Should a Gay Couple, Once Converted, Stay ‘Married’?

Audio Transcript

Today’s question is one a lot of pastors face. I know because I see it frequently pop up in the inbox. As people find Christ, are converted, and are called to live differently than their pre-conversion passions, this raises endless questions about living arrangements. This question originates as a follow-up from a listener named Cameron.

“Hi, Pastor John! In episode 920, “Divorce, Remarriage, and Honoring God,” you argued that people should stay in a second marriage, even though it was entered wrongly. You said, ‘A prohibited relationship can become a consecrated and holy one.’ My question is along this line. Does this principle also apply to people in same-sex marriage relationships or in polygamous marriages? After conversion, would you advise them to stay in similar relationships and somehow consecrate them? What makes those two scenarios different in your mind?”

No, I would not recommend that two men or two women living together, practicing homosexuality, remain in that relationship. The reasons are several. The situations are different between a man and a woman entering a marriage they should not enter and a man and a man entering a relationship they should not enter. Let me try to explain some of those differences that would result in my decision not to recommend that they stay there.

Truly a Marriage

The reason I took the position that a man and a woman in a marriage that they should not have entered should stay in that marriage and seek to consecrate it to the Lord is because the Bible, while not condoning the entrance into the marriage, nevertheless calls it a marriage.

“Two men or two women entering a relationship of sexual union with promises is not a marriage.”

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Here’s what it says in Luke 16:18: “Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery [so don’t do it, in other words], and he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.” He does use the word marry, not just sleep with. He calls it a marriage.

Jesus says to the woman who had been married five times, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband” (John 4:17–18). Jesus differentiates the five from the one, even though she’s living with the one. He says, “No, he’s not your husband. The others were, and he’s not.”

I conclude that while it was an adulterous act to marry under the conditions that Jesus disapproves of in Luke 16, nevertheless, it’s called a marriage. A marriage is a matter of covenant faithfulness between a man and a woman. Therefore, I would encourage that couple to repent of what they did wrong and to ask for forgiveness and to consecrate their union, which, though it should not have happened, may nevertheless be holy before the Lord.

Not a Marriage

But two men or two women entering a relationship of sexual union with promises is not a marriage. It’s not a marriage. You can’t consecrate a marriage that should not have taken place if it is not a marriage at all. The union of two men and two women is not gay marriage — it’s no marriage. I don’t like the idea that so many people are willing to use the term gay marriage instead of calling it so-called gay marriage, because there is no such thing in the universe as so-called gay marriage.

Marriage, which is defined by God in this world according to his word, is not a man in union with a man. That’s our imagination. His definition goes like this. Jesus quotes Genesis 2:24: “A man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” That’s where Jesus went in Matthew 19 and Mark 10, and it’s where Paul went in Ephesians 5, when they were seeking to give the most essential definition of marriage.

That’s the main reason one relationship can be consecrated as a holy marriage and the other one can’t. One is a marriage and the other is not a marriage — no matter how many thousands of times legislators and laws and judges and news commentators say that it is. It isn’t. That’s the first difference.

Shameful Acts

Here’s the second reason that I would recommend that a man and a man or a woman and a woman in such a relationship not try to consecrate it but move out of it. The second reason why I treat a man and a woman entering a marriage they shouldn’t differently than a man and a man entering a relationship they shouldn’t is that you can’t make honorable what God has said by nature is dishonorable.

“No amount of repenting, faith, or consecration can turn that which is by nature dishonorable into an act that is pure.”

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In other words, homosexual behavior is not wrong just because it’s commanded that we don’t do it. It’s wrong because, by nature, it is dishonorable and shameful. In other words, sexual relations between a man and a woman are not, by nature, dishonorable and shameful. But sexual relations between two men or two women are by nature dishonorable and shameful, according to Romans 1:26–27.

Romans 1:26–27 goes like this:

For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.

No amount of repenting, no amount of faith, no amount of consecration can turn that which is by nature dishonorable and shameful into an act that is holy or pure or honorable. That’s why I would encourage two men or two women involved in such acts to renounce the sin, repent, ask for forgiveness in the name of Jesus, and no longer make any provision for the flesh, as Paul says in Romans 13:14.

What About Polygamy?

We did an APJ on polygamy about three months ago in episode 1304: “Did Jesus Endorse Polygamy in the Parable of the Ten Virgins?” Maybe I can just refer Cameron back to that one for some thoughts on that issue.

It’s not exactly the same issue when he raises it alongside homosexuality. It’s not the same issue because it doesn’t involve sexual acts which, by nature, are dishonorable and shameful. But it is not in accord with God’s original will for marriage, according to Genesis 2:24. It can’t be consecrated in the same way that the marriage of one man and one woman can be.

The aim would be to help those who realize this to find the most just and gracious way to bring a polygamous relationship to an end. That won’t be easy, and great wisdom will be needed, especially in missionary contexts.

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Will the Real Shakespeare Please Stand Up? Looking at Historical Fallacies

Readers of this blog have almost certainly heard a sermon illustration to the effect that bankers learn how to discover counterfeit money not by studying fake currency but by spending so much time handling the real thing that they learn to feel the difference. (I’ve never independently verified this, but it seems plausible. And as they say, It’ll preach!)

It’s also the case that studying fallacies and errors—the fake news, as it were—can be helpful as well. In the realm of biblical studies, seminary students and pastors have benefited from D. A. Carson’s Exegetical Fallacies (and he humbly includes examples from himself, earlier in his career). The classic in the field of historical studies is a book I read as an undergraduate: David Hackett Fischer’s Historians’ Fallacies.

Carl Trueman—a church history professor who wrote a book called Histories and Fallacies—recommends that his history students read Richard Evans’s Lying about Hitler: History, Holocaust, and the David Irving Trial in order to see historical fallacies refuted. (See my interview with Professor Evans here.)

If you want to work through a contemporaneous real-world example of historical-fallacy–making at work, you could read an article in The Atlantic entitled “Was Shakespeare a Woman?” by Elizabeth Winkler, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal making the case that “William Shakespeare” was actually the English poet Emilia Bassano (1569–1645).

Then you could read a response written by Dominic Green, Life & Arts Editor of Spectator USA (HT: Prufrock).

Green writes:

The ‘case’ for anyone but Shakespeare is always a fantasy in pursuit of facts.

Winkler’s article, like every case for Shakespeare not having been Shakespeare, repeatedly commits the elementary error of historical writing. Absence of evidence does not mean evidence of absence.

It is strange that Shakespeare doesn’t refer to books in his will. But it doesn’t mean that he didn’t read.

Hitler, after all, did not attend the Wannsee Conference. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t order the Holocaust.

Green goes on to identify five inaccuracies in Winkler’s piece, from false claims to irrelevant interpretations.

Again, reading this kind of critique can attune you to the sort of fallacies that authors can make.

By the way, if you are interested in the subject of Shakespeare’s identity, you may find the following two resources helpful as a starting point:

(1) Richard McCrum, “How ‘Sherlock of the Library’ Cracked the Case of Shakespeare’s Identity.” (“Wolfe’s research nails any lingering ambiguity in which the Shakespeare deniers can take refuge.”)

(2) A 15-minute interview with Oxford English Professor Jonathan Bate on the question:

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Mind Battles: Victory Over Wrong Thoughts

There are many wars that have taken place and are taking place in this world. But one of the greatest wars constantly taking place is in the mind of Christians. Evil and wicked thoughts can bombard our minds incessantly and greatly grieve us. What are some things that can help us in this hellish warfare?

