10 Questions on the Canon of Scripture

Some of the most important questions Christians need to wrestle with are about the Bible: what it is, where it came from, and whether or not we can trust it. Rather than letting fictitious books like The DaVinci Code inform our understanding of the Bible, we would do well to consider what the church has taught. The good news is, this is something that the church has spent a considerable amount of time and effort wrestling with, and there are answers to sufficiently handle any and all objections thrown at the Bible. The following series of short-answer questions are a brief introduction to issues of the New Testament Canon, the canonicity and reliability of the four Gospels, and how the issue of Canon applies to us today. Additionally, there are several recommended resources at the end of this article provided for further study.

1. What does the word canonrefer to as it pertains to New Testament thought?

The word ‘canon’ (lit. “standard” or “rule”) refers to the collection of authoritative or normative writings that were deemed by the church to be inspired by God and therefore belonging to an exclusive set of Scriptures permanently given for the life of the church.[1] The New Testament Canon, containing a total of twenty-seven books, is received in addition to the thirty-nine books of the Old Testament to comprise the Evangelical Canon of Scripture.

2. Did the early church create the New Testament Canon?

The early church did not create the New Testament Canon; rather, it is more accurate to assert that the early church recognized the New Testament canon. God, having spoken through His Son, as well as his apostles and prophets, inspired the words of Scripture (2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Pet. 1:21). The early church regarded certain writings as divinely inspired and authoritative, established though various objective and rational criteria, and thus received them as Scripture. “The canonization of early Christian writings did not so much confer authority on them as recognize or ratify an authority that they had long enjoyed, making regulative what had previously been customary.”[2] In this way, the formation of the NT Canon served to clearly delineate the scope of those writings which had received broad recognition as authoritative Christian Scripture and thus also excluded others.[3] 

3. Where in the New Testament do we find references to the initial identification of other first-century writings as Scripture?

In 1 Timothy 5:18, the Apostle Paul writes: “For the Scripture says, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,’ and, ‘The laborer deserves his wages.’” The second quotation is a reference to a saying of Jesus recorded in Luke 10:7. Paul is apparently equating Luke’s gospel with Scripture. In 2 Peter 3:15-16, speaking of the letters written by the Apostle Paul, Peter writes: “There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures.” Here, Peter is blatantly equating Paul’s epistles with other Scriptures, all of which are twisted by false teachers

4. What three criteria were used to establish the Canon of the New Testament?

One criterion was apostolicity, which meant that the documents must have been written either directly by an apostle or indirectly through an associate of an apostle. Another criterion was catholicity, which meant that the documents must have been relevant to the whole church and had a history of longstanding, widespread, and well-established acceptance and use across Christian communities.[4] A third criterion was orthodoxy, which meant that the content of the documents in question must have been in line with the faith and practice of the church as generally understood from accepted apostolic teaching. It’s important to note that “the Christian community did not explicitly create these criteria as a set of standards by which it would canonize or reject specific books and letters”—they were principles that guided the Church, by divine Providence, in its investigation and recognition of Scripture.[5]

5. Approximately when was the Canon of the New Testament accepted?

The twenty-seven books that comprise the Canon of the New Testament were agreed upon by the majority of churches by the end of the fourth century. Athanasius, the bishop of Alexandria, set forth the first canon list naming these books as exclusively authoritative in his Thirty-Ninth Festal Letter, issued in 367 AD. [6] The church councils convening at Hippo in 393 and Carthage in 397 also promoted this same collection of books. “By the end of the fourth century there was a very broad, if not absolute, unanimity within the Christian community about the substance and shape of its canon of authoritative Scripture. This is remarkable insofar as there was never any official, ecumenically binding action of the ancient church that formalized this canon.”[7]

6. Approximately when were the four Gospels recognized as part of the New Testament Canon?

The four Gospels were recognized as canonical as early as the second century by means of significant literary, geographical, and artifactual attestation from the early church fathers and Christian communities. One of the several early church fathers who recognized a fourfold Gospel was Irenaeus of Lyons in the 180s. In his writings, he clearly recognized the Canonical Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as being the only true and reliable Gospels, fully and exclusively authoritative, handed down to the church by the apostles.[8]

7. What literary attestation contributed to the early canonical recognition of the four gospels?

By the end of the second century, testimony to a fourfold Gospel converges from Christian communities across widely divergent geographical areas such as Alexandria, Antioch, Italy, and Gaul.[9] These Canonical Gospels are frequently used or named in the writings of several early church fathers such as Ignatius, Justin, Irenaeus, and Clement throughout the second century, being attested to far more than any other Gospel in circulation at that time.

8. What artifactual attestation contributed to the early canonical recognition of the four gospels?

A distinction between the popularity of the four Gospels recognized as Canonical as opposed to other written accounts can be observed in the physical format of the earliest manuscript fragments discovered. Of those in codex form (the most common book form used for Scriptural books), 39 instances of material from Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John can be found in 34 manuscript fragments, compared to only five fragments containing text from other Gospels. Additionally, multiple-Gospel codices produced within the first three centuries contain only combinations of the four Canonical Gospels, and two four-Gospel harmonies (by Theophilus and the Diatessaron byTatian) appeared as early as the mid-second century.

9: How might one respond to critics’ claims that more than just four Gospel accounts were written, such as the Gospel of Thomas or the Gospel of Judas?

First, while we obviously do not deny the existence of such Gospels, their existence—and even their occasional use by early ecclesiastical authors—does not necessarily imply that they should be included among the Canonical Gospels. Second, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are the only Gospels we have that were written in first-century; the apocryphal gospels were not composed until after the first-century and thus could not have been written by an eyewitness to Jesus’ resurrection (failing the criterion of apostolicity). Third, some Gospel-like books, often promoted today as real rivals of the fourfold Gospel, were apparently never intended to even be in competition with other books recognized as Scripture.[10] Fourth, these noncanonical gospels were regularly subjected to “discriminative and selective procedures” by the early church fathers as a result of their deviation from orthodox Christian faith and practice; such procedures were not required when it came to the four Canonical Gospels, deemed instead to be “given by God in their fullness and entirety.”[11]

10. Why is the question of Canon important for believers to understand today?

Objections abound concerning the reliability of Scripture. Believers are often persecuted for determining their worldview from and basing their lives on the Bible. It is believed to be an outdated and nonsensical book, full of myths and legends, full of contradictions and discrepancies. Yet, we know first and foremost that the Canonical Scriptures are credible, reliable, and trustworthy because they were written by men carried along by the Holy Spirt (2 Pet. 1:21). God’s word is a firm foundation precisely because it is God’s word; Jesus himself validates the truth of Scripture by proclaiming that it “cannot be broken” (John 10:35). But such clear, objective, and historical evidence for how the Canon of Scripture came to be developed does help to add a further level of credibility to the Scriptures that we can use in our defense of the faith (1 Pet. 3:15) and in the gentle correction of our opponents (2 Tim. 2:25). While we must remember that “the natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God” (1 Cor. 2:14), we nevertheless can be confident in the Word of God that we hold in our hands today and provide an answer for the objections raised against the historical reliability of our Scriptures.

Recommended Resources on the Canon of Scripture


Endnotes
  1. C. E. Hill, “Canon,” ed. Joel B. Green, Jeannine K. Brown, and Nicholas Perrin, Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, Second Edition (Downers Grove, IL; Nottingham, England: IVP Academic; IVP, 2013), 101.
  2. H. Gamble, “Canonical Formation of the New Testament,” ed. Craig A. Evans and Stanley E. Porter, Dictionary of New Testament Background: A Compendium of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 192.
  3. Gamble, “Canonical Formation of the New Testament,” 184.
  4. Ibid., 193.
  5. Sylvie T. Raquel, “Canon, New Testament,” ed. John D. Barry et al., The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).
  6. Gamble, “Canonical Formation of the New Testament,” 190.
  7. Ibid., 191.
  8. Hill, “Canon,” 101.
  9. Hill, “Canon,” 103.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid.

Depression and the Church Community (Part 3)

Encouragement for Depression in the Local Church

Friends, whether or not you battle with depression, the encouragement we need to hold fast our confession comes from the Triune God and the word of his grace. The one true God alone—Father, Son , and Spirit—is the God of all comfort. Yet look at how Paul writes to the Corinthians here; notice how plural it all sounds. We comfort others; we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings and comfort; we are afflicted for y’alls comfort and salvation. The same goes for our text today, and the other passages we read.

Scripture is clear that the context in which we receive the encouragement of our Triune God is in community with others. Like the early chuch in Acts 2, we are strengthened in the faith as we not only devote our selves to the word and prayer, but to fellowship and the breaking of bread. It’s not in isolation, in the comfort of our homes; it’s not on social media, behind the comfort of our screens. No; we encounter the God of all comfort in gospel community. It is in the fellowship of a local church that we find the strength we need to suffer well.

This afternoon, who are you? Maybe you’re a bit like Eutychus: weary, worn out, exhausted after a hard week’s work. You’re eager to hear the word of God’s grace in Christ but you’re tired and running on empty. Maybe you feel a little bit like Paul: burdened beyond your strength and despairing of life itself. Despite all God has done for you and who you are, secure in the love of Christ, you still feel like you have received the sentence of death. Maybe you feel a bit like the church of Acts: afflicted, troubled, persecuted. Even though we’ve been saved in hope and know that our Savior King will one day make all things new, you still battle with anxiety, discouragement, unbelief, sinful doubts, and the temptation to call it quits.

If you are any one of these people today, then hear the good news : Our God is good and does good. He loves you. He sent his only Son into the world to live among us, to suffer like us, and to die for us. And he raised him from the dead so that in him by faith we might have life. Remeber that our God is faithful to his promises. The word of God will never fail. Because Jesus rose from the dead, we have a sure and living hope—as sure as the empty tomb! But don’t just be encouraged yourself; be eager to encourage, exhort, and comfort one another.

If you suffer with depression, know that a church community is not a pain-free remedy, a guaranteed quick fix for your suffering. Simply going to a church or being actively involved will not automatically relieve you of all the pain that comes from living in a broken world. But rest assured, for those whose hope is in God, and are trusting day by day in Jesus and the promise of resurrection, a church community will help you suffer well. Whatever the cause of your depression, you need the encouragement that comes experiencing God’s grace in community, gospel fellowship with others.

As we speak the truth in love, as we minister God’s Word to one another with patience and humility, the Spirit of Jesus will strengthen our faith. The risen Lord Jesus will build up his church. And the Father of mercies, the God of all comfort, will hold us fast.

Depression and the Church Community (Part 2)

So, as we hope in God and believe the gospel of his beloved Son, we still suffer, but we don’t merely suffer. Our God has promised to graciously supply us with all we need to suffer well.

For those who suffer with depression, this is what I want to ask: how can we suffer well? The most important question you can ask is not “How can I get rid of my depression?” but first, “How can I be saved, forgiven of my sin and justified?”; and then second, “How can I continue to trust my Savior Jesus while struggling with depression? How do I rely on God’s abundant grace to suffer well?” Let us continue to answer this as we journey through Acts 20.

The God of Encouragement (Acts 20:7-12)

With Paul and company together in Troas, we find them worshiping with the church “on the first day of the week” (Acts 20:7). This is the first reference to the church meeting for worship on Sunday! While Christians did meet daily, the church came together especially on the Lord’s Day because of Jesus’s resurrection and also to avoid conflicts with synagogue gatherings on Saturday.3 Since many worked during the day, meetings often took place during the evening. And since Paul was intending to depart the next day, the meeting lasted quite a long time, until midnight.

