Category Archives: James Montgomery Boice

October 17, 2017: Verse of the day

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Jesus Heals an Official’s Son

46 So he came again to Cana in Galilee, where he had made the water wine. And at Capernaum there was an official whose son was ill. 47 When this man heard that Jesus had come from Judea to Galilee, he went to him and asked him to come down and heal his son, for he was at the point of death. 48 So Jesus said to him, “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.” 49 The official said to him, “Sir, come down before my child dies.” 50 Jesus said to him, “Go; your son will live.” The man believed the word that Jesus spoke to him and went on his way. 51 As he was going down, his servants met him and told him that his son was recovering. 52 So he asked them the hour when he began to get better, and they said to him, “Yesterday at the seventh hour the fever left him.” 53 The father knew that was the hour when Jesus had said to him, “Your son will live.” And he himself believed, and all his household. 54 This was now the second sign that Jesus did when he had come from Judea to Galilee. [1]


The Second Miracle

John 4:46–54

Once more he visited Cana in Galilee, where he had turned the water into wine. And there was a certain royal official whose son lay sick at Capernaum. When this man heard that Jesus had arrived in Galilee from Judea, he went to him and begged him to come and heal his son, who was close to death.

“Unless you people see miraculous signs and wonders,” Jesus told him, “you will never believe.”

The royal official said, “Sir, come down before my child dies.”

Jesus replied, “You may go. Your son will live.”

The man took Jesus at his word and departed. While he was still on the way, his servants met him with the news that his boy was living. When he inquired as to the time when his son got better, they said to him, “The fever left him yesterday at the seventh hour.”

Then the father realized that this was the exact time at which Jesus had said to him, “Your son will live.” So he and all his household believed.

This was the second miraculous sign that Jesus performed, having come from Judea to Galilee.

It does not matter who you may be, sooner or later you are going to experience great sorrows or even tragedies in your life. You may be rich or poor, a man or a woman, black or white. Tragedy inevitably will become a part of your personal experience and there will be nothing you can do to avoid it.

That is not merely my own opinion, of course. It is a truth that has been recognized by many throughout history. One of the oldest pieces of literature in any language contains an expression of this that has become somewhat proverbial. It is from the Book of Job: “For hardship does not spring from the soil, nor does trouble sprout from the ground. Yet man is born to trouble as surely as sparks fly upward” (Job 5:6–7). The Hebrew of this saying is beautiful; for the two Hebrew words translated by our one word “sparks” are literally “the sons of flame,” and the thought is that men are born to endure the fires of this life and eventually perish in the burning.

We know it is true. Psychologists tell us that life begins with pain, as the child, who for the first nine months of its life has rested warmly and comfortably within the uterus of its mother, is suddenly pushed and pulled into a hostile environment in which his first independent act is to cry. The experience is one akin to strangulation as the baby gasps for its life. For a time after birth the mother cares for the baby’s needs. Yet, as the child grows up, the years progressively knock away the props of life and the child is forced increasingly to depend on his own resources. He must learn to eat and clothe himself. Eventually he must go to school, then earn a living. In time there will be the failure of his plans and the dissolution of cherished relationships. There will be pain and sickness. Death will inevitably come to friends and family, and at last the person himself will face his own death and that which lies beyond.

I am not pointing this out to spread gloom. There is enough sorrow in this world without emphasizing it. Rather, I am writing in this way to start us thinking about how you and I will react to such events when they come to us. What will we do? Will we be beaten down by them? Or will we triumph over them in complete victory? The verses we end with show how we can have such victory and how the same solutions can enrich our lives even in the far more abundant times of joy and great happiness.

In Joy and Sorrow

The basis for arriving at such solutions comes from a story in the life of Jesus Christ. It is the story of a rich nobleman whose son was dying and who, out of his desperation, came to Jesus about it. By the end of the story we find that not only had the son been cured but in a far more wonderful way the rich man and his entire family had found a genuine faith in Christ.

The story begins by telling us that “once more he visited Cana in Galilee, where he had turned the water into wine” (John 4:46). It ends with the remark: “This was the second miraculous sign that Jesus performed, having come from Judea to Galilee” (v. 54). Why do we have this emphasis upon the place where Jesus performed the miracle? Why is this called the second miracle, when obviously many other miraculous things had been done by Jesus previously (cf. John 2:23; 4:45)? Why, in fact, is the former miracle of changing water into wine at Cana mentioned? Quite clearly, this is John’s way of telling us that we are to put the two miracles—that of changing water into wine and that of healing the nobleman’s son—side by side. In other words, we are to see them in relationship to each other and compare them.

What does the comparison show? In the first place it shows a number of similarities. Both were “third-day” miracles. Thus, the miracle at the wedding occurred three days after Jesus had left the area of the lower Jordan River to return to Galilee (2:1), while this miracle similarly occurred three days after Jesus had determined to leave Judea to return to Cana through Samaria (4:43). Both miracles contain an initial rebuke to the one who requested it. In the first case it was to Mary, Jesus’ mother (2:4). In the second it was to the nobleman (4:48). Third, in each case Jesus performs the miracle at a distance, doing nothing but speaking a word (2:7, 8; 4:50). Fourth, the servants possess unique knowledge of what happened (2:9; 4:51). Finally, each account concludes with a statement that certain persons who knew of the miracle believed. Thus, in the earlier story we are told that “his disciples put their faith in him” (2:11), while in the second narrative we are told that the father “and all his household believed” (4:53).

These points reinforce the need of comparing the two stories. Yet the significant point of the comparison is not in the similarities but in their one great difference. What is the difference? Certainly that in the first the scene is one of joy, festivity, and happiness. The stage is a wedding. In the second the scene is fraught with sickness, desperation, anxiety, and the dreadful shadow of death. One is a picture of joy, the other of sorrow. In comparing the two we are clearly to see that life is as filled with the one as the other and that Jesus, the One who is the answer to all human need, is needed in both circumstances.

One writer has noted: “Jesus is more than equal to either occasion. He has a place in all circumstances. If we invite him to our times of innocent happiness, he will increase our joy. If we call on him in our times of sorrow, anxiety, or bereavement, he can bring consolation, comfort, and a joy that is not of this world.”

In pointing to this truth John is further documenting his claim that Jesus is indeed “the Savior of the world”; for Jesus is the Savior of all men, at all times, and in all circumstances.

Growth of Faith

The next fact we are told is that the man who came to Jesus at Cana was a nobleman. This is not the same word that is used in chapter 3 where Nicodemus is described as being a Pharisee, “a ruler of the Jews.” The word that is used of Nicodemus is one that denotes preeminence of authority, however derived. In this case, the word is basilikos, which is related to the word for king and therefore denotes royalty. The word could even mean that the man was a petty king, but in this context it probably means that he was one of the royal officials at the court of Herod.

Moreover, the man had some means, for he had servants. Here was a nobleman, rich, no doubt with great influence. Yet neither his rank nor riches were able to exempt him from the common sorrows of mankind. Remember, as you think about those in positions of importance or power, that there is just as much sickness among them. And there is just as much of a need for Jesus Christ.

The wonderful thing, of course, is that this man sensed his need and its solution. When Jesus had performed his first miracle by changing water into wine, the miracle was at first known only to the disciples and to the servants who bore the wine to the master of ceremonies. Still, people being what they are, the news must have spread and have created a stir in Galilee. In time, some of the Galileans got to Jerusalem and learned of miracles that Jesus had been doing there. They told about these when they returned. It is part of the same picture that news of what Jesus was doing must have reached even Herod’s court, for the nobleman had heard of Jesus and immediately remembered what he had heard when faced with the fact of his son’s illness.

News came to the nobleman that Jesus was back in Galilee at Cana where the first miracle had been performed. Leaving home he made the four-hour trip (about twenty-five miles) from Capernaum, where he lived, to Cana. There he begged Jesus to accompany him back to Capernaum and heal his son.

There are two ways of looking at the man’s faith at this point. The first way is to be surprised that he was exercising faith at all. Here was a man who was high in the court, where he doubtless exercised great authority, traveling twenty-five miles to request a miracle from a carpenter. It is true that desperation has driven many men and women to unusual actions, and that therefore we must not find this overly significant. Nevertheless, the man’s faith is surprising. That is one way of looking at it. The other way of looking at the man’s faith, however, is to look at it in the way in which Jesus looked at it and to realize that although it was real faith it was nevertheless quite weak. The man apparently believed that Jesus was able to heal his son. But he limited Jesus to the place—he thought it was necessary that Jesus should come down to Capernaum—and to a mode of operation. Presumably the nobleman thought that Jesus would have to touch his son to heal him, just as Jairus thought that Jesus would have to touch his daughter to heal her (Mark 5:23) and the woman with an issue of blood thought it would be necessary for her to touch the hem of Christ’s garment (Mark 5:28). It therefore became Jesus’ purpose to teach the nobleman and to help his faith to grow.

At first Jesus delivered a rebuke. He said, “Unless you people see miraculous signs and wonders, you will never believe” (John 4:48). That was the equivalent of calling him a curiosity seeker and was perhaps directed as much toward the crowd that had gathered as to the nobleman. It was a test of the man’s faith or sincerity. How did he react? Fortunately, the nobleman proved himself to be truly noble, for he was not offended, nor did he seek to justify himself either before Jesus or the others. He simply stood his ground, reiterating his need and humbling himself to receive his answer in whatever way Jesus chose to give it to him.

Here then is the first answer to the way in which we can find triumph or victory in sorrow. It is to trust Jesus enough to allow him to operate in whatever way he chooses.

Believing is Seeing

But there is also a second lesson to be learned, and it was this lesson that Jesus next began to teach him. Jesus taught that one must believe first, then he will see the results. Jesus had said, “Unless you people see miraculous signs and wonders, you will never believe.” This statement was a true description of the thinking of vast numbers of men and women. The world even has it in a proverb, which says, “Seeing is believing.” The teaching of Jesus was that in spiritual things the order is reversed and that believing is seeing, for it is only as one believes in Jesus that he sees spiritual things happening. Therefore, Jesus told the boy’s father, “You may go. Your son will live” (v. 50). The nobleman was called upon to believe without sight. It was hard, but that is precisely what he did. The story goes on to say, “The man took Jesus at his word and departed.”

Needless to say, if it had been a mere man speaking, the belief of the nobleman would have been absurd. No one believes without sight. Yet in spiritual matters it is entirely logical to do so—because we are dealing not with a man but with God. Jesus is God. Hence, to believe him is the most logical thing in the universe.

Moreover, to believe in Jesus is also the most effective way to set one’s mind at rest, even when faced with sorrow. For we are told that having believed Jesus the nobleman simply continued on his way. The word used, plus the tense employed (imperfect), suggests that the nobleman believed Jesus so implicitly that he simply picked up his work where he had left it and went on about his business. At any rate, it is obvious that he did not rush home; for although the conversation took place about one o’clock in the afternoon and the journey was only four hours, the nobleman did not get back until the next day. When he did return it was to learn that his son had been healed instantly the day before at the very hour in which Jesus had spoken to him.

What a splendid story this is! And it is all the more splendid in that the man came to such strong faith from such a weak beginning. It is hard to read this story without thinking of that other similar story of the centurion who came to Christ requesting him to heal his sick servant. There are some noted similarities, so much so that some scholars have imagined these to be two versions of the same incident. Yet they are not the same, and the greatest of all differences is to be found in the attitudes of the two men involved. The centurion had the greatest faith. He said to Jesus, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed” (Matt. 8:8). Jesus praised his faith, saying, “I tell you the truth, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith” (v. 10). Still the centurion had this faith from the beginning, while the nobleman who sought out Jesus in Cana came to the same level of faith in a very short time through Jesus’ teaching.

Truths for Everyone

The applications of this story to our own experiences are obvious. I am sure that you have already seen some of them. First, if Jesus acted as he did with this man and if his actions actually had the effect on him that the Bible tells us they did, then surely Jesus is the answer to our own anxieties also. The man came, talked to Jesus, and then went on his way without any tangible evidence that his request had been granted. Why? Because in meeting Jesus and in talking with him, his anxiety evaporated. It can be the same for you. You may be weighed down under great burdens. You may be crying inside. Just come to Jesus. Tell him about it. He will be delighted to ease your burdens and to take the weight of them all upon himself.

The second application is that the experience I have described may be true even though our actually seeing the results is postponed. They may even be postponed until after this life. We witness the death of a parent, friend, or child. We experience sorrow or sickness ourselves. We come to Jesus and find him saying, “I know what I am doing. I am working it all out.” The Bible says, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28). There will always be circumstances in which we will not see that this is true. Nevertheless, we are to go on about our business. We may have to pass through the night into the bright day of the next world before we see how our prayers are answered. Still we are to believe and know that Jesus has heard and that he has answered.

Finally, there is fact that these truths are for everyone. That is the burden of this first great section of John’s Gospel. What has John done? He has shown Jesus at work in the three major sections of his world—Judea, Samaria, and Galilee. He has shown him with the rich and the poor, with the educated and the uneducated, with Jews and Samaritans, with religious leaders and those who show no religious orientation at all. He has shown him as the “light of the world,” “the lamb that takes away the sin of the world,” “the Savior of the world.” In other words, he has shown us that the gospel is for everyone. Thus, the gospel is for you also, whoever you may be.

Jesus is speaking to you when he says, “Come now, let us reason together … though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool” (Isa. 1:18). He speaks to you when he says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28).[2]


Unbelief Conquered

Jesus said to him, “Go; your son lives.” The man believed the word that Jesus spoke to him and started off. As he was now going down, his slaves met him, saying that his son was living. So he inquired of them the hour when he began to get better. Then they said to him, “Yesterday at the seventh hour the fever left him.” So the father knew that it was at that hour in which Jesus said to him, “Your son lives”; and he himself believed and his whole household. This is again a second sign that Jesus performed when He had come out of Judea into Galilee. (4:50–54)

Instead of agreeing to go back to Capernaum with him as the official had begged Him to do, Jesus merely said to him, “Go; your son lives.” At that very instant (vv. 52–53), the boy was healed. Even though he had no confirmation of it, the man nevertheless believed the word that Jesus spoke to him. The Lord’s words to him had moved him from the third level of unbelief (which needs miracles) to the second (which believes Christ’s word). Without any tangible proof that his son was healed, he took Jesus at His word and started off for home.

Leaving Cana in the Galilean hill country, the official went down toward Capernaum, on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee (about seven hundred feet below sea level). On the way, his slaves met him, already having left the town to find him and tell him the good news that his son was living (i.e., that he had recovered, not merely that he had not yet died). Overjoyed, the man inquired of them the hour when he began to get better. The servants replied, “Yesterday at the seventh hour the fever left him.” The seventh hour would have been early afternoon, sometime between 1 and 3 p.m. in the broadest reckoning. By the time he left Cana and arrived in the vicinity of Capernaum, it was after midnight (yesterday). It is possible that Jesus’ word to him relieved his anxiety about his son, allowing him to remain in Cana, perhaps to hear and see more from the Lord and understand His message. That would have been critical, because it led him to fully believe in Jesus when his servants reported the complete healing of his son, confirming the Lord’s claims (v. 53).

It was the time of his son’s recovery that verified to the father that a miracle had taken place, because he knew that his son’s healing had happened at that very hour in which Jesus had said to him, “Your son lives.” When he heard the news, the royal official himself believed, along with each member of his whole household (cf. Acts 11:14; 16:15, 31–34; 18:8; 1 Cor. 1:16; 16:15).

John concluded this account with the footnote, This is again a second sign that Jesus performed when He had come out of Judea into Galilee. This act of healing was the second of the eight major signs that John records as proof that Jesus was the Messiah. It was also the second sign (the first having taken place at the wedding at Cana [2:1–11]) He had performed in Galilee. That it was not Jesus’ second miracle overall is made clear from 2:23. In this instance, the stunning verification of Jesus’ power lifted the royal official all the way from sign-seeking unbelief to genuine saving faith.[3]


[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Jn 4:46–54). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

[2] Boice, J. M. (2005). The Gospel of John: an expositional commentary (pp. 341–346). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

[3] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2006). John 1–11 (pp. 167–168). Chicago: Moody Press.

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October 6, 2017: Verse of the day

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20 Then Noah built an altar to the Lord and took some of every clean animal and some of every clean bird and offered burnt offerings on the altar. 21 And when the Lord smelled the pleasing aroma, the Lord said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth. Neither will I ever again strike down every living creature as I have done. 22 While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.” [1]


Never Again! Never Again!

Genesis 8:20–22

Then Noah built an altar to the Lord and, taking some of all the clean animals and clean birds, he sacrificed burnt offerings on it. The Lord smelled the pleasing aroma and said in his heart: “Never again will I curse the ground because of man, even though every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done.

“As long as the earth endures,

seedtime and harvest,

cold and heat,

summer and winter,

day and night

will never cease.”

The greatest wonder of Genesis 8 is not that God remembered Noah but that Noah remembered God. It is not our nature to remember, least of all things that are spiritual. But Noah did remember. We are told that as soon as he left the ark “Noah built an altar to the Lord and, taking some of all the clean animals and clean birds, he sacrificed burnt offerings on it” (Gen. 8:20). This offering was both a thank offering for the deliverance Noah and his family had received, and a sin offering by which Noah confessed need of atonement for his and his family’s transgressions. If life was to begin anew, it was to begin with a proper and thankful approach to God—at least so far as Noah had anything to do with it.

Noah’s actions on leaving the ark did not mean that he approached this new life without anxiety. In the ark he would have wondered if God had abandoned him. Now, upon exiting, he would have been struck afresh with the terrors of God’s judgment and would have wondered if a great destruction might not be poured forth again. After all, he was a sinner—and so were his children. The same tendencies to evil that had led to the wickedness of the antedeluvian world were in them all. Would it not inevitably happen that they would sin greatly and that a fresh judgment of God would be called forth? Look at the world: a world beginning to renew itself but showing every indication of the horrible judgment that had just ended—bare hills, uprooted trees, vast bodies of slowly receding water. What was to prevent that water from rising once more and thus reinundating the land? What was to prevent him and his family from justly perishing at last because of sin?

It is against this background that God’s covenant with Noah was given. God knew Noah and reassured him that in spite of the sin they both knew lay in the human heart, the creatures of the earth would not be destroyed again. God said, “Never again will I curse the ground because of man, even though every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done” (v. 21).

God’s Covenant

These verses from Genesis 8 and 9, plus a verse from chapter 6, constitute one of the fullest discussions of a divine covenant in the entire Bible. It is not the only covenant. There was a previous covenant with Adam, though the word itself was not used, and there are subsequent covenants with Abraham, Moses, David, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Yet this is an important covenant and deserves careful attention, if for no other reason than that it is the first explicit discussion of the theme in Scripture. It was introduced in Genesis 6:18. In chapters 8 and 9 it is discussed in three parts: 1) God’s promise never again to destroy the earth by flood (Gen. 8:20–22), 2) the institution of capital punishment as a central feature of it (Gen. 9:1–7), and 3) a specific reiteration of the covenant in which the rainbow sign is given (Gen. 9:8–17).

We noticed in our earlier discussion that in this and most of the other covenants there are three features. The covenants are unilateral, which means that they are established by God and not by man. They are eternal, as God is eternal. They are always of grace, for nothing in man (not even his obedience to the terms of the covenant) merits them. These features are very visible in Genesis 8:20–22.

First, everything said is by God and according to his pleasure. We have speculated on what Noah may have said or may have been thinking during these days, but so far as Genesis is concerned he is not recorded as having said anything. All is of God. Thus we have: “The Lord smelled the pleasing aroma and said in his heart: ‘Never again will I curse the ground because of man. … And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done’ ” (8:21); “Then God blessed Noah and his sons, saying …” (9:1); “Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him: ‘I now establish my covenant with you and with your descendants after you and with every living creature that was with you’ ” (9:8–10); “I establish my covenant with you” (9:11); “And God said, ‘This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you’ ” (9:12); “I will remember my covenant between me and you” (9:15); “So God said to Noah, ‘This is the sign of the covenant I have established between me and all life on earth’ ” (9:17).

This feature of the narrative reflects a high view of God and immediately sets Genesis off from other ancient writings. In fact, it is a powerful evidence that this book is what it claims to be, a supernatural revelation of God to men and women and not a record of human thoughts about and aspirations after God. The idea of God establishing terms with us, which we are therefore merely to receive with gratitude, is foreign to our natural way of thinking. Indeed, it is entirely absent from other ancient religions. In the religions of the pagan world the relationship of a person to God (or one of the gods) is conceived as a bargain. The person does something for God as a result of which God is placed in his debt and is supposed to do something for the person. It may be sacrifice. In wartime great sacrifices were made to ensure the success of expeditions. It may be some other form of devotion. Whatever the case, the man and God meet on equal terms and agree to do things of mutual benefit to one another. The earliest chapters of Genesis present an entirely different concept. In them man does not bargain, for man has nothing to bargain with. God establishes the covenant according to his own good pleasure.

Second, the covenant is eternal. I do not mean that it is eternally eternal in the sense that it will endure as long as God endures, for the conditions to which it applies will themselves not endure. It is eternal in the sense that so long as the conditions endure the covenant will be unalterable. This is the essential point of the verses that end Genesis 8. “Never again will I curse the ground because of man, even though every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done. As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease” (vv. 21–22). These verses could hardly make the point more emphatically. Three times they use the word “never”—“Never again will I curse the ground. … Never again will I destroy all living creatures. … Day and night will never cease.” The repetition of phrases regarding the days and seasons has a similar effect.

It is good to have God say “never,” because use of the word by human beings is often ludicrous. Haven’t you done something so foolish that you said, “Well, I’ve learned my lesson; I’ll never do that again”? But then you did it again. Haven’t you ever looked at someone else’s sin and said, “I’ll never do that”? But you did. That is the way with human beings. We promise beyond what we can guarantee. Like Peter we say to Jesus, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you” (Mark 14:31). But we do deny him. Only God can say “never” and stick by it without fail.

God’s promises never to do something or never to let something happen are among the most precious in his Word. In Judges 2:1, God is reported as saying to the Israelites, “I will never break my covenant with you.” Psalm 15 lists a number of items that involve an upright way of life and concludes: “He who does these things will never be shaken” (v. 5). Psalm 55:22 says, “Cast your cares on the Lord and he will sustain you; he will never let the righteous fall.” Proverbs 10:30 declares, “The righteous will never be uprooted.” Jesus used the word “never” on many occasions, more than any other personality in Scripture. He said, “Whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst” (John 4:14); “He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6:35); “If anyone keeps my word, he will never see death” (John 8:51); “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:27–28); “Whoever lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:26). In Hebrews God is quoted as saying, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you” (Heb. 13:5; cf. Deut. 31:6). These promises cover the whole spiritual life of the believer, from initial faith in Christ to eternal security and victory over death. In the case of Genesis 8:20–22 they cover a regular sequence of days and seasons as long as earth lasts.

The third feature of the covenant is grace, which is also clear in these verses. God establishes his covenant with Noah and his descendants, “even though every inclination of [man’s] heart is evil from childhood” (v. 21). This part of God’s promise must have been particularly comforting to Noah, knowing that he was a sinner and that sin might well erupt in terrible fashion again. In spite of his sin God would save him and would never again destroy humanity.

Original Sin

In Martin Luther’s lengthy exposition of Genesis (8 volumes) this phrase, “every inclination of [man’s] heart is evil from childhood,” is treated at length, for he rightly recognized it as a highly important passage on original sin. In Luther’s day, as in ours, people disliked this teaching and exerted much effort to explain it away. They said that it is not that the heart is evil but only that it inclines to sin. They would not have used this term, but what they had in mind was the “blank slate” idea that became so popular in the nineteenth-century philosophy of human development. According to this view, the child is born morally neutral and sins later only because of the unhealthy moral environment to which this “innocent” inclines. That is comforting philosophy since it makes sin someone else’s fault, but it is not what this verse teaches. It teaches that the heart is evil and that this is true from the individual’s earliest days.

Luther writes,

He who says that the sensations and thoughts of the human heart are inclined toward evil from youth on is not making an insignificant statement, particularly since Moses declared previously, in chapter six (v. 5), that every thought of the heart is bent on evil at all times, that is, that it strives after evil and in its bent, impulse and effort is under the influence of evil. For instance, when the adulterer is inflamed with desire, even though opportunity, place, person and time are lacking, he is still plagued by lustful emotions and cannot concentrate on anything else in his thoughts. …

Moses adds “from his youth” because this evil lies hidden in early age and is dormant, as it were. The period of our infancy is spent in such a manner that reason and will seem dormant, and we are borne along by animal drives only, which pass away like a dream. We have hardly passed our fifth year when we look for idleness, play, wantonness and pleasures, but shun discipline, shake off obedience and hate all virtues, but especially the higher ones of truth and justice. Reason at that time awakes as from a deep sleep and becomes aware of some pleasures, but not yet the true ones, and of some evil things, but not yet the worst, by which it is possessed.

But when reason has matured, then, after the other vices have somehow become established, there are added lust and the hideous passion of the flesh, revelry, gambling, quarreling, fighting, murder, theft and what not. Just as parents have need of the rod, so now the magistrate needs a prison and bonds to keep the evil nature under control.

Who is not aware of the vices of the more advanced years? It is then that greed, ambition, pride, treachery, envy, etc., come rushing and crowding in. Moreover, these vices are all the more harmful since this age is more adroit at covering them up and adorning them. Here the sword of the magistrate is not adequate; the fire of hell is needed to punish such great and numerous crimes. Hence it is correctly stated above, in the sixth chapter (v. 5): “The heart of man, or the imagination of his heart, is only evil every day, or at all times,” and in this passage: “It is evil from its youth.”

The only quarrel I have with this excellent exposition of Luther’s is that he has not stated the sins of youth forcefully enough. In Luther’s treatment sin almost seems passive before the age of five. It is not so. It is active even then. Donald Grey Barnhouse told how one of his children exhibited her sinful nature before she could talk. The family was living in France at the time and had a French nanny who had taught the baby motions to a little French song. The song was about marionettes. As the words were sung the child’s hands were made to go around in a circle to imitate the dancing and then they were placed behind the back to show how the dancers went backstage at the end of the act. The song went:

Ainsi, font, font, font

Les petites marionettes.