Philippians 3:11–14: Can I Really Have Assurance?

God’s sure promise that you will make it to the end is bought by Christ. In this lab, John Piper shows that the way you get to the end is by taking seriously the warnings not to lose your faith.

Some questions to ask as you read and study Philippians 3:11–14:

  1. Can you really be assured of your salvation? What needs to be present to feel such confidence?
  2. Read Philippians 3:11–14. Does verse 12 show that Paul has assurance or that he doesn’t?
  3. How would you live differently if you knew Christ had made you his own?

Watch this video offline by downloading it from Vimeo or subscribing to the Look at the Book video podcast via iTunes or RSS.


Principles of Bible Reading

Ground

This is one of the richest relationships in the Bible. A ground gives support or a reason for another statement. One way to think of it is that it is the ground upon which another statement is built. The supporting (or grounding) statement comes after the statement it supports. When you come to a grounding statement in the Bible, ask what came before it that it supports.

Key Words

Conjunctions, or connecting words, are very important in the Bible because they tell us how two statements are related to each other. In this case, a grounding relationship is usually connected with for, because, or since.

For example: “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” How do we know that Jesus loves us? For (or because) the Bible tells me so.

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When #ChurchToo Hits Close to Home

You’d think the church would be the last place where abuse would be ignored, but, regrettably, that’s not the case, as the #ChurchToo movement has shown. Even knowing the statistics on abuse within churches, it’s a shock when you find out one of your own members or leaders has abused someone in your church family.

In this conversation, Rosaria Butterfield, Melissa Kruger, and Trillia Newbell talk about how to be prepared if someone comes to you with a revelation of abuse, and how to overcome the shock of the moment to readily offer comfort and protection. All three women agree that police should be notified of any accusation of sexual abuse. Rosaria Butterfield recounts a recent conversation in which a woman requested prayer for an ongoing abuse situation: “I said, ‘Well, let’s call the police first, and then let’s pray.’”

Too often, the pain of abuse has been intensified when church members or leaders respond to abuse revelations inadequately. We can’t always prevent abuse from happening, but we can prepare ourselves to respond—to do the right thing right away—when we discover there have been wolves amid the flock.

Related:

Listen to this episode of The Gospel Coalition Podcast.

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All God Promises to Be for You

The following is a lightly edited transcript.

What does faith rejoice in? If you’re a believer right now, what is your joy?

Saving faith begins with the word of God. Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word (Romans 10:17). So, faith rejoices in the word of God. “Your testimonies . . . are the joy of my heart” (Psalm 119:111). “I rejoice at your word like one who finds great spoil” (Psalm 119:162). “More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb” (Psalm 19:10).

That’s your experience, born-again believer. What does the word hold out to us and reveal to us? For sinners, most preciously, it reveals the love of God for sinners — undeserving sinners. “I will rejoice and be glad in your steadfast love” (Psalm 31:7). It holds out salvation. The love of God brings salvation from sin and from guilt and from the wrath of God and from hell and from death and eventually from disease. Salvation is a glorious thing. The greatest thing in the world is to be saved.

Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory [or glorified], obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls. (1 Peter 1:8–9)

How do Christians walk toward that salvation? I’m just trying to get inside the head of what the joy of faith is. We walk toward that salvation through weakness and suffering with joy.

For we are glad when we are weak and you are strong. (2 Corinthians 13:9)

It’s almost a paraphrase of Philippians 2:17, right? Paul is basically saying, “I am so glad when I can die for your faith. I’m glad when I’m weak, if you’re strong by my weakness.” He’s an unusual human being. He’s born again.

We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope. (Romans 5:3–4)

Blessed are you when people hate you . . . on account of the Son of Man! Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven. (Luke 6:22–23)

I mean, this is just over the top, Jesus. Blessed are you when people hate you, revile you, cast out your name on account of me. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, like a lamb coming out of the stall. Something’s crazy here. Something is so different than our fallen human nature. You must be born again.

This is a work of God. No human being rejoices at being hated, unless this miracle happens by the Holy Spirit through his word. That’s why I’m here. The great reward is what sustains our joy in suffering. “We rejoice in hope of the glory of God” (Romans 5:2). Which means that the endpoint and final satisfaction of all our joy is God himself in Jesus Christ.

I will go to the altar of God,
   to God my exceeding joy. (Psalm 43:4)

You make known to me the path of life;
   in your presence there is fullness of joy;
   at your right hand are pleasures forevermore. (Psalm 16:11)

So at the end of Philippians 2:17, when Paul says he’s rejoicing with them and rejoicing in their faith, it includes all of this: rejoicing in the word of God, rejoicing in the love of God, rejoicing in the salvation of God, rejoicing in the great reward of God, rejoicing in God himself. That’s the most basic facet of the diamond of Christian joy.

All that God promises to be for us in Christ, we have. And it is our treasure and gladness.


Read, watch, or listen to the full message:

The Invincible Power of Joy for World Missions: For Cowards, Consumers, and the Comfortable

The Invincible Power of Joy for World Missions

For Cowards, Consumers, and the Comfortable

May 7, 2019

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10 Things You Should Know about Complementarianism

I’m a bit hesitant about posting this article, for the simple fact that there are differing versions of what is known as complementarianism. Although there are several foundational truths that all complementarians embrace, differences emerge when it comes to application in the local church and in para-church ministries. So be aware that not all complementarians will necessarily agree with the way I articulate the concept.

(1) I’ll begin with identifying some foundational truths on which both complementarians and egalitarians agree.

Both complementarians and egalitarians agree that men and women are equally created in the image of God, and that neither is more or less the image of God than the other. Both agree that men and women are equal in personal dignity, that neither is more or less worthy or of more or less value as human beings. Both insist that men and women should treat each other with kindness and compassion and love, and that any and all forms of abuse or disrespect or dishonor must be denounced as sin and resisted. Both complementarians and egalitarians believe that women should be actively involved in ministry. Complementarians agree with egalitarians and celebrate the fact that women, for example, served as “co-workers” with Paul and held the office of deacon.

(2) Where complementarians and egalitarians disagree is whether women can serve as the Senior Pastor or as a governing Elder in the local church, what I call senior governmental authority. Egalitarians believe the Bible permits women to hold such positions of leadership, while complementarians do not (1 Timothy 2:12-15; 3:1-7).

(3) I embrace a very flexible form of complementarianism. What this means is that I am extremely reluctant to place restrictions on anyone of either gender or any age in the absence of explicit biblical instruction to that effect. In other words, if I am going to err, it is on the side of freedom. In my opinion, the only restrictions placed on women concern what I call senior governmental authority in the local church. I have in mind, as noted above, (a) the primary authority to expound the Scriptures in the regular, weekly, corporate assembly of a local church, and enforce their doctrinal and ethical truths on the conscience of all God’s people, and (b) the authority to exercise final governmental oversight of the body of Christ.

Therefore, unlike a number of other complementarians, as long as the principle of male headship is honored in the above two respects, I believe women can lead worship, lead small groups, can assist in the celebration of both baptism and the Lord’s Supper, can serve as deacons (or deaconesses), can chair church committees, can lead in evangelistic and church planting outreach, can (and should) be consulted by the local church Eldership when decisions are being made, and can contribute to virtually every other capacity of local church life. Women should be encouraged to pray and prophesy in corporate church meetings (1 Cor. 11) and should be given every opportunity to develop and exercise their spiritual gifts.

