Patient Reading

We Americans tend to be an impatient lot. (I’m sure other cultures have their own problems with impatience, but I am writing as an American.) Patiently waiting for things is practically a thing of the past. If I want to know something, I can simply talk to my phone, and I will get a million possible answers in .34 seconds. If I want something, I need only tap a few things on a screen and, sometimes, by the end of the day, I can have it. I need ... I want ... answers fast. Who has time anymore to wait on things with all of our time-saving mechanisms?

Then we come to the Bible. The Bible is an ancient book with laws concerning white hairs growing out of sores, where you may and may not defecate, and how to deal with goring oxen. There are odd stories about an axe head floating, a man being swallowed by a great fish, and some guy name Jacob being touched on his thigh so that he walked with a limp the rest of his life (therefore, “the children of Israel do not eat the muscle that shrank, which is on the hip socket, because he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip in the muscle that shrank.” Gen 32.32). You come to the New Testament letters and there is a quite a bit about Jews and Gentiles and their relationships with one another. What use is all of this stuff?

Books are created that use Bible blurbs to give motivational or inspirational quotes. Why? Because we need a Google Bible in which we can find those things that help us to hack it with the stresses of the twenty-first century. If it is not immediately and apparently relevant to our situation, then we don’t need it. Who has time to think through and meditate on Scripture? I just need to know that I can do all things–throw a ball, close a deal, win this game, achieve my childhood dreams–through Christ who strengthens me.

The Scriptures demand us to slow down. Read patiently. Meditate thoroughly. As you meditate through those passages that aren’t immediately relevant to your situation, the way you are thinking is changing. As the way you are thinking is changing, you are slowly being transformed (Rom 12.2). Your understanding of God, his creation, and how you relate to both properly is being shaped in a way that has long-term effects on the way you act and respond to situations around you.

For instance, in Ephesians Paul speaks about us as being seated with Christ in “the heavens” (Eph 2.6). We don’t see ourselves right now literally seated in the heavens. So, what possible relevance does this have for us? One reference that Paul has in mind here when he writes this is the second and fourth days of creation. On the second day of creation, God created the firmament, which he called “heaven.” In the firmament, on the fourth day, he placed the sun, moon, and stars for signs and festival times, to govern or rule the day and night (Gen 1.14-19). Throughout Scripture rulers and governments are symbolized by heavenly bodies. (Think about the fifty stars on our flag representing fifty governments.) Christ, the Sun of Righteousness (Mal 4.2), has risen to rule over the earth. We are seated with him in the firmament-heaven to rule with him. We rule the world with Christ Jesus in the present.

This changes the way I think. Salvation is not just about me escaping the fires of hell. Salvation is about ruling with Christ in order to set the world right. This change of thinking changes everything from the way that I pray to the way that relate to the material things of creation. I am vested with responsibility to be a good ruler, to take proper dominion over that bit of creation that God has given me (for example, my own body, my land, my family, etc.), making it fruitful.

To think like this takes time and years of meditation. It doesn’t come by mining the Scriptures for a motivational nugget or two every once in a while, or hearing teaching that is only and always “how to.”

Of all the patience that we cultivate in this Advent season, let us cultivate patience in reading the Scriptures.

Wordless Gospel Proclamation

  The heavens declare the glory of God;
        And the firmament shows His handiwork. 
    Day unto day utters speech, 
        And night unto night reveals knowledge. 
    There is no speech nor words; 
        Their voice is not heard. 
    Their line has gone out through all the earth, 
        And their words to the end of the world. (Psalm 19.1-4)

If you will but look up, you can see the glory of God; his beauty, wisdom, and power. As the sun takes its path through sky, as the constellations proclaim the times of the year, and as we are overwhelmed by the vastness and beauty of the sky (or what the Bible calls “the firmament” or “the heavens”), the creation itself is wordlessly proclaiming to all the inhabitants of the world the truth about the God who created all things. 

In theological parlance this is called “natural” or “general revelation.” General revelation is distinct from “special revelation.” Special revelation is God revealing himself in the Scriptures and ultimately in Christ Jesus. We need special revelation in order to be saved. Paul makes it clear in the beginning of Romans that general revelation is enough to reveal the truth about God but not enough to save (Rom 1.19-23). General revelation is enough revelation to condemn but not enough to save. 

Psalm 19 is a classic passage used to speak about the distinction between general revelation and special revelation. In the first part of the Psalm, David sings of how the creation wordlessly proclaims the glory of God. Then, in the latter part of the Psalm, he turns his attention to extolling the special revelation of God’s Law. 

In what seems to be an odd move, Paul uses Psalm 19.4 in Romans 10.18 to refute any arguments that the Jews haven’t heard the gospel. “But I ask, have they not heard? Indeed they have, for ‘Their voice has gone out to all the earth, and their words to the ends of the world.’”

Is Paul contradicting what he said in the opening of his letter? Is he now saying, “Well, general revelation really does preach the gospel?” I don’t think so.

Within this little section of Romans (10.14-21), Paul refers to a number of different passages in Isaiah. All of these passages deal within their contexts with how God is making a new creation through his Suffering Servant. Paul’s argument is that this new creation has begun and is embodied in Christ Jesus. The Jews as well as the Gentiles can see this new creation in the church. And that is where Psalm 19 comes in. 

While there is no doubt Psalm 19 sings of the literal creation of firmament, sun, moon, and stars, the firmament and all of the heavenly bodies are images of the people of God. God promised Abraham that his children would be like the stars of heaven (Gen 15.5; 22.17; 26.4). This was a promise, not only of the number of Abraham’s descendants, but of their position in the world. Just as the sun, moon, and stars were seated in the heavenly places to rule over the earth, determining times and seasons (Gen 1.14-19), so Abraham’s children would be seated in heavenly places, ruling the earth.

Joseph and Jacob certainly understood this relationship. When Joseph had a dream that the sun, moon, and eleven stars/constellations would bow down to his constellation, Jacob replied, “What is this dream that you have dreamed? Shall I and your mother and your brothers indeed come to bow ourselves to the ground before you?” (Gen 37.10) Joseph and Jacob understood that they were the heavenly bodies who ruled the earth.

What is happening after Christ comes is a firmament rearrangement. The Gentiles are now being seated as stars in accordance with the promise to Abraham that all the families of the earth would be blessed (Gen 12.1-3). The Jews are seeing this new firmament arrangement in the church. New relationships are being created. The old walls of separation have been broken down (Eph 2.11-22). Now, in Christ, we are all seated in heavenly places (Eph 1.20; 2.6). 

Paul’s use of Psalm 19.4 is, I believe, a reference to this new situation. The Jews are hearing the wordless proclamation of the gospel by looking at the church and its new Jew-Gentile make-up. By this proclamation they are being summonsed by the King and his ambassadors to whole-hearted allegiance to Jesus as Lord; a summons that includes being a part of this renovated family of God. 

The proclamation of the gospel by means of the spoken word is indispensable to the gospel ministry. People must hear of the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. They must hear how their sins can be forgiven and how they can have true life. 

But the spoken word must never stand alone. The church must wordlessly proclaim the gospel in the way we live our live together. People must see how we love one another. People must see how we live in healthy male-female relationships. People must see how we deal with sin appropriately. People must see how broken lives are being mended. In short, we heavenly bodies must proclaim the glory of God–his beauty, wisdom, and power–in our lives together. Only as we do this are we faithful ministers of the gospel.

Christ The King

Yesterday was the last Sunday of the church year; a Sunday that has come to be celebrated as “The Feast of Christ the King.” It is an appropriate end to the liturgical calendar as well as a transition into the calendrical beginning of the liturgical calendar which will begin next Sunday with Advent. “Christ the King” reflects the fact that history as we know it is moving toward a termination point; a point when all of the kingdom work is done and the Son delivers the kingdom to God the Father (1Cor 15.23-24). With faith-filled hope, we anticipate that day. Advent reminds us that we are not there yet.

