh” — men and women, young and old. The Spirit’s coming empowers Christ’s witnesses for their mission to the nations, and Acts 2:5–11 offers a preview of this global mission as people “from every nation under heaven” hear good news in their own languages.9
Next, Peter asserts that death could not keep hold of the risen Christ.10 He supports this claim in Acts 2:25–28 by appealing to what “David says concerning him” in Psalm 16:8–11:
I saw the Lord always before me, for he is at my right hand that I may not be shaken;therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced; my flesh also will dwell in hope.For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One see corruption.You have made known to me the paths of life; you will make me full of gladness with your presence.
Peter declares that David, the author of this psalm, “foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ” (Acts 2:31). Many interpreters treat Psalm 16 as a predictive prophecy of the Messiah. However, the repeated first-person language throughout the psalm — “I,” “me,” and “my” — more likely reflect David’s own confidence before God. Thus, I understand Peter’s appeal to Psalm 16 as an example of what Hamilton calls “promise-shaped typology,”11 the fulfillment of a biblical pattern. In this psalm, the king takes refuge in God and trusts in God’s character and faithfulness in the face of adversity and mortal peril. Christ goes even further, as he is kept through death and raised to unending life. Moreover, the Lord’s promise to give the king an enduring house in 2 Samuel 7 shapes how David expresses his faith in God and his expectations for the future in Psalm 16. Psalm 132:11 interprets the Lord’s covenant promise to David as “a sure oath from which he will not turn back,” which explains Peter’s appeal to God’s “oath” in Acts 2:30. The resurrection of David’s greater Son secures the hope of everlasting joy and life after death for David and all believers who take refuge in his Lord.
Finally, the apostle quotes David’s words in Psalm 110:1 to explain where Jesus is now and who he is as the seated Lord. Peter asserts that Jesus has “poured out” the Spirit after being exalted to the right hand of God (Acts 2:33). This is precisely what Jesus promised in Luke 24:49 and what God himself promised to do in Joel 2:28–29 (cited in Acts 2:17–18). Thus, the exalted Christ is responsible for the miraculous events that the gathered crowd sees and hears. Peter then supports this stunning claim by appealing to Scripture (Acts 2:34–35). David himself did not ascend to heaven but says,
The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand,until I make your enemies your footstool.”
The apostle’s point is crystal clear for those who recall that Jesus quotes the same psalm in Luke 20:41–44. Christ poses a riddle: How does David call his messianic son “Lord”? Peter clarifies that David’s Lord, not David himself, sits at God’s side. The command “sit at my right hand” repeats Peter’s claim that Christ has been “exalted at the right hand of God,” while also recalling the earlier quotation of Psalm 16:8 (“he is at my right hand”). Once Peter has established Jesus’s heavenly location (at God’s side) and explained his divine activity (pouring out God’s Spirit), he concludes, “God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:36). God has thus kept his sworn promise to establish the throne of David’s descendant (Acts 2:30). The risen and exalted Lord Jesus rules over all nations, has poured out the Spirit in the last days, and now saves everyone who calls on his name (Acts 2:21).
Light to the Nations: Paul’s Teaching in Acts 13
After the Holy Spirit directs the church in Antioch to set apart Barnabas and Paul for a new work (Acts 13:2–3), the missionaries travel to Antioch in Pisidia, where Paul offers a “word of exhortation” in the synagogue (Acts 13:15 NIV).12 In his lengthiest recorded sermon in the book (Acts 13:16–41), Paul summarizes God’s past dealings with Israel, proclaims that Jesus is the promised Savior from David’s stock, and warns his hearers not to disregard this message of salvation. The missionaries then explain their outreach to the Gentiles by appealing to Isaiah (Acts 13:46–47).
Paul offers a sweeping survey of “the Law and the Prophets” that closely parallels 2 Samuel 7:6–16. In Acts 13:17–23, he rehearses the election of the patriarchs (Genesis), Israel’s rescue from Egypt (Exodus), their wilderness wanderings (Numbers), their conquest of Canaan (Joshua), their rule by the judges (Judges), the selection and removal of Saul (1 Samuel), and God’s choice of David as king and covenant promises to David’s offspring (1–2 Samuel). In Acts 13:32–37, Paul explains that God has kept his promises to the patriarchs by raising Jesus from the dead, offering biblical support from Psalm 2:7, Isaiah 55:3, and Psalm 16:10.