Ainsi, font, font, font—

Trois petits tours

et puis sont vont.

The child was not allowed to suck her thumb and her parents usually smacked the baby’s hands lightly to get her to stop. One day Barnhouse came into the nursery and there was no doubt as to what the baby had been doing. There was the mouth and thumb, and there was a long string of saliva between them. As soon as the daughter saw him, she immediately began to make her little hands go through the motions of the marionette song as if to say, “No, dear father, you are mistaken. It may look as if I was sucking my thumb, but actually I was doing the little marionette song that seems to please you so much.”

David was right when he said, “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me” (Ps. 51:5).

From Fear to Favor

This passage provides a pattern for what sinful human beings must do to find God’s favor. In a sense, we can do nothing; God has done everything. But we can at least come to God in the way God himself has appointed and be assured as we come that he will receive us and will remain faithful to us within the covenant of salvation.

As sinners we appear before God as Noah did emerging from the ark. We have been recipients of his common grace. If God had not been favorable to us, we would have perished long before now. Yet we are sinners. We merit God’s judgment, just as others do. Left to ourselves the sin within will undoubtedly bring us to perdition. We will perish utterly. What are we to do? We know not what to do. But God has set a way before us: the way of sacrifice. He has shown from the earliest days of the race, going back to Eden, that although sinners merit death for their transgressions it is nevertheless possible for a substitute to take the sinner’s place. An innocent may die. God himself showed this when he killed the animals and then clothed Adam and Eve in the animals’ skins. This is the way Noah came to God after he exited from the ark. It is the way you and I must come today, though we do not actually offer sacrifices but rather look back in faith to the perfect sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ offered in our place. He is the lamb “slain from the creation of the world” (Rev. 13:8). “He is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).

What happens as we come to God through faith in the perfect and finished work of Jesus? We find that God is pleased, and we hear him promise that we are now his and that we shall never perish—not for this life, not for eternity. Our relationship with him “will never cease.”[2]


[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Ge 8:20–22). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

[2] Boice, J. M. (1998). Genesis: an expositional commentary (pp. 374–379). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

September 11, 2017: Verse of the day

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71 In you, O Lord, do I take refuge;

let me never be put to shame!

    In your righteousness deliver me and rescue me;

incline your ear to me, and save me!

    Be to me a rock of refuge,

to which I may continually come;

you have given the command to save me,

for you are my rock and my fortress.

    Rescue me, O my God, from the hand of the wicked,

from the grasp of the unjust and cruel man.

    For you, O Lord, are my hope,

my trust, O Lord, from my youth.

    Upon you I have leaned from before my birth;

you are he who took me from my mother’s womb.

My praise is continually of you.

    I have been as a portent to many,

but you are my strong refuge.

    My mouth is filled with your praise,

and with your glory all the day.

    Do not cast me off in the time of old age;

forsake me not when my strength is spent.

10    For my enemies speak concerning me;

those who watch for my life consult together

11    and say, “God has forsaken him;

pursue and seize him,

for there is none to deliver him.”

12    O God, be not far from me;

O my God, make haste to help me!

13    May my accusers be put to shame and consumed;

with scorn and disgrace may they be covered

who seek my hurt.

14    But I will hope continually

and will praise you yet more and more.

15    My mouth will tell of your righteous acts,

of your deeds of salvation all the day,

for their number is past my knowledge.

16    With the mighty deeds of the Lord God I will come;

I will remind them of your righteousness, yours alone.

17    O God, from my youth you have taught me,

and I still proclaim your wondrous deeds.

18    So even to old age and gray hairs,

O God, do not forsake me,

until I proclaim your might to another generation,

your power to all those to come.

19    Your righteousness, O God,

reaches the high heavens.

You who have done great things,

O God, who is like you?

20    You who have made me see many troubles and calamities

will revive me again;

from the depths of the earth

you will bring me up again.

21    You will increase my greatness

and comfort me again.

22    I will also praise you with the harp

for your faithfulness, O my God;

I will sing praises to you with the lyre,

O Holy One of Israel.

23    My lips will shout for joy,

when I sing praises to you;

my soul also, which you have redeemed.

24    And my tongue will talk of your righteous help all the day long,

for they have been put to shame and disappointed

who sought to do me hurt. [1]


A Psalm for Old Age

Do not cast me away when I am old;

do not forsake me when my strength is gone.

For my enemies speak against me;

those who wait to kill me conspire together.

They say, “God has forsaken him;

pursue him and seize him,

for no one will rescue him.”

Be not far from me, O God;

come quickly, O my God, to help me.

May my accusers perish in shame;

may those who want to harm me

be covered with scorn and disgrace.

But as for me, I will always have hope;

I will praise you more and more.

My mouth will tell of your righteousness,

of your salvation all day long,

though I know not its measure.

I will come and proclaim your mighty acts, O Sovereign Lord;

I will proclaim your righteousness, yours alone.

Since my youth, O God, you have taught me,

and to this day I declare your marvelous deeds.

Even when I am old and gray,

do not forsake me, O God,

till I declare your power to the next generation,

your might to all who are to come.

verses 9–18

Almost all the psalms in the second book of the Psalter have title lines. In fact, with the exception of this psalm, the only other psalm that does not is Psalm 43, which seems to belong with Psalm 42. Since Psalm 71 likewise has no title line, some commentators think it might once have belonged with Psalm 70, both therefore being ascribed to King David.

Certainly there are elements in Psalm 71 that pick up on Psalm 70,  and there are even more expressions drawn from other psalms that are ascribed to David: “rock of refuge” and “my rock and my fortress” (v. 3), “my enemies” (v. 10), “Be not far from me, O God” (v. 12), “come quickly, O my God, to help me” (v. 12), and others. The first three verses are taken directly from the opening verses of Psalm 31, which is by David. Moreover, since we are near the ending of book two of the Psalter and since it ends with the words “This concludes the prayers of David son of Jesse,” it is appropriate that a psalm of David’s written in and about his old age should appear at this point. It is consistent with this view that the author seems to have been a public person (he says that he has become a “portent,” a well-known example or warning to many, v. 7) and a person of greatness or honor (v. 21). The Septuagint ascribes the psalm to David.

In this study I will be assuming David’s authorship. But on the other hand, the fact that it is or might be by David contributes little. For the psalm is a song of old age and is therefore for all who are old or will be, which is going to be true for most of us sooner or later. Charles Haddon Spurgeon says, “We have here the prayer of the aged believer who in holy confidence of faith, strengthened by a long and remarkable experience, pleads against his enemies and asks further blessings for himself.”

As far as the psalm’s outline goes, there may be six stanzas, as in the New International Version. But the important points overlap, and according to H. C. Leupold, “No two commentators divide the psalm in the same way.” Leupold splits it into two parts (vv. 1–12 and 13–24). Marvin E. Tate divides it into five parts (vv. 1–4, 5–12, 13–18, 19–20, 21–24). Derek Kidner has six sections, like the New International Version, but he does not follow the stanzas of the niv (vv. 1–3, 4–6, 7–11, 12–16, 17–21, 22–24).

It is probably best to think of this psalm in terms of what it says, rather than its outline. It handles four subjects: (1) old age and its problems, (2) how the past looks from the perspective of old age, (3) the future in terms of what is yet to be done, and (4) praise from one who has lived long enough to have observed God’s faithful ways.

Old Age and Its Problems

It is not fun to be old, especially in America. At other times and in other cultures old age had advantages to offset its disadvantages. Elderly persons were honored and respected. Their wisdom was valued. That is no longer true in America or in the West generally. Here we value youth, and the culture is so oriented to youthful interests that many old people even try to dress and act like teenagers. David didn’t have those problems, of course. But the problems he had as a result of his old age were serious and even universal. In fact, they are the most basic problems of all.

  1. Weakness, the loss of former strength or abilities. One problem with getting old is that you lose the strength and many of the abilities you had when you were younger. John Wesley, the great Methodist evangelist, lived to be eighty-eight years old (1703–91). He kept a diary throughout most of his life, and for June 28, 1789, there is this entry:

Sunday 28 … This day I enter on my eighty-sixth year. I now find I grow old: 1) My sight is decayed, so that I cannot read a small print, unless in a strong light; 2) My strength is decayed, so that I walk much slower than I did some years since; 3) My memory of names, whether of persons or places, is decayed, till I stop a little to recollect them. What I should be afraid of is, if I took thought for the morrow, that my body should weigh down my mind and create either stubbornness, by the decrease of my understanding, or peevishness, by the increase of bodily infirmities. But thou shalt answer for me, O Lord my God.

Many of us find that we can echo that. We can’t hear as well as we used to hear. We can’t read the small print. We get tired faster. We don’t even sleep as well, and we wake up three or four times throughout the night. It is what David is talking about when he tells God, “Do not cast me away when I am old; do not forsake me when my strength is gone” (v. 9).

  1. A continuation of troubles, particularly enemies. The second problem of old age is that the difficulties we have faced throughout our lives do not go away but instead remain with us. And the trouble they cause is augmented because of our diminishing strength or capacities to deal with them. In David’s case this had to do with his enemies, those he has written about in nearly every other psalm. Here he writes of these dangerous people, “My enemies speak against me; those who wait to kill me conspire together” (v. 10). Marvin E. Tate says, “The speaker might have expected mature age to bring exemption from such attacks, but such is not the case.” The enemies of the king were present as much at the end of his life as at the beginning.

So also with us. The most disturbing, continuing problems I face are having to support the various ministries I am involved in financially. The Bible Study Hour is usually behind in paying its bills, and at times it is so far behind that I think we are going to have to terminate the ministry. City Center Academy always needs funds. Even Tenth Presbyterian Church goes through regular financial crises, when we have to reduce our staff or curtail some aspects of our outreach. It would be nice if those problems would go away, but they do not. In fact, they are more serious now, more serious because of their greater dimensions, than they were when I began my ministry twenty-eight years ago. I wish somebody else would assume responsibility for these problems, but no one else does. In fact, I even get letters saying that we would not have these problems if we were only more careful about being in the will of God.

Other people have family problems, and these do not get better either. I know one woman who has taken care of her cantankerous octogenarian mother for several decades. The mother is now in a Christian nursing home where she is well cared for. Her finances are well managed. But she doesn’t thank her daughter. She is as critical and difficult as ever. In fact, just recently she has brought in a public defender and an unscrupulous lawyer to bring pressure on her daughter to do more. The problem never gets better; that is what is so wearing. The mother doesn’t even die.

E. M. Forster, the British novelist, had a mother like that. She lived to her late nineties and didn’t die until he was sixty-six.

Some people have health problems all their lives. Some struggle with depression. Others labor against class or ethnic prejudice, and the problems do not go away or even grow lighter as they grow older. In fact, they are often more difficult and certainly more oppressive and hard to bear than when these people were young.

  1. Being alone, no one to help. The third thing that bothered David is that as he grew older he had fewer people to help him, to solve or help shoulder these burdens. In fact, he describes himself as being utterly alone with none to help but God. His enemies recognized this; they argued that even God had deserted him. “They say, ‘God has forsaken him; pursue him and seize him, for no one will rescue him’ ” (v. 11). Maybe you feel that way too. In your youth you had many friends and coworkers. There were people you could share your burdens with. But now you are old. Those former friends are gone. You have no one.

Looking to the Past: Our Faithful God

You may have no human being with you perhaps, but if you are a Christian, you still have God. And that means that you still have the only one who was really with you and really able to help you all along. It is one advantage of old age to know that experientially.

This leads us to the second important element of this psalm. For the reflections David gives us concerning old age are not so we will wring our hands and complain about how bad it is to grow old, but the contrary. David wants us to see that even old age is given to us by God, is one of his good gifts and should be used for his glory and the blessing and well-being of others. He gets into these points first by pausing to look back over his long life and reflect on what he has learned about God and experienced about him during those former long years. We have spoken about the problems of old age, which are great. But one great advantage is in having a long experience of God’s presence, faithfulness, and blessing. There are two things to notice about what David says concerning the past.

  1. David had known God from his youth and even before that. He says, “You have been my hope, O Sovereign Lord, my confidence since my youth. From birth I have relied on you; you brought me forth from my mother’s womb” (vv. 5–6). What this seems to mean is that he remembers how he had come to know God and had trusted God from childhood. We would say that such a person became a “Christian” early in life. But he is also saying that he is aware that God was with him even before childhood, from the moment of his birth, though he cannot remember the years before his early childhood himself. We know that this was true of David. He was a man of God even before he was a man. He was godly even when he was watching the sheep as the youngest and least of Jesse’s eight sons (see 1 Sam. 16:1–13).

Have you known the Lord from childhood? If you have, you are fortunate because you can look back over a lifetime of God’s faithful care and provision. Spurgeon wrote, “They are highly favored who can like David, Samuel, Josiah, Timothy, and others say, ‘Thou art my trust from my youth.’ ”

I like the testimony of Polycarp, the aged Bishop of Smyrna, who was martyred on February 22, a.d. 156. As he was being driven to the arena where he would be given the choice of worshiping Caesar or, refusing, being offered to the lions, the city officials tried to persuade him to make the gesture of homage to Caesar. They had respect for him because of his age and reputation and argued, “What harm is there in saying, ‘Caesar is Lord,’ and burning incense … and saving yourself?” But Polycarp answered, “For eighty-six years I have been [Christ’s] slave, and he has done me no wrong; how can I blaspheme my king who saved me?” Despite his age and undoubted physical weakness, Polycarp was not weak. He was strong in faith. In fact, he was never stronger, because he remembered the strength and faithfulness of God to him throughout the many long years of his service as Christ’s slave. So it will be with you if, in your old age, you recall God’s love and faithfulness to you over your lifetime.

  1. David had become “a portent” to many. The word portent (v. 7) is hard to define, because it can be taken either in a good or bad sense. In a good sense it would refer to the writer as a marvel of God’s protecting care. People would say, “Look how God has protected and blessed David.” In a bad sense it would refer to the greatness of his sufferings and the magnitude of his calamities. In that case, people would say, “Has anybody ever suffered as much as David?” Since the word occurs here in the context of remembering God’s faithfulness to him in the past, the bad sense should probably be thrown out. But it is possible both might be combined in the sense suggested by J. J. Stewart Perowne, when he says it is best “to understand it as applying to his whole wonderful life of trials and blessings, of perils and deliverances, such as did not ordinarily fall to the lot of man.” David was certainly a portent in this sense, which is why the record of his life is given to us so completely in the Bible.

Looking Ahead: The Next Generation

I suppose there are some people who in their old age only look back to the past and are often quite unhappy as they do. They think of what they have had and lost or what they wish they could have had and never did. The present does not mean much to them except as a basis for complaining about their multiplying aches and pains, and they are afraid to look forward. They are afraid of dying.

David’s approach to old age was not like this. For not only did he look to the past to remember God’s goodness and faithfulness to him over the many long years of his life, he also looked to the future in terms of the work yet remaining to be done. He knew that if God had left him in life and had not yet taken him home to be with him in glory, it was because there was work to do. This work was testifying to the coming generations about God. This led him to say,

Since my youth, O God, you have taught me,

and to this day I declare your marvelous deeds.

Even when I am old and gray,

do not forsake me, O God,

till I declare your power to the next generation,

your might to all who are to come (vv. 17–18).

Someone has said that the Christian church is always one generation away from extinction, meaning that each generation has the responsibility of passing Christian doctrine to the next. David knew this. It is what he wants to do. But since he is writing about old age, the uniqueness of what he is saying is that older people have a special and peculiar ability to teach the young. This does not mean that they know more than those in middle age. An old deacon or deaconess does not necessarily know more than his pastor about the Bible’s content. But the old person has lived with God longer and has seen more of God’s faithfulness over more years of life than younger people, however much they may know. Therefore, a person like this is especially well equipped to help the young.

Haven’t you noticed that there is a special natural bond between the elderly and children? The secular world has begun to take advantage of this in nursing homes and kindergartens by bringing people from nursing homes to help care for children in day-care centers and other institutions. At Tenth Presbyterian Church we bring older people into the Sunday school to hear the children recite their Bible verses and assist in other ways. The children love these older people and respect them. It is a good arrangement. It is biblical.

The Present: Praising God Now

This brings us to the present, the third way in which David deals with the limitations of old age. He looks to the past to remind himself of God’s faithfulness and power. He looks to the future to remind himself of the work yet to be done. Then, having done both of those things, he turns to the present and begins to do exactly what he has been talking about. He bears witness to God now. What he praises God for chiefly is his righteousness (vv. 19–21) and faithfulness (vv. 22–24).

  1. God’s righteousness. The word righteousness is used in different ways in the Bible, most notably of that divine righteousness that is imparted to us in justification. That is not the way the word is used here, nor characteristically in the psalms. Here it refers to God’s right dealings, to the fact that everything he does is just, that no one can fault him. The word appears in this sense throughout the psalms ascribed to David. Again and again he calls God a “righteous God” and speaks of “your righteousness.” (There are not many psalms from which this word or the idea represented by this word is missing.) This is a great testimony, that a person has lived a long time and has found by his or her own experience that God does all things rightly or justly. Therefore, (1) God can be trusted, and (2) it is the part of wisdom to conform one’s life to God’s will and standards. That is a great and important testimony to pass to the next generation.
  2. God’s faithfulness. In one sense the entire psalm has been about God’s faithfulness: his faithfulness in the past, and the prayer of the psalmist that God will remain faithful to him in his old age. Here at the end the theme is the same, for it is the last and chief thing David wants to declare to those who are to come. He wants them to know that God is an utterly faithful God and can be trusted to remain so.

“Great is thy faithfulness,” O God my Father,

There is no shadow of turning with thee;

Thou changest not, thy compassions, they fail not;

As thou hast been thou forever wilt be.

“Great is thy faithfulness! Great is thy faithfulness!”

Morning by morning new mercies I see:

All I have needed thy hand hath provided—

“Great is thy faithfulness,” Lord, unto me!

If you have known God at all, you have found that he is indeed a God of great faithfulness and know that this must be your testimony.[2]


Prayer in Old Age (71:9–13)

Commentary

9–11 Lament shapes the petition. The psalmist prays that the Lord will not abandon him in old age (i.e., “when my strength is gone,” v. 9). “Cast away” and “forsake” signify a state of condemnation and curse (cf. 51:11; Job 19:13–21). The vile enemies (vv. 4, 10) are all too ready to condemn him to death (v. 10; cf. 3:2; 5:9; 56:6–7), to accuse him as a sinner worse than they, and to justify their evil course of action (v. 11; cf. 3:2; 22:7–8). They do not believe in retribution and reward, and they believe that autonomously they hold the power of life and death in their own hands. Possibly they believed they were God’s appointed agents of justice (cf. 56:4).

12–13 The prayer calls on Yahweh to vindicate his servant speedily (cf. 35:2; 38:22; 40:13–14) by giving him “help” (v. 12) and by bringing retribution (“scorn and disgrace”) on God’s enemies (v. 13; cf. 35:26; 109:29). His enemies are “evil and cruel” (v. 4) “accusers” (v. 13; cf. “speak against me; … conspire together,” v. 10). Their joy lies in bringing misfortune and disgrace on others. The psalmist cries here for Yahweh’s fidelity to his promises in bringing the sanctions of the covenant, namely, blessing and curse. He does not do evil for evil or curse his enemies, but he awaits the Lord’s judgment (see Reflections, p. 953, Imprecations in the Psalms).[3]


71:9–13 / This section focuses attention on my enemies and the theological problem they raise. They say, “God has forsaken him.” Presumably they reason that because the speaker is old and his strength is gone, he now lacks God’s blessing and is thus Godforsaken and vulnerable. What precisely is their intention is left openended. The Hebrew phrase, which is literally, “those who watch my life,” is much more ambiguous than the niv’s those who wait to kill me. As noted in the Introduction, psalms often speak in extremes so as to include any form of situation. Thus, while the opponents say, “… pursue him and seize him” and the psalm describes them as my accusers and as those who want to harm me, this could include anything from harming his reputation, to seizing his property, or to homicide. We should note that the fate invoked upon them focuses on their shame (vv. 13, 24), not their destruction (in v. 13 instead of Hb. yiklû, “let them come to an end,” several mss and the Syriac read yikkāle, “let them be humiliated”).

To counter these presumptions, the lament concerning the foes is surrounded by petitions. The first petitions are negative: Do not cast me away, do not forsake me (using the same verb as the enemies), and be not far from me. The psalm thus allows the speaker to reckon with this fear as a possibility but then quickly asks God to exclude it as a reality. The positive petitions are first on the speaker’s behalf, come quickly, O my God, to help me (reminding him of the “my God” relationship), and then against the foes. These are expressed as a wish (Hb. jussive), may they perish (or “be humiliated”; see BHS) in shame and be covered with scorn and disgrace.[4]


The main complaint (71:5–12). These verses set forth, in rather traditional language, the conditions of the suppliant which merit complaint to God. The complaint begins with a succinct statement of confidence in God, which is followed by an affirmation of life-long trust and praise in v 6. The meaning of v 7 is not entirely clear. The word for “mystery” (or “like a mystery,” see note 7.a.) denotes a “wonder” or a “portent,” something extraordinary, which is so out of the routine course of things that it baffles. The reference here can be understood (1) as an unusual case of God’s care (so Weiser: “He is the sign or portent which in a visible way makes manifest ‘to many’ God’s providential rule, his power and his help”), or (2) as an outstanding public example of divine punishment (cf. Deut 28:46)—perhaps, the evidence for life lived under a divine curse. The term מופת is rather frequently used to convey a display of divine power as a sign or warning to make the enemies of God afraid (Exod 7:3; 11:9; Deut 6:22; 1 Kgs 13:3, 5; Isa 20:3)—so neb in 71:7, “To many I seem a solemn warning.” The word appears in a word-pair with אות (“sign”); see, e.g., Exod 7:3; Deut 4:34; 6:22; 7:19; 13:2, 3; 26:8; 28:46; 29:2; 34:11; Isa 8:18. Mopheth is used especially to describe the events of the exodus from Egypt. In these contexts, the “signs and wonders” are demonstrations of divine power and explicit or implicit warnings to all who might dare to oppose the divine will. If the meaning of a “solemn warning” is understood in 7a, then 7b indicates that the speaker ignores the wrong (and for the enemies, gratifying) conclusions about his or her sufferings, while persisting in trust in God—“looking to God to see through to a conclusion the work He began so long ago” (Kidner, I, 251). Perhaps, however, we should not draw the lines of meaning too sharply. The verse may mean that the suppliant continues with unshaken trust in God regardless of how the “many” (v 7a; the people in the community) choose to interpret the situation. Some members of the community would have seen the supplicant as a “sign” of God’s providential care; others would have understood his or her condition as a divine judgement. A “sign” is subject to the interpretation of the viewer.

The condition of the suppliant is the subject of talk and conspiracy on the part of enemies who are described as “soul-watchers” (v 10), those who wait for any opportunity to harm the life of the speaker. The foes assume that the suppliant has been forsaken by God and left at their mercy (v 11). The situation is made worse by the failing strength of advanced age (v 9); it is imperative that the suppliant not be abandoned by God while foes are strong and personal strength declines. V 12 forms the closing petition of this section (note the direct address to God which corresponds to the direct address to Yahweh in v 5). God is asked not to be far away (cf. Ps 22) and to hasten to help one who needs divine presence.[5]


71:9     Do not cast me off in the time of old age;

Do not forsake me when my strength fails.

To grow old gracefully calls for more Grace than Nature can provide. Old age is a new world of strange conflicts and secret fears; the fear of being left alone, the fear of being a burden to loved ones, the fear of becoming a helpless invalid, the fear of losing one’s grip, the fear of being imposed upon. These fears are not new. The psalmist is here thinking aloud for the encouragement of all who are in the autumn of life (Daily Notes of the Scripture Union).[6]


4–11 Lifelong divine care. Prayer for deliverance is nourished by an experience of God going back beyond the reach of memory, consciously enjoyed throughout youth (5–6) and now, in old age desired all the more as strength, but not opposition, diminishes (9–10). 5 Hope, the One on whom I waited with confident expectation. Confidence, the ‘place’ on which my trust rested. 6 Relied, ‘been upheld’. 7 Portent. The charges levelled against him (see on Pss. 69, 70) make people look on him as a ‘warning example’. But just as in the face of his direct assailants he reacts by recalling God (4–5), so when faced by public loss of reputation he reacts by finding again in God ‘my refuge—and what a strong one!’. Thus what could have resulted in deep depression issues rather in praise (8). 10–11 69:3 reveals a long-standing period of trial in which God has remained silent and even David wondered if his face had been turned away in rejection (69:17). His enemies are quick to capitalize on this,[7]


71:1–24 One of the features of the psalms is that they meet the circumstances of life. This psalm to God expresses the concerns of old age. At a time in his life when he thinks he should be exempt from certain kinds of troubles, he once again is personally attacked. Though his enemies conclude that God has abandoned him, the psalmist is confident that God will remain faithful.

  1. Confidence in God Stated (71:1–8)
  2. Confidence in God Practiced in Prayer (71:9–13)

III. Confidence in God Vindicated (71:14–24)

71:3 continually. Psalm 71:1–3 is almost the same as Ps 31:1–3a. One difference, however, is the word “continually,” which the elderly person writing this psalm wants to emphasize. God has “continually” been faithful (cf. vv. 6, 14).

71:7 a marvel. A reference to his trials. People are amazed at this person’s life, some interpreting his trials as God’s care, and others as God’s punishment.

71:15 the sum of them. The blessings of God’s salvation and righteousness are innumerable.

