Tag Archives: Grace

Bethlehem’s Supernatural Star

From Solid Joys by John Piper

“Where is he who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.” (Matthew 2:2)

Over and over the Bible baffles our curiosity about just how certain things happened. How did this “star” get the magi from the east to Jerusalem?

It does not say that it led them or went before them. It only says they saw a star in the east (verse 2), and came to Jerusalem. And how did that star go before them in the little five-mile walk from Jerusalem to Bethlehem as verse 9 says it did? And how did a star stand “over the place where the Child was”?

The answer is: We do not know. There are numerous efforts to explain it in terms of conjunctions of planets or comets or supernovas or miraculous lights. We just don’t know. And I want to exhort you not to become preoccupied with developing theories that are only tentative in the end and have very little spiritual significance.

I risk a generalization to warn you: People who are exercised and preoccupied with such things as how the star worked and how the Red Sea split and how the manna fell and how Jonah survived the fish and how the moon turns to blood are generally people who have what I call a mentality for the marginal. You do not see in them a deep cherishing of the great central things of the gospel — the holiness of God, the ugliness of sin, the helplessness of man, the death of Christ, justification by faith alone, the sanctifying work of the Spirit, the glory of Christ’s return, and the final judgment. They always seem to be taking you down a sidetrack with a new article or book. There is little centered rejoicing.

But what is plain concerning this matter of the star is that it is doing something that it cannot do on its own: It is guiding magi to the Son of God to worship him.

There is only one Person in biblical thinking that can be behind that intentionality in the stars — God himself.

So the lesson is plain: God is guiding foreigners to Christ to worship him. And he is doing it by exerting global — probably even universal — influence and power to get it done.

Luke shows God influencing the entire Roman Empire so that the census comes at the exact time to get a virgin to Bethlehem to fulfill prophecy with her delivery. Matthew shows God influencing the stars in the sky to get foreign magi to Bethlehem so that they can worship him.

This is God’s design. He did it then. He is still doing it now. His aim is that the nations — all the nations (Matthew 24:14) — worship his Son.

This is God’s will for everybody in your office at work, and in your neighborhood and in your home. As John 4:23 says, “Such the Father seeks to worship him.”

At the beginning of Matthew we still have a “come-see” pattern. But at the end the pattern is “go-tell.” The magi came and saw. We are to go and tell.

But what is not different is that the purpose of God is the ingathering of the nations to worship his Son. The magnifying of Christ in the white-hot worship of all nations is the reason the world exists.

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Marked by the Almighty

When Moses came down from Mount Sinai, with the two tablets of the testimony in his hand as he came down from the mountain, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. Aaron and all the people of Israel saw Moses, and behold, the skin of his face shone, and they were afraid to come near him. But Moses called to them, and Aaron and all the leaders of the congregation returned to him, and Moses talked with them. Afterward all the people of Israel came near, and he commanded them all that the LORD had spoken with him in Mount Sinai. And when Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil over his face.
Whenever Moses went in before the LORD to speak with him, he would remove the veil, until he came out. And when he came out and told the people of Israel what he was commanded, the people of Israel would see the face of Moses, that the skin of Moses’ face was shining. And Moses would put the veil over his face again, until he went in to speak with him. (Exodus 34:29–35 ESV)

God instructs Moses to cut two stone tablets (like the first ones that he broke) and to bring them up the mountain (Exodus 34:1) for their second face to face meeting.  The people feared God and appointed Moses as their mediator (Exodus 20:19).  Once Moses had climbed the mountain, the Lord descended from heaven and passed before him and revealed his majesty and glory to Moses (34:5-7).  The result?  Moses bowed his head and interceded on behalf of himself and the people (v8-9).  Moses worshiped and pled for mercy.  Being in the presence of the Almighty always brings a sense of awe, reverence and personal smallness.

Interestingly, when Moses descended from the mountain with the tablets, he was glowing.  His face literally shone with the glory of God.  It caused the people to be fearful so he wore a veil over his face.  He would remove the veil when he met with God and he would replace it when he met with the people.  The glory of the Lord was too much for them.  Moses had been marked by the Almighty.  His experience with God marked him – spiritually, emotionally & physically.

Being in the presence of the sovereign God of the universe always marks us – it leaves us changed, transformed.  Think about Isaiah’s experience with God in Isaiah 6.  Think about Psalm 73 where the psalmist wrestles with the prosperity & blessing of the wicked.  He wrestled with what he saw, “but when he thought how to understand this, it seemed to him a wearisome task, until he went into the sanctuary of God; then he discerned their end” (Psalms 73:16–17 ESV).  Though the psalmist wrestled with real world questions, he was marked by meeting God in His sanctuary and, as a result, his perspective changed.  David is another example.  In psalm 51:1-12, David is wrestling with his sin and being laid bare before a perfectly holy God.  Something interesting happens in verse 13, though – David is so marked by the forgiveness that he has received that he vows to “teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you” (Psalms 51:13 ESV).  David had been so marked by the forgiveness of God that it changed him to the core.  When Job encountered the Almighty face to face, he proclaimed “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you” Job 42:5.

The same was true of Peter and John when they were gathered before the elders in Jerusalem.  Luke tells us, “now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13 ESV).  They were filled with the Spirit (4:8) and His presence marked them, transformed them and empowered them.