One of the things we do at Bridgeway Church here in OKC is to have a group of some ten ladies who rotate each week in the public reading of the Scripture text on which I’m preaching.

(4) That being said, complementarianism asserts that God has created both men and women in his image, of equal value and dignity as human persons, but with a distinction in the roles and responsibilities each is to fulfill in both church and home. All complementarians assert that these two assertions are perfectly and practically compatible with each other. Complementarianism asserts that functional differences between men and women in church and home, as expressed in the biblical terms “headship” and “submission”, do not diminish or jeopardize their ontological equality.

(5) Complementarianism believes that submission to rightful authority, whether wives to husbands or children to parents or Christians to elders in the church or all citizens to the state is a noble and virtuous thing, that it is a privilege, a joy, something good and desirable and consistent with true freedom, and above all honoring and glorifying to God.

(6) My understanding of complementarianism is that male headship in the church and in the home is designed by God to facilitate the spiritual growth of women and wives and to provide the loving and gentle protection and provision that those shaped in God’s image always need.

Male headship does not mean that a wife must sit passively and endure the sin or the abuse of the husband, as if submission means she has no right to stand up for what is true and good or to resist her husband’s evil ways.

There are several things to keep in mind when it comes to male headship in the home and marriage. Husbands are never commanded to rule their wives, but to love them. Headship is never portrayed in Scripture as a means for self-satisfaction or self-exaltation. Headship is always other-oriented. Headship is not the power of a superior over an inferior. Human nature is sinfully inclined to distort the submission of the wife into the superiority of the husband. Headship is never to be identified with the issuing of commands. Headship does not mean that the husband must make every decision in the home. Unfortunately, some men have mistakenly assumed that it undermines their authority for their wives to take the initiative in certain domestic matters. This is more an expression of masculine insecurity and fear than it is godly leadership.

(7) What, then, is male headship? Headship is more a responsibility than a right. Headship is the authority to serve and the opportunity to lead. Headship is always Scripturally circumscribed. Husbands have never been given the authority to lead their families in ways that are contrary to the Bible. On a related note, if a wife is ever asked or told by her husband to do something that violates Scripture, she is not only free to disobey him, she is obligated to do so. Headship does entail the responsibility to make a final decision when agreement cannot be reached. This final decision, however, may on occasion be to let his wife decide. Headship entails gentleness and sensitivity (Col. 3:18-19).

Headship does not give men the right to be wrong. Simply because God has invested in the husband the authority to lead does not give him the freedom to lead in ways that are contrary to God’s Word. Headship means honoring one’s wife as a co-heir of the grace of life (1 Peter 3:7). Headship means loving and caring for one’s wife as much as we love and care for ourselves (Eph. 5:28-29) and as much as Christ loves and cares for us (Eph. 5:25-27).

(8) My understanding of biblical complementarianism also has implications for the meaning of submission. “Submission” (Gk., hupotasso) carries the implication of voluntary yieldedness to a recognized authority. Biblical submission is appropriate in several relational spheres: (a) the wife to her husband (Eph. 5:22-24); (b) children to their parents (Eph. 6:1); (c) believers to the elders of the church (Heb. 13:17; 1 Thess. 5:12); (d) citizens to the state (Rom. 13); (e) servants (employees) to their masters (employers) (1 Pt. 2:18); and (f) each believer to every other believer in humble service (Eph. 5:21).

Submission is not grounded in any supposed superiority of the husband or inferiority of the wife (see Gal. 3:28; 1 Pt. 3:7). Submission does not mean a wife is obligated to follow should her husband lead her into sin. Submission does not mean the wife must sacrifice her freedom nor does it entail passivity. Husbands who exercise godly leadership can be introverts and wives who submit can be extroverts.

Submission does not entail silence. Many mistakenly think a wife is unsubmissive if she ever: criticizes her husband (constructive criticism that is lovingly motivated and corrective in nature is not inconsistent with godly submission); makes requests of her husband (in particular, that her husband and family act responsibly in private and public; submission of the wife is not an excuse for sin or sloth or sloppiness in the husband); or teaches her husband (cf. Prov. 31:26; Acts 18:26; it is not inconsistent with godly submission that a wife be more intelligent or more articulate than her husband; on a personal note, I’ve probably learned more from my wife than from any other living soul).

(9) Submission is the disposition to honor and affirm a husband’s authority and an inclination to yield to his leadership. John Piper puts it this way:

“[Submission] is an attitude that says, ‘I delight for you to take the initiative in our family. I am glad when you take responsibility for things and lead with love. I don’t flourish when you are passive and I have to make sure the family works.’ But the attitude of Christian submission also says, ‘It grieves me when you venture into sinful acts and want to take me with you. You know I can’t do that. I have no desire to resist you. On the contrary, I flourish most when I can respond creatively and joyfully to your lead; but I can’t follow you into sin, as much as I love to honor your leadership in our marriage. Christ is my King.’”

Submission is fundamentally an attitude and act of obedience to the Lord Jesus Christ (Eph. 5:22). Submission is a commitment to support one’s husband in such a way that he may reach his full potential as a man of God.

(10) What about submission when the wife is a Christian, but her husband is not?

Several things should be kept in mind (see 1 Peter 3:1-7). Submission does not mean she must agree with everything her husband says. 1 Peter 3:1 indicates that she is a believer and he is not. Thus she disagrees with him on the most important principle of all: God! Her interpretation of ultimate reality may well be utterly different from his. This indicates that submission is perfectly compatible with independent thinking. The woman in this passage has heard the gospel, assessed the claims of Christ, and embraced his atoning work as her only hope. Her husband has likewise heard the gospel and “disobeyed” it. “She thought for herself and she acted. And Peter does not tell her to retreat from that commitment” (John Piper).

Submission does not mean giving up all efforts to change her husband. The point of the passage is to tell a wife how she might “win” her husband to the Lord. Strangely enough, Peter envisions submission as the most effective strategy in changing the husband. Submission does not mean putting the will of one’s husband above the will of the Lord Jesus Christ. Peter in no way suggests she should abandon her commitment to Christ simply because her husband is an unbeliever. This wife is a follower of Jesus before and above being a follower of her husband.

Submission to an unbelieving husband does not mean a wife gets her personal, spiritual strength from him. When a husband’s spiritual nurturing and leadership is lacking, a Christian wife is not left helpless. She is to be nurtured and strengthened by her hope in God (v. 5). Finally, submission to an unbelieving husband is not to be done in fear but in freedom (see 1 Peter 3:6b).

As I said at the beginning, many complementarians will disagree with some of the ways we apply or implement our views here at Bridgeway. But my response is consistently the same: show me a text that either explicitly or by good and reasonable inference prohibits a woman from doing such things and we’ll put a stop to it. Otherwise, our practice will be to encourage, equip, and release women into those areas of ministry where they can make the best use of their gifts for the glory of God and the good of the church.

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Should Christians Try to Become Rich?

I have a friend who says they want to be wealthy in order to give more money away. Is the goal of wealth a danger or a snare? In our jobs, should we try to become rich?


As an economist and a board member for a struggling non-profit, I appreciate the tremendous good that money can do. Many ministries need lots more of it! So should Christians desire wealth in order to do good, in order to give money away? Or is it a snare?

A Christian’s ultimate desire is for God’s kingdom to come, however it comes. We desire for God to equip all people according to his purposes. If God makes us “hands or eyes” in the body, so be it. Paul tells us that mercy is a spiritual gift, but he doesn’t say, “Earnestly desire to have wealth in order to exercise mercy.” If Christians should desire wealth in order to do good, 1 Corinthians 12–14 would have been a good place for Paul to say so.