Psalm 2:7 provides clear biblical support for Christ’s resurrection. Brandon Crowe rightly calls the resurrection “the logical key” to Paul’s entire speech.13 The phrase “by raising Jesus” in Acts 13:33 parallels references to the resurrection in the immediate context:
“God raised him from the dead” (v. 30).
“He raised him from the dead, no more to return to corruption” (v. 34).
“He whom God raised up did not see corruption” (v. 37).
The resurrection does not make Jesus God’s Son; it powerfully confirms his divine sonship (see Romans 1:4) and also marks a new era of the eternal Son’s reign as the enthroned king.14 The risen Son reigns at God’s right hand (Acts 2:30, 33–35), and he extends salvation and forgiveness to those who call on his name (13:26, 38). Paul cites Psalm 2:7 as biblical proof for the resurrection, and it is significant that Psalm 2:8 promises “the nations” and “the ends of the earth” as the royal Son’s inheritance and possession. The missionaries make this global expectation explicit in Acts 13:46–47, when they announce their turn to the Gentiles.
Paul also quotes Isaiah 55:3 and Psalm 16:10 in Acts 13:34–37 as additional support for Christ’s resurrection. The brief reference to Psalm 16 parallels Peter’s extended argument on the day of Pentecost (see Acts 2:24–32, discussed earlier). The “holy and sure blessings of David” in Isaiah 55:3 recall the Lord’s covenant promise to establish the throne of David’s son in 2 Samuel 7:12–16. Christ has fulfilled this promise through his resurrection and now extends blessings to God’s people through his heavenly reign.
Paul and Barnabas face strong opposition from Jewish leaders when they return to teach the following week, and the missionaries respond with biblical clarity and courage in Acts 13:46–47:
It was necessary that the word of God be spoken first to you. Since you thrust it aside and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we are turning to the Gentiles. For so the Lord has commanded us, saying,
“I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.”
“The apostles offer God’s people sound teaching and faithful guidance for understanding and applying the whole Bible.”
They directly quote Isaiah 49:6, which summarizes the mission of the Lord’s chosen Servant to restore Israel and extend saving light to the nations. In what sense did “the Lord” command the missionaries to turn to the Gentiles? Isaiah 49:6 records the Lord God’s commission to his Servant. In Luke 2:32, Simeon rightly identifies the Christ child as “a light for revelation to the Gentiles, / and for glory to your people Israel,” reflecting the hope of Isaiah 49:6. In Acts 1:8, the risen Lord Jesus commissions his witnesses “to the end of the earth,” reflecting the precise wording of Isaiah’s Servant prophecy. The Lord Jesus then reveals himself to Paul and calls this zealous persecutor to be his chosen servant sent to the Gentiles (Acts 9:15; 26:16–18). Thus, Isaiah’s prophecy is God’s biblical message, which the Lord Jesus fulfills and then applies to his disciples as they share in his Servant mission. Paul and Barnabas’s quotation of Isaiah 49 clarifies that the outreach to the Gentiles is not simply a backup plan because of Jewish opposition. Rather, they turn to the Gentiles as an outworking of God’s revealed purposes for his Servant Jesus and his servant people.
Conclusion: Lord, Teach Us to Read!
Jesus and his apostles offer God’s people sound teaching and faithful guidance for understanding and applying the whole Bible. The Master Teacher explains “the things concerning himself” in all the Scriptures (Luke 24:27), and his disciples do the same in the book of Acts. While we cannot claim the same level of certainty in our interpretations as the inspired biblical authors, we can and should seek to embrace their foundational beliefs about the Scriptures’ total truthfulness, binding authority, and comprehensive fulfillment through Christ in the last days. Jesus and his witnesses teach the Bible with a focus on the Messiah’s suffering, his resurrection on the third day, and the mission in his name to all nations. Luke 24 and the apostles’ teaching in Acts can enlighten our own Bible reading and encourage us to participate in the Servant’s mission to the end of the earth until his return.