Let us goto out bibles intent on seeing God. Let us not search for trite formulas to make our lives work better in order to cope with living in this fallen world; let us not primarily focus on what we must do until we have spent plenty of time focusing on who He is and what He has done to forgive us, save us and adopt us into His family.  Let us seek to see Him and beg him to show us His glory.  We far too often approach the bible as a way to fix our problems, rather than a story that reveals a powerful, just, merciful God that redeems a rebellious people.  How we read our bibles matters.  Lord, help us to see you and savor you as supreme.  Help us to believe that “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalms 16:11 ESV).

 

John Owen on Romans

John Owen writes in the Introduction to Calvin’s Commentary on Romans:

“We have set before us in this Epistle especially two things, which it behoves us all rightly to understand — the righteousness of man and the righteousness of God — merit and grace, or salvation by works and salvation by faith. The light in which they are exhibited here is clearer and brighter than what we find in any other portion of Scripture, with the exception, perhaps, of the Epistle to the Galatians. Hence the great value which has in every age been attached to this Epistle by all really enlightened Christians; and hence also the strenuous efforts which have often been made to darken and wrest its meaning by men, though acute and learned, yet destitute of spiritual light. But let not the simple Christian conclude from the contrariety that is often found in the expositions on these two points, that there is no certainty in what is taught respecting them. There are no contrary views given of them by spiritually-minded men. Though on other subjects discussed here, such men have had their differences, yet on these they have ever been found unanimous: that salvation is from first to last by grace, and not by works, has ever been the conviction of really enlightened men in every age, however their opinion may have varied in other respects. It may seem very strange, when we consider the plain and decisive language, especially of this Epistle, and the clear and conclusive reasoning which it exhibits, that any attempt should ever be made by a reasonable being, acknowledging the authority of Scripture, to pervert what it plainly teaches, and to evade what it clearly proves. But a right view of what human nature is, when unrenewed, as exhibited in God’s Word, and as proved by history and made evident by observation, enables us fully to account for what would otherwise remain an enigma. No truth is more fully confirmed by facts (and it ought ever to be remembered) than that “the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God,” and that he “cannot know them, because they are spiritually discerned.” This declaration clearly accounts for the fact, that men of great learning have often misunderstood many things in Scripture, and such things as are plain enough even to the unlettered when spiritually enlightened. The learned Scribes and Rabbins were blind leaders of the blind, when even babes understood the mysteries of the kingdom of God: and no better then the Scribes are many learned men, professing Christianity, in our day.

There is indeed a special reason why, on these points, unenlightened men should contrive means to evade the obvious meaning of Scripture; for they are such things as come in constant contact with a principle, the strongest that belongs to human nature in its fallen state. Other doctrines may be held as speculations, and kept, as it were, at a distance; but when we come to merit and grace, to work and faith, man’s pride is touched; and as long as under he is its prevailing influence, he will be certain, in some way or another, direct or evasive, to support merit in opposition to grace, or works in opposition to faith. When the authority of tradition supplanted the authority of Scripture, the doctrine of merit so prevailed, that the preposterous idea, that merits were a salable and a transferable commodity, gained ground in the world. A notion of this kind is too gross and absurd to be entertained by any who acknowledge God’s Word as the only umpire in religion; and yet what is not essentially different has often been maintained; for to say that salvation is partly by faith and partly by works, is really the same thing, inasmuch as the principle of merit is thereby admitted. Man naturally cleaves to his own righteousness; all those who are ignorant are self-righteous, and all the learned who understand not the gospel; and it is wonderful what ingenious evasions and learned subtleties men will have recourse to in order to resist the plain testimony of Scripture. When they cannot maintain their ground as advocates of salvation alone by merits, they will attempt to maintain it as advocates of a system, which allows a part to grace and a part to works — an amalgamation which Paul expressly repudiates, Romans 11:6.

But it is remarkable how the innate disposition of man has displayed itself in this respect. Conscious, as it were, in some measure of moral imperfections, he has been striving for the most part to merit his salvation by ceremonial works. This has been the case in all ages with heathens: their scarifies, austerities, and mechanical devotions were their merits; they were the works by which they expected to obtain happiness. God favored the people of Israel with the rituals of religion, which were designed merely as aids and means to attain and preserve true religion; but they converted them to another purpose, and, like the heathens, regarded them as meritorious performances, and expected God’s acceptance for the very religious acts which they exercised: and in order to make up, as it were, a sufficient quantity of merit, they made additions to those services which God had appointed, as though to multiply acts of this kind was to render their salvation more certain. The very same evil crept early into the Christian Church, and still continues to exist. The accumulation of ceremonies is of itself a sufficient proof, that salvation by faith was in a great measure lost sight of: we want no other evidence; it is what has been ever done whenever the light of truth has become dim and obscure. We see the same evil in the present day. Outward privileges and outward acts of worship are in effect too often substituted for that grace which changes the heart, and for that living faith which unites us to the Savior, which works by love and overcomes the world. The very disposition to over-value external privileges and the mere performances of religious duties, is an unequivocal evidence, that salvation by faith is not understood, or very imperfectly understood, and not really embraced.

The only remedy, as means for this evil, is that which we find employed by Paul in this Epistle. He begins by showing what every man, Jew and Gentile, is by nature; he proves by the clearest evidence, that all have sinned and become guilty before God. And having done this, he discloses the way of salvation which God himself has planned and revealed; and he teaches us, that it is altogether by grace and through faith that we can be saved, and not by works. In order cordially to embrace this latter truth, it is necessary to know the first, that we are sinners under condemnation. It is impossible, according to the very constitution of man’s mind, that he should really and truly accede to the one, without a real and deep knowledge of the other. The whole need not a physician, but the sick. It is only he who is really convinced of sin and who feels its guilt and its burden intolerable, that ever will, or indeed ever can, really lay hold on that free salvation which God has provided. And when this free salvation is really known, all other things compared with it will be deemed as nothing; and then all outward privileges will be viewed only as means, and all outward acts of religion only as aids and helps; and then also all our works, however great and self-denying, will be regarded in no way meritorious, but imperfect and defective, and acceptable only through the merits of our High Priest at God’s right hand.

