Category Archives: James Montgomery Boice

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.

July 16, 2017: Verse of the day

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Then Jesus uttered some very solemn words: “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him,” emphasizing man’s helplessness and utter inability to respond to Him apart from God’s sovereign call. Unbelievers are unable to come to Jesus on their own initiative (cf. the discussion of verse 37 above). If God did not irresistibly draw sinners to Christ, no one would ever come to Him.

To explain how lost sinners supposedly have the power to accept or reject the gospel of their own free will, some theologians introduce the concept of prevenient grace. Millard J. Erickson explains,

As generally understood, prevenient grace is grace that is given by God to all men indiscriminately. It is seen in God’s sending the sunshine and the rain upon all. It is also the basis of all the goodness found in men everywhere. Beyond that, it is universally given to counteract the effect of sin.… Since God has given this grace to all, everyone is capable of accepting the offer of salvation; consequently, there is no need for any special application of God’s grace to particular individuals. (Christian Theology [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1985], 3:920)

But the Bible indicates that fallen man is unable, of his own volition, to come to Jesus Christ. Unregenerate people are dead in sin (Eph. 2:1; Col. 2:13), slaves to unrighteousness (John 8:34; Rom. 6:6, 17, 20), alienated from God (Col. 1:21), and hostile to Him (Rom. 5:10; 8:7). They are spiritually blind (2 Cor. 4:4) captives (2 Tim. 2:26) trapped in Satan’s kingdom (Col. 1:13), powerless to change their sinful natures (Jer. 13:23; Rom. 5:6), unable to please God (Rom. 8:8), and incapable of understanding spiritual truth (1 Cor. 2:14; cf. John 14:17). Although the human will is involved in coming to Christ (since no one is saved apart from believing the gospel—Mark 1:15; Acts 15:7; Rom. 1:16; 10:9–15; Eph. 1:13), sinners cannot come to Him of their own free will. (Moreover, a comparison of verse 44 with verse 37 shows that God’s drawing cannot apply to all unregenerate people, as proponents of prevenient grace argue, because verse 37 limits it to the redeemed whom God has given to Christ.) God irresistibly, efficaciously draws to Christ only those whom He chose for salvation in eternity past (Eph. 1:4–5, 11).

Once again, Jesus repeated the wonderful promise that all whom the Father chooses will be drawn, will come, will be received, and He will raise them on the last day (vv. 39–40, 54). Everyone who comes to Christ will be kept by Him; there is no possibility that even one elect person given to Him by the Father will be lost (see the discussion of v. 39 above).[1]


What did Jesus answer? It is important to notice that Jesus did not answer by defending himself on the personal level, as we might like to do. He could have done it, of course. But instead of this he returned to his teaching and restated it, giving two proofs. This was a challenge to his hearers to investigate his teaching for themselves. Finally, after having restated his teaching and given his proofs, Jesus stated the doctrine again for the final time. The verses that contain this read as follows: “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day. It is written in the Prophets, ‘They will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who listens to the Father and learns from him comes to me. No one has seen the Father except the one who is from God; only he has seen the Father. I tell you the truth, he who believes in me has everlasting life” (vv. 44–47).

We need to take these statements one at a time. First, Jesus repeats what he had said earlier, but here he does so in even sharper language. Before, he had said, “You have seen me and still you do not believe. All that the Father gives me will come to me” (vv. 36–37). This implies that no one can come, apart from a special act of God on his behalf, but it does not say this negatively. Now Christ does. “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.”

This verse is so straightforward in its language that it has always been a battleground between those who are willing to accept the doctrine of election here taught by Christ and those who resist it on rational or humanistic grounds. It was discussed by Augustine and Pelagius, by Calvin and Arminius, by Luther and Erasmus.

The latter case is particularly interesting. Erasmus had been led to attack Martin Luther’s teaching on the total spiritual depravity of man in a volume centering on the nature of the human will and on whether it can function in turning a man or a woman to God. Erasmus said it could. Moreover, he answered the obvious objection based on the argument of Christ in this verse—the objection that no one can come to Christ except the Father draw him—by saying that God draws people in the same way that an owner of a donkey might get it to move by holding a handful of carrots before its nose. The man draws, but obviously the will of the donkey is involved. According to this theory, God originates salvation but man nevertheless cooperates in it.

