Daily Light – Nov 26, 2020

God Is More Than ‘God’ 

Why He Loves to Be Called Father 

Article by Scott Hubbard, Editor, desiringGod.org 

Because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” (Galatians 4:6

In conversation, prayer, and even evangelism, many of us default to using two titles to refer to our Creator and Redeemer: God and Lord. We are not wrong to use these titles, of course — Scripture does so over and over again. But we might go astray if we slowly allow them to eclipse the names that God has so graciously revealed to us. 

We may even go so far as to say that a vocabulary where God and Lord predominate is slightly sub-Christian. For, as Paul reminds us, among pagans “there are many ‘gods’ and many ‘lords’” (1 Corinthians 8:5). But Christians are not interested in adding simply one more God and Lord to the world’s pantheon. Rather, 

For us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist. (1 Corinthians 8:6

When we say God, we mean Father; when we say Lord, we mean Jesus. The wonders of our salvation and glory are hidden in these two names. But to feel the weight of them, we first need to recall the name that came before either of them: Yahweh. 

The God Who Is 

There at the burning bush, as Moses trembled with bare feet on holy ground, God spoke: “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’” (Exodus 3:15). Hidden beneath the word Lord (rendered in small capital letters in most English translations) is the name we know as Yahweh, which is related to the verb mentioned in the previous verse: “I am” (Exodus 3:14). The God of Israel is the God who is. 

The claim contained in this name could not be more sweeping. He is Yahweh, the one who always and forever was, and who always and forever will be. He is Yahweh, Maker of all matter, Sustainer of every cell. He is Yahweh, the Lord whom no one can manipulate or control. He is Yahweh, God over the so-called “gods” of Egypt and the idols of every other nation. 

Most wonderful of all, he is Yahweh “your God” (Exodus 6:7). In revealing himself to Israel as the great “I am,” Yahweh wanted his people to know that they rested in his everlasting arms (Deuteronomy 33:27). And for more than a millennium afterward, this was the name by which Israel knew their God. Until Yahweh took on flesh. 

The God Who Saves 

When an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph, he told him what the Messiah’s name would be: “You shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). Jesus, built from the Hebrew name Joshua, means, “Yahweh saves.” When the “I am” became man, it was to save his people from their sins. “Therefore,” the angel said, “call him Jesus.” 

God cares so deeply about our rescue from sin, and he wants us to remember it so regularly, that he wrapped salvation into our Savior’s very name. When we say Jesus, we proclaim him who fulfilled Sinai’s holy law, who healed the sick and raised the dead, and who set his face toward the cross, refusing to save himself. The name Jesus bids us to recall the whip that lashed his back, the nails that scarred his hands and feet, the spear that pierced his side, the tomb that held his body, and the stone that could not stand before his resurrection. 

Our God is not only Yahweh, but Jesus: not only the God who is, but the God who saves. And because he saves, we get to know him by another name, one that may be the sweetest of all. 

The Christian Name for God 

“When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son,” the apostle Paul writes. Yahweh put on flesh; Jesus our Savior was born. And why? “So that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’” (Galatians 4:4–6). When the Lord Jesus saves us from the far country of our sin, he brings us home to a Father. 

The significance of the name Father is perhaps best described by J.I. Packer: 

You sum up the whole of New Testament religion if you describe it as the knowledge of God as one’s holy Father. If you want to judge how well a person understands Christianity, find out how much he makes of the thought of being God’s child, and having God as his Father. If this is not the thought that prompts and controls his worship and prayers and his whole outlook on life, it means that he does not understand Christianity very well at all. . . . “Father” is the Christian name for God. (Knowing God, 201) 

Therefore, when the Spirit rises within us, we find ourselves crying more than, “God!” or “Lord!” He compels us, by virtue of his unsearchable love, to talk as children would: “Abba! Father!” For the God whom we worship is no vague deity, but the one who once revealed himself as Yahweh, and now as the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. And we love to say his name. 

Scott Hubbard is a graduate of Bethlehem College & Seminary and an editor for desiringGod.org. He and his wife, Bethany, live with their son in Minneapolis. 

Daily Light – Nov 25, 2020

From his morning devotional study:  David Niednagel, Pastor and Teacher, Evansville, IN.  David uses the S.O.A.P. method for his morning study time: study, observe, apply, pray.  

What will you remember? 

2 Peter 1:12-15

1:12   Therefore I intend always to remind you of these qualities, though you know them and are established in the truth that you have. 13 I think it right, as long as I am in this body, to stir you up by way of reminder, 14 since I know that the putting off of my body will be soon, as our Lord Jesus Christ made clear to me. 15 And I will make every effort so that after my departure you may be able at any time to recall these things.   ESV 

Peter acknowledges his readers already know what he is teaching – but he also remembers that Jesus said the main reason some “believers/followers” don’t bear fruit, is “the cares of this world and the deceitfulness of riches” choke out the wonderful promises of God. (Matt 13:22) Everyone is busy. We have hundreds of thoughts that come through our minds every day that pull our attention away from the eternal to the here and now. Peter himself vowed he would never disown or betray Jesus, even if everyone else did, but within a few hours he did. How is that possible? Fear, stress, pressure right now cause us to seek relief right now and to not think about the future, especially about after we die. 

So Peter continues the theme of 1Peter that just as Jesus suffered before He experienced glory, so must we. Don’t be surprised when suffering comes. Expect it! Daily! If there are days we don’t suffer, wonderful! But don’t take that as the norm or expect it to continue. In our day, we expect each day to be pleasant and full of “blessing”, and forget that suffering for Christ IS a blessing, and a love –gift we can give to Him. Peter knows we need continual reminders, or we will get soft and focus more on escaping hardship than on taking up a cross daily and following Jesus. 

In :14 Peter said, “I know that the putting off of my body will be soon, as our Lord Jesus Christ made clear to me.”  Just like most of us remember some sayings our parents repeated many times as we grew up, Peter wanted his readers to be crystal clear long after he was gone, that faith in Christ will result in a changed life. We will want to meditate on His Words and “obey all He has commanded us”. If we don’t have those desires, it is doubtful that we have understood the gospel of grace. 

Lord, thank You that we have Your Word in our language and can go back to it every day, and I thank You for the desire You have given me to do that, and the habits I have been able to establish. Lord, may my heart genuinely seek You all my life, and use me to help others establish the same desires and habits. I pray that for my family, but also for many others I have discipled over the years. Help me/us “make every effort” to add these qualities to the truths we believe. May we never be hypocritical and unfruitful, but zealous to show Your life in us. Amen 

Daily Light – Nov 24, 2020

Why so much effort? 

From his morning devotional study:  David Niednagel, Pastor and Teacher, Evansville, IN.  David uses the S.O.A.P. method for his morning study time: study, observe, apply, pray.  

2 Peter  1:5-11   

5 For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, 6 and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, 7 and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. 8 For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 For whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins. 10 Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall. 11 For in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.   ESV 

At some point we all get tired and want to rest. Sometimes that is ok, and other times it is not. In America we are so used to labor savings devices that as a nation, we are very weak in the area of perseverance. Peter is aware that it is most difficult to keep going after any goal that is farther away. We can’t see it clearly, and whatever reward is so far out that we naturally spend more effort on issues that give immediate reward. 

In the previous verses Peter spoke of our valuable faith, and the great and precious promises that say we inherit the divine nature even now. That does not mean that we become God, but it does mean that the presence of God is within us, and that is more valuable than the best stocks on the market. 

Instead of saying we should just be thankful for the promises, Peter exhorts that we make every effort to add character qualities that display that divine nature. If God lives in us, then the benefits begin now, and not just in heaven sometime in the future. The Holy Spirit will help us manifest “virtue, knowledge, self-control, steadfastness, godliness, brotherly affection, and love – but not automatically. Spiritual growth takes our participation, and effort! We have to read slowly and carefully, think deeply about how our lives measure up to what God can do, and cooperate with Him. We can’t make excuses that everybody else struggles with the same things, so it is ok if we aren’t “perfect”. We must confess our sins to one another, pray for one another, help one another repent, change and grow in very specific areas. We must not allow ourselves, or other Christians be “ineffective, unfruitful or blind” to our present lives and our eternal situation. But even though we should not avoid those tough talks, we do. Change/growth is not easy, and we don’t like anyone pushing us, so we all avoid unpleasant evaluation and honesty. So, what is the answer? Instead of hiding and avoiding, if we focus on the blessings of God’s favor, now and forever, we will want it, and can ask one another to help us, instead of avoiding facing our weakness and failure. 

Without those Christ-like qualities, Peter says we cannot have assurance of our salvation. He certainly is not saying we earn our salvation by good works, but he does clearly say that if Christ is in us there will be manifestation of His presence. 

Lord, thank You for Your promises, and Your presence. Help me claim those promises and put myself in places where my own resources are not enough and where Your presence will be clearly manifest. I don’t like to be that desperate, but I sure like it when I experience Your love, grace, courage, endurance, etc. I sure don’t want to be ineffective or unfruitful when I could experience Your life and power through me. Help me be fully available and committed to You every day. Amen 

Daily Light – Nov 23, 2020

The Doctrines of Race 

A Call to Make Christ Central 

Article by David Mathis, Executive Editor, desiringGod.org 

God does not talk about race like we do. Not that he ignores the subject. Far from it. 

The Christian Scriptures, from beginning to end, have a great deal to say about the matter — and much to say into our present context. In fact, I suspect many today would be quite surprised to discover how conscious and aware the Bible is to ethnicity, and how germane it is to our ongoing tensions and discussions related to race. 