-John Owen

The Futility of Created Things

“What gain has the worker from his toil? I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man.” (Ecclesiastes 3:9–13 ESV)

What true gain does the worker have from his work? Provision? Yes. Accomplishment? Yes. True satisfaction? Not very often. The satisfaction of a job well down and the satiation that we seek escapes us; when we do feel it, it quickly fades. This is what life is like east of Eden. Work is no longer satisfying as it was intended to be; it is now wrought with thorns and thistles. Additionally, the business that God has given man seems meaningless in so many ways (Ecclesiastes 1:4-11). We get up, wipe the sleep out of our eyes, stumble into our days, do our work (which is often frustrating), return home, go to bed and do it all over again – there is a certain futility to it all. Our familial relationships are stunted; they are only whiffs of the glory that they should be. True friends and community are hard to find. This should cause lamenting in us for something that should be, something that once was, something that is now lost. But, it should produce hope as well, as we see God restoring and redeeming those things to their former glory (Romans 8:18-25, Revelation 21:1-5)! It is a grace to be able to stop and assess this and set our hope above the sun!

Despite the futility of this world and the seemingly endless cycle that we are on, there is beauty to be seen and experienced; there still exists a certain order, harmony and beauty in created things. The birth of a child; moments of true connection with a child, spouse or friend; the beauty of a sunset; the satisfying embrace of one’s spouse and lover; the satisfaction of a project completed; the spectacular glory of mountains capped with snow or a beautiful sunset. May this beauty point to Someone above the sun who is far more beautiful. May the glory that we feel in these moments not terminate upon these created things, but roll up to the Creator of these things.

“Humanity still has Eden in its veins. We have ‘eternity in our hearts (Eccl. 3:11). Our souls instinctively yearn for a purposed life without end under this time-chained sun.”1 God has put an ancient, eternal, everlasting sense in our hearts that we cannot figure out or understand. There is a sense in all mankind that there is more than just life under the sun, but no amount of information, studying or learning can satisfy this longing. Facts and information do not resolve this deep whisper in a man’s soul. As wise and noble as Solomon was, he acknowledged that his ability to understand deep, eternal things on his own was limited. We are no different. We can’t figure it out, we can’t find God. Indeed, He is not lost – we need Him to find us – we are lost. We need Him, without Him we will not “figure out” the deep nag in the soul. Indeed, the answer is not under the sun.

Yes, there is frustration to life under the sun; we intuitively know that it is not as it should be, and that there are things that we do not know and cannot understand. Solomon concludes that we should learn to enjoy the good things that God gives us under the sun.  We should be joyful and do good because we know that anything satisfying east of Eden is a gift from the Creator because all things should be utter futility, but they aren’t. When we see clearly that created things can never fully sooth the nag of the soul, then we can learn to enjoy them for what they are – not expecting something from them that they lack the capacity to supply. We should learn to enjoy the good gifts that God has given us – like eating good food, drinking good drink with friends and finding satisfaction on our work. The ability to find satisfaction in these things is a gift from the Creator; joy is found in understanding the “givenness” of all things.  “In other words, the best good in the madness under the sun is found when we recover some small resemblance to what we were made for in Eden.”2

Against the transient backdrop of the vanities of this world, the absolute sovereign power of the Almighty shines all the brighter. This should cause us to see our position before Him as created beings that are finite, tiny and lacking. It should produce reverence and fear, a theme in Ecclesiastes (5:7; 12:13). But, redemption is coming; Eden will be restored. Lord, help us to park our hope on You, not on the things that you have created.

1Recovering Eden by Zack Eswine, Page 126
2Ibid., Page 15

Redemption is Here

The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ). When he comes, he will tell us all things.” Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am he.”

Just then his disciples came back. They marveled that he was talking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you seek?” or, “Why are you talking with her?” So the woman left her water jar and went away into town and said to the people, “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?” They went out of the town and were coming to him.

Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, saying, “Rabbi, eat.” But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.”So the disciples said to one another, “Has anyone brought him something to eat?” Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work.Do you not say, ‘There are yet four months, then comes the harvest’? Look, I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see that the fields are white for harvest.Already the one who reaps is receiving wages and gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together.For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.”

Many Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me all that I ever did.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them, and he stayed there two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world.”

(John 4:25–42 ESV)

Verses 25-26.  Jesus reveals to her that He is the messiah.  Stop.  Jesus reveals that He is God who has condescended Himself to redeem His people from their bondage and shame.  He reveals this to an immoral, outcast woman who has no worth in either her eyes or the eyes of the world in which she lived.  Jesus’ good words of forgiveness and redemption are only spoken to those who feel unworthy, alone and dirty because good people see no need for grace.  Until you see yourself as the Samaritan women, until you identify deeply with this woman, the shame destroying message of grace will not resonate deeply in your soul. Unless you see yourself as no different than the Samaritan woman, grace will provide no satiation for your soul; you will continue to dig out cisterns for yourself that can hold no water. The unconditional love, approval and acceptance of God only quenches the thirst of those who see themselves as unloveable, dirty, rejected, unworthy.  Remember your chains.

