After God reminds his people that he graciously rescued them out of Egypt (Exodus 20:1-2), he begins the Ten Commandments in earnest: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). The Hebrew literally says, “…no other gods before my face.” That is, “You shall have no other gods except me.” For the Israelites to worship any other god would be a form of covenant disloyalty. No other god saved them out of Egypt. No other god loved them and entered into a covenant with them. So, why would they worship any other deity?
Moreover, Yahweh is supreme: “See now that I myself am He! There is no god besides me” (Deuteronomy 32:39). Or again: “I am the Lord, and there is no other; apart from me there is no God” (Isaiah 45:5). By his very nature, then, God deserves the exclusive devotion of his people. There was no need for the Israelites to be unkind to the worshippers of other nations, or the adherents of other religions, but there was every reason for them not to participate in their worship. That would be a form of spiritual unfaithfulness to the God who had saved them.
Unfortunately, Egypt was one of the most polytheistic countries in the ancient Near East, worshiping over 1,400 different gods and goddesses in their temples, shrines, and homes. Having lived and labored in Egypt for more than 400 years, the Israelites were influenced by their surrounding culture. They found it difficult to let go of the false gods they picked up along the way. God said to them, “Each of you, get rid of the vile images you have set your eyes on, and do not defile yourselves with the idols of Egypt. I am the Lord your God. But they rebelled against me and would not listen to me; they did not get rid of the vile images they had set their eyes on, nor did they forsake the idols of Egypt” (Ezekiel 20:7-8).
Despite cultural pressures, God wants—and deserves—to have preeminence in his people’s lives. He finds it revolting to have competition from substitutes, whether from the things he created or the vain imaginations of human beings. Those things are not ultimate. So, the first commandment is not given because God is narcissistic but because he wants his people to live in sync with reality. Yahweh is supreme in the universe! Therefore, worshiping any other God besides him is not only disloyalty but a form of insanity.
The same is true today. God allows the existence of alternatives in our lives, but he wants us to choose the best. Nothing else should be king in our lives, whether our job, our peers, our desires, our denomination, our theology, or even our families. As Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters” (Matthew 6:24). God’s people are to worship God alone. Who or what is first in your life?
Note: Many people—including believers—have trouble reciting all Ten Commandments in order. The beginning of this message provides a silly acronym to help us recall them.
The Ten Commandments do not begin with God saying, “Thou shalt not…” but “I…brought you out.” The preamble of the Decalogue thus indicates that grace was demonstrated before obedience was demanded. Grammatically speaking, the ten great imperatives are preceded by one great indicative: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exodus 20:2). The giving of the law at Sinai, then, was a climactic moment of divine grace in the history of the world.
Still, God wanted not only to rescue his people from their oppression under Pharaoh, he wanted to realign them to his ways after their captivity in a polytheistic land. Their theology needed to be overhauled. It’s one thing for God to get Israel out of Egypt; it’s another thing for God to get Egypt out of Israel. The Ten Commandments were God’s initial strategy for doing so. But law keeping was never a means of “getting saved,” even in the Old Testament. God did the saving himself by his own power and grace. Indeed, God rescues his people before he regulates them.
The New Testament letters follow a similar pattern. Paul typically starts out by saying, “Here’s what God has freely done for us in Christ; now, here’s what our salvation looks like when we live it out in our daily lives. So, God’s law never presents itself as a means of salvation but a mark of salvation. In Moses’s day, the obedience called for in the Decalogue represents the people’s grateful response of love and loyalty to God for the salvation they had freely received as a gift from him.
This message contains a helpful illustration of how believers can understand the complex relationship between the old and new covenants. The illustration underscores that customs may change, cultures may change, and even covenants may change, but the character of God never changes. He is who he is and always will be. In the end, Moses stood between God and the people as a flawed man—a prophet but not a Savior. Jesus, however, stands between God and the people as a flawless man—a prophet and a Savior. And that’s why lawbreakers today can be saved.
God has landed! Right in a manger. Right on top of cow spit and barnyard bacteria. Jesus came a long way to save us. Two thousand years ago, the eternal Son of God stepped across the stars of the universe to become a zygote in the womb of the Virgin Mary. And then he was born as one of us. “Manhood and deity in perfect harmony—the Man who is God,” wrote Graham Kendrick.
Christmas, then, is the ultimate display of meekness and majesty in one person. “Glory to God in the highest,” was the angelic response. They easily could have said, “Glory to God in lowest,” too. God is with us now in the person of Jesus Christ. On earth. Magi from the east were among the first to welcome him. Following the natal star, they set out on a journey to find the newborn king.
