Tag Archives: Redemption

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

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Truly Transformational Small Groups & Relationships

We’d rather work a formula than submit to a process that will be scary and unknown, even if it will ultimately change our hearts and character. So don’t give in to the temptation to just “do” something else, to come up with a new plan, a retooled strategy, alone—again. There are no shortcuts to believing the difficult but life-giving, heart-changing, and joy-enhancing truths I’ve shared in these chapters.

Hide or Seek: When Men Get Real with God about Sex, Page 122

“Unfortunately, I’m finding more and more accountability groups to be pretty ineffective. If people are not careful, these groups can become nothing more than places where people unload and confess but do not change. In many cases the confidentiality, safety, and security of such groups become the highest goal of the group, inhibiting group effectiveness. Now, of course, you need these elements in a group—that’s a given. But when the dynamics of the group primarily center on the commonality of the struggle itself, then what can happen is that the expectation of change—and more importantly, how it happens—can get lost. Then the group will become ineffective and eventually collapse in a spirit of defeatism and hopelessness. Maybe you’re in a group like this and know what I’m talking about.

Not long ago I was talking with a guy who had been in such a group for several years. He told me, “John, the problem is that no one in the group is experiencing any type of breakthrough or change.” He went on to say that there is something of a “spiritual” basis to the group. A Scripture portion is read each week. Songs are sung. People share challenges, falls, and similar information. There’s lots of camaraderie. But, he added, “The common denominator of why we’re all there seems to be the problems themselves and the difficulty and shame of the struggles we share. This seems a more powerful glue to the group than does the hope and expectation that Christ will show up and actually do something.” The expectancy that God would work in hearts to bring about new steps of faith and repentance had been “dumbed down,” as had been the call to serious holiness. People in the group just weren’t that hopeful that they would ever change.

This can happen so easily in a group. It’s the natural path groups sometimes take if they turn inward and the essence of the group becomes the struggle itself. Ultimately, that’s the wrong “content” to focus on so exclusively. The commonality and the camaraderie are important, but effective change groups must put the application of God’s Word front and center. The Scriptures, carefully applied to real-life situations, must take priority and be highly valued as part of any group meeting. Otherwise, the group will remain comforting and safe but will lose its power to be an agent of change. Don’t get me wrong. I’m a fan of groups. I believe in them. Part of our ministry’s mission is to help churches begin partner ministries, and I’ve seen groups used powerfully in the lives of hundreds of people over the years. I would say that groups can be used of God in ways that individual counseling can’t match. Something happens in groups that can become a very significant part of how Christ meets people in a new way, giving them the hope of the gospel, as well as being a tangible symbol of God’s love and care expressed through the group members.

When the centrality of the gospel is at the heart of a group, then the other elements of the group can be made more effective. There are three life-changing activities that must take place as part of any successful biblical support group. The first crucial element is accountability. Accountability happens when I speak honestly about my temptation, my sin, and the condition of my heart with other Christian brothers. This requires ruthless honesty about the destructive stuff that fills and fuels my heart and speaking of it with other men. Discipleship is the second, central element, which I have already mentioned. As a group member, I am growing in faith and in God’s truth and grasping more and more who I really am as God’s child because of God’s love for me. I can expect to see step-by-step move- ment (even if they are only small steps) and growth as I take hold of the reality of the gospel. Discipleship happens where I am and helps me apply the gospel to all the chaos, conflict, and confusion in my own heart, in order to make me a new and different person. Effective discipleship also enables me to get out of myself; to begin to love and serve others with my time, energy, and resources—because of what God is doing in me and what Christ is coming to mean to me. Third, there’s the important element of transparency. Transparency is when I commit daily—with everyone, and not just with the members of my group—to living openly and without deceit, offering my life and the motives of my heart to the examination of others! Transparency may seem like accountability, but transparency is when I begin ruthlessly speaking the truth about everything I do, on a day-to-day basis. Because my sexual struggles and sin have been hidden for so long, I realize that lying and deceit have become a part of my daily habits. Now, by God’s power, I learn to walk in the light and no longer in the darkness.

Do you see how the ordinary “accountability” group may fall far short of being an effective agent of change? That’s because the element of accountability is only one of several things that are needed, and it’s not even the most important one. But we often mistake it as such, omitting other crucial building blocks to wholeness.