God’s readiness to speak into our moment, however, does not mean that he sounds like we do, or that he blesses or adopts the very modern, secular, godless foundations of our dialogues and diatribes. He does meet us here, and he stands ready to change us — not just how we live, but how we talk. He wants his people to “not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Romans 12:2). And yet many of us resist his way of talking about race (or ignore him altogether on this issue), and instead adopt the approach and vocabulary of the unbelieving right or the unbelieving left. 

If God’s way of talking about the subject has grown vanilla or seems irrelevant to you in our current context, I want to encourage you, in Christ, to reconsider. As you do, know that seeking to embrace God’s approach and his categories is not to favor “the right” or “the left” in American politics. Rather, approaching the subject on God’s terms will unsettle and unmask both the secular liberal and secular conservative influences that are shaping so much of our thinking, talking, and tweeting. 

God Gives Us Categories 

From beginning to end, the Scriptures show how our diversity of ethnicity proclaims the excellencies of our God. And perhaps no single chapter in the Scriptures speaks as directly into our moment as Ephesians 2. Here Paul not only rehearses the key categories from God’s own telling of his story, but also then makes explicit and immediate connections to ethnicity and reconciliation and peace. Ephesians 2 is an extraordinarily powerful word for the tensions and unrest of our day. 

The plain categories of Ephesians 2:1–10 — sin, Christ, grace, faith, doing good for others — are vital to Paul’s treatment of ethnic division and unity in Christ in Ephesians 2:11–22

ALL SPIRITUALLY DEAD 

Apart from Christ, “you were dead” (Ephesians 2:1). All of us, Jews and Gentiles, black and white — “we all once lived in the passions of our flesh . . . and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind” (Ephesians 2:3). All of us, every person, every ethnicity, were “following the course of this world” — and to do so, mark this, is also “following the prince of the power of the air” (Ephesians 2:2), that is, the devil. Don’t think that Satan is uninvolved in the obstacles we face. We will do well to keep his schemes in mind, and humanity’s sin nature, as we consider whether we might have common ground with unbelievers in various causes (on the left and on the right). 

AWAKENED IN CHRIST 

In Christ, everything has changed for us. Do you feel the force of this? Does being “in Christ” affect how you view the unrest of these days? The most fundamental divide in the world is not black and white, or Jew and Gentile, or male and female, or any other created difference Satan and our sin turn into division. Most basic is this: “in Christ” or “apart from Christ.” 

We who have come to know Jesus were “made alive together with Christ” (Ephesians 2:5). The one true God has “raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 2:6) — how then can we not see the world, and these tensions, and all things, differently than spiritually dead, unawakened liberals and conservatives? We have been made alive. We are truly awake. We have been raised up with Christ. Or have we? 

If we are alive in Christ, and awake in him, we might ask ourselves in days like ours, Do I see this conflict any different than a spiritually dead person does? Am I different than a spiritually dead liberal? In my gravitating toward a “side,” am I becoming “unequally yoked with unbelievers” (2 Corinthians 6:14)? 

GRACE REIGNS AND WORKS 

Paul’s great interjection in Ephesians 2:5 — “by grace you have been saved!” — brings a distinctively Christian element to what unfolds in Ephesians 2:11–22. As Christians, how can grace not characterize our response to racial tensions and to all things? Do the “warriors” on the right or the left operate from grace? How different might these days be, at least in our churches, if Christians spoke and acted as Christians — as if grace reigned? 

To be clear, the reign of grace leads not to passivity or apathy but to energy — to “good works” (Ephesians 2:10). These good works are not for show, but meet real human needs. God calls for works done, deeds performed, energy expended, muscles engaged, words spoken, personal comforts denied, discomforts embraced, to bring some good in someone else’s life that might not otherwise happen. Such good works do not broadcast self but give glory to our Father in heaven (Matthew 5:16). Such good works typically go uncaptured and unposted. And such good works arise from our own gospel-shaped, Spirit-led hearts, not the dictates of others. 

If we know what’s coming to us — “the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:7) — how can we not seek to reflect that in our world? 

So Prone to Forget 

Now, in light of God’s story, God’s work, God’s Son, God’s grace, what might we say about the most acute of ethnic tensions — Jew and Gentile — and then all others besides? Paul first says, Remember (Ephesians 2:11–12). It may seem so easy, and yet is so profound. Remember who you were apart from Jesus: spiritually dead. And remember who you are now, in him: spiritually alive, awake. 

We are so prone to forget. Some new dialogue comes along, or new concern feels pressing. The world has its terms, its tone, its sides, and how soon we forget. How soon we need to hear Paul say, “Remember.” It is one of our greatest needs as Christians in such times: to remember what we already know. 

Remember we are first and foremost Christian, not first and foremost Jew or Gentile, white or black, Asian or Hispanic. Remember, in Christ, we see the world not primarily through the lens of race but through the lens of his person and work. “In Christ” or “apart from Christ” are the biggest and most significant categories, not our race or other distinctives. Remember that deeper than skin color is the blood of our common humanity, and deeper still is the blood of Christ. 

Peace Is a Person 

“Now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Ephesians 2:13). Here, and here alone, do humans find true and lasting peace — “for he himself is our peace” (Ephesians 2:14). This is what Christians believe, what we say, and how we live: Christ is our peace. The world, apart from Christ, doesn’t know this peace, the true and lasting peace. Just as the world flounders to define justice and racism (a species of biblical partiality) apart from Christ. 

The next verse tells us how Christ makes peace between ethnicities: he creates in himself “one new man in place of the two, so making peace” (Ephesians 2:15). It is striking how directly the risen Christ speaks, through his apostle, into our day, if we have ears to hear. If Christ is peace for Jew and Gentile, how much more between fellow Gentiles? Which means, as Christians, we don’t ask blacks to be white, or whites to be black. Rather, the common ground, the place we come together, the point of peace is Jesus himself — his blood, his cross, his flesh, our being one new man in him — and in that way making peace. 

Christ “reconcile[s] us both to God in one body through the cross” (Ephesians 2:16) — and only here, as we first are reconciled to God, are we then truly and enduringly reconciled to each other. In Christ is real and true reconciliation, already achieved, ready to be applied. Apart from him, reconciliation will be thin, partial, and short-lived. Christ’s faithful church offers a true and lasting peace that the world and its polarized unbeliefs do not know. 

In Christ, we know in the end there is only one way to real and lasting oneness among sinful humans. “There is one God,” 1 Timothy 2:5 says, “and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.” Other ways, other attempts, other names may produce oneness for a time, but that oneness will not endure. But when the fundamental issue is addressed — our rebellion against God — then the oneness we find in him, and in his solution in Christ, is true and lasting unity that will grow thicker, not thinner, over time. 

Our Common Ground 

In our increasingly secular times, we are facing new and deeper political-cultural pressures toward identities other than Christian. Yet, in Christ, if we are truly in him, we are ten-thousand times a Christian before we are anything else. We are earthly citizens, indeed. Make no mistake about it. This world matters. Our cities matter. Justice matters. Peace matters. But the chorus of voices and influences today are conspiring to make us think that this world is all that matters. 

No doubt, the basic Christian truths alone will not answer all our complex questions and various applications in varying contexts. But in such days, if we are not diligent and intentional as Christians, we will quickly forget or diminish the unrivaled primacy of the identity we have in Christ. 

In this “pick-your-side” moment, our answer as Christians is not for blacks to kneel before whites, or whites to kneel before blacks, but for Christians to kneel together before a Jew named Jesus, and to see that the common ground on which we come together is not mine or yours but his. In his flesh, by his blood, in one body he has established one new man into which every man and woman and child on the planet is invited through faith in him. As Christians, we cannot lose that all-important starting point, compass, and final answer. 

David Mathis (@davidcmathis) is executive editor for desiringGod.org and pastor at Cities Church in Minneapolis/St. Paul. He is a husband, father of four, and author of The Christmas We Didn’t Expect: Daily Devotions for Advent

Daily Light – Nov 20, 2020

Our Welcome to Heaven 

MEETING THE GREAT HIGH PRIEST IN HEBREWS 

Article by Bobby Jamieson, PhD, Pastor, Author, Washington, DC 

ABSTRACT: The book of Hebrews presents Christ’s offering and intercession as two central features of his priestly work. Although some interpreters locate the offering of Christ solely at the cross, Hebrews suggests that Christ, like the high priest on the Day of Atonement, presents his offering after entering the Holy of Holies — in this case, the true Holy of Holies in heaven. After offering his finished work, once for all, in the presence of God, Christ sat down at the right hand of the Father, where he now intercedes on the basis of his offering. Together, Christ’s offering and intercession assure God’s people of welcome in heaven, both now and forever. 

So much of life is lived in tense times in between. You have applied and interviewed for the job, and now you await their decision. You signed a contract on the house, but you have not yet moved in. The Lego set you purchased for your son is due to arrive today, and he will not peel his eyes from the front window. 

The whole Christian life is lived between times. Christ has come, died, risen, ascended, and poured out his Spirit. He hasn’t returned yet, but he has promised to, and he will. As individual Christians, we have been born again, justified, forgiven, and filled with the Spirit, but we have not yet been perfected, resurrected, and glorified. 

What is already yours in Christ? What promises of God remain outstanding? And what help do you need to persevere in the tense time in between? 

What We Need, What We Have 

The epistle to the Hebrews was written to Christians living in a tense time. They had already suffered for their faith (10:32–34), and more suffering seemed likely. The recipients of this letter were likely wondering, “Is it worth it to be a Christian?”1 They needed reminding of what was already theirs in Christ, what God promises to those who persevere, and how Christ helps us persevere to the end. 