It was more than curiosity that drew this caravan of dignitaries and polymaths to Jesus. It was God himself. They saw him at work in the sky—speaking their language—and they wanted to go meet with him. Indeed, this passage shows us that God speaks in a variety of ways because he has something important to say. Matthew 2:1-11 reminds us that God makes himself known to us:
generally through creation. (1-2)
specifically through revelation. (3-6)
graciously through intervention. (7-10)
supremely through incarnation. (11a)
Are we listening? The Magi were listening, and that’s why they traveled hundreds of miles across the desert to go see the Christ. They were men of wisdom and learning. They were into math, medicine, astronomy, and human nature. Some of them were superstitious. We get our word “magic” from their title. Call them “wizards” if you like. It was basically the cast of Harry Potter who came to see Jesus. Mark it well: Gentiles (non-Jews) were among the first to welcome and worship the Christ, indicating that God means for Jesus to be the Savior for the whole world!
If the Magi teach us anything, it’s that it’s never enough for us to just be amazed at the wonders of God; we have to set out on the journey and follow him. Our calling is not just to stand in awe of creation but to get to know the Creator. That’s why God’s revelation of himself in Christ demands a response of faith in Christ.He is worthy of our treasure and our trust. Indeed, he wants everyone to come and worship his Son. He wants you to worship his Son. Even if you’re a wizard.
This interactive Christmas Day devotional is followed by a reading of The Tale of Three Trees, a wonderful story for children of all ages.
Headlines are notoriously difficult to write. Even news editors who’ve been in the business for decades can struggle with the task. When you write a headline, you have to summarize the story in a few words, and do so in a way that hooks people and makes them want to keep reading. You have to be clear, concise, and captivating. You have to be journalistically accurate and grammatically correct. You have to be somewhat clever without being overly cute or trite. Above all, you have to be careful that you never communicate an unintended meaning—an oversight that, in the end, can make you look silly as a writer.
After looking at a few bad (and humorous!) headlines, this Christmas Eve message looks at a headline God doesn’t want anybody in the world to miss: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15). That’s the message of Christmas, and it’s front-page stuff. It’s a banner story. It’s the best headline ever. It’s clear, concise, and captivating. It’s theologically accurate and doctrinally correct. And it’s still as exciting and relevant as when it was first hot off the press. It certainly was for Paul, who gives us an abbreviated testimony here. He gives us the scoop on himself.
Paul used to be a terrorist. He was the Osama bin Laden of his day. But the headline of Christmas radically changed his life. He writes in sheer wonder at the grace of God that was lavished on him despite his past: “I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life” (1 Timothy 1:16). He’s saying, “Folks, I’m Exhibit A of the grace of God. I deserved judgment; but in Christ I received mercy. I deserved punishment; but in Christ I received pardon. I deserved condemnation; but in Christ I received salvation. Essentially, Paul is saying, “If Christ can save someone like me, then he can save anyone!”
That’s the best headline ever. It doesn’t matter who you are. It doesn’t matter where you’ve been. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done. Christmas is for you, too—as long as you recognize you need a Savior. Indeed, Paul reminds us here that Jesus came to save us and show us that no one is beyond the grace of God. No wonder he ends his brief testimony with a doxology, a burst of praise: “Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen” (1 Timothy 1:17). Christmas made him thankful.
How about you? Are you grateful for Christmas—the birth of the Savior? The old Christmas carol puts it so well: “Where meek souls will receive him still the dear Christ enters in.” So, do what Paul says here in this passage: “Believe on him and receive eternal life” (1 Timothy 1:16).
Well, apparently there is crying in baseball, contrary to Tom Hanks in A League of Their Own. Like every other Phillies fan around the globe this past Sunday night, I watched Game 5 of the National League Championship Series between the Philadelphia Phillies and the San Diego Padres. As you may have heard by now, the Phillies won that game 4–3, and in the process, they also won the pennant. I may have gotten a little choked up during the post-game celebration. Raise your hand if you did, too. Be honest.
Now, I realize baseball is not everybody’s cup of tea, so this post is a personal reflection that goes beyond the world of sports. It’s more about those occasional flashes of joy that make our journeys sparkle once in a while, and for which we can be both happy and grateful. It’s about “high hopes” and learning how to wait patiently until those hopes are realized. (Thank you, Harry Kalas). Until a few weeks ago, it had been over a decade since the Phillies were involved in any postseason play. Now we’re in it to win it.
Sunday night: The Phillies had just surrendered a one-run lead in the seventh inning to put themselves on the brink of having to go back to California for the rest of the series. Nobody wanted to play Game 6 on Monday night at Petco Park. Not only would that squander our home field advantage, but it would also drag us right into the crosshairs of the Padres’ best pitchers. So, “the Phitins” wanted to clinch a World Series berth right here. Right now. This inning. Easier said than done.
Standout catcher J. T. Realmuto started the bottom of the eighth with a single to left field against right-hander Robert Suarez. That turned out to be huge, given what was about to unfold. The tying run was now on base, and the go-ahead run was coming to the plate. But who would be the next man stepping into the batter’s box? None other than our star cleanup hitter and likely Hall-of-Famer, Bryce Harper.