By John Piper — 1 month ago
Our culture talks a lot about bucket lists: doing things, experiencing things, achieving things before the clock of life runs out. Mainly, it’s used to talk about travel, places to see, places to go. So, what about Christians talking about bucket lists?
That’s the question from a listener named Christine: “Pastor John, hello. Recently, you wrote this on Twitter: ‘Retirees pack in their bucket list quick before they die as if there is no glorious resurrection, no new earth, no wonders of the new world, no presence of Christ to sweeten every venture in eternity. It is a very strange way for Christians to act in a world of desperate need.’ That’s poignant.
“I feel this pressure as a twenty-year-old woman. All my friends have bucket lists, too, for places to see and travel to before they get married and have kids. I’ll admit I’m tempted here, to get all my adventuring in now. It’s not just a retiree temptation. Can you further unpack this point for me? It seems tied to your themes of not wasting our lives and ‘anti-retirement.’ But how do you balance this eternal hope for the next life while taking and enjoying vacations with your family in this life?”
Let me clarify at the outset that, yes, I am on a little crusade to motivate Christians over the age of 65 (and those who are planning to be over the age of 65 someday) not to waste their remaining healthy lives in bondage to the worldly mindset that earthly adventures are to be packed into our final years, as though on the other side of death, just a few years away, the adventures with Jesus will not be a thousand times better. Instead, they will probably be enhanced if we spend our final healthy years here serving other people rather than chasing earthly excitements.
I don’t know how you can read and believe the Bible and look at this pervasively broken, suffering world, this lost world, and think otherwise. I really don’t. Baby boomers, my generation — I’m the oldest baby boomer, just eleven days short (my birthday is January 11, 1946) — baby boomers own half of the nation’s $156 trillion in assets. Seventy-five million American boomers are expected to be retiring or to have retired seven years from now — all of us, more or less, retired by 2030.
And about 28 percent of those 75 million boomers call themselves evangelical Christians. That’s about 21 million people. If we had the will, we could finish the Great Commission before we were off the scene, both by hundreds of thousands of us going and by billions of dollars being given to send others to the least-reached peoples of the world.
So, maybe you can see why I am on a crusade to say to Christians, “Don’t waste your final two decades chasing earthly excitements when excitements a thousand times better await you just over the horizon of this life.” That would be like a person on the way to inherit a million dollars spending the last mile picking up shiny pennies. It seems to me that it would make a lot more sense to spend the last mile emptying your pockets for lost and needy people.
Focus on Mindset
Now, I know Christine did not ask me about what I’ve just talked about — namely, the retiree. She asked me about twentysomethings who have bucket lists of adventures to pack in before they get married. And then more generally, she asks about the relationship between eternal hope and family vacations.
“Death is not the end of your bucket list. It’s the beginning.”
The reason I have spent half my time now talking about the final twenty years of life is because I think if I could win over some of the Christian twentysomethings to this way of thinking about future decades, then it would inevitably have a powerful impact on their present decade. It would. The reason people waste the last decades of their lives is because the world has taught them to for the previous sixty years, including their twenties.
So, I would say the same thing about globe-trotting at age 25 as I do at age 65: Is the mindset governing this way of life a biblical mindset? That’s the question. “Is it a biblical mindset?” is a different question than whether it’s right to take a family vacation or whether it’s right to buy your rail pass and spend the summer after college visiting every country in Europe. Both of those decisions may be right. The question is, What’s your mindset? Is it biblical?
That’s a different question, because we can’t spend every hour of every day or every day of every year in focused, productive, valid work, whether in Christian ministry or some other vocation. It is biblical and wise to build respite, rest, from work into our lives, both for the sake of recreation and for the sake of legitimate enjoyment of God’s world. Those two impulses are very different from a worldly mindset that is oblivious to the needs of the world, the shortness of life, the joys of service, and the preciousness of the glory of Christ.
Not only is respite from work wise and biblical, so that vacations and days off are totally legitimate, but the adventures themselves — the ones you might do during those times when you’re not working — the adventures themselves need not be merely self-gratifying.