71:20 from the depths of the earth. Not actual resurrection, but rescue from near-death conditions and renewal of life’s strength and meaning.[8]


71:9 Do not cast me away The psalmist has trusted God all his life (Ps 71:5–6); he asks God not to forsake him in his old age.[9]


[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Ps 71:1–24). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

[2] Boice, J. M. (2005). Psalms 42–106: An Expositional Commentary (pp. 592–598). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

[3] VanGemeren, W. A. (2008). Psalms. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Psalms (Revised Edition) (Vol. 5, p. 540). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[4] Hubbard, R. L. J., & Johnston, R. K. (2012). Foreword. In W. W. Gasque, R. L. Hubbard Jr., & R. K. Johnston (Eds.), Psalms (pp. 291–292). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

[5] Tate, M. E. (1998). Psalms 51–100 (Vol. 20, pp. 213–214). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.

[6] MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (p. 657). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

[7] Motyer, J. A. (1994). The Psalms. In D. A. Carson, R. T. France, J. A. Motyer, & G. J. Wenham (Eds.), New Bible commentary: 21st century edition (4th ed., p. 530). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press.

[8] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2006). The MacArthur study Bible: New American Standard Bible. (Ps 71:1–20). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

[9] Barry, J. D., Mangum, D., Brown, D. R., Heiser, M. S., Custis, M., Ritzema, E., … Bomar, D. (2012, 2016). Faithlife Study Bible (Ps 71:9). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

September 9, 2017: Verse of the day

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Marks of a True Disciple

John 13:35

“By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

Once when I was working for the evangelical thought journal Christianity Today, I heard Carl F. H. Henry, then the editor, say that he wished Christians in our day could have an easily identifiable mark that would at once distinguish them as Christians. “Something like an armband,” he said. That was some time ago. Since then, the Jesus Movement gave us the sign of an upraised index finger, meaning “One Way.” I have noticed that now even evangelicals are often wearing crosses and other religious symbols. But for some reason, Henry’s remark has stuck with me through the years, and it has made me notice “signs” or writings about signs that I might not have noticed otherwise.

One important essay was entitled “The Mark of the Christian” by Francis Schaeffer. It appeared first as a small booklet and then as a final postscript in the volume The Church at the End of the 20th Century. That study was based on John 13:35, “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” According to Schaeffer, love is “the mark that Jesus gives to label a Christian not just in one era or in one locality but at all times and all places until Jesus returns.”

Another piece along the same lines is a chapter in the book The Love Life by Donald Grey Barnhouse. It is entitled “Art Not Thou Also One of His Disciples?” and is based on the text I have already mentioned, John 13:35, plus two others: John 8:31 and John 15:8. In this study I want to take these three texts and, using what has been written about them, explore the essential features of one who would be Christ’s true disciple.

There is a popular use of the word “Christian” by which many would claim to be Christians who are, nevertheless, not disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ at all. Barnhouse points out that the word “Christian” originally came about because those who believed in Christ at Antioch followed him so closely that those who observed them wanted to identify them by the name of their Master. The people of Antioch said, “These are followers of Christ. They are Christ-ones, Christians. They follow him. They are his.” Today, by contrast everyone calls himself a Christian. By some, America is called a Christian nation. Anything that has even the vague flavor of Western religion or culture about it gets the name. But few who call themselves Christians actually follow Jesus.

Obviously, there is a kind of Christianity that is like this, but it is not discipleship. True discipleship is far different. What is it? It is expressed well in 2 Corinthians 8:5, “They gave themselves first to the Lord and to us in keeping with God’s will.” Discipleship is giving oneself wholeheartedly to Jesus.

Continuing in Christ’s Word

The three texts in John’s Gospel I have just mentioned show the marks of a true disciple. The first of these is John 8:31. “To the Jews who believed him Jesus said, ‘If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples.’ ” The first mark of a disciple is continuation in the word that Christ has spoken.

Two things are necessary if we are truly to do this. First, we must hear that Word; this means that we must read it, study it, memorize it, and continually put ourselves in a place where it is faithfully taught. The trouble with the discipleship of many begins right here. The Word is taught, but they do not want to hear it. The Word is available, but they do not like what it says. So they hide from it. What are such Christians like? They are like the man Harry Ironside tells about in one of his writings. The man had come to church occasionally with his wife, but he was very irregular in his attendance. So Ironside asked the wife about it. “Doesn’t your husband like coming to church?” he asked.

“I think he does,” she said. “But he has difficulty with your sermons. He hears the teachings, but he doesn’t like them. So he stays home. He says that if he comes one Sunday, it takes him weeks to get over it.”

That is true for many. And that is one reason why people who used to be seen around your church are not seen there so often. They know what the Word of God says, but they do not want to heed it. So they refuse to listen, and eventually they reject even their Christian friends. It is interesting that in this same chapter of John there is a verse in which Christ speaks to his enemies, saying, “Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say” (v. 43). Here were unbelievers who, lacking the Holy Spirit, were unable even to hear Christ’s speech. No wonder they misunderstood him. But what are we to think of those who claim to possess the Holy Spirit, who should be able to understand Christ’s words, but who refuse to hear them?

The second thing that is necessary, after we have heard Christ’s word, is to continue in it. This means to continue to hold to it by faith, even though we may not understand it fully. The disciples were doing this. We remember as we read this chapter that Jesus had been preaching some startling truths to those who would listen to him, and as a result people were overflowing with questions. “How can a man be born again when he is old?” “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” “What does he mean, ‘You will look for me and not find me and where I go you cannot come?’ ” These were the questions that were raised by his teachings. But we notice that they were raised by the people at large and not by the disciples. The disciples followed him and, therefore, although they certainly did not know all the answers, they believed what they understood and continued in it faithfully.

Barnhouse, from whom I am borrowing much of this material, tells the story of an eight-year-old girl who was joining a church. One of the elders asked her, “Have you read the Bible?”

“Yes, I have.”

“Do you understand it?”

“Yes,” she said, “all of it!”

Well, that is very nice. For her age and mentality, she had understood what she had read. Moreover, it had spoken to her heart, and she had heeded it. This is what the disciples were doing. It is what each of us should do. We may not understand all that is in the Bible. Indeed, we do not. But we can understand what we know and follow in it. Barnhouse writes: “Obviously the disciples did not understand everything, but they believed what they knew and they continued in His doctrine. As soon as they learned more, they believed that also; for that’s the method in Christian life. We are not born again with the full content of doctrine neatly stored in categories in our brain cells, but we go on as babes. We walk as children, desiring the sincere milk of the Word that we may grow thereby.” Unquestioning faith is the first mark of a true disciple.

Love One Another

The second mark of a disciple is found in the verse to which we have come in our study of John 13, verse 35. “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” It is this verse that is the basis of Schaeffer’s study.

There is a unique quality in this verse that sets it off from the others we are considering. It is Christ’s reference to the world. In the first verse (John 8:31), Jesus says that continuing in his word will make those listening to his word be his disciples indeed. But there is no reference to how this will affect the world. In the verse to which we come next (John 15:8), Jesus says that a disciple is one who bears “much fruit.” But the content refers to the fact that the bearing of fruit will glorify God, not that it will affect humanity, although, of course, it does. It is only in this second verse (John 13:35), with its emphasis upon observable love, that the world is taken into serious consideration. Why is this so? It is so because of what Jesus says about love. Jesus says that it is the mark by which his disciples are to be known as Christians, not only to him or to one another, but to everyone.

Schaeffer says that this is frightening, and he is right. For it is as if “Jesus turns to the world and says, ‘I’ve something to say to you. On the basis of my authority, I give you a right: You may judge whether or not an individual is a Christian on the basis of the love he shows to all Christians.’ In other words, if people come up to us and cast in our teeth the judgment that we are not Christians because we have not shown love toward other Christians, we must understand that they are only exercising a prerogative that Jesus gave them.

“And we must not get angry. If people say, ‘You don’t love other Christians,’ we must go home, get down on our knees, and ask God whether or not they are right. And if they are, then they have a right to have said what they said.”

What kind of love must we show if the world is to look at it and conclude that it is explainable only by the fact that we are Christians? Obviously it must be a special kind of love. What are its characteristics? How does such a special love operate? Fortunately, the answer to these questions is given to us in 1 John, a book that, as suggested in the last study, was written in some measure as a commentary on the new commandment.

In one sense, nearly everything in 1 John deals with the new command, for even its other two great themes (righteousness and sound doctrine) relate to it. But to be concise, it is possible to find a rich and fully rewarding answer in just three verses, 3:16–18. These verses say, “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.” These verses teach that one aspect of Christian love is its action. Moreover, they show that such love is to be exercised at personal cost, if need be, and that it is to be shown to anyone who is needy.

One thing John says is that “we ought to lay down our lives” for one another. Obviously, it is not often the case, at least today, that Christians are called upon to lay down their lives in the literal sense. But just because this is so, we should not pass over the idea too quickly. True, we do not often have opportunities to literally die for someone else. But we do have opportunities to “die to self” or, as we could also say, to “sacrifice our own interests” continually.

The gospel of God’s love in Jesus Christ has never been taken to anyone but that some Christian has sacrificed for it to happen. Even if it only means crossing the street to bear a simple witness, some Christian has thought about it, prayed about it, and then ventured to do it (sometimes with great fear and trembling), risking the loss of the friendship or even ridicule. Farther afield the sacrifices are greater. Parents sacrifice their children to allow them to go to distant lands where they may even die in God’s service. Individuals send money to support these children and to underwrite other works. Some give their time to Christian social service projects, all at some (and sometimes even great) personal sacrifice.

Another place for sacrifice is the home. Today’s culture glories in self-satisfaction, teaching that if one is not personally and fully satisfied, he or she therefore has a right to break off the marriage relationship. But this is not God’s teaching. God’s teaching is that we are to die to self in order that the other person might be fulfilled and that it is only as this begins to happen that we ourselves find satisfaction. Do you show observable Christian love in your home? Can unbelievers tell that you are a Christian by the way you treat your wife or your husband?

John’s words in verse 18 are a true conclusion. “Let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.” It is when we love sacrificially and by deeds that we show ourselves truly to be Christ’s disciples.

Fruit-Bearing

The third mark of a true disciple is found in John 15:8. “This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.” Fruit-bearing is the third mark of being a disciple.

The context of John 15 gives the steps for successful fruit-bearing, and the first is to recognize our own inability to produce it. Three verses before this, in verse 5, Jesus says, “Apart from me you can do nothing.” Does it say, “Apart from me you cannot do the big things. Apart from me you cannot do much”? No, that is not it at all. It says, “Apart from me you can do nothing.” So the first step toward successful fruit-bearing is to recognize our own nothingness and so start with Christ. Activity is no substitute.

Barnhouse tells a story in which he discusses this problem. A man came to him once, after he had given a portion of his life to Christian work, and said, “It’s all been fruitless.”

“How did it begin?” Barnhouse asked.

The man sadly told the following story. “I remember so well,” he said. “I was in my room studying, and as I was looking at the Bible, the Holy Spirit started to speak to me. He was putting His finger on things in my life that shouldn’t have been there. It made me restless and I closed the Bible, got up, and went out into the other room and picked up the telephone. I called another Christian and said, ‘You know, I am greatly moved at the need for such and such a thing; couldn’t we start a Christian work for them?’ Well, we got together and we started a Christian work, and we gave ourselves to that great activity—work, work, work—and nothing ever came of it.”

The reason why there was no fruit-bearing was that there was no true discipleship.

Then there is the second step for successful fruit-bearing, and this is to remain in Jesus. To recognize that we can do nothing is connected with remaining, of course; for when we know our need we are encouraged by that very knowledge to abide in Jesus. Nevertheless, the two are not the same. To recognize our nothingness is negative. To remain is a positive thing. It is to draw near when the Spirit begins to speak through the Word (as he did in Barnhouse’s story), and to change our way of living accordingly (as the man did not). “Remain in me, and I in you,” said Jesus. For “no branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me” (John 15:4). To remain in Christ is to allow him to work through us for Christ’s glory.

Are You a Disciple?

John 13:35 is followed by three verses in which Jesus foretells his denial by Peter. When Jesus was arrested Peter was unwilling to go home without knowing the full outcome. So he followed afar off and eventually saw Jesus taken into the courtyard of the high priest. The soldiers undoubtedly shut the large door after them. But there was a smaller door, kept by a maid; and John, who knew the house and had access, went to this door and called Peter. As Peter passed through the entrance, the maid who kept the door asked, “Are you not one of this man’s disciples?”

Unfortunately, Peter forgot the protestations he had made earlier and, so, denied his Master. “I am not,” he said. Then, while warming himself by the fire that warmed Jesus’ enemies, he denied him twice more. The incident shows that even one of the inner band of the apostles may yet fail in discipleship.

Are we Jesus’ disciples? Are you? Am I?

No doubt most of us will answer gladly, “Yes, I am his disciple.” But as we think about it, let us think about discipleship according to the definition Jesus himself gave to it. Jesus defined a disciple as one who continues in his Word, loves the brethren, and bears much fruit. Do we do each of these? Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, then you are really my disciples.” He said, “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” He said, “This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.” God grant that we may do each of these things as we drop all lesser loyalties and draw ever closer to him.[1]


The Preeminent Example of Christ’s Love

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” (13:34–35)

The Lord’s charge to the eleven apostles in one sense was not new. The Old Testament prescribed love for God (Deut. 6:5) and people (Lev. 19:18), as Jesus Himself affirmed (Matt. 22:34–40). But it was a new commandment (cf. 1 John 2:7–8; 3:11; 2 John 5) in the sense that it presented a higher standard of love—one based on the example of the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. Believers face the daunting challenge of loving one another even as Jesus loved them (cf. 15:12–13, 17). Of course, to love like that is impossible apart from the transforming power of the new covenant (Jer. 31:31–34). It is only “because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (Rom. 5:5; cf. Gal. 5:22) that believers can love as Jesus commanded.

Christ’s example of selfless, sacrificial love sets the supreme standard for believers to follow. D. A. Carson writes,

The new command is simple enough for a toddler to memorize and appreciate, profound enough that the most mature believers are repeatedly embarrassed at how poorly they comprehend it and put it into practice … The more we recognize the depth of our own sin, the more we recognize the love of the Saviour; the more we appreciate the love of the Saviour, the higher his standard appears; the higher his standard appears, the more we recognize in our selfishness, our innate self-centredness, the depth of our own sin. With a standard like this, no thoughtful believer can ever say, this side of the parousia, “I am perfectly keeping the basic stipulation of the new covenant.” (The Gospel According to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991], 484. Italics in original.)

In Ephesians 5:2 Paul exhorted, “Walk in love, just as Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for us.” Such love is “patient, … is kind and is not jealous; … does not brag and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Cor. 13:4–7). If the church ever consistently loved like that, it would have a powerful impact on the world.

In his book The Mark of the Christian, Francis Schaeffer listed two practical ways Christians can manifest love for each other. They can do so first by being willing to apologize and seek forgiveness from those they have wronged. What causes the sharpest, most bitter disputes in the body of Christ are not doctrinal differences, but the unloving manner in which those differences are handled. Being willing to apologize to those whom we have offended is crucial to preserving the unity of the body of Christ. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught that reconciliation with other people is a prerequisite to worshiping God: “Therefore if you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering” (Matt. 5:23–24).

A second practical way to demonstrate love is to grant forgiveness. In light of the eternal forgiveness that comes through the cross, Christians should be eager to forgive the temporal offenses committed against them (Matt. 18:21–35; cf. 6:12, 14–15). Because God’s love has transformed believers’ hearts, they are able to extend that love to others in forgiveness. “In this is love,” wrote John in his first epistle, “not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1 John 4:10–11). In Luke 17:3–4 Jesus commanded, “Be on your guard! If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times a day, and returns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.” In Ephesians 4:32 Paul wrote, “Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you” (cf. Col. 3:13).

The Lord’s command to love extends beyond the church to embrace all people. Paul’s prayer for the Thessalonians was that they would “increase and abound in love for one another, and for all people” (1 Thess. 3:12). He exhorted the Galatians to “do good to all people, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith” (Gal. 6:10). The writer of Hebrews charged his readers, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Heb. 13:2).

The Lord’s statement, “By this all men will know that you are My disciples” reveals the effect of believers’ having love for one another: the world will know that we belong to Him. The church may be orthodox in its doctrine and vigorous in its proclamation of the truth, but that will not persuade unbelievers unless believers love each other. In fact, Jesus gave the world the right to judge whether or not someone is a Christian based on whether or not that person sincerely loves other Christians. Francis Schaeffer writes,

The church is to be a loving church in a dying culture.… In the midst of the world, in the midst of our present dying culture, Jesus is giving a right to the world. Upon his authority he gives the world the right to judge whether you and I are born-again Christians on the basis of our observable love toward all Christians.

That’s pretty frightening. Jesus turns to the world and says, “I’ve something to say to you. On the basis of my authority, I give you a right: you may judge whether or not an individual is a Christian on the basis of the love he shows to all Christians.” In other words, if people come up to us and cast into our teeth the judgment that we are not Christians because we have not shown love toward other Christians, we must understand that they are only exercising a prerogative which Jesus gave them. (The Mark of the Christian [Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1970], 12–13)

One’s love for other believers also assures that believer that his faith is genuine. As John wrote, “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren” (1 John 3:14; cf. 2:10; 4:12).[2]


[1] Boice, J. M. (2005). The Gospel of John: an expositional commentary (pp. 1043–1048). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

[2] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2008). John 12–21 (pp. 89–91). Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers.

September 8, 2017: Verse of the day

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Life, More Life

John 10:10

“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”

I am pausing in our study of the tenth chapter of John’s Gospel to give particular attention to verse 10; for it contains an idea that has become popular in some Christian circles, and it is important that we understand it. The idea is that of the abundant life. Verse 10 suggests it: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”

What is the full or abundant life? It is not necessarily a long life, although there are verses that promise a long life to some, such as to those who honor their father and mother (Exod. 20:12; cf. Eph. 6:2–3). It is not necessarily a life free from sorrow or sickness either, although God certainly does spare us many sorrows that we might otherwise have and often preserves us from sickness. It is not a life of sickly piety, where everything is “beautiful” or “precious” or “just wonderful.” The abundant life, as Scripture speaks of it, is, above all, the contented life, in which contentment comes from the confidence that God is equal to every emergency and does indeed supply all our genuine needs according to his riches in glory by Christ Jesus.

The contented life is the life of the sheep who finds himself in the hands of a good shepherd. There may be dangers; in fact, there will be dangers. There may be storms at times, even drought and famine. Still, in the hands of a good shepherd the sheep is content and life is bountiful.

Abundance

Contentment means satisfaction, and satisfaction means to have enough. This understanding is reinforced by the meaning of “abundance” in English and in most ancient languages.

Our English word “abundance” comes from the two Latin words ab and undare which mean “to rise in waves” or “to overflow.” The first translation gives a picture of the unceasing rise of the waves upon a seashore. There the waves rise again and again. One wave surges forward and exhausts its force on the sand, but another follows and another and another. Thus it will continue as long as time lasts. The other picture is of a flood. This makes us think of a river fed by heavy rains, rising irresistibly until it overflows its banks. The abundant life is, therefore, one in which we are content in the knowledge that God’s grace is more than sufficient for our needs, that nothing can suppress it, and that God’s favor toward us is unending.

The Greek word for “abundance,” perissos, has a mathematical meaning and generally denotes a surplus. In this sense it is used of the twelve baskets of food that remained after Christ’s feeding of the five thousand, as related in Matthew’s Gospel (14:20). It is translated “remains.” The comparative is used to say that John the Baptist excelled the Old Testament prophets in dignity and importance (Matt. 11:9) and that love is more important than all sacrifices (Mark 12:33).

Made Alive

Before one can know the abundant life, he must first know life. That is, he must first be made alive through faith in Christ. Christ is speaking of this when he says, “I have come that they may have life.” It is only after this that he adds, “and have it to the full.”

Are you aware that you have been made alive spiritually? You should be just as certain of this as you are that you have been made alive physically. In fact, one whole book of the Bible has been written so that Christians (who have been made alive through the new birth) might be certain of it and might grow in Christ on the basis of that assurance. The book is 1 John, and John tells us that this is his purpose in writing. He says, “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13). A few verses earlier he tells us that God has given life to all who believe on Jesus as God’s Son and that they can be assured of this because God himself tells them that this is what he has done.

The Twenty-Third Psalm

This brings us to the abundant life itself, and in order to discuss it in its fullest biblical framework I want to take you to the Twenty-third Psalm. This psalm is, above all, the psalm of the contented life. When it begins by saying “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want” this is precisely what it is talking about. Not to be in want is to be content, and this state can exist only when the sheep is in the care of a good shepherd. In the psalm David tells us that he is content in the Lord in reference to five things.

First, he does not lack rest. He indicates this by saying, “He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul.”

In the small but very rewarding book, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23,  author Phillip Keller, who was himself a shepherd, tells of the difficulty there is in getting a sheep to lie down. Sheep do not easily lie down, he says. In fact, “It is almost impossible for them to be made to lie down unless four requirements are met. Owing to their timidity they refuse to lie down unless they are free of all fear. Because of the social behavior within a flock sheep will not lie down unless they are free from friction with others of their kind. If tormented by flies or parasites, sheep will not lie down. … Lastly, sheep will not lie down as long as they feel in need of finding food. They must be free from hunger.” Freedom from fear, tension, aggravation, and hunger! These are the four necessities. And the important thing, as Keller points out, is that it is only the shepherd himself who can provide them.

This is an interesting picture. For when the psalm begins with the sheep at rest it begins with a picture of sheep who have found their shepherd to be a good shepherd, that is, one who is able to meet their physical needs and to provide them with release from anxiety. Moreover, it is interesting that it begins at this point. For the other advantages of the contented life—guidance, comfort, safety, provision, and a destiny—come only to one who has found the Lord adequate to his every need.

Guidance

Second, the psalmist tells us that he does not lack guidance. For “he leads me beside quiet waters” and “he guides me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.”

Sheep are stupid creatures. In fact, they are probably the most stupid animals on earth. One aspect of their stupidity is seen in the fact that they so easily wander away. They can have a good shepherd who has brought them to the best grazing lands, near an abundant supply of water—still they will wander away over a hill to where the fields are barren and the water undrinkable. Or again, they are creatures of habit. They can have found good grazing land due to the diligence of the shepherd; but then having found it, they will continue to graze upon it until every blade of grass and even every root is eaten, the fields ruined, and themselves impoverished. This has actually happened to sheep and the land they graze on in many parts of the world—Spain, Greece, Mesopotamia, North Africa, parts of the western United States, and New Zealand.

No other class of livestock requires more careful handling and more detailed directions than do sheep. Therefore, a shepherd who is able to give good guidance is essential for their welfare. He will move the sheep from field to field (before deterioration sets in) and will always stay near water. He will chase strays. He will plan the grazing to fit the seasons of the year. In the same way, we too need the Good Shepherd. We do not lack guidance if we will but have it.

Safety

Third, David tells us that he does not lack safety, even in the presence of great danger. “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”

This verse often has been taken as providing words of comfort for those who are dying; and it is not wrongly used in that way. God certainly is a source of comfort in death. Primarily, however, the verse speaks of the shepherd’s ability to protect the sheep in moments of danger. The picture in this verse is of the passage from the lowlands, where sheep spend the winter, through the valleys to the high pastures where they go in summer. The valleys are the places of richest pasture and of abundant water. But they also are places of danger. Wild animals lurk in the broken canyon walls to either side. Sudden storms may sweep down the valleys. There may be floods. The sun does not shine so well into the valleys. So there really is shadow, which at any moment might become death’s shadow. It is through such experiences that our Lord leads us in safety.

In the book that I referred to earlier, Keller notes how often Christians speak of their desire “to move on to higher ground with God,” wanting to move above the lowlands of life and yet not realizing that mountaintop experiences are entered into only by passing through the valleys. Strong faith comes from having faith tested. Patience comes from having lived through tribulations. This means that life will not necessarily be smooth under the direction of our Shepherd. He will sometimes lead us through rough places. Nevertheless, as we go through them we can know of his ability to keep us from falling and to present us before the presence of his Father with great joy.

Keller writes: “The basic question is not whether we have many or few valleys. It is not whether those valleys are dark or merely dim with shadows. The question is how do I react to them? How do I go through them? How do I cope with the calamities that come my way? With Christ I face them calmly. With His gracious Spirit to guide me I face them fearlessly. I know of a surety that only through them can I possibly travel on to higher ground with God.”

Provision

Fourth, Psalm 23 speaks of the shepherd’s provision for each physical need of the flock. “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies, you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.”

Keller thinks that the reference to preparing the table refers to the shepherd’s advance preparation of the high tablelands or mesas where the sheep graze in summer. If so, it refers to the elimination of hazards, the destruction of poisonous plants, and the driving away of predators—all before the sheep arrive. If it does not refer to this, it must be taken merely of God’s provision of peace and feeding even when enemies lurk nearby. In such a time, says David, God anoints him with oil and fills his cup of wine to overflowing.

In biblical imagery oil and wine speak of joy and prosperity; for the growing of olives and grapes and their transformation into oil and wine take time and gentle care. In times of domestic turmoil or war these tasks were forgotten.

Moreover, oil and wine well suited the inhabitants of a dry and barren land and were therefore highly valued. In Palestine, where the sun shines fiercely most of the year and the temperature continually soars up into the hundreds, the skin quickly becomes cracked and broken, and throats become dusty and parched. Oil soothes the skin, particularly the face. Wine clears the throat. Therefore, when a guest arrived at the home of a friend in Palestine in Christ’s or David’s day, hospitality demanded the provision of oil and wine so that the ravages of travel might be overcome and friends might make merry in each other’s company. David spoke of this elsewhere when he prayed, “O Lord … let your face shine on your servant” (Ps. 31:14, 16). A shining face was the face of a friend. In another passage he thanks God for “wine that gladdens the heart of man, [and] oil to make his face shine” (Ps. 104:15).

David knew of God’s great love and provision; his face shone, and his heart was made merry because of it. Oh for the shining face and the merry heart today! Far too many have scowling faces and gloomy hearts, but that is not what God intends for his children. Instead, if we will allow him to lead us to the high pastures of the Christian life we will find our table prepared, our heads anointed with purest oil, and our cups overflowing with the wine of joy.

