In the Gospel of John, Jesus performs seven significant miracles that are referred to as “signs.” These signs form the backbone of the first half of the book, and each is meant to reveal something about the person and work of Christ. One of the interesting features of the fourth Gospel is that the author hangs its key by the back door. That is, John doesn’t give us his purpose for writing in the opening paragraph as Luke does. Rather, he saves his purpose statement for the end:
“Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written so that you may believe Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:30-31).
In short, Jesus did miraculous signs not to dazzle us but to deliver us. Consequently, John selects seven signs from a much larger number known to him to form the central core of Jesus’ ministry before his death, burial, and resurrection. They can be understood as divine endorsements of his authority, even as they clearly mark him out as “the incomparable Christ” who brings salvation to his people. The seven signs are:
Changing Water into Wine (John 2:1-11)
Healing the Royal Official’s Son (John 4:43-54)
Healing the Disabled Man at the Pool (5:1-18)
Feeding the Five Thousand (6:1-15)
Walking on the Water (6:16-25)
Healing the Man Born Blind (9:1-12)
Raising Lazarus from the Dead (11:1-44)
This series looks at the miracles of Jesus not merely to study history but to consider what God may be wanting to do among his people today. Believers can never command miracles to take place, but we can be open to them. As the Apostle Paul said, “My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power” (1 Corinthians 2:4). A full and genuine demonstration of the Spirit’s power is what the church needs today.
“If Jesus is who he says he is, then why is he not doing what I expected? If Jesus is who he says he is, then why do I still hurt so much?” These aren’t the questions of a skeptic; they’re essentially the questions of John the Baptist, who languished in prison after he was arrested by King Herod: “When John heard in prison what Christ was doing, he sent his disciples to ask him, ‘Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?’” (Matthew 11:2-3).
Really, John? You announced the coming of Jesus with such passion, such confidence, such boldness. What happened? Expectations—that’s what happened. John’s were a bit off. He declared that Messiah’s ministry would be one of judgment, but all the reports he heard were about a ministry of mercy. But if Jesus really is the Messiah, where’s the fire and brimstone? Before he was locked up, John thundered, “His winnowing fork is in his hand….The ax is already at the root of the tree!” But the only ax to fall was the one that landed right on John. He’s in jail now getting ready for execution. How could he not wonder, “Is that what I get for serving Jesus? Did I miss something?”
Maybe you can relate. Has Jesus ever acted in a way that you didn’t expect? The healing you prayed for didn’t come through. The financial deliverance you needed didn’t turn out. The promotion you hoped for went to somebody else. The ministry you served in didn’t go as planned. The child you gave birth to is different from all the other children. Jesus didn’t do what you thought he would do, and that stings. John the Baptist knows how that feels.
At some time or another, every thinking believer will wrestle with the problem of doubt. How can I be sure that Christianity is true? What if I’ve put all my hope in Christ, but I’m wrong? What if the resurrection never really happened? What if the critics are right and the Bible is not the Word of God? Questions like these can harass the heart of the sincerest believer.
The good news is that God gives his people reassurance when they need it. “Jesus replied, ‘Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me’” (Matthew 11:4-6). In other words, the reasons for doubting Jesus are in the end unreasonable.Just look and listen. Your eyes and ears will verify in time that Jesus is who he says he is.
That said, Jesus then gives a remarkable public endorsement of John and his ministry. He stands with his people today, too, even when they’re confused by what he’s up to. That’s because Jesus let the ax fall on himself at the cross. His love for his people is truly “wonderful, deep, and strong.’
For 36 chapters in the book of Job, the suffering patriarch erupts in a molten river of intense emotion, basically protesting, “God, my life is excruciating right now, and I don’t like it. In fact, I wish I had never been born.” As such, we get a window into the heart and mind of a godly man who suffers untold agony. We may not be able physically to feel what Job is feeling at the moment, but we can certainly appreciate the weightiness of his tortured questions. “Where are you in this horrific mess, God? And why won’t you stop it? I’m not happy with you right now. What’s going on?”
As the drama unfolds, we find Job either praying to God out loud, responding to his three friends who admonish him, or talking to nobody in particular—just writhing in pain and bewailing his very existence. We can only conclude from all the ink used in these sacred chapters that when God’s people struggle in profound ways, God knows, and God cares. Our misery is never off his radar. That seems like small comfort, though, when the pain endures.
One thing that often startles people about these chapters is how Job explodes with honest, blunt, and raw expressions about how he feels. Some of his statements don’t seem very pious. They don’t seem to match what we might think a godly person might say in such a situation. And yet, God doesn’t seem to be too terribly upset by that. We might expect by the end of the book that Job would get a divine scolding: “Hey Job, you overdid it. You said things you shouldn’t have said. You should have had a more hopeful outlook. You should have had a more positive confession.”