Hebrews’ answer to the questions of what we need and what we have is a single word: Christ. Over and over again, Hebrews emphatically announces that we have Christ, and in him we have all we need (4:14–16; 6:19–20; 8:1–2; 10:19, 22; 13:10). More specifically, as we will see, Hebrews underscores the sufficiency of Christ’s high-priestly service. He is the only mediator we need in order to gain unhindered access to God. 

Two central features of Christ’s priestly work are his offering and his intercession (e.g., 7:25; 9:11–10:18). Christ’s offering is finished, complete, once-for-all (7:27; 9:12, 26; 10:10); his intercession, by contrast, is ongoing (7:25). Christ’s offering and intercession are complementary aspects of his saving ministry as our High Priest. But how do they relate to each other? And how do they together guarantee our free acceptance with God? 

This essay will explore these questions in three steps. First, I will argue for an often-overlooked feature of Christ’s self-offering in Hebrews — namely, that Jesus offered himself to God the Father, in person, in heaven, after his resurrection and ascension. Second, I will examine Hebrews’ presentation of Christ’s ongoing intercession and ask how this relates to his singular, completed offering. Third, I will show how Jesus’s offering and intercession should embolden every believer to draw near to God with a true heart and full assurance of faith (10:22). 

Where and When Did Jesus Offer Himself? 

Many evangelical interpreters of Hebrews, whether scholars, pastors, or laypeople, understand Hebrews to teach that Jesus’s offering of himself began and ended with his death on the cross.2 In contrast, I will argue, in four brief steps, that Jesus offered himself to God upon his bodily, post-resurrection entrance to God’s dwelling in heaven.3 

1. Resurrected High Priest 

First, Hebrews asserts that Jesus was appointed High Priest after his resurrection.4 The most crucial verse here is 7:16: “. . . who has become a priest, not on the basis of a legal requirement concerning bodily descent, but by the power of an indestructible life.”5 Throughout Hebrews 7, the author contrasts the mortality of the Levitical priests with Jesus’s immortality. The Levitical priests were many, since the death of each required continual succession in office (7:23). But Christ “holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever” (7:24). This continuing forever is not a feature of Jesus’s divine nature, but of the glorified human existence he obtained at his resurrection. In other words, the key difference between Jesus and the Levitical priests, the difference that enables his perpetual priesthood, is his resurrection life. Which means, as 7:16 says, that Jesus’s resurrection is what enabled him to be appointed High Priest in the order of Melchizedek. 

In addition, Hebrews describes Jesus’s qualification for and appointment to high priesthood in terms of his perfection, which took place after his entire earthly life of weakness and suffering: 

Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, being designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek. (5:8–10) 

For the law appoints men in their weakness as high priests, but the word of the oath, which came later than the law, appoints a Son who has been made perfect forever. (7:28; cf. 2:10) 

Jesus’s perfection is the outcome of his suffering and coincides with his resurrection. And this perfection is prerequisite to his being appointed High Priest. When Hebrews says that Jesus was “perfected,” it does not mean that he was previously morally flawed and only later attained to sinlessness (see 4:15). Instead, Hebrews uses the language of perfecting to say that Jesus completed the course of prerequisites for appointment to priesthood. He became completely qualified to be our all-sufficient Savior. 

Further, Hebrews twice asserts that every high priest is appointed in order to offer sacrifice (5:1; 8:3). Appointment is prerequisite to, and therefore logically prior to, offering sacrifice. Since offering sacrifice is a central purpose for which priests are appointed to office, the author of Hebrews clearly presupposes that priests, including Jesus, are appointed to office before they offer sacrifice. 

2. Final Day of Atonement 

Second, Hebrews plots the Day of Atonement sin offering in the sequence “enter in order to offer.” The Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:1–34) is the old covenant rite that Hebrews draws on most extensively as a model for the saving work of Christ. And the most distinctive act of the Day of Atonement was the high priest’s entry with blood into the Holy of Holies in order to sprinkle blood in that innermost sanctum (Leviticus 16:14–16). In casting Christ’s saving work as an eschatological fulfillment of the Day of Atonement, the author zeroes in on the high priest’s entry into the Holy of Holies, and Christ’s corresponding act of entering the inner sanctum of God’s dwelling in heaven (Hebrews 6:19–209:11–1224). 

Specifically, in 9:7, the author goes out of his way to narrate the high priest’s inner-sanctum sin offering in the sequence “enter in order to offer.” Consider: “These preparations having thus been made, the priests go regularly into the first section, performing their ritual duties, but into the second only the high priest goes, and he but once a year, and not without taking blood, which he offers for himself and for the unintentional sins of the people” (9:6–7). Note the sequence, both implied and explicit. The Levitical high priest first slaughters the animal and gathers its blood. Then he enters with that blood into the Holy of Holies. Then, inside the Holy of Holies, he “offers” the blood. Apart from Hebrews, no ancient Jewish or early Christian source labels the high priest’s inner-sanctum blood manipulation an “offering.” Hebrews’ description of this act as an offering is both unusual and deliberate. 

3. First Enter, Then Offer 

Third, Hebrews’ portrayal of Jesus’s self-offering presupposes this “enter in order to offer” sequence. Here 9:24–25 is decisive: “Christ has entered, not into a Holy of Holies made with hands, which is a copy of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. Nor did he enter in order to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the Holy of Holies every year with blood not his own.”6 

Where did Christ enter? The Holy of Holies of the tabernacle in heaven. What did he do when he got there? Offered himself. 

What this passage denies is that Christ offered himself repeatedly. That is a key difference between Christ’s self-offering and the Levitical high priests’ sin offering. But both sacrifices share a single sequential script: first enter, then offer. 

4. Minister in the Holy Places 

Fourth, in Hebrews 8:1–5, the author locates Jesus’s entire high-priestly ministry, including his self-offering, in the heavenly tabernacle, in contrast to the earthly tabernacle in which the Levitical priests ministered. 

Now the point in what we are saying is this: we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, a minister in the holy places, in the true tent that the Lord set up, not man. For every high priest is appointed to offer gifts and sacrifices; thus it is necessary for this priest also to have something to offer. Now if he were on earth, he would not be a priest at all, since there are priests who offer gifts according to the law. They serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly things. For when Moses was about to erect the tent, he was instructed by God, saying, “See that you make everything according to the pattern that was shown you on the mountain.” 

Where did, and does, Jesus serve as high priest? In the true tent that the Lord set up, not man — that is, the one in heaven, not the one on earth (8:2). If Jesus were on earth, he would not be a priest at all, since he is not qualified to be a priest according to the law that governs the earthly tabernacle (8:4). And this service as high priest includes his offering (8:3). 

Putting this all together, we can conclude that Jesus offered himself to God, in person, in the inner sanctum of God’s dwelling in heaven, after he died, rose from the dead, and ascended to heaven.7 

What About the Cross? 

This immediately raises two questions. First, what about Jesus’s death? Hebrews repeatedly ascribes decisive soteriological efficacy to Jesus’s death. By his death he tasted death for all (2:9). By his death he destroyed the devil’s power and delivered us from lifelong bondage through fear of death (2:14–15). By his death he obtained redemption for transgressions against the old covenant and inaugurated the new (9:15–17). By his death he bore the sins of many (9:28). So, Jesus’s death is not merely preparation for his heavenly offering; it is a decisive atoning event in its own right. 

But we can go further. Jesus’s death is also the substance of what he offers to God in heaven. Jesus’s death is not when and where he offers himself, but it is what he offers. This is evident in Hebrews’ references to blood. Consider Hebrews 9:22: “Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” In this paraphrase of Leviticus 17:11, Hebrews asserts the need of a life-for-life exchange in order for forgiveness to obtain. This life-for-life exchange is precisely what Christ’s death accomplished. As such, when Hebrews implies that Jesus’s blood is, in some sense, that which he offers to God in heaven (9:12, 14, 25; 12:24), we should take this to mean that what Christ’s death achieved is what he subsequently presented to God. In his death, Christ suffered as the sacrificial victim (9:28); upon his ascension, he offered himself as both priest and sacrifice. 

Second, does this interpretation undermine the finality of the cross? That is, does it stand in tension with Jesus’s triumphant cry, “It is finished” (John 19:30)? In brief, I would suggest that this reading of Hebrews does not threaten the finality of the cross any more than Paul’s assertion in Romans 4:25 that Jesus was raised for our justification, or his claim in 1 Corinthians 15:17 that if Christ has not been raised, our faith is futile and we are still in our sins. In other words, all that Christ did in his incarnate mission, he did to save us. Each stage of Christ’s saving mission has saving significance. Christ’s work from incarnation to ascension and session is an unbroken chain; Hebrews simply zooms in on later links in that chain. 

What Is Christ’s Intercession, and How Does It Relate to His Offering? 

One passage in Hebrews explicitly asserts that Christ intercedes for his people, and two more prepare a thematic context for it. 

He had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted. (2:17–18) 

Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (4:14–16) 

He holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them. (7:24–25) 

We can identify two aspects to Christ’s intercession: pleading for our help, and pleading for our forgiveness.8 

First, Christ intercedes for our help. Hebrews 2:18 asserts that Christ is able to help those who are being tempted, since he himself has faithfully endured temptation. Hebrews 4:16 exhorts us to ask God for that help when we need it, confident that we will receive it because Christ is our sympathetic High Priest. Hebrews 7:25, then, answers a how question implied in both these verses. How does Christ provide the help we need in trials and temptations? By interceding for us.9 As he prayed for Peter before his trial, Jesus intercedes before the Father for all believers now, that our faith may not fail (Luke 22:32). 