For radically Christ-exalting Christians, adventures (whether in your twenties or seventies) won’t be conceived merely as checking off earthly excitements before you marry or before you die. These adventures will be conceived as adventures with God — on the lookout for his handiwork and his glory, eager to build experiences into our lives for greater usefulness in Christ’s cause, eager to approach every amazement worshipfully, eager to cross paths with people providentially placed there for you to bless.
So, my main desire for twentysomethings and seventysomethings is that they think like the Bible and not like the world, that they think God’s thoughts more than man’s thoughts, that they look at the world through a biblical lens. This would include at least these seven perspectives, which I’ll just name.
Seven Ways to Think God’s Thoughts
1. God “has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son” (Colossians 1:13). Therefore, we are sojourners and exiles here.
2. This earth is not our home. “Our citizenship is in heaven” (Philippians 3:20).
3. Life is a vapor, with many troubles here, and eternity is endless, with no trouble there — only joy (James 4:14; Psalm 16:11).
4. We are called to have a healthy, heavenly mindset, having our priorities and desires shaped by things that are above, things that are unseen, things that are eternal (2 Corinthians 4:18).
5. “To live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21) — far more gain than anything obtained on earth. Death is not a threat to happiness. You don’t need to squeeze happiness in here because death is coming. That’s ridiculous — I mean, ridiculous. Death is not a threat to happiness. It’s the door to happiness. It’s not the end of your bucket list. It’s the beginning. Come on, we’re Christians.
6. Many people are lost, broken, and more important to help than places are to visit (Galatians 6:10).
7. Finally, life exists, old and young, for the sake of Christ, to make him look supremely valuable (Philippians 1:20). “Only one life, ’twill soon be past; only what’s done for Christ will last.”
I think if we embrace these seven biblical perspectives, God will show us how to use our earthly early and later years.
By David Mathis — 1 month ago
In the summer of 1962, a famous Swiss theologian named Karl Barth (1886–1968) made a celebrated seven-week trip to the United States. While here, he came in contact at a Chicago Q&A session with another Carl — Carl Henry (1913–2003), who was editor of Christianity Today.
Henry stood up, introduced himself, and asked Barth about “the historical factuality of the resurrection of Jesus.” Barth didn’t appreciate the question. He seemed to become angry, remembers Henry, and pointed at the editor and said, “Did you say Christianity Today or Christianity Yesterday?” “The audience — largely nonevangelical professors and clergy — roared with delight.” Then, once the room was quiet, Henry answered, in the words of Hebrews 13:8, “Yesterday, today, and forever.”
Verse 8 on the sameness of Jesus — his constancy, his immutability — is such a precious truth, and right at the heart of this final chapter of Hebrews.
Last week, we saw that chapter 12 culminated with verse 28:
Let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe.
Chapter 13 then follows under this banner of “acceptable worship.” And that word “acceptable” appears again in 13:15–16 as “pleasing” (same root in the Greek, euarest-):
Let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.
This section, from the end of chapter 12 through 13:16, is knit together as a vision for practical life that is pleasing to God. We might think of this sketch in chapter 13 as glimpses of how to please him.
But before we spend the rest of the message under this banner of pleasing God, let’s first put chapter 13 in the context of chapters 1–12. What has been the repeated refrain from the beginning of Hebrews? Jesus is better. Better than the angels. Better than Moses. Better than Joshua. Better than Aaron. And better than the first covenant and its place and priests and sacrifices. Jesus makes better promises and gives us better hope and a better country, and he is the better possession over all worldly possessions.
So, in saying, again and again, that Jesus is better, the message of the first 12 chapters has been: Jesus is pleasing. He is gain; he is better; he makes our souls happy with the very joy of the eternal God.
Jesus, as the second person of the triune God, shares in the infinite happiness and unshakable bliss of the Godhead. As we say in the Cities Church leadership affirmation:
God is supremely joyful in the fellowship of the Trinity, each Person beholding and expressing His eternal and unsurpassed delight in the all-satisfying perfections of the triune God.
