Devotional by David Niednagel, Pastor/Teacher, Evansville, IN. David uses the S.O.A.P. method for his morning study time (study, observe, apply, pray).
3:3 “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” ESV
Jesus responded to Nicodemus’ compliment in an unusual way that certainly surprised him. He said “Truly, truly, I say to you…” Literally He said “Amen!, Amen! I say to you …” Amen was a common word which meant “May it be” or “So be it” or like an emphatic “Yes!”. Normally it was said at the end of a prayer (by the one praying) or after a significant statement (by someone who heartily agreed with it). Here Jesus said it Himself, without waiting for Nicodemus to agree, and He said it before His statement, and He said it twice! His meaning was, “Pay attention, Nicodemus! I am going to say something very important”. And He spoke of the necessity of being “born again/from above.”
Nicodemus was obviously confused and wondered how an adult could be born again physically. Jesus corrected him by saying He was referring to a spiritual rebirth. There has been much discussion about what Jesus meant by being born of “water and the Spirit”, with many thinking it had some reference to baptism. I don’t think so. Nicodemus was thinking of physical birth, and I think that is what Jesus meant. When a woman is ready to give birth, her “water breaks”. So Jesus said “That which is born of flesh is flesh, and that which is born of spirit is spirit” Jesus is simply saying “Nicodemus, you were born fine physically, but now you need a spiritual birth, or you won’t enter God’s kingdom, because it is a spiritual kingdom. And you shouldn’t be surprised that I said you need a spiritual birth.
In :8 Jesus speaks of “the wind”, but he is not changing the subject. The word for spirit and wind are the same word “pneuma”, so Jesus is making a play on words to explain. “You can’t control the wind, but you can see the evidence of the wind, and in like manner you can’t control the Spirit, but you can see the evidence of the Spirit – and you, Nicodemus, don’t have the evidence of spiritual birth and life.” Nicodemus was probably confused and embarrassed.
Lord, until Your Spirit does His work in our hearts, this is foreign to our thinking and it makes us very uncomfortable. But we thank You for making it clear from the beginning how important this spiritual rebirth is to enter Your kingdom. It is not a matter or us becoming religious and beginning new practices, it is a matter of the supernatural work of Your Holy Spirit. Thank You for making those issues clear in my heart when I was 13, and for giving me greater understanding and gratitude over the years. More than ever I realize I could never become religious enough to be “born again”. I do desire to help make it clear to others, but I realize I cannot do it without the work of Your Holy Spirit. So, again, Thank You!!! Amen.
Article by Marshall Segal, Staff writer, desiringGod.org
The woman he loved so deeply left him because he began to lose his sight. The two had been engaged to marry. George Matheson (1842–1906) went completely blind before his twenty-first birthday. He lived and ministered in Scotland for decades, and never married.
His eldest sister cared for him for more than twenty years after he lost his sight, until she herself married on June 6, 1882. He had depended on her, in almost every way, for all those years, and then even her eyes were taken away from him. The night of her wedding, he wrote the sorrow-filled lines he may be most remembered for today:
O love that will not let me go, I rest my weary soul in thee. I give thee back the life I owe, that in thine oceans depths its flow. May richer fuller be. . . .
O joy that seekest me through pain, I cannot close my heart to thee. I chase the rainbow through the rain, and feel the promise is not vain. That morn shall tearless be.
When the rain of all he lost threatened to drown the love he’d known — and he might have wondered if God had utterly abandoned him — Matheson instead wrapped his fingers all the tighter around the promises of heaven. He ran for the tearless wedding to come. His blind eyes, filled with joy, pressed into the tension so many of us feel in suffering: Intense and abiding pain often seem to cast serious doubt on the Father’s love for us.
Fear Can Inflame Suffering
Matheson’s hymn “O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go” has been recently revived, with new music, by Indelible Grace. When the group introduced the song at a live recording, the lead singer paraphrased a Puritan, saying, “If you don’t understand justification by faith, it makes every trial a double trial, because not only are you enduring the trial, but you’re having to wonder if God hates you.”
How often have you wondered, in the pain and confusion of hardship, if God might actually hate you? In the sensitive, sore, and exhausting moments of life, we have an even harder time discerning whether our pain is the discipline of a loving Father or the wrath of a righteous Judge. And we know enough of our own guilt to sometimes suspect the latter.
But suffering alone should not make anyone conclude that they are not loved by God — that they are not being loved, right now, through these trials. No one loved by God lives without the discomfort of discipline. God himself says, through another wise father,
My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline or be weary of his reproof, for the Lord reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights. (Proverbs 3:11–12)
The deepest, purest, most sincere love you ever experience will not always feel like love in the moment. It may even feel like hatred.
One of the most precious anthems for fragile and confusing moments like these comes in one of the most familiar chapters in all the Bible:
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. (Romans 8:1)
Is it fair to say that most Christians know these twelve words by heart, even if by accident? And yet how few feel — day in and day out, deep in the corners of their soul — the freedom these words describe? How many pray and sing “no condemnation” while secretly doubting God’s love for them, suspecting all the verses and promises and hymns were meant for someone else?
We know that there is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus — that he suffered horribly on the cross so that sinners like us would never taste the wrath of God — but many of us still wrestle with whether we are in Christ Jesus. And all the more when life seems to reinforce our fears, when wave after wave of pain and conflict and sorrow beat against any confidence that we are truly his.
The promise of no condemnation, however, is far stronger than any wave in the Pacific Ocean, and it was specifically made to believers in the throes of suffering (Romans 8:18). The reassurance was not meant for comfortable, secure, peacetime Christians, who always feel the warmth of God’s favor, but for those bearing a heavy cross — those groaning inwardly, waiting for a new body, a new home, a new world (Romans 8:20–23). In fact, we cannot be children, nor heirs, nor truly loved by God unless we suffer with Christ (Romans 8:17). That makes the experience of suffering with God crucial, even precious, for our confidence in his love.
The question, then, is not whether we will suffer, but whether we will suffer with God.
Fatherly Love or Furious Wrath?
When Paul wrote to the church in Rome, he knew the faithful would struggle to believe that their suffering wasn’t condemnation. He knew the deep, deep love of God would often feel like wrath. So, after declaring, “There is therefore now no condemnation,” he turns to our haunting question: Who are the children of God, and who are his enemies? Who are the saved, the secure, the forever loved, and who are the condemned? And who am I?