The disciples were shocked that Jesus was talking to a woman – especially a woman from Samaria.  The woman left and proclaimed Christ to the town.  This was no small feat for an outcast, but she had tasted hope for the first time in a very long time.  She engaged the people in town and invited them to see this man who told her everything that she had ever done – and she had apparently done a lot.  And many believed based upon her testimony alone.  The people were apparently convinced that something significant must have happened to her and they all came to see Jesus.  They asked Him to stay with them, so He stayed two more days.  How interesting is that?  Jesus stays with a group of outcasts two extra days!  Jesus loves those who are unloveable by the world’s standards and yet we often times seek to be loveable – that is to bring something of merit before the Almighty – instead of resting in the love that He has for us.

This unclean, unacceptable group of outcasts profess Jesus as the Savior of the World.  He is not only the Savior of the Jews, but also the Savior of the world!  He saves all people – from every nation, tribe and tongue!  First to the Jews (Nicodemus in John 3:1-15), then to the Samaritans (John 4:1-42) and then to the Gentiles (the official at Capernaum in John 4:46-54).  The disciples  were confused and encouraged Him to eat, but Jesus had a more pressing agenda than to fill His stomach.  Accomplishing the mission of redemption for which He came was of greater importance than satisfying His physical hunger.  We should do the same, but more than that, we should marvel at how the God-man regularly placed His needs as secondary in order to serve His creation.  Think about that, this is no ordinary king.  Kings are served.  This King – the King of the universe – came to serve the created.  The Creator serving the created – that is backwards, but that is what it took to undo the effects of the fall (Mark 10:45, Matthew 20:28).

Often times we read this passage and use it to motivate (or manipulate) ourselves and others into going to share the gospel.  After all, the fields are ripe for the harvest, we conclude.  When Jesus said, “the fields are ripe for the harvest,” He is referring to the crowd of Samaritan’s who were coming toward them which would believe in the gospel.  In God’s kingdom, the unwanted outcasts are welcomed with open arms.  Should we go and share the gospel, of course!  But we should marvel all the more at how the God of the universe made Himself nothing to seek and save outcasts like you and me.  As we marvel at that, we will be transformed and will actually want to share the good news with others.

The Providence of God

he left Judea and departed again for Galilee. And he had to pass through Samaria. So he came to a town of Samaria called Sychar, near the field that Jacob had given to his son Joseph.” (John 4:3–5 ESV)

Seven words form a short sentence that we often read right over in order to get to the “real story.” When we do so, we miss a beautiful truth that will stir our affections for the Almighty.  Jesus did not physically “have” to travel through Samaria.  It was the most direct route between Judea and Galilee, but no respectable Jew would travel that route.  Devout Jews would go around Samaria by crossing the Jordan and going up the east side in order to avoid becoming unclean or defiled by coming in contact with a Samaritan.

The Samaritans were a people that resulted from the intermarrying between Jews and people from Babylon, Cuthah, Avva and Hamath that the king of Assyria brought in to settle the region (2 Kings 17:24–31). The Samaritans had their own version of the Pentateuch and worshiped on Mount Gerizim instead of in Jerusalem.  They were half breeds that were despised by both the Jews and the Gentiles.  They didn’t fit in anywhere, they were alone.

Jesus had to pass through Samaria because of the providential call of God.  The Greek word used here (see also John: 3:7, 14, 30; 9:4; 10:16; 12:34; 20:9) means that it was necessary, it was a divine mandate or requirement – it was part of God’s plan.  He had to travel through a land that would make Him unclean, but one of the beautiful realities of the messiah is that He cannot be made unclean by interacting with defiled people.  Quite the opposite, He makes dirty people clean.  Religious Jews would go around this region.  Religion always blinds us and makes us self righteous and avoidant of those we deem to be unworthy – as if we are worthy because of our own doing (1 Corinthians 4:7).

We must ask the question, “why?”  Why did Jesus have to go through Samaria?  Why did God’s providence lead Him there?  Could it be that He is showing us that no one is too unreachable, too unworthy or too unclean?  Could it be that He was demonstrating that the gospel is for all ethnicities, genders, socio economic classes and moral type of people?  Jesus had to go through Samaria because He came to seek and save His lost sheep and apparently there were quite a number of lost sheep in Samaria because many of them believed (John 4:39-43).

The Samaritans asked Him to stay two extra days and He obliged them – I can only imagine what the disciples were thinking!  Many believed in Jesus based upon the woman’s testimony alone.  Jesus stays with a group of outcasts two extra days! Jesus loves those who are unloveable by the world’s standards.  We often times seek to be loveable – that is to bring something of merit before the Almighty – instead of resting in the love that He has for us.

These unclean, outcasts profess Jesus as the Savior of the World.  He is not only the Savior of the Jews, but the Savior of the world.  He saves all people – from every nation, tribe and tongue!  First to the Jews (Nicodemus in John 3:1-15), then to the Samaritans (John 4:1-42) and then to the Gentiles (the official at Capernaum in John 4:46-54). This is the mission of the church.

What does this providential appointment mean to us today?  The Word, Creator, Almighty condescends Himself to a defiled, unclean, unholy place & people in order to redeem.  The Creator serving the created is backwards, but that is what it took to undo the effects of the fall (John 4:30-34, Mark 10:45, Matthew 20:28).  God providentially invades the world of His lost sheep.  God’s redemption means that He makes lost sheep forgiven, acceptable, clean and holy. He makes unclean outcasts clean.  He makes clean people holy.  He makes us family.  In God’s kingdom, the unwanted outcasts are welcomed with open arms.  Jesus’ good words of forgiveness & redemption are only spoken to those who feel unworthy, alone and dirty because  good people see no need for grace.  The grace of God has adopted you and made you His son – perfectly acceptable.  You are no longer on the outside looking in and this was done because He “had to” go through Samaria and He “had to” come to you.  You didn’t seek Him, He sought you.  You were lost and He found you, redeemed you and adopted you according to His plan which He determined before He breathed a star into the heavens.