But notice the purpose of their gathering. They were gathered together to break bread—presumably for both a fellowship meal as well as the Lord’s Supper (cf. Acts 2:42-46)—but also for encouragement through Paul’s ministry of the word. Paul talked and conversed with them. Back in verse 2, he gave the churches “much encouragement,” which is literally encouragement “with many words.” Here, in verse 7, he “prolonged his words”; he “extended his message.” And this church was hungry for the word! They were willing to gather late and listen to Paul preach and answer their questions for hours on end. These believers knew that without the water of the Word, they would wither away.

The Death of Eutychus

But this brings us to a specific incident that Luke records in verses 8-9 that took place during this late-night meeting of the church at Troas. A young lad name Eutychus—most likely between 8-14 years old—was overcome by sleep and fell out of the window in which he was sitting and died.

Now, in my experience, I’ve always heard this story told to make humorous points: to illustrate the dangers of a long-winded preacher, and to warn those who fall asleep during the sermon! But is this really why Luke chose to record this specific incident in his history of the church, the awesome story of the Acts of the risen Lord Jesus? Is he really taking time to describe the tragic death of a young boy during a worship service to make a funny or humorous point? No!

First, Luke isn’t suggesting Paul was rambling on and on; he was seizing the opportunity to encourage a church whom he would presumably never see again. They were enjoying their fellowship together, conversing about their King, and their precious time with Paul. Second, I don’t believe Eutychus is guilty of apathy or inattentiveness. It was unusually late and, from the way Luke describes the whole scene, he was simply “overcome by sleep.” So why record the death of Eutychus? Imagine being there that night, worshiping the Lord. This would be horrifying, absolutely devastating! What if it was your child? Imagine the pain! So what does Paul do? He raises him from the dead (Acts 20:10-12).

The Comforting Presence of Jesus

There are only seven resurrections performed in Scripture: the OT prophets Elijah and Elisha each raised a woman’s son; Jesus raised Jairus’s daughter, the widow of Nain’s son, and Lazarus; and Peter raised Dorcas.4 And each of these is a tragic story of the loss of a dear loved one. And this resurrection is supposed to be funny? I think not. Rather, this extraordinary miracle is showing the life-giving power and comforting presence of Jesus at work in his church.5 This would have been a sign that their risen King—who had conquered death—was with themandwas fully approving of their worship! It was an utterly remarkable token of his love.6 The same Jesus who died and rose from the dead was still at work to care for his weary people.

But did you notice what happened after he raised him? They continued to break bread and Paul preached until the morning! And then we see, in verse 12, that they were greatly comforted. Not astounded, amazed, fearful, or awestruck, but comforted.7 This is the exact same word found at the beginning of our passage (Acts 20:1-2). This text begins and ends with the encouragement of the Triune God through the ministry of Paul. But also notice where Luke places this word: not simply after Eutychus was raised, but after the conclusion of their Lord’s Day worship. Their comfort wasn’t just because of a miracle; it was the result of Paul’s ministry of the word and their gospel fellowship together. That night in Troas, they powerfully encountered the God of encouragement in community.

Beloved, we are not in any way lacking because we don’t have prophets like Elisha or apostles like Paul performing resurrections today. The same Jesus who defeated death, who raised Eutychus from the dead, is the same Jesus still at work today by his Spirit through his Word to strengthen his church. This is because God the Father is the God of all comfort (2 Cor. 1:3-10). God the Son is the consolation of Israel, our Comforter. God the Spirit is another Comforter sent by the Father and Son to encourage us, his people, even those battling any and all forms of depression. One pastor explains it like this:

The ultimate answer to anxiety, loneliness, and depression isn’t a pill or a program or even a pastor. It’s God in three persons: our Father, who cares enough to carry the full weight of our cares (1 Pet. 5:7); his Son, ready with timely mercies for each moment of our need (Heb. 4:14–16); and his Spirit, who walks with us step by step, turning the wasteland of a worried mind into an orchard of spiritual fruit (Gal. 5:22–23).8


Endnotes

  1. Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), Ac 20:7.
  2. This is not counting Jesus’s own resurrection and the bizarre accounts of Elisha’s bones reviving a dead man (2 Kgs 13:21) and the saints in Jerusalem who were raised when Christ died (Matt. 27:52-53).
  3. Eckhard J. Schnabel, Acts, Expanded Digital Edition., Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), Ac 20:10.
  4. Chung-Kim, et al., eds., Acts: New Testament, 279.
  5. Schnabel, Acts, Ac 20:11–12.
  6. Gunner Gundersen, “How Can I Counsel Those with Anxiety, Loneliness, or Depression?,” 9Marks; May 15, 2020, https://www.9marks.org/article/how-can-i-counsel-those-with-anxiety-loneliness-or-depression/.

Depression and the Church Community (Part 1)

When suffering comes our way, many often turn to religion or spirituality for quick relief. In our desperation, we will believe or do anything if it will ease our struggles. We want an instant remedy for the pain. But there are no such instant guarantees when it comes to the Christian faith.

Now, while it is certainly true that our God is able to miraculously heal and to deliver, that he has conquered death through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and that one glorious day he will make all things new, trusting in him for salvation is not the answer for a pain-free life. Rather, the Bible teaches that we have been saved in hope. Paul writes in Romans 8 that, for those who belong to Christ, we “groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for . . . the redemption of our bodies” (Rom. 8:23-24). Until that day when faith turns to sight, we often cry out: “How long, O Lord?”

So, as we hope in God and believe the gospel of his beloved Son, we still suffer, but we don’t merely suffer. Our God has promised to graciously supply us with all we need to suffer well.

For those who suffer with depression, this is what I want to ask: how can we suffer well? The most important question you can ask is not “How can I get rid of my depression?” but first, “How can I be saved, forgiven of my sin and justified?”; and then second, “How can I continue to trust my Savior Jesus while struggling with depression? How do I rely on God’s abundant grace to suffer well?”

There are several ways to do this. The two most basic means of grace are the word and prayer. Our God has promised to strengthen us as we encounter him in his word and in prayer. But there’s another means of grace that is essential if we are to struggle well, and that is community. We must be in the word and prayer with others. Believers must be devoted to the fellowship of a local church community, for this is vital for our encouragement in the faith.

You see, the devil is always looking for someone to deceive, to discourage, and to devour; for someone to lose sight of the glory of Christ. And both anxiety and depression can all too easily become an occasion to doubt God, to reject his gospel, and to fall away from promised grace. Thus, believers must be encouraged if we are to suffer well and hold fast the confession of our hope. To be strong in the Lord, to stand firm in the faith, we need to put on the whole armor of God and pray always. But we don’t stand alone; in Christ, we stand arm in arm with others.

Over the next few weeks I want to look at what the Bible has to say about depression, to do this I want us to look at a rather unusual story found in the book of Acts, chapter 20. In this passage, the author (Luke) provides us with a seemingly unimportant travel summary and an often-misunderstood miracle. But here, we will see that we encounter the God of all comfort in gospel community. It is in the fellowship of a local church that we find the strength we need to suffer well.

The Ministry of Encouragement (Acts 20:1-6)

In the first three verses of Acts 20, we get an incredibly brief summary of Paul’s travels after a riot that took place at Ephesus. He travels around the Aegean Sea through Macedonia and into Greece—visiting the churches at Philippi, Thessalonica, Corinth, and others—and then back through these regions again. During this time, he writes 2 Corinthians (v.2), and his epistle to the Romans (v.3).

But notice what Paul does in each of these places: he encourages the disciples in Ephesus before leaving (Acts 20:1); he goes through Macedonia and gives them “much encouragement” (Acts 20:2); and he spends three months in Greece to encourage the Corinthians and even the Romans by letter (Acts 20:3).

This word “encourage” has a range of meaning. It can mean “to urge or exhort,” encouraging someone to action; it can also be the sense of instilling someone with courage or cheer, bringing comfort. In essence, biblical encouragement is strengthening someone to continue in the faith and bringing comfort in the midst of affliction. It’s to have our doubt-filled minds recalibrated, to have our hope set fully on the grace in store for us when Jesus Christ returns in glory.1

Watering the Church with the Word

So, far from being just a routine travel summary that Luke reports often in Acts, these verses imply a rich ministry of encouragement—Paul’s labor of shepherding, teaching, bearing burdens, prayer, and enduring suffering. Why? All to strengthen and comfort the churches. One 16th century pastor put it like this:

“The church is like a garden or a vineyard. A garden must be watered . . . otherwise it will go to ruin from heat and drought. In the same way Christian congregations also wither through tribulation, affliction and persecution. So then, they must be watered and sustained with the water and consolation of the Holy Spirit.”2

Now, the encouragement we’re talking about here is not some kind of motivational pep-talk to boost self-confidence, with shallow phrases like “Hey, you look great today!” The kind of comfort we’re talking about is not just a few kind words to those suffering such as “I’ll be praying for you.” No, we’re talking about a supernatural strength that comes from the ministry of the word. If the church is to grow and bear fruit, then we need the water of the word. We need, as Romans 15:4says, “the encouragement of the Scriptures” to hold fast our hope. The encouragement we need is that which only comes from the promises of God held out to us in the gospel. Biblical encouragement begins with reminding one another of promises such as

“If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:31-32)

Encouragement and Exhortation for Depression

But having been reassured of our hope, comfort turns to exhortation as we urge one another to walk in step with the truth of the gospel, to live as though Jesus really is the King of the world. Paul does this often in his letters. After the good news of Romans 1-11, he writes “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, [ I urge, I exhort you] by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Rom. 12:1). After the sound doctrine of Ephesians 1-3, “I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge [exhort] you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called” (Eph. 4:1).

But who’s responsible to do this? Who’s responsible to speak the truth in love, to build up the body of Christ, to give counsel, to encourage and exhort to the weak? First, It’s the ministry of elders. Paul tells themto Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Tim. 4:2). But encouragement is also the ministry of every disciple of Jesus. Paul tells the Thessalonians to encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing” (1 Thess. 5:11). The author of Hebrews says: “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin (Heb. 3:12-13).

Encouragement is Verbal and Relational

Don’t miss what all these verses imply: The ministry of encouragement—strengthening the weary, comforting the afflicted, including those suffering with depression—is both a verbal ministry and relational ministry. It’s a verbal ministry in that it requires proclaiming the word, speaking the truth in love to one another. But it’s a relational ministry in that it requires fellowship and community! Look how the author of Hebrews sums it all up in Hebrews 10:23-25:

Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful.And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”

In fact, this idea of mutual encouragement is something I think we see inActs 20:4-6.Notice the list of Paul’s companions. Most likely, these men were representatives of the various Gentile churches assisting Paul in bringing the offering to the Jerusalem church. But I think there’s more going on. From what we see in Acts, we know Paul always preferred travelling with others on his long and difficult journeys. But was it simply for physical help and support? guys to carry his bags? I don’t think so. If you consider the extensive greetings found in several of Paul’s letters and how often he expresses his love for those who labored alongside him in the work of the gospel, I think it’s clear that Paul himself needed these brothers for encouragement and comfort! He was often discouraged, afflicted, burdened beyond his own strength, despairing of life itself, weak and weary. But he always sought the fellowship of the believers, whether he was going or staying. His heart needed to be encouraged just like theirs did, and just as all the churches did.

These verses are a brief but powerful proof of the believer’s need of encouragement. For those who suffer with depression or anxiety, it’s especially easy to lose sight of the love of God in Christ, the empty tomb, and the hope of our salvation. This is why the ministry of encouragement is so vital. We need to remind one another of God’s loving faithfulness. We need to remember what Jesus has done to forgive our sins and make us acceptable to the Father. We need the encouragement of his gospel word to find strength for today and hope for tomorrow.

  1. 1 Peter 1:13.
  2. Johann Spangenberg “Der Apostel Geschichte, 181v, 182v” in Esther Chung-Kim, Todd R. Hains, et al., eds., Acts: New Testament, vol. VI, Reformation Commentary on Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014), 275.