This may make good sense to the natural human way of thinking. But it is not what Scripture teaches, and Luther said so quite openly. What better drawing could there be, Luther argued, than the drawing of the Lord Jesus Christ himself? He was present among the people. He taught them personally. Still they did not come. In fact, they killed him. Luther concluded, “The ungodly does not ‘come’ even when he hears the word, unless the Father draws and teaches him inwardly; which he does by shedding abroad his Spirit. When that happens, there follows a ‘drawing’ other than that which is outward; Christ is then displayed by the enlightening of the Spirit, and by it man is rapt to Christ with the sweetest rapture, he being passive while God speaks, teaches and draws, rather than seeking or running himself.”

This was a good answer, of course. But we can go even further than this on the basis of Christ’s statement. Luther’s key word in answering Erasmus was “passive.” He said that man was passive spiritually, inert, as inert as a dead man might be, if we may use that image. In John 6:44, however, there is in addition to this truth the thought that man also actually resists the work of God within. That is, he is not only passive; he also is perverse and obstinate.

We see this truth in the word that is chosen to speak of the Father’s work in “drawing” a man or a woman to Christ. This word always implies resistance to the power that draws. William Barclay gives a number of examples of this in his devotional studies on John’s Gospel. He shows that it is the word for drawing a heavily laden net to the shore, a net filled with a great number of fish (John 21:6, 11). It is the word that is used of Paul and Silas being dragged before the civil authorities in Philippi (Acts 16:19). It is used for drawing a sword from the belt or from its scabbard (John 18:10). Always there is the idea of resistance. So here also there is the idea that men and women resist God.

Curiously, however, Barclay adds that “God can and does draw men, but man’s resistance can defeat the pull of God.” The curious thing about this statement, though, is that not one of his examples shows the resistance to be successful. The fish do get to shore. Paul and Silas are dragged before the magistrates. The sword is withdrawn. Indeed, we can go even further than this. As Leon Morris notes in his commentary, “There is not one example in the New Testament of the use of this verb where the resistance is successful. Always the drawing power is triumphant, as here.” People resist. In this their depravity is seen. But the power of God always overcomes the resistance in those whom he has determined before the foundation of the world to give to Jesus.

Is this discouraging? Not at all. Actually, the fact that God does draw men and women to Christ in spite of themselves is our ho[2]


43–44 Jesus doesn’t bother to answer the issues they raise. To allow them to set the tone and control the discussion would lead nowhere. So Jesus tells them to “stop grumbling.” Their premises are wrong and their conjectures are leading them in the wrong direction. The people who “come to Jesus” are those who are drawn by the Father (v. 44). The Greek word for “draw” (helkyō, GK 1816) when used literally means “to draw” or “to tug” (TDNT 2:503; in Ac 16:19 Paul and Silas are “dragged” before the authorities). When taken figuratively (as here in Jn 6:44) it means “to compel.” Barclay, 1:220, notes that “it almost always implies some kind of resistance.” Morris, 371 n. 110, adds, “God brings men to Himself although by nature they prefer sin.” Most commentators hold that John is speaking here of a drawing that goes far beyond moral influence; it is a drawing akin to divine election. No one is able to come to the Father unless the Father draws him or her. In connection with the restoration of Israel, God through the prophet Jeremiah says, “I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with loving-kindness” (Jer 31:3). Interestingly, in John 12:32 Jesus says that when he is lifted up, he “will draw all men” to himself. The apparent contradiction is eased when we understand that in ch. 12 Jesus speaks of “all men without distinction” rather than “all men without exception” (Carson, 293). In his sacrificial death, Jesus will draw to himself people of every cultural, social, and ethnic background (12:32), but unless a specific person is drawn, that person cannot come to Christ (6:44). The drawing here is not the persuasive power of God’s concern for all, but the irresistible attraction of his grace for the elect. The CEV translates, “No one can come to me, unless the Father who sent me makes them want to come.” And those who do come will be raised to life “at the last day”—another indication that “realized eschatology” is only part of the whole story. The Father initiates the work of grace in the human heart, and the Son brings it to completion.[3]


6:43–45. Even though there was no formal question, John tells us that Jesus answered. Verse 44 is the opposite of the first part of verse 37. All will come, but no one can come unless he or she is drawn, and the automatic result is resurrection. But what is the significance of the citation of Isaiah 54:13 in the middle of verse 45? This is important if we are to maintain balance in this passage. The original Old Testament text describes the new Jerusalem in which “all your sons will be taught by the Lord” (Isa. 54:13).