A Heavenly Home

Finally, having spoken of all these provisions, David adds no less gladly that he does not lack for a heavenly home. He is blessed in this life, but it is not in this life only that he knows God’s goodness. He will know it forever. Thus he declares, “Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever” (Ps. 23:6).

To have a sure home is one of the great desires of the nomadic people who have generally occupied that area of the Near East bordered by the Mediterranean Sea, the Red Sea, and the great Arabian desert. T. E. Lawrence, who gained fame as Lawrence of Arabia during World War I, has written of this eloquently in his classic Seven Pillars of Wisdom. He tells in the opening pages of that book how, because of the geography of this area, one tribe after another came out of the desert to fight for the lush Judean highlands, which contained the best trees, crops, and pastures. The Israelites in their conquest of Palestine under Joshua were just one of these peoples. When one group (like the Israelites) succeeded, the conquered people generally moved just a bit south into the Negev (which was also good land but not quite as good as that to the north) and displaced others. Those who were displaced in turn displaced others, and those displaced still others, with the result that there was always a constant movement around the entire area. The last of the peoples would be forced back into the desert with nothing before them but Damascus. At some point all the peoples of the Near East had this background. So, for most of them, Damascus with its ample rivers and fields became the symbol of true abundance at the end of life’s pilgrimage. It symbolized home.

For us who know the Good Shepherd there is also a similar longing; but the longing is not for Damascus or any other earthly home. Our longing is for that great and final home that the Lord Jesus Christ has himself gone to prepare for us. He has said, “I am going to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am” (John 14:2–3). With such a promise we know that we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. Of our state in that home John the evangelist later wrote in the Book of Revelation: “Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat upon them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Rev. 7:16–17).

The blessings of this life and heaven too! Nor can we forget that this was achieved for us by One who himself became a lamb in order to die for us so that we might be able to enter into the fullness of such a great salvation.[1]


10 Using vivid language, Jesus says that the Jewish establishment (the “thief”) has as its purpose “to steal and kill and destroy.” But this is not true of Jesus the shepherd—he has come so that his followers “may have life, and have it to the full.” The former are life denying, while Jesus is life affirming. The life that Jesus came to provide is not physical but spiritual. Yet that which is spiritual naturally overflows into every aspect of physical existence. Life embraces all that it means to be alive in this world and firmly attached by faith to the living Lord. Fullness of life is the reward of faith. It is by trusting Jesus and forgetting self that real life—physical and spiritual—breaks into one’s consciousness like the dawning of a new day (cf. Mk 8:35 par.).[2]


10:10 / That they may have life, and have it to the full: The niv correctly indicates that the last phrase is rhetorical. There are not two stages of Christian experience: life, and full or abundant life. The only spiritual life this Gospel knows is life to the full. It is the “eternal life” that Jesus gives, the only genuine life there is. The close connection between life and freedom recalls 8:32–36.[3]


Jesus is the Only Door to the Fold

So Jesus said to them again, “Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All who came before Me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not hear them. I am the door; if anyone enters through Me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (10:7–10)

Here Jesus changed the metaphor slightly. In the first figure of speech, He was the Shepherd; here He is the Door to the sheepfold. This is the third of seven statements in John’s gospel where “I AM” is followed by a predicate nominative (v. 11; 6:35; 8:12; 11:25; 14:6; 15:1, 5).

Since the religious leaders had failed to understand His first figure of speech, Jesus said to them again, “Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep.” Sometimes the shepherd slept in the opening of the sheepfold to guard the sheep. No one could enter or leave except through him. In Jesus’ metaphor He is the door through which the sheep enter the safety of God’s fold and go out to the rich pasture of His blessing. It is through Him that lost sinners can approach the Father and appropriate the salvation He provides; Jesus alone is “the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through [Him]” (14:6; cf. Acts 4:12; 1 Cor. 1:30; 3:11; 1 Tim. 2:5). Only Jesus is the true source of the knowledge of God and salvation, and the basis for spiritual security.

The Lord’s assertion, “All who came before Me are thieves and robbers,” does not, of course, include Israel’s true spiritual leaders (such as Moses, Joshua, David, Solomon, Ezra, Nehemiah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel, among many others). Jesus was referring to Israel’s false shepherds—her wicked kings, corrupt priests, false prophets, and pseudo-messiahs. However, the true sheep did not hear them; they did not heed them and were not led astray by them (see the discussion of vv. 4 and 5 above).

Then Jesus reiterated the vital truth of verse 7: “I am the door;” and He added the promise, “If anyone enters through Me, he will be saved” from sin and hell. Christ’s sheep will experience God’s love, forgiveness, and salvation; they will go in and out freely, always having access to God’s blessing and protection, and never fearing any harm or danger. They will find satisfying pasture as the Lord feeds them (cf. Ps. 23:1–3; Ezek. 34:15) on His Word (cf. Acts 20:32). In utter contrast to the thieving false shepherds who, like their father the devil (8:44) came only to steal and kill and destroy the sheep, Jesus came that they may have spiritual and eternal life (cf. John 5:21; 6:33, 51–53, 57; Rom. 6:4; Gal. 2:20; Eph. 2:1, 5; Col. 2:13), and have it abundantly. Perissos (abundantly) describes something that goes far beyond what is necessary. The matchless gift of eternal life exceeds all expectation (cf. John 4:10 with 7:38; see also Rom. 8:32; 2 Cor. 9:15).[4]


[1] Boice, J. M. (2005). The Gospel of John: an expositional commentary (pp. 747–752). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

[2] Mounce, R. H. (2007). John. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Luke–Acts (Revised Edition) (Vol. 10, p. 502). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[3] Michaels, J. R. (2011). John (p. 183). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

[4] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2006). John 1–11 (pp. 430–431). Chicago: Moody Press.

August 31, 2017: Verse of the day

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The Presence of the Truth

“These things I have spoken to you while abiding with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you.” (14:25–26)

Throughout His ministry, Jesus had been the source of truth for the disciples (cf. v. 6). “These things (the Father’s word; v. 24),” He reminded them, “I have spoken to you while abiding with you.” But just as He would not leave them without a source of comfort, so also He would not leave the disciples without a source of truth. He would send the Holy Spirit, the “Spirit of truth” (v. 17), to guide and teach them. Apart from His revelation, there is no way to know spiritual truth. Since “the world through its wisdom did not come to know God” (1 Cor. 1:21), fallen mankind is “always learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim. 3:7). It is only when people are “saved [that they] come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4).

Even the disciples, before Pentecost, found it difficult to understand all that Jesus taught them. According to John 2:22, it was not until after the resurrection that they understood His teaching in verse 19. Nor did they grasp the full significance of the triumphal entry until after Jesus had been glorified (John 12:16). Because of their obtuseness, Jesus told them, “I have many more things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now” (16:12). They needed instruction, so Jesus promised them, The Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name (cf. Acts 2:33) He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you (cf. 16:13). The phrase, in My name, means “on My behalf,” as it also does in verse 13. Just as Jesus came in the Father’s name (5:43), so also will the Spirit come in Jesus’ name. As another Comforter like Jesus, the Spirit will always act in perfect harmony with Christ’s desires, purposes, and will. “He will glorify Me,” Jesus would later tell the disciples, “for He will take of Mine and will disclose it to you” (16:14). In the divine plan, the Spirit’s ministry is to testify about Christ (15:26), not draw attention to Himself (cf. 16:13).

The Spirit is the believer’s resident truth teacher (1 John 2:20, 27); by illuminating God’s Word to their understanding, He thus grants Christians the knowledge of God that leads them to spiritual maturity.

But Christ’s promise that the Spirit would bring to their remembrance all that He had said to them was primarily a promise to the apostles of divine inspiration. The Holy Spirit’s supernatural guidance granted them an inerrant understanding of Jesus Christ’s person and teaching. The apostles (and their close associates) recorded that divinely inspired truth in the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament.

Peter described the process of inspiration in 2 Peter 1:20–21: “But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.” The apostle Paul declared, “All Scripture is inspired by God” (lit., “God-breathed,” 2 Tim. 3:13). The Holy Spirit inspired the very words of Scripture, not merely the thoughts of the writers (1 Cor. 2:13). The Bible is therefore inerrant and authoritative, and thus the only infallible rule of faith and practice. It alone contains “the sacred writings which are able to give [one] the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 3:15). For the redeemed, the Bible is “the sword of the Spirit” (Eph. 6:17) and is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16–17).

Armed with the truth and accompanied by the presence of God, the disciples and their contemporaries would soon be those who “turned the world upside down” (Acts 17:6 kjv). But in this moment of distress, just hours before the cross, the situation looked desperately hopeless. Aware of the disciples’ distress, Jesus pointed them to the ultimate and only sure source of hope—the triune God. In the same way that the promise of God’s presence heartened them two millennia ago, it should still bring confidence and courage to believers today, since it provides comfort both now (2 Cor. 1:3–4; cf. Pss. 23:4; 86:17; Matt. 5:4; Acts 9:31), and forever (Isa. 25:8; 2 Thess. 2:16; Rev. 7:17; 21:4).[1]


The Holy Spirit as Teacher

John 14:25–26

“All this I have spoken while still with you. But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.”

John 14:26 is the shortest of those sections of the final discourses dealing with the Holy Spirit, yet it is probably true that it gives us the fullest definition. The Holy Spirit is described as the “Counselor.” We have already seen what this means in our discussion of verses 16–18. He is described as being “holy”—the Holy Spirit. Finally, he is described as being a “teacher.” Here are three definitions: the Counselor, Holy One, and Teacher. Yet when the verse is looked at closely, it is undoubtedly the last of these, the fact that the Holy Spirit is a teacher, that is emphasized. The role of the Holy Spirit as Counselor is emphasized in the earlier verses. The matter of holiness is emphasized in 16:7–11. But here (as also at 15:26–27 and 16:12–15) the special ministry of the Spirit as teacher is brought forward.

When the Lord says that the Holy Spirit is to “teach you all things,” the reference is primarily to the apostles. These were those whom Jesus had chosen to be authoritative spokesmen for the truth he had revealed. They were to remember it and then record it in the pages of what has become the New Testament. Moreover, this teaching was to become normative for the church. This same idea is clear in that verse in which the Lord says, “When he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all [the] truth.” Jesus did not mean that all that could possibly be known would be revealed to them. All things that can possibly be known are known only to God. But he did mean that the Holy Spirit would reveal to them the full truth of the gospel centered in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. And this he did. This was a unique ministry of the Holy Spirit to the apostles.

At the same time, however, there is a secondary sense in which these words apply to Christians who are living today. The Holy Spirit teaches us as well, and the Holy Spirit is the One who brings these things to our remembrance.

Need for Teaching

We need to look at the disciples first, however. Clearly, here were men who needed to be taught. They had been with the Lord Jesus Christ for three years. One might think that they would have understood the essence of his ministry and the gospel. He had spoken to them about these things. But the truth is that, although he had spoken to them about this, nevertheless they had not understood him. It is significant that verse 25 says, “All this I have spoken while still with you.” He had spoken to them, but that is not quite the same thing as saying that he had taught them. Obviously he had tried to teach the disciples, and had taught them many other things, but they had not yet really learned the great truths of the gospel. Actually, they were confused men who needed the Holy Spirit’s teaching.

They also had a particular problem with learning in this instance, for the Lord had announced his departure to them, and this had so seized upon their minds that they were not really hearing what he was saying. He had spoken about another Counselor, but they were not interested enough in the other Counselor even to learn about him. All they could grasp was that Jesus was to be taken from them.

So the Lord tells the disciples, “You need teaching; you really do. You have heard a lot, but you do not understand it. You need to be taught. I am going. Nevertheless, the Holy Spirit is coming, and one of his roles (a very important role) is to teach you.”

The second interesting thing about the teaching of the Holy Spirit is that God himself earnestly wanted to teach the disciples. We see this in the fact that the entire Trinity is mentioned in this verse: “But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you.” In other words, the Father in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ is sending the Holy Spirit to teach the disciples, so much is he interested in having them come to the knowledge of the truth concerning Jesus.

I suppose that if we had been the Lord Jesus Christ, we might have said at this point, “Oh, these dull, dull disciples!” We could even have boasted about the quality of our instruction. We could have said, “It is impossible to imagine a better teacher than they have just had. Furthermore, they have gone through an entire seminary course in three years and have combined formal teaching with on-the-field experience. They have had the advantage of a first-class example. So if they still do not get it, I will flunk them.” We might have said that. But this is not the attitude of God. The God who recognizes, on the one hand, that the disciples needed teaching, is the same God who, on the other hand, sends the Holy Spirit in order that they might be taught.

If we ask at that point, “Were they taught?” the answer is yes; of course they were. The proof of it is our Bible. Furthermore, once the Holy Spirit had come, they began to get it quickly, because on the day of Pentecost, Peter, who on an earlier occasion had said when the Lord announced his crucifixion, “Far be it, Lord, that such a thing should happen to you,” who did not understand Jesus at all, this same Peter stood up and announced with great understanding that what had occurred in Jerusalem six weeks before had been by the foreordination of God. In other words, the crucifixion of Christ had fallen out in accordance with God’s perfect plan and was the heart of redemption. Then Peter preached Christ to the very men who had crucified him, and the Holy Spirit blessed the message so that many came to faith on that occasion. The disciples did learn through the Holy Spirit. Moreover, the Holy Spirit guided them to write these things in the books that became our New Testament.

These books record what the Lord Jesus Christ said and did, explain it, and draw conclusions. In this sense the critics are right when they say that these books are not pure biography, that is, objective historical biography. They are biography with an interpretation attached. But the interpretation, as well as the biography, is that which the Holy Spirit gave.

Our Teacher Too

All this applies primarily to the disciples, but it also comes down to us in a much closer way. For we need to be taught also, and the Holy Spirit, who taught the disciples, is our teacher as well.

Paul writes about it to the Corinthians. He talks first of the fact that in ourselves we are unable to understand spiritual truth, even when it is recorded in the pages of Scripture. But he tells us in addition that the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth, who inspired the Bible, speaks from its pages to bring us understanding. “As it is written, ‘No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him’—but God has revealed it to us by his Spirit. The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the man’s spirit within him? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, that we many understand what God has freely given us. This is why we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, expressing spritiual truths in spiritual words” (1 Cor. 2:9–13).

Here the ministry of the Holy Spirit as teacher is explained. It was exercised, in the first instance, when God revealed truth to the apostles and they recorded it in what would later become canonized as the pages of the New Testament. It is then exercised, in the second instance, when this same Holy Spirit teaches us from the truths that they have recorded.

Remembering

The first part of John 14:26 speaks of the teaching ministry of the Holy Spirit, but there is a second part that speaks of remembrance. “But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and remind you of everything I have said to you.” Why, if they were taught all things, does anything need to be brought back to mind? As we begin to reflect on this word, we see that a ministry of the Holy Spirit in helping us remember is necessary because of what we are like and because of the inability of our minds to retain important teachings. It is possible to be well taught, even brilliantly taught, and still forget; or, in the disciples’ case, to be taught the meaning of Christ’s ministry but forget that upon which it is based.

The Lord’s emphasis on remembering teaches us two separate truths. First, it teaches us that the wisdom of God is not a new thing. It is that which God has revealed in the past and that is the same because he is the same. We have a tendency, especially in America and in our age, always to be inventing theology. Churchmen speak about “process theology” today. It means “evolving” theology. But this is not the outlook of the Scriptures. Some of our contemporaries seem always to be searching the Bible in the light of newspapers and popular books in order to come up with something that no one has ever heard before. When they do and when they write a book about it, they get a hearing. This is the nature of The Passover Plot, The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross, and some other popular religious books. People buy them and say, “We never heard that before! Therefore, it must be true!” But it is not true, nor is it a product of the Holy Spirit’s ministry. The Holy Spirit does not give us new doctrines. Rather, he brings old truths to our remembrance.

So what we preach is not new doctrine but the old doctrine once and for all delivered to the saints. It is the doctrine of man’s total inability to help himself spiritually, God’s grace in Jesus Christ, the ministry of the Holy Spirit who takes these truths and brings them home to our hearts and minds so that we understand them, and God’s unfailing perseverance with his people. We preach that God does not abandon us, that God who has begun to save us in such a marvelous way, giving us a new spirit and creating a new soul, will persevere to the end, at which time he will give us a new body and make us like the Lord Jesus Christ forevermore. These are not new doctrines. They are old doctrines. They are the doctrines that the Holy Spirit brings to our remembrance.

The second truth the word “remind” teaches is that we tend to forget these doctrines, even though we have heard them many times. The history of the church is the history of great blessing through the Holy Spirit, a time of reformation and revival, followed by a gradual forgetting of the message. This happens again and again; so one of the jobs of the minister is to remind the congregation of the old truths. One of the jobs of Christian people is to remind each other of them, and one of the jobs of the Christian church is to remind the world of these old doctrines, even though the world may reject them.

He Shall Testify of Me

This verse also says something else, and we do not want to miss that either. It says that the object of the teaching is Christ. This is true in this text: “He will remind you of everything I have said to you.” It is also true in the verses about the Holy Spirit in John 15 and 16: “When the Counselor comes, whom I well send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father, he will testify about me. And you also must testify, for you have been with me from the beginning” (15:26–27). “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. He will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you” (16:12–14).

We have a danger, even as evangelical people, of making the Scriptures an end in themselves. We study the Bible as we would a textbook. We memorize the data. But we are always in danger of forgetting that the purpose of the Scriptures is not to exist as an end in themselves, though they will endure forever—“heaven and earth will pass away, but my word will not pass away”—but to reveal Christ to the seeking heart and mind.

God’s Power

There is a final point that belongs with what we have been saying. The Holy Spirit is also the One who enables us to teach these truths to others. Teaching spiritual truths cannot be done in the power of the flesh. Paul writes about it in 1 Corinthians in the verses that come just before the ones cited earlier. “When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. … My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power” (2:1–2, 4).

Three things are necessary if God’s truth is to be properly communicated. First, there must be the revelation of the truth to the apostles by the Holy Spirit. This has been done. Second, there must be the teaching of the Holy Spirit to our hearts, so that, as we read their words, we come face-to-face with the Lord Jesus Christ about whom they wrote. Third, there must be the continuing work of the Holy Spirit to take our testimony concerning this Word and carry it home to the hearts of those who have not yet heard or understood it. Three stages!

But there can be error in each. There are some who do not begin with the Scriptures. They consider the Bible to contain the words of men rather than the very words that the Holy Ghost taught to the apostles. Having thrown out the base, they have nothing on which to stand, and their theology becomes mere speculation. There are others who accept the Bible as the Word of God but who do not allow the Holy Spirit to teach them. They study the Bible in an academic way. Although they may have a high doctrine of Scripture, they do not strive to see the Lord Jesus Christ in its pages. Then there are those who accept the Bible as the Word of God and who do meet with Jesus Christ, but they testify in their own power in a way that brings glory to themselves, and few are won.

We do a farmer’s work. First, we prepare the soil. Then we take a seed and plant it. We water it, and we wait for it to grow. But we do not give life to the seed. The seed already has life in it. Moreover, we can scratch a furrow and put the seed in it, but the ground must have the nutrients that God has placed there. And even then the work of God is not finished, for the seed will not grow unless the sun shines upon it. The Holy Spirit must be the sun in our witnessing. We must be faithful in scratching the furrows, watering, even pulling out weeds. But we must look to God to give life.[2]


26 The instruction of the disciples, however, will not cease. The Father will send the Holy Spirit to remind them of all that Jesus has said and help them understand the full meaning of his teaching. Apart from this teaching role of the Spirit, there never could have been a reliable gospel or, for that matter, a NT at all. As Peter put it, “Men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pe 1:21).

The Counselor who is to be sent by the Father is the Holy Spirit. (Only here in John is the title in Greek given in its fullest form: to pneuma to hagion, GK 4460, 51). For the early Christians the title would emphasize the holiness of the Spirit rather than his might and power. In his vision of the exalted Lord, Isaiah saw the seraphs as they circled the throne and called out, “Holy, holy, holy [hagios, LXX] is the Lord Almighty” (Isa 6:3). As God is holy so also is his Spirit. Jesus says that the Holy Spirit will be sent by the Father “in [his] name,” i.e., his task will be in accord with the character of Jesus.

If we take the last two clauses of v. 26 as synonymous parallelism (so Brown, 651), the teaching work of the Spirit will be to “remind” the disciples of all that Jesus taught. It will not consist of new revelations. The Spirit will take the words of Jesus and make them known (cf. 16:13–15). He will help the disciples grasp the full meaning of what Jesus was teaching while he was with them in person. It is one thing to understand a statement as being true; it is something quite different to grasp the full meaning and significance of that truth. The Holy Spirit’s teaching ministry belongs in the latter category.

Calvin, 2:88, calls the Spirit “the inward Teacher (interior magister)” and points out that God has two ways of teaching: first, the words that fall on our ears, and second, the inward action of the Spirit. It is still the case that biblical truth may be heard and understood without its more profound meaning laying hold of the mind and heart of the listener. Theology as an academic discipline is not the same as truth about God understood from the heart. Obviously, the “all things” taught by the Spirit does not include matters irrelevant to God’s purpose in sending Jesus to be our Savior.[3]


A revealing teacher who conveys the truth (vv. 25–26)

While most of the promises given to the disciples at this meal are applicable for all followers of Jesus Christ at all times, this particular promise was specific to the disciples who were there in that upper room. You can imagine their concerns—how are we going to remember everything he said to us? How can we tell others what he said? Jesus comforted them by telling them that one of the jobs of the Holy Spirit would be to remind them precisely and accurately of everything he had said. That accounts for the remarkable accuracy and consistency of the New Testament record. It was supernatural that various men could naturally and personally record the life and teaching of Jesus and at the same time be entirely consistent with one another.[4]


14:26 / Will remind you of everything I have said to you: Such language was used especially of warnings about trouble and persecution (cf. 13:18; 16:4; and perhaps 14:29), but memory also played an important part in the interpretation of Jesus’ deeds (cf. 2:17, 22; 12:16). The writer of this Gospel probably saw himself as one to whom the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, had given special insight and perspective, after the fact, on the words and deeds of Jesus as he wrote them down.[5]


[1] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2008). John 12–21 (pp. 119–120). Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers.

[2] Boice, J. M. (2005). The Gospel of John: an expositional commentary (pp. 1147–1152). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

[3] Mounce, R. H. (2007). John. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Luke–Acts (Revised Edition) (Vol. 10, pp. 568–569). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[4] Paterson, A. (2010). Opening Up John’s Gospel (p. 125). Leominster: Day One Publications.

[5] Michaels, J. R. (2011). John (p. 269). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

August 29, 2017: Verse of the day

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Confidence in the plan of God

whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. (1:20b–21)

Paul was not certain what God’s plan was for him, whether he would continue to serve and exalt Him through his life and ministry or through the final exaltation of death. Either way, the Lord’s will would be done; His plan would be fully accomplished.

To the elders from Ephesus, who met him on the beach near Miletus, Paul declared unequivocally, “I do not consider my life of any account as dear to myself, so that I may finish my course and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify solemnly of the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24). A short while later he said to the believers in Caesarea who were distressed by Agabus’s prophecy of Paul’s impending arrest: “What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be bound, but even to die at Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 21:13). He reminded the believers in Rome that “not one of us lives for himself, and not one dies for himself; for if we live, we live for the Lord, or if we die, we die for the Lord; therefore whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that He might be Lord both of the dead and of the living” (Rom. 14:7–9). Whether he lived or died, the apostle could say now as he would to Timothy a few years later: “I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim. 4:6–7). Either way, he would be victorious and Christ would be exalted.

The Greek phrase rendered to live is Christ and to die is gain contains no verb. It literally reads “to live Christ, to die gain.” Paul knew that living is Christ, because he would continue to serve Him while he lived. He also knew that dying would be gain because then he would be in God’s presence, able to worship and serve Him in holy perfection (cf. v. 23). Paul fully understood that wealth, power, influence, possessions, prestige, social standing, good health, business or professional success, and all other such things are transitory. Many acknowledge that truth, but not many live as if it is true. Few can say with Paul’s utter sincerity to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.

The apostle’s very being was wrapped up in his Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. He trusted, loved, served, witnessed for, and in every way was devoted to and dependent on Him. His only hope, his only purpose, his only reason to live was Christ. He traveled for Christ, preached for Christ, and was persecuted and imprisoned for Christ. Ultimately, he would die for Christ. But even death, by God’s marvelous grace, was ultimately for Paul’s eternal gain.[1]


What is Christianity?

Philippians 1:21

For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.

Philippians 1:21 is a text that cuts like a surgeon’s scalpel to the heart of Christianity. What is Christianity? This question is a puzzle to non-Christian historians, sociologists, psychologists, and others. It also puzzles the person on the street, the homemaker, the college student.

What is Christianity? The answer to that question is not unknown to the believing child of God. Christianity is a person, the Lord Jesus Christ. All that is rightly associated with Christianity finds its center of gravity in him. John R. W. Stott has written correctly, “The person and work of Christ are the foundation rock upon which the Christian religion is built. … Take Christ from Christianity, and you disembowel it; there is practically nothing left. Christ is the centre of Christianity; all else is circumference.”

Stopping Short

Many people do not realize this. They see only the paraphernalia of Christianity. Consequently, they form false conclusions about its essence and reject it on these grounds. In October of 1967, the Soviet Union launched a space probe designed to crash upon the surface of Venus and send back vital statistics about its surface temperature and atmospheric pressure. The space probe ceased transmitting 3,774 miles from the center of the planet, presumably because it had struck the surface. The information the probe gathered about the temperature and atmospheric pressure seemed unquestionable, and it suggested there could be life on Venus. Now, however, scientists have determined that the radius of Venus is only 3,759 miles, meaning that the Russian space probe ceased transmitting when it was still fifteen miles above the planet’s surface. Consequently, all of its figures were misleading. It gave the temperature fifteen miles above the planet’s surface, but it did not provide the information that the scientists most wanted to know.