But no, God essentially says, “Job, you were right. It’s your pickle-faced friends who didn’t express their true feelings but instead quoted all the religious clichés of the day who were way off base.” That may be surprising to us, but it’s an important reminder that in the midst of our flailing faith, God is right there with us. As Job himself said, “I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes—I, and not another. How my heart yearns within me!” (Job 19:25-27).
God did stand upon the earth in the person of Jesus Christ. And when he did, he suffered greatly. His final statement from the cross was, “Into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46). Like Jesus—and Job—God’s people can do the same today.
The world doesn’t seem to be what it ought to be. It is broken as well as beautiful, and that hurts. Has your life ever been affected by crime, poverty, violence, joblessness, or homelessness? What about disease, disabilities, deformities, or discrimination? How about a weather event, such as an earthquake, tornado, flood, or hurricane? Has your family ever been jolted by a fire, a fatal accident, a destructive riot, or a school shooting?
The question is always the same. After the initial shock and horror subsides, after the news crews go home, after others have gotten on with their lives, we’re always left with the same question: “Where was God in the midst of my suffering? And why did he let it happen in the first place?”
Christian professor Peter Kreeft has said, “More people have abandoned their faith because of the problem of evil than for any other reason. It is certainly the greatest test of faith, the greatest temptation to unbelief.” It is for this reason Christian author Philip Yancey calls the problem of evil “theological kryptonite.”
Can the ancient Hebrew book of Job provide any insight into the universal problem of pain? It is often said that the theme of Job is the age-old question, “Why does a loving God permit the righteous to suffer?” But if that is the theme of the book, the question is never fully answered. Perhaps the theme of the book is better stated, “How do the righteous suffer?” The book of Job can show us how to endure until the world is finally what it ought to be—beautiful and not broken—when God in Christ makes all things new.
At issue in this first message of the series is the question, “Shall a person love God because he’s God, and enjoy the blessings received from his hand?” Or “Shall a person love God only because of the blessings he or she might receive from his hand?” Satan’s implied accusation is, “God, you’ve stooped to bribery. You give good gifts to your people to make them love you. Take away the gifts, there will be no more love.” But in Round 1 of his suffering, Job proves the accuser wrong, so the score right off the bat is God—1, Satan—0. Moreover, we come discover that suffering is not meaningless if we come to know God better in the end. Job certainly did, and so can we.
In Mark 2:1-12, Jesus famously healed the paralytic, a man lowered on his mat through someone’s roof because of the crowd. Before Jesus restored his legs, however, he restored his soul, declaring the man’s sins forgiven. Some folks in the crowd fussed at Jesus for saying such a thing because only God himself can forgive a person’s sins. Therefore, Jesus told the man to take up his mat and walk home, in full view of the crowd. To everyone’s amazement, he did. The visible miracle (the healing of his legs) authenticated the invisible miracle (the forgiveness of his sins). In a dramatic display of his own power and authority, then, Jesus made the man’s salvation visible to everyone.
This story teaches us a lot about Jesus, but it also illustrates how God wants a believer’s salvation to be made visible in our day, too. He wants it to be verifiable. He wants it to be evidence by a changed life. The theological word is “sanctification,” which means to be set apart. This message looks at the doctrine of sanctification—the process by which God shapes a believer’s character over time to be more like Christ’s. While justification speaks of the beginning of our salvation, sanctification speaks of the continuing of our salvation. Like the two natures of Christ, they are distinct theological realties, but they cannot be separated.
Justification is about Christ’s work for us on the cross. Sanctification is about Christ’s work in us by the Holy Spirit. Justification is about Christ’s completed work in making us his children forever. Sanctification is about Christ’s continuing work in making us godly in life. Justification is about removing the penalty of sin in our lives. Sanctification is about breaking the power of sin in our lives. Justification is about forgiveness, so that we can come to God. Sanctification is about holiness, so that we can become like God (in character). Justification calls us to believe. Sanctification calls us to behave.
John Calvin explained the relationship between justification and sanctification using the sun as an illustration. He said the sun’s heat and the sun’s light are two distinguishable things. They are not the same, but they are always found together. They both flow from the nature of what the sun is. Moreover, we cannot have the sun’s heat without the suns’ light in the same way that we cannot have justification without sanctification.