Second, Christ intercedes for our forgiveness. The assertion that Christ intercedes for us in 7:25 grounds the exultant claim that “he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him.” In other words, Christ’s intercession is a key ingredient in his mediation of salvation. His intercession is an element in what enables us to draw near to God through him; it is part of how he applies to us the fullness of salvation that he has achieved for us (cf. Romans 8:341 John 2:1). 

Hence, though Hebrews does not say so explicitly, it seems warranted to infer that Christ’s intercession is an application of his once-for-all offering.10 Once he finished his atoning work by presenting himself before the Father in the heavenly throne room, Christ sat down (Hebrews 1:38:110:12–1312:2). He no longer stands, as priests do when they perform their sacrificial service (10:11). Instead, he sits. That seated posture proclaims both his royal repose as the enthroned Messiah, heir of all things (cf. 1:2), and his continuing appeals for our help and forgiveness.11 

What Does This Mean for Us? 

How do Christ’s completed offering and ongoing intercession encourage us to draw near to God? How do they together provide the help we need in our tense time in between? Consider four practical encouragements. 

First, Christ’s offering and intercession assure us of welcome in heaven, now and forever. That is the conclusion the author of Hebrews himself draws: 

Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. (10:19–22) 

And consider Calvin’s beautiful meditation on the assurance Christ’s intercession offers us: 

As faith recognizes, it is to our great benefit that Christ resides with the Father. For, having entered a sanctuary not made with hands, he appears before the Father’s face as our constant advocate and intercessor. Thus he turns the Father’s eyes to his own righteousness to avert his gaze from our sins. He so reconciles the Father’s heart to us that by his intercession he prepares a way and access for us to the Father’s throne. He fills with grace and kindness the throne that for miserable sinners would otherwise have been filled with dread.12 

If you are in Christ, then Christ has offered himself for you and continually intercedes for you. And that means you are always welcome in God’s presence. God will never turn you away with a frown or a curt “not now.” No failure you bring with you into God’s presence can bar the doors against you. God’s arms will always be open to you. However great a sinner you are, Christ is a greater savior. 

Second, Christ’s offering and intercession show us that his saving work addresses every dimension of our need before God. Christ’s self-offering has obtained for us purification (1:3), redemption (9:12), a purified conscience (9:14), forgiveness (9:22; 10:18), sanctification (10:10), and perfection (10:14) — that is, unhindered access to God. And Christ’s intercession applies those benefits to us and obtains for us the timely help we need in order to persevere. We live between times, between receiving salvation’s spiritual benefits and having our entire existence — body, soul, and created environment — transformed. Christ is sufficient for every time. He has provided an atonement sufficient for all our past, present, and future sins. And his intercession can sustain us through every trial that stands between us and glory. 

Third, Christ’s intercession is based on this: he has been where you are. Hebrews 2:18 and 4:15 ground Christ’s present ability to help in his past endurance of the whole miserable human condition. Christ has faithfully persevered through the severest temptation and most intense suffering (cf. 12:1–2). No matter how sorely you are tempted or how severely you are tried, Christ has been there. He knows by experience what you are enduring. Which means he knows just how to help. 

Fourth, Christ’s heavenly offering and ongoing intercession make this promise: where he is, you will be. It might seem strange to conceive of Christ’s offering as his bodily self-presentation to God in heaven. One reason for that strangeness might be that your doctrine of the incarnation unwittingly stops with Christ’s death. But of course, Scripture’s does not. Christ’s resurrection demonstrates that he remains, and always will remain, human — but a new kind of human, fit for the endless glory of the age to come. 

And that same Christ has gone to heaven as your pioneer and forerunner (2:10; 6:19). His present is your future. That Christ is immersed in God the Father’s radiant presence now guarantees that one day, you too will be. As Michael Horton has said, “With the ascension, Immanuel is not only God With Us, and God For Us, but Us With God.”13 

Bobby Jamieson (PhD, University of Cambridge) is an associate pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC, where he lives with his wife and four children. He is the author of several books, including Jesus’ Death and Heavenly Offering in Hebrews, and previously served as an editor for 9Marks. 


So Adolf Schlatter, Die Briefe des Petrus, Judas, Jakobus, der Brief an die Hebräer (Stuttgart: Calwer, 1950), 221.  

For two particularly influential examples, see F.F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews, rev. ed., NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 31–33, 213–14; William L. Lane, Hebrews, WBC 47A–B (Dallas: Word, 1991), 2:223, 2:234, 2:247, 2:249. For a taxonomy of recent scholarship on the question, see R.B. Jamieson, “When and Where Did Jesus Offer Himself? A Taxonomy of Recent Scholarship on Hebrews,” CBR 15 (2017): 338–68, as well as chapter 1 of R.B. Jamieson, Jesus’ Death and Heavenly Offering in Hebrews, SNTSMS 172 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019).  

This section very briefly summarizes the main arguments of chapters 2 and 3 of Jamieson, Jesus’ Death and Heavenly Offering. Occasionally, the wording of individual sentences and phrases closely echoes portions of that work.  

See also David M. Moffitt, Atonement and the Logic of Resurrection in the Epistle to the Hebrews, NovTSup 141 (Leiden: Brill, 2011), 194–208.  

See also David M. Moffitt, Atonement and the Logic of Resurrection in the Epistle to the Hebrews, NovTSup 141 (Leiden: Brill, 2011), 194–208.  

Translation mine, lightly adapted from the ESV. The most important change from the ESV is representing in English that the subordinate clause “in order to offer himself” (Gk. ἵνα . . . προσφέρῃ ἑαυτόν, v. 25) depends on the finite verb “enter” in verse 24, which I have resupplied in my translation of verse 25. The NIV, for instance, repeats the verb, offering a much clearer rendition of the grammar and logic of the two verses.  

While he would not endorse every detail of my account, George Guthrie makes the same essential point when he names the location of Christ’s offering — namely, heaven — as an aspect of what renders it superior to the Levitical sacrifices. Thus, in a summary comment on 9:11–10:18, he writes, “These three regulations of the old system are compared to the new-covenant sacrifice of Christ, which is shown to be superior at every point: (1) the place of Christ’s offering was in heaven rather than on earth (9:11, 23–25; 10:12–13); (2) the blood of the offering was Christ’s blood rather than the blood of animals (9:12–28); (3) Christ’s sacrifice was made once for all time rather than continually (9:25–26; 10:1–18).” George H. Guthrie, “Hebrews,” in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, ed. G.K. Beale and D.A. Carson (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 973.  

See Craig R. Koester, Hebrews: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, AB 36 (New York: Doubleday, 2001), 366. Koester offers a concise argument for seeing both elements, with many illuminating parallels from other New Testament and early Jewish texts.  

My reading of the link between these passages has been informed especially by Nicholas J. Moore, “Sacrifice, Session, and Intercession: The End of Christ’s Offering in Hebrews,” JSNT 42 (2020): 536–37.  

So, e.g., Koester, Hebrews, 371–72, esp. n. 349; Thomas R. Schreiner, Commentary on Hebrews, BTCP (Nashville: B&H, 2015), 234.  

For biblical and early Jewish examples of being seated (including being seated at the right hand) as the posture of an intercessor, see Moore, “Sacrifice, Session, and Intercession,” 536.  

John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2.16.16, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, vol. 2, The Library of Christian Classics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1960), 524–25.  

Michael Horton, “Atonement and Ascension,” in Locating Atonement: Explorations in Constructive Dogmatics, ed. Oliver D. Crisp and Fred Sanders (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015), 250.  

Daily Light – Nov 19, 2020

The Problem with Ending Racism 

Greg Morse

Article by Greg Morse, Staff writer, desiringGod.org 

Even the casual sports fan can no longer avoid Black Lives Matter. The letters lined NBA baselines and smothered the broadcasts. They were featured on player warm-ups and printed on the back of jerseys. The NFL has been less conspicuous, but cleats, helmets, telecasters, commercials, and kneeling still draw attention to the movement. 

As I watched a football game recently, a curious phrase caught my eye: End Racism. This command stared at me from either side of the field, etched in the endzones. This struck me. Assuming the best of the many people involved in the decision, did they truly believe that they — or anyone watching — could really end racism? 

End Racism? 

I have no reason to doubt that those involved really wanted to make this world a better place. But as I watched them try, I couldn’t help but feel the powerlessness of it. What did pointing a camera at the endzone have to do with pointing people away from the heart’s lust for ethnic superiority? The call, even if it met with the sympathetic heart, did not empower anyone to go and accomplish the feat. The command read to me as “End Envy” or “Stop Lust.” 

This sentiment swirls around us so much these days that I wonder if the world truly believes its own mantra — that it can, in fact, end racism. To be clear, secularism can effect change toward partial laws or economic systems or accountability for police shootings — and behind any progress on those fronts stands a loving God with common grace. Secularism can also alter political correctness and incentivize (or strong-arm) outward conformity. If this is all that is meant, my amazement subsides. 

But with the lack of clarity on objective goals of various marches and protests — a point very different from the civil rights movement which aimed at ensuring just law (i.e., civil rights) — one might stand to wonder if the end isn’t really to expunge the world of ethnic lusts entirely (and this understood to be against minorities almost exclusively). Some of the demands seem to be heart demands; to think and feel certain ways. 