This kingdom work is nothing more than the original mission that God gave man in the Garden. Man was to “take dominion,” develop a kingdom, in which all of life was ordered according to the word and will of God. Just as man was to follow the weekly pattern of six days of work followed by a Sabbath, so the whole earth was to be molded after the pattern of heaven. This project was frustrated because of sin. Man conformed himself and the creation to the word and will of the serpent. As a result “the kingdom” of man in the world began to be characterized by selfishness, tyranny, murder, and all manner of evil.

In his grace God did not allow death to completely overcome the world. Death was prominent and spread to all men (Rom 5.12), but there would be signs of life here and there. But God’s original kingdom work would not ultimately be undone for the earth. He would send another man to be king. This man would not have the same situation as the first Adam. He would first have to take dominion over sin and death, those hindrances to the world becoming fruitful. Once sin and death were decisively dealt with, then the kingdom work could begin in earnest.

Christ Jesus came and did just this. In his cross and resurrection he overcame sin and death. In doing so, he was granted the position by the Father to rule over the creation, to establish the kingdom, and complete the work the first Adam failed to do. After his resurrection, Jesus ascended to the right hand of the Father to do this kingdom work. Jesus reigns now with all authority over heaven and earth (Mt 28.18). In and through his body, the church, by the power of the Spirit, Jesus continues this kingdom work until the day that it will be completed.

The reign of Christ is exercised in the world in and through his church. Jesus is completing his kingdom through what we, the church, are doing. As we go about our daily lives, serving others in our homes and jobs, seeking to bring Christ’s order wherever he has given us authority, we are participating in the kingdom work. In word and in deed we are proclaiming the gospel, the good news, that the world is under new management; the lordship of our benevolent King who has provided forgiveness and freedom from the bondage of sin and the power to live as we were created to live: as true image-bearers of God, growing up into his likeness. This message is not merely about my personal life. It is about how I am a part of God’s larger family and project for the entire creation. God has done in Christ for me what he has done so that I can be a member of his family and join him in his work.

Because Christ is King, we have a mission; a mission whose outcome is not in doubt. Jesus will have this world ordered by the word and will of God in every respect. Consequently, we work in certain hope. Dear kingdom citizen, work on. Don’t let discouragement overwhelm you. Christ is King.

Gratitude: The Fight Against Idolatry

Ingratitude is no peccadillo. Along with the refusal to give glory to God, ingratitude is the fountainhead of idolatry that eventually inundates a person and a society in the most degrading sins. Before speaking about how people who think themselves to be wise become fools or how God gives people over to their sinful lusts, Paul tells us that they are first ungrateful (Rom 1.21). Ingratitude was evident in the first sin of Adam and Eve, and that story lies behind much of what Paul says in Romans 1. God gave the man and woman every tree of the field for food and even the Tree of Life at which they would meet with him. They had everything they needed and more. But God withheld one tree from them. Their ingratitude for all that God had given them stirred up discontent that focused their attention on that which God had withheld. The rest is history.

The basic posture of ingratitude is a pride that foolishly declares independence from God, despising him and his good gifts. You have decided that God doesn’t deserve gratitude. He is not really good in himself or good to you. You declare that you don’t need him while you breathe his air. He doesn’t deserve your respect or love. The rejection of God’s goodness is not without its severe consequences. To reject God’s goodness in ingratitude is to reject God’s design for you and the creation. It is the refusal to respond in agreement and submission to God’s own declaration that his design for creation is “good.” Consequently, you go your own way.

Ingratitude reveals the deep problem of sin in man of his hatred for the very life of God himself. God lives eternally as Father, Son, and Spirit, with each member of the Holy Trinity giving mutual respect and gratitude to one another. Jesus’ giving thanks to the Father on a number of occasions throughout his life revealed to us the eternal relationship of the Trinity. Each recognizes the gifts given by the others and responds to them with due honor and gratitude. Throughout eternity the Father gives to the Son and the Son responds by giving back to the Father his thanks. The Son gives to the Spirit, and the Spirit responds by giving back to the Son his thanks. On and on it goes. It is a community life characterized by gratitude.

Created in God’s image, man is called not only imitate this life with one another but to participate in the family of God himself. We are called to acknowledge the goodness of God to us and join in the eternal dance of gratitude. Our ingratitude is a revelation that we hate the life of God and want nothing to do with it.

We who have been brought into the family of God, united to Christ by the Spirit, are to be characterized as grateful people. It is one of our distinguishing marks as the people of God. Indeed, the meal that forms us into the body of Christ (1Cor 10.16-17) is a meal of thanksgiving. We are the thanksgiving family, bound together by our mutual gratitude for what God has done in Christ.

The discipline of gratitude is a perpetual guard against the idolatry that lingers in our hearts and is always looking for an opportunity to make another idol. Gratitude refocuses us on reality; the reality that our lives are dependent upon God at every moment. Gratitude cultivates contentment; we focus on what God has given us instead of that which he has withheld. Gratitude is a roadblock on the road of depravity.

It is not always easy to be grateful. We live in a world in which we are surrounded by the effects of sin. There are times that we hurt because of our sin or the sin of others. There are times that our mere mortality is evident in illness or death. We live with pain. Yet Paul tells us in Ephesians 5.10 that we are to be “giving thanks always for all things to the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Paul is in no way denying the hard realities, telling us to “put on a smile even though it hurts.” He is telling us to keep everything in the context of the larger narrative. We are those who trust that God is good and has good purposes even through evil. Though evil is not good and must never be declared good, we can give thanks even in the midst of difficult times because God has a good purpose for us.

So, this is the conclusion of the matter: give thanks.

Confessing Jesus As Lord

Writing into a Roman context to tell people that the proper response to the gospel was to confess “Jesus is Lord” (Romans 10.9) would have been provocative. “Lord” was the designation given to Caesar. Caesar was Lord and all other loyalties were subservient to him. You may pray your prayers to the god of your choice, but at the end of the day, when push came to shove, your god must submit to the will of Caesar. Everything, including your loyalties to your gods, must serve the greater purpose of the Empire and, more particularly, Caesar himself. To declare that there was a loyalty that was higher than Caesar to which one must submit was subversive to the unity of the Empire. If one dared to challenge Caesar in this regard, the full weight of Rome would come down upon him. Many of our fathers and mothers who confessed Jesus as Lord endured the consequence of challenging Caesar.

But Paul’s call was much deeper than the present empire situation. Sure, this was the situation into which he wrote. The Caesar situation was the challenge of his day where the rubber met the road concerning the implications of allegiance to Christ. However, in the section of the letter to the Romans in which this call to confession is found, Paul is speaking concerning the Jewish situation and their allegiances. Caesars come and go. Empires rise and fall. But the Jews worshiped the one true and living God: YHWH. Echoing what he has already claimed in Romans 9.5–that Jesus is God over all, blessed forever–Paul attributes to Jesus the word commonly used to refer to YHWH in the Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint): kyrios. Jesus is YHWH, the one true and living God, and, therefore, Lord over all. Failure to worship him is to reject the God of Abraham.

Confession of Jesus as Lord in response to the gospel changes everything for Jew and Gentile. Jesus has been declared Lord of the world by God the Father. Every area of life–from my individual life to the structures of nations–belongs to him and is to be conscious submission to him.

Consequently, the call of the gospel is an all-or-nothing commitment. Either a person comes to submit to Jesus as the one true and living God, having his life arranged under his lordship, or he is an enemy of Christ. If you were a Jew living in the first century, that meant giving up the old distinctions of he Law, confessing that Christ was the end of the Law (Rom 10.4). If you were a pagan Gentile living in the first century, that meant giving up your idols and not merely adding Jesus to the pantheon of gods to be worshiped. For all in the first century it meant that Jesus’ lordship over your life superceded every other lordship in the world, including the lordship of Caesar.