I know that when it comes to that last ingredient, transparency, you may be thinking, John, that seems like death! The accountability part is hard enough, but transparency, with everyone? Believe me, it may seem like death, but it’s the way to real life! It’s the way to a clear conscience and to knowing God’s love and acceptance through others who are on your team, rooting for you! There’s nothing like it. If you’ve not experienced it, you may just have to take my word for it. Small groups and one-on-one-or-two-or-three connections like this are what have helped change my life for over forty years now. Having relationships like this, where I’m reminded of the gospel through others, is what’s often made it possible for me to preach the gospel to myself in challenging situations, when my heart could easily head “south” into dark and destructive places.”

Hide or Seek: When Men Get Real with God about Sex, Page 127-130

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

How Not to Read the Old Testament

Preaching Christ in All of Scripture Diagram

“Some people have understandably been deterred from the kind of Christ-centered approach that I am describing here. They may have had bad experiences with people who saw Jesus behind every bush (burning or otherwise) in the Old Testament. Charles Spurgeon, for example, said that if he ever found a text without Christ in it he would go over hedge and ditch to find the road to Christ4—and if you read his sermons, it seems at times that that is exactly what he has done. Not every perceived connection to Christ in the Old Testament is valid.5  So in this section, I want to look at various wrong ways to approach the Old Testament as preparation for learning to read it correctly.

It is helpful to begin with a diagram borrowed (and adapted slightly) from the late president of Westminster Theological Seminary, Dr. Edmund Clowney.6

The first wrong way in which we read the Old Testament is what I have called the way of allegorical moralism, in which we extract a detail from its original context and apply it directly to our own lives without reference either to its original context in Scripture or to Christ and the gospel. For example, a woman visiting our church recently told me how meaningful Ezekiel 48 had been in her life. In the prophet’s vision of Israel’s future, the passage describes the borders of the different tribes, and she had taken away from this the message, “the boundaries of Dan need to be restored.” This was significant for her because her husband’s name was Dan and, as she read this text, she realized that her husband had not been keeping good boundaries between work and home.

While this observation may have been true and relevant for her life and could probably have been drawn legitimately from other passages of Scripture, this insight is hardly the purpose for which the Holy Spirit inspired Ezekiel to pen the chapter! She had moved directly from text to application to herself without understanding the flow of the text or the significance of its original context. A great deal of preaching in evangelical churches today resembles this process of interpretation: it is allegorical in that it fails to connect the passage with its original context, and it is also moralistic because instead of showing us Christ and the gospel, it simply seeks “timeless truths” or “life principles” in each passage to become guides for our behavior.

The next wrong approach to the Old Testament is allegorical interpretation, whereby people (especially preachers) fasten once more on superficial details of the text, but this time use them to find references to Christ where none was originally intended. This approach has been pursued with great popularity throughout the history of the church. For example, in a sermon on Ezekiel 40:6–8, the church father Gregory the Great identified the east gate of Ezekiel’s temple as Jesus, the steps leading up to the gate as the merits of the virtues that lead to salvation, and the threshold of the gate as the ancestors of Jesus.7

In more recent times, a Christian author argued that the reason that the tent pegs of the tabernacle were partly in the ground and partly out of the ground was to teach us that the gospel is not just about the death of Jesus Christ (the part in the ground) but also about the resurrection (the part out of the ground).8 While this doctrinal conclusion is important and true, I would suggest that the reason the tent pegs of the tabernacle were partly in the ground and partly out of the ground was simply that otherwise it would have been impossible to secure the ropes that held the tabernacle to them! We may admire the desire to connect the Old Testament to Christ, yet find the outworking of the methodology misguided.

In an effort to avoid the wild excesses of allegory, many modern interpreters have rightly placed the emphasis on understanding an Old Testament passage in the light of its original context. They encourage people to discern the message of the text within the broader concerns of the book in order to search out the intent of the original author in writing it. Having discerned this original idea, the next step is often seen as discerning the “timeless truth” that stands behind this particular historical writing.9 What life principles does it teach us that are universal and unchanging? How can we then take those same universal principles and apply them skillfully to our own daily lives?

There is much that is right and laudable with this approach, yet I have labeled it moralism because of its inevitable tendency to place the reader in the center of the interpretive process and make the Old Testament fundamentally a story about us. In looking for universal principles of behavior that I can apply, this approach generally ends up urging me to “dare to be a Daniel” or “just say no to being a Jephthah.” It flattens out the contours of the Old Testament history of redemption, and treats Old Testament characters such as Abraham and David as if their primary function were to model a life for me to live by.