In the same way thousands of well-meaning people stop receiving data when they are miles from the heart of Christianity. For many people a knowledge of Christianity stops at contact with those who claim to be Christians. They identify Christianity with so-called Christian character, and since many believers are far from what God intends them to be, this data gives a false impression. Other people actually get into the atmosphere, perhaps as far as the organization, and then conclude that Christianity is the visible church. This is like identifying life with a test tube full of chemicals, and this impression is misleading also. Other people get as far as the ceremonies of the church and often pass for Christians because they participate properly. The fact that so many congregations are filled with people who have gone no farther than this is one reason for the weakness of the Christian church today. Some people actually come as close as the creeds. They can recite them. Unfortunately, this too is less than Christianity, important as the creeds may be.

Christianity is a person, the Lord Jesus Christ. Nothing about Christianity will be rightly understood until there is faith in Christ and a personal relationship with him.

Christ and Paul

This truth was well known to the apostle Paul, and our text is a great expression of it. Paul writes: “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” (v. 21). This verse should be taken together with Galatians 2:20, which is Paul’s definitive commentary on it: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” These two verses, one from the early days of Paul’s ministry and the other from the end, summarize the living essence of Paul’s faith. Put the two together, and you have a great expression of what was undoubtedly the heartthrob of Paul’s life and Christian ministry.

One Christmas when I was a child I was given a kaleidoscope. I shall never forget how amazed I was to pick it up for the first time and to see the brilliant arrangement of colors as the bits of tinted glass were refracted many times by mirrors. I was even more amazed to find that the beauty increased infinitely as the kaleidoscope was turned. Our text from Philippians is like that. It is beautiful in itself, but it is even more beautiful as it is turned about and seen from new perspectives. What does it mean to say that Christianity is Christ or that the Christian life is Christ? As we turn the text about we can see that Christianity is faith in Christ; it is fellowship with Christ; and it is following after Christ. These are various aspects of the heart of Christianity.

Faith in Christ

When you say Christianity is Christ, you say, in the first place, that Christianity is faith in Christ. It is the acknowledgment that you can do nothing to save yourself, that you deserve hell from God rather than heaven, and that Christ has provided salvation for you by dying in your place. Moreover, it is a receiving of Jesus Christ as your Savior and as the Lord of your life. This is the message of the Book of Galatians and the central thrust of Paul’s words in Galatians 2:20.

To understand this verse properly, we must look at the historical background of the letter to the Galatians. The churches of Galatia were among the first Paul had founded, and they were particularly close to his heart. As Paul traveled through the Roman province of Galatia in what is now central Turkey, he endured real hardships as a result of preaching the gospel. We read in Galatians 4:13 that Paul had first preached “because of an illness,” and we are told in Acts that he had been stoned at Lystra. Such labors were hard, but they bore fruit, and everywhere Paul went he established congregations of believers. How Paul loved these people. He visited them on his second missionary journey and again on the third. He had put forth much energy on their behalf. He had lived with them and prayed with them. They were grounded in the gospel and trusted Christ and Christ alone for their salvation.

Then Paul went on to found churches elsewhere, and in his wake, like crows following behind a farmer as he plows a field, nonbelievers came trying to profit from Paul’s ministry. They came with a great show of authority and much human wisdom, teaching that salvation depended, at least in part, on human goodness. They reminded the Galatian Christians of the Jewish traditions and claimed a special relationship to the Jerusalem apostles. They even cast doubt on the validity of Paul’s apostleship. It is not enough, they said, to have faith in Christ to have salvation. It is necessary to become a Jew first. There must be circumcision, a keeping of the Jewish holy days, and many other things. To these legalizers salvation was not by faith alone.

The news reached Paul, and he was filled with righteous anger. These men were threatening to undo everything that he had accomplished among the Galatian people. Paul wrote back, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned!” (Gal. 1:6–9). For Paul, salvation was by faith in Christ alone, and he expressed this conviction vividly.

Are you trusting in Christ for your salvation? Earlier I mentioned those who reject true Christianity by stopping short at human character, the creeds, or Christian ceremonies. Unfortunately, many of these persons also trust these things to save them. Do you have faith in relics, in proper phrases, in the sacraments of your church, or in things you can do to improve your human character? These things will not save you and have no value in reconciling you to God. You must let God strip them away like worn out clothing. Christianity is faith in Christ, and in Christ alone.

Fellowship with Christ

Another aspect of the truth that Christianity is Christ is that Christianity is fellowship with Christ. This fact is a necessary complement to the truth that Christianity is faith in Christ, for Christians often tend to think of faith impersonally. Christianity is belief in Christ, but it is also communion or fellowship with him, and fellowship must be cultivated. The great evangelist and Bible teacher, A. W. Tozer, has written, “The modern scientist has lost God amid the wonders of His world; we Christians are in real danger of losing God amid the wonders of his Word. We have almost forgotten that God is a Person and, as such, can be cultivated as any person can.”

The fact that Christianity is a life to be cultivated is quite apparent in the early verses of 1 John. The writer of these verses is interested in the facts concerning the life of Jesus Christ. But his testimony does not stop with facts, nor is it given only to lead his readers to have orthodox opinions. John writes, “We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ” (1 John 1:3). Doctrine must lead to fellowship and fellowship to the riches of the Christian life. The next verse adds, “We write this to make our joy complete” (v. 4).

How unfortunate it is that many Christians go through life with somber faces! They know the facts of Christian faith and they trust Christ for their salvation, but there is no joy. There is nothing that gives evidence of God’s presence in the midst of life or in its tribulations. This should not be so. The presence of our Lord brings joy. And if there is no joy (or peace, or longsuffering, or patience, or any other Christian virtue for that matter), the cause may well be a lack of fellowship with Jesus.

If you lack Christian joy, it may be that things are keeping you from him. If so, you need to set them aside a while and spend time in Christ’s presence.

It may be that activities are keeping you from him. In that case it is far better that these be set aside. Mary and Martha were both friends of Jesus, and both were quite orthodox. In fact, it was Martha who ran to meet Jesus when he returned to Bethany following the death of Lazarus. It was she who expressed faith in the final resurrection (John 11:24) and revealed her personal faith in Jesus: “Lord, … if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:21). But when Jesus was in the home of Mary and Martha, it was Mary who sat at his feet while Martha served. And Jesus said, “Martha, Martha … you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:41–42). One thing is needed! How often we reverse the two. We think our service is needed and fellowship dispensable. We need to learn that nothing can be a substitute for the cultivation of the presence of God.

Following After Christ

To these truths we must also add that Christianity means following Christ. The Christ in whom we believe is a Christ on the move, and the fellowship we enjoy is not so much the fellowship of the living room as it is the fellowship of the soldier marching under the eye of his commander. In its simplest form Christ’s call was always the call, “Follow me.” It was the call to Matthew. It was the call to the rich young ruler. It was the call to the multitudes who came to hear him. Jesus always invited others to follow him and to unite their efforts with his cause. He invites you to follow him today.

You cannot follow Christ unless you have forsaken all that keeps you from him. Peter and Andrew left their nets. James and John left Zebedee. Matthew left his money tables. You must leave your sin, your personal sinful aspirations, your own conception of yourself. Moreover, you must continue to do so throughout your Christian life.

For this to be possible Paul says that there must be a crucifixion. It is true that he says, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:20). He says again, “The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). This is victory in the Christian life. But before he can say any of these things, Paul must be able to say that he is crucified with Christ. “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (v. 20). There must be the tearing of the flesh, the breaking of the bones, the shedding of blood before the spirit of the disciple is set free. Christianity is no easy thing. It is the walk of the disciple who must bear his own cross.

In Judea in the first Christian century there were certain customs that surrounded the relationship between a rabbi and those whom he chose to be disciples. One of these customs was that when the master moved from place to place the disciples literally followed behind him. We must imagine this being true many times of Christ and his disciples. He led them literally, as well as figuratively, and they followed where he led. During the days of Christ’s ministry there were hours spent in pleasant places—at a wedding or by the Sea of Galilee. At other times there were steps through angry crowds and steps before the faces of Christ’s enemies. All the time they followed. At last the steps of Christ led up the steep ascent to Jerusalem and stopped at the foot of the cross. The disciples were stunned. The work of three years appeared to have been undertaken in vain. But instead the work was finished; atonement was made; the veil was rent in two. Christ had provided access for all believers into God’s presence.

In the same way our following of Christ must lead to crucifixion and beyond the cross to glory. Neither you nor I must linger in the pleasant places. We must cast these behind and follow Jesus. Have you followed him through hostile crowds and dangers and yielded yourself to crucifixion?

In one of our hymns we sing:

Jesus, keep me near the cross;

There a precious fountain,

Free to all—a healing stream—

Flows from Calvary’s mountain.

The hymn embodies a great truth, but the truth we have been studying should be taken with it. We could also sing:

Jesus, keep me on the cross;

Let me wander never;

Then a twice-born child of God,

I’ll rise and live forever.

No one can crucify himself or herself. But God will crucify the Christian. He will place you on the cross, knowing that through death to self lies resurrection power and the removing of the veil.[2]


[1] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2001). Philippians (pp. 76–77). Chicago: Moody Press.

[2] Boice, J. M. (2000). Philippians: an expositional commentary (pp. 74–79). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

August 15, 2017: Verse of the day

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The Purpose of God’s Pattern

until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fulness of Christ. As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves, and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; but speaking the truth in love, (4:13–15a)

The building up of the redeemed involves a two–fold ultimate objective, which Paul identifies as the unity of the faith and the knowledge of the Son of God, out of which flow spiritual maturity, sound doctrine, and loving testimony.

Some commentators advocate the view that such an ultimate objective is only attainable at glorification, believing that Paul is describing our final heavenly unity and knowledge. But that idea does not fit the context at all, because the apostle is not describing the final work of Christ on behalf of the church in heaven but the work of gifted men in the church on earth. These results could only apply to the church in its earthly dimension.

Unity of the Faith

The ultimate spiritual target for the church begins with the unity of the faith (cf. v. 3). As in verse 5, faith does not here refer to the act of belief or of obedience but to the body of Christian truth, to Christian doctrine. The faith is the content of the gospel in its most complete form. As the church at Corinth so clearly illustrates, disunity in the church comes from doctrinal ignorance and spiritual immaturity. When believers are properly taught, when they faithfully do the work of service, and when the body is thereby built up in spiritual maturity, unity of the faith is an inevitable result. Oneness in fellowship is impossible unless it is built on the foundation of commonly believed truth. The solution to the divisions in Corinth was for everyone to hold the same understandings and opinions and to speak the same truths (1 Cor. 1:10).

God’s truth is not fragmented and divided against itself, and when His people are fragmented and divided it simply means they are to that degree apart from His truth, apart from the faith of right knowledge and understanding. Only a biblically equipped, faithfully serving, and spiritually maturing church can attain to the unity the faith. Any other unity will be on a purely human level and not only will be apart from but in constant conflict with the unity of the faith. There can never be unity in the church apart from doctrinal integrity.

Knowledge of Christ

The second result of following God’s pattern for building His church is attaining the knowledge of the Son of God. Paul is not talking about salvation knowledge but about the deep knowledge (epignōsis, full knowledge that is correct and accurate) through a relationship with Christ that comes only from prayer and faithful study of and obedience to God’s Word. After many years of devoted apostleship Paul still could say, “I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish in order that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him, … that I may know Him, and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings. … Not that I have already obtained it, or have already become perfect, but I press on in order that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:8–10, 12). Paul prayed that the Ephesians would have that “knowledge of Him” (1:17; cf. Phil. 1:4; Col. 1:9–10; 2:2). Growing in the deeper knowledge of the Son of God is a life–long process that will not be complete until we see our Lord face–to–face. That is the knowing of which Jesus spoke when He said, “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them” (John 10:27). He was not speaking of knowing their identities but of knowing them intimately, and that is the way He wants His people also to know Him.

Spiritual Maturity

The third result of following God’s pattern for His church is spiritual maturity, a maturity to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fulness of Christ. God’s great desire for His church is that every believer, without exception, come to be like His Son (Rom. 8:29), manifesting the character qualities of the One who is the only measure of the full–grown, perfect, mature man. The church in the world is Jesus Christ in the world, because the church is now the fullness of His incarnate Body in the world (cf. 1:23). We are to radiate and reflect Christ’s perfections. Christians are therefore called to “walk in the same manner as He walked” (1 John 2:6; cf. Col. 4:12), and He walked in complete and continual fellowship with and obedience to His Father. To walk as our Lord walked flows from a life of prayer and of obedience to God’s Word. “We all, with unveiled face beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:18). As we grow into deeper fellowship with Christ, the process of divine sanctification through His Holy Spirit changes us more and more into His image, from one level of glory to the next. The agent of spiritual maturity, as well as of every other aspect of godly living, is God’s own Spirit—apart from whom the sincerest prayer has no effectiveness (Rom. 8:26) and even God’s own Word has no power (John 14:26; 16:13–14; 1 John 2:20).

It is obvious that believers, all of whom have unredeemed flesh (Rom. 7:14; 8:23), cannot in this life fully and perfectly attain the measure of the stature which belongs to the fulness of Christ. But they must and can reach a degree of maturity that pleases and glorifies the Lord. The goal of Paul’s ministry to believers was their maturity, as indicated by his labors to “present every man complete (teleios, mature) in Christ” (Col. 1:28–29; cf. Phil. 3:14–15).

Sound Doctrine

The fourth result of following God’s pattern for His church is sound doctrine. The Christian who is properly equipped and mature is no longer a child who is tossed here and there by waves, and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming.

Kubia (trickery) is the term from which we get cube, and was used of dice–playing. Just as today, the dice were often “loaded” or otherwise manipulated by professional gamblers to their own advantage. The term for dice therefore became synonymous with dishonest trickery of any sort. Craftiness (panourgia; see Luke 20:23; 1 Cor. 3:19; 2 Cor. 12:16) is a similar term, carrying the idea of clever manipulation of error made to look like truth. Methodia (scheming) is used later in the letter to refer to “the schemes of the devil” (6:11). No doubt it has reference to planned, subtle, systematized error. Paul’s point is that neither the trickery of men nor the deceitful scheming of the devil will mislead the spiritually equipped and mature believer.

It is spiritual children (nēpios, lit., one who does not talk), such as were many of the Corinthian believers (1 Cor. 3:1; 14:20), who are in constant danger of falling prey to every new religious fad or novel interpretation of Scripture that comes along. Having no thorough knowledge of God’s Word, they are tossed here and there by waves of popular sentiment and are carried about by every wind of new doctrine that seems appealing. Because they are not anchored in God’s truth, they are subject to every sort of counterfeit truth—humanistic, cultic, pagan, demonic, or whatever. The New Testament is replete with warnings against this danger (see Acts 20:30–31; Rom. 16:17–18; 2 Cor. 11:3–4; Gal. 1:6–7; 3:1; Col. 2:4–8; 1 Tim. 4:1, 6–7; 2 Tim. 2:15–18; 3:6–9; 4:3; Heb. 13:9; 2 Pet. 2:1–3; 1 John 2:19, 26).

The immature Christian is gullible; and in the history of the church no group of believers has fallen into more foolishness in the name of Christianity than has much of the church today. Despite our unprecedented education, sophistication, freedom, and access to God’s Word and sound Christian teaching, it seems that every religious huckster (cf. 2 Cor. 2:17; 4:2; 11:13–15) can find a ready hearing and financial support from among God’s people. The number of foolish, misdirected, corrupt, and even heretical leaders to whom many church members willingly give their money and allegiance is astounding and heartbreaking.

The cause of this spiritual plight is not hard to find. A great many evangelists have presented an easy–believism gospel and a great many pastors have taught an almost contentless message. In many places the Body of Christ has not been built up in sound doctrine or in faithful obedience. Consequently there is little doctrinal solidarity (“unity of faith”) and little spiritual maturity (“knowledge of the Son of God … to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fulness of Christ”).

Just as many families today are dominated by their children, so are many churches. It is tragic when the church’s children—spiritually immature believers (cf. 1 John 2:13–14) who change their views with every wind of doctrine and continually fall prey to men’s trickery and Satan’s craftiness and deceitful scheming—are found among its most influential teachers and leaders.

Authentic Loving Testimony

The fifth and final feature that is primarily a requirement and yet also a result of following God’s pattern for His church will be in direct opposition to being tossed, carried away, tricked, and deceived by the schemes of Satan—namely, speaking the truth in love, a principle that applies to every aspect of Christian life and ministry. The verb translated speaking the truth is alētheuō, which means to speak, deal, or act truthfully. Some have translated it “truthing it,” while others say it conveys the idea of walking in a truthful way. The verb refers to being true in the widest sense and is hard to translate into English. Yet in Galatians 4:16 it seems to especially emphasize preaching the gospel truth. Since the reference in Galatians is the only other use of the verb in the New Testament, it seems safe to say that the emphasis in Ephesians 4 is also on the preaching of the truth (within the context of a truthful and authentic Christian life). Authentic, mature believers whose lives are marked by love will not be victims of false teaching (v. 14) but will be living authentically and proclaiming the true gospel to a deceived and deceiving world. The work of the church goes full swing, from evangelism to edification to evangelism, and so on and on until the Lord returns. The evangelized are edified, and they, in turn, evangelize and edify others.

The spiritually equipped church, whose members are sound in doctrine and mature in their thinking and living, is a church that will reach out in love to proclaim the saving gospel. God does not give us knowledge, understanding, gifts, and maturity to keep but to share. He does not equip us to stagnate but to serve. We are not gifted and edified in order to be complacent and self–satisfied but in order to do the Lord’s work of service in building up and expanding the Body of Christ. In love is the attitude in which we evangelize (cf. 3:17–19; 4:2; 5:1–2). Paul was an example for such love, as seen in the following testimony:

But we proved to be gentle among you, as a nursing mother tenderly cares for her own children. Having thus a fond affection for you, we were well–pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become very dear to us. For you recall, brethren, our labor and hardship, how working night and day so as not to be a burden to any of you, we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. You are witnesses, and so is God, how devoutly and uprightly and blamelessly we behaved toward you believers; just as you know how we were exhorting and encouraging and imploring each one of you as a father would his own children, so that you may walk in a manner worthy of the God who calls you into His own kingdom and glory. (1 Thess. 2:7–12; cf. 2 Cor. 12:15; Phil. 2:17; Col. 1:24–29)

John Bunyan said of Christians, “When all their garments are white the world will count them His,” and the skeptical German poet Heinrich Heine said to Christians, “You show me your redeemed life and I might be inclined to believe in your Redeemer.” The authentic life that speaks the gospel with a spirit of loving sacrifice will be eminently convincing.

Speaking the truth in love seems deceptively easy, but it is extremely difficult. It is possible only for the believer who is thoroughly equipped in sound doctrine and in spiritual maturity. For the immature believer, right doctrine can be no more than cold orthodoxy and love can be no more than sentimentality. Only the mature man, the man who is growing up to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fulness of Christ is consistent in having sufficient wisdom to understand God’s truth and effectively present it to others; and only he has the continual humility and grace to present it in love and in power. The combination of truth and love counteracts the two great threats to powerful ministry—lack of truth and lack of compassion.

we are to grow up in all aspects into Him, who is the head, even Christ (4:15b)

This loving, authentic testimony assists believers in growing into the very likeness of Jesus Christ. The phrase in all aspects calls for a comprehensive Christlikeness such as that described in verse 13 (cf. 1 Cor. 11:1; 2 Cor. 3:18; Gal. 4:19; Eph. 5:2; 1 Pet. 2:21; 1 John 2:6).

The head … Christ expresses a familiar Pauline analogy indicating Christ’s authority (Eph. 1:22; Col. 1:18), leadership (Eph. 5:23), and here, as in Colossians 2:19, controlling power. He not only is the sovereign Head and the ruling Head but also the organic Head. He is the source of power for all functions. Human beings are declared officially dead when the ekg is flat, signifying brain death. As the brain is the control center of physical life, so the Lord Jesus Christ is the organic source of life and power to His Body, the church.

To grow into His likeness is to be completely subject to His controlling power, obedient to His every thought and expression of will. It is to personify Paul’s prayers “For to me, to live is Christ” (Phil. 1:21) and “It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2:20).[1]


Spiritual Adults

Ephesians 4:14–16

Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.

Several years ago the elders of Tenth Presbyterian Church spent a great deal of time thinking about a succinct statement of the unique purpose of the church. When it was finished it read like this:

Tenth Presbyterian Church is committed to developing and maintaining a strong teaching pulpit in center city Philadelphia, an effective network of fellowship groups aimed at meeting individual needs, a program of Christian education to promote the steady growth of our church family to spiritual maturity and, in cooperation with other Christians, an evangelistic outreach to our city and the world beyond.

Then, after this purpose statement was finished, it was passed on to a long-range planning commission, by whom it was expanded into five specific goals:

  1. To uphold our tradition of strong expository preaching by skilled men of God from our center city location.
  2. To integrate each member of the congregation into smaller fellowship groups where individual needs can be met and each can minister to others.
  3. To provide an effective Christian education program to inform, train, and disciple all segments of our congregation.
  4. To advance the missionary work of the church in the Philadelphia area and throughout the world, and
  5. To serve the social and physical needs of our community.

The next step in this plan will be to compile a list of particular objectives that would accomplish these goals, and then to set up a specific timetable for accomplishing them and a process of measurement afterward to see if they really have been accomplished.

The whole process sounds like a modern approach to church management, but it is as old as Ephesians 4. In that chapter dealing with the church, the apostle Paul states God’s purpose for the church and mentions his goals and objectives.

God’s Purpose for God’s Church

Without looking at this passage closely, what would you say the purpose of God for his church is? Some answer that question in terms of the missionary mandate. They remember that Jesus instructed his disciples to “go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation” (Mark 16:15). Since this command is repeated with variations in each of the four Gospels and an additional time in the book of Acts it is obviously of great importance. It is neglected at the church’s peril. Yet, is this the church’s purpose? Those who think so think of the church as a mighty army engaged in a great, worldwide invasion. Their favorite image of the people of God is the church militant.

Others think of the church in terms of its social concern. They remember that Jesus spoke of separating the sheep from the goats on the basis of whether those involved fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, looked after the sick, and visited the ones who were in prison (Matt. 25:31–46). People who emphasize this ministry generally think of the church as an international social service agency. But is this the proper emphasis? Is this God’s greatest purpose for his people?

Still others regard the church as a retreat from the world, and their image of it is a fortress. In the world we have conflict. We take batterings from those who do not own Christ’s lordship and are opposed to manifestations or extensions of his rule. To these people the church is a place where we can nurse our wounds and be fired up to fight another day. Is this the proper view? Did God establish the church chiefly to be a refuge from earthly conflicts?

In the verses I am speaking of Paul handles the issue of God’s purpose for his church quite differently. No doubt Paul would have had little quarrel with these other emphases. These are things the church is called to do and areas in which it is to function. But “purpose” is a more embracing concept, and when Paul writes about it, as he does here, he thinks of it as God’s developing wholeness or maturity in his people. His image is that of a body, Christ’s body, and his concern is that it be built up. See how he puts it. God gave “some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (vv. 11–13).

Then, after speaking of the opposite possibility, namely, of the church remaining spiritually immature, like children, he says, “Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work” (vv. 15–16).

In these verses Paul speaks of maturity once and of building up or growing up four times more. It means that for Paul God’s chief purpose for the church is that it might become full-grown and that each of its members might contribute to that maturity by becoming spiritual adults.

Unity to Be Attained

Paul is not just painting the scene with some broad brush of imagery, however. He is also being specific, as a careful examination of these verses shows. Granted that the church is to become spiritually mature. In what does that maturity consist? The first answer Paul gives—the first specific goal under his overriding purpose—is unity, the very point he has been making all along.

Up to this point Paul has been speaking of unity as a given, as something the church has and must maintain. He recognizes that there is diversity within the church, but far more important than the diversity are the things the people of God hold in common. He says, “There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope when you were called—one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (vv. 4–5). The church possesses these seven great unities. Since that is so, Paul’s admonition is: “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (v. 3). A unity like this can only be maintained.

But it is entirely different in verse 13, where Paul speaks of reaching “unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God.” This unity is something to be attained. It does not yet exist but is an expression of the full maturity to which the church and its members should aspire. It has two parts: “Unity in the faith” and “unity … in the knowledge of the Son of God.”

“Faith” usually means an individual’s subjective response to the Word of God and the gospel, and “knowledge” usually refers to the content of what a child of God is to believe. But in this expression—“Unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God”—it is actually the other way around. “The faith” refers to the theological content of Christianity; it is “the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 3).

“Knowledge of the Son of God” refers to experiential knowledge of Jesus attained through day-by-day discipleship; it is what Paul refers to in Philippians 3 where he writes of his desire “to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death” (v. 10). Paul means knowledge that goes beyond what can be packed into the head, knowledge that also trickles down into the heart and flows out into the life in obedient and loving service to the Lord.

This twofold knowledge—of the head and of the heart—is what Paul says the mature church should attain. Where possible we should have an outward, visible unity, for Jesus prayed that his church might have a unity on the basis of which unbelievers might be stimulated to faith (John 17:23). But far more important than any outward show of unity is that deep, inward, motivational unity that comes from believers growing in a knowledge of the truth, as we find it in the Bible, and living that truth out experientially in day-by-day fellowship with Jesus Christ. This reality transcends denominational and all other barriers.

Christlikeness

The second specific goal under the general heading of maturity is what we would today probably call “Christlikeness.” It is what Paul is speaking of in the phrase “attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” In other words, it is not only that we are to have an experiential knowledge of Jesus Christ and his ways. In addition we are to become increasingly like him through such fellowship.

This goal has a personal side, namely, that individuals might become Christlike. Ironically the temptation that first came to Adam and Eve in the garden was precisely at this point. The devil had succeeded in getting the man and the woman to doubt God’s goodness and then question his word. But the clinching argument was when he said to them, “God knows that when you eat of it [that is, the forbidden tree] your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:5). This was a lie, of course, although like all good lies it had a measure of truth mixed with it. It was true that if the man and the woman ate of the tree, they would come to know good and evil. Before this they had known the good but not the evil. The lie was in the fact that they did not become “like God,” knowing good and evil. They became like Satan, who not only knows what evil is, as God knows, but also practices it.