Sanctification, then, is progressively growing in the grace we have freely received in Christ. It is the continuing work of God in the life of the believer, making us holy in practice, not merely in position. As Maxie Dunham has said, “We don’t buy a violin today and expect to give a concert in Carnegie Hall tomorrow. Similarly, we may be converted to Christ in a moment, but…walking as a Christian requires discipline and is a lifelong undertaking. As Christians, we do not emerge from our conversion fully grown; we must grow.” The Apostle Peter would agree: “But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18). In short, belief behaves.
When we embrace Jesus as the Savior who justifies us, we are at the same time embracing Jesus as the Lord who sanctifies us. The key to sanctification is living up to what we have already attained in Christ (cf. Philippians 3:16).
A Few GoodMen is ranked as one of top 100 movies of all time. It’s a military courtroom drama starring Tom Cruise, Jack Nicholson, Demi Moore, and Kevin Bacon. One of the memorable lines of the movie comes from Lieutenant Kaffee, played by Tom Cruise. He’s the lead defense attorney, and his case against the colonel isn’t going well. After a series of deep frustrations with his co-counsel, Lieutenant Galloway, played by Demi Moore, Kaffee blurts out, “And the hits just keep on coming!” It’s an expression that basically means, “Here we go again!” or “If it’s not one thing, it’s another!”
By the time we meet up with Elijah in 1 Kings 17:17-24, it’s hard not to think of this line, “And the hist just keep on coming!” He’s already had a hard and adventuresome life as a prophet, but we’re just getting started. After several miracles and death-defying adventures, the son of the widow he just rescued becomes deathly ill. Elijah watches his little friend go through the dying process. A few months ago, he saw the brook dry up, and now he sees a young boy’s life dry up, too. Now what? Surprisingly, the widow blames the prophet for her son’s death. For Elijah, the hits just keep on coming.
How do we respond when we get a tongue lashing we don’t deserve? Step into lawyer mode? Defense mode? Return the verbal garbage with garbage of our own? Hurt people tend to hurt people, and Elijah gets wounded here. But he doesn’t seek to wound back. He offers no argument, no rebuke, and no explanation. He does speak, but not to the woman’s tortured logic and agonized questions. Rather, he offers her gentle service and simple burden sharing. Then he gets alone with God and cries out to him for help (1 Kings 17:20), offering up an impossible prayer: “O Lord my God, let this boy’s life return to him!” (1 Kings 17:21b).
It’s one thing to pray for the weather, as Elijah has recently done. It’s another thing to pray for the restoration of life to a dead body. That’s something new. But not only does Elijah pray the impossible prayer, he’s willing to be ceremonially “unclean” in the process by stretching himself out on the boy three times (1 Kings 17:21a). It was a form of sacrificial intercession in the face of a desperate situation. Happily, the Lord heard Elijah’s cry, and the boy’s life returned to him (1 Kings 17:22). It’s the first resurrection of Scripture. Thankfully, it’s not the last.
How do we face an impossible situation today? Like Elijah, we can get alone with God. We can pour out our problems to the Lord. We can strive for patient endurance and calm assurance amid the hits. And we can wait for God to act, receiving his deliverance in due course. Like Elijah, we can be fully persuaded that hope never dies because the God of the impossible lives. Patient endurance, then, is well founded. Teresa of Avila was a Carmelite nun who lived in the 1500s. She wrote a verse that John Michael Talbot made into a song in our day:
Let nothing trouble you. Let nothing frighten you. For everything passes but God will never change. Patient endurance will obtain everything Whoever has God, wants for nothing at all. God alone is enough. God alone is enough. Whoever has God, wants for nothing at all.
One day the hits will stop coming. Jesus made sure of that. On the cross, he was willing to become truly “unclean” for us, dying for our sin. But on the third day, he rose again from the dead, having told his followers, “Because I live, you also will live” (John 14:19). Today he puts his infinite resources at the disposal of those who, like Elijah, pray in righteousness and faith. That’s how we hit back at the hits.
Have you ever had a cow on your plate? Probably, but it was broken down into a hamburger first, which you then had to chew. Your body broke it down even further through digestion into proteins, amino acids, and other nutrients that could be absorbed into your bloodstream and used as fuel for life. Inside that cow, then, was energy for life—but it had to be broken down again and again to be of any value to you.
How do we handle the pressures of life in a fallen world—especially if we believe that God is for us not against us (Rom 8:31)? How do we reconcile the goodness of God and the aches and pains of this world he calls us to endure? David’s relationship with God as revealed in Psalm 57 gives us a clue.
One day King Saul tried to shish kabob David to the wall with a spear while he was playing his harp. When that failed, Saul dispatched his soldiers to capture him, but that didn’t work, either. In fact, every attempt by Saul to lay a hand on him was frustrated. Eventually, David escaped to the cave of Adullam as a fugitive. According to Psalm 57:6, David’s spirit during those days was “bowed down in distress.”