A Prayer for Our Nation and the Church’s Witness

Our gracious God and Father, we thank you for the governing authorities whom you have appointed as your servants (Rom. 13:1). You command us to give thanks and to pray for them, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life (1 Tim. 2:1-2). You call us to be submissive to them and to honor them (Titus 3:1; 1 Pet. 2:13-17). And so, we ask that you hear our prayer:

We pray for President Biden, and our country’s new administration, that they would govern in the wisdom, the discernment, the righteousness, and the humility that only come from the fear of the Lord (Prov. 1:7; 9:10; 15:33). Make them continually mindful of their calling to serve in reverent obedience to you. We ask that if any of our authorities do not know you, that by your grace they would look to Jesus Christ in saving faith (1 Tim. 2:1-6). Fill them with the love of truth and righteousness. Help them to govern impartially, mindful of the poor, the oppressed, and the unborn.

We pray for their success in every good endeavor that accords with justice, and for lack of success in that which does not. May our government enact laws pleasing in your sight, to the glory of your holy Name and the welfare of our nation. But we praise you that your counsel, O Lord, stands forever; that the plans of your heart endure for all generations (Ps. 33:10-11). As your beloved Son taught us to pray, we ask that your kingdom would come, and that your purposes for our country would prevail (Matt. 6:9-13).

As citizens of your heavenly kingdom, we ask that you give us the strength and the faith to submit to our rulers, but also the courage to obey God rather than man (Acts 4:19-20; 5:27-32). Whatever comes our way in the months and years ahead, may we never lose sight of our risen and soon-returning King.

May we not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon us to test us, as though something strange were happening to us. But may we rejoice insofar as we share in Christ’s sufferings, that we may rejoice when his glory is revealed (1 Pet. 4:12-13).

Your word says: “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord, the people whom he has chosen as his heritage!” (Ps. 33:12). Holy Spirit, help us to understand that that nation is not America or any kingdom of this world but your church! Your church alone is the people whom you have chosen and redeemed to be your treasured possession (1 Pet. 2:9-10).

So, may our witness shine brightly in these ever-darkening days, as we display your perfect peace, justice, and joy through our lives together (Matt. 5:14-16; Phil. 2:14-16; Titus 2:1-14). May our hope not be in any worldly kingdom or ruler or economy or constitutional freedoms, but may our hope be in the risen Lord Jesus. We ask these things in the name of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.


For more written prayers to help us fulfill our Christian duty to our president, governing authorities, and our nation, check out the Book of Common Prayer 2019, specifically pages 654-659.

Paul’s Aim in Ephesus: Preaching, Not Politics

In Acts 19 we read about Paul’s ministry in the city of Ephesus and how the preaching gospel was not only bearing fruit (19:1-20) but also threatening the livelihood of many who made money from the worship of Artemis (19:21-41). Paul and those who belonged to “the Way” were threatening everything these men held dear: their wealth and success, their goddess and their temple, and their pride in their great city, and they were all so enraged that they started a riot.

In the end, the risen Lord Jesus continued to build and protect his church, calming the chaos of the crowds just like he did the raging seas. The rioters stopped out of a fear of being squashed by Rome and the church was once again vindicated and was innocent. But what does all of this mean for us today?

Protests, Politics, or Preaching?

How did the Christians make such a noticeable and massive impact on the city that these men felt their way of life was being threatened? How did seek to abolish idolatry? It was simple: they faithfully proclaimed the gospel of King Jesus. As a result of the word of the Lord prevailing mightily, lives were being changed by his grace and idolatry was on the decline in a city that was world-renowned for it. There were Ephesians who didn’t look or act like normal, magic-practicing, Artemis-worshiping Ephesians.

But don’t miss this: It was not through marches or protests, force or violence, public policy or political involvement, complaining or slandering or insulting, but simply preaching Christ and portraying Christ! In fact, the town clerk himself admits in v.37: “You have brought these men here who are neither sacrilegious nor blasphemers of our goddess.” This means that the Christians were not insulting Artemis worshipers, mocking them or their religion, or seeking to desecrate their temple. Paul was solely dedicated to boldly, lovingly, and persuasively preaching the gospel of Jesus.

As was his custom, he announced to the Ephesians that the God who made the world and everything in it is the one, true, and living God. He does not live in temples made by human hands and has all life in himself. Yet despite our sinful rebellion against this God—expressed in all manner of pride, idolatry, and immorality—he himself came into this world in the person of his Son, Jesus. He took on flesh to live among us, to suffer like us, and ultimately to die for us, as a sacrifice for our sin. But God raised him from the dead, proving to all the world that he truly is the Son of God, the King of the universe, and the Savior of the world. And as Paul preached this gospel, many came to repent of their sins and turn to the risen Lord Jesus in faith. Their eyes had been opened to behold the beauty of King Jesus—his excellencies, his supremacy, his glory.

Properly Ordering Your Allegiances

By grace, many Ephesians found in Jesus a majesty greater than that of Artemis (Acts 19:27). It was the very majesty of the true and living God! In fact, the word ‘magnificence’ here is only used in two other places in Scripture: of God’s majesty in Luke 9:43 and of Christ’s majesty in 2 Peter 1:16! As a result, the gospel was bearing fruit in the lives of all who believed. They had been filled with the Spirit of Jesus and were being transformed into his image daily. They had begun to live as those who had died to sin, put off their corrupt old selves, and had been raised with Christ to walk in newness of life (cf. Eph. 4:22-24). I love how one pastor describes the church’s impact on the city:

Unbelievers in Ephesus perceived in the Christian community . . . a way of life that was different and a direction that was diametric to that of the majority. It was a different road than most traveled. It revealed a pattern of self-denial and cross-bearing. It was utterly focused on Jesus Christ. . . . And the worldly despised it. . . . As God’s Word had saturated their lives, day after day, [the church] threatened a way of life held dear, a culture thought to define the nature of Ephesus”

(Derek Thomas, Acts, Reformed Expository Commentary, 553-554).

Don’t misunderstand me. There is certainly a time and place for political engagement and public policy. We are to seek the welfare of our cities and this very often involves politics. But as Christians, our allegiance is first to Jesus Christ and his kingdom. We are to seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness. His purposes are to be our greatest priority. This happens as we, in faith, devote ourselves to prayer, to being immersed in Scripture and fluent in the gospel, and to spiritual formation through Christian worship and fellowship.

This also means, very practically that if for the past few months you have spent more time consuming news or media than God’s Word; if you know more political facts than sound doctrine; if you spend more time persuading people to vote a certain way instead of preaching the gospel; if you’re more upset when someone speaks ill of your party or presidential candidate than when someone speaks ill of Christ; if your greatest hope for America is Trump or a court, your priorities are wrong and your allegiances are not properly ordered.

Preaching and Portraying Christ

When it comes to God’s will for our lives as Christians living in America, as citizens of heaven living as exiles in this world, it’s simple: Be like Jesus. Follow King Jesus, the way, the truth, and the life. Tell others about his saving reign made evident in your life. Rinse and repeat.

The hope that our loved ones need, the peace that our city needs, the reconciliation that our world needs is found only in Christ alone. He alone is our salvation. He is our strength, and our song. His majesty alone—his manifold perfections—will satisfy our restless hearts. The church impacts the world most effectively through lives changed by the gospel we proclaim. As we live like we belong to this King, and tell others about his grace, not only will hearts be changed, but our communities will too, and our city will be impacted by the gospel.


This is an excerpt from the sermon: A City Impacted by the Gospel. It has been lightly edited and modified for this website.

How to Walk Worthy of the Lord

The year 2020 has undoubtedly been the strangest year of my life. Suffering, confusion, hostility, fear, conspiracy, politics, controversy, disasters, injustice, social media, and tribalism are tearing our country apart. In particular, pastors find themselves in uncharted waters, surrounded by a multitude of opinions on every side. And with our presidential elections coming up in November, and no end in sight to the both the pandemic and all the divisive arguments that come with it, the future looks dark.

But this is what you inevitably find within the domain of darkness.

Yet while we are in this world, we are not of it. The Apostle Paul tells us that God the Father “has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Col. 1:13-14). We are God’s people, a holy nation, citizens of heaven, called out of darkness into the light of Christ (1 Peter 2:9).

Our allegiance belongs to the risen Savior. We have been redeemed from the power of sin and delivered from the fear of death. We have a new nature, a living hope, and a glorious inheritance. As Paul says in Ephesians 5: “For at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness” (Eph. 5:8-11).

Walk Worthy of the Gospel You Have Received

For the church of Christ, this means that our words, our actions, our work ethic, our character, our relationships, our lives should reflect the glory of King Jesus. Our whole outlook on life should be drastically different from those around us, who have not experienced the freedom of forgiveness found in the gospel. And so, Paul prays “that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him” (Col. 1:9-10).

He asks that the church might be fully acquainted with our God and his glorious purposes for the world. He wants them to have spiritual wisdom. Why? So that they might walk worthy of the gospel they have received, fully pleasing to the risen Lord who rescued them out of darkness into the light. Those who belong to Christ by grace through faith are to continue in that grace and live lives that are fitting for citizens of the light.

But how do we do this? This is what Paul then goes on to pray for, highlighting four ways in which we are to walk worthy of the risen Lord Jesus.

Bearing Fruit in Every Good Work

First, we walk worthy of the Lord by bearing fruit in every good work (Col. 1:10). Good works are anything done in faith for the good of others and the glory of God. It’s serving our neighbors with the humility and love of Christ. It’s treating them with the gentleness of Christ. In fact, this is why we were chosen and appointed by God: to bear much fruit and love one another (Jn. 15:16-17). But if the world around us doesn’t see the gospel we proclaim demonstrated by genuine converted lives and authentic Christian community then how will they know this to be true?

This is why Jesus commands: “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5:14-16; 1 Peter 2:12). We walk worthy of the name of Jesus as we abound in love and good works towards everyone, especially the household of faith (Gal. 6:10).

Increasing in the Knowledge of God

Second, we walk worthy of the Lord by increasing in the knowledge of God (v.10). We do this by centering our lives on the Word of God—the all-sufficient, life-giving Word that equips us for every good work (2 Tim. 3:16-17). The problem is that in times of crisis we often end up centering our lives—our thought, emotions, and affections—on the world rather than the Word. As a result, we find ourselves listening to and following voices of anxiety, fear, doubt, and self.

One author writes: “A church’s worship habits may occupy two hours of a Christian’s week. But podcasts, radio shows, cable news, social media, streaming entertainment, and other forms of media account for upwards of 90 hours of their week.” And the media we consume is shaping us.

Now, more than ever, we need to be devoting ourselves to the preaching, reading, studying, singing, and memorizing of God’s Word. We need to be disciplined when it comes to our media habits and the means of grace. We need to remind one another of who our God is, what he has done in Christ, and recalibrate our minds and affections according to his goodness, truth, and love.

Persevering with Patience and Joy

Third, we walk worthy by being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might (v.11) As we rely upon the Lord, and come to his throne of grace, we will find the mercy and help we need. As we devote ourselves to good works, to the word and prayer, to the fellowship of the church, God will strengthen us by the same power and authority by which he raised Christ from the dead!

For what are we being strengthened? “For all endurance and patience with joy.” This is exactly what we need as sojourners and exiles in this dark world. We need patient, joyful endurance. We need the power to bear up in difficulty, to remain full of peace, hope, and joy as we wait (Rom. 12:12). And praise God his grace is sufficient for our needs!

Giving Thanks to God

And fourth, we walk worthy of the Lord by giving thanks to the Father (v.12). Thanksgiving is the will of God in Christ Jesus for us, in all circumstances (1 Thess. 5:18). And notice the grounds for this command: “who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light.” Knowing the living hope we have through the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, we can always be grateful.