Glory and Grace Must Be Experienced

In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!”

And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”

Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”

And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here I am! Send me.”
(Isaiah 6:1–8 ESV)

Our church is preaching through the book of John this year with an emphasis on the glory of God.  I can’t think of a better book to display God’s manifold beauty, wisdom and power.  Glory, however, is a difficult word to define – it is like beauty.  Beauty is something that must be beheld to be fully understood.  Like the beauty of a sunset, the grand canyon or a beautiful woman – you can try to describe it, but mere words do not do it justice.  Glory is the same way, just describing glory falls short – to fully understand glory, you must behold something glorious; you must experience it, you must be in its presence.  It is important for us to understand this or else we will spend countless hours trying to define or describe something that is best understood when it is experienced.  John Piper helped me in understanding this in one of his “Ask Pastor John” podcasts (see the link and audio below).

Let’s walk through Isaiah 6 together because it is helpful in understanding how we experience glory and grace.  Neither grace nor glory can be explained – they both must be experienced.  In this passage, Isaiah has a vision of the Lord in the temple that is pretty spectacular because the train of His robe fills the entire temple and there are two heavenly creatures (Seraphim) that are crying out, “holy, holy, holy is the Lord God of hosts.”

The Seraphim are fiery (the Hebrew means flames) heavenly beings that are super powerful.  They have six wings and can talk.  But even these powerful creatures cover their faces in the presence of the Almighty.   They cry out, “Holy, holy, holy,” which means that  God is in a class all His own.  He is infinitely more perfect, good, worthy and powerful than anything else in all of creation; He is distinctly different and morally perfect.  No improvement can be made on God.  This is what Isaiah is experiencing as these creatures cry out, “holy, holy, holy is The Lord God Almighty.”  We might expect them to say that the whole earth is full of God’s holiness, but that is not what they say.  They say that the whole earth is full of His glory.  Glory is related to seeing God’s holiness – glory is related to seeing and experiencing God for who He really is; glory is connected to being in the presence of the Almighty.

Glory is a technical term for God’s manifest presence with His covenant people.  We see His presence (glory) in the cloud in the desert (Exodus 16:7 & 10), in the tabernacle (Exodus 40:34-35) and also in the temple (1 Kings 8:11).  Worshipers experience His glory (Ex. 29:43; Ps. 26:8; 63:2) and there is coming a day when the whole earth will be filled with His glory (Num. 14:21; Ps. 72:19; Hab. 2:14; cf. Isa. 11:9).  A major theme in the book of Isaiah is the anticipation of a day when God’s glory increases and is manifest over the entire earth (11:10; 35:2; 40:5; 58:8; 59:19; 60:1–2; 66:18).  The Seraphim seem to be longing for God’s glory to fill the earth because this passage can also be translated, “may his glory fill the whole earth.”  This same glory was present with Jesus (John 1:14).

Glory is the manifest presence of God’s holiness and beauty.  It is the sum total of who He is.  God is glorified when we are able to get a glimpse of who He really is – to be in His presence.  To glorify God involves seeing God in all of His “godness,” beauty and greatness.

Let’s keep going though.  What we see in the passage is an experience in Isaiah that we all should long for.  The presence of the immensity of God caused the foundations to shake and the temple to be filled with smoke.  It is terrifying to be in the presence of the Almighty (see Exodus 19:16-20); the Israelites recognized this as they determined that the needed a mediator (Deuteronomy 5:24–27) because God’s glory & greatness is frightening to sinful humans.

 Something beautiful happens when Isaiah encounters the Almighty in the temple – he cries out “woe to me.”  Seeing God causes Isaiah to see things more clearly, he sees himself as  an unclean man dwelling in midst of an unclean people.    He is unfit to be in the presence of God – a stark contrast to the Seraphim who are in God’s presence.  Experiencing the holiness and presence of the King seems to be a death sentence for sinners like you and me (Gen. 32:30; Ex. 33:20; Isa. 33:14) and Isaiah’s words verify that the prophet is feeling the same way.

We spend so much of our lives trying to prove to ourselves and others that we are ok, that we aren’t really that bad, that we are worthy.  Isaiah was a prophet, which means that he was a lot “better” than those around Him – he was a holy man.  But when Isaiah encounters God and all of His holiness and glory, he sees clearly.  Seeing ourselves, and our condition clearly is the first step in walking in freedom – and it always involves seeing ourselves against the backdrop of who God is and knowing that we are woefully lacking.

Isaiah didn’t resolve to try harder or to deny His deficiencies.  There was no ritual, resolve or sacrifice that Isaiah could offer that would remedy the situation.  Grace was the only solution.  God delivers grace via the Seraphim so that his lips would be clean.  Isaiah’s sins have been atoned for by one simple touch from God.  God’s grace is applied.  In a moment Isaiah goes from unclean to clean, outsider to adopted son, enemy to friend.

Now Isaiah’s heart turns to living a life of mission.  He longs to proclaim the glory and grace of God.  He will go and proclaim God’s glorious grace, but the people will not receive it because their hearts were hard, ears were closed and eyes were blind.  Isaiah was called to a very frustrating mission of proclaiming God’s glory and grace in which no one would respond.