His answer culminates with this summary: “If you live according to the flesh you will die” — you are condemned — “but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Romans 8:13) — you may suffer, even severely, for a lifetime, but in Christ you will never again taste the wrath of God. Any pain you receive can only serve you in that one great war against sin — revealing, reminding, refining, purifying. No inch or minute of your suffering is tinged with wrath anymore. No shadow in your life can even begin to dim the floodlight of the Father’s love for you — and no trial or loss can separate you from that love (Romans 8:39).
If you are in Christ by faith, any pain you experience is the discipline of heaven, not the heat of hell. “God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons” (Hebrews 12:7–8). We really ought to fear a life without the precious pangs that train and purify every son or daughter of God.
Wrath That Leads to Life
God disciplines every child he loves, but that does not mean all pain is evidence of his love. Suffering alone does not confirm that the sufferer belongs to God. Some suffering does not lead to life, because no matter how much it hurts, the sufferer still refuses to repent and believe.
Paul wrote to the Corinthians whose selfishness, greed, and carelessness were defiling the Lord’s Supper. And not only were they acting sinfully, but they were unaware of the evil they were doing. Because of their persistent sin, they became physically weak and ill, some even died (1 Corinthians 11:30). God was screaming to them in their pain, warning them about the wrath to come, but they preferred their sin, and persisted in it.
Paul tells them that the sicknesses were meant by God to lead them to healing, the weaknesses meant to awaken them to their sin, even the deaths meant to keep some alive. “If we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world” (1 Corinthians 11:31–32). God will go to extraordinary, even painful lengths, sometimes applying fierce discipline, to save us from condemnation — if we will be done with sin.
The difference between sons and enemies, between discipline and condemnation — in every instance of our suffering — is whether we will renew our trust in Christ and repent of whatever sin he exposes.
Loved by God in Suffering
“No condemnation in Christ” does not mean there is now no pain for those who are in Christ Jesus. In fact, to be forever loved by the Father often means greater sorrow and loss in this life — but only in this life. And only to make us all the more fruitful in this life. “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:11). When suffering comes — any suffering — we all should ask what, if any, sin we see in ourselves — what new or deeper fruit might this trial yield. None of us are ever too righteous to ask that question this side of heaven.
Sometimes we may be weak or ill or anxious or exhausted because we have refused to be done with some particular sin. God is sounding the alarm to wake us up to finally fight temptation and walk by faith, but we keep pressing snooze — and then wondering why we still suffer. If this is you, let this trial become the day of repentance. Flee from the awful wrath of condemnation into the arms of a loving Father. He is calling to you, with severe mercy, in your suffering, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).
Other times, the faithful suffer because, in God’s wisdom, our pain, though not tied to any particular sin, is somehow vital to our good. Maybe the suffering refines or softens some still dark edge of our renewed hearts. Maybe the suffering prepares us to love another sufferer well. Maybe our suffering, and how we respond to it, will cause someone to ask about Jesus and be saved. If we are in Christ, we cannot count the ways God will use suffering to sanctify us, to equip us, to provide for us, to draw us near — in short, to love us, with a love that will never let us go.
God offers himself to us as the infinitely valuable, infinitely beautiful, all-satisfying treasure of the universe for our full and everlasting enjoyment. That’s what it says in Psalm 16:11.
In your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.
Full and forever. That cannot be improved on. There is nothing fuller than full, or longer than forever. And if we turn away from that offer — away from the everlasting pleasures in the presence of God as the fulfilment of our lifelong desire, by saying: I must deny myself that full and everlasting enjoyment of God — we are blasphemers and idolaters, and have rejected the word of Jesus. Listen to Jesus again:
If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. (Mark 8:34)
So, make no mistake about it. There is real self-denial. There is a real cross. Real suffering to endure for Jesus. A real death to die. The old John Piper must be crucified. I must daily count myself dead with Christ. There is real self-denial. Christianity is costly. It will cost many of you your lives — literally.
But! How does Jesus argue in the very next verse to motivate us to live this way — this sacrificial way? Here’s what he says:
For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. (Mark 8:35)
Do you see how he is arguing for self-denial? Why should we not try to save our lives in the service of Jesus? Because if we do, we will lose our lives — forever. Why should we be willing to lose our lives in the service of Jesus in this world? Because if we do, we save them — forever.
Joy at Any Cost
So, what does the argument assume? It assumes that no true disciple will throw away eternal joy in God for a mere eighty years of comfortable, worldly self-indulgence. Disciples of Jesus are not idiots. Jesus is assuming that a true disciple desires joy in God forever more than we want all that this world can give. That’s the assumption. That’s the basic premise. That’s how the argument works.
If pursuing our desire — eternal joy in God — costs us everything here, then we will deny ourselves everything here. That’s how the argument works! This is how bold Christians are born. This is where risk-taking missionaries come from. This is where your world turns upside down.
No. No. No. We are not making a god out of our desires. Our desires make clear what our god is: this world, or God; our name, or his name; our fame, or his fame. Our desires are not what we worship. They are our worship. And what we desire most is our God. If you belong to Jesus, you say from the heart,
Your name and your renown are the desire of our souls. (Isaiah 26:8)
What Sustains Real Love
But someone else objects: “I can see where this is going. You are leading us from saying that we should desire the name and fame of Jesus above all things to saying that this desire should be the motive, the sustaining force, of all we do. Correct?” Yes. “Which means that every act of love becomes a pathway to the satisfaction of your desire for God. Is that right?” Yes. “And the satisfaction that you are hoping for in God enables you to bear the painful costs of love now. Right?” Right.
“How does that not contaminate love for others by turning it into self-seeking? You are going to get your desires satisfied supposedly in doing good for me. So, you ruin the moral beauty of love, by turning it into self-seeking. It’s all about you and your desires.”
No Greater Sacrifice
So, again, let’s measure the force of this objection by looking at Jesus. Let’s look at Hebrews 12:1–2.
Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.
The writer pictures your life as a marathon. You see that in the first seven words: “Let us run with endurance the race.” You don’t need endurance for a 100-meter dash. You need strength. But for a marathon you need endurance. And the Christian life is a lifelong marathon of costly love. Paul said, “Let all that you do be done in love” (1 Corinthians 16:14). Life is one long race of love.
Jesus’s marathon lasted 33 years. And he ran the final hours of the race with a crown of thorns on his head and nails in his hands and his feet. And he finished. And, O God, I could wish that even in a group this large (believers and unbelievers) that we would all agree that there was not, nor ever will be, a greater act of love than the Son of God’s willing sacrifice of himself to save his enemies.
All for Joy
So, the question is: What was the sustaining force that enabled Jesus to keep running in love to the end, even with nails in his feet? The answer of the text is clear. You see it in the middle of the text.
Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.