Everyone was thinking the same thing. A two-run bomb would put us back in the lead and on the verge of clinching. Harper certainly has the guns to do it (even to the opposite field), not to mention the drive, the talent, and the history to do so—but how much magic can we expect from one player? He had already done so much for the team in the postseason, along with Kyle Schwarber, Rhys Hoskins, Zach Wheeler, and several others. But #3 lives for moments like these, and this was his moment.
Harper showed good discipline at the plate, laying off Suarez’s bread-and-butter pitch out of the zone. He then threw a 2-2 sinker toward the outer half of the plate. The location was good from a pitcher’s perspective, but somehow—with his trademark “violent swing”—Harper muscled the ball over the outfield wall and into the left-center-field seats for a two-run shot to take the lead. If you didn’t get to see it, take a look:
Fans at Citizens Bank Park went ballistic. Viewers at home went ballistic. I went ballistic. It was storybook stuff to be sure, and no one could have written a better script. It’s what every little boy dreams about from the time he can swing a whiffle ball bat. This dramatic video clip will be shown for decades to come.
It was another milestone in the history of the club—a team I’ve been cheering for since I was a little boy. That’s why I got choked up Sunday night. Not just because we held on in the top of the ninth to win the game, but because it brought back some truly precious memories. The last time we won the World Series was in 2008 against the Tampa Bay Rays. Before that it was in 1980 against the Kansas City Royals. Before that, it was—well, there was no before that.
The Phillies have won the World Series only two times since becoming an MLB team in 1883. Back then they were known as the Quakers. They became the Phillies later in 1890. For most of those 139 years, it’s been phrustrating to be a phan. I’ve often said that the Phillies are always good enough to give you hope but bad enough to break your heart. That’s been the story for most of my life, with a few notable exceptions.
Why then do I keep cheering for them? Three words—family, friends, and memories. My dad took me to Veterans Stadium for the first time when I was about six or seven years old. It’s a memory that finds deep lodging in my heart, even to this day.
I remember holding my father’s hand walking out from under the shadowy concourse into the bright, shining seating area. The sun sprayed the radiant green AstroTurf with a brilliance that illuminated a perfectly manicured ball field, dazzling this little rookie into silence. I was in awe at the sight of it. And the sounds of it. And the smells of it. It somehow felt like I belonged there. At that moment I fell in love with baseball in general and the Phillies in particular. I’ve been a “Phanatic” ever since.
I also remember my dad getting me a dish of vanilla ice cream poured into in a little red plastic Phillies helmet—my very first baseball souvenir (and one that may still be boxed away somewhere in my attic). We also got hot dogs, French fries, and Cracker Jacks that day, purchased from the vendors walking up and down the aisles hawking their treats. Dad was happy, and I was over the moon. I didn’t understand the game very well back then, but the Phillies won, and that resulted in a lot of loud cheering—something I had never experienced before at that level of intensity.
My family, friends, and I went to many more games over the years, and we got many more souvenirs. Of course, we watched more games on TV than we attended in person, but we always wanted to know how our Phillies were doing. We could catch the nightly news, or read the box scores and standings in the paper the next day if we missed a game on TV. (I had to share the tube with my dad since he was a Yankees fan. Obviously, I’m adopted.) My heroes back then were Mike Schmidt, Larry Bowa, Dave Cash, Pete Rose, Steve Carlton, Bob Boone (who autographed a baseball of mine), Greg Luzinski, Gary Maddox, and Bake McBride.
I got to watch the second World Series victory in 2008 on the big screen with my church family. Several parishioners still remember the final out of that game—a strikeout by closer Brad Lidge—and they wrote us messages this week recalling that wonderful time of fellowship and celebration. Some of the kids were even at church in their pajamas that night.
Oddly enough, the Christian message is another good reason to stay with the Phillies through all their peaks and valleys. As Jesus sticks with those of us who keep striking out spiritually until we become more healthy, stable, and productive, so I can stick with the Phillies through tick and thin, regardless of their winning percentage. The theological word for that is “grace.” We all desperately need it, so we should all be willing to give it.
Having become a baseball junkie early on, I tried out for our middle school team and made the roster. By the start of my second year, I had worked myself into a starting position in the infield, and I loved every minute of it. Game days were always the best days, even when we lost. There’s nothing like going home tired, sweaty, and dirty after a game, knowing you did everything you could to help your team win. If you fielded well and got a hit or two, so much the better.
As life would have it, I was better at swimming than baseball, so that’s where I put my athletic energies in the years to come. I made it to the NCAA Division 1 Nationals, twice, and it wound up paying a big chunk of my college tuition, so that was the right call. But deep down, baseball was always my favorite sport. There’s just something about the game that captivated me as a little boy, and it’s never let go. Over time I learned that every pitch has a strategy, and every strategy has a counterstrategy. So, the issue is always one of anticipation and execution. Good teams do both well.