If you are talented and gifted for a lucrative job, desire to be faithful with the wealth you have. But know this—being good at earning money doesn’t necessarily make you good at giving it away. It takes tremendous effort to research where to donate substantial sums—the field of “effective altruism” exists precisely because philanthropy is hard to do.

Still, many of us desire to be the ones giving money away. This is a tremendous danger. Indeed, there are at least two theological reasons to doubt our own motivations when we desire wealth in order to do good.

Opportunity Cost

First, when Jesus met the rich young ruler, he did not say, “Follow me by giving your money away.” He said, “First give your money away, and then follow me.” His ensuing conversation with the disciples suggests this order is the rule, not the exception.

Because for almost all of us, earning money to give it away is not the best we have to offer others. Jesus equips us to serve in his kingdom by doing good directly through our work (not just indirectly through how we give) and directly through how we use our time (not just indirectly through how our time is remunerated).

Remember, there is always an opportunity cost. Choosing between two jobs—one that pays more than another—almost always involves trading off something good for the money. With rare exception, serving God by earning more means doing something rather than doing the other good things we could do by working another job with less time at work, less stress, more creativity, or more direct service to others.

The biblical and historical evidence is that God does not primarily—or even frequently—advance his kingdom through philanthropy. He has this strange way of choosing the poor and the foolish. He has this odd way of “wasting” jars of perfume on worship instead of feeding the poor. He has this unexpected way of ignoring the basic rules of economics and scarce resources and instead choosing to flip the world upside-down.

Your Heart’s Treasure

Second, Jesus tells us that where our treasure is, there our hearts will be also. The order matters. Unless we are vigilant in giving away our wealth before it accumulates, we will learn to accumulate, not to give. We might learn to love having wealth before we learn to love giving it away.

But when we do give our wealth away, our hearts will be with those to whom we’re giving. Our love will be re-ordered from desiring wealth in order to do good to desiring directly the good of those we’re financially supporting.

I know. I had one of those lucrative jobs. But a great mentor, Tom Sharp, discipled me well and showed me that being faithful with my money meant giving it away. My heart followed my treasure, and it didn’t take long for me to wonder if the best way to serve God was really by staying in a lucrative job I wasn’t suited for, even if I was donating my income. And because I followed Tom’s advice, I was better able to see the various ways God had equipped me to serve his kingdom.

Things would be different if our world weren’t dreadfully fallen. But money in our world is like Sauron’s ring in The Lord of the Rings. When offered it, Gandalf replied: “Do not tempt me! . . . The way of the ring to my heart is by pity, pity for weakness and the desire of strength to do good. Do not tempt me! I dare not take it . . . the wish to wield it would be too great for my strength.”

Christians empowered by the Holy Spirit can wield power over our money. But until we are made perfect, any desire for wealth—even the desire to do good with it—might wield a power too great and terrible to imagine.

See previous installments in the Thorns & Thistles series.

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The Fear of The Lord Part 2

Reid A Ferguson

Psalm 139; Deuteronomy 10:12–13; Proverbs 2:1–5

Last time we began to look at this topic of “The Fear of The Lord.” A phrase found all through the Scriptures and given significant emphasis in places like: ‌Deuteronomy 10:12–13

Deuteronomy 10:12–13 ESV / “And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments and statutes of the Lord, which I am commanding you today for your good?”

At first blush, fearing God seems counterintuitive to loving Him and being loved by Him.

But as we began to see, there is no disparity between the reverential awe that is brought on by contemplating God in His greatness, attributes, nature and acts, and loving Him. In fact, the more we see Him as He really is, the more awed we are at Him AND, the more we come to love Him. Because what is revealed about Him makes Him the most lovable of all objects and beings in the universe.

But we cannot get to that place without looking beyond the glory of His immensity, genius and power in Creation – to the glory of His self-revelation in His Word, and His acts.

So you’ll recall that we are following this outline:

The Fear of the Lord:

1 – Why Should I Care?

2 – What it isn’t.

3 – What it is.

4 – How it is obtained.

5 – What are its benefits?

We dealt with #1, #2 & #3 last time, and suggesting a boiled down definition of “the fear of the Lord” to 2 words: Reverential Awe.

Then moving on to #4 we began to explore how a reverential awe is birthed in us when we rightly explore how it is obtained.

Gaining the Fear of The Lord

  1. Creation
  2. The Word
  3. His Acts

All 3 of which confront us with God’s nature such that a speechless, reverential awe is all we are left with. One which then ought to fill our hearts and minds so as to govern all of life.

And as I mentioned last time, Scripture informs us this fear of the Lord must be intentionally sought. It does not come automatically.

This becomes very clear in Proverbs 2:1-5

Proverbs 2:1–5 ESV / My son, if you receive my words and treasure up my commandments with you, making your ear attentive to wisdom and inclining your heart to understanding; yes, if you call out for insight and raise your voice for understanding, if you seek it like silver and search for it as for hidden treasures, then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God.

So here is where see how God’s Word is that 2nd means of encountering and fostering the fear of the Lord.

Note this text: Receiving God’s Word, storing up His commands, being attentive to His wisdom, turning our hearts to understanding, calling out (i.e.  -praying for discernment and understanding), seeking it like precious metal and hidden treasure. THEN – you will understand how to fear the Lord. You will gain knowledge of Him that brings the soul into reverential awe.

It is clear then that we need more revelation than Creation can give us.

As Paul tells us, a certain amount can be known about God in Creation: Romans 1:19-20, says we can grasp something of His genius, rationality, power and transcendence in how Creation manifests immensity, timelessness, symmetry and order and its design to bless and sustain human life.

But what we cannot know from creation is our relationship to Him, the nature of sin and redemption and His plan of salvation. For these we need some special revelation – a revelation which we receive above all in His Word.

His Word explains Creation and the God behind it. And so some Biblical passages especially lend themselves to fostering this reverential awe in unique ways.

One thinks of Daniel 4 for instance and the testimony of the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar after his recovery from the madness God visited with to humble him: Daniel 4:34-35

Daniel 4:34–35 ESV / At the end of the days I, Nebuchadnezzar, lifted my eyes to heaven, and my reason returned to me, and I blessed the Most High, and praised and honored him who lives forever, for his dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom endures from generation to generation; all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, “What have you done?”

This is a profound revelation of God’s sovereign rule over mankind and the affairs of mankind. Not so as to obliterate human responsibility, but so as to demonstrate how God still works and rules within this sphere to bring about His sovereign plan even while man acts out of his own fallen will.

In fact, an prominent feature of New Testament preaching from the Day of Pentecost on was to point to God’s active rule over human affairs, even as humanity acts according to its will, and the Enemy of our souls does as well: But God rules over all.

Or think of Isa. 40 or Acts 17 where we not only read of God creating all things but of his active role in the affairs of men.

But there is one passage which in appealing to 3 attributes of God stands out as a particularly useful means of creating the right and reverential awe of God – and it is the 139th Psalm.

It is laid out in this wonderful pattern:

  1. vss. 1-6 / God’s Omniscience.
  2. vss. 7-12 / God’s Omnipresence.
  3. vss. 13-16 / God’s Omnipotence.
  4. vss. 17-24 / 3 Applications.
  1. vss. 1-6 / God’s Omniscience.

If you are not familiar with it, OMNISCIENCE is just a fancy word for saying God knows EVERYTHING.