For twenty-first century Americans, the call of the gospel remains the same though the situations have changed. Confessing Jesus as Lord means the re-ordering of the way that I think and live. It means that no other loyalty supercedes loyalty to Jesus. All other loyalties are subservient to and are to serve the cause of Christ and his kingdom. We cannot confess the American creed that we are all “Americans first” and then Christians, Muslims, Jews, etc. Our allegiance to Jesus is not a slave to the “indivisible” nation. Friends and family, though good things, can never become idols that take my primary loyalty so that I will disobey Christ Jesus. Money or some position in the world cannot be the god that controls my life. I must have my thinking and the order of my life arranged under the lordship of Jesus.

Submitting to Jesus’ lordship is not an optional extra to the call of the gospel. It is the necessary response to the gospel. Because Jesus loves us and knows that any idol we serve as equal to or above him will destroy us, he cannot allow us to serve these other idols along side him. Though we all progress in different ways and at various rates in our growth in our understanding of Jesus’ lordship in our lives, submission to that lordship is not optional no matter our situation. Whether you are turning from a lifestyle of sexual immorality or covetousness, all idols must be forsaken. Idols of the lower class and idols of the upper class, idols of Africa or idols of America, must all be forsaken. If and when people forsake these idols, then and only then is the promise of salvation theirs.

The Right Way To Be Right

All men long to be justified. That is, all men long to be in the right, to be vindicated. In our sin we seek this vindication in various ways and from different sources. We need approval. We need to know that we are accepted by someone. So we look to certain people to tell us that we are approved and accepted. It may be parents, friends, co-workers, or a myriad of other people. Whatever they tell us to do or we perceive that they want us to do, we will strive to do whatever it takes to gain their acceptance; to hear from them, “Well done.”

This longing for justification or righteousness is woven into the fabric of who we are as images of God. God created us as his images to be “in the right” with him. We were created to be a part of his family; to love what he loves, hate what he hates, and to share his agenda. As we would participate in the Divine Family culture, working in love together with the Father, Son, and Spirit,  we would hear from the Father, “This is my beloved child in whom I am well pleased.” Vindication.

But sin has caused us to seek our justification from other sources and in perverted ways. We still want justification from God, but we want it on our terms. We set up ways to be justified by God that are contrary to what he has revealed. Instead of submitting to what God has revealed in Christ Jesus, we have a better way to order our relationship with God and, consequently, with one another and the world around us. We have a way of justification of which God will surely approve.

These ways of justification take on many forms. There is that classic form with which many of us are probably familiar: merit-based justification. If our good works outweigh our bad works, then God will count us as his children. If we can go through the right motions, do the proper religious things, we will appease God and he will have to accept us.

Merit-based justification is one way people try to be justified by God, but this is not the only form that works righteousness (that is, justification by works) takes. Works righteousness is the establishment of any way of seeking vindication from God that runs contrary to and refuses to submit to what God has revealed. Works righteousness says, “I know better than God how to order my life and the world around me. I like my way better than his.” Works righteousness says, “All I need is to know right doctrines, but I don’t have to worry about loving my brothers.” Works righteousness says, “I can be sexually immoral and still be vindicated by God because I prayed the sinner’s prayer and have been baptized.” Works righteousness says, “I am right with God even though I haven’t forgiven my brothers.”

What is perverted about works righteousness as it appears in these ways is that it uses the word “grace” to cover its tracks. My life can be lived in total opposition to God’s revealed will, but God is gracious. “Grace” becomes a way to set up our own way of being righteous in rebellion against God.

In contrast to works righteousness is faith righteousness. Faith righteousness seeks vindication from God by fully submitting to what God has revealed. The righteousness which is by faith says, “Whatever God reveals will shape my thinking and the way I live my life.” If God says that forgiveness of my sins and right standing with him is in Christ alone, then I submit to that and know that I am accepted by God in Christ alone. If God says that I need to love my brothers, then I will strive to love my brothers. If God says to keep myself from sexual immorality, then I will strive to keep myself from sexual immorality. If God says, “Forgive,” then I will forgive. Faith righteousness accepts and submits to whatever God has revealed and pledges full allegiance to the Divine Family. The righteousness by faith is the faith that accepts God’s righteousness in total: forgiveness of sins and right standing in Christ alone as well as being in line with God’s agenda for my life.

We all long to be justified. But there is only one right way to be in the right: the righteousness by faith revealed in Christ Jesus.

Loving the Idea of the Church or Loving the Church?

I don’t know if you’ve heard, but this is the five-hundredth anniversary of the Reformation. Celebrations are going on all around the world, and rightly so. Though the cause for and the consequences of the Reformation are sad in many respects, there is much for which we can be thankful. It is sad that the Western Church fell into such moral and doctrinal error that such a radical surgery had to occur. But we are grateful that God had mercy on us by delivering us from the errors that corrupted the church. It is sad that the unintended consequence of the Reformation was the splintering of the church into denominations. But we are grateful that God is sanctifying his church through our differences and will one day bring the entire church back together in perfect unity in accordance with the prayer of our Savior.

Much has been done. There is still much to do. As Protestant churches are infused once again with this sense of our historical identity, it can be a temptation to get into a “reformation mode” that is characterized by a zeal for what the church ought to be, falling in love with the idea or ideal of the church, but not loving the church as she is.

There is nothing wrong with ideals. They are necessary to keep us pressing forward. Through the history of the world God himself has laid out the standards for which his people ought to strive. Through his direct commands as well as imaging his people in the Tabernacle, Temple, and the New Jerusalem (Rev 21–22), we are given the standards, the ideals, for which we are to strive.

But sometimes we fall in love with the idea of the church instead of loving the church itself; the church as she is and not just what she ought to be. We imagine this place of perfect peace and harmony, where everyone is doing what is right, and we are laughing and joyful all the time. We love that place. But that is not the church we are a part of. It is out there somewhere, we are sure, but it is not the church of which I am presently a part.

In our love for the ideal, we can lose sight of the fact that peace and harmony in a sinful world come through forgiveness of the sins of others and their forgiveness of my sins. Joy in the church comes through longsuffering with one another, bearing the pain and hurt of, with, and from others. We servants are not greater than our Lord. If he had to endure suffering for the joy that was set before him (Heb 12.1-2), how much more will we have to endure suffering in order to enter joy?

Loving the church involves loving both God’s ideal for the church and the church as she is right now in history. Loving God’s ideal for the church keeps us encouraging one another to press forward. Loving God’s church as she is right now keeps us remembering that this is a lifelong process. We must be patiently content with where we are but never satisfied.

If you find yourself always discontent with the church, restless, nothing is ever good enough, not satisfied with progress, always thinking that some other church situation must be better, it might be that you are more in love with the idea of the church rather than loving the church itself. Sure, there is always reformation that needs to take place in the church. Part of that reformation might just be learning contentment with and loving the people who sit with you in worship every Sunday.

The Necessity of Beauty

We live in a terribly efficient world. Time and space must be practical, functional. All the frills that remove from the bottom line, that aren’t absolutely necessary to what we are producing, must be discarded. Consequently, many people sit in maximally utilized, monochrome office space just functioning. We are like machines putting out products. The last thing a functional machine needs is beauty. Beauty is not productive. Beauty is not efficient. It is wasteful; a luxury at best. Our money can be spent better elsewhere.

The church has not escaped this cultural trap. Many of us Protestants meet in warehouses and strip malls, sometimes out of necessity to be sure, but sometimes because it is efficient. The money we make is better used to feed the poor or send to foreign missionaries. Both inside and out our architecture and art scream that beauty is not important to us.

In the midst of a hungry and lost world, God is wasteful; or so it would seem from our generally accepted standards of wastefulness. In the middle of the wilderness, with a people who didn’t even have a permanent place to call “home,” God tells Moses to make his brother, Aaron, garments for glory and beauty (Exod 28.2). These garments were made of the most expensive fabrics, rare and carefully crafted stones, and woven throughout with gold threads. What a waste. Couldn’t these things have been sold and given to the poor? While the world is dying and going to hell, God has his people making a glorious tent and beautiful clothes for a high priest.

God doesn’t do anything that isn’t necessary. The beauty he prescribes is necessary for his people and the world. There is no waste in beauty.