Here is the irony. Before the Fall the man and the woman actually were like God. That is the meaning of the thrice repeated phrase “in our [his own or God’s] image” from the creation account in chapter 1. In their unfallen state our first parents actually were like God, and this is precisely what they lost by succumbing to Satan’s temptation. The wonder of the gospel is that this original image, once lost through the Fall, is now progressively restored as individuals are made like Christ within the church’s fellowship.

Does anyone feel the need of performance standards for the achieving of this goal? They are in Galatians, where Christlike character, termed “the fruit of the Spirit,” is unfolded: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Gal. 5:22–23). This describes Jesus Christ. It also describes the direction in which individuals grow by the power of Christ’s Spirit.

There is another aspect of this that is also worth considering. I have been writing of Christlikeness on the personal level as involving each individual member of the church, and this is important. It is how the church matures. Yet it is also true that in this great passage of Ephesians, dealing with maturity, Paul is thinking not so much of individual believers as of the church as a whole. He is saying that just as there is a growth in maturity for the individual, so also there is a growth in maturity for the church corporately. I think this means that, as the church goes about its business in this world, God works in it to develop one aspect of the character of Jesus Christ in a particular way here and another aspect of the character of Christ in a special way there, so that the entire church in every place is necessary to manifest the full character of the Lord.

Are you aware of that? Do you pray for that? It is what the Lord Jesus Christ wants to see in the people who constitute his body.

Growing in Truth

The third specific goal of maturity for the church is truth; without truth there is no real maturity. Paul writes in verse 15, “Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ.”

The contrast here is with the nature and conduct of infants described in verse 14: “Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming.” Children are delightful little creatures to have around, but they do have their limitations. Two are instability and naïveté. Children are notoriously fickle. They will be interested in one thing for five minutes; then they change their minds and focus on something else entirely, and five minutes later they move on to a third concern.

Again, children may be easily fooled. It is easy to deceive them. That is why parents have a special responsibility for the sound education and careful guidance of children; it is part of what it means to be a child. However, it is an unfortunate thing when those same characteristics hang on into adult life, weakening a person’s character and limiting his or her usefulness. It is particularly unfortunate when the same marks of immaturity mar a Christian’s development. Neither individual Christians nor the church as a whole are to be so weakened. If the church is not to be weakened, it must grow in the truth of God.

This is why Paul began by speaking of teaching gifts: apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers. It is not that these are the only gifts; they are not. Paul lists others elsewhere. But he lists these since they are the ways the church is to grow out of spiritual infancy to maturity. One of the tragedies of our day is that the church is so immature in this area. Consequently, it is always being carried along by the world’s fads or being led astray by false theology. The only real cure is teaching followed by teaching and then still more teaching.

Truth Wedded to Love

Yet it is not truth in isolation, as if we only needed to bombard people with facts. Truth is important! But we also need to speak the “truth in love.” Love is the fourth and last of these specific expressions of maturity. Indeed, Paul emphasizes love. This is not so evident in our English translations, but in the original text the word “truth” is actually a participle. So a more literal translation than “speaking the truth in love” would be “truthing [it] in love.” The combination means both speaking and living the truth in a loving manner. In the combination of these goals, love (the noun) is emphasized.

I was impressed with this emphasis some years ago when I was studying the seventeenth chapter of John in which Jesus prays for his church, highlighting six marks by which the church is to be recognized: joy, holiness, truth, mission, unity, and love (John 17:13–26). Each of these is important. But it struck me that love is most important, which can be seen either by subtracting it from the other marks or by expressing it in every way possible. Subtract love from joy. What do you have? You have the kind of hedonistic reveling found in the secular world, the pursuit of pleasure for its own sake. Joy is distorted.

Take love from sanctification. The result is self-righteousness, the kind of thing that distinguished the scribes and Pharisees of Christ’s day but allowed them to be filled with hatred, so that they crucified the Lord Jesus Christ when he came. Sanctification is destroyed.

Take love from truth. The result is bitter orthodoxy. Truth remains, but it is proclaimed in such an unpleasant, harsh manner that it fails to win anybody.

Take love from mission and you have colonialism. In colonialism we work to win people for our denomination or organization, but not for Christ.

Take love from unity and you have ecclesiastical tyranny, in which a church imposes human standards on those within it.

But if instead of subtracting love, you express love—for God the Father, the Lord Jesus Christ, the Bible, one another, and the world—what do you have? You have all the other marks of the church, because they naturally follow. Love for God leads to joy; nothing is more joyful than knowing and loving him. Love for the Lord Jesus Christ leads to holiness; as he said, “If you love me, you will obey what I command” (John 14:15). Love for the Word of God leads to truth; if we love the Bible, we will read it and grow in a knowledge of what the Word contains. Love for the world leads to mission. Love for other believers leads to unity.

When Paul speaks of the church’s maturity, as he does in these verses, he does so in terms of bodily growth. And the point of that is that growth is a process. Growth takes time. The church does not become mature overnight any more than we as individuals become mature overnight. But if God is nevertheless working to accomplish this in us, we must trust him to do it and be patient as he works. I am sure you have seen that little pin that quite a few Christians have taken to wearing. It contains just a string of letters (PBPWMGIFWMY), and it is meant to provoke curiosity. The letters stand for “Please be patient with me; God isn’t finished with me yet.”

We want everyone to be patient with us. Let us learn to be patient with them, and with the church—as God works in each believer, in all places and at all times to build and perfect Christ’s earthly body, of which we are a part.[2]


15 By way of contrast, Paul designates the positive component of the purpose (still governed by the conjunction hina in v. 14) for building up the church. No longer ought we to be infants, but (adversative de) we should “in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ.” Paul said earlier that Christ is Head over all things for the church, his body (see on 1:22–23). As its Head, Christ occupies the prominent place in the body. (The idea of “source” may also fit here, given Paul’s declaration in v. 16 that the body grows “from him.”) Repeating the idea of “attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (v. 13), Paul champions growth (“we are to grow,” NASB) “in all things” (ta panta, accusative of reference)—i.e., in every conceivable way—to or toward Christ to avoid the potential shipwrecks instigated by deceivers. Again, Paul stresses the corporate growth of the body. The goal of the church is to become like Christ, its Head, in every possible way. The idea of growth into Christ parallels the metaphor of the church as a building in 2:20–22.

One means to achieve such growth is to continue “speaking the truth in love” (instrumental use of the present tense participle), an appeal well suited to the present theme of unity. The verb alētheuō (GK 238) means “to be truthful,” or “to tell the truth” (see Gal 4:16 for its other NT occurrence; cf. Eph 4:25). It counters the schemes “of error” (NIV, “deceitful,” from the Greek planēs, GK 4416) of v. 14. Note that Paul’s concern here is not with individual believers’ personal speech and truthfulness or honesty. In this context concerning unity, faith, knowledge, and maturity, “speaking the truth in love” denotes teaching orthodoxy against those who would pervert the truth of the message—yet all under the constraints of love. A few contend that Paul’s instruction here does not refer to speaking the truth but to living the truth, that Paul does not limit “truthing” to speaking. A better case can be made, linguistically (see its uses in the LXX and Gal 4:16) and contextually, however, for “speaking the truth,” as most versions and commentators agree. “In love” occurs six times in the letter (1:4; 3:17; 4:2, 15, 16; 5:2). Only teaching orthodoxy in a loving way will maintain the twin requirements of unity in the faith. Mitton, 156, wisely counsels, “Of any proposed action or word we ask not only ‘Is it true and right?’ but also ‘Is it kind and loving?’ ”

Unity at the cost of truth, or “truth” that sacrifices unity—both come with prices that are too high. To grow up into Christ requires the speaking of truth, for only there reside true salvation (1:13; 4:21) and orthodox Christianity. But any speaking that destroys unity is not truth-speaking, for there is only one body. A teaching that divides the body is not truth. Love, not deception or trickery, must govern how Christians speak the truth.[3]


[1] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1986). Ephesians (pp. 156–160). Chicago: Moody Press.

[2] Boice, J. M. (1988). Ephesians: an expositional commentary (pp. 145–151). Grand Rapids, MI: Ministry Resources Library.

[3] Klein, W. W. (2006). Ephesians. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Ephesians–Philemon (Revised Edition) (Vol. 12, pp. 121–122). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

August 2, 2017: Verse of the day

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The Anguish of Jesus

“Now My soul has become troubled; and what shall I say, ‘Father, save Me from this hour’? But for this purpose I came to this hour. Father, glorify Your name.” (12:27–28a)

Knowing that His death was central to God’s redemptive plan, Jesus “for the joy set before Him endured the cross” (Heb. 12:2). But there was another side to the cross, which the writer of Hebrews alluded to when he spoke in that same verse of the Lord “despising [its] shame.” The anticipation of bearing the shame of sin, experiencing God’s wrath, and being separated from the Father caused Christ’s soul to become troubled. Troubled translates a form of the verb tarassō, which literally means, “to shake,” or “to stir up” (cf. John 5:7, where it describes the stirring up of the pool of Bethesda). It is a strong word, used figuratively to speak of severe mental or spiritual agitation; of being disturbed, upset, unsettled, or horrified (cf. Matt. 2:3; 14:26; Luke 1:12; 24:38; John 11:33; 13:21; 14:1, 27; Acts 15:24). The perfect tense of the verb suggests that this was an ongoing struggle for the sinless Savior, as He recoiled in revulsion from the implications of bearing divine judgment for sin (2 Cor. 5:21; 1 Peter 2:24).

Christ did not go to the cross detached, indifferent, without feeling. “The Johannine Jesus is no docetic actor in a drama, about to play a part which he can contemplate dispassionately because it does not really involve himself” (F. F. Bruce, The Gospel of John [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983], 265). In His humanness, Jesus felt all the pain associated with bearing the curse for sin (Gal. 3:13). Because of that pain, “He offered up both prayers and supplications with loud crying and tears to the One able to save Him from death, and He was heard because of His piety” (Heb. 5:7).

Some commentators disconnect the two phrases what shall I say and Father, save Me from this hour, ending the former with a question mark and making the latter a petition to the Father. It seems better, however, to adopt the nasb punctuation and view the two phrases as expressing one hypothetical thought (cf. Andreas J. Köstenberger, John, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament [Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004], 381). Here, as in Gethsemane, Jesus in His humanity agonized over the unjust, cruel, shameful death that awaited Him.

The Lord voluntarily gave His life, as He declared in John 10:17–18:

For this reason the Father loves Me, because I lay down My life so that I may take it again. No one has taken it away from Me, but I lay it down on My own initiative. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again.

Rebuking Peter for attacking one of those who came to arrest Him, Jesus said, “Do you think that I cannot appeal to My Father, and He will at once put at My disposal more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matt. 26:53). In other words, Jesus was no victim; He could have called on the Father to rescue Him at any time.

But Christ would not deviate from God’s eternal plan of redemption, which called for Him to die as a sacrifice for sin (1 John 2:2; 4:10). Therefore He immediately answered His own hypothetical question in the negative: But for this purpose I came to this hour. Jesus would, in view of His own eternal joy, complete the mission the Father had assigned Him (cf. John 4:34; 5:30; 6:38; 18:37; Heb. 10:7).

In keeping with that resolve, Jesus prayed, “Father, glorify Your name” (cf. Matt. 6:9; Luke 11:2), essentially the same prayer that He would soon pray in Gethsemane: “Not My will, but Yours be done” (Luke 22:42). Our Lord’s request indicates that as He had done perfectly throughout His life (John 7:18; 8:29, 50; 17:4; cf. Luke 2:49), He would glorify the name of the Father in His death. God receives glory when His attributes are manifested (cf. Ex. 33:18–19; 34:5–8), and nowhere was His magnanimous love for helpless sinners (Rom. 5:8), His holy wrath against sin (Rom. 5:9), His perfect justice (Rom. 3:26), His redeeming grace (Heb. 2:9), His forgiving mercy (Col. 2:13–14), or His infinite wisdom (1 Cor. 1:22–24) more clearly seen than in the substitutionary, propitiatory death of His Son.

The Answer of the Father

Then a voice came out of heaven: “I have both glorified it, and will glorify it again.” So the crowd of people who stood by and heard it were saying that it had thundered; others were saying, “An angel has spoken to Him.” Jesus answered and said, “This voice has not come for My sake, but for your sakes. (12:28b–30)

For the third time in Christ’s earthly ministry, the Father’s voice came audibly out of heaven. On the other occasions, at Jesus’ baptism (Matt. 3:17) and the transfiguration (Matt. 17:5), the Father’s voice affirmed that He was pleased with His Son. Now, as the cross approached, the Father again authenticated Him, thus reassuring the disciples that Christ’s impending death in no way signified His disapproval. On the contrary, just as He had already glorified His name through Jesus’ life and ministry, He would glorify it again through His death. Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and His resurrection would mark not only the successful completion of the mission the Father had given Him to “seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10) and to “give His life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45), but also His return to His full glory in the Father’s presence. [1]


Christ’s Soul Troubled

John 12:27–30

“Now my heart is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name!”

Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and will glorify it again.” The crowd that was there and heard it said it had thundered; others said an angel had spoken to him.

Jesus said, “This voice was for your benefit, not mine.”

None of us understands fully what it cost God the Father and Jesus Christ the Son to forgive our sins. We sometimes pray, in saying the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” But we often do not think of how costly it was to God to make that prayer possible. Nor do others, who are not Christians, appreciate it. Some mock it. On one occasion Voltaire, the famous French agnostic, was asked whether he thought God could forgive some terrible sin, and he replied glibly, “Pardoner? C’est son metier!” (“Forgive? That’s his job.”) Obviously it had not entered his head, nor has it entered the heads of many, how much salvation cost God.

Will we ever know how much salvation cost him? I do not see how, for I do not see how we can ever enter fully into the experience of Jesus as he was separated from his Father during those hours of suffering in which he was made sin for us. Still, that is not all that can be said. For, while we can never understand it fully, we can nevertheless begin to understand it in part as a result of what the Bible has to tell us. In particular, we can learn from the verses that are before us, which tell us that on the eve of the crucifixion Christ was troubled. “Now my heart is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name” (vv. 27–28).

As we study these verses we also learn an equally valuable and even more personal lesson. For not only do they teach us about Jesus, they also teach us how we may find comfort when our souls are likewise troubled.

In studying these verses we will look at: (1) the reason why Christ’s soul was troubled, (2) the underlying resolve that gave him stability even in the midst of trouble, (3) the divine reassurance in the form of a voice from heaven, and (4) how this may all be applied to ourselves for those times when we also go through testing.

A Cause for Trouble

We look first, then, at the reason why Christ’s soul was troubled; and we confess, even before we look for a reason, that the fact itself is startling. If this were a mere man, we would not be surprised. For what man is there who is not sometimes troubled by pressing circumstances or disquieted by fears of what the future may thrust upon him? But this is no mere man. This is the Son of God! This is the Christ! This is the One who stilled the raging waves on Galilee and rebuked the disciples for their lack of faith—“Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?” (Mark 4:40). This is the One who walked through rampaging crowds led by men intent on his death. This is the same Jesus who in a short while will instruct his disciples, “Do not let your heart be troubled. Trust in God, trust also in me” (John 14:1). How can this be? How can the One who turns to us to say, “Let not your heart be troubled,” say of himself, “Now is my heart troubled”? It seems incongruous, even inconsistent.

It is not inconsistent when we realize what it was Christ was dreading! We must remember that the coming of the Greeks, recorded just a few verses earlier, had launched a train of thought in Christ’s mind that led to musings on his coming crucifixion and on the fact that he would soon bear the sins of the world. He had rejoiced in the coming of the Greeks as an earnest of the many Gentiles soon to come. But their coming presupposed his death—only a crucified Savior could avail for sins—and this meant separation from the Father judicially as he bore the sins of his people. It was not physical death that he dreaded; it was this spiritual death.

How could the One who had never known one second of unbroken fellowship with his Father, had never sinned, peacefully contemplate that hour in which he should be made sin for us and in which the fellowship that he had would, at least for a time, be broken?

Let me give you a remarkable contrast to make this clear. Consider the death of Socrates as it is described by Plato in the Phaedo. Socrates had been condemned to death by the council on grounds of teaching the youth of Athens atheism. While he was awaiting the hemlock potion that he was to drink and that would bring about his death, Socrates discoursed on the immortality of the soul and argued forcefully with his assembled disciples that one should not fear death. Rather he should embrace it peacefully. The body and soul belong to different worlds, he argued. Hence, the destruction of the body cannot affect the soul. It sets it free. As he rehearsed this teaching, Socrates did not merely proclaim his theorems; he lived them. So at last when he drank the hemlock potion and lay down to die, he did so peacefully. Socrates’ death is a beautiful, though touching death. Nothing is seen of death’s horror. Instead, it is not really a horror, for it merely is that which frees him from the body.

On the other hand, we have Jesus. All the Gospels agree in telling us that as the cross drew near, Jesus began to tremble and be deeply troubled (Mark 14:33). He declared that he had a baptism to be baptized with and was “distressed” until it should be accomplished (Luke 12:50). In Gethsemane he prayed three times that the cup he was about to drink might pass from him. And when at last he concludes, “Yet not as I will, but as you will,” this does not mean that at the last he attained to some of the faith of Socrates by coming to regard death as a liberating friend. Rather it means that in spite of his particular death being the greatest of all horrors, he was nevertheless determined to embrace it fully in fulfillment of the plan of God for our salvation.

That is the meaning of the sentence “Now my heart is troubled.” We cannot plumb its depths. But when we see the death of Christ in these terms we can at least begin to comprehend it.

An Underlying Resolve

There is another thing to notice about these verses. In spite of the depth of Christ’s trouble (which is intensified by linking it to the many verses that speak of his soul’s trouble, as I have just done), there is nevertheless an underlying strength or resolve that runs through all Christ is saying. To be sure, Christ’s soul is troubled. But there is not even a hint of pulling back or changing course. “What shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’?” The answer is obvious. Of course not! Because, “for this very reason I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name.”

There is something important here. Obviously there is a strong resolve in Christ that sees him through this struggle. But what is the distinct nature of that resolve? Jesus is resolved to die. But why is he resolved to die? We answer, of course, that Jesus is determined to die for our salvation, to save us, and it is true. But notice that Jesus does not give this as his chief reason. To glorify God is his chief end. Thus, although the death he is to die has its horrors, he will not shrink from following whatever way the Father chooses to have the Son glorify him.

God Glorified

Did God glorify himself through Jesus’ death? Indeed he did. Moreover, not only was his name glorified, there was even a special voice from heaven to announce that it had already been so and would be so again.

God’s name had already been glorified in Christ, for the voice from heaven spoke of the past. Where do we see that past glory? For one thing, in the incarnation. For that, there must be praise to God. The incarnation is the greatest of all mysteries, that the great and holy God of the universe should so take up the cause of his sinful and rebellious creatures that he should become one of them, becoming like them so that they might become like himself. On the occasion of the incarnation the angels did well to sing, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”

Moreover, there are the years of quiet ministry in Nazareth as the One who once ruled angels now learns to do a humble carpenter’s work, to know poverty, to be a friend of sinners, to be despised and rejected by those who would have considered themselves important.

Pass on to the cross and beyond that to the first Easter morning, and find there a glory that was yet to come. Jesus had been crucified. To many, the dream seems over. The disciples are scattering. But then the great name of God is glorified again as God breaks the bands of death that bind his Son and sends him forth to empower his weak disciples to the task of world mission. Soon many believe, and in this God is glorified.

Finally, the day will come when Christ will return in glory to judge the living and the dead and to set up his kingdom, and in this God will be glorified. Indeed, in that day the angels who sang at the birth of the Savior will again sing, “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and power forever and ever” (Rev. 5:13).

When We are Troubled

What heights there are in that resolution and prayer, “Father, glorify your name.” But now we must step down from the rarefied atmosphere of this third heaven to make this practical in our own earthly environment. It is easy to do. We read that the soul of Christ was troubled. Well, is our soul ever troubled? Is it likely to be troubled in the days ahead? What are we to do in such circumstances? What are we to do when relatives die? When sickness strikes? When we lose our job? When enemies abuse us and friends fail to understand? What shall we do?

We learn from the Master, who when his soul was troubled breathed this prayer, “Father, glorify your name.” In other words, if I must lose my health, glorify your name by my sickness. If I must lose my wealth, glorify your name by my poverty. If I must lose my good name, glorify your name by my humiliation. If I must lose my life, glorify your name by my death and send the resurrection.

There is power in that prayer. Look at it a word at a time. The first word is “Father.” Anguish is ameliorated, trouble is transformed when we can address God as “Father.” We see this in children. A number of years ago when our middle daughter was very small, my wife and I and a group of friends were in Granada, Spain, on a hot afternoon. Earlier we had been up to see the Alhambra, that great monument to Moorish art and culture; but now we were in the bustle of the old city making our way around the great cathedral to a covered market on the other side. There were more adults than children on this particular trip, so there always seemed to be one adult holding each child’s hand. Yet suddenly, there we were in the marketplace with the realization that our middle child was missing. Quickly we retraced our steps and at last found her where we had been blocks away. Apparently she had become preoccupied with something and we had gone on, thinking that she was with us. When she noticed that we were gone she had begun to cry, as well she might. For she was lost in a large and frightening city, and there was no one able even to try comforting her in her own language. I got to her first, and at once she came to me, calling out, “Daddy!” She had already stopped crying, and the word “Daddy” was a cry of relief that she had been found.

We may be lost in this world with not a friendly face in sight. We may not know which way to turn. The circumstances may be hopeless. Yet if we will only catch a glimpse of our heavenly Father, though the circumstances remain exactly the same there is a sense in which they will nevertheless be entirely changed, for we will not be lost anymore. And we need not say more. For when we have said, “Father,” we have said all that really needs to be said.

The next words are, “Glorify your name.” How blessed we will be if we can say those also. “Your name!” The difficulty is that we often substitute my for your and mean “my name,” or at least, “your name and my name together.” We want God glorified, but not at our expense or in a way that is not that which we would choose personally.

Ralph L. Keiper illustrates this from his own experience. He was born with very bad eyesight and consequently was greatly handicapped during his years of study for the ministry. He fretted about it and, I suppose, like Paul asked many times that the thorn might be taken away. One day, as he was sitting in the library trying to study, the Holy Spirit began to speak to him. He said, “Keiper, what is the chief end of man?”

Keiper was a student of theology, so he certainly knew the answer to that. He replied, “That’s easy. That’s the first question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism. Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.”

“And is that your chief end?” the Holy Spirit prodded.

“Of course,” said Keiper.

At this point, according to Keiper, the Holy Spirit got a bit discourteous. “Which would you rather have,” he asked, “perfect eyesight or the privilege of glorifying me?”

This time the young student did not answer so quickly. But at last he said, “There is no comparison. The only possible answer is the privilege of glorifying your name.”

“Then,” said God through the Spirit, “why worry about the means I have chosen to have you glorify it?”

In Me

Finally, if you have followed me and have prayed the prayer of the Lord Jesus Christ this far, I wonder if you can also add one more thing, to make it inescapably personal. Add the words “in me” or “in my body.” Pray, “Father, glorify your name in me; glorify your name in my body.” I have biblical warrant for asking you to do this; for, in this form, the words are almost the exact words of the apostle Paul as he reflected on the circumstances of his imprisonment in Rome in writing to the Philippians. He wrote of his hope “that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death” (Phil. 1:20).

Think of what had happened to Paul. He had planned a trip to Rome as a free ambassador of the gospel. He had hoped to have been well received and to have been furthered on his way by the prayers and gifts of the Roman Christians. Instead, there had been an abrupt arrest and imprisonment. There had been a two-year confinement in Caesarea. This was followed by perils at sea, a shipwreck, landing on Malta, another journey by sea, and then the long walk to the city of Rome—in chains, in the company of the condemned. Believers had gone out to meet him, as they would have gone out to meet any great celebrity, and for a time Paul had a degree of liberty in his own rented house in Rome. But then circumstances changed. He must have been confined more closely, for in time the Christians even forgot his whereabouts. We know this because when Onesiphorus arrived in Rome to see Paul, no one seemed able to tell him where Paul was, and it was only after considerable searching that this faithful brother found him (2 Tim. 1:16–17). Paul witnessed in prison, and some of the guards began to believe, with the result that the gospel spread into the courts of the emperor. When word of this got back to some of the Christians in the city, they became jealous and soon began to make trouble for Paul. I believe that it was as the result of this trouble that Paul was eventually executed. These were Paul’s circumstances. Yet in spite of them Paul rejoices that God will be glorified in him, whether by his life or his death.

That should be our prayer also. If we have difficulty praying it—as we naturally do—we can be helped by the secret of the surrendered life that Paul offers in the next sentence of his Philippian letter. It is: “For me to live is Christ.” To live is Christ! Christ! May that be true of us! If it is, then we will be able to endure either joy or sorrow, sickness or health, bane or blessing, to see him glorified.[2]


[1] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2008). John 12–21 (pp. 38–40). Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers.

[2] Boice, J. M. (2005). The Gospel of John: an expositional commentary (pp. 945–950). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

July 29, 2017: Verse of the day

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Psalm 91

Under the Shadow of God’s Wings

He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High

will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.

I will say of the Lord, “He is my refuge and my fortress,

my God, in whom I trust.”

Surely he will save you from the fowler’s snare

and from the deadly pestilence.

He will cover you with his feathers,

and under his wings you will find refuge;

his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.

You will not fear the terror of night,

nor the arrow that flies by day,

nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness,

nor the plague that destroys at midday.

A thousand may fall at your side,

ten thousand at your right hand,

but it will not come near you.

You will only observe with your eyes

and see the punishment of the wicked.

If you make the Most High your dwelling—

even the Lord, who is my refuge—

then no harm will befall you,

no disaster will come near your tent.