This God is so blessed, so infinitely happy, so satisfied in himself, so full in his joy that he overflows in pleasure to create the world, and then, even more wondrously, to redeem his people from sin and death, by coming himself in the person of Christ as the true High Priest (chapters 5–7) and as the true sacrifice (chapters 8–10).
So, to this point, for 12 chapters, the refrain, in one sense, has been the pleasantness of Jesus — the very joy and blessedness of God himself, in himself, shared with us in and through Jesus and by his Spirit. And when our souls come to taste and enjoy the pleasantness and joy of God, and that Jesus is better than any standard of comparison, what do we want to do?
Well, for one, we want our lives to be pleasing to God. It pleases us to please him. Which does not mean that he’s a sad God whom we make happy. There is no sad God. To be God is to be infinitely happy, infinitely pleased, quite apart from us or anything else outside of him. But amazingly, he gives us the dignity of pleasing him, in some modest measures, as echoes of his own pleasantness. As C.S. Lewis says at the end of his sermon “The Weight of Glory,”
To please God . . . to be a real ingredient in the divine happiness . . . to be loved by God, not merely pitied, but delighted in as an artist delights in his work or a father in a son — it seems impossible, a weight or burden of glory which our thoughts can hardly sustain. But so it is. (39)
Hebrews 13 gives us a vision for this pleasing life — the Christian life, a life that is first pleased with God and then, in a real way, pleases God. So then, what does it look like to live such a life, pleased in God, believing that and enjoying that Jesus is better?
It’s captured here in six glimpses.
1. We express our joy out loud.
That is, we praise him. Lips of praise are an aspect of lives of worship. God is pleased by heartfelt words of praise. Verse 15:
Through him [that is, through Jesus] let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name.
So, the God-pleasing life includes praise. We “acknowledge his name” with our mouths. We say out loud, “I’m a Christian. I love Jesus. I worship him. He is my Lord. He saved me. He is my Treasure. Jesus is better.” And we gather here weekly to “acknowledge his name” together.
We express our joy in Jesus both in professing our faith and in corporate praise. We clearly, publicly, unashamedly identify with and commend Jesus, and we make a habit of corporate worship, beginning each new week together, setting the tone, and re-consecrating ourselves to him with joyful praise. And lips that praise him lead to lives that please him.
2. We fight to free our hearts from money.
Even twenty centuries ago, Christians could not free their hands from money. Even Jesus was asked about the temple tax and miraculously produced a coin for himself and Peter.
We live in a physical world, with physical needs, served by coins and bills and credit cards that represent and transact value for the betterment of our lives and society. In this age, there’s no going without money. But what Hebrews warns about here is not money itself but “love of money.” Verses 5–6:
Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” So we can confidently say, “The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?”
How do we use money without loving money? Through being content with what you have. Do you have modest food and clothing? Then, in an important sense, you can be content, as Paul says in 1 Timothy 6:8: “If we have food and clothing, with these we will be content.” That’s enough; it’s sufficient.
But then Hebrews gives us this remarkable personal reason to be content in the last part of verse 5: “For he has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’” In other words, don’t just be content with what you have, but with whom you have! Have another Love — a bigger one, a deeper one, a love that relativizes the pull of money on your heart. In Jesus Christ, we have God. If you have Jesus, you have God himself as your great possession. And he says he will never leave nor forsake you. If you have God, what more could you need? To have God is to have everything you ultimately need. The clock is ticking on every material possession and dollar.
Verse 5 gets right to the bottom of this chapter, to the joy and pleasantness and blessedness that upholds and energizes this whole practical vision: in Jesus, God will never leave us nor forsake us. As long as you don’t abandon Jesus, God will not abandon you (and he works in us so that we won’t abandon Jesus, Hebrews 13:21). “So we can confidently say, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?’” Which relates not only to verse 5 but also to verses 1–3.
3. We love and serve others.
We could say so much under this heading about these verses. For now, let me just address this in sum.