We were created to make things beautiful. In the beginning God told man to take dominion over the earth, making it fruitful in every way. God gave man the pattern in creating a beautiful garden. Man, in turn, was to make the world a place of glory and beauty. We and the world were to move from glory to glory; from beauty to beauty. Beauty is the fruit of a people who are maturing in righteousness. The movement of the Scriptural story attests to this truth. In the beginning man is naked and in a relatively undeveloped world. The last images of Scripture are of a beautifully clothed people in a fully developed city, a city that is the product of the dominion of Christ and his people.

Jesus himself reveals this progress in his own life. We hear in Isaiah that he begins with “no beauty that we should desire him.” But in the Revelation, he is a glorious figure. We and the world are transformed in the likeness of Christ’s transformation. We are moving from beauty to beauty.

Transformation of the world into the beautiful is the calling of the Christian church as she matures. Developing beauty is non-optional for the faithful.

Beauty reflects our progress in time, but beauty also reflects our future, revealing our hope, what we will be. Beauty draws us into this future and gives us hope. If you have ever been overwhelmed by beauty, you know what I mean. Beauty overwhelms us; not in a condemning way or in a way that leaves us at a distance. Beauty draws us in and calls us up to be better than we are. We are inspired by beauty. In the midst of an ugly world, beauty is one aid among many to refresh the soul.

Making things beautiful is an exercise in faith. Creating beauty declares that there is more to this life than an efficient, machine-like existence. Creating beauty says that we serve a beautiful God, and we are becoming more and more like him.

Though beautiful art and architecture can never do it by itself, beauty is integral in calling the Christian community to faith. God creates garments of glory and beauty for Aaron so that he and the people he represents will “live up to them.” Beauty says, “This is who you were made to be. Now, live beautifully.” Show the world this beauty, and they will be drawn to it.

Charles Klamut summarizes all of this very well when he writes:

    ‘Beauty will save the world.’ That remains to be seen. But beauty has saved me, and continues to do so. My experience is that I need saving; it is not a luxury. Beauty saves. Or, to put it more precisely, beauty points me to the One who saves, who is Beauty itself. Beauty is a necessity, not a luxury. Beauty moves us, awakens us, provokes us, bringing freshness and newness to hearts that have too easily grown old and stale. A luxury is something extra, added on after duties are complete. But beauty is not something extra, it is what comes first. Because without beauty, the duties prove too hard and, eventually, seem pointless. An old, tired soul cannot move itself, cannot sustain itself. It ultimately fails in its tasks.  Beauty renews the soul, pointing us ever back to our origins and our destiny, making life begin again. May God never leave us bereft of anointed artists, prophets, and poets of the transcendent, who will keep wounding our hearts with nostalgia for the infinite destiny which alone matches the proportions of our great hearts.(Fr. Charles Klamut; http://www.hprweb.com/2013/01/beauty-a-necessity-not-a-luxury/ )

Look To Your Baptism

Martin Luther is often quoted as using his baptism as a weapon in his battles with the devil. “I have been baptized,” he would tell the devil in order to make him flee. Who God told him he was and what God promised him in his baptism was Luther’s anchor that kept him moored so that he would not be ultimately dashed to pieces by the virulent waves of doubt that assaulted his soul.

We may not generally resort to our baptism as Luther did, but we should. We shouldn’t be afraid of the water. In baptism God told us that we belong to him. In baptism God united us to his Son in the church. We have been anointed with the Spirit with whom Jesus, our Head, was anointed in his baptism and ultimately his coronation. Luther was doing nothing that Paul himself didn’t do when dealing with the churches. In 1Corinthians 12 Paul appeals to their baptism to fight the factionalism in the church. Similarly in Galatians 3 Paul tells the Christians of Galatia that all those who have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ–whether Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female–and all are the seed of Abraham and heirs according to God’s promise. In Romans 6 Paul uses baptism to encourage the Roman Christians that sin no longer has dominion over them. Peter also uses baptism to assure the Christians scattered throughout the Empire that they have a good conscience before God through the resurrection of Jesus (1Pt 3.21). The writer of Hebrews speaks about us being washed with pure water and, therefore, having boldness to draw near to God (Heb 10.22). When we look to our baptism, we are not looking to mere water or believing in some sort of hocus pocus. We are looking to what God said about us. We are looking to his Word that he sealed to us in the water by his Spirit. This is why the writers of the Scriptures can appeal to it the way they do and exhort people to walk in faithfulness according to their baptism.

This week as you go through the daily routines of life and/or face some unusual circumstances, you do so as a person who has been baptized into the Triune name. You face whatever you face as someone whom God has claimed for himself and promised that he is working every circumstance for your salvation. You know, therefore, that whatever you face, whether it be good or ill, God is in it working for you and not against you. The call to you is to walk in faith, trusting what God said about you. The call to you is to live like a baptized person ought to live; whether in unity with your brothers and sisters in Christ or resisting the other sins that no longer have dominion over you. Whatever it is, you can stand firm in the waters of your baptism because there God has given you his word.

Altar Wars

It had happened again. After God delivered the children of Israel from the Jabin, king of Canaan, and his right-hand man, Sisera, through the hand of Barak, Israel did what was evil in the sight of YHWH. Instead of tearing down the altars of the gods of the land and establishing the altar of YHWH (which was the mandate given to them after the death of Joshua) Israel began to worship the gods of the land. The altars of Baal became central to the life of Israel. They allowed Baal to tell them who they were and how they were to live together. Baal was their judge, not YHWH.

Because they wanted the culture of Baal, YHWH turned them over to what they wanted, giving them into the hand of the Midianites for seven years. Like the locusts that consumed Egypt when God was destroying that culture, the Midianites were like locusts consuming Israel (Jdg 6.5) . Israel had been warned that, if they weren’t obedient, God would bring upon them the plagues of Egypt (cf. e.g., Deut 28.27, 60). If they acted like Egypt, they would be destroyed like Egypt. That is what happened.

Under the severe oppression of the Midianites, Israel cries for mercy. YHWH, in his mercy, raises up Gideon. The Angel of YHWH comes to Gideon while he is in a winepress threshing wheat. YHWH tells Gideon his mission: he will save Israel from the hand of the Midianites (Jdg 6.14). Gideon wants assurance that this is YHWH’s word, so he asks him to stay and accept an offering from him. Gideon brings a goat and unleavened bread and presents them to YHWH, and YHWH consumes them in fire. In this act, YHWH establishes peace with Israel through Gideon (Jdg 6.24).

The nature of the war is established from the beginning. This is an altar war. We might say it is a sacramental war.

From the establishment of the peace through building an altar to YHWH, Gideon goes out and tears down the altar of Baal, a feat that gets him the name “Baal-fighter,” Jerubbaal. Only now is Israel in a position to engage war with their oppressive cultural lords.

Through a threshing process, Gideon’s army is reduced from thirty-two thousand to three hundred men. Gideon is, understandably, afraid. He needs assurance. So YHWH tells him to take his servant and go to the camp of Midian. There Gideon overhears a dream that one of the Midianites had about a barely loaf rolling down into the camp and destroying the tent-house of Midian. They know that this is Gideon and that God has delivered them into his hand.

It does seem strange that they would be scared of a loaf of bread. Was this some type of weaponized bread? A militaristic culinary creation? This was the new loaf of Israel embodied in Gideon that had been created by God. This was a worship war; our bread against your house. Our bread wins.

The war continues today, and the fundamentals of the war remain the same: our bread against their house. Each Lord’s day when we come to the Table, eating the bread that is Christ’s body, we are formed anew into one loaf. We are one body, Paul says, because we all partake of that one bread (1Cor 10.17). Each week as we are dismissed, this new loaf rolls out to destroy the house of the false gods in our culture.

Our battles aren’t over family values or generic morality. Our wars are altar wars: will Jesus be acknowledged as our King, or will we worship some other Baal? We must understand that this is where the enmity lies. It is not merely in differences in economic policies or foreign relations (though each of these is affected). How we form our economic policies or foreign relations, for example, are consequences of the altar at which we worship.