And the text bears out the nature of this “everything” by bringing it down to a very personal level.

And we need to grasp the contrast here: The God who we looked at last time, who spoke this vast universe into existence in all of its unfathomable immensity, complexity and wonder – and who continues to operate and sustain it all – is the same God who knows us individually on an unimaginably intimate and minute scale.

Something God Himself testifies to regarding EVERY single creature in Job 38-41.

So what does David, a single man say about how God “knows” him?

  1. Ps. 139:1

English Standard Version Psalm 139 / O Lord, you have searched me and known me!

Listen to this. David testifies that this God of creation doesn’t just know OF David – but KNOWS David – and has even “searched” him. Scrutinized him. Examined him. And just how extensively will be brought out as we go.

  1. Ps. 139:2a

English Standard Version Psalm 139 / You know when I sit down and when I rise up;

One would think such a massive God would have no time or inclination to note such things but here is the testimony. He knows every time I sit down and every time I get up. The most mundane, repetitive and ordinary of things. Nothing, nothing – escapes His all-seeing eye and notice.

  1. Ps. 139:2b

English Standard Version Psalm 139 / you discern my thoughts from afar.

Imagine this! How he drills down even deeper. Now some interpret this phrase to mean that God, being far off in Heaven, still detects even our thoughts.

But I tend to consider this as Spurgeon did when he wrote: “Before it is my own it is foreknown and comprehended by thee. Though as yet I be not myself cognizant of the shape my thought is assuming, yet thou perceivest its nature, its source, its drift, its result.”

God knows our every thought even before it is fully formed in our own minds. And He is aware of us all on this level – everyone of us, all at once.

  1. Psalm 139:3a

English Standard Version Psalm 139 / 3 You search out my path and my lying down,

You search out where in life I am going, and even where and how I take my rest.

  1. Psalm 139:3b

English Standard Version Psalm 139 / and are acquainted with all my ways.

He knows every foible, every quirk, every tendency and reasoning, feeling, action and reaction. ALL our ways.

  1. Psalm 139:4

English Standard Version Psalm 139 / Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O Lord, you know it altogether.
You know everything I say. More! Everything I WILL say even before I say it.

  1. Psalm 139:5

English Standard Version Psalm 139 / You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.

And every step I take is guided by your providence, in all my progress, all my digressions, all my future and all my past. You have your hand on me personally.

And when David considers all of this he can only gasp out: Psalm 139:6

English Standard Version Psalm 139 / Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high; I cannot attain it.

To even imagine this level of God’s personal knowledge of just me as one lone human being is so overwhelming, I can’t really grasp it. It is too far above my capacity to really take in sufficiently. It is way over my head.

And beloved- this is God’s knowledge of you too! And it ought to fill us with just as much awe and wonder.

Nothing is hidden from His gaze. As Hebrews 4:13 reminds us –

Hebrews 4:13 ESV / And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.

And so will anyone dare to imagine they can approach this God with clean hands? Without His intimate knowledge of every foul thought, every empty and filthy imagination, every doubt, bad attitude and preoccupation with the worthless things of this world? Every inward inclination toward abuse, anger, greed, prejudice, selfishness, impurity, pride, faithlessness, jealousy and autonomy from His Lordship – He knows them all in their most wretched depths.

And yet in Christ He accepts us and loves us and receives us as His own.

And not at arm’s length, but as the father of the prodigal son in Luke 15 – falling on our necks, weeping over us and preparing a glad feast in our honor when we return to Him in repentance and seeking forgiveness.

What a glorious God!

And how I wish we had time this morning to unpack the other 2 portions here in the same detail. But let me just skim them quickly so we do not lose them altogether.

  1. vss. 7-12 / God’s Omnipresence.

Yes, our God is Omniscient, but He is also Omnipresent – always with us in every place we go.

Ps. 139:7-12

Psalm 139:7–12 ESV / Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me. If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light about me be night,” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you.

Now we are struck with a conundrum aren’t we? I don’t know about you but when I stop to consider such a God as this, I want to hide my face from Him. Like Adam and Eve in their sin, I don’t want to be found out in my guilt and sinfulness. I want to seek some way of covering myself from that all penetrating gaze: But it can’t be done.

Once again, as Spurgeon notes: When David asks: “where shall I go from your Spirit?”

“No answer comes. From the sight of God he cannot be hidden, but that is not all—from the immediate, actual, constant presence of God he cannot be withdrawn. This makes it dreadful to sin, for we commit treason at the very foot of his throne. His mind is in our mind, himself within ourselves. His Spirit is over our spirit; our presence is ever in his presence.”

And isn’t this both, glorious and disturbing. Disturbing in that we cannot hide anything of our weakness, failings and sins from Him – but glorious in that nothing can ever befall His own that He is not right here with us. In every sorrow, grief, struggle and fear, we have a God who is never far off, never distant, but with us every step of the way. The very thing Jesus needed to remind His disciples of when He was preparing to leave them physically: Matthew 28:18-20

Matthew 28:18–20 ESV / And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Our Omnisicent – all-seeing, all-knowing God, our every present God, who is also Omnipotent – our all-powerful God.

  1. vss. 13-16 / God’s Omnipotence

Once again time will not allow a full treatment here but look
again at how the Holy Spirit through David puts the spotlight on this attribute of God by focusing it on the personal.

Oh how it ought to fill each one of us with awe to know that we have been personally crafted by the hand of this God to be who we are.

Psalm 139:13-16

Psalm 139:13–16 ESV / For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well.
My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.

What a wonder – what a miracle, what a display of infinite wisdom and power is the creation of the human being in body, soul and spirit.

18th century theologian Andrew Fuller noted in this passage: “The human frame is so admirably constructed, so delicately combined, and so much in danger of being dissolved by innumerable causes, that the more we think of it, the more we tremble, and wonder at our own continued existence.”

How then does David apply this tour of God’s omniscience, omnipresence and omnipotence to his own life?

3 ways.

English Standard Version Psalm 139 / How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! If I would count them, they are more than the sand. I awake, and I am still with you.

  1. vss. 17-18 Application 1. I can trust you with my weakness. Sleep. We are never more vulnerable and helpless than when asleep. Utterly defenseless. But because God thinks on us immeasurably – because we are the object of His deep scrutiny and consideration – we need fear nothing else.

Psalm 139:19-22

Psalm 139:19–22 ESV / Oh that you would slay the wicked, O God! O men of blood, depart from me! They speak against you with malicious intent; your enemies take your name in vain. Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord? And do I not loathe those who rise up against you? I hate them with complete hatred; I count them my enemies.

  1. vss. 19-22 Application 2. BUT! I can trust you with my trials. Your enemies become my enemies. Be they human opposition, sin, or adverse Circumstances. I can call on the all-powerful, all-knowing, all-present one to stand up in my defense.

Psalm 139:23-24

Psalm 139:23–24 ESV / Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!

  1. vss. 23-24 Application 3. I can trust you with my sanctification.

Since you know me, since you rule over me, since you are near me so as to know my most inner being: Work in me to make me like Jesus. I can trust you not just to detect, but todetect and deal with all my sin. Lead me after yourself.

David’s direction to us? Such considerations produce humility,  and the desire to follow after our great and wonderful God.

And are the considerations of God’s awesome nature in His all-knowing, everywhere-and always present and all-powerful glory not fitting considerations as we come to the table this morning?

Think about this as you come today – if you are His:

1 – He knows our sin. All of it. The full extent of it beyond anything we are aware of. And still He loves us in His limitless grace.