“For the joy that was set before him” on the other side of suffering and death and resurrection. Which he could taste (see Hebrews 11:1). So, he considered the shame. (Criminals were crucified naked and reviled.) And he despised the shame. What does that mean?
He pictured shame as a kind of tempter. And he said, “Shame, I know what you are trying to do. I know the power you have to turn people away from the path of obedience and love. I know how you create in the human soul an almost irresistible desire not to be embarrassed or shamed. But listen to me, shame. I taste, right now, a joy ten thousand times greater than I would have by fearing you. Shame, I despise what you are trying to do — to create a desire in me stronger than my desire for the joy awaiting me on the path of this obedience. Be gone, shame. This joy, set before me, is too great. And my desire for it is absolutely invincible.”
And with that he endured the cross, and threw shame to the wind, and died for sin, and rose from the dead, and reached the joy that was set before him in the presence of his Father (John 17:5, 24). So, mark this! The greatest act of love that was ever performed was sustained by the desire for joy in the presence of God.
Look to Jesus
Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus . . . who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.
And when the text says “looking to Jesus,” it does not mean: “Don’t act like Jesus. Don’t be motivated the way Jesus was. Don’t let your love be sustained by the desire for joy in God’s presence.” No. “Looking to Jesus” does not mean: “Watch out! If you’re motivated the way Jesus was, you’re going to turn love into self-seeking. You’re going to ruin the moral beauty of sacrifice by making it the path to satisfaction of your own desire. Don’t be like that. Jesus is not a good model here.” That’s not what “looking to Jesus” means.
It means: Don’t try to be motivated in a more noble, more virtuous way than Jesus was. For the joy set before him he loved at the cost of his life. Trying to be better than Jesus is blasphemy.
True Christian Love
So, if every act of truly Christian love is, in fact, sustained by our desire for the joy of God set before us — the experience of hearing Jesus say, “Enter into the joy of your master” (Matthew 25:21); join me in my enjoyment of God, forever — if every act of truly Christian love is sustained by our desire and hope for that joy, then, why doesn’t that ruin every act of love, by turning it into self-seeking?
Or to put it crassly, since Jesus loved this way, why isn’t the cross of Christ mere selfishness? He died to have his own joy!
The answer is this: Selfishness is using or ignoring others to get your own happiness at their expense. But that’s not what is happening at the cross. Nor in any Christian act of love. Jesus is not using or ignoring others to get his own happiness. Jesus is suffering and dying precisely to include others in the very happiness he desires and hopes for — the joy set before him. It’s not called selfishness when you aim to increase your happiness in God by including others in it, especially when it costs you your life. This is not selfishness. It is love.
Desire of Our Souls
So, we circle back to the beginning. The flag waving over Passion 2020 is summoning you to experience a miracle in your life. The miracle of desire. A miracle because you can’t make it happen. It’s a gift. The flag of Isaiah 26:8 is waving. And the very Spirit that makes it wave is the Spirit that wakens your desire. God is calling you to embrace the miracle of saying from your heart,
Your name and renown [O Lord] are the desire of our souls. (Isaiah 26:8)
Nothing is more important in your life than the triumph of this desire over all other desires. If the name and fame of Jesus, the Savior, the Son of God, the King of kings, does not become your greatest desire, you will not only waste your life; you will lose it. But if Jesus becomes your greatest desire — though it may cost you your life — you will finish the race, take many with you, and together you will enter the joy of your master, forever.
For over twenty years, the flag that has flown over the Passion Conferences is a declaration from the prophet Isaiah. If you go to the Passion 2020 website and click “more information” and scroll down, this is what you see from Isaiah 26:8 (fading from yellow to magenta to red):
Yes Lord, walking in the way of your truth, we wait eagerly for you, for your name and renown are the desire of our souls.
This has never changed — ever since the beginning of Passion. Your name, O God, and your renown, your fame, are the desire of our souls. So yes, Lord, we wait for you. We long for you. You are our greatest desire.
Name Above Every Name
The reason I say “you, Lord” and not just “your name” is our desire is not only because the text says “we wait eagerly for you,” but also because that is what “your name” means: Your name is the essence of you — who you are. You said your name is Yahweh, “I Am Who I Am” (Exodus 3:14). So, when we say his name is our desire, we mean his being is our desire.
And now, on this side of the incarnation, we know you by another name: Jesus, who said, in the most outrageous, glorious, true statement that a man ever made: “Before Abraham was, ‘I Am’” (John 8:58). So, Jesus is “I Am.” Jesus is Yahweh. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). The Word was Yahweh, “I Am Who I Am.” “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). And of this great, incarnate “I Am,” the angel said, “You shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21).
So, for over twenty years, there’s been no doubt and no change. This is the flag flying over Passion. Our desire, our greatest desire, is you, God, “I Am,” the one who absolutely is — no beginning, no ending, no becoming. You, Yahweh. You, the incarnate God-man. You, Jesus, the only person in the universe who can save us from our sins — because you are God and man. You are our greatest desire.
For the Fame of God’s Name
But not just you privately, God. No. We desire your renown — your fame. “Your name and your renown are the desire of our souls.” We desire you — to be famous! We desire you to be known, and admired, and loved, and worshiped, and treasured by all the peoples of the world, all the cities, all the campuses — all the churches.
No Competing Kings
And when we say that you are our desire — your name, your fame — we don’t mean, someday, maybe. Maybe you will be famous. Maybe not. That’s not what Isaiah 26:8 means. It’s not what we mean. Never has been. Never will be. The fame of God is not a maybe. It’s coming. It is more sure than the rising sun.
All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations shall worship before you. For kingship belongs to the Lord, and he rules over the nations. (Psalm 22:27–28)
This is not a maybe. The gospel of your name, your Son, your salvation, will reach the nations. He will gather his sheep. He will build his church. “For kingship belongs to the Lord, and he rules over the nations.” Jesus did not die in vain! He has bought his people. He will have them — from every people. His blood was not wasted.
You were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation. (Revelation 5:9)
They are ransomed. They will come. The global glory of Jesus Christ is not a maybe.
The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever. (Revelation 11:15)
There is no maybe. There will be no competing kings. His name and his fame will be supreme and universal. And every contender for his throne will be cast down.
The haughtiness of man shall be humbled, and the lofty pride of men shall be brought low, and the Lord alone will be exalted in that day. (Isaiah 2:17)
Your Greatest Desire
And all the humble and lowly, whose greatest desire was the name and fame of Jesus, will receive their desire in full. We will be with him. And he will be with us. And every hindrance to our enjoyment of his presence, his name, his fame will be taken away.
Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away. (Revelation 21:3–4)
This is coming. This fame. This name. This God-man, Jesus, Yahweh, is coming. To call this the desire of our souls does not mean uncertain desire, uncertain fulfillment. No. We can already taste it. Indeed, if we could not taste it, we would not desire it. And if we do not desire it, we will not have it (1 Peter 2:3). To be born again is to taste that God is more to be desired than anything else. And this God you desire is Jesus.
Nothing is more important in your life than the awakening of this desire. The triumph of this desire over all other desires. If the name and fame of Jesus, the Savior, the Son of God, the King of kings, does not become your greatest desire, you will not only waste your life; you will lose it.
Desire: Friend or Foe?
Which leads me to two questions, or two objections. And my hope and my prayer is that by answering these two questions, I would persuade you to give yourself no rest until Jesus — personally precious, and globally famous — is your supreme desire.
1. Doesn’t all this emphasis on desire really backfire in the end? Even if you say, the name and fame of God is your desire, you’re still making so much of your desire — the state of your own heart — you wind up making a god out of your desire. If I give my life to pursuing my desire, am I not making myself, my desire, the ultimate thing, not God? And so the whole thing backfires. Doesn’t it? That’s one question.
2. Here’s the other one: What if I urge you not only to desire the name and fame of God above all things, but also to make that desire the motive of everything you do — the sustaining force of every good deed? Every act of love? Which in fact I do. Would I not then contaminate your love for others by turning love into self-seeking? I will have my desire satisfied in doing good for you. And thus, I ruin the moral beauty of selfless love, by turning it into self-seeking — the pursuit of my desire.
If I thought that these two fears — the fear of making a god out of desire, and the fear of ruining love by seeking my desire — were only a threat to a Passion Conference, or a Passion flag, I probably wouldn’t bring them up. But my sense is that hundreds of thousands of people around the world are lamed in their relation to God by the suspicion that desire is a dangerous ally in worship. And my sense is that hundreds of thousands of people are hindered in genuine love for others by the suspicion that pursuing my desire is a defective motive for any good deed.
So, what should we do? My suggestion is this: Before you get entangled in psychological or philosophical or ethical arguments, look to Jesus in his word. And ask: What did he say about this? And when he acted in love, how was he motivated? What was the role of desire in the teaching and acting of Jesus?
Let’s measure the force of these objections by looking at Jesus.
Deepen Your Denial — and Desire
Perhaps the person who objects that we make a god out of desire when we put so much emphasis on it — even if God is our desire — perhaps this person would take me to Mark 8:34 and say this: Your emphasis on pursuing your desire contradicts Jesus’s emphasis on denying yourself and following him. Jesus said,
If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.
But you say, Piper, “Don’t deny your desires, pursue them! Glut them! Intensify them!” Which is true — if you desire God.
My response: “You need to look more carefully at what Jesus actually said and how he argues in this text. It’s not what you think. In fact, this text not only is not a problem for what I’m teaching; it’s the basis of it.”
I know this sounds backward. How can Jesus’s teaching, that we should deny ourselves, actually teach that we should indulge our desire — for God? But that is exactly what Jesus teaches. We’ll see it in just a minute. All Christian self-denial is for the sake of ultimate, eternal satisfaction in God. In fact, the effort to deny yourself God as your supreme desire is idolatry, and blasphemy. (Part 2, conclusion, tomorrow)
Article by Jon Bloom, Staff writer, desiringGod.org
Have you ever wondered how Jesus’s absence could be an advantage to us? I’m referring to something Jesus said to his disciples just before he died:
I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer; concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged. (John 16:7–11)
What “Helper” could possibly be better than Jesus’s perfect, powerful presence and witness with his people on the earth?
I can only imagine that this question was going through his disciples’ minds when Jesus announced that he was leaving them (John 16:5–6). What advantage would it be to them for the Messiah to leave, when his mission was not yet complete, and to send them as his replacements? How could they be more effective than he had been? They could not have felt anywhere close to ready, and their collective behavior over the next couple of terrible days only seemed to confirm this.
But Jesus knew his absence would be a huge advantage, not only for his closest disciples, but “for those who [would] believe in [him] through their word” (John 17:20). He intended to empower their (and our) experience of his presence and global witness beyond anything they had ever imagined.
Not Merely With.. but ‘In”
One advantage of Jesus’s physical absence, the one Jesus explicitly mentioned, is that the Helper would come to the disciples (John 16:7). The Helper is, of course, the Holy Spirit, who Paul calls “the Spirit of Jesus” (Philippians 1:19). This is where we strain our mind’s eyes as we try to peer into the mystery that is the Trinity.
Earlier that evening, Jesus had told his disciples that although he was going away to prepare a place for them (John 14:2–3), he would not leave them as orphans, but he was going to come to them again (John 14:18). But rather than just be with them — which is all they had yet known — Jesus was going to give each disciple (including all of us who would eventually follow) the deeper, more intimate experience of the Father and the Son making their home in them through the Spirit (John 14:17, 23).
This meant that each disciple would experience the advantage of a personal manifestation of and communion with the triune God. But this raises the question, Why must Jesus be physically absent for the Helper to be present (John 16:7)?
Why It Requires Jesus’s Absence
Well, it can’t be that there’s some metaphysical reason that makes it impossible for the Holy Spirit to be present and fill believers when the incarnated Son is present, because that wouldn’t make sense of numerous Scriptures.
The Spirit is clearly active during Jesus’s earthly ministry, even from the earliest days. Not only are we told that Mary conceived Jesus by the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:35), but that Elizabeth (Luke 1:41), Zechariah (Luke 1:67), and Simeon (Luke 2:26–27) were filled with the Holy Spirit with Jesus present. And if it wasn’t the Holy Spirit, then who empowered John the Baptist’s prophesies and who revealed to John who Jesus was (John 1:29–34)? Jesus himself told Nicodemus that no one is born again without the Spirit’s involvement, and he wasn’t referring to his post-ascension future (John 3:6–8), and he told his disciples “it is the Spirit who gives life” (John 6:63).
So then, what’s the reason Jesus had to leave in order for the Spirit, the Helper, to come? D.A. Carson explains,
The thought is eschatological. The many biblical promises that the Spirit will characterize the age of the kingdom of God . . . breed anticipation. But this saving reign of God cannot be fully inaugurated until Jesus has died, risen from the dead, and been exalted to his Father’s right hand, returned to the glory he enjoyed with the Father before the world began. (Gospel According the John, 533–534)
A second advantage of Jesus’s physical absence is seen in the words “convict the world” (John 16:8). Jesus had a world-reaching mission in mind. His mission was far broader and would take far longer to accomplish than the eleven had yet comprehended.