Paul writes, “Do all things without grumbling or disputing, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life” (Phil. 2:14-16). Grumbling and disputing obscure our identity as children of God, as citizens of heaven, as lights in the world. When we complain and argue, about anything and everything, we look like the world! Christians who grumble and dispute are blatantly taking part in the unfruitful works of darkness.

Friends, think about how often we are guilty of complaining and arguing: about quarantine, guidelines, and politics; about our neighbors, jobs, and kids; and even about our brothers and sisters in Christ in the church! And from the way many Christians use social media, our light is all but blown out. But as we hold fast to the word of life, we see God’s faithfulness, his wisdom, his goodness, his love, and his sovereignty. So, when we are tempted to grumble about our life circumstances, we can give thanks always. We remember his undeserved mercy towards us and remain steadfast in our joy.

So, beloved, let us walk worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him. He has delivered us from the domain of darkness through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. Let us shine as lights in this world as we abound in love and good works; as we devote ourselves to the word and to prayer and to fellowship; and as we give thanks in all circumstances. And may others see our good works and give glory to our risen Savior King.

From the Archives: Keeping Children in the Worship Service

Our church has experienced a wonderful revitalization over the past few years. By God’s grace, we have endeavored to become a more Word-centered, gospel-driven, and Christ-exalting church, seeking to always be reformed according to Scripture. One of the more recent subjects we addressed was concerning our Lord’s Day worship and children’s ministry programming. Formerly, children were dismissed part way through the service for Kids Church. Now, rather than being dismissed along with the toddlers (ages 2-3) and preschoolers (ages 4-5), our elementary students (grades 1-5) continue to participate in the worship service with the rest of the congregation.

There is obviously a tremendous benefit in age-specific education. In fact, our toddlers, preschoolers, and elementary students currently use The Gospel Project curriculum either during the Sunday Classes hour or during the Kids Church portion of our Sunday morning service. We want them to be working through the Scriptures, seeing Jesus on every page, and becoming fluent in the gospel. However, there are several reasons that compelled us to keep our elementary students in the worship gathering for its entirety.

The Pattern and Power of Scripture

First, the pattern of Scripture supports keeping kids in the service. In the Old Testament, it appears that children were included in the corporate worship of the covenant community to hear the word of the Lord (Ex. 12:24-27; Deut. 31:9-13; Josh. 8:30-35; Neh. 8:1-8ff.; 12:43). The reason? Deuteronomy 31:12: “…that they may hear and learn to fear the Lord your God, and be careful to do all the words of this law.”

Second, in the letters written to the Ephesian and Colossian churches, Paul directly addresses wives and husbands, parents and children, bondservants and masters (Eph. 6:1-9; Col. 3:18-4:2). This suggests that children were present in the congregations where these letters were being read (cf. Col. 4:16)!

Third, if we truly believe that God’s Word is living and active, that the gospel is the power of God for salvation, that the Holy Spirit works through the Word to bring illumination, conviction, and repentance, then we must pray that the Word of God will reach the hearts of our children in ways that they may not even recognize. In Acts 2:39 Peter proclaims that the promise of forgiveness of sins through repentance and faith, and the gift of the Holy Spirit, is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself. Yes, they may be thinking, reasoning, speaking, and acting like children; but as Albert Mohler reminds us, “the Word of God can reach where we cannot go.”

The Formative Power of the Worship Service

Parents are to be the primary disciple-makers of their children (Deut. 6:4-9; Ps. 78:5-7; Prov. 22:6; Eph. 6:4). The corporate worship service—where God’s word is publicly read, sung, prayed, preached, and seen in the sacraments—is a powerful and formative tool for discipling our children. Part of how kids learn is through observation and imitation. Sitting through a worship service teaches them how to worship by listening to God’s Word read and preached. The content of the prayers, songs, sermon also gives parents an opportunity to teach their children; they can help them follow along, and afterwards ask questions and explain things to them.

 Parents have the great responsibility (and opportunity!) to teach to their children, by their own example, the meaning and value of worship—not just personal but corporate. If we don’t value and prioritize the local church, we shouldn’t be surprised if our kids don’t either.

John Piper explains: “The greatest stumbling block for children in worship is parents who don’t cherish doing that worship, [who] don’t love it. Children can feel the difference between duty and delight. They know if dad [or mom or grandma] loves being here. The aim is that the children catch the passion for worshiping God by watching mom and dad enjoy God week after week.”

Our kids should want to be in church in part because they see that their parents want to be there. Imagine the cumulative effect on a child who sees his parents praying fervently, confessing their sins, singing joyfully, reading the Word reverently, listening to the sermon intently, and partaking of the Lord’s Supper week after week, year after year!

Raising Generations Today

Children also benefit from being in the presence of Christians of various ages because they are able to see that the faith of their parents is not a faith that they own alone; they see a faith that is important to all of these people who are gathered around them on Sunday morning. Keeping kids in the worship service helps cultivate inter-generational discipleship. When our children see this incredible gathering of people reading the Word, praying, confessing, and singing together it reinforces what mom and dad are modeling and teaching at home. It gives them a taste of the eternal—God’s saints celebrating him together.

One pastor writes: “[They] must see, know, and learn that the singing of the great hymns of the faith, the preaching of the Word, reading of confessions, corporate prayers, etc. is anything but boring. It is the gathered life of the community of faith. It is our weekly rhythm—appointed by God, designed by Him, established for the ages—this is what we want them to know, because we want them to know and worship Him.”

If our children grow up totally separated from the church of their parents and grandparents, in their own “church” which constantly caters to their age, desires, and interests, it shouldn’t surprise us to see these children grow up feeling disconnected from church, bored with church, and ill-equipped to become active members of a church when they are on their own. We want our kids to know that church is for them as well.

Parents, Prepare Your Children for Worship

Much of the success of this change depends on the parents. Despite common objections, there are several things a parent can do to help prepare their children for corporate worship on Sunday Morning. Noël Piper and Jeremy Walker have both written excellent practical suggestions for helping your kids sit through “big church.” These include:

  1. Worship with your family throughout the week. Set aside time during the week to sing, pray, read the Scriptures. Family worship not only helps you disciple your children, but it also helps Sunday morning corporate worship to not be such a shock to their systems.
  2. Start preparing Saturday night. Ensure that your family gets plenty of rest the night before in order to have enough time Sunday morning to prepare and arrive on time for church.
  3. Arrive early enough to get drinks, use the bathroom, and accomplish other tasks before the service. This can help to limit the amount of trips in and out of the sanctuary.
  4. Worship with your children. Encourage them to read along, sing along, take notes, listen carefully. Helping them learn at a young age to listen well, sit still, and pay attention will serve them far beyond two hours on a Sunday morning.
  5. If necessary, provide them with “quiet” activities, such as crayons or pencils for drawing or coloring. Our church makes these items available for parents to borrow, along with a kid-friendly paper designed for taking notes throughout the service.

Let the Children Come

The most common objection, of course, is: “They won’t understand the sermon! It’ll be over their heads!” But listen to how Piper excellently responds to this sentiment: “Of course, it is over their head. It is supposed to be over their head! They are beginners. The English language is over their head as soon as they come out of the womb. But we don’t say: Well, let’s put them with other children in their own situations and limitations so they can understand a word or two. No. We immerse them in the English language every day—that they don’t understand 90% of—in the hope and expectation that they grow up into joyful use of the English language. Long before children understand fully what is going on in worship and what is sung and what is said, they are absorbing tremendous amounts of what is valuable.”

This transition hasn’t been an easy one for our families. It has taken much work and patience. But we strongly believe that the long-term benefits outweigh the additional noise and fidgeting. Children are a blessing from God and a gift to the church. Yes, it’s a noisy gift; it’s a squirming and fidgeting gift; it’s a messy gift; but it is a beautiful gift. Children are serve as a visual reminder of those to whom the kingdom of heaven belongs. Our Lord welcomed them with open arms, and we should do likewise.

Recommended Reading from the Late J. I. Packer (1926-2020)

On July 17, 2020, one of the most influential theologians of the last century, J. I. Packer, finished his course. He went to be with Jesus at the age of 93.

Among many other notable achievements and publications, Packer served as executive editor of Christianity Today, general editor for the English Standard Version of the Bible, theological editor for the ESV Study Bible, and associate editor of the Reformation Study Bible. Yet despite his intellectual brilliance and theological mastery, he was a theologian, as Elisabeth Elliot remarked, “who puts the hay where the sheep can reach it.”

The following are two of books of his that I highly recommend, along with a suggested list for further reading.

Knowing God

For over 40 years, J. I. Packer’s classic has been an important resource for helping Christians around the world discover the wonder, the glory, and the joy of knowing God. In this book, Packer brings together two important facets of the Christian faith―knowing about God and knowing him personally through a relationship with Jesus Christ.

His chapter entitled “Sons of God” is one of the most beautiful presentations of the doctrine of adoption that I have ever read. Here are a couple examples from this chapter of his ability to capture profound biblical truth in clear, vivid, and compelling terms:

Justification is a forensic idea, conceived in terms of law, and viewing God as judge. . . . Adoption is a family idea, conceived in terms of love, and viewing God as father. In adoption, God takes us into his family and fellowship—he establishes us as his children and heirs. Closeness, affection and generosity are at the heart of the relationship. To be right with God the judge is a great thing, but to be loved and cared for by God the Father is a greater (207).

Many have struggled to understand the place of the law in the life of the Christian. But Packer finds a remarkable way of expressing this tension using the doctrines of justification and adoption:

While it is certainly true that justification frees one forever from the need to keep the law, or try to, as the means of earning life, it is equally true that adoption lays on one the abiding obligation to keep the law, as the means of pleasing one’s newfound Father. Law-keeping is the family likeness of God’s children; Jesus fulfilled all righteousness, and God calls us to do likewise. Adoption puts law-keeping on a new footing: as children of God, we acknowledge the law’s authority as a rule for our lives, because we know that this is what our Father wants (223).

Knowing God is a wonderful and refreshing study on the attributes of God, and a great starting point for those interested in reading Packer.

Concise Theology: A Guide to Historic Christian Beliefs

This study of what Packer calls “the permanent essentials of Christianity” distills theological truths in such a way that both scholar and layperson alike can grow to treasure the unchanging pillars of the Christian faith. Each of the ninety-four chapters (which are only a couple of pages long) explores a different doctrine in a way that is easy to understand and rooted in historic Reformed teaching. I really can’t improve upon Kevin Vanhoozer’s recommendation of this book: “Concise Theology is poetry to Christian ears: the best words in the best order about the best news there is―the gospel of grace poured out in Jesus Christ. Packer here sets forth with lucid brevity everything Christians need to know to become biblically literate and to grow in wisdom and understanding. Doctrine and doxology here walk hand in hand.”

In his preface, Packer explains the purpose of such a book on theology:

Theology is for doxology and devotion—that is, the praise of God and the practice of godliness. It should therefore be presented in a way that brings awareness of the divine presence. Theology is at its healthiest when it is consciously under the eye of the God of whom it speaks, and when it is singing to his glory (xii).

Here’s an excerpt from his chapter on “Worship.” Notice how robust and exhaustive his sentences are, yet how comprehensible and simple they are at the same time:

Worship in the Bible is the due response of rational creatures to the self-revelation of their Creator. It is an honoring and glorifying of God by gratefully offering back to him all the good gifts, and all the knowledge of his greatness and graciousness, that he has given. It involves praising him for what he is, thanking him for what he has done, desiring him to get himself more glory by further acts of mercy, judgment, and power, and trusting him with our concern for our own and others’ future well-being. . . .