The context here seems to require the learning of the gospel and a spiritual awareness that creates a desire for truth. Borchert warns, “Salvation is never achieved apart from the drawing power of God, and it is never consummated apart from the willingness of humans to hear and learn from God. To choose one or the other will ultimately end in unbalanced, unbiblical theology … Rather than resolving the tension, the best resolution is learning to live with the tension and accepting those whose theological commitments differ from ours” (Borchert, pp. 268–69).[4]


43, 44. In view of the testimonies that had been given (see on 5:30–47) there was no excuse for this scornful attitude on the part of the Jews. If everything was not immediately clear, they could have asked questions in a polite and humble manner. The questions which they actually asked were wrong both in content and in spirit. Hence, Jesus does not enter into them. He realizes that this would have been useless. In a passage (verse 43, taken in its entirety) which again places side by side human responsibility and divine predestination, Jesus answered and said to them, Stop murmuring among yourselves. Here human responsibility is stressed. Then, taking up again one of his own main points (see 6:37), Jesus continues, No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draw him, and I will raise him up at the last day. Here the emphasis is on the divine decree of predestination carried out in history. When Jesus refers to the divine drawing activity, he employs a term which clearly indicates that more than moral influence is indicated. The Father does not merely beckon or advise, he draws! The same verb (ἕλκω, ἑλκύω) occurs also in 12:32, where the drawing activity is ascribed to the Son; and further, in 18:10; 21:6, 11; Acts 16:19; 21:30; and Jas. 2:6. The drawing of which these passages speak indicates a very powerful—we may even say, an irresistible—activity. To be sure, man resists, but his resistance is ineffective. It is in that sense that we speak of God’s grace as being irresistible. The net full of big fishes is actually drawn or dragged ashore (21:6, 11). Paul and Silas are dragged into the forum (Acts 16:19). Paul is dragged out of the temple (Acts 21:30). The rich drag the poor before the judgment-seats (Jas. 2:6). Returning now to the Fourth Gospel, Jesus will draw all men to himself (12:32) and Simon drew his sword, striking the high priest’s servant, cutting off his right ear (18:10). To be sure, there is a difference between the drawing of a net or a sword, on the one hand, and of a sinner, on the other. With the latter God deals as with a responsible being. He powerfully influences the mind, will, heart, the entire personality. These, too, begin to function in their own right, so that Christ is accepted by a living faith. But both at the beginning and throughout the entire process of being saved, the power is ever from above; it is very real, strong, and effective; and it is wielded by God himself!

The question may be asked: Why is it that in the teaching of Jesus (12:32) this drawing activity is ascribed to the Father (6:44) and to the Son (12:32) but not to the Holy Spirit? We answer: a. As long as the Holy Spirit has not been poured out, we cannot expect detailed teaching with reference to him; b. nevertheless, in the night of the betrayal Jesus did refer to the drawing power of the Holy Spirit, though the words used are different (14:26; 15:26; 16:13, 14; see esp. the thirteenth verse of that chapter); and c. the work of regeneration which is specifically ascribed to the Spirit (3:3, 5) is certainly included in this process of drawing a sinner from death to life!—In connection with the work of the triune God in drawing sinners to himself see also Jer. 31:3; Rom. 8:14; and Col. 1:13.

The one drawn, actually gets there: he whom the Father draws is raised to life by the Son. Moreover, the powerful operation affects both soul and body. Jesus says, “And I will raise him up at the last day.” The last day is again the judgment day. On Jesus as the One sent by the Father see 3:34; cf. 1:6.[5]


[1] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2006). John 1–11 (pp. 252–253). Chicago: Moody Press.

[2] Boice, J. M. (2005). The Gospel of John: an expositional commentary (pp. 513–514). 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, p. 447). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[4] Gangel, K. O. (2000). John (Vol. 4, p. 126). Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers.

[5] Hendriksen, W., & Kistemaker, S. J. (1953–2001). Exposition of the Gospel According to John (Vol. 1, pp. 238–239). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.