Despite the pressure he was feeling, 1 Samuel 22:1 tells us that when David’s family found out where he was hiding, they met up with him there, including “all those who were in distress…and he became their leader.” That’s a noteworthy rendezvous. Four hundred people who are stressed out seek after David, who himself is stressed out. They want to be with him. They recognize that God is still with him in a unique way. Moreover, they want him to be their leader even though he’s on the run.
How many people do we know whom we can honestly say we want to be around when they’re stressed out? Most of us aren’t so sure we like being around ourselves when we’re stressed out! But David handled the pressures of life in such a way that people wanted to be around him even when he himself was under pressure. Why? David tells us he ultimately took refuge in God (Ps 57:1), not the cave. Indeed, he recognized that despite his many challenges in life, God was still fulfilling his purpose for him (Ps 57:2).
This sermon looks at the great “why” behind our distress, a word, incidentally, that means “to pull you apart slowly; to stretch you or draw you tight.” It’s an image that comes from the ancient rack torture. In other words, distress is when life is ripping you apart, tearing at your soul, and causing you grief or pain. The good news is that God’s people don’t go through distress only to come out the other side with nothing but a scar. No, for the child of God, every trial we face is Father-filtered. There’s a “divine why” behind it and a supreme good coming out of it, even if we don’t know at the time what that may be.
We do know that the testing of our faith leads to spiritual growth (Jas 1:2-4; 1 Pet 1:6-7), and growth requires eating. Not only eating but digesting what we’ve eaten. Digestion, of course, is a process of breaking down the food we eat into a form our bodies can use. It’s a process that’ essential to life itself. Now, we can read a book about digestion, and even become a gastrointestinal doctor, but unless we actually eat, we will starve to death.
Likewise, believers can read our Bibles until we’ve memorized them, but unless we “digest” life as it unfolds, activating our faith in the process, we will spiritually starve. David’s trust in God while under pressure is a reminder for all of us to digest life with faith in order to truly live. Anything less would be IN-digestion. So, by all means, have a cow. But eat it in faith. Energy for life awaits you.
The Battle of Gettysburg was the bloodiest conflict of the Civil War. Nearly 7,800 people were killed, 27,000 were wounded, and 11,000 were captured or went missing. The North defeated the South in that 3-day battle. Had they not done so, it’s likely that today the United States would not be united. In fact, most historians regard Gettysburg as the turning point of the war.
One of the heroes to come out of that battle was Joshua Chamberlain, a professor of theology and rhetoric at Bowdoin College in Maine. On July 2, 1863, the second day of battle Col. Chamberlain defended the left flank of the Union on a hill called Little Round Top. Had he failed to hold that position, the Union line would have collapsed, the battle would have been lost, and the Confederates would have marched on Washington and overtaken the White House.
But Chamberlain and his men from the 20th Maine held firm. With great courage and tenacity, they repelled wave after wave of attack late into the afternoon. Even after his men ran out of ammunition, Chamberlain refused to retreat. Instead, he ordered that famous bayonet charge down the hill, which put the Confederates to flight and ended their plans to penetrate the Union line.
What’s not so famous, however, is a crisis that Chamberlain faced just two days before the Little Round Top incident. Chamberlain inherited 120 insurgents from the 2nd Maine. That regiment had folded because there were so many casualties in it. Naturally, the survivors assumed that when their unit ended, their term of service had ended, too. But not so, according to the military brass. They had to be re-assigned. Understandably, the men of the 2nd Maine were furious, so they dropped their muskets, and they refused to fight.
They had seen enough war. They had seen enough death. And some of them were wounded themselves. They were emotionally drained; and they just wanted to go home. But they were rounded up like cattle and marched at gunpoint over to the 20th Maine. Now, put yourself in Col. Chamberlain’s boots for a moment. You’re preparing for your next campaign just north of where you are now, when suddenly, 120 grumpy, burned-out insurrectionists are dropped into your lap. What are you going to do with them? How are you going to get them on board?
How do you motivate a group of wounded and weary soldiers to keep fighting the good fight? Chamberlain gets them on board with a speech—a stirring exhortation that is almost as powerful as the Gettysburg Address itself. After promising not to shoot the insurgents—which he had every right to do—Chamberlain talks to them with respect. In short, He reminded them that their purpose far outweighed their pain, and their prize far outweighed their price.