The basis of worship is the covenant relationship whereby God has bound himself to those whom he has saved and claimed. This was true of Old Testament worship as it is now of Christian worship. The spirit of covenant worship, as the Old Testament models it, is a blend of awe and joy at the privilege of drawing near to the mighty Creator with radical self-humbling and honest confession of sin, folly, and need. Since God is holy and we humans are faulty, it must ever be so in this world. (98-99)

There are many good systematic theologies out there, but in Concise Theology, Packer has provided a perfect summary of them all.


For further reading:

Racism and Riots: A Lament for Our Nation

Father of mercies and God of all comfort,

Our nation is divided. We are hostile and we are fearful. We are confused and we are broken. We are hurting.

We lament the fact that the sin of racism is far more prevalent than we would like to believe. The lack of righteousness and justice in our world is appalling. We acknowledge “all lives matter” with our lips, yet our hearts remain far from those who differ from us in any number of ways. Father, you are a just God who shows no partiality; yet even we, your children, are often guilty of the evils of discrimination. We are prone to look only to our own interests and not those of others. We fail to put on the compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience of Christ our Savior.

We lament the fact that bitterness, slander, quarreling, and hatred are among the hallmarks of this age. It grieves us that these sins show up even among those who profess Jesus Christ as Lord! While we understand the anger and frustration over such horrifying acts of injustice, we lament the fact that these tragedies often only lead to more chaos and wrongdoing. How quick we are to take matters into our own vindictive hands. Heavenly Father, we confess that our anger has given great opportunity to the devil. We are slow to hear, quick to speak, and quick to anger—an anger that has not produced the righteousness of God.

Lord, you tell us in your Word that because man does not see fit to acknowledge God, you have given us up to worthless desires. As a result, we are filled with every kind of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice, envy, murder, strife, and deceit. We are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. By nature, our feet are swift to shed blood; in our paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace we have not known. Why? Because there is no fear of God before our eyes.

O God, have mercy on us; forgive us for our sins. Cleanse us from all unrighteousness. Grant the gift of repentance and faith to even the vilest offenders. Forgive us for our failure to treat others as fellow image-bearers, and for our lack of concern to seek justice and uphold righteousness. Bring healing and rest to the black community. Revive us, we pray.

Apart from you, O Lord, we will never know peace. Apart from your grace, sin only reigns in chaos and death. And so, unless the power of sin that enslaves hearts is broken and the reign of death is ended, we will never know the blessing of true and lasting reconciliation. The only way there will ever be peace between neighbors and enemies, communities and nations, is if there is first peace with you. But this is exactly what you came to do for us when, in love, you gave us your only Son!

We thank you, Jesus, that you humbled yourself, took on flesh, and entered our divided, hostile, fearful, confused, broken, and hurting world. You showed compassion on all those who were sinful, hurting, and oppressed. We praise you that you laid down your sinless life to bear the penalty for our sin, and rose victorious from the dead for our justification. Now, through faith in your mighty name, we can be forgiven and reconciled to God in one body through your cross. Truly, you are the Prince of Peace. And it is only as proud, selfish sinners, such as ourselves, are reconciled to God through faith in Christ that the nations will be glad.

Spirit of the Living God, help us to remember your marvelous mercies that we might show our world a better Way. Help us to listen to, to learn from, and to love our neighbors in the humility of Christ—regardless of ethnicity, socio-economic class, or political party. Help us to search our hearts and put to death the sin of partiality and racism that rears its ugly head in both obvious and subtle ways. Help us to keep your commandments by seeking to protect and preserve the lives of others. Help us to not only proclaim the glories of the gospel we believe, but to adorn this gospel by living lives worthy of Christ our King.

Give strength and comfort to our black brothers and sisters, especially those who belong to our local church family. Fill us with the loving compassion of Jesus so that we might learn to mourn with those who mourn. Give us the wisdom to know how we can seek the peace and welfare of the city in which you have planted us as exiles. Grant us both the desire and ability to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with you.

May your kingdom come, and your will to be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

Come, Lord Jesus.

Amen.

The Cross, Our Value, and the Danger of Heresy

“And then she understood the devilish cunning of the enemies’ plan. By mixing a little truth with it they had made their lie far stronger.”[1]

If heresy is to ever successfully infiltrate the church, then it must not only appeal to the desires of our sinful nature but also have a ring of truth to it. False doctrines that are absurd or obviously unbiblical never gain traction among the majority of Bible-believing Christians. On the contrary, Peter says that false teachers bring in their destructive heresies secretly, with the result that “many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed” (2 Pet. 2:1-3). Paul writes that the Devil himself disguises himself as an angel of light (2 Cor. 11:14); and let’s not forget that he can quote Scripture too (see Matt. 4:5-6)!

In other words, the most convincing false doctrines will always include biblical truth. They will sound good and make us feel good. With just the right amount of Scripture, a hint of Christian concepts mixed with the desires of the flesh, and a dash of rhetorical flair, you have all the ingredients you need to create a fresh batch of ear-tickling muffins. Nevertheless, “a half-truth masquerading as the whole truth becomes a complete untruth.”[2] We need to be on guard against false teachers and their subtle attempts to reject and redefine God’s Word.

What the Cross is “Really” About: Our Value

While we could look at many popular heresies in the church today to confirm this, one recent teaching serves as a prime example. The reason for its popularity is because it seeks to shed new light on God’s love, Christ’s redeeming work, and especially our value in God’s eyes. Todd White, a popular proponent of this view, put it this way in an interview on TBN:

The value [that] was placed on my life was determined by the cost that was paid for me. See the cross isn’t just the revelation of my sin; it’s the revealing of my value. Something underneath of that sin must have been of great value for heaven to go bankrupt to get me back. So, Jesus paid such a high price for me on that tree, and when I see that, I see my value.[3]

As you can see, this ticks all the boxes. It affirms several biblical truths: The cross of Christ reveals both our sin and our value to God; the eternal Son of God left the glories of heaven to seek and save the lost; the price of our redemption was the blood of Jesus. It also makes sense to us on a practical level: The price you are willing to pay for something reveals its value to you. So, on the surface, it sounds good and it definitely makes us feel good; it appeals to our desire for significance and worth.

But when we look at the cross of Christ and behold the price of our redemption, should our focus ultimately be on our value to God? Specifically, was there something underneath our sin that made heaven go “bankrupt” just to get us back? Is the reason that Jesus shed his blood for us because we were worth it? The answer to these questions, from the consistent teaching of Scripture and the consensus of church history, is a resounding “No.” While it comes very close to being sound, biblical teaching, this is a false doctrine that only serves to undermine the good news it attempts to proclaim.

A Note on Our Value to God

Before we look at a few objections to this teaching, it’s important to briefly clarify this concept of our value or worth. First, having been made in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27), all humanity has intrinsic value and special dignity. Human life is of inestimable worth in all its dimensions, despite the fall of man and our enslavement to sin. God has crowned man with “glory and honor” (Ps. 8:5), and Jesus himself affirms we are of great value to our Maker (Matt. 6:26).

Second, for all who have received adoption as sons through faith in Christ, we are now loved and treasured as God’s very own children! We are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession” (1 Pet. 2:9; see also Ex. 19:5; Titus 2:14). If God in Christ gave himself for us to redeem us and make us his own, how could we not have value in God’s eyes?! So, in this second sense, the cross indeed is a revealing of our value to God, since he obtained us with his own blood (Acts 20:28); how deep the Father’s love for us indeed!

Objection #1: This Teaching Contradicts the Meaning of Grace

However, our value to God is not the reason why God sent his Son into the world! No worth of ours, buried beneath the dirt and corruption of our sin, compelled the Son of God to come to earth and redeem a sinful people for his possession. Neither our inherent value as image-bearers, nor our “potential” value as new creations in Christ, caused heaven to go bankrupt (which is itself a reckless phrase to use) so God could get us back. No; our salvation is totally unmerited and completely undeserved—that is, it is by grace alone. To say that Jesus shed his blood on the cross to ransom us because we were so valuable to God is to contradict the very meaning of grace!

The Bible makes it very clear why God set his love on an unworthy, sinful, and rebellious people, and it has absolutely nothing to do with any inherent worth that we possess:

The Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the Lord loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt (Deut. 7:6-8).

The eternal God, who is perfectly blessed in himself and in need of nothing, loves us because he loves us! Jesus laid down his life for us not because we were valuable or worth it but quite simply because he loved us. In fact, when Scripture speaks of the death of Christ, it never uses this language of “our value.” Instead, what you will repeatedly find are references to the greatness of our sin and the greatness of God’s love (see Rom. 3:9-26; 5:6-10; Gal. 3:10-14; Eph. 2:1-10; 1 Tim. 1:12-17; Titus 3:3-8). The focus is always God’s unmerited favor towards unworthy sinners. Yet this teaching subtly draws our gaze away from God’s grace to behold our worth.[4]

So, while the cross is the revelation of our value to God—in that he gave “his only Son to make a wretch his treasure”—we only have this value because of the cross! The cross is supremely the demonstration of “the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:7). In Christ, we are no longer glory-stealing sinners and God-hating rebels but new creations, God’s treasured possession. Why? Because our salvation is a gift of God’s grace, due to nothing good in us whatsoever.

Objection #2: This Teaching Confuses Our Value with Our Debt

Another problem with this teaching’s emphasis on our value is that it misunderstands the price that Jesus paid for us on the cross. While it is true that the price of something shows its value, in our case, the price of our redemption isn’t so much a revealing of our worth but of the debt that we owe. It’s a reflection, so to speak, of the “damage” we have caused—as if the servant of a high-ranking government official had stolen one his exotic cars and crashed it into his multi-million dollar estate, which then exploded and set his whole property on fire, destroying billions of dollars’ worth of paintings and sculptures from his private art collection and killing the official’s son.

You see, God in Christ paid such a high price for us not because we were valuable to him and deserved to be redeemed, but because we had rebelled against him and incurred the wages of sin and eternal death! We, who were made in his God’s own image to glorify him like nothing else in all creation, “did not honor him as God or give thanks to him” but “exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever” (Rom. 1:21-25). We have committed cosmic treason and robbed the infinitely glorious God of the honor which he is due. Paul says that, “All have turned aside; together they have become worthless” (Rom. 3:12), that, “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). And as the author of Hebrews reminds us: “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Heb. 9:22).

So again, while the cross does in one sense reveal our worth (because those justified by grace through faith in Jesus have received adoptions as sons and become God’s treasured possession), it is ultimately a reflection of God’s abundant grace and generosity and not any value on our part—inherent or potential. The cross of Christ is the revelation that unworthy sinners are “justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness [notice Paul doesn’t mention our value here!] . . . so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:23-26). The cross primarily reveals the righteousness of God in perfect justice and mercy, “having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross” (Col 2:13-14). This is why we sing:

He paid a debt he did not owe; I owed a debt I could not pay
I needed someone to wash my sins away
And now I sing a brand new song, “Amazing grace!”
Christ Jesus paid the debt that I could never pay.

Objection #3: This Teaching Changes the Grounds for Loving God

This final objection is a bit more subtle than the others but is absolutely critical. Here we see even more clearly why this teaching is such a dangerous false doctrine. Drawing on the writing of Jonathan Edwards, John Piper makes the following observation, worth quoting at length:

Perhaps you have heard people say how thankful we should be for the death of Christ because it shows how much value God puts upon us. In other words, they are thankful for the cross as an echo of our worth. What is the foundation of this gratitude?

Jonathan Edwards calls it the gratitude of hypocrites. Why? Because “they first rejoice, and are elevated with the fact that they are made much of by God; and then on that ground, [God] seems in a sort, lovely to them. . . . They are pleased in the highest degree, in hearing how much God and Christ make of them. So that their joy is really a joy in themselves, and not in God.” It is a shocking thing to learn that one of today’s most common descriptions of the cross—namely, how much of our value it celebrates—may well be a description of natural self-love with no spiritual value.[5]

In other words, this teaching only serves to make us love and worship God because of how much he makes of us! In the end, it’s simply another form of self-love and pride—and it doesn’t take a supernatural act of sovereign grace to make a sinner love himself more.