This is the strength of Dr. Clowney’s diagram, which reminds us that we must indeed begin by putting every passage of Scripture in its appropriate literary and historical context. We must start by seeing how this verse, passage, event, or institution relates to other verses, passages, and events around it. There is no place for the kind of allegorical speculation that takes a passage out of its original setting and completely ignores the human author’s intent.

Yet we must also ask where this passage fits in the larger history of God’s dealings with his people and what the divine Author’s intent was in including it in our Bible. How does this event or story advance God’s program and point us to the great work that God is accomplishing in this world, which is the work of salvation in Christ through the gospel? How does this passage show us the sufferings of Christ and the glories that follow? For example, does it uncover the sins for which Christ had to come and die? How does it demand or demonstrate the righteous behavior that Jesus came to perform in our place? Only after we ask these kinds of primary gospel-focused questions can we properly get to the secondary question of personal application: how does this gospel then teach us to live in light of this specific portion of God’s Word, out of gratitude for what God has done? Application is important, but the gospel comes first. What is more, even after we have applied a passage rightly to ourselves in this way, we constantly need to return once again to the comfort of the gospel’s focus on Christ, for even as believers we will never live up to the standard of perfect holiness that God demands.”

4Charles Spurgeon, “How to Read the Bible,” a sermon preached in 1879 at the Metropolitan Tabernacle in London, http://www.spurgeon .org/sermons/1503.htm (accessed June 8, 2012).
5Spurgeon himself warns of making connections that strain credulity—for example, the preacher who spoke about the Trinity from the three baskets on the head of Pharaoh’s baker (Lectures to My Students [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1972 reprint], 97).
66. Adapted from Edmund Clowney, Preaching Christ in All of Scripture (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2003), 32.
7The Homilies of Gregory the Great on the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel, trans. T. Gray (Etna, CA: Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies, 1990), 179–85.
8Martin R. DeHaan, The Tabernacle (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1955), 37, 65.
9See, for example, Steven Mathewson, The Art of Preaching Old Testament Narrative (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002), 101. Mathewson certainly wants to avoid moralism (see pp. 102–103), yet his method of application inevitably pushes him in that direction.

Duguid, Iain M. (2013-02-04). Is Jesus in the Old Testament? (Basics of the Faith) (Kindle Locations 144-198). P&R Publishing. Kindle Edition.

Jesus, the New Israel

“Jesus is not merely the new Adam, however; he is also the true son of Abraham (Matt. 1:1) and therefore the true Israel. The genealogy in Matthew 1 flags that fact for you: it plots fourteen generations from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the exile, and fourteen from the exile to Christ. Then, in the opening chapters of his gospel, Matthew shows Jesus personally reenacting Israel’s story. In Matthew 2:13–15, like the young Israel, the young Jesus goes down into Egypt, brought there by a man named Joseph. Like the Israel of Moses’ generation, Jesus survives the attempts of a hostile king to slaughter all the infant boys (2:16). In fact, Matthew explicitly cites Hosea 11 to illustrate the parallel: in Jesus, God is once again bringing his firstborn out of Egypt (Matt. 2:15).

After leaving Egypt, Israel next crossed the Red Sea, a deeply symbolic moment of salvation (for the Israelites) and judgment (for the Egyptians) involving passing through water. For Jesus, Matthew immediately focuses on his baptism, a symbol of salvation through figurative burial and resurrection in water (Rom. 6:4). John the Baptist was puzzled by Jesus’ desire for baptism, since he thought of baptism as an act of repentance and confession of sin (Matt. 3:6). On those terms, John the Baptist needed to be baptized by Jesus instead. Yet Jesus nonetheless submitted to baptism not for his own sins, but for ours. For him, baptism was an act of identification with us, a symbolic foreshadowing of the baptism of fire that was yet to come, when he would bear the judgment curse for all his people at the cross (Luke 12:50). This would be the means whereby Jesus would accomplish the exodus of his people (Luke 9:31).12