When it comes to Christian service, that’s a message believers need to be reminded of on a regular basis because ministry can be hard. Kingdom work is exhausting. Volunteer ministry can sometimes be discouraging, dispiriting, or disillusioning. Certainly, there are moments of great joy and celebration, but Christian service has a way of wringing us out like a wet dish rag. Paul’s burden in 2 Timothy is to light a fire under his young protégé to fight like a good soldier and keep fighting, even when the battle gets fierce. To that end, Paul tells Timothy—and he tells believers today—to press on in view of both the pain and the payoff. In short, he says fight to the finish, and receive your crown from Christ.
Paul, the old war horse, now in chains, sitting in the shadow of execution, just weeks away from martyrdom—what’s he concerned about? What’s foremost on his mind? The continued sharing of the gospel after he’s gone. It’s no time to go AWOL on the gospel, says Paul. He tells God’s people to fight well as a service to Christ (4:1-5), and finish well as a sacrifice to Christ (4:6-8). Just as he did.
Jesus said in John 10:10, “I have come that you might have life, and have it more abundantly.” That raises the question, “Are we living the abundant Christian life Jesus intended? Specifically, “Are we living the abundant Christian life such that others can tell that we are vitally joined to Jesus, and we ourselves know that we’re fulfilling God’s call upon our lives?” How would we know? Can you say with all sincerity:
I am where God wants me to be.
I’m doing what God wants me to do.
I’m serving where God wants me to serve.
I’m advancing the kingdom of God.
I’m sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ.
I’m walking in the power of the Holy Spirit.
I am fulfilling my Christian calling.
If not—why not? What’s holding you back? What’s preventing you from being all that God wants you to be? We know for sure it’s not God who’s holding you back. It’s not your circumstances or life situation, either, because God is sovereign over those. It’s not even Satan who’s holding you back because he’s on a divine leash. The opening section of 2 Timothy gives us insight into the question.
As we’ve seen, this letter is Paul’s farewell exhortation to his young apprentice, Timothy. Paul is going to be executed soon, and he knows it. So, in this correspondence, he begins to pass the baton of ministry to his dear son in the faith. To do that, he’s going to issue 25 commands or admonitions about priorities in ministry, spiritual landmines to avoid, and dangers to guard against. Twenty-five exhortations in a 4-chapter book!
But before he issues any commands, Paul is going to motivate Timothy by reminding him of what he already has. By extension, he’s going to remind us, too. His message to believers of all ages is this: God has given you everything you need to fulfill your Christian calling. The message is not unlike what Peter writes in 2 Peter 1:3, “His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.”
This message looks at seven treasures believers have now, all of which can be pondered or cultivated over the course of one’s Christian life. Like Timothy, maybe you need to draw on the resources you’ve already been given in grace. Or, like Paul, maybe there’s someone in your life you can encourage in the faith. You have what you need to do it.
The Apostle Peter did something that no other mortal has ever done. He walked on water at the invitation of Jesus. He also sank like a rock after a few steps because he was distracted by the wind and became afraid. At that point he needed a lifeguard and a towel. Mercifully, Jesus rescued Peter out of his predicament.
Such is often the case for Christ’s followers today. Jesus calls us to a supernatural walk with him, but so often our lives lack a supernatural component. Honestly, when is the last time something truly supernatural happened to you or through you—something that can be explained only in terms of God having done it?
A miracle? A divine healing? A real and specific answer to prayer? A deliverance from some sort of bondage? A victory over some sort of besetting sin? A restoration to wholeness and true contentment, whatever the circumstance? A divine love that God gives you for the unlovable? The ability to forgive someone who sinned against you? Could it be that we’re just too comfortable in our Christian boats, never stepping out of them in faith, where the chances of sinking are greatly multiplied?
For all that, this story is primarily about the identity of Christ. Jesus says to Peter, “It is I. Don’t be afraid” (Matt 14:17). Literally, Jesus says: “I am. Don’t be afraid.” That’s a reference to the divine name, “Yahweh,” that God revealed to Moses at the burning bush (Exod 3). Moreover, Job 9:8 says that God alone “stretches out the heavens and treads on the waves of the sea.” So, here on the Sea of Galilee we have another declaration and another demonstration of the deity of Christ. He is God in human flesh.
We also have a revelation of Jesus’s gracious character: (1) Jesus responds to our cries for help (v. 31a); (2) Jesus rescues us in our time of need (v. 31b); and (3) Jesus reminds us to keep our faith in him (31c). That’s because without Jesus we’re sunk. Or, as Jesus himself said, “Apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).
After Peter and Jesus climbed into the boat, the wind died down (v. 32). That’s not coincidental timing; it’s another indication that even nature bows to the lordship of Christ. If all nature bows to Jesus, shouldn’t we bow to him as well? That’s where the supernatural walk begins. And if we should stumble along the way, Jesus is right there to catch us (v. 31).