We often times want to proclaim grace, but when grace is disconnected from who God really is it falls on deaf ears.  Good people don’t need grace.  The answer is not more grace, more grace more grace.  The answer is that we need to see God more clearly; we need to be ushered into His presence so that we see His immensity and our smallness.  We need to raise our gaze.  When we experience His glory by being in His presence, we experiencing His grace by Him atoning for our sins and allowing us to boldly enter the throne room of grace – and live!

We experience God’s glory as we get glimpses of Him.  We will be looking at ways to behold Him more clearly in coming posts!

http://www.desiringgod.org/interviews/what-is-god-s-glory#

Confronting Sin

“And the LORD sent Nathan to David. He came to him and said to him, “There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. The rich man had very many flocks and herds, but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. And he brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children. It used to eat of his morsel and drink from his cup and lie in his arms, and it was like a daughter to him. Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was unwilling to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the guest who had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb and prepared it for the man who had come to him.” Then David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man, and he said to Nathan, “As the LORD lives, the man who has done this deserves to die, and he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.” Nathan said to David, “You are the man! Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, ‘I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you out of the hand of Saul. And I gave you your master’s house and your master’s wives into your arms and gave you the house of Israel and of Judah. And if this were too little, I would add to you as much more. Why have you despised the word of the LORD, to do what is evil in his sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and have taken his wife to be your wife and have killed him with the sword of the Ammonites.” (2 Samuel 12:1–9 ESV)

The Lord sends Nathan to David in order to confront him on his sin. The strength it took for Nathan to confront the king is incredible.  His hope was not in David’s response or even in the hope that He was a man after God’s own heart.  He could have been killed for confronting David.  Nathan feared God more than He feared man.

Nathan started by telling David a story of a poor man who had a prized lamb and a rich man who took it, killed it and served it for dinner for a guest.  It’s a tearjerker.  We, like David, can have so much empathy for others and be so blind to the ones close to us that we have offended; sin always blinds us.  David’s empathy and zeal for justice is real, but he is blinded to the parallel in his own life.  Sin always blinds us.  David starts rolling out how to make restitution.  David took Bathsheba just like the rich man who took the poor man’s lamb.

Nathan is not afraid to call sin what it is – SIN!  He boldly confronts David, proclaiming that David is the man who did this thing!  We don’t like to call sin, sin.  We have more sophisticated words for it today – like dysfunction – words that are less offensive and harsh so that we won’t feel bad about ourselves.  By doing this, we dumb down the justice of God and make His grace less than amazing.  In order for grace to be amazing, we must feel the crushing weight of our sin under the perfect standard of God’s law.

In verses 7 & 8, God reviews His grace to David.  God anointed David king, delivered him from Saul, gave him Saul’s house, wives & kingdom.  And God adds a comment on the end:  “And if this were too little, I would add to you as much more.”  God had been good to David.  Remembering God’s grace and goodness is important in walking uprightly.  We have nothing that we have not been given (1 Corinthians 4:7).

Nathan calls out David’s sin for what it was – murder and adultery.  How did Nathan know this?  Was there a group of people who gathered together to strategize how to confront David?  No, there is profound rest in believing that Yahweh sees all, knows all and rules over all so we don’t have to.  The specifics of David’s sin is no match for the Sovereign eye of the Almighty.

When we are called to approach a brother or sister in sin, we normally experience uncertainty, doubt or fear.  In these moments, we must learn to rest in God’s goodness and His sovereignty; we must fear Him more than we fear man – this is easier said than done!  As we approach another, we must do it boldly, but with grace – never self righteously because except for God’s grace towards us, we would walk the same path.  We don’t love others well if we are not willing to help them see their blind spots and we are not loved well if we don’t have people in our lives who are willing to point out our blind spots. 

Lord, help us to see you as the greatest treasure in the world so that other things pale in comparison to knowing and following you.

You Will Receive Power

Chapter 22 

“YOU WILL RECEIVE POWER”

In order to live out your honored status in Christ, you need help. And help, indeed, is what you get. So, along with “Thank you,” get in the habit of saying “Help” as often as possible.

The cross was behind him and Jesus was eating with his disciples again. It was during the forty days between his resurrection and his ascension. The topic was the Holy Spirit. In just a few days, after Jesus ascended, the Spirit would come and life as it was then understood would be changed forever. Power was coming.

And while staying with them he ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, “you heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now . . . . But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.” (Acts 1:4–5, 8)

Power—that’s what you need. The shamed have none of it. They always seem to be on the losing end. They experience oppression and neglect. They are nothing. But even more, you need power for God’s truth to come alive in your soul. Too often God’s words of truth to a shame-filled soul don’t penetrate or last. As soon as hope appears, it is vaporized. You need God’s power so his words of truth can take up residence in your life. You need power to believe, power to act.

Jesus ascended and the Spirit was given. This is a moment in history that affects you right now. (You already know how the past can affect you negatively, but this is a good way the past affects you.) Jesus had promised that he would never leave his people alone. He promised that when he left the Spirit would come. If you know anything about the Spirit, you might as well nickname him “Power” because when he is present things happen (Acts 1:8).

The death and resurrection of Jesus inaugurated the new kingdom; the coming of the Spirit made it all visible. The people of God had dwindled to a handful of women. Now, with the coming of the Spirit, the numbers multiplied daily. Fearful disciples suddenly became bold, even in the face of death. There were enough miracles to prove that Jesus’ work was continuing, and continuing through imperfect followers. Forgiveness of sins was in the air. Out-of-control lives were brought back within the boundaries of self-control. And shame, for those who were willing, was forever changed.