July 11, 2017: Verse of the day

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6 The second issue of communal disobedience raised by Malachi lies in the area of stewardship. God has blessed them, but they have failed to reciprocate by returning to him what the law requires. The Lord rebukes them with more than a little hint of impatience, but it is impatience generously leavened by grace (v. 6). Without that grace he would long since have destroyed them for their lack of compliance.[1]


3:6, 7 Contrary to God’s having become unjust and thus not acting on behalf of Israel, in light of their history of rebellion, Israel’s existence was due only to the Lord’s unchanging character and unswerving commitment to His covenant promise with the patriarchs (cf. Nu 23:19; 1Sa 15:29; Jas 1:17 in general; Jer 31:35–37; 33:14–22 in particular). They may experience God’s goodness again, and be blessed—if they repent. In view of the Lord’s coming to refine and purify, Malachi presents a powerful challenge to repent (cf. Zec 1:3). Yet, apparently unwilling to admit the sins on their part needing repentance (also cf. v. 8b), the invitation to return is met with another cynical query, asking how they can return when, from their perspective, they haven’t lefthas. The truth was, God hasn’t changed and neither have they; He was as righteous as ever and they as unrighteous.[2]


3:6 I the Lord do not change implies that God’s character and eternal purposes do not change, which gives a solid foundation for his people’s faith and hope. However, unchangeableness in character does not mean that the Lord is unchanging in his actions, for the very next verse, “Return to me and I will return to you” (v. 7), shows that God acts differently in response to different situations. Therefore implies that God’s purpose to bring blessing to the world through Abraham’s descendants and through a Davidic Messiah will not be defeated, and thus the children of Jacob are not consumed: their existence as the restored community is evidence of God’s faithfulness.[3]


3:6 I, Yahweh, have not changed The primary reason Israel has not been destroyed is because of Yahweh’s faithfulness to His covenants with the nation. Yahweh will not change His mind concerning Israel.[4]


3:6 I … do not change. The immutability, or unchangeable character, of God is seen in His purpose to bless His elect people. Thus they are not destroyed (Ex. 34:6, 7; Jer. 30:11).[5]


Robbers! Robbers of God!

Malachi 3:6–12

“I the Lord do not change. So you, O descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed. Ever since the time of your forefathers you have turned away from my decrees and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you,” says the Lord Almighty.

“But you ask, ‘How are we to return?’

“Will a man rob God? Yet you rob me.

“But you ask, ‘How do we rob you?’

“In tithes and offerings. You are under a curse—the whole nation of you—because you are robbing me. Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,” says the Lord Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it. I will prevent pests from devouring your crops, and the vines in your fields will not cast their fruit,” says the Lord Almighty. “Then all the nations will call you blessed, for yours will be a delightful land,” says the Lord Almighty.

I was counseling a young man whom I had known for years. Earlier he had made a commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord that had been growing in intensity, but he had also been involved in sexual sin and seemed unable to shake it. I had told him that he needed to be obedient to Christ in this as in other areas, but the struggle went on. In this particular session he told me that several months previously he had decided to stop having sexual relations with his girlfriend to see if that would help get his life straightened out and bring the kind of blessing he expected from Christianity. “But it hasn’t worked,” he told me. He had done his bit—a great deal in his opinion—but God had not responded as he expected.

This was exactly what was happening with those of Malachi’s day. According to the prophet, the people were guilty of many serious sins. The priests were offering blemished animals in a formal but insincere religious ritualism. Many were divorcing their wives to marry unbelieving women. Most had been disobeying God’s laws by withholding tithes of their harvest. And they were all accusing God of loving them only halfheartedly and of being unjust in his dealings with them—because he had not prospered them adequately. If they could have put their feelings into words other than those recorded by Malachi, they might have said, “We have been utterly faithful in fulfilling our responsibilities toward God. Never mind the divorces and mixed marriages. Never mind the tithes. We keep our side of the bargain through many things that seem important to us. The problem is that God has not kept his side of the bargain. We have been faithful; he is unfaithful. In short, obedience to God does not work. God has not prospered us as we think he should, and the fault is God’s alone.”

The answer, of course, is that God had not changed. It is the people who had changed, falling away from a true love for him and from the truly righteous life their forefathers once had (Mal. 3:4). But in another sense, the problem is that the people—we must include ourselves at this point—had changed so little. Though fallen from their original, early devotion to God, they were nevertheless exactly as they had been for much of their history. They were exceedingly sinful and self-righteous, and they needed to repent.