Back to this past Sunday. Right after preaching the morning service at our church, I came home and lost my voice. Laryngitis set in a few hours before the game, so, I couldn’t even yell for my team during that amazing come-from-behind, pennant-clinching victory. But I sure did grunt and snortle like a muffled rhinoceros a few times.
Then there were the silent but exuberant gesticulations of this little boy in a man suit whenever the Phillies put runs on the board. Sonya now knows how Michal felt when David danced before the Lord (cf. 2 Samuel 6:14–20), though I didn’t actually do anything that could remotely be called dancing. I just lumbered around the living room like a drunk baboon looking for a lamppost to lean on. (I’ll blame it on the meds I was taking.) In the end, though, myriad expressions of delight found ways to ooze out of my body from other portals besides my pie hole.
What will happen in the 2022 World Series? I have no idea, and I make no predictions. Houston has a great team, and I have a personal no-trash-talk policy. Athletes at this level are so good, any team can beat any other team on any given day. It’s just a matter of who’s clicking and who’s finding their groove in the moment. I never expected the Phillies to get this far, and I suspect very few other people did, too. So, even if they come up short at the end of this round, I’ll still be proud of them.
In the end, the best of our sports heroes are just human. They have good days and bad days. They have moments of great accomplishment and moments of great disappointment. They have seasons of good health and seasons of nagging injuries. They have big dreams and big hopes, just like the rest of us. Let’s let them be human and have some fun together, regardless of the outcome.
One dream I’ve had for a long time is to see the Phillies play in a World Series game—in Philadelphia, the city of my birth. I am blessed beyond measure to share with you that this longstanding dream will finally come true.
As of now, it looks like I’ll be going to Game 3 (Monday, October 31) or Game 4 (Tuesday, November 1). Look for me on TV. I’ll be wearing red and white. And if I get my voice back, I’ll be cheering as loud as everybody else, too.
I plan to buy myself a little red plastic Phillies cap filled with vanilla ice cream (yes, they still sell them!), and I’ll think of my dad while I’m eating it. I’ll no doubt revel in the magical atmosphere again, just like I did my first trip to the ballpark. Just like I did on Opening Day this year, which was another first for me. Yes, I was there when Kyle Schwarber started the season off with a first-at-bat home run, something now known as a “Schwarbomb.”
And, like everybody else, I’ll be waving my red “rally towel” for the Phillies, grateful beyond measure that my father introduced me to this wonderful sport all those years ago. While I’m there, I’ll be keeping the seat warm for little Samuel. Maybe someday day he’ll want some ice cream in a red helmet, too.
In John 8 we read the famous story of the woman caught in the act of adultery—a story so famous that even those who know little about the Bible know that one. They even quote it sometimes because it contains one of the best zingers of all time. Jesus said, “Let he among you who is without sin cast the first stone.” With that, the would-be executioners drop their stones and leave, oldest to the youngest.
Jesus—the only person in history who by that criteria had the moral authority to execute the woman—chose not to do so. Instead, he allowed himself to be executed for her when he went to the cross on her behalf. He took her place, and ours, as well. No wonder the hymn writer said, “Amazing pity, grace unknown, and love beyond degree.” Quite significantly, the last thing Jesus said to the woman in this encounter was, “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.” Jesus says the same thing to people today, “Go and sin no more.”
Unfortunately, many believers take that statement to be a suggestion rather than a command. They regard it as helpful advice rather than holy admonition, which is dangerous. Perhaps we think to ourselves, “Grace is so amazing, once I receive it, nothing else matters. God will keep loving me, forgiving me, and regarding me as his child.” Whatever truth there may be to such notions, that’s not how the child of God thinks! The Christian life is not a moral free-for-all. Jesus was tortured and executed for sin; that’s why we no longer play around with it. Jesus still says to the rescued child of God, “Go and sin no more.”
Could it be, then, that some believers have misunderstood grace? Could it be we’ve forgotten that “belief behaves”? Grace is not only God’s unmerited favor toward his people, it is also a power from God that enables them to live a godly life. The Apostle Paul writes, “For the grace of God that brings salvation…teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age” (Titus 2:11-12). So, grace is not some coupon we can cash in to sin at a reduced rate of consequences.
Having expounded upon the grace of God in Christ, Paul anticipates an important question in Romans 6:1-2: “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” Or again, Jude 1:4 says, “[It is] godless men, who change the grace of our God into a license for immorality.” That’s a truth modern evangelicals need to hear. It was certainly a truth the believers in Corinth needed to hear. Like many people today, they understood the grace of God to be little more than fire insurance from hell.
That’s why their church was in chaos, marked by envy, strife, factions, worldliness, irreverence, and in some cases, outright immorality. So, Paul turns up the heat on them in this passage, giving them important lessons from Israel’s checkered spiritual history. He reminds them of a truth believers need to embrace today as well: The grace of God in Christ is not a license for immorality, but our motivation for holy living.Fortunately, God always provides a way out of the spiritual traps that can so easily ensnare us.