We simply can’t afford to miss this point. This is a gospel that our world would have no trouble hearing and even accepting, since it completely downplays both our sin and the righteousness of God just to reaffirm our worth and increase our self-esteem. It only validates how awesome we are—after all, God bankrupted himself to get us, right?! Piper goes on to explain:

We have absorbed a definition of love that makes us the center. That is, we feel loved when someone makes much of us. Thus the natural, human definition of love is making much of someone. The main reason this feels like love is that it feels so good to be made much of. The problem is that this feels good on wholly natural grounds. There is nothing spiritual about it. No change in us is needed at all to experience this kind of “love.” This love is wholly natural. It operates on the principles that are already present in our fallen, sinful, and spiritually dead souls. We love the praise of man. It feels good.[6]

But the true gospel is preeminently, unequivocally, exclusively, unquestionably God-centered. Even with all of the blessings with which we have been blessed in Christ, it is ultimately “to the praise of his glorious grace” (Eph. 1:6).

God did not send his only Son into the world so that we would be amazed with how much he makes of us. God in Christ did not lay down his life to forgive us, redeem us, and make us his treasured possession so that we would be enamored with how valuable we are. No, God sent his only Son into the world to the end that we would forever enjoy beholding his glory, seeing his worth, and making much of him. This is what we were created to do. This is the good news our world so desperately needs.

Conclusion

It is sadly the case that many Christians fail to live in light of our union with Christ and adoption as sons. Many believers continue to live beneath a burden of guilt and condemnation due to either the temptation of the devil or a misunderstanding of the gospel. And we know that all humanity is longing for acceptance, significance, meaning, and a sense of worth. But the solution is not found by simply increasing our self-esteem or making ourselves the center of God’s universe! The answer is found in beholding the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ and rejoicing in his great love for us.

Yes, the cross is the revelation of our sin and our value to God. Yes, God obtained a people for his own treasured possession with his own blood. Yes, those who are in Christ are loved by God with the very love that he has for his Son. But our worth does not come from any worthiness on our part; our worth is entirely owing to the love of God in Christ. The glory of the cross is not seen in the revealing of our value to God, but the revealing of his glorious grace.

Two wonders here that I confess
My worth and my unworthiness
My value fixed – my ransom paid
At the cross

I rejoice in my Redeemer
Greatest Treasure,
Wellspring of my soul
I will trust in Him, no other.
My soul is satisfied in Him alone.


Endnotes
  1. C. S. Lewis, The Last Battle, The Chronicles of Narnia, book 7 (New York, NY: Harper Trophy, 1994), 116.
  2. J. I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1990) 126.
  3. “Todd White | How Much Are You Worth?” posted on December 2, 2016 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X_KKwLTeMjQ&feature=youtu.be).
  4. For a further look at the emergence of this kind of false teaching in the 21st century, see David Powlison’s excellent article: The Therapeutic Gospel (February, 25, 2010), https://www.9marks.org/article/therapeutic-gospel/.
  5. Jonathan Edwards, Religious Affections, in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 2, ed. John Smith (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1959), 250-51 in John Piper, God is the Gospel: Meditations on God’s Love as the Gift of Himself (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2005), 137.
  6. Piper, God is the Gospel, 149.

He Could Not Save Himself

This sermon, “He Cannot Save Himself,” was preached on Good Friday, April 14, 2017 by Matt Bedzyk

And those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads and saying, ‘Aha! You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself, and come down from the cross!’ So also the chief priests with the scribes mocked him to one another, saying, ‘He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Christ, the King of Israel, come down now from the cross that we may see and believe.’ Those who were crucified with him also reviled him. (Mark 15:29-32)

Jesus has been arrested, put on trial, brought before Pilate, Herod, then Pilate again. He has been beaten, spit upon, mocked, whipped, crowned with thorns, and now is nailed to a cross to die.

The story is a familiar one to most of us, and to most of the world at large. However, tonight I want to look at one particular event that took place during the crucifixion of Jesus. Here, we are given a clear picture of what the world demands of Jesus, the terrible cost of their demands, and ultimately a better understanding of the faithful work of Christ.

The Demands of this World

In this passage we have three groups of people reacting to the crucifixion of Christ: those passing by deride him; the religious elite mock him; and the two criminals insult him.

First, those who were passing by and saw Jesus hanging on the cross used the opportunity to ridicule and blaspheme him. “If you’re so powerful that you’d be able to destroy the entire temple and rebuild it in three days, prove it to us now by coming down from the cross!”

John’s gospel tells us that Jesus, having been asked for a sign, said: “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up,” speaking of his death and resurrection, the temple of his body (Jn. 2:18-22). But here, as well as at his trial, his words were being twisted. The crowds had come to believe that Jesus was going to destroy their temple, which fueled their hatred of him. So, in hardened unbelief and hatred towards Jesus, they mock him and call for him to come down in order that he may get to work destroying their temple. “Save yourself, if you can!” (cf. Ps 22:7-8)

Second, the religious elite, the teachers of the law, those of all people who should have been first to recognize the Messiah and champion Jesus’ life and ministry, here mock him amongst themselves: “He saved others, but look—he can’t even save himself!”

Notice how they even admit here that Jesus did perform miracles, heal, and save many. They witnessed his ministry for three years yet still rejected him and his claims. Adding to the ridicule of the crowds passing by, they mock him further: “Let the Christ, the King of Israel, come down that we may see and believe. You claimed to be the Christ, so now just prove it by saving yourself; come down from the cross, and we will see and believe!” Fully convinced that Jesus was simply a Messianic pretender, a false prophet, a failed revolutionary, they mock his inability to save himself. They know he’s done for, that he’s doomed to die a slow, painful death, so they ridicule and mock him with sarcasm.

And third, adding insult to injury, even the criminals begin to insult and curse him: “Aren’t you the Christ? Then prove it by saving yourself and us! The Messiah is supposed to be a national hero, a conquering king; if you’re really the promised Christ, then prove it!”

Each of these responses are essentially the exact same: In their minds, the real Messiah was coming to liberate Israel from her Roman occupiers and see the nation reestablished as God’s glorious people. He was coming as a king to conquer his enemies! Besides, he wouldn’t have confronted and called out the Pharisees, chief priests, and teachers of the Law; he would have applauded them! If Jesus was truly the Messiah, then he wouldn’t be here stripped, helpless, beaten, scourged, bleeding, and nailed to a cross, cursed and forsaken by God. But here was this so-called Christ, the Son of God, being crucified like a common criminal, dying as any blasphemer should. So, in their mockery, they call for him to come down, knowing that this carpenter’s son, this troublemaker from Nazareth, was unable to do so and was obviously a Messianic imposter.

Did you notice the words of the religious crowd: “Let the Christ, the King of Israel, come down now from the cross that we may see and believe”? Even though they were completely insincere, it’s important to understand that even if Jesus did exactly what they wanted, they still wouldn’t see and believe! Why? Because they were blind; they had suppressed the truth. The religious Jews were always asking for signs, and though Jesus was working miracles in their midst, they still would find problems and bring other accusations against him; Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead and the Jews went and made plans to kill him!

Remember the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus? In hell, the Rich Man tells Abraham to have Lazarus go and warn his brothers. But he replied: “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead” (Luke 16:31). Even after Jesus rose from the dead, and he gave the “evil and adulterous generation” a sign they were looking for, they still didn’t believe that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God.

Aren’t these demands similar to the demands of the world today? The unbelieving world says: “If your God was really God, then he wouldn’t have let such and such happen.” Or, “Your God is a God of hate; my God is a God of love and acceptance.” Or, “I would believe in Jesus if I just had some more proof; if he would just give me a sign.” Yet when confronted with powerful evidence, logical arguments, the very created world around them, or when it seems as if their prayers are answered, they don’t believe in God but just find more excuses not to believe! They’ll hear of Jesus life and death and say “No thanks.”

Ultimately, what the world wants is a god made in their image; one that suits them, their beliefs, and their desires. When the world hears the gospel, when unbelievers are confronted with Jesus, they suppress the truth about God in unrighteousness. They don’t want to be told that they are selfish, proud, evil sinners. They don’t want to submit to the Lordship of Christ and fall on their knees in obedience to God; we want to be our own gods! They don’t want to listen and submit to what he says; they want Jesus to do what they want.

So we have Jesus crucified, being blasphemed, mocked, and insulted, with the chief priests and teachers of the law saying to one another, “He saved others, but he can’t save himself.” But church, could Christ have come down from the cross and saved himself? Of course he could have! He could have put an end to it all in the garden! “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matt. 26:53). He truly was the Son of God, who walked on water and raised the dead to life—he could have miraculously come down from the cross, putting an end to their mockery. Besides, he was sinless! He was the one human being born in the entire history of the world who was totally undeserving of death, since he lived a life of perfect obedience to the demands of the Law of God. He shouldn’t be subjected to death, let alone a shameful death by crucifixion!

In fact, wouldn’t it be extremely satisfying if Jesus did come down?! After reading of how beautiful, tender, compassionate, powerful, loving, and awesome Jesus was to a broken humanity, and then to see how he was being treated here—being rejected, beaten, humiliated, crucified, and now ruthlessly mocked—wouldn’t it just be so satisfying to see Jesus actually come down from the cross and just destroy all his enemies? To hear Jesus say, “You want me to prove my power? You want me to prove I’m God?! Then so be it!”  (e.g. Count of Monte Cristo)

Church, he could have and they would have been totally deserving of his just wrath. But he doesn’t. He doesn’t save himself. He doesn’t give in to their demands. He instead chooses to remain nailed to that cross—bleeding, gasping, broken, crushed, and dying.

He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted (Isaiah 53:3-4).

Why? Why does he stay there? Why doesn’t the sinless Son of God come down and judge his enemies? Why doesn’t he give into the demands of the world? Because they come with a cost…

The Cost of Their Demands

These people were calling for him to prove his Messiahship, his claims of deity, by saving himself; if he would just come down, then they’d know and believe that he was truly the Christ, God’s promised anointed one, the rescuer of Israel. But what these men failed to understand was that if Jesus was to come down from the cross, he would have proven himself to not be the Messiah, For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Lk. 19:10) and “give his life as a ransom for many (Mk. 10:45).

The crowds wanted him to prove to be the Son of Man by ceasing to be the Son of Man! He had clothed himself with human flesh, and came into the world, so that, by his sacrificial death, he might reconcile men to God the Father. So, in order for him to prove himself to be the Son of Man, it was necessary that he should hang upon the cross. If he had come down, he would have failed to fully obey the command of his Father, and having failed to make atonement for the sins of his people, he would have deprived himself of the office assigned to him by his Father (cf. Jn 10:17-18).

Because of this, their demands would come at an even great and more devastating cost: If Jesus came down from the cross, we would have no forgiveness for sin. Scripture is clear: the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23) and “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Heb. 9:22). Even under the law, animal sacrifices in and of themselves were insufficient, “For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins(Heb. 10:4). No animal can atone for man’s sin. Only man can atone for man’s sin.

Jesus came that he might be the atoning sacrifice for sin, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. God sent his Son into the world to be the propitiation for our sins. As Isaiah prophesied about the Messiah, he came to be crushed under the wrath of God, to bear our iniquities, to pour out his soul to death, to be counted among sinners and intercede for them. If Jesus had come down from the cross and saved himself from death, he would have failed to carry out his divine mission of redemption.

If Jesus came down from the cross, we would still be under the curse and Law, enslaved to sin, held by the power of death, and separated from God, deserving wrath for our sin against him.