After the Israelites crossed the Red Sea, they spent the next forty years being tested in the wilderness. Likewise Jesus’ baptism was followed by forty days and nights of testing in the wilderness. Even the form of Jesus’ temptations echoed the wilderness temptations of the Israelites. They were starving and grumbled against God because there was no bread (Ex. 16:2–3). So too Satan said to Jesus, who was hungry from his fasting, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread” (Matt. 4:3). Instead of grumbling, Jesus replied, “Man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD” (Deut. 8:3). Next the Israelites were thirsty and doubted that the Lord was really with them, putting the Lord to the test at Massah (Ex. 17:1–7). Satan next took Jesus up to the pinnacle of the temple and dared him to throw himself down, tempting Jesus to prove the Lord’s presence with him by forcing God to deliver him. In response, Jesus said, “You shall not put the LORD your God to the test” (Deut. 6:16). In the wilderness, the Israelites made for themselves a golden calf and bowed down to it in worship, just as the Devil wanted Jesus to worship him in the third temptation. Yet Jesus replied, “Worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve” (Matt. 4:10, quoting the substance of Deut. 6:13). Israel faced three tests in the wilderness and failed three times. Jesus faced the same three tests in the wilderness and passed all three with flying colors. Jesus was personally reenacting the history of Israel, only in reverse, succeeding where Israel had failed.

The crucial significance of this reenactment of Israel’s history lies in the covenant that God had made with the Israelites at Sinai, which depended on their obedience for blessing. From the beginning, Israel constantly failed to keep God’s law. This was no surprise to God; even in the days of Moses he had told the Israelites that they would fail to keep the law and would end up in exile (Deut. 30:1). The law was never given to the people of Israel to provide them with a means of attaining blessing through their righteousness. The goal (telos) of the law was always Jesus Christ (Rom. 10:4). As the new Israel, Jesus personally fulfilled the law for the sake of all who are in him. His perfect righteousness as one born under the law is now given to all who are his people by faith, so that our salvation might be through faith, not works (Rom. 10:9–10). Or, more precisely, our salvation comes not through our works, but rather through the works of another, credited to our account.

This is the significance of what theologians call the active obedience of Christ: as our covenant representative, he has obeyed the full scope of the demands of God’s law given at Sinai, thereby meriting the promised covenant blessing of life forever in God’s presence. Jesus Christ didn’t simply come to earth to take away our sins. If that had been his purpose he could have proceeded immediately to the cross. Instead, he came to share our human experience to the full and to do so perfectly, completely without sin, so that he could replace our defiled garments with his own pure, clean garments of righteousness (as depicted in Zech. 3).

This incarnation of the people Israel in a faithful individual is anticipated in the Old Testament in Isaiah’s servant of the Lord. Isaiah proclaimed that this servant would accomplish the things that were earlier attributed to the Messiah, bringing justice and light to the Gentiles (compare Isa. 42:1 with 11:2–4 and 49:6 with 9:2–6). But is this servant the nation of Israel, as seems to be the case in Isaiah 41:8–9 and 43:10? Or is he an individual distinct from the nation, as in Isaiah 49:5–6? The answer is that there is a crucial shift in the identity of the servant in Isaiah 49. Between chapters 40–48, the figure of the servant represents the nation of Israel. The people once rejected by the Lord because of their sins and sent into captivity in Babylon will be redeemed by the Lord and brought back to their land. Their hard service is over, and their sins have been paid for. Now they are called to bring justice to the nations (42:1–4). Yet the historical Israel that returned from exile was far from the ideal presented in this verse. The people were discouraged and disorganized, unequipped to answer the call.

In Isaiah 49, however, we meet a servant who both is himself Israel (v. 3) and yet at the same time has a mission to Israel (v. 5). Israel’s failed ministry to bring light and justice to the nations is now taken up by the servant in her place. Unlike Israel, which was disobedient and suffered for her own sins, complaining that the Lord had abandoned her, this servant would be obedient, suffering in silence for Israel’s sins, and looking forward in hope to his final vindication (Isa. 53). Who is this mysterious servant? Is the prophet speaking of himself or of someone else? The Ethiopian eunuch asked this very question of Philip in Acts 8, and Philip responded by telling him the good news about Jesus. Jesus is the personification of Israel, who takes on himself the suffering that Israel’s sins deserve and fulfills Israel’s neglected calling to be a light to the Gentiles, uniting in himself the two halves of the servant’s mission described by Isaiah.”

Duguid, Iain M. (2013-02-04). Is Jesus in the Old Testament? (Basics of the Faith) (Kindle Locations 393-447). P&R Publishing. Kindle Edition.