Everyone loves a happy ending. Most of our fairy tales begin with, “Once upon a time,” and they end with, “And they lived happily ever after.” That’s the way they’re written because that’s the way we want them. That’s the way we like them. Some would say that that’s the way we need them. In The Wizard of Oz, for example, Dorothy finally makes it home, where she’s longed to be from the very beginning. In Beauty and the Beast, the prince is restored, and the curse on the castle is finally lifted. In It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey learns it was better for his town that he lived instead of jumping off a bridge. In Willy Wonka, Charlie Bucket inherits the entire chocolate factory for passing a test and returning the Everlasting Gobstopper.
Now, it’s certainly true that when it comes to life and literature, the good guys don’t always win, the hero doesn’t always get the girl, the man in rags doesn’t always make it to riches, and the wrongs endured aren’t always righted. In such cases, the audience is left with unanswered questions, moral ambiguities, a sense of disappointment, or perhaps even the anger that comes with unfinished justice. People generally aren’t inspired by a miserable ending. That’s because it conveys a lack of rhyme or reason to the universe—a sense that there’s no benevolent sovereign authority overseeing life as it unfolds before us. We’re just doomed creatures with bumper stickers announcing, “Excrement Happens,” and we think, “Hopefully it won’t happen to us.” But that seems horribly unsatisfying. Even depressing.
Research indicates that given a choice between happy endings or sad endings, we tend to choose the happy ending by a 10 to 1 margin. Even if we have to re-write the author’s original conclusion, as in Pretty Woman, we’ll get our happy ending. Human beings crave it. Job craved it. Fortunately for Job, he eventually got it. He had to wait for it, and he had to be divinely prepared for it, but he eventually got it. In spades. All that he lost was restored to him two-fold.
For many people, if the happy ending takes too long, they simply settle for the happy hour. They anesthetize the pain of life, never really facing up to it or being completely honest about it. But Job did face up to it. And he was honest about it. In the end, after his painful ordeal, Job gets his happy ending. That tells us the God who knows his people’s suffering will someday end his people’s suffering.
This message explores how the end of suffering commences with our restoration to God, continues with our reconciliation to others, and culminates in our reversal of painful circumstances forever. The Apostle James wrote, “As you know, we consider blessed those who have persevered. You have heard of Job’s perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy” (James 5:11). That’s why there’s a happy ending for God’s people—precisely to demonstrate that the Lord is full of compassion and mercy, even if we have to wait for it to fully realize it.
Job is a man in agony, and he’s been pelting God with questions because of it. He wants to know—as would anyone—how the Lord could allow him to suffer for no apparent reason. Like a lawyer shooting out questions in rapid-fire succession, Job lets God have it. Throughout the interrogation, God remains silent. He doesn’t say a single word, but that is about to change. For 30+ chapters, Job has questioned God, but now God will question him. It’s Job’s turn to be quiet. Really, it’s Job’s turn to be put on trial.
“Then the Lord answered Job out of the storm. He said: ‘Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge? Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me. Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand’” (Job 38:1-4). Thus begins what some critics have called “the grand failure.” God misses an opportunity here to explain himself. He simply pulls rank on poor Job, sort of like a drill sergeant flexing his muscles and barking orders at his soldiers just because he can. “Drop and give me twenty, Job.” O.k., God is all powerful, but how is that helpful? How is that an answer? And why does this power play—if that’s all it is—lead to such a dramatic response of humility and repentance by Job after God is done speaking to him (cf. Job 42:6)?
As it turns out, God’s response to Job is much more than a power play. Indeed, divine power is only part of the response. Quite significantly, Job’s encounter with God is uniquely personal to him. It’s also supremely gracious, as this message seeks to show. God takes Job on a whirlwind tour of the cosmos, which leaves him overwhelmed in more ways than one. The divine strategy is clear: The God of nature reveals the nature of God. This nature is critical for all of us to know and experience when we ourselves are suffering. For example:
God shows himself to be infinitely powerful. When we are suffering, we need to know that God is still in charge of the universe.
God shows himself to be infinitely perceptive. When we are suffering, we need to know that God still has a good purpose for us.
God shows himself to be infinitely playful. When we are suffering, we need to know that God is still delighted with his creation.
God shows himself to be infinitely parental. When we are suffering, we need to know that God still cares about us personally.
What Job wanted all along was a demonstration of God’s goodness, and that’s exactly what he gets. God unveils to Job his divine strength, wisdom, joy, and love. He gives Job a cosmic answer to earthly pain, and he accepts it. As such, God’s response here is not a “grand failure” at all. It’s the “grand finale.” Job learns what all of us can learn in times of pain and suffering: The answer to life’s hardest questions is God himself.
In Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth has despised Mr. Darcy for most of the book. He appears to be distant and aloof. He appears to be cold and unfeeling. He appears to be pompous and proud. But when Mr. Darcy finally reveals himself—in all of his charity, love, and good deeds—Elizabeth is melted by love. When God reveals himself to Job, a similar thing happens. He is melted by love, and he is supremely satisfied by that love. We can be, too.
“If life had a second edition,” wrote John Clair, “I would correct the proofs.” But as Steve Miller used to sing, “Time keeps on slippin’, slippin’, slippin’, into the future.” No part of our lives can be un-lived or re-lived. That’s why guilt can be such debilitating factor in many people’s lives. Past failures can feel like a ball and chain around the soul. Is there a solution for such a spiritual bondage? There is indeed, and we get a glimpse of it in Zechariah 3.
God gave the prophet Zechariah a message for the Jews who had returned from exile, many of whom were trying to get back on track with the Lord. They, too, had a past that was filled with shame. In picture form, God gives them his promised solution for sin and the guilt that usually comes with it. It’s the picture of Joshua, a high priest, who has dirty clothes and therefore is disqualified from ministering in the temple. God’s solution is to rebuke Joshua’s accuser in court and give the priest a new set of garments: “See, I have taken away your sin, and I will put rich garments on you” (Zechariah 3:4). Case dismissed!
But how can God unilaterally dismiss a case without sufficient grounds? Wouldn’t he be violating a sense of due process in his own courtroom? Wouldn’t he be violating the canons of earthly ethics and eternal justice? Wouldn’t he be appealing to a legal fiction to simply declare that Joshua is now both sin-free and guilt-free? No, not in this case, for God speaks of that which is “symbolic of things to come” (Zechariah 3:8)—a “servant,” a “branch,” and a “stone,” all terms that refer to the coming messiah.
God says, “I will remove the sin of this land in a single day” (Zechariah 3:9), and he did—on Good Friday. The case against God’s people is dismissed because God in Christ has paid their debt on the cross. As the Apostle Paul wrote, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). The Apostle John wrote, “My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One” (1 John 2:1). Indeed, when God is your advocate, all charges against you will be dropped.
No part of our lives can be unlived or re-lived, but we can still have a new life in Christ by faith. It’s a life in which not only are the charges against us dropped, but we are also sentenced to eternal life in the unrelenting love of God. That’s why we call it the “gospel,” the good news of Jesus Christ.
There are only two places in the Gospels where we read that Jesus is “amazed” or “astonished” at anything, and they both have to do with faith. The first is in Mark 6, where Jesus comes to his hometown, and he is amazed at the Jewish people’s lack of faith. The second is in Matthew 8, where Jesus is amazed again, this time by the presence of faith—and it’s in a place we might not expect it.
A Roman centurion asks Jesus to heal his servant, acknowledging that he didn’t even need to be present in his home to make it happen. “Just say the word,” he said, “and my servant will be healed” (Matthew 10:8). Jesus “was astonished and said to those following him, ‘I tell you the truth, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith’” (Matthew 8:10).
What made the centurion’s faith “great”? Not the amount of it but the object of it. Indeed, the greatness of your faith depends on the greatness of its object. And Jesus is the greatest of all time. Faith in him is never wasted. How much faith did the centurion need for his servant to be healed? Just enough to call on Jesus. He did call, and he got his miracle. The grace of Jesus extended beyond the borders of his own country all the way to the pagans, which surely must have infuriated many in the religious establishment.
We might wonder why miracles seem to be somewhat rare in our day. Whatever the answer to that question, we do know that the miracles of Jesus were a sign of who he was in the world. They were also a sign of where he was taking the world—to a grand telos or goal of perfect peace and restoration of God’s good creation. It will be a time when all that is wrong in the world will be made right again, and all that is sad will come untrue (Tolkein). As Tim Keller has said, “Miracles are not primarily suspensions of natural laws. They’re the restoration of natural laws. Death and decay and suffering are the suspensions of God’s natural laws, and Jesus—when he was here—started putting them back.”
For now, we walk by faith in Christ, trusting that he will assuredly accomplish his grand telos. To be part of that telos, we must recognize who Jesus is—not just a great moral teacher but the divine Savior. We must also respond to who Jesus is—not just with idle curiosity but with saving faith. They key is to call on him. Regardless of how much faith we may have.
All the characters in this short letter get “squeezed” by the gospel. Onesimus gets squeezed by having to take responsibility for his crimes against Philemon and make an effort to be reconciled to him. Philemon gets squeezed by having to accept Onesimus back into his home after the whole family was offended by his departure. Paul gets squeezed by having to navigate the social customs of his day as well as the relational tension between two people he deeply cares about. It’s a classic case of triangulation, and the path forward for everyone is both challenging and awkward.
In this final message of the series, we look at who is doing the squeezing. If everyone in this situation gets squeezed, we have to ask, who does the squeezing? Who is putting the pressure on all the people involved? A careful reading of the passage shows us it’s the character who never comes on stage. He’s the silent showstopper who never delivers a line. He’s also the script writer and the wise director of the whole production.