Life is filled with riddles and illusions. We’re often surrounded by mysteries and conundrums. We can’t always figure out what’s going on around us or why things happen the way they do. Sometimes our minds get confused and we need help to determine what we’re really seeing. Certainly, it’s the case that “we all see from where we stand.” We all have different backgrounds, experiences, families of origin issues, and traumas—and that can affect how we see the world.
Psychologists tell us that sometimes what we’re looking for determines what we see. It’s an interesting observation considering Jeremiah 29:13, where God says, “You will…find me when you seek me with all your heart.” If we honestly look for God, we’ll find him. That’s especially true in the Christmas story. God is all over the story of Christmas. He’s on every page of it. And if we look for him there, we’ll find him. Most of the people who were part of the original story certainly did, although a few did not.
In this holiday message, we ask the question, “What did the original characters see in Christmas?” What was their perspective? How did they see it? And what will we see as we join them around the manger this year? It’s an important question because what we see in Christmas reveals what God sees in us. That’s what Simeon was getting at in his prophecy, “This child is destined…to reveal the thoughts of many hearts” (Luke 2:35). In other words, there’s a mirror in the manger, not just a baby. And that mirror tells us something about what’s inside our own hearts.
Ephesians 3:10 conveys a fascinating truth: God’s intent is that “now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms.” That is, God’s people are on the stage of history right now, and the audience is not just a watching world. It’s much bigger than that. Moreover, the star of the show is God’s manifold wisdom—revealed “through the church.” That’s not just epic. It’s cosmic.
The Greek word underneath our English word “manifold” means “various,” “variegated, “assorted,” or “many-splendored.” It was a word used of the embroidery work of a multi-colored garment, or of a multi-colored bouquet of flowers, or of an array of multi-colored lights in the sky—the kind we might see in the Northern Lights. We could translate the word “iridescent,” “luminous,” or even “kaleidoscopic.” It refers to God’s brilliant, multi-faceted wisdom—a wisdom we see in creation with its many varieties of plants and animals that God made. We see it also in the church with her many varieties of people and personalities that God made.
This manifold wisdom of God, says Paul, is made known “to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms,” that is, spiritual beings who live in the unseen realm—whether they be good or evil. They’re watching history unfold, and as they do, God is displaying his manifold wisdom to them “through the church.” In the spiritual battle of cosmic history, the church is at the center of God’s plan.
That’s mind-boggling. When God wants to show forth his wisdom to the invisible realm, he points to the church! Now, that raises a question. Of all the vehicles God could have used to display his kaleidoscopic wisdom, he chooses the church? Really? Why on earth would he do that? We want to say, “Hey wait a minute, God. Have you been to church lately? Have you seen the crazy things your people do sometimes? Have you seen the petty things they argue about? Have you seen how harsh and condemnatory they can be toward each other sometimes? Have you seen how irrelevant and out of date they are?”
Why would God use the church in this way? Isn’t the church an embarrassment to him? Be assured that God’s wisdom is not displayed because of the blemishes of the church, but because of the One who bought the church for him—Jesus Christ—and what the church is becoming in grace. God is patiently taking his people beyond their blemishes to a beauty that matches that of Christ. The process is long and slow, but it’s happening now. Paul is reminding us that the church of Jesus Christ is a prism through which the radiant wisdom of God is cosmically displayed. It’s no small thing, then, to be a follower of Christ.
Use your imagination for a moment. If Ephesians 3:10 is true, then God could be saying something like this in the heavenly realm: “Hey, Gabriel, take a look at this. Watch my people trust my sovereignty when life is hard rather than stewing in self-pity!” “Hey, Michael, take a look at this: “Watch my people practice servanthood rather than living in selfishness like so much of the world!” And God is not looking to find fault. Like a father who wants to see his daughter shine on the stage in the school play, God delights when his people follow the script he wrote for us. As Paul said elsewhere, his for us not against us. And as the Apostle Peter said, “Even angels long to look into these things” (1 Pet 1:12b).
What a glorious day it’s been. Mother’s Day usually gets more fanfare than Father’s Day, and rightly so. After all, as Jim Gaffigan says, “When you consider the male contribution to human life, it’s not very impressive.” God knew what he was doing when he gave women the travails of labor. We men never could have handled it. That’s why Mother’s Day gets top billing. Still, my kids made me feel like a million bucks this weekend. They even laughed at my dad jokes, which were especially bad this year.
First, my son came to our house Friday night for our usual movie and pizza night. He brought along gifts and treats that were deeply meaningful to me, and we started watching The Chosen together. Tissues may have been involved—not only because the production is fresh and alive with new angles and insights than most of the “screen Jesus” fare we’ve seen (hey, love the cinema, hate the sin), but also because Andrew is making a major life change this month. It’s a new journey for him, and it’s rooted in his desire to know Christ better and love him more.