Were the world to build a totalitarian regime, with the authority to severely punish those who do not bow to its diversity indoctrination, it still could not force anyone to love what he ought to love and hate what he ought to hate. That power belongs to Another. The change the world groans after, even on its best days, belongs to the very God the world rejects every day. He alone has the power to change hearts. 

Blind Leading the Blind 

Why can’t we expect non-Christian movements, even the best of them, to end racism of the heart? 

Because of the sinfulness of humanity. With regards to skin color, the Bible says that sooner can an Ethiopian change his skin or a leopard his spots than those who are accustomed to doing evil do good (Jeremiah 13:23). Or, as Paul says, mankind is enslaved to sin, children of wrath, happily following the devil (Ephesians 2:1–3). Racism is just one manifestation of this rebellion against God. 

We think we can pick and choose our master. We exchange the truth about God for lies, refuse to acknowledge his universal reign, and then wonder how anyone would seek to exalt himself over his fellow man based on something so trite as skin color, culture, or nationality. When we think we’ve successfully dethroned God, what’s left but a game of thrones? 

Ending racism is not possible for the world. The humanitarian religion can take aim for a time at systemic racism, but it will tire and move on to the new fad when convenient. No politician. No law. No march nor protest. No best resolves nor coercive measures. No amount of listening nor diversity training can end racism. As great as some of these measures can be, racism is sin, and a world enslaved to sin cannot overcome sin. 

You Must Be Born Again 

This makes Jesus’s way to “end racism” revolutionary: “You must be born again” (John 3:7). He begins from the inside out. You must have new loves, a new nature, a new heart. 

This new heart, enthroned by God himself, inspires a countercultural love for Christians who are different from us: “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God” (1 John 4:7). 

This new heart is incompatible with any ongoing practice of racial prejudice: 

Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him; and he cannot keep on sinning, because he has been born of God. (1 John 3:8–9

This new heart prepares us for heaven, where we will experience inviolable peace with one another: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:5–6). 

This new heart, unlike an old heart commanded to act new, is really, genuinely new: “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:17–18). 

Where systemic injustice does exist in this world, starting with Margaret Sanger and Planned Parenthood, we prefer new hearts with new allegiances to King Jesus, not old hearts still aligned with Satan, to take the lead. Only hearts remade and captured by God can understand justice as they ought: “Evil men do not understand justice, but those who seek the Lord understand it completely” (Proverbs 28:5). New births by the Spirit of God empower us to live new lives of love, a love strong enough to overcome old bigotries. 

Where Our Racism Ends 

Our history, our current moment, can feel so momentous, so terrifying, so broken, so urgent. The ancient gospel can feel small in comparison. Now can feel like reality, the atonement can feel small on the horizon. But no. 

The foundations of racism — and all the other perversions of our culture — will crack when we gather together under a brotherhood that flies not under the banner of a better tomorrow, but of a better eternity. A universal brotherhood of man to man — irrespective of Christ — is not the Christian’s goal. Jesus prayed for unity among his people so that the world may marvel at it from the outside and conclude that Jesus must be sent from God (John 17:20–21). Christ is still and always the answer. 

In the cross of Christ I glory,
Towering over the wrecks of time;
All the light of sacred story
Gathers round its head sublime. 

The cross still towers over the wrecks of time, shining like a lighthouse to navigate through dark and jagged shores. When the cross shrinks, the world dims. When the church loses influence in a culture, the culture decays. When we distance ourselves from Calvary, when we move on and try to do God’s work without giving preeminence to God’s work and God’s Spirit, we will never shine with the light the world so desperately needs to see. In other words, having something higher to unify us than unity itself, we will show the righteous fruit of God being among us. 

Having Tried All Else 

Our climate today is analogue to the woman who bled for twelve years. 

As Jesus went, the people pressed around him. And there was a woman who had had a discharge of blood for twelve years, and though she had spent all her living on physicians, she could not be healed by anyone. She came up behind him and touched the fringe of his garment, and immediately her discharge of blood ceased. (Luke 8:42–44

The world is full of physicians that cannot heal. Your favorite political candidate cannot end racism. New legislations — with all the good they can achieve — cannot end racism. And messages lying limp in endzones cannot end racism. None of these can change hearts. 

Historically in America, too many churches have not been the standard-bearers in this area, but rather had their share of indulgences and compromises with racist societies instead of shining within them. Yet the church today is still the only institution on the planet, the only “chosen race,” that goes forth in the authority of Christ and effects genuine change as we “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that [Jesus has] commanded” (Matthew 28:19–20). 

Ironically, the racism-free world fallen humanity aches for is approaching. Racism will end soon — sooner than most will want — when our King finally comes to judge. And not only will racism, and every other sin, be thrown into the lake of fire, but his people will be unified in ways we can only now imagine — all in Christ. 

Greg Morse is a staff writer for desiringGod.org and graduate of Bethlehem College & Seminary. He and his wife, Abigail, live in St. Paul with their daughter. 

Daily Light – Nov 18, 2020

But Have You Prayed? 

Article by Marshall Segal, Staff writer, desiringGod.org 

What hasn’t yet changed in your life because you haven’t started praying for it? 

Prayerlessness, of course, comes in varieties. Some almost never pray, proving that prayer is nothing more than a formality, a greeting card to God when they have time. Others only pray when they have some desperate and immediate need, treating prayer like a crisis-response line (and largely neglecting prayer otherwise). Others may pray regularly, but their prayers slowly devolve into repeated phrases that taste stale, impersonal, removed from real life. Even the best among us can sometimes swing between treasuring prayer when we think we really need it and skipping prayer when life seems to be going well. 

Prayer, however, is not a last resort, but a first line of defense, because God is not a last resort, but the one to whom we look first. Prayer is powerful because God is the most powerful agent of change in any of our lives. 

Oh, what peace we often forfeit
Oh, what needless pain we bear
All because we do not carry
Everything to God in prayer. 

Jesus confronted the threat of prayerlessness in his disciples, and in a way that should land with gravity and hope in the midst of our own trials and burdens. 

Desperate Situation 

In Mark 9, a man had come, bearing his self-destructive, demon-oppressed son, searching desperately for Jesus — for healing. “Teacher, I brought my son to you,” the father says, “for he has a spirit that makes him mute. And whenever it seizes him, it throws him down, and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid” (Mark 9:17–18). 

Parents of young children can at least begin to imagine how excruciating and debilitating this suffering was. Is there anything this father would not do to see his son whole again? 

By the time Jesus arrives on the scene, his disciples have been attempting to drive out the demon. But they were not able (Mark 9:18), even though they had been given authority over unclean spirits (Mark 6:7). And as they struggled over the helpless boy, the religious leaders emerge with crowds to argue with them (Mark 9:14), surely making the situation all the more stressful and tragic. 

Nothing but Prayer 

Jesus asks his father, “How long has this been happening to him?” “From childhood” (Mark 9:21). Not just for several weeks or months, but over years, potentially decades. “And it has often cast him into fire and into water, to destroy him. But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us” (Mark 9:22). Jesus, of course, can do anything, literally anything. “‘If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes,” he replies (Mark 9:23). 

“I believe,” the father famously responds, “help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). So, Jesus heals the boy: “You mute and deaf spirit, I command you, come out of him and never enter him again” (Mark 9:25). The same spirit that evaded and overpowered the disciples surrenders immediately (and violently) (Mark 9:26), and at just the sound of his voice. 

When he is alone with his disciples, who are feeling confused and defeated by their failures, they ask him, “Why could we not cast it out?” (Mark 9:28). A penetrating and ageless question. “This kind,” Jesus says, “cannot be driven out by anything but prayer” (Mark 9:29). 

Maybe they didn’t pray at all, or maybe they prayed very little, or maybe they prayed formal, empty, heartless prayers, but either way Jesus says prayer — actually asking God — is what was missing. He could have said, This kind cannot be driven out by anyone but me, but instead he said, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.” And as surprised as we might be that the disciples didn’t think to pray (or pray more), how often might Jesus say the same to us? 

What Kept Them from Praying? 

So, why didn’t the disciples pray? Why didn’t they ask God to help, to intervene, to do what was beyond the disciples’ own ability? We don’t know for sure, but the scene gives us a surprising number of potential reasons, many which might feel surprisingly relevant (and sobering) for own our prayer lives. 

DISTRACTED BY NOISE 

First, a great crowd had gathered to watch (and interfere with) their ministry (Mark 9:14). They weren’t doing spiritual warfare in the privacy of a home. The painful scene had become a stage, and the more the disciples failed and the longer the boy suffered, the more people came to watch. How many of us, with so many curious and suspicious eyes trained on us, would be courageous enough to stop and look toward heaven and pray? Or, how often does the sound of the crowds around us (constantly clawing at our attention through our devices), keep us from hearing Jesus say, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you” (Matthew 7:7)? Distractions, which come in many kinds and ways, often keep us from praying. 

DOUBTED BY MAN 

Not all had come simply to watch, though. Religious experts joined the crowd, arguing with the disciples and saying it couldn’t be done (Mark 9:1416). The spiritual enemy was obvious, but they had human enemies, as well — doubters, detractors, scoffers. They’re not waiting, like the rest of the crowd, for the disciples to heal the boy; they want nothing more than for followers of Jesus to fail (Mark 11:18). We may not face the same immediate opposition (though many Christians do), but wherever we are in the world, many want our prayers to fail — to prove that Jesus was just a man, the Bible just a book, and our prayers just wishful thinking. We know that faithfulness to Christ will cost us favor and approval from the world, and so the fear of man often keeps us from praying. 