Shame Interrupted

The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I will not be thirsty or have to come here to draw water.”
Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come here.”The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “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. What you have said is true.”The woman said to him, “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.”” (John 4:15–20 ESV)

The Providence of God had divinely orchestrated this conversation before time began.  Jesus offers her living water BEFORE He discusses her sinful lifestyle.  God always initiates, woos and draws.  This woman was a total outcast, but Jesus saw through her brokenness to her need. She was a:

  • Racial outcast. Samaritans were ½ breeds that were despised by the Jews and Gentiles alike (Luke 10:33; 17:16; John 8:48).
  • Gender outcast. She was a woman. Women were not highly valued in the first century.
  • Moral outcast. She had been married five times and was currently living with a man.  She was trading sex for rent; she was looking to satisfy her thirst in a relationship with a man.
  • Community outcast. Probably due to her decisions in life, she was a societal or relational outcast. She went to draw water in the middle of the day – the rest of the women would draw water in the morning or in the evening. She was alone.  It was hot in the middle of the day, most people would have been resting.

She was an outsider that didn’t feel like she belonged anywhere. She was alone.  She was religious, but her religion lacked the power to deliver her from the darkness in which she lived.  She was looked down upon, a status that she likely all too easily embraced.  She felt useless, meaningless, hopeless and alone.  Why in the world would the Creator come to such a sinful, hopeless and insignificant person?  Because Jesus came to seek and save the lost; Jesus came to find His lost sheep; Jesus came to redeem people just like this woman.  The messiest people become the greatest trophies of His majesty and grace.  We are all messy people, some are just better at hiding it than others.  What a beautiful picture of grace.

It seems apparent that she does not understand what Jesus was talking about, but wants some of the water that He has to offer if it keeps her from having to continuously go to the well to draw water for herself.  Her daily trip to the well must have been a painful reminder of her aloneness – anything that would eliminate that reminder was welcome.  Shame tends to cause us to hide, withdraw and isolate.

Jesus tells her to go and call her husband, and she responds with a technically correct answer, but her answer does not tell the whole story.  Jesus steps into her moral failure and filth.  He reveals her sin and His deity by telling her that He knows that she has had FIVE HUSBANDS and was currently living with a man who was not her husband.  You have to wonder what caused her to be so broken. The Almighty knew all of this about her, and still engaged her and showed grace and mercy to her. She already knew her sin and shame, what she needed was to be freed from it. Her own thirst had driven her to chase destructive things in her life. Jesus came to satisfy her thirst forever, setting her truly free.

She wants to change the subject.  She does not want to discuss her life – its way too close to home. She wants to discuss God, worship and the differences between her (a Samaritan) and Him (a Jew). She wants to talk religion and Jesus graciously obliges her.  She knew that she was unclean, unworthy and dirty (the law reveals our sin) and being reminded of that was more than she could bare.

Jesus makes unclean people clean. More than that, He makes unclean people, holy people. Even the offer of freedom and forgiveness is more than she can imagine.  It had been a long time since she had experienced hope.  Hope that she could be free, different, clean and truly loved. She was beginning to sense that redemption was possible; she was beginning to believe that redemption was here. It was and she was talking to the Redeemer.

The Thirst of the Soul

“If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”
“Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again,but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.””
(John 4:10, 13-14 ESV)

The providence of God compelled Jesus to travel through Samaria in order to meet with this woman to offer her Living Water that she could never buy on her own.  Jesus had asked her for a drink from the well (4:7)  and the woman was quite confused as to why a Jew would ask her for a drink.  Jesus came to interrupt the shame in which she was walking.  She walked in racial shame for being a half breed that didn’t fit in anywhere, gender shame for being a woman because women were looked down upon in the ancient world and moral shame for the life that she had led.  Jesus enters into her world by saying, “if you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”  She was speaking to the gift of God and though He didn’t look all that impressive (Isaiah 53:2), He was the gift of God to all peoples.  This shame laden outcast was speaking to the Word who spoke her and all things into existence.  The Word, Creator, Almighty condescends Himself to a defiled, unclean, unholy place and people in order to redeem them – to make them acceptable, clean and holy.

Jesus does not offer this woman some second rate version of redemption because she had lived such a morally corrupt life.  No, Jesus offers her the best – He offers her God!  We know from John 7:38-39 that this living water was the Holy Spirit reigning in the hearts of the redeemed.  He offers her God and nothing less.  Not just eternal life, but the presence of the Almighty reigning in her heart.  A heart that was weary, dirty and wounded was offered restoration, redemption and rest.  The same offer is made to you and me.