Jesus intended for billions of people to hear his gospel on multiple continents around the globe over the course of many centuries. His physical presence on earth would be a tremendous draw for his disciples. Who would want to spend their lives far away from him when they could be with him?
So, part of God’s eschatological design is a strategy that would scale to meet the needs of this massive mission. It could only be accomplished if Jesus’s powerful presence was in millions of disciples as they took the gospel to billions of people around the world over millennia.
That’s why it’s to everyone’s advantage, for now, that Jesus is physically absent. Because of this, you as a disciple, no matter where you are, have the unspeakable advantage of the presence of the triune God dwelling in you to commune with you and empower you in your role in his Great Commission. And the global church has the advantage of Jesus’s empowering presence whenever and wherever it gathers for worship (Matthew 18:20) or sends out disciples to preach the gospel (Matthew 28:20).
(Friends: Today’s DL is full of wonderful, life giving, freeing, ‘truth’. There are soo many ‘gold’ bars in today’s dialogue between John Piper and R.C. Sproul. And Jesus said “and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” John 8:32. I pray that God will grant us the grace to ‘see’ this truth ‘so that’ we can let go of more of the things that hold us back and move forward into His eternal plan for our lives. Amen)
Why Is My Theology Not Changing My Life?
Dialogue between John Piper and R.C. Sproul
Why is my theology not changing my life? Or at least, not changing me as fast as I thought it would? The topic was taken up by Pastor John and by the late R.C. Sproul at a Ligonier National Conference back in 2011. The conversation was on stage. There the dialogue turned toward how the mind and heart relate to the discovery of biblical truth. We jump into the conversation, beginning with Pastor John.
Behold and Be Changed
John Piper: I totally agree that the primacy of the affections is in terms of the mind serving the affections so that they’re not emotionalism, but real fruit of knowing. God is not honored by emotions based on falsehood. He’s only honored by emotions that are rooted in truth.
Now, here’s the practical issue: Lots of people know things and don’t get changed. Some of you are just discovering the doctrines of grace, and you’re just as crabby this year as you were last year. What’s wrong? Knowing leads to right affections and doing, but not quickly for everybody, or not immediately, or sometimes not at all. The devil knows quite a bit of theology and hates all of it. And he’s maybe more orthodox than most of us, but he can’t abide it. The reason is because he doesn’t know it as glorious. He doesn’t know it as beautiful.
I’m just going to add: to know something aright is not just to get the theological pieces in order and have the right quotes in the Bible, but to go to 2 Corinthians 3:18: “Beholding the glory of the Lord, [we] are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.” Now, I would say the implication is that the veil is lifted by the Holy Spirit. This is sovereign grace, lifting the blinding veil, so that now we see the stunningly glorious, beautiful things about God. And it’s the beauty of them that changes us: beholding the glory, we are being changed.
‘Open My Eyes’
They asked me the other day in our little roundtable at Bethlehem College & Seminary, “We’re students here and we’re faculty here. What can we do so that we don’t just become academically big-headed and get it all right and not be changed or help anybody?”
The most practical thing I can say is that as you study from morning till night, pray at least every ten minutes that God would not let that happen, and would reveal himself to you as beautiful in the part of Scripture that you’re working on or the theological issue you’re working on. Ask him over and over again: “Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law” (Psalm 119:18). Open my eyes. I’m staring at it right now. Nothing’s happening. Ask him, “Open my eyes.” Because I need to see not just truth, but beautiful truth, glorious truth, and that’s what changes. So, prayer, I think, would be the key.
You look like you’re ready to say something.
Beauty in the Heart of Worship
R.C. Sproul: No. I’m just sitting here eating that up, John. One place where I have felt so much alone in the ministry that I am involved with is I find so few people who have a passion for beauty. God is the foundation for the good, the true, and the beautiful. And you can distinguish among those three things, but you better never separate them.
And I love it when you sit here and talk about it, because you’re articulating what I’ve been trying to articulate for years. I’ve usually said that it’s not just enough to understand the truth; you’ve got to see the loveliness of it. You’ve got to see the sweetness of it. You talk about the glory of it, but you’ve added to it the beauty of it. And that’s it.
Our worship is supposed to be for beauty and for holiness. God went to such extremes in the Old Testament to communicate that principle of beauty in the heart of worship. That’s one of the great weaknesses of our tradition is that we seem to think the only thing that’s virtuous is ugliness and we have to get away from beauty. But everything that’s beautiful, even paintings painted by pagans, travesties — sometimes in spite of themselves — they call attention to the character of God, because everything beautiful bears witness to him because he is the source of beauty.
And that beauty is not just in the eye of the beholder. It’s there essentially in the character and the being of God himself. When you talk about it here, it just thrills my heart because we have to see how beautiful the truth is and how beautiful the God of the truth is.
I think that the enticement to sin is that sin promises pleasure. That’s the bad kind of hedonism. But it never delivers; it’s a lie. And that’s where our great deception is. We think that we can’t be happy unless we’re sinning. And sin can be pleasurable for a season, from one perspective. But it can never be joyful — ever. It can’t possibly bring joy because it’s not beautiful. It’s ugly. And we have that attraction to ugliness. Our basic makeup is to prefer the darkness rather than the light.
We live in a world that has been marred, seriously marred. It’s been vandalized. The glory of God is everywhere in the beauty of creation. The whole world is full of his glory. But we have vandalized that glory.
Escape Through the Promises
John Piper: It seems to me that the way Jesus argues is that the kingdom of God is like a man who found a treasure hidden in a field, and in his joy — from his joy — he went and sold everything he had and bought that field (Matthew 13:44). That’s the paradigm for how you get freed from the bondage to the world and sin and the devil. If you see the kingdom and the King as a treasure more valuable than your grandfather’s clock, your car, your computer, your books, your fame, and whatever, then it all becomes rubbish and you’re freed.
Before then, it had tremendous power. It held you. Sin has the power of pleasure. And the Bible breaks that power with the power of a superior pleasure. It severs the root of it.
His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. (2 Peter 1:3–4)
How do you escape from the corruptions in the world? Precious and very great promises of the glory and excellence of God. The sequence of thought in 2 Peter 1:3–4 is this: escape from corruption comes through a superior promise.
I think that the beauty of holiness, the more it goes deep and satisfies — really, really satisfies — the freer you become from pornography, and from the pleasures of resentment and bitterness that you want to hold on to, and from fear of man. These sins have their talons in us, and those talons are dislodged, not so much by duty — yanking them out like this — but by pushing them out.