For he will command his angels concerning you

to guard you in all your ways.

verses 1–11

All the psalms are from God and are wonderful. But some have commended themselves to God’s people as being especially rich and comforting and to which they have repeatedly turned in times of sickness, loneliness, and trouble. Psalm 91 is one of these special psalms. It has been committed to heart by thousands of people, and millions have turned to it with thankfulness in the midst of life’s calamities.

Psalm 91 may be compared with Psalm 46, which calls God “our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble” (Ps. 46:1). Martin Luther loved that psalm and turned to it often because he had so many troubles. Psalm 91 may also be compared with Psalm 90. Both call God the “dwelling place” of his people, which is probably why they have been placed together in the Psalter. There are verbal similarities between the two psalms, which has led some commentators to conclude that Psalm 91, as well as Psalm 90, was written by Moses, though there are no other truly substantial reasons for thinking that. Besides, the psalms differ greatly in their tones. As H. C. Leupold says, “The latter [Psalm 90] is somber and stately; this is bright and simple. The one breathes deep insight; the other cheerful trust.”

Charles Haddon Spurgeon was not overstating the case when he wrote, “In the whole collection there is not a more cheering psalm; its tone is elevated and sustained throughout, faith is at its best and speaks nobly.”

Psalm 91 has given us two great hymns as well as some additional verses by well-known writers such as Edmund Spenser (“And Is There Care in Heaven”) and Horatius Bonar (“He Liveth Long Who Liveth Well”). The hymns we sing are “Under the Care of My God, the Almighty” from the Bible Songs Hymnal of 1927 and “The Man Who Once Has Found Abode” from the Reformed Presbyterian Book of Psalms of 1940.

One striking feature of Psalm 91 is that it consists of three clear movements marked by a change in pronouns. The first movement is marked by the pronoun I (vv. 1–2). It expresses the psalmist’s personal faith in God. The second movement is marked by the pronoun you (vv. 3–13). It is a word from the psalmist to the reader or listener, his word to us. The final stage is marked by the divine pronoun I (vv. 14–16). Here God speaks to the reader to declare what he will be and do for the one who loves him and calls upon him. In the New International Version the second of these two major movements is divided into separate stanzas (vv. 3–8 and 9–13). The first speaks of God’s protection from many kinds of dangers. The second expresses the condition for such protection by God and the results if the condition is met.

The Psalmist’s Personal Faith in God

The first verse of the psalm is a thematic statement, expressing what the remainder of the psalm will be about:

He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High

will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.

However, as soon as the psalmist makes that statement he immediately breaks in to confess his own faith before commending it to us: “I will say of the Lord, ‘He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust’ ” (v. 2). This is the equivalent of the apostle Thomas’s confession of faith after Jesus had appeared to him following the resurrection and Thomas fell at his feet, exclaiming, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28).

So here is a first point of application: Is Jesus Christ your Lord and God? Is the God of the Bible your refuge in times of trouble? The psalm’s promises are for you only if he is.

What promises they are! And with what force they are commended to us! There are four metaphors for the security we can have in God. God will be our “shelter” and “shadow” (v. 1) and our “refuge” and “fortress” (v. 2). There are also four names for God, which give substance and strength to the metaphors. He is “the Most High,” “the Almighty” (v. 1), “the Lord,” and “my God” (v. 2). When the psalmist identifies God as his God in the last expression, it is a way of saying that the shelter, shadow, refuge, and fortress are for those who really do dwell in God and trust him. Spurgeon wrote, “The blessings here promised are not for all believers, but for those who live in close fellowship with God. Every child of God looks towards the inner sanctuary and the mercy-seat, yet all do not dwell in the most holy place; they run to it at times, and enjoy occasional approaches, but they do not habitually reside in the mysterious presence.”

So here is a second application: Do you live in close fellowship with God? Do you rest in the shadow of the Almighty? Is he your place of habitual dwelling? The psalm is written to urge you to trust and cling to God in all circumstances.

Trust in God Commended

Having stated his own personal faith in God, the psalmist now commends that faith to us, taking six verses to explain what God will do for the one who trusts him. The most striking feature of this section (and the one following) is the use of the singular you throughout, which is a way of saying that these truths are for each person individually. They are for you if you will truly trust or abide in God.

Verse 3 sets the tone for this section by saying that God will save the trusting soul from two kinds of dangers: first, the subtle snare of enemies, described as the trap a fowler used to catch birds, and second, death by disease or pestilence. This does not mean that those who trust God never die from infectious diseases or suffer from an enemy’s plot, of course. It means that those who trust God are habitually delivered from such dangers. What Christian cannot testify to many such deliverances? Indeed, our entire lives are filled with deliverances from many and manifold dangers, until God finally takes us to be with himself.

The words “deadly pestilence” (v. 3) and later “the pestilence that stalks in the darkness” and “the plague that destroys at midday” (v. 6) help us recall many instances of such protection.

Lord Craven, a Christian, was a nobleman who was living in London when plague ravaged the city in the fifteenth century. In order to escape the spreading pestilence Craven determined to leave the city for his country home, as many of his social standing did. He ordered his coach and baggage made ready. But as he was walking down one of the halls of his home about to enter his carriage, he overheard one of his servants say to another, “I suppose by my Lord’s quitting London to avoid the plague that his God lives in the country and not in town.” It was a straightforward and apparently innocent remark. But it struck Lord Craven so deeply that he canceled his journey, saying, “My God lives everywhere and can preserve me in town as well as in the country. I will stay where I am.” So he stayed in London. He helped the plague victims, and he did not catch the disease himself.

There is a similar story from the life of Charles Haddon Spurgeon. In 1854, when he had been in London only twelve months, the area of the city in which the young preacher lived was visited by Asiatic cholera. Many in Spurgeon’s congregation were affected, and there was hardly a family in which someone did not get sick, and many died. The young pastor spent most of every day visiting the sick, and there was hardly a day when he did not have to accompany some family to the graveyard.

Spurgeon became physically and emotionally exhausted and sick at heart. He was ready to sink under this heavy load of pastoral care. But as God would have it, one day he was returning home sadly from a funeral when he noticed a sign in a shoemaker’s shop on Dover Road. It was in the owner’s own handwriting, and it bore these words: “Because thou hast made the Lord, which is my refuge, even the Most High, thy habitation, there shall no evil befall thee, neither shall any plague come nigh thy dwelling,” a quotation from Psalm 91:9–10 (kjv).

Spurgeon was deeply and immediately encouraged. He wrote, “The effect upon my heart was immediate. Faith appropriated the passage as her own. I felt secure, refreshed, girt with immortality. I went on with my visitation of the dying in a calm and peaceful spirit; I felt no fear of evil, and I suffered no harm. The providence which moved the tradesman to put those verses in his window I gratefully acknowledge, and in the remembrance of its marvelous power I adore the Lord my God.”

Verse 4 contains two appealing images of God’s protection: first, that of a mother bird, sheltering and protecting her young (“He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge”) and second, that of a warrior’s armor (“his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart”). The exact meaning of the word rampart (niv) is uncertain. The Hebrew word signifies something that is wrapped around a person for his or her protection; hence, it can mean “buckler,” “armor,” or, as in the niv, a “rampart” or fortress. It may be that something of each of these ideas is in the Hebrew word.

Jesus appropriated the first of these two images for himself, saying as he looked out over the city of Jerusalem, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing” (Matt. 23:37). Jesus would have saved and sheltered Jerusalem and its inhabitants, but the people were not willing. They would not come to him. They would not “dwell” in the shelter of the Most High. They cried out for his crucifixion instead.

As for the second image, we may recall God’s words to Abraham when he was returning from his attack on the kings who had raided Sodom and Gomorrah and carried off Abraham’s nephew Lot. Abraham had won the battle, recovering Lot, the women, and their possessions. But Abraham was in danger of retaliation by these kings. It was then that God spoke to him in a vision, saying, “Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward” (Gen. 15:1). That is what God will be to us, if we will trust him.

Here is an important question: What exactly is it that is said to be the believer’s “shield and rampart” (v. 4). God, of course! But in what respect? The King James Version says, “His truth will be your shield and buckler.” In my view, the New International Version is richer at this point, for the Hebrew word means more than mere truth. It has to do with God’s entire character, described as faithfulness. Still something is lost if we do not also realize that the Hebrew word for faithfulness is based on the word for truth and that what is involved here is God’s faithfulness to his promises—that is, to his word. In other words, it is when we believe God’s Word and act upon it that we find him to be faithful to what he has promised and learn that he is in truth our shield from dangers and our rampart against enemies.

Verses 7–8 describe thousands falling on either side of those who trust God, noting, “You will only observe with your eyes and see the punishment of the wicked.” This interprets the death of the thousands as God’s punishment for sin and places the deliverance of God’s people in that context. In other words, it is not a promise that those who trust God will never die of disease or even in some military conflict, but that they will not suffer those or any other calamities as God’s judgment against them for their sin. Their sin has been atoned for by the blood of Jesus Christ.

Protection from Dangers: The Condition

Much of what is found in the third stanza of this psalm (vv. 9–11) is like what we have seen already. It tells us that “no harm will befall” us and that “no disaster will come near your tent” (v. 10). But there are a few new elements.

One of them, probably the chief idea because it comes first, is that there is a condition to the kind of protection the psalm has been promising—that the individual “make the Most High [his] dwelling” (v. 9). This is more than merely believing in God or coming to God occasionally when danger threatens. It means resting in God continually and trusting him at all times. It means living all of life “in God.” Martin Luther wrote that this refers to “one who really dwells and does not merely appear to dwell and does not just imagine that he dwells” in God.

The second new element reinforces the first and, by means of its use in the New Testament, is an illustration of it. It is the reference to angels, the psalmist saying,

For he will command his angels concerning you

to guard you in all your ways;

they will lift you up in their hands,

so that you will not strike your foot against a stone
(vv. 11–12).

This is the verse the devil quoted as part of his temptation of Jesus Christ, recorded in Matthew 4:1–11 and Luke 4:1–13. It is the only verse of Scripture actually quoted by the devil, at least that we have a record of. But he misquoted it! He left out “in all your ways”—that is, in the ways marked out for us by God and not our own willful ways. For that was the very essence of the temptation; he wanted Jesus to go his own way rather than trusting God and being contented with God’s way, even if it meant going to the cross. The devil wanted Jesus to test God by jumping off a pinnacle of the temple, trusting his Father to send angels to bear him up so he would not be dashed to pieces when he fell and thus impress the people. Jesus replied rightly, saying, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test’ ” (Matt. 4:7, quoting Deut. 6:16). Testing God by jumping off a pinnacle of the temple would not be going in the way God had given him to go. It would be the very opposite of trusting God; it would be “baiting” him or “putting him to the test.”

The Lord’s trust in his Father also resulted in Satan’s defeat, another part of the psalm the devil omitted (v. 13). The psalm tells us that if we go in God’s way, trusting him to uphold us, then we will “tread upon the lion and the cobra”; we will “trample the great lion and the serpent.” The Bible elsewhere describes Satan as “a roaring lion” (1 Peter 5:8) and that “ancient serpent” (Rev. 12:9; 20:2). Jesus triumphed over him by trusting God. Likewise, in Christ the righteous will be victorious over Satan too.

Here is one more thought about this incident. When Jesus replied to Satan, he rejected the temptation to jump from the temple, trusting the angels of God to keep him from being killed. But the angels were there anyway, though invisibly. For after Satan had completed his temptation we are told God’s “angels came and attended him” (Matt. 4:11). In other words, God was upholding Jesus even in the temptation.

God’s Promises for Those Who Trust Him

The last three verses of this psalm contain a confirming oracle of God in which the controlling pronoun switches from you, which dominated in verses 3–13, back to I, as in verse 2. Only here the I is God himself. In these verses God adds his seal to what the psalmist has been saying. God promises three things to those who trust him.

  1. Protection for the one who is in danger (v. 14). The psalm speaks throughout of the many dangers that threaten God’s people, but its central message is that God will rescue and protect from all such dangers those who trust him. Those who have trusted God know this and praise God constantly for his help and protection.
  2. An answer for the one who is in trouble and prays to God about it (v. 15). One of the great blessings of following hard after God is knowing that when we call upon him he will hear and answer us. These verses say that God will deliver and honor such a person. They also say that God will be with the believer “in trouble,” which is a way of acknowledging that God does not always lift a Christian out of troubles. Sometimes it is his will that we endure them and profit from them. We are told in Romans that we acquire hope, develop character, and learn perseverance from what we suffer (Rom. 5:3–4). When we go through such circumstances, God goes through them with us. He sustains us in our sufferings.
  3. Long life and salvation for the one who seeks God’s satisfaction (v. 16). Long life is a blessing frequently promised to the righteous in the Old Testament (Exod. 20:12; Deut. 30:20; Pss. 21:4; 23:6; Prov. 3:2, 16), but the promise is not necessarily for a prolongation of days but rather for a complete or full life. Here there is the added promise of a “salvation” in heaven, yet to come.

These verses also make a point that has been developed several times already—the promises are for those who trust in or love God. Therefore, they are blessings that some believers miss out on, simply because they are always fretting and do not trust God as they should. Here the psalmist quotes God as saying that the blessings are for those who love God and acknowledge his name (v. 14), call upon him (v. 15), and seek satisfaction in what he alone can provide.

Do you do that? Or are you still trying to find satisfaction in the world? Do you love the world more than you love Jesus? John R. W. Stott reminds us of Romans 8:28, observing that “God is the supreme object of the believer’s love as well as faith, and it is to those who love God that the assurance is given that ‘in all things God works for their good.’ ”[1]


8 Seeing God’s salvation with the eye of faith will further encourage the godly, to whom the Lord has promised his protection and blessing. The godly will witness the righteousness, justice, and fidelity of the Lord as well as the punishment of the wicked (see Reflections, p. 271, The Perfections of Yahweh). No power in heaven or on earth is greater than that of Yahweh, the Divine Warrior (see Reflections, p. 733, Yahweh Is the Divine Warrior)![2]


9–10 The invitation is more explicitly extended to all the godly. The psalmist’s personal experience serves as an encouragement to embrace the way of wisdom by making “the Most High,” i.e., the Lord, one’s “dwelling” (v. 9). He is the “dwelling” (cf. 90:1) of his people, under whose shelter they find “refuge.” The Lord does not guarantee that no evil will befall those who trust him (“make the Most High your dwelling”); but all who find “refuge” (cf. v. 2) in him will rest with the confidence that whatever happens on earth is with his knowledge. Nothing happens outside of his will, whether “harm” (lit., “evil,” v. 10) or “disaster” (lit., “disease” or “wound”; cf. 38:11; Lev 13; 14; Isa 53:8).[3]


91:7, 8 Safety even in the midst of massacre. Even where there is slaughter on a wholesale basis, the Beloved of the Lord is absolutely safe. When the wicked are punished, He will be a spectator only, free from the possibility of harm.

91:9, 10 Insurance against calamity. Because the Savior made the Most High His refuge and His dwelling place, no disaster would strike Him, no calamity would get near Him.[4]


[1] Boice, J. M. (2005). Psalms 42–106: An Expositional Commentary (pp. 746–752). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

[2] VanGemeren, W. A. (2008). Psalms. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Psalms (Revised Edition) (Vol. 5, p. 698). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[3] VanGemeren, W. A. (2008). Psalms. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Psalms (Revised Edition) (Vol. 5, p. 699). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[4] MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (p. 690). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

July 23, 2017: Verse of the day

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The Best News Ever Heard

John 20:18

Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her.

The story of Christ’s appearance to Mary Magdalene and his commissioning her to tell the disciples of his resurrection concludes with the statement that she did what he told her to do. This is deceptively simple because it is actually a record of the first announcement of the best news this world has ever heard. It was an announcement of the Lord’s resurrection.

When World War II ended, the joyful news was flashed around the globe, and at once people everywhere were ecstatic. I was just a lad at the time. My father had been in the service for some years, and the family was then stationed at a large military base in the southern United States. We were far from the action. But even now I can recall the yelling and shouting that occurred when news came of the war’s end. The ending of World War II was great news. Yet, great as that news was, it did not compare with the truly stupendous news of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. This message was better then, and it is even better today.

Unshakable Evidence

Let me ask a very simple question and then give a few plain answers. Why is the resurrection of Jesus Christ the best news the world has ever heard? The answers are: because it is true, because it came after an apparent defeat, because of all that it proves, and finally because it demands a lifesaving response from each of us.

First, Jesus’ resurrection is good news because it is true. It is always possible to have reports of events that sound like good news but later prove to be disappointments because the facts of the reports are wrong or the events did not actually happen. Referring again to World War II, this very thing occurred several times before the war really ended. False reports of the war’s end spread; they were eventually proved false and so were terribly disappointing. The same was true of reports of a near end to the war in Vietnam. This was not the case with news of Jesus’ resurrection.

We do not have space in one message to go into the evidences for the resurrection of Jesus Christ at length, but we can suggest a few of them. The first great evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ is the evidence of the narratives themselves. These stand up to the most stringent of critical scrutinies. To begin with, they are apparently four independent accounts. They were obviously not made up in collusion; for if they were, they would not possess the number of apparent contradictions they contain: the number of angels at the tomb, the number of women who went to the garden, the time of their arrival, and other things. These accounts can be harmonized, but the point is this: had the writers gotten together to make up a story, the apparent discrepancies would have been eliminated. On the other hand, it is also apparent that they did not make up the stories separately, for if they had done this, there would never have been the large measure of agreement they possess. The setting and the characters are the same, and the sequence of events makes sense. What does this mean? Just this: If the accounts were not made up in collusion and if they were not made up separately, the only remaining possibility is that they were not made up at all. That is, they are four true, independent accounts by those who knew the facts they wrote.

Next there is the evidence of the empty tomb, coupled with the evidence of the moved stone and the undisturbed graveclothes. How are we to account for these things? Some have imagined that either the Roman or Jewish authorities moved the body. But they had no reason to do this, especially since it would have involved violating the officially sealed tomb; and, had this occurred, it is inconceivable that the true circumstances would not have been revealed later after the disciples had appeared in Jerusalem, proclaiming their belief in Jesus’ resurrection. It would have been easy for Jesus’ enemies to produce a body had there been one. On the other hand, the friends of Christ did not steal the body of Jesus, for they would hardly have been willing to die (as most of them later did) for a deception.

It is possible to add the changed character of these men as an evidence, for whatever happened turned them from disillusioned cowards into mighty proclaimers of the Christian message.

Then, too, we must add the fact that Jesus appeared, not just to one or two women in a garden under somewhat eerie circumstances, but to a wide variety of people in numerous circumstances. Paul lists many such appearances, noting that one time Jesus appeared to a group of five hundred believers (1 Cor. 15:6).

Again, one of the great evidences of the resurrection is the unexpected and unnatural change of the day of worship from Saturday, the Jewish day of worship, to Sunday in Christian services. Nothing but the resurrection of Jesus on Sunday explains it.

What are we to say of these evidences? Matthew Arnold, not overstating the case, once said, “The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the best attested fact in history.” Lawyers in particular have seen this truth. Some of the best books on the resurrection have been written by lawyers, some of whom originally set out to disprove it. I am thinking of men like Frank Morison, Gilbert West, J. N. D. Anderson, and others. Sir Edward Clark, another English jurist, once wrote, “As a lawyer I have made a prolonged study of the evidences for the first Easter day. To me the evidence is conclusive, and over and over again in the High Court I have secured the verdict on evidence not nearly so compelling. … As a lawyer I accept it unreservedly as the testimony of men to facts that they were able to substantiate.”

This is the first reason why the resurrection of Jesus Christ is good news. It is good news, not merely because it is a nice story which gives us an opportunity for a holiday once a year, but because it is true. As truth it is one of the most stupendous and important facts of history.

Wellington Defeated

Second, the resurrection of Jesus Christ is good news because it came after an apparent defeat. A victory is always good news, but news of victory after news that a battle has apparently been lost is even better.

Let me illustrate this by the way in which news of the Battle of Waterloo first came to England. There were no telegrams or radio sets in those days, but everyone knew that a great battle was pending and they were anxious to hear what would happen when Wellington, the British general, faced Napoleon. A signalman was placed on the top of Winchester Cathedral with instructions to keep his eye on the sea. When he received a message, he was to pass the message on to another man on a hill. That man was to pass it to another. And so it was to go until news of the battle was finally relayed to London and then across England. At length a ship was sighted through thick fog on the English Channel. The signalman on board sent the first word—“Wellington.” The next word was “defeated.” Then fog prevented the ship from being seen. “Wellington defeated!” The message was sent across England, and gloom descended over the countryside. After two or three hours the fog lifted, and the signal came again: “Wellington defeated the enemy!” Then England rejoiced.

In the same way, Jesus’ death plunged his friends into sadness. It was an apparent defeat. But on the third day he rose again in victory. When Jesus died men might have cried, “Christ is defeated, wrong has triumphed, sin has won.” But after three days the fog lifted and the full message came through to the world: “Jesus is risen; he has defeated the enemy.”

Essential Doctrines

Third, the resurrection is good news because of all that it proves. What does it prove? The answer is: It proves all that needs to be proved. It proves the essential doctrines of Christianity.

In the first place, it proves that there is a God and that the God of the Bible is the true God. Reuben A. Torrey, who often spoke and wrote well on these themes, put it this way: “Every effect must have an adequate cause … and the only cause adequate to account for the resurrection of Christ is God, the God of the Bible. While here on earth, as everyone who has carefully read the story of his life knows, our Lord Jesus went up and down the land proclaiming God, the God of the Bible, ‘the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob’ as he loved to call him, the God of the Old Testament as well as the New. He said that men would put him to death, that they would put him to death by crucifixion, and he gave many details as to what the manner of his death would be. He further said that after his body had been in the grave three days and three nights, God, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob, the God of the Bible, the God of the Old Testament as well as the God of the New Testament, would raise him from the dead. This was a great claim to make. It was an apparently impossible claim. For centuries men had come and men had gone, men had lived and men had died, and so far as human knowledge founded upon definite observation and experience was concerned, that was the end of them. But this man Jesus does not hesitate to claim that his experience will be directly contrary to the uniform experience of long, long centuries. …

“That was certainly an acid test of the existence of the God he preached, and his God stood the test. He did exactly the apparently impossible thing that our Lord Jesus said he would do. … The fact that Jesus was thus miraculously and marvelously raised makes it certain that the God who did it really exists and that the God he preached is the true God.”

Second, the resurrection proves Jesus’ deity. When Jesus lived on earth, he claimed to be equal to God and that God, this God, would raise him from the dead three days after his execution by the Roman authorities. If he was wrong in this, his claim was either the raving of a deranged man or blasphemy. If he was right, the resurrection would be God’s way of substantiating the claim. Did he substantiate it? Did Jesus rise from the dead? Yes, he did! So the resurrection is God’s seal on Christ’s claim to divinity. This is why Paul, who knew that Jesus had been raised, writes that Jesus was “declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead” (Rom. 1:4). This is good news! If Jesus is God, then God is like Jesus. It means that God is not distant, arbitrary, or unreal. He is a God who loves us and who came to earth to give himself a ransom for our sins.

Then, too, the resurrection proves that all who believe in Jesus Christ are justified before God. Paul teaches this in Romans also, for he states that Jesus “was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification” (Rom. 4:25). How does this happen? Jesus had claimed that his death would atone for man’s sin. He said that he had come “to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28). He died as he said. But the question still remained: Can it be true that the death of this one man is acceptable to God on behalf of others? Suppose he had sinned? In that case, he would have been dying for his own sin rather than the sins of others. Did he sin? Or was his atonement accepted? Three days pass. Christ rises. Thus, his claim is established. God has shown by the resurrection that Christ was sinless and that he has accepted his atonement.

Torrey said this: “When Jesus died, he died as my representative, and I died in him; when he arose, he rose as my representative, and I arose in him; when he ascended up on high and took his place at the right hand of the Father in the glory, he ascended as my representative and I ascended in him, and today I am seated in Christ with God in the heavenlies. I look at the cross of Christ, and I know that atonement has been made for my sins; I look at the open sepulcher and the risen and ascended Lord, and I know the atonement has been accepted. There no longer remains a single sin on me, no matter how many or how great my sins may have been.”

The resurrection of Jesus Christ also proves that the believer in Christ can have a supernatural victory over sin in this life, for Jesus lives to provide supernatural power to do it. This is an argument developed in the sixth chapter of Romans. In the opening verses of that chapter Paul writes, “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (Rom. 6:4). This means that by faith all who believe in Christ are united to Christ so that his power becomes available to them. We may be weak and utterly helpless, unable to resist temptation for a single minute. But he is strong, and he lives to give help and deliverance. Victory is never a question of our strength, but of his power. His power is what we need.

Torrey, whom I have just quoted, tells a story that illustrates this point. He tells of four men who were once climbing the most difficult face of the Matterhorn. There was a guide, a tourist, a second guide, and a second tourist, all roped together. As they went over a particularly difficult place, the lower tourist lost his footing and went over the side. The sudden pull on the rope carried the lower guide with him, and he carried the other tourist along also. Three men were dangling over the cliff. But the guide who was in the lead, feeling the first pull upon the rope, drove his ax into the ice, braced his feet, and held fast. The first tourist then regained his footing, the guide regained his, and the lower tourist followed. They then went on and up in safety.

So it is in this life. As the human race ascended the icy cliffs of life, the first Adam lost his footing and tumbled headlong over the abyss. He pulled the next man after him, and the next and the next until the whole race hung in deadly peril. But the second Adam, the Lord Jesus Christ, kept his footing. He stood fast. Thus, all who are united to him by a living faith are secure and can regain the path.

Finally, Jesus’ resurrection is evidence for our own resurrection and of a life with Jesus in glory beyond the grave. Jesus said when he was here on earth, “I am going … to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am” (John 14:2–3). He is preparing that place now. Can we trust him? Was he telling the truth? The resurrection vindicates these claims.

Come and Learn

I have given three good reasons why the resurrection of Jesus Christ is the best news this world has ever heard: (1) because it is true, (2) because it came after an apparent defeat, and (3) because of what it proves. But there is a fourth reason also. Jesus’ resurrection is good news because it demands a life-saving response in faith from each of us. Have you responded in faith to this One who died for you and rose again on that far-off first Easter morning?