2 – He has the power to deal with our sin in its totality. As to its guilt and defilement in the Cross, its remaining power by His indwelling Spirit, and its very presence in the resurrection.

3 – He is present with us. In the person of His Spirit. “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” Philippians 2:13

Philippians 2:13 ESV / for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

He knows our sin better than we.

But His power is such that all sin is met in the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ – so that the worst of all sinners may be fully cleansed, forgiven and justified before Him.

And He so joins Himself to us as to always be with us, at all times, in all things. Never forsaking the trophies of His grace.

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My Annual Mother’s Day Poem

Mother’s Day – 2019

With Apologies to Edgar Allen Poe and his Raven

Once upon a midnight dreary, Mother dear, both weak and weary

Paced while waiting on the hospital floor

When pains of childbirth finally caught her, she brought forth her first born daughter

And smiling at this face she now adored

In maternity’s love fueled haze thought to herself

I think we’ll have one more.

Thus in an August later, after, a son was born with love and laughter

Now the tribe once three had become four

And how she loved their family unit, the perfect four, none could impugn it

And yet a longing nagged her at her core

The joyous haze once more descended induced again the thought:

I think we’ll have one more.

Tis here the story, true but crazy, takes its twist, still true – if hazy

Adding to the tribe with just one more

Another son! I came so speedy, so what my eyes were small and beady?

Wouldn’t I be welcomed at the door?

It took no time to set a tone eliciting the plaintiff cry to come:

So quoth my mother dearest: “never more!”

My goodness Ray, what have we done? In birthing this, this – other son?

All knew that she was rattled to the core

An obstreperous, weird little creep, their sole relief – when I would sleep

She sought the face of God and did implore

Forgive my past ill-thought conception and the haste-filled prayers –

I never should have thought it: Just one more

As time would pass, tho nearly feral, and courting daily new-found peril

Straining all her patience, and then more

She weathered each new strange condition, embarrassing and odd position

Yes, still my mother loved this one she bore

But inside her sainted heart she muttered in the deeps of dark

I swear, I swear, I swear it: Never more

A decade plus was then well spent, in pondering how to repent

Enduring spawn that rattled Hades’ door

Two normal kids, and then there’s me, ‘tis truly all a mystery

What sins could she be suff’ring all this for?

Tis then she hatched the plan to try and set it all to rights

And shocking all with news: Ah, just one more

And so in time, there came another, tho I swear from another mother

Like Seth to stand in place of Abel’s store

A tweaky, twerpy little child, but with a countenance so mild

Can anything be more a total bore?

My fiendish labor’s work undoing, with nauseating, cutesy cooing

I rue the day my Mother said: One more.

But such is grace, and a mother’s love, it MUST come down from God above

To guide and pray and nurture our small four

And never, ever losing hope, though number three was a colossal dope

She sought the Lord through many trials sore

And finishing her duty in the last of us to come could cry –

Oh thank you! I promise! And you can quote me: Never more!

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The One Thing I Tell Moms of Wayward Children

My church inbox is normally nothing more than threads I’ve been copied on, an email asking our church’s position on an issue, and the weekly update message I keep meaning to unsubscribe from. About a year ago, though, I noticed an email from a concerned dad about his wandering young adult.

His son had moved from somewhere in Canada to Pittsburgh, and he was living with his girlfriend in an apartment near the church I pastor. He wanted nothing to do with the Christianity his parents had spent nearly two decades instilling in him. Uncertain of what to do, his father found my email and threw a Hail Mary. He asked if I would give his son a call and try to meet with him.

All this reminded me of Monica, the mother of Augustine of Hippo (AD 354–430). I was reading Augustine’s Confessions at the time of this email, trying to make sense of the young adults in my church. At one point, Monica reached out to a priest about her wandering son. She was worried about him, and she didn’t know what else to do. He had left his childhood religion, “swooped recklessly into love” (3.1), and begun exploring a cult called Manicheanism. Near the end of Book 3 of his Confessions, describing the conversation between his mom and the priest, Augustine wrote, “This woman asked him to be so good as to speak with me and refute any mistaken notions, to teach the bad things out of me and the good things into me” (3.21).

If Monica had lived in the 21st century, it would’ve been an email.

Worried Parents Should Pray

It’s a common story. As a young-adults pastor, I’ve had many conversations with parents of wandering children—with dads like the one who emailed me a few months ago and moms like Monica who contacted the priest 1,600 years ago. And, admittedly, it’s hard to know exactly what to tell them. Try too hard and you’ll probably push your kids farther away. Do nothing and it feels like you’re abandoning them.

Confessions, at its heart, is the story of a mom who wouldn’t quit praying.

Monica, for her part, often leaned closer to the “trying too hard” end of the spectrum. Imagine a mom who would move into the dorm at her son’s college. That’s Monica. She followed Augustine as he moved around the Roman Empire, and sure enough, Augustine was often looking for ways to run away from her. Yet even as she nearly became the patron saint of helicopter parents, she did something I wish every parent of young adults would do.

She prayed for him.

Augustine spent his 20s messing around with a cult and chasing sexual experiences, but Monica spent the duration of that decade on her knees in prayer. He reflected to God:

Around eight years followed during which I rolled around in the mud of that deep pit and in the darkness of that lie, often trying to rise out of it but always taking a more forceful plunge back in. She, meanwhile a chaste, pious, and sober widow, such as you love, was already more lighthearted with hope, but she didn’t slack in weeping and groaning; she didn’t cease in all the hours of her prayers, to beat her breast before you, and her pleas were granted an audience with you; and yet you left me to wallow and be swallowed in that darkness. (3.20)

At another point, Augustine described his mother’s prayers as “rivers she addressed to you daily for my sake, irrigating the ground under her face” (5.15). She believed that God would eventually turn Augustine to himself, even as she felt he was walking farther away.

When Monica reached out to the priest, he told her to keep praying. He was unwilling to meet with Augustine because, as Augustine writes, “I was still unteachable, as I was full of hot air due to the heresy’s exciting novelty.” When Monica persisted, sending request after request begging him to have a conversation with her son, he became “sick of it, and rather annoyed” and told her, “Get out of here. . . . Just go on living this way. It’s impossible that the son of these tears of yours will perish” (3.21). If any one historical figure illustrated the parable of the persistent widow and the unjust judge (Luke 18:1–8), it was Monica.

Wandering Young Adults Need Prayers

I told the dad who emailed me something similar. I told him it was unlikely his son would have any interest in a conversation with me, especially after finding out his dad had already told me everything about his life. I told him that for many young adults, there’s a period of wandering, as they’re searching for what they believe, when they won’t listen to anyone’s advice—no matter how insistently or eloquently it is given. And I told him that the best thing he can for his son is pray for him and be there for him when he runs out of options. He never replied to my email.

Wandering young adults, more than anything else, need moms like Monica, who will drench the ground with tears on their behalf. They need moms who will let them wander, believing—as Evelyn Waugh wrote in Brideshead Revisited—that God has already caught them with an “unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let them wander to the end of the world and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread.” I believe that behind many of the lives I’ve seen transformed in my years of young-adult ministry are moms who refused to quit praying even when it felt hopeless, pleading with the same kind of adrenaline-filled intensity of moms who have been to known to lift cars to save their kids.