Jesus says that she will never thirst again.  Seeking to satisfy your thirst on your own with created things is a fools errand because created things are powerless to quench the thirst of our hearts. You can spend your life arranging chairs on the deck of the Titanic or you can come to Him who will quench your soul’s thirst.  Drinking water from the well (or faucet) will not quench your soul’s thirst for love, approval, affection, belonging, meaning, purpose or power.  However, the soul will be irrigated forevermore by the living water that God provides. We regularly want to turn from this living water to our own cisterns that we have hewn ourselves in order to satiate our thirst.  However, the Living Water that God provides will become a spring that wells up within the heart of the believer providing eternal satisfaction. The human soul is thirsting for something greater than created things can offer it, only God Himself can satisfy the soul’s thirst.

This woman had hewn cisterns herself, but they could not hold water – and if they could it would have been dirty runoff water.  We, like this woman, forsake the Living Water and run to our own hand hewn, leaky cisterns due to our own unbelief.  We must battle unbelief – the source of all sin – and we see from this passage that all we must do is ask. We must plead with the God of the universe to “help us with our unbelief” (Mark 9:24).  Lord, give us ears to hear, eyes to see and hearts to believe.  Lord, satisfy our thirst with You.

Living Water

“for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water.”  (Jeremiah 2:13 ESV)

We are modern people who just walk up to the faucet, turn it on and a seemingly endless flow of water comes out.  But, in the ancient near east water was not as easy to come by.  It signified life and prosperity – life was not possible without access to it.  Three types of water sources were common in ancient bible times.  The bible regularly uses these sources as images of our relationship with God.  The first source was the best and most desirable, it was called living water.  Living water came from streams or springs that flowed and were teaming with life; they required no effort of your own to get it if you were close to a source.  Close proximity to the source is all that was required.  The second source was a well that was dug.  This water was good also, but was not viewed to be as favorable as living water and it required significant effort to get.  The last was the least desirable; it came from cisterns that were hewn out of stone that was coated with plaster in order to keep them from leaking.  Cisterns collected runoff water as well as silt that washed into them.  They were deep with a small opening at the top and were spread out at the bottom.  Jeremiah (Jeremiah 38:6) was thrown into one as punishment because they were virtually impossible to escape from.  They often had mud in the bottom from the silt that had collected over time and some prisoners that were thrown into them would sink into the mud and die.  You can only imagine the amount of work that was involved in digging cisterns out of hard limestone.

Jeremiah is telling the people of Israel that they had made the most absurd exchange possible.  No one in their right mind would exchange a cool stream or spring for the stagnant, dirty water that a cistern collected.  And yet, that is exactly what they had done.  They exchanged a life giving relationship with God Himself for their own hand hewn cisterns that wouldn’t even hold water.  God offered them living water at no cost to themselves.  This theme of free grace is the centerpiece of the bible’s redemptive story:  ““Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price” (Isaiah 55:1 ESV).  All you need is need and the ability to accept the free gift of grace that the Creator of the cosmos offers you.  We all are in need, but being willing to accept this and throw oneself entirely on the mercy of God requires a special work of grace.  The natural proclivity of the human heart is to reject free grace and to get to work digging our own cisterns in the hard limestone – cisterns that leak and will not satisfy the thirst of the soul (Ecclesiastes 3:11).  Leaky cisterns are no substitute for living water.

Our hearts, fueled by our unbelief, naturally curve toward our own hand hewn cisterns.  This is true of the non-believer for sure as they seek to establish their identity, value and worth in created things or accomplishments.  But, this is also true for the Christian who forgets who he is and the seemingly impossible (and here) promises God has made to us.  It is real work to identify the cisterns that our hearts naturally gravitate towards.  What substitutes do you run to instead of God?  What cisterns do you frequent to satisfy your soul’s thirst?  Some are easier to identify; things like alcohol, drugs, pornography or excessive overeating.  Others are seemingly benign; these are the silent killers.  Things like achievement, self-improvement, relationships, self righteous judgmentalism, hobbies or religious activities & good works.  Anything that we have parked our ultimate hope upon other than God will wreak havoc on our soul.  These things can never satisfy our thirst, but we still tend to run to them anyway.  What cisterns have you hewn for yourself?  Identify these, repent of these and ask God to enlighten the eyes of your heart to see Him as the refreshing living water that He truly is.  Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us, sinners.