God Has Not Changed

Once when I was preaching through the Book of Malachi and dealt at length with God’s indictment of divorce and mixed marriages in Malachi 2:10–16, I was approached afterward by a man who identified himself as a Baptist. He said, “I have never heard a sermon on the second chapter of Malachi, but I have heard dozens of sermons on Malachi 3.” He was referring to the fact that in Malachi 3:10 God challenges the people to “bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house … and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it.” This is a great text for a sermon on stewardship, which is what this man had so often heard. But it is striking that the context for God’s words about tithes is the teaching that God is faithful. The matter of tithes is only an illustration of that teaching.

In theology this doctrine is called immutability. It means that, being perfect, God cannot and does not change. In order to change, a moral being must change in either of two ways. Either he must change for the better or he must change for the worse. God cannot get better, because that would mean that he was less than perfect earlier, in which case he would not have been God. But God cannot get worse either, because in that case he would become imperfect, which he cannot be. God is and must remain perfect in all his attributes.

Malachi 3:6 is a classic statement of immutability: “I the Lord do not change.” But we immediately ask, “What are the specific areas in which God does not change?” And “Why does God mention this particular doctrine here?”

It would be a valid exposition of this text to list every one of God’s attributes and show how God does not change in any of them, attributes like sovereignty, wisdom, holiness, self-existence, self-sufficiency, knowledge, and justice. But the relevant attributes here are his love, mercy, grace, and faithfulness. Malachi 3:6 says that it is because of God’s immutability in these areas that the people have not been destroyed. At first glance this is surprising, because the theme of the preceding verses has been the people’s complaint: “Where is the God of justice?” In such a context, if God replies that he has not changed, we should expect him to mean, “I have not changed in my demand for justice, and I will judge the ungodly.”

Instead, we find that the emphasis is on his grace and mercy. Even when we were looking at the previous verses we saw that God was coming, not to judge, but to save his people. The messenger was to prepare the way for Jesus, who would redeem and purify them. We find the same thing here. God emphasizes his immutability to say that he is unchanging in his faithfulness, which is why the people have not been destroyed for their transgressions.

How gracious of God! The people were accusing him of changing, of having become unfaithful. God replies that he is unchanging precisely in his faithfulness, which is why these very people had not been cast off.

We Must Change

It is this unchangeableness of God that gives us a chance to change. For, of course, that is what we must do. It is why the passage goes on to speak of repentance or returning to God: “ ‘Return to me, and I will return to you,’ says the Lord Almighty” (v. 7). “How are we to return?” someone asks. That is what the people of Malachi’s day asked, and God’s response to them in the first instance was that they had robbed him of tithes and offerings. The word “tithe” means “tenth.” It refers to that tenth of the people’s produce or income that was owed to God for the temple service and other social obligations. The basic tenth was paid to the Levites for their maintenance (Lev. 27:30–33), and from this tenth the Levites themselves paid a tenth to the ministering priests (Num. 18:25–32). Additional tenths may have been paid on other occasions (cf. Deut. 14:28–29). That is what the people had not done. They had undoubtedly made some small contributions to the Levites and temple service as part of their ritualistic practice of religion. But they had not given the “whole tithe” (Mal. 3:10), and they had certainly not presented even what they did give with a willing and thankful heart. They had to change in this area.

Many believers today also need to change. Sometimes in question-and-answer periods I am asked whether Christians today are obliged to tithe. I suspect the questioner wants to know how little he must give to Christian causes and how much he can keep for himself. I reply with what I believe to be a proper statement of the case, namely, that the tithe was an Old Testament regulation designed for the support of a particular class of people. It was not carried over into the New Testament. Nowhere in the New Testament are believers instructed to give a specific tenth or any other proportion of their income to Christian projects.

On the other hand, I also point out that although the tithe is not mentioned, the giving of weekly offerings is (1 Cor. 16:2). And more importantly, it is generally the case that in the New Testament the obligations of the Old Testament legislation are heightened rather than lessened. That is, the law is interpreted in the fullest measure. So while we are not required to give a specific tenth of our income, it is hard to think of a normal Christian, blessed with the fullness of the gospel of Jesus Christ, doing less. Under reasonable circumstances any true believer in Christ should give more than the tenth, for all we have is the Lord’s.

I wonder how many believers today even approach that ideal. I wonder if God would not say to most today, “You rob me” (Mal. 3:8). Why should this be? Why should we who have been blessed so abundantly be so ungenerous?