He also called me today to wish me a happy Father’s Day, and we talked about his new adventure. He said, “I’ve never had this much confidence in the face of this much uncertainty.” I’m moved by his faith and dedication, and I couldn’t be prouder of him than I am right now. He’s the first blood relative I ever met, and I often remind him that he’s “my beloved son in whom I am well pleased.”
Then, this morning, we had a beautiful worship service focusing on our “good, good Father.” It was a thrill to meet some new people today and hear their stories. After the service we gathered at my favorite Italian restaurant in the area with my daughter and her husband. They, too, shared wonderful cards and gifts that got me choked up. I even got a card from my future grandchild, along with a special gift from him or her. (The in utero child is the size of an avocado right now, which explains one of the gift tags below.)
Micah, who is celebrating his first Father’s Day this year (because being pro-life means he’s a father now), turned my Puddles the Popsicle post into a children’s book so that I could read it to the munchkin when he or she finally arrives. (The due date is December 2.) Opening that gift was a heart-stopping moment. And it made it easier to forgive them for getting me the card that came with it—the one with “Puffy” on the front.
Years ago I had a beautiful Pomeranian. Beautiful on the outside, that is. Inside, the little terror was demon possessed, and, alas, I don’t have the gift of exorcism. Our failed experiment in having a dog actually began with Bethany batting her eyelashes at me when she was little and saying in the cutest way possible, “Daddy, can we have a puppy? I’ll take care of it.” Uh huh. Right. And now she owns a cat. Smart lady. Bethany and Micah are serving the Lord, too, using the gifts and graces God has given them for his glory.
I am beyond blessed to be a father to these three wonderful kids. And I can say with the Apostle John, “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth” (3 John 4).
“May his favor be upon you / And a thousand generations / And your family and your children / And their children, and their children….”
What on earth is the church, and why are we here? All authoritative answers to these questions must begin with Jesus, who said, “I will build my church” (Matt 16:18). Since the church is his church, and he is building it, there’s no better place to begin our inquiry than Christ himself. Therefore, in part 1 of this series, we focus on Jesus’ two uses of the word “church” in the Gospel of Matthew, along with its Old Testament background. His first reference speaks of “the Church Universal,” and his second reference speaks of “the Church Local.” What do these expressions mean, and how do they relate?
Quite significantly, the Hebrew word qahal denotes an assembly of Israelites, especially when gathered before the Lord as a “saved” or “rescued” covenant people. When the Greek Old Testament (called the Septuagint) translates qahal, it uses the word ekklesia, which means “group,” “assembly,” “community,” or “congregation.” In secular usage, it meant the gathering of people at a town hall meeting. In sacred usage, it meant the gathering of believers for worship, prayer, and mission.
In our day, the word ekklesia comes into English as “church,” which always refers in Scripture to a “saved” or “rescued” covenant people, never to a building. Let that sink in for a moment. The church of Jesus Christ, according to the New Testament, is a people, not a building. It is people that Christ is building.
As suggested by Jesus’ two uses of the word ekklesia, “the Church Universal” refers to the community of all true believers in every age and in every place. By contrast, “the Church Local” is a community of professing believers at a certain time and in a certain place. The rest of the New Testament bears out this important distinction.
At its most basic level, then, the church of Jesus Christ is a community of believers rescued from sin and released for service. It’s God’s new society. And it’s still very much alive around the world today. No, it’s not yet perfect, but it is perfectible, and it will be perfect when Christ has finished his building.
“But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith” (Philippians 3:7-9).
The dictionary definition of self-righteousness usually goes something like this: “Confidence in one’s own goodness or virtue, especially while being smugly moralistic and intolerant of the opinions and behavior of others.” That’s not a bad place to start, but it’s more descriptive of the symptoms of self-righteousness than the underlying disease. The deeper problem is legalism—the notion that we could somehow generate enough righteousness on our own to make ourselves acceptable to God for salvation. The idea is ridiculous on its face because it makes us partially our own saviors.
Jesus told the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector specifically to “those who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else” (Luke 18:9). The pious leader in Jesus’ story assumed his acceptance with God was based on his own actions, while the tax collector recognized there was nothing in him by which he could commend himself to God; he was totally dependent on divine grace for his salvation. Quite significantly, it was the despised tax collectorwho “went home justified before God,” according to Jesus, not the religious leader (Luke 18:14). Repeatedly in the Gospels, Jesus warns his followers about the dangers of self-righteousness, emphasizing that without him, they could do nothing (cf. John 15:5).