Confession & Repentance

David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the LORD.” And Nathan said to David, “The LORD also has put away your sin; you shall not die.”  (2 Samuel 12:13 ESV)

“Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin!

For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you may be justified in your words
and blameless in your judgment.”
“Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity,
and in sin did my mother conceive me.”
(Psalms 51:1–5 ESV)

Isn’t confession the same thing as repentance?  NO!  Confession alone is merely acknowledging our sin without turning from it at a heart level. Confession means that we feel bad about our sin or it’s consequences, but we don’t really want to change.  When we confess  our sin without repenting of it we display that we believe that sin does not have real consequences.  Repentance means that we turn from our sin and towards God and those we have offended with a contrite heart.  Repentance involves a heart level desire to change and a plan to change.  Repentance is not just turning from the external behaviors that wrought destruction in your life and the lives of others, but digging deeper into the heart motivation that drove those behaviors.

When there is acknowledgement of sin, but no real repentance of sin there’s no true understand of the offense that has been done.  There is no real understanding of the consequences of sin.  When there is no real understanding of the consequences, there’s no real need for atonement.  When “there’s no atonement, there’s no penalty paid for sin. There’s no Jesus, there’s no Savior. There’s no new life in Christ, there’s none of that, just a bunch of counterfeits — worldly sorrow.”1

Confession ≠Repentance

David confesses and appears to be repentant, but only time reveals if his heart is really repentant because the repentant heart ALWAYS yields fruit (Matthew 3:8, Luke 3:8).  David has a truly repentant heart, he wrote Psalm 51 during this season of his life.

David appeals to God’s gracious character and covenantal, steadfast love (chesed – Exodus 34:6-7) and abundant mercy because he knows that there is nothing that he can do to make things right between himself and God.  There was no sacrifice for adultery or for murder that he could offer, both offenses deserved death according to the law (Exodus 20:13-14, Leviticus 20:10-12, Numbers 35:30-31).  David’s sin was paid for by death – the death of Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah and the death of David & Bathsheba’s first born son (and the death of Another).

Only God’s grace could restore David.  But, how could God do this?  How could He “just forgive” David of these destructive sins?  David’s sin could only be forgiven because a truly perfect first born son died the death that David deserved; Jesus paid the penalty for David’s sin.  The cross of Christ is in full focus in this passage – all the sins of God’s elect were placed squarely upon the shoulders of Jesus, regardless of whether they lived before or after the cross.  Jesus did not take a blank sheet of paper to the cross and then passively wait to see if we would accept His offer of forgiveness and write our names on the paper.  NO!  He wrote our names down and took them to the cross – He took David’s, mine and millions of others of the elect!

Grace is abundant, but it does not negate the consequences of David’s sin.  This is important.  My sinful acts in my life still have consequences on me and on others – it is not a lack of God’s grace, it is an evidence of grace.

David seeks to be ceremonially washed (Exodus 19:10) and cleaned (numbers 19:19) so that he can be in the presence of the Lord.  David seeks this from God because he knows that there is nothing that he can do to be acceptable because of the nature of his sin.  David is seeking to be in the presence of the Lord.  He is painfully aware of his sinfulness.  This is the first part of receiving God’s healing in our lives – naming and owning our sin.  David does not, nor should we, seek to justify his sin, blame it on others, seek to explain why or minimize it.  We should name our depravity and let it sit deeply on us.

We know that David sinned against Bathsheba and Uriah so why does he say that it is “against you only have I sinned?”  David recognizes that God is the ultimate judge.  God sees all and will bring all things to justice – all things!  We are not tried in the court of human justice, but in the tribunal of the eternal God of the universe.  This does not, in any way, lower the harm done to others – if anything, it raises it. This passage echoes 2 Samuel 11:27 & 12:9.  God is the ultimate just judge!

David traces his sinfulness back to conception – even before his birth!  This text does not mean that he was conceived by his mother in some sinful way, but rather that sin reigned in him – even in the womb.  We are by nature objects of wrath.  David does not cite this as an excuse or to justify his sin in any way.  He cites this and it elicits worship in him.  Worship & transformation occurs when we move from, “I couldn’t help it, that’s the way God made me,” to “what kind of God loves and forgives people like me who are so depraved – even from conception!”  You can tell you are repentant if you are able to worship – even in the midst of extreme difficulties.  If you are amazed, moved and overwhelmed that God calls you his “treasured possession” (because of Jesus’ perfect obedience that He gave to you) then you know that repentance has been granted to you.