Only as we are formed into one loaf at the Table of the Lord on the Lord’s Day are we able to fight the six-day battle with the culture the rest of the week. But as we faithfully attend to Jesus’ altar, eating at his Table, being formed up by the Spirit, he will make us a loaf that will tear down the house of our enemies.

Blessed Are Those Who Mourn

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” (Matt 5.4)

As I write this, news is still coming in from Las Vegas, Nevada about a mass shooting at a Country Music Festival. Dozens are dead. Hundreds are injured. Not too many days ago there was a shooting at a church in Nashville, Tennessee. Every day in Chicago, Los Angeles, and other major cities the number of murders dwarf these mass slaughters. And this is only in the United States. Around the world people are being murdered by the thousands for seemingly senseless reasons.

With the rest of our country and the world in these times we Christians mourn. Like others we mourn at being ripped apart from those we love, empathizing with others who have lost loved ones, or even realizing that these acts of violence continue to tear apart the fabric of our society. Unlike others who are not Christians we mourn because all of these tragedies are signs that sin still has a strong hold on the world and the kingdom of God has not yet been consummated. We desire for the Lordship of Jesus Christ to be acknowledged in every area of life and so bring peace where there is enmity, love where there is hate, and life where there is death. That has not yet happened, so we mourn.

But we do not mourn as those who have no hope. We shall be comforted. Jesus is Lord. His kingdom has been established. He has all authority in heaven and on earth. His kingdom will not fail. It must prevail.

Our hope in Christ Jesus makes us the blessed ones. The word “blessed” basically means “happy.” “Happy are those who mourn....” That seems contradictory. It would be if our happiness was dependent upon the circumstances that surrounded us. But it is not. Our happiness is our deep contentment, our satisfaction, and our delight in God and his purposes.

Our blessedness is rooted in the blessedness, the happiness, of God himself. Scripture reveals to us that our God is eternally blessed (see Rom 1.25; 9.5; 2Cor 11.31; 1Tim 1.11). God is eternally happy. That is, he is content, satisfied, and delights in being God. This delight in being God is not diminished through horrors such as the cross. In fact, the cross is the demonstration of God’s love, and God delights in showing his love. God is happy even in the agony of cross because the cross is God being God for us. God can always be happy because he knows that there is a joy set before him (cf. Heb 12.1-2). His grand purpose has determined that even though these horrors must occur, they are not the end of the story. God’s last word is joy, peace, and life.

As we mourn, we are joining God in his perspective. He hates sin and all of its deadly fruit. But as Christians we must fully enter into God’s perspective, which means that we must also be happy; not happy that these things happen, but happy that we have a hope that things will not always be this way. Jesus through his church is somehow, some way, turning the world right-side-up. So, while we mourn, we mourn as those who have hope.

As our neighbors mourn all around us, let us be ready to give them a defense for the hope that is in us (1Pt 3.15).

Burdened

Watching a loved one make foolish choices which you know will end in his pain or complete devastation is heart-wrenching. You watch as your loved one abuses drugs or alcohol, refuses to take care of his health by overeating, gives himself to sexual immorality, pays no attention to warnings about how he is treating his spouse, or a myriad of other things. He stubbornly refuses to hear good counsel. If there were something more you could do to turn him around, to shake him out of it, to change his heart, you would do it. The last thing you want to see is this destructive pattern to continue and end where you know it will end.

Love desires what is best for the beloved. Love causes great grief and unceasing sorrow when you see your beloved destroying himself.

Israel according to the flesh, the physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, is on a destructive path. The majority are stubborn, refusing to hear the gospel; the gospel that proclaims that all of the hopes given to their patriarchs have been fulfilled in Christ Jesus. If they don’t turn to Christ, they will suffer an eternal hell as disinherited children to whom belonged sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the Law, the worship, the promises, and from whom is the Christ according to the flesh (Rom 9.4).

This is Paul’s family. He loves them. He loves them so much that he would pray that he himself be anathematized from Christ for their sake (Rom 9.3). That is, if Paul could suffer eternal punishment so that they would turn to Christ in faith, he would do it. That is a burden. That is love.

This love is not unprecedented. Paul is echoing what Moses did when YHWH threatened to destroy Israel at Mt. Sinai because of the worship of the golden calf. Moses interceded on behalf of Israel saying, “Alas, this people has sinned a great sin. They have made for themselves gods of gold. But now, if you will forgive their sin--but if not, please blot me out of your book that you have written” (Exod 32.31-32). Paul is a new Moses who is recognizing the sins of his family in rejecting their God. YHWH has revealed himself in the man Christ Jesus, who is God blessed forever (Rom 9.5). Israel is doing now what they did at Mt. Sinai, and destruction is imminent. Paul, like Moses, is standing between God and Israel praying that he himself be cursed for the sake of his family.

What concerned both men is that God’s own name, his righteousness, was at stake. How can God not fulfill his promises to his people? How could God reject the entire family? What would the nations say about God if they saw this?

As we are concerned about the people we love, God’s own righteousness must be what motivates our prayers. For instance, as you pray for the salvation of your children, one of the motivations of your prayers is that these baptized children bear the name of our God. If our children grow up to be unfaithful, God’s name is blasphemed because of them. We can pray for our children on the basis of God’s righteousness, pleading with him to honor his own name in their lives.

No matter how deep our concern for others, our concern should never move us to compromise God’s judgments. There are times that we care about others so much, that we may begin to think, “I know that God says that people who live the way my loved one is living will not inherit the kingdom of God, but I believe he has a good heart. I believe that somewhere, deep down, he really trusts Christ. He will be alright with God.”

This is not the way Paul thought. Even though all of these privileges belonged to Israel according to the flesh, because they refused allegiance to Jesus as Lord, they were on the road to hell. No amount of Paul’s desire could change that fact. His concern could not compromise the truth of the exclusivity of the gospel of Jesus Christ. His burden only deepened because of the truth.

So it should be with us.

In his providence, God has put us in proximity to people to cultivate a love for them. Blood family, friends, and neighbors are all people for whom we should be burdened. While we might not be able to be anathematized for the sake of those whom we love, we can point them to the one who was anathematized for their sakes, who now calls for their allegiance with the promise of life eternal.

Salvation Through Sin

Romans 9–11 is challenging on so many levels. Predestination and apostasy walk side-by-side in this part of the letter without even a line of explanation of how the two work together. This is the way things are. No explanation is needed.

As much as these realities are focused upon by exegetes and theologians, these doctrines are not the focus of this somewhat climatic part of the letter. They (and other Scriptural presuppositions with them) provide the foundation for Paul’s main subject: how God maintains his righteousness by keeping his promises to the fleshly children of Abraham when he has ordained their rebellion in order to accomplish salvation in Christ. (Got all that?) Earlier in the letter (2.17–3.8) it was established that it was through Israel’s sinful rebellion that salvation–God’s saving righteousness–was revealed in Jesus Christ. That is, Israel’s sin in rejecting her Messiah and crucifying him brought salvation to the world. God used Israel’s rebellion to display his righteousness. 

That provoked some questions with which Paul had to deal immediately: “If our unrighteousness brings about the righteousness of God, should we continue to sin so that the whole world will be saved?!” Those questions were dealt with, but some other questions were left dangling; namely, “What about God’s promises to the physical descendants of Abraham?” Paul is answering that question throughout Romans 9–11. This goes to the greater concern, “Has the word of God failed?” (cf. Rom 9.6)

Though much of the way God worked can now be understood as we look back through what he has done in Christ Jesus, the wisdom of God’s plan remains inscrutable. He chooses to harden some in rebellion so that he might show mercy to others. He hardens Pharaoh to show mercy to Israel. He hardens Israel to show mercy to the Gentiles. But then he will use the mercy shown to the Gentiles to make the Jews jealous so that they will come join in on the promises that were given to them in the first place.