This is worth asking, because we recall that according to Mark’s Gospel those to whom Mary first gave this report did not respond positively. They did not believe her: “When they heard that Jesus was alive and that she had seen him, they did not believe it” (16:11). It was only after Christ’s further appearances and a further proclamation of the message that they came to him.

There is some news that is restricted by its very nature. It applies to one or two individuals but not to everyone. A promotion is good news to the man who receives it but not to the two or three others who failed to get the job. The results of an election are good news to the winning party but not to the losing party. Even so generally applicable a report as a reduction of federal taxes is good only to those who pay taxes or who live in the country where the reduction is to take place. Almost all human news is so restricted. But the news of the resurrection is for all. What is your relationship to the risen Lord? Have you heard the good news? Have you believed it? Have you trusted in him? This is the heart of Christianity. It is not to be found in the liturgies of the churches, nor in the specific formulations of Christian theology, important as they may be. Christianity is Christ, the risen Christ. He died and rose again for you. Won’t you come to him?[1]


18. Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, I have seen the Lord, and (she told them) that he had said these things to her.

Where the Lord went after appearing to Mary has not been recorded. Moreover, it is even a question whether, had it been recorded, we would have been able to grasp it, for it must be borne in mind that the period of his day-by-day visible association with his disciples is over. He simply appears, now to this one, then to that one; and we must not ask, “Where was he in the time which intervened between any two appearances?” We know very little about the character of the resurrection-body and about its coming and going.

With Mary the case is different. We learn that she did as she had been told. Mary must have been a deeply emotional woman. In a way, she reminds us of Peter. One moment you see her weeping profusely. Her whole heart is in these tears, so much so that even the presence of angels hardly registers. But the next moment—the moment of joyful recognition, when the resurrected Lord pronounced her name—all has changed. “Rabboni,” she exclaims; and, arrived in the company of the disciples, she can hardly wait to shout, “I have seen the Lord.” (For Lord see on 20:2, 13). No longer was she thinking about a corpse now. No, this was the living Lord, gloriously risen from the grave!—Mary conveyed her message, word for word, exactly as the Lord had told her to do. And these words must have been like apples of gold in a framework of silver.[2]


[1] Boice, J. M. (2005). The Gospel of John: an expositional commentary (pp. 1581–1586). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

[2] Hendriksen, W., & Kistemaker, S. J. (1953–2001). Exposition of the Gospel According to John (Vol. 2, pp. 456–457). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.

July 21, 2017: Verse of the day

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Empty Hearts

Therefore everyone who hears these words of Mine, and acts upon them, may be compared to a wise man, who built his house upon the rock. And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and burst against that house; and yet it did not fall, for it had been rounded upon the rock. And everyone who hears these words of Mine, and does not act upon them, will be like a foolish man, who built his house upon the sand. And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and burst against that house; and it fell, and great was its fall. (7:24–27)

The second evidence that the many (vv. 13, 22) who are in the broad way will not enter the kingdom is that their lives are not built on the foundation of Christ and His Word. Again Jesus picks up the theme of man’s own righteousness, the righteousness that is totally unacceptable to God and that will in no way qualify a person for His kingdom (Matt. 5:20).

In the first illustration (vv. 21–23) we see a contrast between the true and false verbal professions of faith and good works. Here we see contrasts between obedient and disobedient hearers. Both groups hear God’s true Word, but some hear and obey, and some hear and disobey; some turn their trust to God’s righteousness, and some continue trusting in their own, though that does not become visible until the judgment.

The implication is that even those who disobey believe that they belong to Christ and make a convincing profession of faith in Him. They hear God’s Word and recognize it as God’s Word, but wrongly believe that simply knowing and recognizing it are enough to please God and guarantee them a place in His kingdom. Like those who say, “Lord, Lord,” and do amazing religious works but really “practice lawlessness,” the false hearers build their religious house, but are self-deceived as to its viability.

In the illustration of those who make false professions, the true believers are mentioned only by implication (“not everyone who says to me,” v. 21). In the illustration of the hearers and builders, however, both the true and the false believers are clearly described. In these two groups we see many similarities but also some radical differences.

Similarities

First of all, both builders have heard the gospel. Everyone who hears these words of Mine applies both to the wise man (v. 24) and to the foolish man (v. 26). They both know the way of salvation.

Second, they both proceed to build a house after they have heard the way of salvation. The wise man builds his house, which represents his life, on these words of Mine. The implication is that the foolish man, although he does not act upon Christ’s words, thinks that his house is secure simply because he has heard and acknowledged the words. He believes the life he lives is Christian and therefore pleasing to God. He does not intentionally build a house he thinks is going to fall. Both builders have confidence their houses will stand; but one man’s confidence is in the Lord and the other man’s is in himself.

Third, both builders build their houses in the same general location, evidenced by their apparently being hit by the same storm. In other words, the outward circumstances of their lives were essentially the same. One had no advantage over the other. They lived in the same town and possibly attended the same church, heard the same preaching, went to the same Bible study, and fellowshipped with the same friends.

Fourth, the implication is that they built the same kind of house. Outwardly their houses were very much alike. From all appearances the foolish man lived much in the same way as the wise man. We might say they were both religious, theologically orthodox, moral, served in the church, supported it financially, and were responsible citizens of the community. They seemed to believe alike and live alike.

Differences

The differences between the two builders and the two houses they built were not noticeable from the outside. But they were immeasurably more important than the similarities. The key is to understand that one does act upon God’s Word (obedience) and the other does not act upon His Word (disobedience). One builds using the divine specifications, the other uses his own.

By far the greatest difference between the specifications of these builders and the way they build is in the foundations they laid. The wise man … built his house upon the rock, whereas the foolish man … built his house upon the sand.

Petra (rock) does not mean a stone or even a boulder, but a great outcropping of rock, a large expanse of bedrock. It is solid, stable, and unmovable. Sand, by contrast, is loose, unstable, and extremely movable. The land agents selling lots on the sand are the false prophets Jesus has just warned about (vv. 15–20).

The scribes and Pharisees had a complex and involved set of religious traditions which they regarded as having great value before God, But all those traditions were external, superficial, and unstable. They had no spiritual or moral substance or stability. They were shifting sand, composed entirely of the opinions, speculations, and standards of men. Those who created and followed them took no account of obedience to God’s Word, purity of the heart, spirituality of the soul, or integrity of behavior. Their only concern was for appearance, the compelling desire to be seen and “honored by men” (Matt. 6:2).

As Arthur Pink says of such people,

They bring their bodies to the house of prayer but not their souls; they worship with their mouths, but not “in spirit and in truth.” They are sticklers for immersion or early morning communion, yet take no thought about keeping their hearts with all diligence. They boast of their orthodoxy; but disregard the precepts of Christ. Multitudes of professing Christians abstain from external acts of violence, yet hesitate not to rob their neighbors of a good name by spreading evil reports against them. They contribute regularly to the “pastor’s salary,” but shrink not from misrepresenting their goods and cheating their customers, persuading themselves that “business is business.” They have more regard for the laws of man than those of God, for His fear is not before their eyes.

But the wise man builds his house upon a rock, and I believe the rock spoken of here is God’s Word-these words of Mine. This builder is one who hears Jesus’ words … and acts on them. Building on the rock is equivalent to obeying God’s Word.

After Peter confessed, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God,” Jesus said, “flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. And I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church” (Matt. 16:16–18). This “rock” (petra) is the same rock as that in Matthew 7:24–25. It is the bedrock of God’s Word, His divine revelation. It is the divine revelation such as was given to Peter by the “Father who is heaven,” and is the only rock on which the Christian life can be built.

The mark of true discipleship is not simply hearing and believing, but believing and doing. The true disciples of Jesus Christ, the only true converts of the gospel, are those who are “doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks at his natural face in a mirror; for once he has looked at himself and gone away, he has immediately forgotten what kind of person he was” (James 1:22–24). In other words, a person who professes to know Christ but does not obey Christ, has no lasting image of what the new life is all about. He glimpses Christ, and glimpses what Christ can do for him, but his image of Christ and of the new life in Christ soon fade. His experience with the gospel is shallow, superficial, and short-lived.

“By this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments,” John declares. “The one who says, ‘I have come to know Him,’ and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him; but whoever keeps His word, in him the love of God has truly been perfected. By this we know that we are in Him: the one who says he abides in Him ought himself to walk in the same manner as He walked” (1 John 2:3–6). Paul powerfully and convincingly asserts the same thing: “To those who are defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure, but both their mind and their conscience are defiled. They profess to know God, but by their deeds they deny Him, being detestable and disobedient, and worthless for any good deed” (Titus 1:15–16).

To profess knowledge of God and His truth but not follow God obediently and live His truth is to be deceived. It is to have entered by the wide gate and to be walking on the broad way that leads to destruction. It is to have a house built upon the sand.

The only validation we can ever have of salvation is a life of obedience. That is the only proof Scripture mentions of our being under the lordship of Jesus Christ. Obedience is the sine qua non of salvation.

The house built on the rock is the life of obedience, the life Jesus has been explaining throughout the Sermon on the Mount. It is the life that has a scriptural view of itself, as described in the Beatitudes. It is the life that has a scriptural view of the world, and sees itself as God’s means for preserving and enlightening the world while not being a part of it. It is the life that has the divine view of Scripture and that determines not to alter God’s Word in the slightest degree. It is a life that is concerned about internal righteousness rather than external form. It is a life that has a godly attitude toward what is said and what is done, toward motives, things, money, and other people. It is a life of genuineness rather than hypocrisy, and of God’s righteousness rather than self-righteousness.

The house built on the rock is the life that empties itself of self-righteousness and pride, that is overwhelmed by and mourns over its own sin, that makes the maximum effort to enter the narrow gate and be faithful in the narrow way of Christ and His Word. Such a builder does not build his life or place his hope on ceremony, ritual, visions, experiences, feelings, or miracles but on the Word of God and that alone.

The sand is composed of human opinions, attitudes, and wills, which are always shifting and always unstable. To build on sand is to build on self-will, self-fulfillment, self-purpose, self-sufficiency, self-satisfaction, and self-righteousness. To build on sand is to be unteachable, to be “always learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim. 3:7).

To build the house of one’s life on the sand is to follow the ultimate deception of Satan, which is to make a person believe he is saved when he is not. Because that person is under the delusion that he is safe, he sees no reason either to resist Satan or to seek God.

Besides the great difference in the foundations they lay, the wise man builds his house the hard way, whereas the foolish man builds his the easy way. The one chooses the narrow gate and the other the broad. The one searches carefully for a solid foundation of rock on which to build; the other simply finds a section of sand in a desirable location and starts to build.

The easy way is attractive for several reasons, the first of which is that it is quick. The foolish person is always in a hurry. His first desire is to please himself, and he takes the shortest route to that end. In church work he wants the quick, easy solution, the one that causes the least controversy and hassle, with no consideration of how the solution may square with Scripture. He is for easy evangelism, easy believism, and easy discipleship, because they bring quick results that are simple to see and measure. He has no time for searching the Word for the right truth with which to witness, or for soul-searching or sound conviction. He sees a verbal profession, a card signed, or a prayer prayed as sufficient to bring a person to Christ. He is perfectly willing to declare a person saved without his having any awareness that he is lost.

The foolish person also likes the easy way because he is basically superficial. That which is superficial requires little planning, little effort, little care to detail, and little concern for quality or standards. The person who is superficial looks for what is pleasing rather than for what is right, for what is enjoyable rather than for what is true, for what satisfies himself rather than what satisfies God. He looks to Christianity for instant results, instant pleasure, and instant rewards. He cares much about spiritual “highs” but nothing about spiritual “depths.”

Of his own day Charles Spurgeon wrote,

Want of depth, want of sincerity, want of zeal in religion-this is the want of our times. Want of an eye to God in religion, lack of sincere dealing with one’s soul, neglect of using the lancet with our hearts, neglect of the search warrant which God gives out against sin, carelessness concerning living upon Christ; much reading about Him, much talking about Him, but too little feeding on His flesh and drinking of His blood-these are the causes of a tottering profession and a baseless hope. (Cited by Pink in An Exposition of the Sermon on the Mount [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1974], p. 423)

In His parable of the sower Jesus spoke of the person who “hears the word, and immediately receives it with joy; yet he has no firm root in himself, but is only temporary, and when affliction or persecution arises because of the word, immediately he falls away” (Matt. 13:20–21). He receives quickly and falls away quickly. He likes God’s promises but not His requirements.

The foolish man always has excuses when Jesus makes demands on his life. When he first hears the gospel he says to the Lord, “I will follow You wherever You go.” But when he hears, “The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head,” he suddenly remembers that he has to bury his father (that is, await his father’s death in order to receive the inheritance) or “say good-bye to those at home.” Such a person who puts his hand to the plow and then looks back, Jesus says, is “not fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:57–62).

The rain, the floods, and the winds do not represent specific types of physical judgment but simply sum up God’s final judgment. The storm is the ultimate test that the house of every human life will face. As the angel of death in Egypt passed by the blood-sprinkled homes of Israel’s children while slaughtering all the first-born in the rest, so the same judgment that harmlessly passes over the house that is founded upon the rock of Christ and His Word will utterly destroy the one that is built … upon the sand-which is anything other than Christ and His Word.

Whether one’s religion is true or false, one day it is going to be tried. And that trial will prove with absolute finality what is wheat and what is chaff, who are sheep and who are goats, who have entered by the narrow gate to walk the narrow way and who have entered by the wide gate to walk the broad way.

Those whose houses are on the rock of Jesus Christ and His Word will be delivered “from the wrath to come” (1 Thess. 1:10), and will only have praise from God, says Paul (1 Cor. 4:5). That wrath is ultimately poured out at the judgment at the great white throne, which John describes in Revelation 20. “And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds. … And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire” (vv. 12, 15).

The only difference about the storm in regard to the wise and the foolish men is in the way it affects their houses. The house of the wise man may have been shaken, yet it did not fall, for it had been rounded upon the rock.

But when the same adversity came upon the house of the foolish man it disintegrated-and great was its fall. It was utterly demolished, leaving its builder with absolutely nothing. That is the destiny of those who build on the sand of man’s ideas, man’s philosophies, and man’s religions. It is not that such people will have little left, but nothing left. Their way is not an inferior way to God, but no way to God at all. Always and inevitably it leads to destruction; its absolute destiny is to fall.

The greatest problem in evangelism is not follow-up but conversion. Right follow-up is not nearly so difficult as right conversion. Follow-up is the hardest when conversion is the easiest, because easy conversion is frequently no conversion. It results from seed falling on rocky soil, where it springs up quickly and dies just as quickly. The unconverted are indeed hard to follow up, whereas those who have truly come to Christ are eager to learn from His Word and associate with His people.

I heard of a large church that one year claimed 28,000 conversions, 9,600 baptisms, and 123 additions to the church! After reflecting on those figures, one of the church staff members decided that something was terribly wrong and decided to minister elsewhere. It is quite impossible that so many true conversions would produce so few Christians who would want to identify with their new brothers and sisters in the Lord.

The wise man builds carefully, because there is substance and great importance to what he is building. In the parallel passage in Luke, Jesus says, he “dug deep and laid a foundation upon the rock” (6:48). He is not satisfied with superficial confessions of faith, with quickie conversions that involve no repentance, no mourning over sin, and no despairing of self.

Knowing that he owes everything to the Lord, this man desires to give Him his maximum effort. After he does everything his Lord commands he declares that he has only done his duty (Luke 17:10). Yet he does not consider his work for the Lord burdensome. For one thing, the work we truly do for the Lord is the work He does through us. For another, the work that is truly done for the Lord is done out of love, not out of compulsion or fear. As the anonymous writer of the hymn “How Firm a Foundation” says, the Lord promises this man:

The soul that on Jesus hath leaned for repose,

I will not, I will not desert to his foes;

That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,

I’ll never, no, never, no never forsake!

The most tragic difference between the builders is in their final destinies. Jesus’ unequaled and unparalleled sermon masterpiece ends with a devastating warning of judgment. Its final words are: and great was its fall. The bottom line of the gospel for those who reject Christ is not that they forfeit a great deal of blessing or even that they forfeit a life of eternal bliss with God in heaven-though those things are absolutely true. The bottom line for those who reject Christ is that they are destined for everlasting torment, destruction that keeps on destroying forever. To reject Christ is to look forward to being “cast into hell, where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:47–48). Because of this inevitability every professing Christian needs to hear the words of the Holy Spirit through James: “Prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves” (James 1:22). As we learn from Proverbs, “There is a kind who is pure in his own eyes, yet is not washed from his filthiness” (30:12).[1]


The House on the Rock

Matthew 7:24–27

We come now to the last words of the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus Christ pictures the difference between those who hear his teachings and do them and those who hear his teachings and do not do them. He draws a picture we all know, a picture of a wise man, who builds his house upon a rock, and of a foolish man, who builds his house upon sand. Most of us have sung about this, in one hymn or another, since we were children.

Foundations

Basically, it is a matter of foundations. Let me illustrate the importance of having a firm foundation for a building by means of this contrast. Toward the end of one summer, after having spent several months in Europe, I returned to the United States on a student ship that sailed to New York from Rotterdam. I thought when I boarded that it was probably the smallest ship allowed on the ocean. Perhaps I was right, for it was certainly slow and very light in high seas. We boarded it at night, and the next morning we were sure we could still see Holland. By the end of the third or fourth day we were just passing Land’s End, England. All in all, the crossing took nine days.

The difficulty, however, was not only the length of time. The hurricane season had arrived, and a number of storms had managed to churn up the ocean midway between England and Newfoundland. We arrived at New York harbor after days of tossing about like a cork in a bathtub, and our first calm was the calm we felt as we entered the harbor in the middle of the night. Because I did not want to miss seeing the harbor, I spent most of the night on the deck, watching the ship slowly maneuver into place in the channel, drop anchor, and stop. Then I saw the gray spires of lower Manhattan emerge like mountains in the constantly brightening light of dawn. I thought how firm they appeared and what a contrast they were to the way I had been spending the last nine days.

One summer several years later, my family and I visited Venice, where we received a very contrasting impression about foundations. We arrived about 12:30 at night. Cruising along peacefully under the warm Italian night sky, we took a motor launch down the Grand Canal to the Piazza San Marco, where our hotel was located. Venice is like New York in some respects. They are both great ports. They are financial centers. But I knew, even as I gazed at the great Venetian buildings, that Venice was slowly sinking into the waters of the Adriatic sea. The difference between Venice and New York is that Venice has no foundations such as New York has.

That is a bit whimsical, perhaps, but it illustrates in vivid, contemporary terms what Jesus is talking about in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus says that a man builds a life the way designers build cities, and his point is that the factor that determines what will remain and what will not remain is the foundation. “Therefore,” he says, “everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash” (Matt. 7:24–27).

In these closing words of his sermon, Jesus stressed the importance of an adequate foundation. What is your foundation? On what do you build?

Christ Is the Rock

That is a most profound question, and it is a good one to come to at the end of the Sermon on the Mount. For, you see, it is quite possible for a man to have heard all Jesus’ teachings and to have said, “It is true. These are great sayings. They are the key to morality. I’ll just go out and try a bit harder.” But if you are thinking that way, you have missed the whole point of what Jesus is saying. He says, “I am not asking you to go out and try harder. You will never be able to do it. To go out and try harder and to try to construct that kind of character in your own strength is like trying to build a mansion upon sand. Actually, you will only achieve that kind of character when you build on me.”

This is really the first and most important point of these verses. Jesus Christ is the foundation. He is the rock. I know, of course, that not all Scripture passages that use the word “rock” or “foundation” imply this, but certainly it is the only true sense in this passage. It is true that in 1 Timothy 6:17–19, Paul speaks of works as a good foundation; “Command those who are rich in this present world … to do good … In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age” (1 Tim. 2:19). But these are exceptions, and for each of these texts there are many more which apply the same imagery to Jesus himself or (in the Old Testament) to the Messiah.

Thus, Isaiah writes, “So this is what the Sovereign Lord says: ‘See, I lay a stone in Zion, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone for a sure foundation’ ” (Isa. 28:16). Paul writes, “[you are] built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone” (Eph. 2:20). Shortly after the Resurrection Peter told the Sanhedrim, the highest court of the Jews, “He is ‘the stone you builders rejected, which has become the capstone’ ” (Acts 4:11). He wrote in his first letter, “See, I lay a stone in Zion, a chosen and precious cornerstone, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame. Now to you who believe, this stone is precious” (1 Peter 2:6–7).

That is the true sense of Christ’s teaching. He is saying, “If you want a construction that will last for this life and for eternity, build on me.” Are you doing it? If so you can sing:

My hope is built on nothing less

Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness;

I dare not trust the sweetest frame,

But wholly lean on Jesus’ name.

On Christ, the solid rock, I stand;

All other ground is sinking sand.

Christianity is Jesus Christ. Thus, the life of blessing promised by Christianity must be constructed on him.

The House Will Stand

The second important point to be seen in these verses is this: A life built upon Jesus Christ will stand. That is a simple point, of course, but we need to have it clear in our thinking and to get it planted deeply in our minds. A life built upon Jesus Christ will stand. It will stand even in the midst of the tribulations of this life or the judgments of eternity.

We are going to have tribulations. They are the common lot of man, but only the Christian who is building upon Christ and whose mind is captive to the will of God can triumph over them gloriously (Rom. 5:3). In the Book of Job there is a passage in which one of Job’s comforters says, “For hardship does not spring from the soil, nor does trouble sprout from the ground. Yet man is born to trouble as surely as sparks fly upward” (Job 5:6–7). The image is highly poetic. It tells us that each generation of men can be compared to a stack of cordwood that is placed upon the burning embers of the past. That is our destiny, to pass through fire and in due time to be released forever. Every child of Adam—you and I and countless millions of others—will experience sorrow, pain, suffering, disappointment, and eventually death.

What is the solution? Not escape certainly, for escape is impossible. The solution is to build upon a sure foundation. So Jesus says that although the rains will fall, the floods will rise, and the wind will blow, the life that is constructed upon him will survive.

That is true. It was true for Job. It was true for Moses and David and Isaiah and Jeremiah and all the other great Old Testament figures. It was true for Peter, James, John, and Paul.

Let me give you a more contemporary illustration. Dr. Joseph Parker, a noted English preacher, who for many years proclaimed the Word of God in the great City Temple of London, tells in his autobiography that there was a time when he gave too much attention to the modern theories of his day. Men were undervaluing the Word of God, and he found himself, as he read their books and mingled in their meetings, losing his grip upon the great fundamental doctrine of salvation through the atoning blood of the Lord Jesus Christ. At this point there came into his life a great sorrow. His wife, whom he loved deeply, became sick and died within a few hours. He was unable to share his grief with others, and walking through the empty rooms of his home with a breaking heart, he felt for some footing in the theories of his day and found none. “And then,” he said, addressing a company of his Congregational brethren, “my brethren, in those hours of darkness, in those hours of my soul’s anguish, when filled with doubt and trembling in fear, I bethought myself of the old gospel of redemption alone through the blood of Christ, the gospel that I had preached in those earlier days, and I put my foot down on that, and, my brethren, I found firm standing. I stand there today, and I shall die resting upon that blessed glorious truth of salvation alone through the precious blood of Christ.”

On Christ, the solid rock, I stand;

All other ground is sinking sand.

Precious Stones or Stubble

There is one last point here, and it is a point for Christians. What are you building, Christian? Oh, you are on the foundation all right. Christ is your Savior. But do you know that it is possible for him to be your foundation and yet for you to go through life building things that are worthless and will not remain as fruit for eternity even though you will be saved personally? Listen to Paul, “If any man builds on this foundation [Jesus Christ] using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames” (1 Cor. 3:12–15).

I believe that there are really only two mistakes that a person can make here in regard to Christ’s teaching. There is the error which says, “I need no foundation at all; I’ll just drift.” Many people are drifting today, especially the young. But the trouble with drifting is that you go downstream. Water always flows downstream. You can never drift into happiness. A drifter needs a foundation.

There is also the error which, I suppose, is more generally committed by the older generation today. They say, “Yes, we all must build upon a firm foundation,” but they do not see that it is possible to build wrongly upon the foundation. Thus, they do not enjoy true happiness or security either.

What are you building? The precious things of God? Or things that may dazzle now but will soon pass away into nothing? If it is the latter, you may find yourself on the day of judgment in the ridiculous position of Ozymandias, that legendary Persian king about whom Shelley wrote a poem. According to Shelley, the great statue of Ozymandias lay prone in the desert in the midst of thousands of square miles of rolling sand. The inscription said, “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.”

What are you building upon the foundation that is given you by God? Are you living for yourself? It is entirely possible for Christians to do that. Or are you living for him?

Quite a few years ago William Borden went to Yale University as an undergraduate and afterward became a missionary candidate planning to work in China. When he made his decision to invest his life in this service, many of his friends thought him foolish. He had come from a good family. He had wealth and influence. “Why are you going to throw away your life in some foreign country,” they asked, “when you can have such an enjoyable and worthwhile life here?” But William Borden of Yale had heard the call of God. While in Egypt, on the way to China and even before he had much of a chance to do anything, he became sick. Soon it was evident to everyone including himself that he would die. At this point Borden could have said to himself, “What a waste. My friends were right. I could have stayed in New Haven.” But Borden did not think this way. As he lay on his death bed in Egypt, he scribbled a farewell note to his friends that was in some sense is epitaph. The note said, “No reserve, no retreat, and no regrets.”

How could Borden of Yale write such a statement? Simply because he had learned to build upon a firm foundation. And he was prepared, as we all should be prepared, to pass confidently into Christ’s presence and to hear his warm welcome: “Well done, good and faithful servant! … Come and share your master’s happiness!” (Matt 25:21, 23).[2]


[1] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (pp. 481–487). Chicago: Moody Press.

[2] Boice, J. M. (2002). The Sermon on the Mount: an expositional commentary (pp. 264–268). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.