THE SPIRIT AND WATER

“Power,” that is, the Holy Spirit, was always central to God’s plan. He was promised long ago, and he was promised when people were a spiritual mess. In other words, no matter how bad you think you are, there is no chance that God will renege on his promises now.

People make promises when there is mutual trust. Wedding vows are the best example. They come only after a period of dating or courtship, when faithfulness can be displayed and verified. You want to have confidence in the other person’s fidelity. Not too many people would knowingly walk down the aisle while their prospective spouse was in the process of trashing the relationship. But this is exactly what God does. He makes promises knowing that his people are either fearful or unfaithful. His story is about his faithfulness and our unfaithfulness. So you can’t exclude yourself from these promises. They are delivered to people who are decidedly unworthy.

“I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.” (Ezekiel 36:25–27)

The Spirit and water promised by Ezekiel. God says, “I will sprinkle clean water on you.” You can add “Water of Life” or “Cleansing Water” to the names of the Spirit. This sprinkling is with no ordinary water. The Spirit himself is the water.

At the very heart of shame is the absence of relationships, the absence of being known, personal isolation. With this in mind you again get the feeling that God’s words to you are all about shame. For example, many religions have cleansing rituals, but the cleansing given by the true God is fundamentally about him uniting himself with you. His world is intensely personal. You are cleansed by the person of God so that the Spirit of God can dwell with you.

The time is coming, Ezekiel said, when you will be ceremonially sprinkled and be clean through and through. That time has come.

Remember that there are two kinds of cleansing. One happens once and lasts a lifetime; the other is the foot washing we need every day. Ezekiel is talking about that initial once-and-for-all cleansing. No matter how we became unclean, whether by the acts of other people or by our own, we know there must be a cleansing that reaches far beneath the skin. This is that cleansing.

Shakespeare’s Macbeth understood the depths of defilement. He needed cleansing from two murders, and he knew water was ineffective. He said,

“Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather the multitudinous seas incarnadine, making the green one red.”14

His wife, an accomplice to murder, also found that her acts left her permanently bloody.

“Out, damned spot! out, I say!—One: two: why, then, ’tis time to do’t.—Hell is murky!—Fie, my lord, fie! a soldier, and afeard? What need we fear who knows it, when none can call our power to account?—Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?”15

Water alone can’t wash our souls, but the Spirit can. Inner transformation is exactly what the Spirit does. It is part of consecration and it is God’s work, not yours. So Scripture counters the futility of washing ourselves with the Lord’s promise that even murderous hands can be cleansed.

“Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.” (Isaiah 1:18)

All you have to do is nothing, but nothing, as you know, is very hard to do. The gifts of God to you are getting more specific. Received rightly, they change you.

An African woman had just been given a scarf. It was a ten-dollar item you could buy at a thrift store for two. But she didn’t look like she had been given a two-dollar scarf. She looked transformed in her own demure way.

Why the change in her? You didn’t have to guess.

“This is the first time I was ever given a gift.”

When you understand that God gave you the gift of himself, you discover another kind of shame: you are being treated in a way that is much better than you deserve. You are being cleansed and accepted, and no one deserves such a gift.

When you receive an extravagant gift and have nothing to give in return, you can be a little embarrassed. You feel . . . unworthy, though it is a very different unworthy than you ever experienced. When you receive an extravagant gift from someone that you yourself shamed, you will feel something closer to shame than embarrassment. That is pride talking. We are concerned more about ourselves than we are grateful for the mercy and grace of the other person. But with our pride ousted, humility has the freedom to take our eyes off ourselves and appreciate the greatness of the giver. Humility simply says, “Thank you.”

And, of course, there are even more gifts.

The Spirit and water promised by Jesus. Jesus had the “Water of Life,” a.k.a. the Holy Spirit, in view whenever he spoke about cleansing and water. He said to Nicodemus, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5). Next, he offered living water to the Samaritan woman (John 4). Though he doesn’t specify to her the connection between the Spirit, water for drinking, and water for cleansing (John 4); he will make that connection clear just a little later.

On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive . . . . (John 7:37–39)

The apostle John spelled it out: The living water is the Spirit.

Can you see it? The gifts are mounting up. In Ezekiel you see the priest sprinkle the water of cleansing on you, and the water of cleansing is the Holy Spirit. Even more, the Spirit doesn’t just wash off. Instead he seeps into you, going all the way to your heart to become the identifying center of your life. The progression from unclean to holy is complete. You are clean inside and out, and you are consecrated. How could it be otherwise? The Spirit lives within you.

Jesus adds that the Spirit in you gushes out from you. There is nothing surprising here. God is generous. When the Spirit is given to you, you get a lot of the Spirit. Jesus is splicing Ezekiel’s prophecy with a later vision when Ezekiel watched the temple spring a leak (Ezekiel 47:1–12). In that vision, Ezekiel was brought to the temple and observed water coming from the Holy Place, where God dwelled with his people. The water was coming out in a stream, flowing outside the temple gates, starting as a trickle but gathering momentum so that it kept getting wider and deeper as you followed it—deep enough to swim in—with life springing up wherever the water went.

No little sprinkling here. There is no chance that any part of you will go unwashed. It’s time for a swim. Usually in Scripture, large amounts of water symbolize danger. Water was where you could drown. But now, for the first time, you are invited to swim without fear of drowning because this water is safe. The water is life itself.

The gusher coming from the temple is the Spirit. You are invited to dive in. When you do, you will find complete cleansing. Places in you that were dead will come to life.16 Then, once you go about your daily business, a mini-gusher comes out of you, enabling you to bless and bring words of life to other people. No more hiding and avoiding. You have been given a mission and you have the power to accomplish it.