I think the reason is that we really do not trust God to take care of us. We think we have to store up the money for ourselves against the day when money may run out and God will be unable to provide. This was Oswald J. Smith’s problem, as he tells about it in his classic story of his introduction to sacrificial missionary giving. He was the newly installed minister of the People’s Church of Toronto, Canada, and it was the church’s missionary week. He was sitting on the platform when the time came for the ushers to collect the faith promises for the coming year’s missionary program. One of them, as he said, had the “audacity” to walk up to the platform and hand him an envelope. He read on it: “In dependence upon God I will endeavor to give $_____ toward the missionary work of the church during the coming year.”

He had never seen such a thing before, and he began to protest inwardly. He was the minister. He had a wife and child to support, and at that time he was earning only twenty-five dollars a week. He had never given more than five dollars to missions at any one time previously, and that was only once. He told the Lord, “Lord God, I can’t do anything. You know I have nothing. I haven’t a cent in the bank. I haven’t anything in my pocket. Everything is sky-high in price.”

But the Lord seemed to say, “I know all that. I know that you are getting only twenty-five dollars a week. I know that you have nothing in your pocket and nothing in the bank.”

“Well, then,” he said, “that settles it.”

“No, it doesn’t,” the Lord answered. “I am not asking you for what you have. I am asking you for a faith offering. How much can you trust me for?”

“I guess that’s different,” said Smith. “How much can I trust you for?”

“Fifty dollars.”

“Fifty dollars!” he exclaimed. “That’s two weeks’ salary. How can I ever get fifty dollars?” But God seemed to be making the matter clear, and with a trembling hand Oswald Smith signed his name and put the amount of fifty dollars on the envelope. He has written since that he still does not know how he paid it. He had to pray each month for four dollars. But God sent the money, and at the end of the year, not only had he paid the whole amount, but he had himself received such a blessing that he doubled the figure at the next year’s missionary conference.

Can God take care of us? Can God care for his people and at the same time use their willing generosity to provide for Christian work here and in other lands? Of course he can! To doubt him in this and give little (in some cases, nothing) is to rob God and slander his sovereignty.

Keeping God’s Day

There is another area in which many professing Christians rob God. It concerns the Lord’s Day and what we do with it. Here again we have a situation analogous to the Old and New Testaments’ view of tithing. According to the law of Israel, keeping the Sabbath was a solemn obligation (cf. Exod. 20:8–11). It is the most elaborated section of the Decalogue. Indeed, so solemn are these instructions for a proper keeping of the Sabbath that many Christians carefully observe Sunday or the Lord’s Day in this fashion. For my part, I believe that there is a marked biblical difference between these two days. The Jewish Sabbath was a day of somber inactivity and reflection. The Christian Sunday is a day of joy, activity, and spiritual expectation. But the fact that the character of the two days differs (in my opinion) does not mean that Sunday is any less the Lord’s Day than the Old Testament Sabbath or that we are any less obligated to use it in a way that honors God.

In actual fact, in this age all our days are God’s days—whether Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, or any other day of the week—and we have a special obligation to use Sunday to serve him.

One person who believed this passionately was the great late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Welsh preacher John Elias. In his day there was an annual harvest fair held in the North Wales town of Rhuddlan, a town that has given its name to one of our great hymn tunes. At Rhuddlan Fair, farmers would be hiring laborers, and many things would be sold for work on the land. The fair was held on Sunday, and crowds of people would throng into the town. The bars were all open. There was music and singing. The laws of God were broken in a variety of ways.

Elias knew about Rhuddlan Fair and was increasingly disturbed that people from that part of Wales should be so disobedient to God. One day he decided to go to Rhuddlan Fair to preach. He took a number of Christians with him, and together they arrived at Rhuddlan in the afternoon when the fair was at its busiest. They went to one of the public houses or bars called the New Inn. It had three steps in front leading to a small porch, so John Elias climbed those steps and told the Christians who had accompanied him to sing Psalm 24:

The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it,

the world, and all who live in it.…

Who may ascend the hill of the Lord?

Who may stand in his holy place?

He who has clean hands and a pure heart,

who does not lift up his soul to an idol

or swear by what is false.

verses 1, 3–4

Surprisingly, it seemed, the noise of the fair began to die down and people by the thousands came close to the New Inn to see what was going on. By the time the singing had stopped there was already a change. Many were struck even by Elias’s earnest appearance. Some started to hide what they had purchased.