This is God’s plan. It is the way things are. Though we are called to connect as many dots as we can in studying the works of God, there are some things we will never figure out. If we are following Paul, our inability to comprehend everything doesn’t lead to frustration but, rather, doxology. “ Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! ‘For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?’ ‘Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?’ For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.” (Rom 11.33-36)

There are graces given to you by God that you will never figure out. How is it that someone with your family history can experience the salvation that you have experienced? How is it that with all the bad things that people have done to you, you have a healthy relationship with God? How is it that a sinner like you can know God like you do? There is no other explanation but the grace of God. He chose to harden some so that he could show mercy to you. In the story of redemption he did this with Israel. In our personal stories within this story, it is possible that he has hardened others in order to show mercy to you. 

Why? I don’t know. That’s just his plan. He hasn’t called you to figure out why. Ours is to respond in grateful allegiance and praise, enjoying the mercy we’ve been shown.

God For Us: A Baptismal Exhortation

“What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8.31)

Prayer: Almighty and everlasting God, who of your great mercy saved Noah and his family in the ark from perishing by water; and also safely led the children of Israel, your people, through the Red Sea, which was a type of holy Baptism; and by the Baptism of your well-beloved Son Jesus Christ, in the river Jordan, sanctified water to the mystical washing away of sin: We beseech you, for your infinite mercies, that you would mercifully look upon this Child; wash her and sanctify her with the Holy Spirit; that she, being delivered from your wrath, may be received into the ark of Christ’s Church; and being steadfast in faith, joyful through hope, and rooted in charity, may so pass the waves of this troublesome world, that finally she may come to the land of everlasting life, there to reign with you age after age, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

“God for us” is the promise and comfort of the gospel of Jesus Christ to all those who love God.

“God for us” is the assurance that we have that no matter what happens in this life all of it must be working together for our good.

“God for us” means that God has fully invested himself in those who are in Christ Jesus to see the work started in us completed.

“God for us” is the assurance that before the foundations of the world, God set his love upon us, determining that we would be his. 

“God for us” means that even with the entrance of sin into the world, with all of the pain, heartache, and trouble that it brings, God is still at work on our behalf.

“God for us” is his giving himself to us fully in love, demonstrated preeminently at the cross, where he definitively suffered the penalty for our sins in Christ Jesus.

“God for us” is his victory over the grave, declaring that in Christ Jesus we are fully forgiven and stand righteous before him.

“God for us” is his giving us the gift of the Spirit so that we would be joined to him in the Son, bound in love to the eternal Trinity.

“God for us” means that he makes promises to us in the waters of baptism, and he will not fail to keep those promises. 

“God for us” means that, empowered by his Spirit, he has given us all things that pertain to life and godliness; there is nothing that we lack to live a faithful life.

This morning God declares to Elizabeth Archer that he is for her. He lives and does all that he does for her.

In the weakness of her infancy, he is for her, demonstrating that by joining her to himself through the waters of baptism.

Even when she is powerless, he is powerful for her; embracing her and protecting her. God is for her.

And if God is for her–if God is for us–then who can be against us? Who can withstand the power of his protection over us?

Who can come against us and penetrate that love so as to pry her loose from the love of God? There is nothing that can defeat the love of God that we enjoy in Christ Jesus. 

This love that God is promising to Elizabeth this morning, this love that he has promised to all of us in baptism, is love that demands a response.

This love is only found in Christ Jesus. God is for us in Christ. He is only for us in Christ.

God is for those who love him, and those who love him are those who love his Son and have pledged their allegiance to him. 

The promises of God should never be presumed upon. Never should we think that God is for us if we have set ourselves up as his enemies by living contrary to his will. 

Elizabeth must lay hold of the promises of God for her by faith throughout the rest of her life. 

Caleb and Rachel, by virtue of her birth in your family, God has given you the stewardship of his child. 

As ministers of his church and for the sake of his church, you must be faithful in discipling her. She must grow up in her faith.

God has given you everything you need to do this. He has given you the church, and through the church, the Word, sacraments, prayer, and fellowship to strengthen you in your duty. 

Stay faithful. Demonstrate the beauty of love for God to Elizabeth so that she will desire it with all of her heart.

Teach her that God is for her, and that as she perseveres in the faith, there will be nothing that can come between her and the love of her God. 

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Predestination

Predestination. The word itself provokes all sorts of images in people’s minds. Some will see this austere God who is sorting people out as impersonally as a CPA working with numbers on a page. These go over here in the “going to heaven” group. Those go over there in the “going to hell” group. Those groups are set from before the foundation of the world. Consequently, there is nothing you can do to get out of one group and into another. Your decisions mean nothing. Even if you were to love God with all of your heart, if you are in the “going to hell” group, your destiny is fixed by the big Bureaucrat in the sky.

The reaction to this image of God is, understandably, negative. Understanding God in this way is anything but comforting, and it certainly doesn’t take into account the personal relationship that involves love and choices revealed in Scripture. As a result, there are Christians who will throw the predestination baby out with the sovereign bath-water.

This is not the Scriptural picture of predestination. But we must be careful not to discard the whole idea of predestination. The Scriptures do teach that God predestines events, the course of the world, and the lives of people.

Predestination is just what the word denotes: it is determining destinies beforehand. The Scripture is quite clear that God is sovereign and does, indeed, set the destinies for all things, including people. Paul says clearly that God works all things after the counsel of his own will (Eph 1.11). It is quite clear in Romans 9 that God chooses people for his own purposes before they are born (Rom 9.10ff.). Predestination can’t be rejected without doing violence to an important Scriptural truth: God’s absolute sovereignty. Trying to protect man’s sovereignty at the expense of God’s sovereignty leaves us with a God who is subject to the whims of man. Nothing is certain.

However, the Scriptures don’t present predestination in impersonal terms. We serve a personal God who, in his mysterious sovereignty, deals with us personally. Predestination is (primarily) presented in Scripture as the expression of God’s love for his people. His absolute sovereignty over all men and our destinies is a comfort for those of us who love God.

This is how Paul presents predestination in Romans 8.29-30. In a world that looks like it is coming apart at the seams, a world in which the creation and we in it are groaning because of the effects of sin, God’s predetermined purposes to bring everything and everyone to a certain end means that all of this makes sense in the plan of God ... even when it all looks completely random to us. As we suffer with Christ, we need certainty that it is not all in vain. We have that certainty. God set his love upon us before the foundation of the world, establishing a relationship with us. He foreknew us; he foreloved us.

Foreknowing us he predestined us that we should be conformed to the image of his Son. For those of us who love God, he has determined that we will be conformed to the image of his Son. This means that we will share his character. We will be holy as he is holy. We will love what he loves.

This also means that we will share his vocation. The Son is God’s appointed ruler of the world. We as sons of God in the Son of God are predestined to rule with Jesus. We will inherit glory with Christ Jesus.

While we cannot pry into the secret counsels of God concerning every aspect of predestination, we can be sure of our predestination unto glory by how we relate to Jesus now. Do you live in allegiance to Jesus as your Lord? Do you love what he loves? Do you fight sin and cultivate righteousness in your life? These are evidences of the Spirit’s working in your life.

As you are fighting the good fight, the Scriptural teaching of God’s predestination undergirds your faith, helping you not to lose hope. God will not fail you in keeping his promises. All of those who are loyal to Christ will certainly inherit the promised glory. It has already been determined.

The Good From The Bad And Ugly

Sometimes it seems that the more we pray the worse things become. Even if they’re not becoming worse, they don’t seem to be improving. Sickness and death still plague us. Our Western civilization is losing its collective mind. Hurricanes still strike our coasts and bring unbelievable destruction to property and life. Now with the availability of information 24/7/365 we are notified about every bad situation from our own neighborhoods to Timbuktu. We are constantly bombarded with everything that is going wrong in the world. Our minds are overwhelmed with this information noise that can be discouraging and disorienting.

If we are praying and nothing is perceptibly changing, why do we keep doing it? If we are weak and don’t know what to pray for as we ought, we do we keep praying with wordless groanings, not knowing just how our prayers are being answered (Rom 8.26)? 