Joy in Jesus does not lead to turning in on ourselves, to isolating ourselves and neglecting the needs of others, or to just sitting around endlessly by ourselves enjoying the glory of Christ. Rather, being pleased with his pleasantness leads to our wanting to please others with his pleasantness. Or, we might say, from our fullness of joy in Jesus, we do good for others; we share; we love. Verses 1–3 and 16:
Let brotherly love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body. . . . Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.
4. We prize marriage.
So, there are four kinds of love in verses 1–4: brother-love, stranger-love, sympathy (or compassion), and marital love. And let me just say, verse 4 is for all of us. It says, “among all.” This is relevant for all, married and single, old and young. And so, ask yourself, What does this mean for me? How do I hold marriage in honor? Are there ways in which I’m tempted to not hold marriage in honor? What’s your heart’s default perspective on marriage? Salvation? Fear of commitment? Pain? Annoyance? Verse 4:
Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous.
First, let’s be clear about the second half of verse 4 — in case what was once obvious for all Christians may no longer be so among some. Earlier this year, a congresswoman from South Carolina, who professes to be a Christian, made a few comments from the podium, at a Christian prayer breakfast, about her live-in fiancé that made it clear they were sexually immoral. She was joking about it, totally clueless about verse 4.
So, let there be no confusion here about verse 4. If there was any confusion about it, be confused no more. We have come to verse 4. And it’s not the first time we’ve seen this Hebrews. In 12:15–16, we are given several “see to its.” The third one is, “See to it . . . that no one is sexually immoral” (same word, pornos).
But I want to linger over the first part of verse 4, which is an even higher bar of application for each of us. The first part includes the second part and more: “Let marriage be held in honor among all.” So, ask yourself, What would it mean for me to hold marriage in honor?
And to get even more specific, the word translated honor here is typically understood in a more affectionate way: highly valued, or prized, or precious. Like 1 Peter 1:19: “the precious blood of Christ.” Or 2 Peter 1:4: “He has granted to us his precious and very great promises.”
So, hear verse 4 like this: “Let marriage be precious among all.” Let it be highly valued. Let it be prized. Among husbands and wives. Among unmarried and widows. Among children and teens. And this doesn’t entail any devaluing of singles or widows or children. So, consider how you talk about marriage. Is it the butt of jokes? The old ball and chain? Most comedy routines have a section on marriage, and men and women. I get it. Some of it can be funny, and a way of enjoying God’s plainly different design in men and women. And some of it reveals a heart that does not highly value marriage and does not shape us, as we laugh, to highly value marriage.
We honor marriage and God’s idea and design by prizing it in our minds and hearts and words and obedience.
5. We seek the better city.
This may be the most countercultural of all, especially in a day when our world is so focused on “the immanent frame” — that is, what we can see and hear and touch and smell and taste.
Verse 14 is not the first mention of city in chapters 11 and 12. We have already heard about looking to the city to come:
11:10: Abraham “was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God.”
11:14–16: “People who speak thus [acknowledging they are strangers and exiles] make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. . . . They desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one.”
Then the seven glories of Mount Zion that are not only to come but also already ours, in some sense, by faith — 12:22: “You have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem.”
Then 13:14: “Here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.”
There is, in Christianity, a principled liberation from the immanent frame, from this world. Clearly that doesn’t mean we don’t love each other and love strangers and show sympathy to the mistreated and prize marriage. We don’t neglect to do good or share what we have — such sacrifices are pleasing to God. But in it all, above it all, beneath it all, we are not finally at home here — which frees us to love and serve our earthly city and neighbors. We seek the city that is to come. “Our citizenship is in heaven,” Paul says in Philippians 3:20.
This is such an important reminder as 2023 draws to a close, because next year is 2024. And 2024 is an election year in this country. And in an election year, some otherwise seemingly sober-minded people lose their heads. But as we orient on our here-and-now city (the polis, and its politics), Christians, in principle, are those who say, “Here we have no lasting city. We seek the better city, the heavenly city that is to come” — which frees us to love and serve here, and not “get ours” here and now.
Which leaves verses 7 and 17.
6. We thank God and pray for our leaders.
Again, we find a very different approach than what’s on offer and assumed in the world regarding leaders. First, verse 17:
Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.
So, we might say, the pursuit of joy is critical in a healthy dynamic between church leaders and their people.