God redeems & restores, He brings beauty out of ashes.  He doesn’t operate the way that we do – Solomon was the son of Bathsheba and is in the line of Jesus (2 Samuel 12:24).

1 http://theresurgence.com/2010/07/05/7-counterfeits-of-repentance

The Consequences of Sin

““Now therefore the sword shall never depart from your house, because you have despised me and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife.’ Thus says the LORD, ‘Behold, I will raise up evil against you out of your own house. And I will take your wives before your eyes and give them to your neighbor, and he shall lie with your wives in the sight of this sun. For you did it secretly, but I will do this thing before all Israel and before the sun.’”

And the LORD afflicted the child that Uriah’s wife bore to David, and he became sick. David therefore sought God on behalf of the child. And David fasted and went in and lay all night on the ground. And the elders of his house stood beside him, to raise him from the ground, but he would not, nor did he eat food with them. On the seventh day the child died. And the servants of David were afraid to tell him that the child was dead, for they said, “Behold, while the child was yet alive, we spoke to him, and he did not listen to us. How then can we say to him the child is dead? He may do himself some harm.” But when David saw that his servants were whispering together, David understood that the child was dead. And David said to his servants, “Is the child dead?” They said, “He is dead.” Then David arose from the earth and washed and anointed himself and changed his clothes. And he went into the house of the LORD and worshiped. He then went to his own house. And when he asked, they set food before him, and he ate. Then his servants said to him, “What is this thing that you have done? You fasted and wept for the child while he was alive; but when the child died, you arose and ate food.” He said, “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept, for I said, ‘Who knows whether the LORD will be gracious to me, that the child may live?’ But now he is dead. Why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will not return to me.””  (2 Samuel 12:10–12, 14-23 ESV)

Despite the fact that David was eventually repentant, there were still very real consequences as a result of his sin.  Confession and Repentance don’t negate the consequences for our sinful actions.  David’s house would be wrought with internal struggles and destruction from then onward (Amnon, Absalom & Adonijah all die by the sword).

We tend to believe that if we are repentant that we won’t have to deal with the consequences of our sinful behavior.  Being repentant does not mean that we will be spared the consequences of our sinful behavior.  Walking through the consequences while remaining contrite and even joyful is a sign that the heart is really repentant.  Worldly sorrow just wants to be spared from the consequences, but true repentance is willing to accept the consequences for our sinfulness.  The consequences for David were very real, his sin scorned the Lord and as a result the baby that he and Bathsheba conceived would die.

The sovereignty of God is so boldly on display here that it is striking.  “Thus says the LORD, ‘Behold, I will raise up evil against you out of your own house. And I will take your wives before your eyes and give them to your neighbor, and he shall lie with your wives in the sight of this sun. For you did it secretly, but I will do this thing before all Israel and before the sun.’””  (2 Samuel 12:11–12 ESV).  Absalom rebels against David and takes over his throne and has sex with his concubines on the rooftop.  This is reminiscent of Job 42:1:  “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.” (Job 42:2 ESV)

The Lord afflicted the child and he became sick; God is in sovereign control.  Innocent people suffer as a result of our sin – a sad, but true reality.  David steadfastly petitioned the Lord to spare his child from death; He pressed into God and appealed to His mercy.  But, ultimately, the child died.  Only death could pay the price for adultery and murder and the death of this child is a picture of a truly innocent Son, who was not the result of a defiled union, that would die to bear the penalty of our sin.

David responds to the death of his son by worshipping (v20) – He was truly free.  There were still painful consequences as a result of his sin, but he was free.  It was a grace that he could go into the house of the Lord and worship because there was no acceptable sacrifice for adultery & murder, but the Lord had put away his sin (v13) and spared him from death.  This is one of the most beautiful pictures of grace in the Old Testament and it doesn’t sit lightly on David.  David realizes that he has been forgiven much so he definitely loves much.  There is no hint of bitterness or anger at God for Him not healing his child.  When we try to justify ourselves we become bitter and angry, not free.  David accepts God’s decision and marvels at the grace that has been extended to him in the midst of his total depravity.  

Lord, help us marvel at the undeserved amazing grace that has been extended to us.