But it gets worse. If Jesus came down from the cross, God would have proven to be unrighteous! Romans 3:25 says that Christ’s death was to demonstrate God’s righteousness, to demonstrate God’s moral excellencies and perfect justice. How? Because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. All of the many times forgiveness was extended to Israel in the OT was not because of their sacrifices but because of God’s ultimate provision of Christ, his Son.

If Jesus had come down and not died on the cross that day, under the divine judgment of God for the sins man, then God’s holiness and righteousness would have been compromised. All sin that God had mercifully passed over in anticipation of his Son’s sacrificial death would not have been fully and finally atoned for! God would be guilty of excusing sin—cosmic injustice!

And if Jesus came down from the cross, God would have also proven himself to be a liar. All his promises made to his people throughout the ages—from the very beginning in Genesis 3:15 where the Seed of Woman was promised to one day crush the serpent’s head—would have fallen through.

Church, do not miss what’s really going on in this passage here: these demands given to Jesus to come down from the cross are ultimately Satan’s last ditch effort to tempt Jesus into abandoning his God-given mission of redemption. This was Satan’s attempt to destroy our hope for forgiveness, to keep humanity enslaved to sin and death, to prove God to be an unrighteous liar, to steal his glory. Just as Satan had tempted Jesus in the wilderness to abandon his mission as the Son of God, here—when Jesus is at his weakest, experiencing the physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual suffering of his crucifixion—Satan entices him to end it all. But Jesus refuses to give in.

Though he was certainly powerful enough to come down from the cross, Jesus refuses to give in to the demands of the world and the temptations of Satan. He had come to die.

He Cannot Save Himself

But do you see what this means? While it is true that Jesus, the Son of God, the Messiah, the God-Man, was in some sense capable of saving himself, in a very real and profound sense he could not save himself. In an ironic twist, the words of the Pharisees were actually true— it was precisely because he came to save others that he could not save himself!

Jesus came into this world to seek and save the lost (Lk. 19:10); he came to destroy the works of the devil (1 Jn. 3:8); he came to be made sin, who himself knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God ((2 Cor. 5:21); he came to be the propitiation for our sins by his blood (Rom 3:25). Isaiah tells us that “But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed” (Isa. 53:5)

“To descend from the cross was not indeed a physical impossibility, but it was a moral and spiritual impossibility for the Messiah. If he did so, he would cease to be God’s Christ, treading God’s path of Messiahship; instead, he would become a mere human Christ, and such a Christ could never save the world. The only path by which to save others was to refuse to save himself” (Alan Cole, Mark: An Introduction and Commentary, TNTC, 325).

Scripture is abundantly clear that it was necessary, and even predetermined before the foundation of the world that God, in Jesus, would die for sinners (cf. Mk. 8:31; Lk. 24:26-27; Acts 2:22-23; 1 Pet. 1:18-20; Rev 13:8).

He Did Not Save Himself so He Could Save You

“He saved others; he cannot save himself.” As we cast our minds this evening to Calvary, and behold our Savior—suffering, bleeding, gasping, and dying on the tree—we see the eternal, steadfast, covenant love of God on glorious display. The cross is the greatest proof of the love of God. (1 Jn 4:9-10)

It is on the cross that we behold the justice of God as the sins of man are punished and crushed under the weight of his burning wrath. Yet it is there on the cross that we also behold the mercy of God, that he would provide a substitute for all who would believe upon him in faith.

If you do not know this Christ, you must understand that you need a Savior! You need someone who can take the punishment that you rightfully deserve for your sins against God, and you need someone who can cleanse you and make you righteous before God. The good news is that by believing in the person and work of Christ, you can be saved. You can be forgiven and counted righteous. Don’t trust in your efforts or your good deeds, but confess your sinfulness before God and place your faith in the finished work of Christ. Don’t call for Jesus to come down from the cross, making yourself to be god; believe in God and the One whom he has sent.

Christian, it is only by beholding the glory of Christ that we are transformed into his same image. This glory, the beauty and majesty of Christ, is most clearly seen in the gospel of grace. It is only by believing, understanding, and remembering the gospel that you will find the ability to serve God with joy, obey him with gladness, share in his sufferings, and hold fast to our confession of faith (Gal. 2:20)

When Darkness Will Be No More (Revelation 22)

The night when Jesus was born, the sun of righteousness began to rise on our dark world. Jesus came into our world “to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.” God’s only Son was born to deliver us from sin’s dark night and bring us into the light of God’s glorious day.

You see, Jesus lived the life of obedience that we could have never lived. He never chose the darkness of sin and pride, but obeyed the Law fully, loving God and neighbor from a true heart. Yet this Jesus, as truly God and yet truly man, took our sins upon himself when he laid down his life on the cross. He not only entered our dark world but also experienced the dreadful darkness of God’s judgment in our place—on behalf of all those who would believe in his name. Now, by believing in his name, his light can be our light. By receiving him as the gift of God’s grace, his life can be our life. Friends, only Jesus can deliver us from the darkness.

But though Jesus conquered death by his own death and resurrection, and though he ascended to his Father as the King and Savior of the world, his kingdom still hasn’t come in all its fullness. Today, we find ourselves still waiting in a world of darkness. It’s the darkness of sin, of evil, of injustice, of uncertainty, of pain, of suffering—and it has yet to be fully dispelled.

While God’s grace has appeared in Christ, from his cradle to his cross, we now wait “for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13). One day, the risen Lord Jesus will return to rid this world of death’s dark shadow forever. He will make all things new. And until he comes, we walk by faith in the dark before the Dawn. I want to briefly focus our attention on the coming Dawn. I want us to consider the blessed hope that all who trust in Christ possess now. To do this, I want to read from the final chapter of the Bible: Revelation 22. It’s a passage full of imagery used throughout Scripture

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever (Revelation 22:1-5).

Just as the Bible begins with God and man, dwelling together in perfect fellowship in a garden full of beauty, life, and joy, here we see the same Eden-like imagery. This is a vivid picture of the new heavens and the new earth; the city of God; the people of God in a restored creation. Here, God and his redeemed people are together, face to face. The two images we find here—a river of living water, streaming from the throne of God and the Lamb; and “the tree of life” with its abundant supply of fruit and healing leaves—depict the results of Christ’s saving work.

Because of Christ’s death and resurrection, because he triumphed over sin and death, the effects of sin are completely overcome here. The eternal life which God gives to his people will be constantly available to nourish us, and will heal the effects of every former sin. All of this is a picture of eternal life. This is not simply everlasting life; it’s more so everlasting communion with God. It’s the experience of unending fellowship with God—knowing him, loving him, obeying him, and enjoying him forever. It’s rest, satisfaction, peace, and joy.

But notice the depiction of the new heavens and new earth found in verse 5: “And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever” (Rev 22:5). The focus here is not so much on what this will look or be like literally. We’re not supposed to read this and ask “Will there be sun or moon in the new creation? Will we need to sleep? How can there be months (v.2) if there’s no day/night cycle to distinguish days and months?” No! John is describing eternal life with God in the restored creation with beautiful language that we can understand. Think about what this phrase is saying: “night will be no more

The darkness of sin and evil will be no more. No longer will God’s creation be corrupted by sin, ruined by the curse of the Fall. No longer will this world be a place of danger, violence, uncertainty, and ruin. No longer will there be any evil! No longer will our hearts be plagued with sin, rebellion, or the powers of darkness. We will be glorified, saved to sin no more!

The darkness of suffering and death will be no more. No longer will we experience any kind of pain, sickness, or even death. Moreover, no longer will we experience any kind of worry, depression, anxiety, or fear about pain and death. No longer will be weak, tired, worn out, restless, insecure, confused, lost, unsure, or dismayed. We will only know life and joy.

So, when we read that “night will be no more”, this means that the curse of physical and spiritual death that entered world through Adam’s sin will be permanently removed by King Jesus. At the Dawn of the new creation, when Jesus comes back renew the world, we will experience total peace and security and relief from all suffering that characterized the old creation.

But the beauty of this passage—the most wonderful blessing of this passage in Revelation—is not simply that night will be no more, that darkness will be no more. No; it’s that we will see the Light of Day forever and ever. It’s that the Lord God will be our light! God will dwell us, his people, forever in perfect peace, rest, and joy. This is our hope as we wait in the dark before the Dawn.

Friends, we all know the present darkness of this broken world. Yet at the same time, everyone would like to believe that there’s a happy ending to this story; everyone wants to believe all will be well one day. We want to believe that the darkness of sin and death will be dispelled forever. But the truth of the matter is that, for those who fail to repent and believe in Jesus Christ, the Lamb who was for sinners slain, the coming Day of the Lord will only be a day of eternal darkness. Those who belong to the darkness will be dispelled with it.

If you are tired of the darkness of this world—and more importantly, the darkness of your own heart, with all of its sin and guilt and worry and depression and fear—then hear the words of Jesus Christ from John 8:12:

“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

Behold the Son of God! Repent of your sins, trust in his finished work, and believe in his name. United to Christ by faith, the coming Day of the Lord will be the Day of your full and eternal salvation. Our God is merciful and patient and wants all to come to the light of Christ. While the offer of salvation stands, before Jesus returns, receive his light by faith.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, as we await the coming of our Lord and Savior, let us endure this present darkness with joy, with gratitude, and with a confident expectation that our God will fulfill every one of his promises. He will dispel the darkness and bring us into his light forever. Let us be encouraged that one day, sin’s dark night will be no more. One day, the Lamb who was for sinners slain will make all things new, and the Lord our God will be our steadfast light.

Great Music for a New Year.

Over the past several years, the Christian church has been blessed with an abundance of good music; some might even say an overabundance. New songs are being written and recorded for corporate worship just about daily, and there are Christian artists covering almost every musical genre out there—not to mention the fact that music is more accessible today than it ever has been throughout all history. As a result, it can often feel overwhelming trying to keep up with the latest artists or discovering new albums to enjoy with your family that are both theologically sound and musically satisfying.

Here are a few albums that my wife and I recommend for both personal edification and family worship. We enjoy listening (as well as singing and dancing ) to a wide variety of music in our home, but these are the songs that have been on rotation when it comes to corporate worship and general Christian music. We hope this list helps provide you with direction and good alternatives to some of the other religious music options out there.

Corporate Worship Music

CityAlight, Yet Not I.

CityAlight sets biblically-rich lyrics and memorable melodies to beautiful music with excellence. Their compositions include both original hymns and modern worship songs with a contemporary arrangement, all of which are perfectly suited for congregational singing. The title track of this album, “Yet Not I, But Through Christ In Me,” might just be your new favorite worship song. Check out their other albums as well: Yours Alone and Only a Holy God.


His Mercy Is More: The Hymns of Matt Boswell and Matt Papa

Matt Boswell and Matt Papa have written many beloved hymns such as “Come Behold the Wondrous Mystery,” “How Rich a Treasure We Possess,” and “Christ the Sure and Steady Anchor.” Their songs have been a tremendous blessing to our church over the past few years, and this album is a compilation of some of their best. In particular, the creative choices and musical arrangements of each song on this album are simply wonderful. I highly recommend the other albums released by these guys individually, as well as the books and blogs they each have written.


Sovereign Grace Music, 30: Three Decades of Songs for the Church 

Sovereign Grace Music serves local churches with songs that are theologically-driven and gospel-rich. This album includes some of their greatest hits, including “All I Have is Christ,” “Behold Our God,” and “Now Why This Fear.” Each song was recorded by a different artist and the production quality is excellent. Check out their Christmas album, “Prepare Him Room,” and their great kids albums: “Listen Up!” and “The Ology.” For those of a more church-choir and gospel-music persuasion, check out their collaboration with The Shiloh Church Choir, “Behold Our God.”