DEFIED BY SATAN 

But the scribes were nothing compared with their unseen enemies. The disciples were dealing with an actual demon oppression — a real, destructive, spiritual enemy. A spiritual enemy strong enough to hurl the boy into fire and water, “to destroy him” (Mark 9:22). Maybe worst of all, he made the boy mute (Mark 9:17), unable to cry for help or even explain what was happening to him. What would you do while you watched him being torn apart? Even if we are not experiencing this kind of manifest demonic opposition, we do wrestle, every day, “against the spiritual forces of evil” (Ephesians 6:12). We pray into a downpour of fiery hostility. How often does Satan keep us from praying, doing all he can to keep us from our knees? 

DISCOURAGED BY INEFFECTIVENESS 

Though the disciples tried, really tried, to heal the boy, nothing changed. We don’t know what they tried, but we know that they tried (Mark 9:18) and that they had tried everything they knew to do (Mark 9:28). When Jesus says, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer,” he hints at all their failed attempts. And the boy still writhed and foamed and groaned on the ground — like he had for so long. A sense of futility surely began to set in. They had healed many before, but this spirit wouldn’t surrender. Maybe no one can heal this boy. How often have we given up praying because the outcome seems decided, because too many days or months or years have passed? Discouragement over unanswered prayer often keeps us from praying. 

Jesus Really Prayed 

Many barriers keep us from praying, but nothing kept Jesus from asking his Father, because Jesus knew that nothing was more vital and powerful than prayer. And he knew nothing was more vital and powerful than prayer because no one was more vital and powerful than his Father. 

When Jesus says, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer,” he knew so from personal and persistent experience. He was tempted in every way as we are, but without ever indulging in prayerlessness. We know how dependent he was on God — rising early in the morning (Mark 1:35), getting alone with his Father (Mark 6:46), and pouring out his heart (Mark 14:35). And we know he did this regularly (Luke 5:16). He was not distracted by the crowds or undone by the fear of man. He was not intimidated by demonic warfare or discouraged by God’s timing. He knew the soul-sustaining, demon-defeating, mountain-moving power of prayer — and he wanted us to know it too. 

Some oppression will not lift without prayer. Some wounds will not heal without prayer. Some trials will not end without prayer. Some sins will not die without prayer. Some relationships will not mend without prayer. Some things will not change, things we desperately want to change, unless we consistently and persistently humble ourselves, kneel, and plead with our Father in heaven. The all-wise, all-loving, all-powerful God has chosen to do much in the world through our prayers, because prayer is part of his precious relationship with his children and exalts him as the listening and answering God. 

So, what hasn’t yet changed in your life because you haven’t yet prayed? 

Marshall Segal (@marshallsegal) is a writer and managing editor at desiringGod.org. He’s the author of Not Yet Married: The Pursuit of Joy in Singleness & Dating. He graduated from Bethlehem College & Seminary. He and his wife, Faye, have two children and live in Minneapolis. 

Daily Light – Nov 17, 2020

Understanding Biblical Covenants Is As Easy As 1, 2, 3 

Kevin De Young, PhD 

Covenant in the Christian Life 

Many of us are familiar with the language of the covenant.  We hear terms like covenant membership or covenant baptism, and yet some of us may still be hard pressed to describe what we mean by covenant. Why is this theme so important in Scripture? Why does it matter in the Christian life? If we are people of the covenant, then we must understand what covenant theology is all about and how we can explain it to others. Even though much has been written about covenant theology—and rightly so!—at its most basic level, covenant theology is simple enough to sketch on the back of a napkin. 

A Simple Definition 

In simplest terms, a covenant is a contract, an agreement between two or more parties. Marriage is the most familiar example in our culture, but almost anything that requires two signatures can be considered a kind of covenant—from buying a car to getting approved for a mortgage to signing up for a home security system. Whenever we have legally binding agreements, we have covenants. 

Covenants in the Bible, however, are about more than contracts. They are about people. A covenant is a commitment that establishes a relationship between two or more persons. For our purposes, we are looking at those covenants that establish a relationship between God and his people, a covenant bond that establishes stipulations, makes promises, guarantees blessings, and threatens curses. Just as we must sign on the dotted line in our legally binding documents, so too did ancient covenants require some kind of oath ratification. Normally this involved blood as a sign and seal of the obligations established, the blessings promised (upon obedience), and the curses threatened (upon disobedience). 

If that’s what a covenant is (in general terms), what does covenant theology look like? Well, get out your napkins and follow along, because I think understanding covenant theology can be as easy as one, two, three. Or actually, as easy as three, one, two. If we want to help our people grasp covenant theology—or if we need some helpful hooks in our own minds—we need to understand three different covenants, one covenant of grace, and two ways of existing in this one covenant. 

Let’s start by talking about three different covenants in the Bible: 

1. Covenant of Works 

The first covenant we encounter in Scripture is the covenant of works. It is sometimes called the Adamic covenant because it was made with Adam in the garden. The Westminster Shorter Catechism 12 calls it the “covenant of life” because to obey the stipulations would have given life. This Edenic administration has also been called the covenant of nature or the covenant of creation, but most often theologians now refer to it as the covenant of works. 

Here’s what we read in the Westminster Confession of Faith: 

The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto him as their Creator, yet they could never have any fruition of him as their blessedness and reward, but by some voluntary condescension on God’s part, which he hath been pleased to express by way of covenant. (7.1) 

That is a fancy way of saying that for God to enter into any kind of agreement with man—even one based on works—was an act of grace. The confession continues: 

The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works, wherein life was promised to Adam; and in him to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience. (7.2) 

That is a succinct definition of the covenant of works. Adam was a public person. He was the federal head for the whole human race, meaning he was the representative for all who would come after him. This is sometimes called federal theology or federalism, foedus being the Latin word for “covenant.” 

Famously, Genesis never calls this arrangement with Adam a covenant. But Hosea 6:7 says that “like Adam [Israel] transgressed the covenant,” implying that Adam’s relationship to God was covenantal in nature. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil was a probationary tree, testing Adam to see if he would keep God’s covenant. Eternal life in paradise with God was promised to Adam and his posterity on the condition of obedience, while death was promised if Adam disobeyed. 

Adam and Eve would be God’s treasured people, in paradise, in his presence— if they kept the covenant. That’s at the heart of each covenantal arrangement. We see it with Abraham as God promises to make him into a great nation (people) and give him a great land (paradise) and be with him as his God (presence).2 We see the same three basic items in the new covenant as well. As the church, we are God’s chosen people, enjoying the “already” (and awaiting the “not yet”) of our heavenly inheritance of paradise, while we delight in the presence of God by union with his Son and by the indwelling of his Spirit. 

All three gifts—people, paradise, presence—were squandered by Adam in the garden. And so we see curse instead of blessing. Adam and Eve are cursed with toil and pain (people), then the ground is cursed (paradise), and finally Adam and Eve are cut off from the presence of God as they are kicked out of Eden and their reentry is barred. Adam is a covenant breaker—and all of us with him. God still requires perfect obedience in order to receive the full blessings of the covenant. But on this side of the fall, none of us are capable of meeting these requirements, so now all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse (Gal. 3:10). 

Some people object to any sort of covenant based on works. They argue that God only, and always, deals with human beings in grace. In one sense, that is certainly true. As we’ve already seen from the Westminster Confession, even God’s arrangement with Adam was marked by a gracious condescension. And yet, we don’t have to shy away from the language of works, because there is clearly a do-this-and-live principle central to God’s command surrounding the probationary tree. There is no grace as forgiveness of sin in the covenant with Adam. No deliverance is operative (though it is foretold) because at that point there is no human sin to infest God’s perfect world. The blessings of God are promised on condition of works fulfilled. 

2. Covenant of Grace 

If the first covenant is a covenant of works, the second is a covenant of grace. The stipulations of the covenant of works are still on us, but they no longer possess the ability to bless because we are no longer capable of fulfilling those obligations. To gain salvation by works is now a moral and metaphysical impossibility. 

Again, here’s the Westminster Confession of Faith: 

Man, by his fall, having made himself uncapable of life by that covenant, the Lord was pleased to make a second, commonly called the covenant of grace; wherein he freely offereth unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ; requiring of them faith in him, that they may be saved, and promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto eternal life his Holy Spirit, to make them willing, and able to believe. (7.3) 

We say more about this covenant in our next section, but for now let me simply point out that this covenant of grace is one covenant that allows for different manifestations.3We see God’s promise to Noah (and to the rest of humanity through him) in Genesis 8–9—a covenant of preservation whereby God graciously promises to maintain the orderly workings of his creation. We see God’s promise to Abraham (and to the nations that will come from him) in Genesis 12—the paradigmatic example in the Old Testament of covenantal blessing. We see God’s promises to Moses (and to the nation he was leading) in the Pentateuch—a covenantal arrangement full of law but also replete with a gracious sacrificial system and rich messianic foreshadowing. We see God’s promise to David (and his royal descendants) in 2 Samuel 7—a covenant of kingdom guaranteeing that a king from the line of David would forever sit on the throne. And finally, we see the new covenant predicted in Jeremiah 31—a covenant of consummation, fulfilling all that was prefigured through Abraham. In other words, outside a couple of chapters in Genesis and Revelation, the entire Bible shows the unfolding of God’s plan and promise to bless his people through this one covenant of grace. 

For God to enter into any kind of agreement with man—even one based on works—was an act of grace. 