Someone asked once, “What’s the easiest way to get the sin of air out of a glass?” Should you put a vacuum on it and suck the air out? No, just pour water in the glass. If you want to get the air out of the glass, just fill it with water. That would be the way I want to build holiness into my people’s lives.
Article by David Mathis, Executive Editor, desiringGod.org
Humility is not something we can achieve. We might consider it quintessentially American to think we could. You can do it. Be proactive. Take the first step. Grab the bull by the horns and be humble.
In other words, humble yourself by your own bootstraps.
But if we come to the Scriptures with such a mindset, we find ourselves in a different world. Genuine humility, as with true faith, is not self-help or a life hack, but a response to divine initiative and help.
God Opposes the Proud
Make no mistake, we do have a part to play in humility. It is not only an effect but a command. In particular, two apostles tell us to humble ourselves. And both do so in strikingly similar ways, adding the promise that God will exalt us on the other side:
Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you. (James 4:10)
Humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you. (1 Peter 5:6)
So far as we can tell, James and Peter haven’t been inspired by each other on this point, but by the Old Testament. In the immediate context of instructing us to humble ourselves, both quote the Greek translation of Proverbs 3:34 (“God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble,” James 4:6; 1 Peter 5:5). But before we run off to create our own program for self-humbling, we should consider the context in both passages.
Humbling from Within
For our purposes here, observe that both calls to self-humbling come in response to trials. James refers to quarrels and fights within the church:
What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. (James 4:1–2)
Conflict among those claiming the name of Christ humbles the church. It serves as a test of pride, and humility. James reminds them not only that they are “sinners” and “double-minded” but he also reminds them of Proverbs 3:34. He charges the church to submit to God, resist the devil, and draw near to God (James 4:7–8). In other words, “Humble yourselves before the Lord.” The church is being humbled from within. Now, how will they respond to God’s humbling purposes in this conflict? Will they humble themselves?
Humbling from Without
So also in 1 Peter, the church is under pressure. Society is mouthing its insults and maligning these early Christians. They are beginning to suffer socially and emotionally, if not yet physically. They are under threat, and tempted to be anxious. And at this moment of humbling, Peter turns to Proverbs 3:34, and exhorts them, “Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another” (1 Peter 5:5).
Here the church’s humbling is coming from without. Now, how will they respond to God’s humbling purposes in these insults? Will they humble themselves? Will they bow up, reacting with pride and self-exaltation, or will they bow down, humbling themselves before the gracious hand and perfect timing of their Lord?
Self-Humbling as Responsive
Over and over again in the Bible, self-humbling is not something we initiate but something we receive, even embrace — even welcome — when God sends his humbling, however direct or indirect his means. The invitation to humble ourselves does not come in a vacuum but through our first being humbled.
Humility, like faith — and as a manifestation of faith — is not an achievement. Humility is not fundamentally a human initiative, but a proper, God-given response in us to God himself and his glory and purposes.
We don’t teach ourselves to be humble. There’s no five-step plan for becoming more humble in the next week, or month. Within measure, we might take certain kinds of initiatives to cultivate a posture of humility in ourselves (more on those in a later article), but the main test (and opportunity) comes when we are confronted, unsettled, and accosted, in the moments when our semblances of control vanish and we’re taken off guard by life in a fallen world — and the question comes to us:
How will you respond to these humbling circumstances? Will you humble yourself?
Gladly Receive the Uncomfortable God
For Christians, self-humbling is mainly responsive. It is not something we just up and do. We don’t initiate humility, and we don’t get the credit for it. It’s no less active, and no less difficult, but it is responsive to who God is, what he has said to us in his word, and what he is doing in the world, specifically as it comes to bear in all its inconvenience and pain and disappointment in our own lives. Self-humbling is, in essence, gladly receiving God’s person, words, and acts when it is not easy and comfortable.
First comes the disruptive words or circumstances, in God’s hand and plan, that humble us — as it happened for King Hezekiah seven centuries before Christ. God healed him from his deathbed, and yet the king “did not make return according to the benefit done to him, for his heart was proud.” God then acted against Hezekiah’s pride. He humbled him. In whatever form it took, we’re told that “wrath came upon him and Judah and Jerusalem” (2 Chronicles 32:25).
Then comes the question that presses against our souls, as it did for the king: Will I receive God’s humbling or resist it? Will I try to explain it away or kick against it, or will it serve to produce in me genuine repentance? And if I do not humble myself, then, further divine humbling will follow in time. God’s initial humbling leads unavoidably to some further humbling. The question is whether it will be our self-humbling or further (and often more severe) humbling from him.
For Hezekiah, he acknowledged the divine wrath as opposition to his own pride, and he “humbled himself for the pride of his heart, both he and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that the wrath of the Lord did not come upon them in the days of Hezekiah” (2 Chronicles 32:26).
When God Humbles His People
To be sure, we are not left without some postures we can cultivate and means to pursue. Daily humbling ourselves under the authority of God’s word, and humbling ourselves by obeying his words, and humbling ourselves by coming desperately to him in prayer, and humbling ourselves in fasting — these all have their place in our overall response as creatures to our Creator. But first and foremost, we need to know humbling ourselves is responsive to God.
He is the one who created our world from nothing by the power of his word (Hebrews 11:3). He is the one who formed the first man from the ground (Genesis 2:7) and the first woman from his side (Genesis 2:21–22). He is the one who chose to reveal himself to us, to speak words into our world through his prophets and apostles, to make known himself and his Son and his plan for our redemption. And he is the one who, through the gentleness and merciful severity of his providence, humbles his church again and again, from without and from within, and in his humbling brings us to the fork in the road: Now, how will you respond to my humbling purposes in this trial? Will you humble yourself?
When the next humbling trial comes, will you bow up with pride, or bow down in humility? God has a particular promise for you in these moments. The God of all power will exalt the humble in his perfect timing.
You were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. (Galatians 5:13)
Jesus Christ set his face toward the cross in order to set his people free.
The nails in his hands were the keys that unlocked our shackles. The cry “It is finished!” (John 19:30) was his command for our release. And Easter’s empty tomb shattered the door to every cell. Because Jesus died and rose again, every Christian can say with the apostle Paul, “For freedom Christ has set us free” (Galatians 5:1).
Sometimes, however, the idea of freedom is more thrilling than the reality of it. For, as Paul goes on to tell us, true freedom is less about following your dreams and more about kneeling down to scrub another’s feet. “You were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another” (Galatians 5:13).
Why did Jesus set us free from the guilt of our past, from the curse of the law, and from the tyranny of our former sins (Galatians 1:3–4; 3:13; 5:24)? He set us free to serve.