The problem with self-righteousness is that it doesn’t feel like sin. Most of the time it feels like holiness. Most of the time it feels like something God should be pleased with—something that should make him smile. To do our good works, and catalog our achievements, and then present them all to God—that feels like something the Almighty should appreciate. After all, God is holy, and he demands holiness from his people, right?
Yet everywhere in Scripture, that kind of a self-righteous approach to God is sharply condemned. It’s sharply condemned not only in Luke 18, but also in Philippians 3. In fact, not only is it condemned in that chapter, it’s severely ridiculed. Paul calls it “garbage” in verse 9. Other versions say “rubbish.” Those are awfully polite translations.
The problem with self-righteousness is that it doesn’t feel like sin. Most of the time it feels like holiness.
The original word is skubalon, which means “dung,” “manure,” “excrement,” and a few other words that preachers aren’t supposed to say. Why such colorful language? Why such a linguistic jolt in holy writ? Because there’s an important distinction to be made between presenting our good works to God as a gift and presenting our good works to God as currency. The gift says, “Thank you, God. I obey you because I love you.” The currency says, “Pay up, God. I’ve been good; you owe me.” The two approaches are light years apart.
But what’s so terribly wrong with that second view? It sounds logical, doesn’t it? I do this, and God gives me that. Quid pro quo. Makes sense. But here’s the problem: Self-righteousness is offensive to God because it fails to take into account that—as fallen human beings tainted by sin—there’s something inherently deficient with even the good things we do. Just take an honest look at your motives and attitudes some time. Have you ever done anything with completely perfect attitudes or motives? Chances are slim. No one bats a thousand all the time, so without God’s mercy, we’re toast.
When one of my swim coaches was in college, he used to walk past the President’s house every day on the way home from practice. The university President had a horse, and my coach would stop by and pet it every day, feeding it apples and other treats. After doing this for several years, my coach developed a good relationship with the horse, so one day he just took it home with him. He stole the President’s horse!
Word went out over campus radio that someone had stolen the President’s prize possession. It was a major scandal since the man loved his horse. After several hours of not being able to locate the animal, the college began offering a sizeable cash reward for its safe return. When my coach heard about the monetary reward, he returned the horse…and collected the cash!
Now, we can probably all agree that it was a good thing that my coach returned the President’s horse. It was a good work. But I’m sure we can also agree that there was something very wrong with that good work. Here was the thief now cashing in on his own criminality! And so it is with fallen people before a holy God. Even the good things we do are tainted to a certain extent.
Self-righteousness is offensive to God because it fails to take into account that—as fallen human beings tainted by sin—there’s something inherently deficient with even the good things we do.
So, when we do our good works and present them to God, it must always be with the understanding that we’ve already stolen something from him. We already have a criminal record against him. And trusting Christ alone is the only way to get rid of our rap sheet against heaven. That’s what Paul argues in Philippians 3. Consider the “good things” he could point to in his own life that contribute nothing to our standing with God:
Religious ceremony cannot make us right with God. “…circumcised on the eighth day” (5a)
Ethnic identity cannot make us right with God. “…of the people of Israel” (5b)
Social status cannot make us right with God. “…of the tribe of Benjamin” (5c)
Orthodox tradition cannot make us right with God. “…a Hebrew of Hebrews” (5d)
Theological conservatism cannot make us right with God. “…in regard to the law, a Pharisee” (5e)
Spiritual enthusiasm cannot make us right with God. “…as for zeal, persecuting the church” (6a)
Impeccable morality cannot make us right with God. “…as for legalistic righteousness, faultless” (6b)
It’s all skubalon, says Paul. Having seen Jesus for who he is and what he’s done for the entire human race on the cross, Paul abandons all reliance on a good resume to make himself right with God. Indeed, he fires a silver bullet into the heart of self-righteousness by telling us to reject all sources of self-righteousness, and trust in Christ alone for salvation. Or, to put it simply, Paul tells us to take out the garbage of self-righteousness. It stinks to high heaven, and it needs to be removed.
Why? As human beings created in the image of a good God, we were made to do good works—but there’s nothing meritorious about those good works. We don’t congratulate water for being wet. It’s supposed to be wet. Nor do we congratulate human beings for doing good things. We’re supposed to do good things. It’s how we’re made. As a result, we can never put God in our debt by doing good works. As Edward Mote put it:
My hope is built on nothing less Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness I dare not trust the sweetest frame But wholly lean on Jesus’ name
Paul’s desire was to be found in Christ, not having a righteousness of his own that comes from keeping the law, but that which comes from trusting in Christ alone for salvation—“the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith” (Phil 3:9). He took out the garbage of self-righteousness. We must do the same.