Paul knows who he is. He writes to Philemon, “Perhaps the reason Onesimus was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back for good—no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord” (Philemon 1:15-16). Philemon might have thought to himself, “Was separated?” What do you mean, “Was separated (passive voice)? The kid ran away (active voice)!”
Paul is introducing yet another character into the story. Not only does he introduce this additional character, he also introduces a higher purpose. Paul is essentially saying, “Philemon, I want you to consider something in this whole mess that you might not have considered up to this point. Someone came and parted Onesimus from you in order for a greater purpose to be served—namely that you get him back for good as a true believer and a brother in the Lord.” That someone is God himself.
Paul goes beyond all secondary causes of the situation right up to the primary cause of all situations—God himself. Paul understands that God is sovereign; he is above all circumstances, and yet he is in those circumstances at the same time—letting Philemon and Onesimus be parted for a greater ending to the story.
Grammatically, we call it “the divine passive.” That is, God is the agent behind the event, playing 3D chess in the world to bring about his perfect plan. Indeed, all the events of this world have their origin in—and are superintended by—the all-wise, infinitely good God whose name is “Love.” That means life is not a series of blind chances or accidents. God leverages the contingencies of this world, including its resident evil and the free choices of fallen human beings, to bring history to its rightful conclusion.
Peter brings these two paradoxical realities together in his Pentecost sermon: “This man [Jesus] was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him” (Acts 2:23-24). God in his sovereignty used fee human choices to pull the greatest good in history out of the worst crime in history. The result was “God and sinners reconciled.” That’s the motivation for Philemon and Onesimus themselves to be reconciled.
Quite significantly, Paul tells Philemon, “If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me” (Philemon 1:18). That’s a tiny picture of the gospel. Onesimus has a debt toward Philemon he cannot pay, and Paul offers to pay it. Fallen human beings have a debt toward God we cannot pay, so Jesus offered to pay it. He was squeezed when he was on the cross, and what came out was pure love and forgiveness. May the same be true of us when we get squeezed.
It is universally true, thankfully, that decent folks don’t like it when people take advantage of other people. Wherever we go in the world—from the most primitive cultures to the most civilized societies—people do not appreciate the intentional oppression of other people, especially disadvantaged people. More importantly, God doesn’t like it when people take advantage of other people. They are, after all, made in his image.
Unlike other law codes from the ancient Near East, God’s laws show a remarkable concern for widows, orphans, and immigrants. Indeed, the penalty for mistreating such vulnerable people is high. This message looks at various aspects of these laws, all of which tell us something about the nature and ways of the God who gave them. Clearly, God is the champion of the poor, the outsider, the unfortunate, the defenseless, the powerless, and the desperate. As such, he wants his people to protect them, be kind to them, and provide for their needs.
The God who gave these laws has a big heart, and it especially goes out to those whom Jesus called “the least of these.” God is angered by such things as racism, prejudice, bigotry, discrimination, neglect, and harsh or condescending treatment of those of another race. Making life more difficult for those for whom it is already hard is infuriating to him. Therefore, God wants his people to try to put themselves in other people’s shoes, and to treat them as they would want to be treated if they were in a similar situation.
When Jesus was on earth, he embodied these laws perfectly. He cared for the widows, treasured the orphans, and welcomed the immigrants. To be Christlike, then, means to share God’s concern for widows, orphans, and immigrants. For God’s people, this concern must translate into action. The sermon concludes with a word of hope for those who may have broken these laws, and encouragement for how they might go about being better aligned with God’s heart moving forward.
One of the factors that makes the Bible ring true is that it tells the worst about its best people. There’s never any attempt to hide or gloss over the moral failings of its heroes. There’s never any attempt to dress people up with slick packaging. Very often we see the ugly truth about God’s people, and, frankly, it can be upsetting.
Noah, Abraham, Samson, Jonah, and King David are but a few who come under significant censure by the biblical writers. So does Peter—the man to whom Jesus gave the “keys to the kingdom” (Matthew 16:19). That is surprising because Peter blew it so often as a follower of Christ.
Still, we like this rough-around-the-edges fisherman with a big mouth, don’t we? Perhaps we think to ourselves, “If Peter can blow it so badly and so often and still make it into stained-glass windows, then maybe there’s hope for me, too.” But we never take refuge in the fact that Peter stumbled badly on more than one occasion. We take comfort in the fact that Jesus dealt patiently with Peter. He dealt graciously—and at the deepest heart level—with Peter to help him become a useful disciple.
How did Jesus do it? It wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t pretty. It certainly wasn’t overnight, either, but it was real. In fact, the Peter we meet later in the book of Acts, and then also in the epistles, is almost a completely different person from the one we see in the Gospels. What happened? Why the transformation? Jesus labored to show Peter his desperate need for grace. And after Peter saw that need, he was finally ready to lead.