Don’t Stop Praying

In his early 30s, when Augustine finally does convert to Christianity, the first person he told was his mother. He prayed, “She was thrilled and exultant and blessed you, who in your power do more than we ask or understand. She saw that you had granted her so much more, in me, than she had been used to asking for in her wretched, tearful groaning. You had turned me to you” (8.30). She died at 55, shortly after his baptism. Augustine spendt a large portion of Book 9 of his Confessions eulogizing her and praying for her, “so that all of them who read my account remember at your altar your servant Monica” (9.37). Confessions, at its heart, is the story of a mom who wouldn’t quit praying.

I can’t promise that your young adult will convert to Christianity and write enough theological pages to fill three shelves of a seminary library if you just pray hard enough. What I can promise is that God is watching over your young adults, listening to your prayers, and working behind the scenes in ways you can’t see. Irrigate the ground with your tears. Often, it’s the prayers of moms like Monica that will open up the hearts of their young adults to hear the preaching of pastors like me.

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You Are Not Special, But You Are His

As I recently prepared to celebrate my 51st Easter, it occurred to me that one of the most important journeys I have taken during my life in Christ has been to close the distance between a John 3:16 spirituality and a Galatians 2:20 spirituality. Most of us are familiar with these two passages:

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)

The life I now live . . . I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20)

It is a great thing to confidently affirm one’s secure place in the big world upon which God has set his great love for us in Jesus — to gladly be among that vast number of whoevers who believe in Jesus. But it is quite another thing to be able to say with both certainty and astonishment, “The Son of God loved me and gave himself for me.” I was a general affirmer of God’s love long before I was a specific delighter in it.

No Longer Nameless

When it comes to the grandeur of the gospel, every analogy falls short, but here’s one born from my own experience. I have always loved the music of Paul McCartney, one of the four members of the legendary band the Beatles. As a gift, a friend took me several years ago to see Sir Paul at a sold-out concert in Atlanta, and our seats were dead center, ten rows from the stage. I felt quite honored just to be among the 21,000 screaming fans.

But a few months later, one of our church members was on the Fox News broadcast team for the Super Bowl, and Paul McCartney just happened to be the halftime entertainment for the game that year. Watching him perform that day brought back rich memories of having seen my favorite Beatle perform live.

The next Sunday, my TV-personality friend showed up at church with a brown paper bag. With a hard-to-hide grin on his face, he lifted a framed picture of Paul McCartney with this hand-written inscription in bold, big letters: “To Scotty, Cheers, Sir Paul McCartney.” To say I was blown away would be an understatement for the ages. I was no longer just a nameless guy in a huge coliseum. I had a personal inscription from Paul McCartney to me — a picture I still treasure.

Here’s where the analogy falls gloriously apart. Though I have never met Paul McCartney, I have met Jesus. God was pleased to reveal Jesus to me (Galatians 1:16). God has written my name in heaven — much better than any autograph I have (Luke 10:20). And now God knows me (Galatians 4:9), which is way more profound than the fact that I know him. All these personal pronouns matter, including the first-person pronouns I, me, and my.

Characters in God’s Story

This isn’t to privatize our faith, but to prize it — not to individualize Christianity, but to understand the deeply personal dimensions of the gospel. We are to grow into a heart-inflaming, knee-buckling, worship-fueling realization that God loves each of his daughters and sons, and not just the whole collective entity of his every-nation, redeemed family. And ramping that up a big notch, we are to see and savor that God loves me (and you) to the same degree and with the same delight that he loves Jesus (John 17:23). That’s not a game-changer; it’s an everything-changer.

The resurrection day visitations of Jesus underscore the to-be-cherished reality of individual relationship with Jesus.

Mary at the Tomb

Mary Magdalene was the first post-resurrection evangelist — first to the empty tomb and first to declare Jesus’s triumph over the grave to the disciples. Though we have precious few details about Mary’s healing and the nature of her “seven demons” (Luke 8:1–3), we know her name and part of her story.

Mary was a person, not a metaphor. She became a committed follower of Jesus because Jesus poured forth great mercy, grace, and love upon her. Some of us also have stories of tremendous brokenness, bondage, and illness. We too have individual names, and Jesus has come to set us free. We’re not mere categories; we are characters in God’s great story of redemption. For God so loved the world, he gave Jesus. For God so loved you, he gave Jesus — to you and for you. You’re not a type or project, or a set of letters or numbers from a personality test.

Peter by the Sea

And then there’s Peter, who was outrun by fellow apostle John to Jesus’s tomb (John 20:3–4). Even though Peter was slow of foot, we should appreciate his desire to get to Jesus as soon as possible. His was a story of failure, pride, and denial — just like many of us.

But Jesus’s story is one of welcome and restoration — a kindness Peter had already experienced many times in the previous three years. Before long, Peter would hear his name firmly and tenderly spoken by the resurrected Jesus: “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” The dialogue was far more healing and freeing than it was painful (John 21:15–19). We cannot run to Jesus without discovering that it is Jesus who is always running first and fastest to us — to you and me. Jesus is the answer for all our guilt and shame too.

Cleopas on the Road

Late in the afternoon of Easter Sunday, we meet Cleopas — one of two forlorn friends walking on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13–35). They had hoped Jesus was the promised Messiah. But now, they assumed, Jesus lay as a lifeless corpse — a victim of treachery and murder.

But their stone-cold hope segued into burning hearts when Jesus revealed himself to them and gave them the Bible study we all wish were recorded. “Beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (Luke 24:27 NIV). What love and care, engagement and personal hope, Jesus gave these two men — just two men from a covenant family as numerous as stars, sand, and dust, but men with names and stories, just like me and you.

Jesus continues to reveal himself, by the word and Spirit, to each of his beloved disciples. In fact, our position in the history of redemption is even more to be desired than what Cleopas and his friend enjoyed. For we have the completion of God’s revelation, the Old and New Testaments, which both attest to the glory and grace of Jesus and our glorious salvation in him. We are that known, loved, and pursued by Jesus.

Not Special, But His

The whole gospel is for the whole family of God, a family which is being gathered from every race, tribe, tongue, and nation. But take a few moments to marinate in the love our Father has lavished on you in Jesus. This isn’t a selfish act. It’s an act of wonder, love, and praise.

Because Jesus lived a life of perfect obedience for you, as your substitute; and died in your place upon the cross, exhausting God’s judgment against your sin; and was raised from the dead for your justification, God loves you just as much as he loves Jesus. God cannot love you more, and he will never love you less. God doesn’t love you to the degree you are like Christ, but to the degree you are in Christ, which is one hundred percent. God has hidden your life safely and completely in Jesus. Your Father has begun a good work in you that he will most definitely complete. All of this doesn’t make you special, but it certainly makes you his.

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Philippians 3:11–14: Does Paul Think He Could Miss the Resurrection?

Why do I need to press on to make the resurrection my own, if Christ has already made me his own? John Piper responds by showing that praying a prayer will not save you. Running hard after Jesus for a little while will not save you. If you do not persevere, you will not enter heaven.

Some questions to ask as you read and study Philippians 3:11–14:

  1. Can we know whether we are saved? How? Do you have confidence that you are saved?
  2. Read Philippians 3:11–14. Did Paul think he might miss the resurrection from the dead? Is so, did he have assurance?
  3. Watch the lab. Why do you need to press on to make the resurrection your own, if Christ has already made you his own?

Watch this video offline by downloading it from Vimeo or subscribing to the Look at the Book video podcast via iTunes or RSS.


Principles of Bible Reading

Humble Convictions

When studying the Bible, we walk on dangerous ground when we close our ears to other positions besides our own. We can read passages in the Bible and hold such a conviction that we refuse to consider other interpretations.