Here’s how it works: first, Christian leaders aspire to the office and desire good work (1 Timothy 3:1). They want to do it. From joy, they set out in joy, to work for the people’s joy in Jesus. So, they seek to persuade the people, convince them, and win their hearts with the word of God. They do not demand raw obedience.
“Obey” here comes from a word (Greek pethō) that typically means to convince, or persuade, or make confident, or win trust. This is essentially what it means in its three other uses in Hebrews, including the next verse: “Pray for us, for we are sure [convinced, confident, persuaded] that we have a clear conscience” (Hebrews 13:18; also 2:13 and 6:9).
Second, then, the people, if they are spiritually healthy, want to be led by worthy leaders. They’re eager to be taught, eager to be persuaded from the word, eager to be convinced. They have a disposition to yield to and receive worthy leadership, and being so won, they gladly submit — that is, congregants to the leaders (plural, together; we are not here talking about the gathered body in a congregational meeting, or congregants to individual elders in informal contexts). And in this disposition, wise Christians know that it will be to their own advantage and gain if their leaders labor with joy and not with groaning. This doesn’t mean that it’s the church’s job to make the pastors happy. And it also means it’s not the church’s job to make the pastors miserable.
The healthiest dynamic in the church is leaders that don’t presume submission but seek to persuade and win the congregation from the heart, and a congregation that isn’t just willing, but eager, to be led and persuaded by the leadership.
Yesterday and Today
Verse 17 relates to present leaders; verse 7 to past leaders. We finish with verse 7:
Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.
He says “your leaders” spoke to you God’s word. In Christianity, good leaders teach, and good teachers, in time, come to lead. The authority for Christian leadership comes from the Word — from Jesus, his gospel, the Scriptures — not ourselves or elsewhere. We are people of the Book; our leaders are to be men of the Book, who teach and lead from the Book.
And their words and their way of life go together: they not only speak the word but model a way of life, and a way of finishing their course, that validates their words. Words and way belong together. Words give meaning to way of life. And way of life models and confirms words.
But Hebrews doesn’t say to imitate their “way of life.” Rather, “imitate their faith.” Remember that these are past leaders, not present. A new generation has come, with its own challenges. The new generation encounters (slightly) different circumstances and contexts than those before them (times do change, though it’s easy to over-anticipate this and overstate it). Situations change, and the particular expressions of love required may vary, but imitate their faith. Why? Because faith focuses on its object — who is the same yesterday and today.
So above all, imitate this about your leaders: they followed Jesus. They leaned on him, trusted him, looked to him, and staked everything on him. And Jesus proved himself reliable and steady and trustworthy to them. And so he will be to us. From one generation to the next to the next. He is the same yesterday (for those who came before us) and today (for us).
On its own, sameness is not glorious. Satan is the father of lies and has always been the father of lies. That sameness is a disgrace, not glorious. But if someone tells the truth, and is the Truth, then his enduring “sameness” accentuates and sweetens the glory of truth-telling.
And when someone — namely, Jesus — is better than any standard of comparison, the question remains, Will that change? He may have proven himself to be enough for the generation before us. But will he be enough for us? To that, Hebrews says he is the same yesterday and today — gloriously the same, constant, steady, immutable, unchangeable. And then he adds, and forever. To the ages. In every generation to come.
What’s underneath this whole chapter is that Jesus is better (as Hebrews has argued) and that will not change. He is not only better right now. He will always be better. He will not lose his better-ness, and so we will not lose our grounds for joy, for being pleased in God, and living to please him.
And so we come to the Table.
Feed at the Altar
Verse 10 mentions an altar: “We have an altar from which those who serve the tent [the priests of the old covenant] have no right to eat.” This altar is not first and foremost the Lord’s Table, as if Hebrews is saying, the Jews have their food, and we have ours.
When verse 10 says, “We have an altar,” it means the sacrifice and blood of Jesus. He is our altar. He died to make us holy and happy. We are not strengthened by ritual foods, but our hearts are strengthened by grace (Hebrews 13:9). And this Table is an expression and application of the true altar that is the cross of Christ and his body and blood.