Go Low to Go High
Paul’s words sound like nonsense to our sinful flesh. In our natural state, we associate the word freedom with all sorts of ideas — independence, self-expression, personal choice — but rarely with service. Unbelief, however, always separates what God has joined together. And in the kingdom of God, freedom and service belong together like Adam and Eve, like heaven and earth, like grace and peace.
We need look no further than our Lord Jesus. No one has ever been freer than God himself. Yet what did the Son of God do with such freedom? He took “the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:7). He said to the twelve, “I am among you as the one who serves” (Luke 22:27). He wrapped a towel around his waist, bent to his disciples’ feet, and served them to the end (John 13:1–5). In the story of Jesus’s serving, suffering, and saving, we see the freest man who ever lived.
We need not fear losing our freedom, then, when we follow Jesus in taking the lowest place in the room. As he told his disciples, “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant” (Matthew 20:26). When we bend our necks to this yoke, we walk straighter. When we kneel upon this ground, we stand taller.
True freedom is never found in serving ourselves. True freedom is found in being like him.
Bound to a Thousand Souls
Few have expressed this path of true freedom more beautifully than B.B. Warfield did over a century ago. Preaching on the self-sacrificing love of Jesus from Philippians 2:5–8, Warfield said,
Self-sacrifice brought Christ into the world. And self-sacrifice will lead us, his followers, not away from but into the midst of men. Wherever men suffer, there will we be to comfort. Wherever men strive, there will we be to help. Wherever men fail, there will we be to uplift. Wherever men succeed, there will we be to rejoice.
Self-sacrifice means not indifference to our times and our fellows: it means absorption in them. . . . It means not that we should live one life, but a thousand lives — binding ourselves to a thousand souls by the filaments of so loving a sympathy that their lives become ours.
The glory of Christian freedom is not that we can finally reach our full potential, but that we can finally help others reach theirs. Not that we can finally discover ourselves, but, freed from self-absorption, that we can finally lift our eyes and discover others. Not that we can finally follow our dreams, but that we can finally fill our dreams with the good of those around us.
True freedom, in other words, gives a man the mind of Christ, who bound himself — and who goes on binding himself — to thousands upon thousands of souls. As Paul goes on to write in Galatians 5, true freedom teaches a man to love his neighbor as himself (Galatians 5:14).
Freedom Will Not Feel Easy
As long as we are in this world, of course, we are not yet free as we one day will be. One day, no selfishness will tempt us to forsake the path of service. Our hearts will beat as one with our Lord, and giving to others will be our gladness.
Until then, we should not be surprised when we regularly (even daily) find ourselves simply not wanting to serve. Perhaps when we come from work to a toddler’s wail and the afternoon snack strewn across the floor. Or when a February storm piles snow onto our driveway in heaps, and we have already shoveled three times this week. Or when we see a socially taxing church member sitting off by himself, and we know we should approach him.
What do we do in such moments? How do we “through love serve one another” when we would much prefer to serve our own comfort? We begin by banishing the thought that the service in front of us is somehow slavery. We go on to remember that “for freedom Christ has set us free.” And then we trust that the same Christ who delivered us from our sins is zealous to take us in to deeper levels of freedom — not in spite of or around the service in front of us, but through it.
Trust and Step
When we do move forward in these moments, trusting our Lord to provide what we need, we will find that he does not, as Pharaoh did of old, demand that we make bricks without straw. Rather, he “supplies the Spirit,” who leads us in the ways of love (Galatians 3:5; 5:16–24). When the tasks in front of us feel beyond our strength to carry out, they are not beyond the Spirit’s.
If Christ has freed us from our sins, will he not also free us from today’s selfishness? If he has given us his Spirit, will he not also give us everything we need as we seek to imitate him in his service? He surely will. For freedom he has set us free. So trust his promise, draw a deep breath, and keep stepping into his freedom.
Can sickness and suffering be better than health and prosperity?
In a world that lives to avoid pain, that question may sound ridiculous. Not only pleasure-seekers, but even the religious, view suffering as entirely negative — a sign of God’s disapproval. In most world religions, health and prosperity are the reward for a good and faithful life, while sickness and suffering are curses, the result of evil deeds in this life or a past one. The American prosperity “gospel” perpetuates these lies, equating health and material blessings with our faithfulness and God’s favor, and sickness with a lack of faith.
My Life of Sickness
At times, I almost agreed with them, though, particularly when my prayers felt unanswered and my pain relentless.
I wondered why God wouldn’t respond to my earnest pleas, suspicious that he had cursed me, rather than blessed me. My sole focus was getting relief, so I was puzzled by verses like these: “Count it all joy my brothers when you meet with trials of various kinds” (James 1:2) and “It was good for me that I was afflicted that I might learn your statutes” (Psalm 119:71). Trials made me miserable. Nothing about affliction seemed good. I looked enviously at people who had what I wanted and longed for an easier life.
Contracting polio as an infant, I’ve always been physically limited, unable to run or hike or even be outside by myself. Instead, I learned to love “indoor” activities like crafting, painting, and cooking, happy to do anything creative with my hands.
The diagnosis of post-polio syndrome changed that, narrowing my physical world even further so that now I sometimes struggle to pick up a glass. I live with daily pain that was once just occasional. Rather than making my life harder, however, each physical loss has been a strange gift, one that has increased my dependence and love for God.
Testimony of Sufferers
My experience is not unusual. Christians around the world and throughout the ages have experienced the unique blessing that God gives us in sickness and suffering. Hudson Taylor, the well-known missionary to China in the 1800s, reported,
The deepest, most precious, and most abiding spiritual lessons, which God has been pleased to teach me were learned in consequence of enduring my various experiences of sickness. . . . I feel it would have been nothing short of a calamity to have missed the physical suffering through which I have passed. . . . I am positive that I have sometimes met with God’s refusal to heal when I have been most in fellowship with him.
It would have been nothing short of a calamity to have missed the physical suffering through which I have passed. Hudson Taylor’s physical suffering included hepatitis, a damaged liver, constant exhaustion, year-long paralysis from a fall, and severe depression. Yet suffering is what drew Taylor closest to God.
Henry Frost, a physician and friend of Hudson Taylor, attested to the same benefits of suffering. He saw some of his patients miraculously healed after prayer, while other patients, equally sick and equally faithful, were not healed. Frost commented,
Special spiritual blessings were given to the persons who were permitted to be sick, and most of the persons, if not all of them, were finally constrained to testify that they believed that the sickness had proved to be even better than health could have been.
Sickness proved to be even better than health could have been.