We persevere in prayer and through all of the suffering and groaning because “we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to his purpose” (Rom 8.28). This is our assurance in prayer. This is our assurance in every situation in life; the good, the bad, and the ugly. This is our foundation for sanity in an insane world. 

Our God has a plan. That plan will not be thwarted by the sin of man. Indeed, God, in his wisdom, is using even the sin of man to work for the good of his people and, through them, the entirety of the cosmos. One need only look at the cross to see this truth. While sin is not good in itself and will be punished, God is working through sin to accomplish his purpose. All of the insanity that is going on all around us right now in Western civilization is all a part of the plan.

Lest we begin to believe that God’s plan is dependent upon our strength as the church, we need to remember that we are weak and don’t know what to pray for as we ought. God’s purpose will not be accomplished because we are mighty prayer warriors who know just what to pray. We are assured that the Spirit is working with us in prayer and that our weakness will in no way hinder what God will do for us. God works through our weakness in prayer to accomplish his purpose.

Our encouragement in prayer is not that we come to the place that we have figured everything out and that we know how to fix it. Our encouragement is not even seeing God do what we want him to do for us and those around is in the short term. Our encouragement is that we love, serve, and pray to a sovereign heavenly Father who loves us, is sovereign for us, and promises that he is working all things together for good whether we see it or not. 

Yes, we come groaning in prayer with the weight of the effects of sin being felt. But we come groaning to a heavenly Father who loves us and enters into that pain with us in Christ and by the Spirit. He is not a God who is far off but a God who is near. And this God who loves us and is near to us is the one who declares the end from the beginning; he works all things after the counsel of his own will (Eph 1.11).

On this side of our resurrection there will always be reason to groan in suffering prayer. But as we pray, we can pray with the rock-solid faith that our heavenly Father loves us more than we can imagine and has a good purpose for us. We can trust him that the suffering we endure, no matter what form it takes, is under his control and is working for our good.

Prayer: Our Words In The Word

In the beginning the Speaker spoke the Word. The Word went out from the Speaker, carried along by the Breath, and the world was created, formed, and filled. Speaker, Word, and Breath working in loving, powerful union with one another to create from nothing everything that is. 

The height of this creative activity was the creation of man himself, the image of God. He is a creaturely word; a revelation of God within the creation. This form fashioned from the dust of the ground was himself filled with the Spirit-Breath of God. This Spirit empowered him to take the creation given to him and, by word and deed, follow in the image of God to create, arrange, form, and fill this creation so that it will one day reflect God’s own heavenly throne room. This is his dominion task.

The dominion man is to take over the world is not some impersonal job handed down to him from a distant God. The man is a part of the divine family. God has called him into the family business of creating. He can’t do this apart from the rest of the family. He is not God himself after all. He, like the Triune God, must work in concert with the family. Man is dependent upon Father, Son, and Spirit–Speaker, Word, and Breath–to take the dominion over the creation.

Central to this mission, therefore, is to be in prayerful communion with the Triune God. Man is a co-laborer with God. God doesn’t do the work apart from man, and man doesn’t do the work apart from God. God has sovereignly chosen to act in this way.

The Divine Family is still working as they did in the original creation, and we who belong to the family now participate in this creation project. We have been united to God the Father–the Speaker–in the Son–the Word–by the Spirit–the Breath. Now being “in the Word” we are “words of God.” Being given the Spirit at Pentecost, we are words of the Speaker being carried along by the Breath of God to create, arrange, form, and fill the world so that it comes to look like the kingdom of God. Our words do this, not because they are mechanical, not because they are always theologically precise, but because we share the life of God himself, the Creator of all. The Spirit helps our weaknesses; when we don’t have just the right words or we haven’t done things just right. Because we share life with him, he is more than making up for our weaknesses.

Within this creation project we share with God, prayer is indispensable. In prayer we are caught up in the Trinity to participate in this power that God himself exercises over and in the world. There are other activities that are necessary to our taking of dominion, but nothing, absolutely nothing, is more important than prayer. Nothing can replace it. While we all have different gifts of the Spirit to accomplish the mission of the church, we all share the ability and responsibility to pray.

If the church is to accomplish her mission, then prayer will need to be central to her life together. Prayer cannot be subordinate to all of the other activities that go on in the church. We are not a “house of social gatherings,” or a “house of support groups.” We are first and foremost a house of prayer (Isa 56.7). If the church forgets this most fundamental activity in her life together, we have become only another civic organization. Yes, we may grow great crowds because people “feel connected” or there is so much for them to do. But if prayer is not central to the life of that group of people, the church is not being what she was called to be and her mission cannot be accomplished. 

In love our God bids us to join him in his creative work through prayer. He desires that we share the fullness of his life. What could be a higher and more beautiful privilege? Why would we let ourselves be distracted from the disciplines of prayer by lesser things? 

You, dear Christian, are imbued with power because of your membership in the divine family. Though many times imperceptible to you, when you pray, the world is changing. Give yourself to prayer. Pray individually. Pray with your family. Pray with the church. Pray.

What To Pray?

What the world needs now is a crazed Muslim leader in the Middle East who has nuclear capabilities to launch a nuclear weapon at the USA. The world needs Christians to suffer and die at the hands of atheistic Communists and rabid Muslims. America needs abortion to continue to be legal for decades to come. Aunt Lucy needs to be diagnosed with stage four cancer. Uncle Joe needs to be in an accident so that he loses a leg. Henrietta needs to lose her child to leukemia. We and the rest of creation need these horrible things.

Who would ever think such things? Who would ever pray for such things? No one that I know.

However, in the infinite wisdom of God, situations like these may indeed be necessities. I know it is repulsive to you. It churns my stomach as well. But so does the cross, yet it was a necessity. Jesus told his disciples on a number of occasions that it was necessary for him to go to Jerusalem to suffer and die at the hands of Israel’s leaders (cf. e.g., Matthew 16.21). They couldn’t grasp it at the time because it was a category mistake. Messiah doesn’t suffer defeat. He wins. How could this be necessary? To kill the Messiah would be sin. How is sin necessary?

I’m not telling you that I understand why these are necessities. I’m only telling you that they are. God raises up Pharaohs, Assyrians, and Babylonians to oppress his people, and prophets such as Habbakuk have problems with it too. He turns the devil loose on his faithful servant Job to bring him to the point of death. He raises up scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees, and Roman governors to kill his Son. These are all necessities.

But would you pray for such things? No. But then again, you don’t know what to pray for as you ought; you don’t know what the world needs. So says Paul in Romans 8.26. We see the creation groaning. We groan when we participate in the suffering and see others suffering. We pray for deliverance. And we should. We know that this is not the way things ultimately ought to be. The created order is in disarray, and we want it set right. That’s proper. Praying toward that end is the right thing to do. Jesus taught us to pray that way.

But how God is getting us there is just as mysterious to us as it was for the disciples when Jesus told them that it was necessary for him to suffer and die. We don’t know what the world needs exactly in this or that situation. We don’t know what we need. Our perspective is limited, not only because we’re sinners, but because we’re creatures. God has not afforded us the perspective that he has on the world. He is the wise one who know how everything–even sin–fits together and is working toward the good of his people and the rest of creation. No matter how much wisdom we mature into in our lifetimes, our wisdom will never be God’s wisdom. There will never be a time when we know exactly what to pray; when we know precisely what is needed in every situation.

The Spirit helps us in this weakness (Rom 8.26). However, he doesn’t help us by giving us the exact words to pray so that we can get a grasp on the situation and fix it. The Spirit groans with us, never giving us the relief of putting it into words. He never gives us that leverage over the world. We are called to suffer in prayer with the world, and the Spirit comes and suffers with us, interceding for us.

And the Father understands the Spirit’s groanings. He knows the mind of the Spirit, and he will give us and the creation what we need. We can be assured of that. 