Others of us are tempted towards the opposite: We feel so insecure about our ability to understand Scripture that we refuse to hold any convictions about what we thought we read. Often we won’t have any confidence in our understanding unless our favorite pastor, study Bible, or Bible teacher gives us an interpretation.

So we can err in two ways. We can be proud in holding right (or wrong) convictions to the point where we don’t consider the alternatives, or we can have a misguided humility which holds no personal convictions at all but exclusively parrots what respected leaders have said.

A better demeanor in Bible reading is to hold humble convictions. Wisdom from above is “open to reason” (James 3:17), and we ought to be open to reasons that our positions are underdeveloped or incorrect. When the best and only theologian that you know happens to be you, bad interpretation will surely follow.

On the other hand, the fact that we do not have perfect understanding should not paralyze us from holding deep convictions. Perfect understanding eludes all in this life, but the refusal to own our current understanding hinders us from developing better understanding later. Humility in Bible study does not refuse to believe things strongly; it refuses to close our ears when reasons — good or bad — challenge our present understanding.

Adopting humble convictions honors God as it enables us to not only understand but to believe his word and respond appropriately. We must first believe we know what God says in order to put faith in and obey him.

Therefore, stand before God as a Christian with convictions, asking him to lovingly correct you through other believers, his Spirit, and his word.

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How to Work With People Who Are Smarter Than You

The disciples of Jesus appear to have been persistently afflicted with status anxiety. In three of the Gospels (Matt. 18:1, Mark 9:33-34, Luke 9:46) they are caught arguing about who was the greatest among them. Even at the Last Supper, on the night before Jesus was crucified, they were still squabbling over who was the top dog of their pack (Luke 22:24).

Of the twelve, four seem to stand out as contenders for the role of most valued apostle. Peter, James, and John were present at all of the major recorded happenings during Jesus’s ministry. And Peter, John, James, and Andrew are each grouped together at the top of the listing of disciples (Matt. 10:2-4, Mark 3:16-19, Luke 6:14-16, Acts 1:13). Out of this group, though, Peter seems to have the most obvious claim to the title.

But then came Paul.

Peter likely viewed himself as the smartest of the original bunch. He could consider himself the intellectual equal of John, James, and Andrew who were all, like him, former fisherman. But Paul was different. The tentmaker was highly educated, proficient in Koine Greek, and had studied under the Rabbi Gamaliel (a Pharisee whom Peter and the other apostles faced in the Sanhedrin [Acts 5:17-39]). Paul was arguably the smartest of the apostles.

Of course, Peter was smart too, and he became more than competent as a theologian. Yet he appears to have also had the intellectual humility to recognize Paul’s superior intellect. Peter even admits that Paul’s “letters contain some things that are hard to understand” (2 Pet. 3:16), an admission of intellectual inferiority that was likely difficult to make.

Surrounded by Pauls

Many of us face a similar situation as Peter. We work for bosses or alongside peers who are “smarter” than us—that is, who have an innate intellectual ability or level of vocational knowledge that exceeds our own. We may even be above average in intellect compared to the human population, and yet find ourselves surrounded by smarter people. We’re hemmed in on all sides by Pauls. That has certainly been my experience over the past three decades.

When I was in the Marines I worked in a field (avionics) that included some of the brightest and most competent men and women in the military. Compared to them, my abilities were below average in almost every way. After leaving the service I then worked in a series of jobs at think-tanks, policy organizations, magazines, and ministries in which I was almost always the least educated and least brainy person in the group.

You might be in the same situation. You might be a new graduate entering a challenging vocation or a seasoned worker trying to overcome imposter syndrome (i.e., persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a “fraud”). If so, you might be surprised to find there are benefits and advantages from never being the smartest person in the room. Here are some of the lessons I learned that might be helpful for you.

Five Lessons for Working with Smart(er) People

Take advantage of your freedom — There’s a lot of pressure being the smartest person in a group—and a genuine freedom from never having that problem. If you have a reputation for being the brightest intellect at work, you are constantly at risk of losing that status by exposing that you don’t know something everyone else knows. But if you don’t have such status to lose, you have the freedom to ask “dumb” questions that increase your knowledge and understanding.

Don’t apologize or feel inferior . . . — While there is nothing wrong with recognizing that those around you have more intellectual gifting, don’t downplay your own intellect. More often than not you’ll come across as being self-pitying or disingenuous, as if you’re humble-bragging or fishing for a compliment. Rather than bringing attention to what you might lack, learn the “secret of being content in any and every situation” (Phil. 4:12, NIV). You may not be smart enough to do anything, but you’re likely smart enough to be used for God’s purposes.

. . . But work hard to improve your abilities — We tend to equate “smart” with having a high IQ and assume it’s an innate and unchangeable characteristic. But the type of “smart” that leads to general flourishing can be increased though effort. Seven years ago the renowned educator E. D. Hirsch Jr. pointed out that the “correlation between vocabulary size and life chances are as firm as any correlations in educational research.” As Hirsch adds,

Of course, vocabulary isn’t perfectly correlated with knowledge. People with similar vocabulary sizes may vary significantly in their talent and in the depth of their understanding. Nonetheless, there’s no better index to accumulated knowledge and general competence than the size of a person’s vocabulary. Simply put: knowing more words makes you smarter.

Hirsch goes on to explain why a large vocabulary results not from memorizing word lists but from “acquiring knowledge about the social and natural worlds” and occurs through a method called “content-based instruction.” Reading broadly and often is an ideal way to become smarter (at least that’s been my experience). Another is to take advantage of the brains around you. Ask questions of your peers and tap into the knowledge they possess for your own edification. Peter might have not always understood Paul’s letters, but he likely used the relationship he had with his fellow apostle to increase his own understanding.

Serve the smart — If you’re surrounded by people who are smarter than you, it’s likely because God has put you there to serve them. Many knowledge-based occupations tend to attract a narrow range of personality types. You might have gifts, such as empathy, that are often not manifest in your particular field. Use those abilities to build up those around you.

You can also use your humility to show others how to use their intellectual gifts. As Grant Macaskill observes, knowledge and understanding are often treated as commodities, functioning within an economy of achievement and honor. They become things we acquire and then trade upon, when they should be received with gratitude and shared as gifts. “Rather than fullness of knowledge serving to maintain strata, between the wise and the foolish—the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’—fullness becomes a source or wellspring that transmits its content to others in order to communicate blessing,” Macaskill says. We can serve smart people by helping them share their gifts of knowledge with us and with others.

We can also help to show them that, as John Piper says, that if knowing is not serving others it’s not true knowing. As Piper adds, “If you have knowledge that is making you proud, rather than loving, you don’t really know anything.”

Remember: Intellect ain’t everything In every culture and economy throughout history, some physical traits or abilities became more valued than others. For hunter-gather tribes it was dexterity and visual acuity. For agricultural societies it was stamina and perseverance. And in the age of the “knowledge worker” it’s the facility to process and manipulate information.

Having a minimum level of proficiency in working with data and information is often necessary to get a job. But to keep a job usually requires other characteristics, such as integrity, reliability, and being even-tempered. If you can’t be the smartest person in the office, strive to stand out in other ways. Be the one with the most grit, what the Bible refers to as “steadfastness” and “endurance.” Be the one that has the ability to apply wisdom. Be what your team needs by bringing a different ability than mere intellect. And most importantly, be what God intends you to be by using the brains he’s given you to bless others.

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