The cleansing Spirit has washed you, brought you into the community of God, and authorized you to bless others. You are no longer the beggar but the giver.

THE SPIRIT AND THE TEMPLE

]And there is more still. Since a scale version of the Spirit-gusher comes out of you, you are the temple of God.

Keep the story in mind. The cleansing Spirit, who had been with the people in the Old Testament, was waiting for the perfect sacrifice to be made by Jesus. Once that sacrifice was verified as effective and complete, and once Jesus returned to heaven as the reigning King, the Spirit was released. Attach yourself to Jesus by faith and the Spirit washes over you and fills you. The Spirit is in you. Even more, since God is generous and lavish in the way he gives himself, you can expect the Spirit to overflow from your heart. You are the temple in Ezekiel’s vision.

God never intended to make a beautiful but lifeless building his permanent residence. The Jerusalem temple was fine, but it wasn’t much good for people who lived a few days’ walk away. No matter how beautiful a building it was, people are more appropriate temples. God always planned to dwell in living tabernacles, tabernacles with legs and arms that would represent, love, and serve him.

Yet who could qualify for such honor? Only God in the flesh.

Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking about the temple of his body. (John 2:19–21)

Jesus was the living temple, the place where God himself was present. Jesus was the Holy of Holies, the very heart of the temple, the place of his throne on earth (Ezekiel 43:7; Revelation 21:22). There you found the Ten Commandments, which Jesus kept perfectly. There you found the manna, the Bread of Life. Everything about the temple pointed to Jesus.

But where you find Jesus, you can expect to find his people because his people are united with him. The first inkling that we were connected to the tabernacle or temple was when we examined the clothing of the priests (Exodus 28). Look closely at this clothing and you will discover that it is suspiciously similar to the tabernacle itself. As the Holy Place was surrounded by the beautiful tent God had designed, so the priest was surrounded by that tent in miniature, his priestly garments. He was, indeed, a walking tabernacle, consecrated by God.

As we are joined to Christ by faith, we too become walking tabernacles. The apostle Paul understood this when he wrote, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God?” (1 Corinthians 6:19).

You could easily get overwhelmed by all this, as when you ask someone for directions and they give you more detail than you want. By the time the person gets to “You will pass the house with two pink azaleas where you take a soft left after the second right at the fourth light,” you remember absolutely nothing. When you hear one or two directions, you might remember; hear a lot and you hear nothing. In other words, don’t let this montage of spiritual gifts leave you dazed and stuck.

Whenever possible, put these new realities into speech. Talk about them. Tell your friends what you are learning. When you live in the kingdom of God, you will notice that public proclamations are highly valued. We are a community that learns from one another, so you owe it to the rest of us to speak these realities. And you will discover that your confidence in God’s words to you will grow as you proclaim them.

THE SPIRIT AND YOU

This is just a sample of the things the Spirit does, but it should be enough to persuade you that you are clean in Christ. If you doubt that just watch these new realities cascade down on you. In Christ you have been drenched by the cleansing Spirit.  You have been sent swimming in him. That certainly is enough to cleanse you.

You have also been reclaimed as a living tabernacle. Where idols once reigned and tainted associations separated, the Spirit has come to stay. His holiness overcomes any uncleanness within you. The Holy Spirit cleanses you once and for all; you have gone from uncleanness to cleanness. Cleanness, however, can still be common and not holy. That’s why the Spirit’s residency is also important. It shows that God’s intent is to make you his own. You, who were once common and unclean, have now become holy and clean. Now, instead of contaminating others, you can touch them and somehow sanctify them. Your presence in the lives of other people is more powerful than you think. You can, in some real way, make them holy. Your presence announces God’s unique interest in the other person.

I observed this on a human scale when I married. My parents did not meet my wife until a month after our wedding, but the moment they met her they loved her. My parents loved me; I loved my wife; so my parents loved my wife. They were linked to me; I was linked to her; so they were linked to her.

This does not mean that those who are linked to us immediately belong to Christ, but it does mean that they enjoy an enviable position. At the very least, they have daily opportunities to witness the Spirit within another person. In a real way they too have been set apart.

The apostle Paul gave a concrete application of this. In ancient Israel there were strict taboos against marrying people outside Israel. Such a marriage brought pagan contamination into the home and defiled any Israelite. After Jesus ascended, the early church encountered similar relationships: one spouse put his or her faith in Jesus but the other one did not. A possible application of Old Testament principles to this situation was to advise the believer to divorce the unbeliever, thereby breaking the link to the unclean person. The apostle Paul, however, used different logic. If the unbeliever was willing to live with the believer, Paul advised the believer to stay because the believer—the holy one—can spread holiness to others in close association with him or her. With Christ in you, by way of the Holy Spirit, you can touch other people.

 If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. (1 Corinthians 7:13–14)

So get out there and start touching. This is the era of action. If you have said “I love you” to Jesus, you have all the benefits that come with your new relationship. You also have the responsibilities. In other words, you have purpose. You have a reason to live. You claim all the benefits of Jesus Christ and he claims you. Just as Jesus moved toward you in love, you move toward others on his behalf.

And this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. Whoever keeps his commandments abides in God, and God in him. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit whom he has given us. (1 John 3:23–24)

There is nothing burdensome in this purpose. It is hard but invigorating. Imagine that you are the new Isaiah. You have been purified by the King. He lives in you by his Spirit, and he gives you a mission.

Welch, Edward T. (2012-04-30). Shame Interrupted: How God Lifts the Pain of Worthlessness and Rejection (pp. 227-237). New Growth Press. Kindle Edition.