3. Covenant of Redemption 

Besides the covenant of works and the covenant of grace, there is a third type of arrangement, usually called the covenant of redemption. Sometimes you see it referenced with the Latin phrase pactum salutis, a salvation pact. In simple terms, the covenant of redemption refers to the eternal agreement between the Father and the Son to save a people chosen in Christ before the ages began. In slightly more detail, Louis Berkhof describes the covenant of redemption as “the agreement between the Father, giving the Son as Head and Redeemer of the elect, and the Son, voluntarily taking the place of those whom the Father had given him.”4 

At first, this may seem like overeager theologizing by speculative systematicians. But actually, there is plenty of evidence in Scripture for a salvation pact between the Father and the Son. We know that the elect were chosen not out of thin air but in Christ before the foundations of the world. We know that promises were made to Christ that he would be given a people by the Father (John 6:38–40; cf. 5:30, 43; 17:4–12). We know that Christ, as the second Adam, is the covenant head of his people (Rom. 5:12–211 Cor. 15:22). And we know from a text like Psalm 2 that there was a decree whereby the eternally begotten Son was given the nations as his heritage and the ends of the earth as his possession (2:7–8). In other words, the Son was granted, by an eternal arrangement, a people to save and to redeem. This is why Jesus in John 5:36 says that he has come to do the works that the Father has given him to accomplish and why Jesus in Luke 22:29 speaks of the kingdom the Father has assigned to him. The covenant of grace in time is made possible by the covenant of redemption from all eternity. 

Notes: 

This afterword is a modified version of a sermon originally delivered at University REformed Church, East Lansing, Michigan, on Sunday evening, January 10, 2016. 

Jonty Rhodes uses these three p’s in Raiding the Lost Ark: Recovering the Gospel of the Covenant King (Nottingham, UK: Inter-Varsity Press, 2013), 24. He also references Graeme Goldsworthy and Vaughan Roberts as using the same alliterative summary of God’s blessings. 

We could call these manifestations “dispensations” as long as we don’t understand by that word all the contours of dispensational theology. 

Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, combined ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 271. This combined edition also includes Berkhof’s Introductory Volume to Systematic Theology. The page numbers I cite all come from the Systematic Theology itself. 

This article is adapted from Covenant Theology: Biblical, Theological, and Historical Perspectives edited by Guy Prentiss Waters, J. Nicholas Reid, and John R. Muether. 

Kevin DeYoung (PhD, University of Leicester) is the senior pastor at Christ Covenant Church in Matthews, North Carolina, and assistant professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte. He serves as board chairman of the Gospel Coalition and blogs at DeYoung, Restless, and Reformed. He is the author of several books, including Just Do Something; Crazy Busy; and The Biggest Story. Kevin and his wife, Trisha, have nine children. 

Daily Light – Nov 16, 2020

No Holiness, No Heaven 

How to Know If Faith Is Real or Dead 

Article by Greg Morse, Staff writer, desiringGod.org 

No one will be in heaven who did not walk in good works on earth. In other words, and in the words of Hebrews 12:14, there is a “holiness without which no one will see the Lord.” Abbreviated, “no holiness, no heaven.” 

In directness, “Faith without works is dead” (James 2:26 NASB). 

In confession, “Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and his righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification: yet is it not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but works by love” (Westminster Confession). 

In commandment: “Work out [literally, produce] your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12). 

In illustration: “Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away . . . and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned” (John 15:26). 

In lyric, “He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake” (Psalm 23:3). 

In repetition: no one will be in heaven who did not walk in good works on earth. 

Two Familiar Heresies 

Now, to say this, I hasten to avoid a different heresy: no one will be in heaven based upon good works. 

“By grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8–9). “A person is not justified by works of the law” (Galatians 2:16). Christ’s righteousness, not ours, justifies entirely. The man, woman, or child who believes in him who justifies the ungodly shall be counted righteous before God. His blood brings us near to God, his righteousness imputed to us is needed. In other words, him, him, him — not us — so that no man may boast. Although the Christian walks into the narrow path full of good works, God prepared them for him to walk in beforehand. 

So here we have it: no one will be in heaven who did not walk in faith-producing good works on earth — “the obedience of faith” (Romans 1:516:26) or “faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6) — and no one in heaven will be there on the basis of his good works. One heresy says it doesn’t matter if you work, run, or fight at all; the other, that your working, running, and fighting earn your place before a holy God. James calls the first the faith of demons (James 2:19). Paul calls the second the faith of the bewitched (Galatians 3:1). One error sits comfortably among evangelicals; the other among Catholics. It is the dead faith closer to home that I wish to address. 

Once Saved, Always Saved 

Dead faith (which produces no works) is not necessarily a silent faith. It often rehearses (and abuses) golden mantras such as, “Once saved, always saved,” putting a jewel, as it were, up a pig’s snout. 

Properly understood, “Once saved, always saved” would stand for the amazing truth that from the vantage point of the eternal mountain of God, his children, predestined to be saved before time began, will not fall away — he will bring them home. He carved their names in the book of life; his Son has atoned for their actual sins; he seals them with his very Spirit as a down payment — the Spirit that shall surely bring his work to completion at the day of Christ Jesus. Nothing shall separate his true children from the love of God; the Shepherd will lose none of his sheep. 

From this, however, some draw crooked lines. Instead of deducing with Paul, “God’s firm foundation stands, bearing this seal: ‘The Lord knows those who are his,’ and, ‘Let everyone who names the name of the Lord depart from iniquity’” (2 Timothy 2:19), some conclude that the perseverance of the saints is optional. 

They may imagine God putting souls on a conveyor belt to glory. “Once saved, always saved” — no matter how deeply compromised their lives may be. In so doing they pit the essential doctrine of justification against the blood, sweat, and toil of the essential doctrine of sanctification, judging the first to eclipse the second. We do not need holiness, it is thought, because once saved, always saved. And by “saved” we cannot help but conclude they include “saved from needing to obey.” 

Texts that speak conditionally of inheriting eternal life (conditions God empowers his true children to meet) bewilder dead faith. They cannot stomach texts about the need to continue stable and steadfast in the faith, to endure to the end, to stand firm through trials, to put the flesh to death by the Spirit, to work out one’s own salvation with fear and trembling, to make our calling and election sure through energetic striving (2 Peter 1:1–11). The shouts of their dead faith cry “Lord, Lord” while they disobey him with their lives. Theirs is a faith I knew too well. A faith soberly depicted by the character Talkative in Bunyan’s animated theology, The Pilgrim’s Progress

Along the Road with Talkative 

A man named Faithful, in Bunyan’s allegory, possessed a faith that worked, while Talkative possessed a faith that did not. They had a conversation along the way. 

Faithful: Are you going to the heavenly country? 

Talkative: I am going to that same place. 

Talkative believes himself headed to the Celestial City. And what’s more, he speaks very Christianly, possessing excellent Reformed doctrine: 

By this [profitable talk of the Scriptures] a man may learn the necessity of the new birth; the insufficiency of our works; the need of Christ’s righteousness, and so forth. Besides, by this a man may learn what it is to repent, to believe, to pray, to suffer, or the like; by this also a man may learn what are the great promises and consolations of the Gospel, to his own comfort. Further, by this a man may learn to refute false opinions; to vindicate the truth; and also to instruct the ignorant. 

Bunyan teaches that proper orthodoxy communicated well is not a sufficient sign in itself of living faith. Faithful, not knowing the report of Talkative, whispers to his companion, Christian, “What a brave companion have we got! Surely this man will make a very excellent pilgrim.” 

At this, Christian modestly smiles and answers plainly, 

This man with whom you are so taken will beguile with this tongue of his twenty of them that know him not. . . . He is best abroad; near home he is ugly enough. . . . Religion hath no place in his heart, or house, or conversation; all he hath lieth in his tongue, and his religion is to make a noise therewith. 

His Christianity lies only in his tongue. How does Christian know this? “I have been in his family and have observed him both at home and abroad.” The tree is known by its fruit. He is “a saint abroad, and a devil at home.” Like the Pharisees of Jesus’s day, he says much, but obeys little (Matthew 23:3). 

It is easy for us to imagine that God has saved us because we know right doctrine. Talkative’s great religion of tongue proved untrue in his loves, his relationships, his life. He talks of truth he was never changed by. The grace he speaks of never trained him to say no to ungodliness and to live a godly life (Titus 2:11–14). Borrowing a phrase from C.S. Lewis, he speaks of new life like “a scholar’s parrot may talk Greek.” He repeats what he overhears without knowing the reality of it, as the parrot listening to a scholar may repeat words like charis and sōtēria. 

Christian observes what is true of many Talkatives today: “He talks of prayer, of repentance, of faith, and of the new birth; but he knows but only to talk of them.” What a fearful place to be. 

Questions for Self-Examination 

Are you like this Talkative? I was, and God woke me from my delusion. I pray he would for others like me. Talkative, in the end, does not venture from the City of Destruction. He labels Christian and Faithful judgmental and parts from them. His words traveled beyond his faith and obedience; in the end, he was lost. He never examined himself to make sure he was in the faith and truly born again. 

At times, we all ask plainly, Am I born again? Christian counsels Faithful concerning Talkative, “Ask him plainly (when he has approved of it, for that he will) whether this thing be set up in his heart, house, or conversation.” Some questions Faithful and Talkative discuss are still helpful to ask today. 

Do you hate your sin? Not merely talk about hating it, like a hypocritical pastor who denounces the secret sin he indulges. The new covenant promises Christians with new hearts will hate their sin and feel it to be shameful: “You shall remember your ways and all your deeds with which you have defiled yourselves, and you shall loathe yourselves for all the evils that you have committed” (Ezekiel 20:43). Blessed are those who mourn for their sin (Matthew 5:4); God will not despise the heart broken over its sin (Psalm 51:17). 