Elias started to pray. As he prayed tears ran down his cheeks. Silence crept over the crowd. It was astonishing. When Elias had finished praying he opened his Bible and read, “Six days you shall labor, but on the seventh day you shall rest; even during the plowing season and harvest you must rest” (Exod. 34:21). Then he started to preach as a divine messenger sent that day to Rhuddlan Fair. His listeners became afraid, and many began to weep when Elias shouted out, “O robbers! Robbers! You are robbing the Lord; you are robbing my God of his day!”

When John Elias finished preaching that summer afternoon in 1892, that was the end of the fair. There has never been another Rhuddlan Fair.

I wonder what John Elias would say if he could see how Christians spend Sunday today. Would he not say that we too are robbers of God, that we are robbing God of his day?

Living Sacrifices

The end of this matter is that not merely our money or time, but our whole selves—body, soul, and spirit—are God’s, and therefore we are to honor God wholly with all we are. Paul wrote, “You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body” (1 Cor. 6:19–20). He said, “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship” (Rom. 12:1). That is the essence of it. So long as we are thinking legalistically in terms of financial percentages and portions of the week, we will be exactly like the self-righteous sinners of Malachi’s day. We will do little and think it much. We will resent God who, in our judgment, should do more for us. On the other hand, if we give God ourselves as living sacrifices, then the most we give will seem to be little and we will be overwhelmed that God is willing to use us in his service.

Will you try it God’s way? Will you put God to the test? This is what God challenges the people to do in Malachi 3:10–12. The text has four parts.

First, God calls for obedience: “Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house.” All spiritual relationships with God start with obedience.

Second, God issues a challenge: “Test me in this.”

Third, God accompanies his call and challenge with a promise: “See if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it. I will prevent pests from devouring your crops, and the vines in your fields will not cast their fruit.”

Fourth, God speaks of the ultimate result: “Then all the nations will call you blessed, for yours will be a delightful land.”

God’s challenge in this great passage from Malachi is identical to the one we have already seen in Haggai, recorded by him approximately seventy-five years before. In Haggai’s day the people had been neglecting the rebuilding of the temple, which was God’s announced will for them at that period. As a result, God had withheld rain and had not prospered the crops. Much of the first portion of Haggai deals with this situation and challenges the people to take note of it and acknowledge God as the cause. Then God says, “Give careful thought to this from this day on—consider how things were before one stone was laid on another in the Lord’s temple. When anyone came to a heap of twenty measures, there were only ten. When anyone went to a wine vat to draw fifty measures, there were only twenty. … From this day on, from this twenty-fourth day of the ninth month, give careful thought to the day when the foundation of the Lord’s temple was laid. Give careful thought. … From this day on I will bless you” (Hag. 2:15–16, 18–19). Before they obeyed God the people experienced frustration and physical want. But from that point on they were to experience satisfaction and material blessings—if they obeyed God.

Are you bold enough to accept this challenge personally—as stated either here or in Malachi? Usually we try to shy away from anything as tangible as this, for we are afraid that our faith or testimony will be shaken if we try it and God does not come through. But it is not my idea to put God to the test with obedience. This is God’s challenge. It is God who says, “Test me in this … and see …” (Mal. 3:10).

Why not obey God in this matter? Why not put God first in the use of your financial resources, your time, above all in what you do with yourself—and see if he will not “throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it”?[6]


[1] Merrill, E. H. (2008). Malachi. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Daniel–Malachi (Revised Edition) (Vol. 8, p. 858). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[2] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2006). The MacArthur study Bible: New American Standard Bible. (Mal 3:6). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

[3] Crossway Bibles. (2008). The ESV Study Bible (p. 1778). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

[4] Barry, J. D., Mangum, D., Brown, D. R., Heiser, M. S., Custis, M., Ritzema, E., … Bomar, D. (2012, 2016). Faithlife Study Bible (Mal 3:6). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

[5] Sproul, R. C. (Ed.). (2005). The Reformation Study Bible: English Standard Version (p. 1348). Orlando, FL; Lake Mary, FL: Ligonier Ministries.

[6] Boice, J. M. (2002). The Minor Prophets: an expositional commentary (pp. 599–605). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.