Specifically, after Peter denied three times knowing Jesus, the Lord came into his shattered world and gave him a new beginning, a new hope, and a new opportunity to set the record straight. Three times he asked Peter to re-affirm his love for him—one for each denial. Peter did exactly that, and Jesus gave him his job back right there on the spot. “Feed my lambs,” he said. In other words, “Teach my Word to others.”
Spiritually, it can be devastating to learn we can’t earn God’s favor, that his love is not for sale. It can’t even be purchased with the currency of good behavior. No, divine love is a gift. This “gospel” is good news for the broken, for those who think they’ve completely ruined their lives. Indeed, the restoration of Peter shows us that Jesus restores his people by re-storying them in grace. He takes back the pen we stole and writes a better ending than we ever could have imagined.
We cannot go back and change our past, but by the grace of God, we can start right where we are and make sure there’s a different tomorrow. “A bruised reed he will not break,” said Isaiah. “A burning wick he will not snuff out” (Isaiah 42:3). That’s the Jesus Peter knew. Harsh and condemnatory religionists would have taken back his keys. Jesus never did.
[ Please note that there is no sermon outline or PowerPoint file available for this message. ]
There are many paradoxes in the Christian life—truths that seem to oppose one another, and yet they somehow work together. We might call such realities “truth in stereo.” For example, God is sovereign over history, yet human beings can make real and meaningful choices. The Scriptures are authored by God, and yet they come to us through hands of human beings. Jesus Christ is fully human, and yet he is also fully divine. The first shall be last, and the last shall be first. The list of examples is long.
The paradox in Paul’s famous “thorn in the flesh” testimony in 2 Corinthians 12 is likewise stark: “When I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:10b). But how could he say such a thing? Is he making a self-contradictory, self-refuting statement? No, Paul learned firsthand that the thing he most wanted removed from his life was the very thing God was using for the apostle’s good and heaven’s glory. That is why, paradoxical though it may seem, believers can learn to glory in their weaknesses. As Hershael York has said, “It is in our weaknesses—more so than in our strengths—that Christ is most clearly revealed.”
In sharing his testimony, Paul gives us three good reasons to glory in our weaknesses: First, glory in your weakness to direct people’s focus away from yourself. Paul’s goal in life was not to get people to think that he was wonderful. His goal in life was to get people to think that Christ is wonderful. As John the baptist said of Jesus, “He must increase; I must decrease” (John 3:30).
Second, glory in your weakness to distance yourself from your own strengths. Jesus said, “Apart from me, you can do nothing” (John 15:5a). Believers should take him seriously on that reminder! Besides, we tend to learn a lot more about God in the thorns of life than we do in our “third heaven” experiences, which Paul also describes in this passage.
Third, glory in your weakness to display the greatness of Jesus Christ. Somewhere in his agonizing “wrestling match” with God, Paul’s attitude toward his thorn changed. The very thing that troubled him the most was the thing that moved him into deeper intimacy with the Lord. It’s a good reminder that if we have a thorn in our life (and who doesn’t?), we can face it, and let God grace it. Just like Paul did.
Charles Spurgeon has said, “A primary qualification for serving God with any amount of success…is a sense of our own weakness…. Dear reader, are you mourning over your own weakness? Take courage, for there must be a consciousness of weakness before the Lord will give you victory. Your emptiness is but the preparation for your being filled.” Spurgeon was right. Our weakness is the vessel of God’s strength. If such a paradox is truth is stereo, then let the weak turn up the volume on this one and dance.
Below for your encouragement is a slide presentation called, “Disability, Dying, and Death: Relational Theology and the Gift of Hope for Life’s Descending Triad.” It comes from a seminar I did a while back with two other colleagues and may be turned into a small book someday. Even without the presentation script—which awaits another round of editing—you might be able to find some encouragement here for whatever challenges you may be facing these days.
What is relational theology? The God of Scripture (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) is thoroughly relational; hence the field of relational theology, as distinct from systematic theology, contextual theology, etc. As I’ve written before, the Holy Trinity is not a math puzzle (1 + 1 + 1 = 1), it’s a clue to the relational heart of the universe. That clue is precious to believers because the prime reality of existence is not matter. It’s not energy. It’s not quarks. It’s a divine relationship. Specifically, it’s an eternal reciprocating relationship of personal diversity and unbreakable unity. As the well-known hymn puts it, “God in three Persons, blessed Trinity.”
Human persons made imago Dei—in the image of God—are therefore relational beings, much like their Creator. Even introverts are aware of their interrelatedness with others! This connectional dynamic has much to say to us in a broken world marked by disability, dying, and death. It also has much to say to us in a world marked by the risen Christ, who knows firsthand what it’s like to feel disabled, go through the dying process, and then eventually taste death itself.
May the Lord enable you to revel in the gift of hope, even if through tears.