In light of this, praying in faith is not claiming this healing or really believing that God will remove this oppressor if pray long enough. Praying in faith is following the prayer life of our Lord himself who prays, “Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not my will, but yours be done.” Praying in faith is submitting all those things we think are necessities to the wisdom of the Father. Yes, we ask him for the things we think we need. But we trust the will of our loving heavenly Father to do what is best for us and the creation. We know that our Father will not give us a serpent when we ask for a fish. He will not give us a scorpion when we ask for an egg (Luke 11.11-12). He will give us good gifts, even when they come in packages of suffering.

Praying In The Spirit

At this present time in whole of the created order, there is a hauntingly bright symphony being performed. The creation is groaning and travailing in the pains of childbirth like the deep, resonating, sad tones of a cello. The groans of the cello are joined in the same melodic progression by the violins of Christians’ groaning. As Christians we find ourselves in harmony with the creation, giving it further voice because we share in the same pain, waiting with the rest of creation for the redemption of our bodies. But there is a third voice; a voice deeper and more fundamental in this symphony that is controlling it and moving it toward its conclusion. It is the double bass of the Spirit, groaning out wordless music to the Father. We and the rest of creation with us have joined with him so that we are taking up his groans and he is taking up our groans in this symphony of prayer.

This is praying in the Spirit.

What the writers of Scripture exhort in shorthand in other places, Paul describes in Romans 8. From here we begin to learn what prayer is. Prayer is not some impersonal spanning of a great distance between us and God through the medium of words. Prayer is participation in the eternal divine conversation. Father, Son/Word, and Spirit have been in this communion of conversation forever. In grace our Triune God has made us members of his family and, therefore, the conversation.  We are family members who share the relationship of the Son with the Father because of the Spirit uniting us to the body of Christ. As Paul says to another church, “For through [Christ Jesus] we both [i.e., Jews and Gentiles] have access in one Spirit to the Father.” (Eph 2.18) Prayer is joining the loving conversation that the Holy Trinity is having. As Christians we are not outsiders who somehow hope to gain the ear of our distant God. We are not far off but rather have been brought near in Christ Jesus. We share the same relationship with the Father that Jesus himself shares. Being in the Son is the only reason we can call God, “Father.” But being in the Son means that we do, indeed, have that privilege with Jesus. And it is the Spirit of the Son that God the Father has given us who causes us to cry out, “Abba, Father.” (Gal 4.6)

By the Spirit we are fully incorporated into this family and the family conversation. The Spirit doesn’t merely create a bald status of being a child of God. Rather, he pours the love of God out in our hearts (Rom 5.5) so that we share the love of God. That is, we love what he loves, hate what he hates, want what he wants; we share his sorrows, his joys, his anger, his jealousy, his compassion, his mercy, and his grace. As we pray in the Spirit, these shared desires are given expression. “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Our wills are becoming one with his will. Our hearts are in harmony with the Father, Son, and Spirit. That’s what it means to pray in the Spirit.

When we look around us and see that things are not right, that God’s will is not done on earth as it is in heaven, that the creation is in pain, our hearts groan. But we discover that these groans are not just our own, but they are also the groans of God himself being expressed by the Spirit in us and on our behalf to the Father. When we groan in this way, we are finding ourselves caught up in this symphony that is ultimately being conducted and played by our Triune God. When we find ourselves there, we have found the place of prayer.

Because these groans are not our own but participation with the Holy Trinity, we have the assurance that our groans are not pointless pain. Rather, we groan in hope. The God who groans with us is the same God who is working all things together for good (Rom 8.28). Yes, the creation is subjected to frustration, but it is subjected in hope (Rom 8.20). God has secured this hope through the death and resurrection of his Son and by the giving of his Spirit who is making a new creation. Our groaning prayers will not go unanswered. The haunting music that fills our souls with the rest of creation at present will modulate into the joyful music of dancing in the end.

The Conundrum of Hope

Suffering comes in all shapes and sizes. From common illnesses to terminal illnesses, from putting to death the sinful deeds of the body to being put to death by those who hate the gospel, from fighting enemies within to fighting enemies without, the church suffers. It is our calling. The work of salvation that Jesus definitively began in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension will not be complete until his body, the church, is also bodily raised from the dead at the last day. Between this time and that we have been called to endure the suffering that comes in a creation that has not yet been completely liberated from the corruption of sin.

This suffering, however, is not without a purpose. It is not a fight that ends in a draw. It is a training camp for Christians to learn to rule the creation as it ought to be ruled. Just as Jesus did in his life, so we learn obedience through the things that we suffer. And like him, we are being matured through what we suffer (cf. Heb 5.8-9). Somehow and someway that is not presently clear to us, God is working all of our suffering for our good and, consequently, the good of the rest of creation, which will be saved when we are revealed to be the sons of God through the redemption of our bodies (that is, in the resurrection; Rom 8.19-21, 28).

The question is, What gives us the strength to endure these present sufferings? Hope. More specifically, the hope of glory.

This hope is not the wispy positive thinking of some motivational speaker who tells you that everything will turn out alright because everything always turns out alright. That’s wishful thinking. It’s not a solid foundation for hope. Hope built on the sands of wishful thinking will eventually crumble when the tides of suffering are relentless.

Our hope of glory–the hope that we ourselves will one day be completely freed from the corruption of sin and its death in body and mind and that the rest of creation will follow us–our hope of glory is firmly fixed on the Word of God declared boldly in the resurrection of Jesus and confirmed continually by the presence of his Spirit with us. The Word that was before the world and that created everything that we see is the Word in whom we trust. Our hope in Christ Jesus is more sure than the things in the creation that we can touch, see, feel, or taste.

Having this hope we have the strength to endure all of the battles with sin and its corruption in this present life; whether those battles rise from within us in being tempted to sin, or they come from without in dealing with the corrupting power of sin in relationships. We can endure because we have a sure hope that this is not the way it will always be. God promised.

Our future hope gives us present strength to endure. What you hope for shapes what you desire and the way you live right now. The young man who has been promised by his parents that he may buy his first car when he is sixteen, works and saves with that hope in mind. He resists temptation to buy other things that are frivolous. He has to say “No” to activities with his friends at times because he has to work. He gets tired along the way, but then he remembers the prize. He keeps pushing on, maintaining the disciplines that will get him to his hope.

So it is with us as Christians and our hope. Our future hope shapes our desires and the way we live. Because we long for what God has promised, knowing that we must suffer with Christ in order that we may be glorified together (Rom 8.17), that means that we discipline our lives accordingly. We must say “No” to temptations, even when everyone else is doing it. There may even be things that are technically lawful for us to do, but they are not as profitable to our lives as they should be (cf. 1Cor 6.12). Our desire for the best outweighs our desire for the acceptable.

Show me how you’re living, and I will tell you what you hope for.

When that young man finally buys that car, when his hope is realized, all that he went through to get there will seem like no real trouble at all because it all came together to bring him to this place. “I reckon that sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared to the glory that shall be revealed to us” (Rom 8.18). When we, the church, finally reach our hope, we will understand that this was but a “momentary light affliction” that was working in us an “eternal weight of glory” (2Cor 4.17). Weighed in the balances, our present sufferings are not even worth comparing to our future glory.

Not all of our suffering is directly produced by sin and its corruption. Some of our suffering is produced by our hope. Our hope has been deferred, and our hearts are sick (Prov 13.12). Knowing what is coming, knowing that one day we will be liberated from all of the bondage of corruption, creates in us a longing that groans in pain until that day arrives. We suffer because we have hope. We see the world around us living contrary to the gospel, killing itself. We stand by the bedsides of loved ones, watching them die. We feel the sting of an unfaithful spouse. We get caught up in the tension of someone’s bitterness toward us. We live in a church that is, at many points, unnecessarily divided. We read of our brothers and sisters being slaughtered by oppressive governments and religions. We hear that dreaded diagnosis and prognosis from the doctor.  In all of this, we suffer from the sin itself as well as the presence of hope that makes our longings even greater and our groaning even deeper. We begin to understand the cries of the Psalmists, and we cry out in song with them , “How long, O Lord?”

Our hope produces groaning in a sinful world, but it is also our strength through it.