A modern saint and quadriplegic who lives with agonizing pain, Joni Eareckson Tada, agrees with Frost and Taylor in her book A Place of Healing. She adds, “He has chosen not to heal me, but to hold me. The more intense the pain, the closer his embrace.”
The more intense the pain, the closer his embrace.
The testimonies of these saints, while radical, are not rare. Everyone I have encountered who has turned to Christ in their suffering, looking to Jesus and his grace in their pain, testifies to this reality: suffering and sickness are greater gifts than health and prosperity. The intensity of fellowship with him, the immediacy of his presence, and the comfort of his love are all heightened in suffering.
Nothing Has Shaped Me More
Through pain, God has ushered me into the fullest, most intimate, most sacred encounters with him. Times I will never forget, even after my suffering has passed. My faith has become much stronger.
Because of sickness, I am less attached to the temporal and more grounded in the eternal. I am more understanding and compassionate, aware of my own frailties and weakness under pressure. In fact, nothing has more powerfully shaped me — my theology, my character, my love for God and my love for others — than suffering. Through it, I have learned that one day in his courts, one day embraced by his love, one day of fellowship with him, is better than a thousand elsewhere.
In prosperity and health, I am grateful for his gifts but not as desperate for his presence. My material blessings can keep me occupied. In ease and abundance, I tend to live selfishly, entitled and independent, focusing on what makes me most comfortable. I have gone days with little thought of God, not sensing any need for him. I am content to keep God at a distance, but in suffering I need him near.
Greater Mercy Than Health
Charles Spurgeon, who struggled with frequent depression, rheumatism, gout, and Brights disease, said,
There is no greater mercy that I know of on earth than good health except it be sickness; and that has often been a greater mercy to me than health. It is a good thing to be without a trouble; but it is a better thing to have a trouble and know how to get grace enough to bear it.
Getting grace to bear our struggles can be better than not having them. Yes, prosperity and health are mercies, but they are only temporary, meant to be enjoyed in this life alone. But suffering and trouble enable us to lay hold of the greater gifts of God, gifts like his fellowship, comfort and love, which grow sweeter over time.
God loves to give his children good gifts and, looking through the lens of faith, we can see that sickness and suffering are among the greatest.
Interview with John Piper, Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org
Here’s a great question from Jonathan, who listens in from New Jersey. “Hello, Pastor John! It’s fairly typical to hear Christians say of someone who has died, ‘They’re with Jesus now.’ But in 1 Thessalonians 4:16–17, it sounds like Paul is saying that Christians who have died will meet Jesus at the second coming. Do Christians go to be with the Lord when we die, or will we meet him when he comes back to earth? I guess what I’m asking is this: When a Christian dies, what comes first: seeing Jesus or being raised from the dead?”
A Long Wait?
The reason this is an excellent question is because 1 Thessalonians 4:16–17 really does sound like what Jonathan has said: believers who have died are raised from the dead, and in that sense, first meet the Lord at his coming, rather than immediately meeting him when they die.
It sounds like that, but I’m sure that’s not what Paul means there, and I’ll try to show why. I think it’s really plain from two passages of Scripture that Paul was certain when he and other believers died, they would go immediately to be with the Lord Jesus and see him in that moment.
We are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.
Those are the two alternatives that Paul sees. I’m either here in my body — in one sense, away from being at home with the Lord — or I die and I’m at home with the Lord.
Now here’s verse 9: “So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him.” Paul did not conceive of a time when the body dies and we are not at home with the Lord. To die is to lose the body temporarily and go to be at home with the Lord.
This is not his first choice. That’s one of the things we might correct at funerals. We do not want to give the impression that the disembodied at home-ness with the Lord is the first apostolic choice. His first choice is that the Lord Jesus would come before he dies and over-clothe his body with eternal life.
But he says that if we die, it is better. So, his third choice is stay here and work; his second choice is to go and be with Jesus without his body; and his first choice is “Come, Lord Jesus, and give me a new body so that I never have to be bodiless.”
The other passage is Philippians 1:22–24: “If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account.”
Now, those are the two possibilities for Paul, and one of them was not to die and have the soul lie in the grave sleeping. That wasn’t the choice — die and have the soul lie in the grave sleeping until the second coming. No.
The two possibilities were to go on living here, or to go to be with Christ, which is far, far better. I conclude that Paul had no doubts about being united with Christ with conscious joy by faith in this life, and it would never be interrupted by death. And when he left his body, when he was martyred, he would go to something far better than even the communion that he enjoyed with Christ here.
Who Goes First?
Now, let’s say a word about 1 Thessalonians 4. You’ve got to put on your thinking cap, because the logic of this text is so important. I think it’s clear, but it’s complicated.
It goes like this: “For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep” (1 Thessalonians 4:14). Now, that sounds like he means to bring them with him from heaven, where, in fact, they are. In fact, there are souls in heaven. We just argued for that from 2 Corinthians 5 and Philippians 1.
“For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep” (1 Thessalonians 4:15). Now that, too, might sound like we are already in our souls — body in the grave, souls with Jesus — in the presence of the Lord, and in that sense, those still on earth have not preceded them into the presence of Christ.
But here’s the problem: now comes the argument for why those who are left, who are alive, will not precede those who have died. It goes like this: “For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first” (1 Thessalonians 4:16).
That’s why we won’t precede them. They rise first. Then, we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together — not a first and second, but together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. “So we will always be with the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 4:17).
The argument for why those who are alive at the Lord’s coming will not precede those who have died is that those who have died will rise first, and then we will all go together. There is no ranking: “Oh, you got to go first.” We go together to meet the Lord in the air. No first, no seconds; we are all together.
Here’s my conclusion when I put these three passages together. Precede in 1 Thessalonians 4:15 does not refer to the dead preceding the living into the presence of the Lord in heaven, which, of course, they clearly do. Paul’s just not talking about that. Rather, precede refers to preceding with a resurrection body into the glorious experience of the second coming.
Let me say that again, because that’s what the argument of verses 16 and 17 demands that precede means. We won’t precede the dead, Paul says. Precede where? Preceding them with resurrection bodies into the glorious experience of the second coming.
In other words, what Paul is saying in 1 Thessalonians 4:14–16 is that the living won’t have any advantage over the dead when it comes to the fullest enjoyment of that day — that resurrection, second-coming day, including bodily sight and enjoyment and bodily celebration of the second coming — because the dead in Christ shall rise first.
In other words, before there is any glorious gathering to meet the Lord in the air, the bodies of all believers who have died will be raised from the dead, reunited with their souls, and then the entire Christian church, the living and the resurrected, will together meet the Lord and welcome him to establish his rightful kingdom.