Do you love God? Paul said as plain as day, “If anyone has no love for the Lord, let him be accursed” (1 Corinthians 16:22). Do you love him? Do you desire to know him? Do you love him above father, mother, spouse, child? Can you confess that his steadfast love is better than life? Do you hate your remaining sin because it is against him, your soul’s Treasure? 

Do you obey what you know? Jesus says, “If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them” (John 13:17). “That servant who knew his master’s will but did not get ready or act according to his will, will receive a severe beating” (Luke 12:47). We can imagine we have advanced much in religion or the love of Christ because we know more and more texts on the subject. But these texts must be believed, obeyed, loved. They must take root in us. If we truly know and love him, we will keep his commandments (John 14:151 John 2:3). 

What do others see? Bunyan writes, “A work of grace in the soul discovers itself either to him that hath it, or to standers by.” Other Christians’ judgments are not infallible, but they can help to reveal blind spots to us (and signs of grace) we do not see in ourselves. 

As the Faithfuls and Christians today keep along the narrow way with the Book in their hands and love in their hearts, they will do good in this world. They will because God is working in them to will and to work for his good pleasure, producing the fruit of the Spirit in them. They must do good, in fact, because they have a Book of promises commanding, warning, and wooing them onward to the Celestial City. 

No one in heaven will be there on the basis of his good works, and no one will be in heaven who did not walk in good works on earth. So, we press onward in holiness toward our heavenly home because Jesus has already made us his own. 

Greg Morse is a staff writer for desiringGod.org and graduate of Bethlehem College & Seminary. He and his wife, Abigail, live in St. Paul with their daughter. 

Daily Light – Nov 13, 2020

For Worse or Better 

Moving Beyond Broken Dreams in Marriage 

Article by Dave Harvey, Author/Writer

Do you ever feel like your marriage was an accident? Do you ever wonder, “Did I make a mistake?” Maybe your new life together started strong, with hopes that beamed like the sun on the horizon of your life. But now your dreams have lost altitude; a few have even crashed to earth. Marriage, quite honestly, is not what you expected. 

John and Teresa get it. It’s been three years since they said, “I do.” But when asked how often they make time for each other now, they confess, “We don’t!” The difference between their pre-wedding hopes and their post-wedding reality is hard to reconcile. Marriage has become the place where their dreams went to die. I thought it would be different by now, they each think. 

What do you do when marriage begins to feel accidental — like an error that slipped past God’s all-seeing gaze? How can a couple be content and confident when marriage turns out to be so much less than they desired? 

Dreams Exposed 

To desire good things from marriage is not wrong, of course. It’s a sign of health to want to flourish with your mate. At issue is how we relate to God and respond to our spouse when our hopes for marriage don’t materialize — when we don’t get what we want when we want it. 

When our dreams are delayed, we can fear that we will never get what we most desire — a great sex life, a quiver of healthy kids, a shared vision for life and work, a spouse that affirms us instead of nagging us (or maybe a spouse that will actually give us a few minutes alone). We also can fear being stuck forever with the opposite of what we most desire; in some form of reverse-providence, our dreams expire while our greatest fears spring to life. 

When Kenesha dreamed about marriage, abundance was always in the picture. She never imagined herself living month to month or clipping coupons to score deals at the grocery store. “It isn’t just hard — it’s humiliating,” she tells her husband. Money is now a source of constant conflict between them. Last night, Kenesha caught herself thinking, “I love my husband, but I certainly don’t like marriage. Was this a mistake?” 

When dreams go unfulfilled, the danger is that our desires become demands before God. If this happens, we find ourselves blindly striving for what we feel life lacks. When desires become demands, discontent devours our confidence in God’s sweet sovereignty. God’s goodness shrinks. And marriage feels like an unhappy accident. 

Dreams Adjusted 

Imagine reading the following passage for the first time: 

Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. (Philippians 4:11–13

Believe it or not, the apostle Paul penned those words when he was in prison. Paul was chained and jailed, yet he was quick to say, “I’m not in need.” How? 

Paul learned to adapt his desires to his circumstances. Whether he was abounding or brought low, facing plenty or hunger, in abundance or need, he could be content. He did not question — due to his unexpected losses — whether his life’s path was a colossal error. For Paul, flourishing and happiness did not rest in a satisfied dream. 

How does that work? I’m tempted to think that’s just a Paul thing. “Sure, if I got to log an afternoon in the third heaven, I’d be content too!” But it wasn’t like that. Paul’s contentment was not a unique grace or a spiritual gift unavailable to other Christians. It was learned: “I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger . . .” 

What does that mean for your marriage? Think of contentment as a heart that trusts God and confidently adjusts to unsatisfied desires. It’s okay to have dreams for your marriage, your family size, your standard of living, your stress levels, your sex life. But marriage often turns on how we deal with delayed or denied dreams. The more contentment expands within the soul, the less our unrequited dreams suppress our confidence in God’s sovereignty. We trust God’s goodness is intentional, not accidental. We adapt our desires to the unfolding of God’s will. We respond to our spouses in ways that say, “Yes, this is hard and unexpected. But God is faithful, and, by the way, I love you!” 

Richard Selzer was a surgeon who observed a married couple in the throes of one such defining moment: 

I stand by the bed where a young woman lies, her face postoperative, her mouth twisted in palsy, clownish. A tiny twig of the facial nerve, the one to the muscles of her mouth, has been severed. She will be thus from now on. . . . To remove the tumor in her cheek, I had to cut the little nerve. 

Her young husband is in the room. He stands on the opposite side of the bed and together they seem to dwell in the evening lamplight, isolated from me, private. Who are they, I ask myself, he and this wry mouth I have made, who gaze at and touch each other so generously, greedily? The young woman speaks. 

“Will my mouth always be like this?” she asks. 

“Yes,” I say, “it will. It is because the nerve was cut.” 

She nods, and is silent. But the young man smiles. 

“I like it,” he says, “It is kind of cute.” 

All at once I know who he is. I understand and I lower my gaze. One is not bold in an encounter with a god. Unmindful, he bends to kiss her crooked mouth, and I am so close I can see how he twists his own lips to accommodate to hers, to show her that their kiss still works. (Mortal Lessons, 45–46) 

When we learn the secret of contentment, we are no longer distracted by unhealthy demands or the temptation of seeing our marriage as accidental. Whether “facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need,” the kiss still works. 

Dreams Redeemed 

Someone may ask, “So, is self-sacrifice the best you have to offer us — some version of marital asceticism? Are you saying I should suppress my dreams as a way of feeling better about my mistake?” 

Not exactly. Instead, I want you to see just how tightly you’ve intertwined your definition of a successful marriage with having your dreams come true. And I don’t want you to miss the fact that God often does his best work in those moments when our expectations go unfulfilled. 

Tito dreamed of having a family that would testify to his wisdom as a husband and father. But his teenagers had other ideas. Their reckless behavior, and the endless conversations with his wife about how that behavior should be managed, brought enormous stress and conflict into their home. This wasn’t the life Tito wanted. But this was the trial he needed — one that was lovingly directed by God’s unseen hand. The trial helped Tito discover his selfishness, and, more importantly, the situation transformed him, revealing his daily need to depend upon Jesus instead of himself (2 Corinthians 1:9). 

This fallen world peddles the notion that our desires exist for immediate satisfaction. When we buy that lie, we confuse the present age with the one to come. In this life, God is not in the business of fulfilling every dream. His goals are far bigger, reaching through your soul and into eternity. The truth is that when our dreams for marriage are frustrated, it’s intentional. God is preparing us for another wedding, the one where the Bridegroom returns to reclaim his precious church (Revelation 19:6–9). And in the wisdom of God’s inscrutable will, this means that sometimes our dreams will dissolve before our eyes. 

Sometimes, corrupted cravings in our hearts — discontentment, in particular — die only by being impaled upon an unsatisfied dream. Some growth toward God can spring only from a denied desire. 

Dreams Realized 

In his book The Art of Divine Contentment, Thomas Watson drops a signature sentence: “If we have not what we desire, we have more than we deserve.” 

At the core of all discontent lies a bold comparison between what we have and what we think we deserve. The “accident” mindset pulses indignance: “I didn’t sign on for this kind of suffering. I’m better than all of this. I’m not getting what I deserve!” To that word, the gospel speaks agreement: “You’re absolutely right. And for that, you can thank God!” 

There’s no need to compare our lot against what we hoped for and then silently charge God for the shortages. Contentment is found in making a different comparison — comparing what we have to what our sins deserved. We were spiritually wretched, lost, and broken — meriting only death and judgment (Ephesians 2:1–3). But God, who is rich in mercy, made us objects of his inexplicable love. Jesus Christ died the death we deserved. He offers us life by grace, and he gives us reason to hope (Ephesians 2:4–9). 

Husband or wife, if you woke up today with unrealized dreams, you’re in good company. But whatever your estate — humbled or exalted, in plenty or hunger, in comfort or pain — God knows what he’s doing. In Christ, your life and marriage are not accidents. At this very moment, you are being formed for life with Jesus in the land where desires are satisfied and dreams come true. 

Dave Harvey (@RevDaveHarvey) is the president of Great Commission Collective, a CCEF board member, and an author. He writes at revdaveharvey.com, and he is the author of When Sinners Say I Do and the recently released sequel, I Still Do: Growing Closer and Stronger Through Life’s Defining Moments