Keith and Kristyn Getty, Sing! Psalms Ancient and Modern

The Getty’s are arguably the most successful modern hymn writers of the twenty-first century. Their songs teach Christian doctrine across the genres of traditional, classical, folk and contemporary composition, and are sung all over the world. Recorded live at the Sing! 2018 National Conference in Nashville, TN with several special guests, this album contains a variety of new and old hymns inspired by the Psalms.


General Christian Music

Andrew Peterson, Resurrection Letters

Peterson is an accomplished recording artist, folk singer/songwriter, producer, filmmaker, publisher, and award-winning author. His lyrics are saturated with biblical themes and imagery, and his music is soul-stirring. Resurrection Letters is a three-album concept, beginning with a prologue that contemplates Christ’s death, and moves into Volumes 1 and 2 which explore Christ’s exaltation and the implications of the resurrection for our lives, respectively.


Timothy Brindle, The Unfolding

While the Christian hip-hop genre has been growing in popularity in recent years, few artists exalt the Lord Jesus Christ lyrically like Timothy Brindle. This album provides a survey of redemptive history in order to see how the various themes of the Bible connect to the person and work of Jesus Christ. This is biblical theology at its finest (Note: Brindle, as a Presbyterian, is convinced of infant baptism and alludes to the practice in one line of this album. However, the other 99.99% of this 100 minute masterpiece is simply brilliant!)


Psallos, Hebrews

Psallos is a team of Christian artists and singers, ministers and musicians, thinkers and theologians, led by composer Cody Curtis. What they have achieved on this album is a systematic musical adaptation of an entire New Testament epistle. In other words, this is not simply the text of Hebrews with nice music behind it; this is the use of music to “exegete” the text in an imaginative way. Psallos uses the musical tools of melody, tempo, rhythm, style, and lyrics to convey the truths of the book of Hebrews. The result is breathtaking, symphonic, and theological masterpiece.


The Rizers, Rise Up!

The Rizers (short for “memorizers”) is a band that sings Scripture verses in the form of upbeat, kid-friendly music. Scripture memory is a vital spiritual discipline for all believers, and music is one of the most powerful tools to use to that end. However, whereas most memory-verse songs for children are rather corny and unimaginative, these songs are well-written, catchy, and incredibly fun to sing. Several music videos are available online as well.

A Portrait of a Spirit-Filled Church

The phrase “Spirit-filled” is tossed around a lot today in evangelicalism. Most often, this label is used to describe a Christian or a church that emphasizes spiritual gifts, experiences authentic and emotional worship ‘encounters,’ and seeks to avoid “putting God in a box” when it comes to the expression of faith.

However, the phrase “Spirit-filled Christian” or “Spirit-filled church” is actually quite misleading (and often used in a divisive way, suggesting that someone or some church isn’t Spirit-filled). It’s like using the phrase “born-again Christian.” How are these phrases misleading? Because every true Christian is born again; there’s no such thing as a Christian who is not born again. Similarly, every true Christian has received the Holy Spirit, and thus every true Christian church is Spirit-filled. The church of Jesus Christ is the assembly of those called by God the Father into the fellowship of his Son by his Spirit (1 Cor. 1:9; see also 3:16-17; 12:13; Eph. 2:18-22).

Now of course, there are all kinds of ‘churches’ in all kinds of ‘Christian’ denominations today that are not true churches of the Lord Jesus Christ and therefore not Spirit-filled. However, the true church of Christ is the Spirit-filled, indwelt, baptized, empowered, illuminated, sanctified, and sealed assembly of the restored people of God under the saving rule of the risen Lord Jesus.

But, what does a true “Spirit-filled” church look like? There is no better place to answer this question than to look at the results of when the Holy Spirit was poured out upon the new covenant church in fullness on the day of Pentecost.

The Restored People of God

In Acts 2:41, we read that those who received Peter’s word—who believed the gospel of the risen Lord Jesus—were baptized and were added to the church. Some 3,000 Jews in Jerusalem received the forgiveness of sins through Christ’s atoning death. They received the promised gift of the Holy Spirit from the ascended Christ. And then immediately, we are given a comprehensive portrait of the life of the early church.

In fact, the description of the church in Acts 2:42-47 is one of the clearest proofs that the Spirit of Jesus had indeed been poured out upon the restored people of God. This passage reveals that a true, “Spirit-filled” church will be one that is joyfully devoted to doctrine, to fellowship, and to prayer. Those who, by grace through faith, receive the gift salvation and the very Spirit of Jesus (i.e., Christians) are those who obey the word of their King, who love the people of their King, and who rely on the power of their King.

But before we look at each of these areas in more detail, it’s important to notice the way Luke describes how they did all of these activities: “they devoted themselves.” They continued steadfastly, passionately; they were persistently committed to the Christian faith. If Luke is painting a portrait of the church, he is painting with the boldest and most vibrant of colors. The life of the church was one of radical devotion to their risen Lord. These Christians began to live as though Jesus really was the king of the world, all because they had received the Holy Spirit.

A Spirit-Filled Church is Joyfully Devoted to Doctrine

And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching (Acts 2:42).

The first thing Luke mentions is the church’s radical commitment to the teaching—the doctrine or message—of the apostles. And what was this teaching? It was what Peter had just preached in Acts 2: the gospel of the risen Lord Jesus. Their message was the good news of the kingdom of God under the saving rule of Christ! They taught that the God-man, Jesus of Nazareth, was the fulfillment of all of God’s covenant promises. He is the second Adam, the prophet like Moses, the Passover Lamb, the true Israel, the perfect redeemer, the greater Son of David. This Jesus offered up his own life as an atoning sacrifice for the sins of all who would believe in him and was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father for our justification.

Their doctrine included everything revealed in the Old Testament, everything spoken by Jesus during his earthly ministry, and the significance of his death and resurrection—all of which they would go on to explain in letters and sermons in what has become the New Testament. And the church was radically devoted to this gospel, the word of God. They not only heard it and studied it but proclaimed it and bore witness to Jesus in the power of the Spirit.

“With Signs and Wonders Confirming”

How did the people in Jerusalem know that the doctrine of the apostles was the truth? Luke tells us in verse 43: “Awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles” Just as God performed miracles through Jesus to validate his identity as the Son of God (Acts 2:22), the teaching of the apostles was also confirmed by signs and wonders! Jesus empowered his official representatives to lay the foundation of the church as the new leaders of the restored people of God.

But the church wasn’t devoted to these signs and wonders; they were devoted to doctrine! This is not to say that the early church didn’t believe God for miracles (as we’ll see in just a moment), but they weren’t seeking to perform signs; their focus was on the Person to which the signs of the apostles were pointing: King Jesus! Throughout the book of Acts, it is repeatedly stated that miracles, signs and wonders, were performed by the apostles and their associates. Why? Because the apostles were chosen and entrusted by the risen Lord Jesus to lay the foundation of the church; it was their word about Jesus was to be received and believed (2:41). Thus we read that “all who believed were together” (2:44).

Centered on the Word of the Risen Lord Jesus

Today, the doctrine of the apostles is found in what we know as the New Testament, along with the revelation of God that is the Old Testament. Being devoted to joyfully doctrine to doctrine means being joyfully devoted to Scripture—hearing, believing, obeying, and continuing steadfastly in the Bible! Simply put, a Spirit-filled church is centered on the Word of the risen Lord Jesus. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of truth who guides the people of God into all truth (John 16:13). He bears witness about Jesus (15:25). We are sanctified in the truth, and God’s Word is truth (17:17). So, to receive the gift of the Spirit is to receive a passionate desire to be centered on the Word.

God’s Word is the instrument of our salvation: It is how we come to faith in Christ (Rom. 10:17); it is how we are born again (1 Pet. 1:23). But God’s Word is also sufficient for our sanctification: It is how we are trained in righteousness and grow in godliness, becoming complete and equipped for every good work (2 Tim. 3:16-17). We need gospel doctrine! A true church is a community of believers where God’s Word is loved, read, studied, and obeyed in its entirety. Bobby Jamieson writes: “Sound doctrine is the lifeblood of the church. It shapes and guides the church’s teaching. It nourishes holiness. It fosters love. It grounds an repairs unity. It calls forth worship. And it informs and motivates our witness to the gospel.”

So, for those who claim to be “Spirit-filled”: Are you devoted to doctrine? Do you consume God’s Word? Do you meditate upon it day and night, rehearsing the gospel to yourselves daily? Do you teach this doctrine to your children? Do you believe and obey it? Is your entire life centered on and nourished by the Word of Christ?

However, being devoted to doctrine does not stop at centering our lives on God’s Word. No, being devoted to the teaching of the apostles leads to transformation; doctrine leads to devotion.

A Spirit-Filled Church is Joyfully Devoted to Fellowship

And they devoted themselves to . . .  the fellowship, to the breaking of bread (Acts 2:42).

There’s not just a body of doctrine that must be believed and obeyed; there is a body of believers that must be loved and encouraged. Sound doctrine teaches us that not only have we been saved from the King’s judgment, but that we have been saved to his kingdom and his people.

The word ‘fellowship’ is a beautiful and significant word that, all too often, gets thrown about carelessly. When we hear ‘fellowship,’ we usually think handshakes, hellos, and howdy-dos; we think fellowship halls, church lobbies, and potlucks; we think socializing and mingling. But this is not what Luke is describing. This is the Greek word koinonia, and it means “a close association involving mutual interests and sharing.” It’s translated as fellowship, communion, participation. (Outside the New Testament, it was used to express the marriage relationship.)

This is the word used to describe our union with Christ by faith! Listen to the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 1:9: “God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” Paul later explains that this fellowship with Christ is from the Holy Spirit we have all received (2 Cor. 13:14; Php. 2:1) John writes that “our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ” (1 John 1:3). Because we have fellowship with God in Christ by the Spirit—because we have been united to Christ by faith and are now members of his body—we also have fellowship with one another in Christ by the Spirit. By the Spirit of adoption, we have become the new creation family of God!

Bearing Burdens in Love

And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need (Acts 2:44-45).

Describing the togetherness of the early church, Matthew Henry writes: “Wherever you saw one disciple, you would see more.” Their communion with Christ and one another completely changed their priorities. They were family. And their newfound devotion to fellowship was seen in two ways. First, being devoted to fellowship meant bearing burdens in love. Every member of the church held his possessions at the disposal of others. Their shared fellowship with Christ, and the forgiveness they had all received led them to share even their possessions with each other.

Verses 44-45 are often misunderstood. This doesn’t mean everyone got rid of everything they owned; rather, the believers were ready and willing to help those in need. If this meant sharing or selling their possessions, they would do so eagerly, joyfully, and generously. This also doesn’t mean the church didn’t care about unbelievers or those outside the church. Luke is showing us just how radically devoted the church was to the fellowship of the saints.

Breaking Bread with Joy

And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people (Acts 2:46-47).

Second, being devoted to fellowship also meant breaking bread with joy. Not only were the believers meeting together daily in the temple courts to hear the apostles teach and have fellowship with one another, they were also gathering often for meals with one another.

In v.42, Luke wrote that they devoted themselves “to the breaking of bread.” This phrase refers both to the ordinary meals the believers shared as well as the Lord’s Supper, which they would commemorate at their regular meals, remembering their Lord and his sacrifice. It was while breaking bread that the believers would begin to get to know one another, learn about their needs, yet also pray and worship their Lord and Savior together. Just as Jesus came eating and drinking, and revealed himself to his followers “in the breaking of the bread” (Luke 24:35), the early church celebrated gospel fellowship the same way.

The main force of this sentence is the statement at the end of verse 46: “They received their food with glad and generous hearts.” ‘Glad’ here literally means extremely joyful, full of exaltation; and ‘generous’ means simple—they ate with humble, honest, and sincere hearts. The church was characterized by a spirit of rejoicing and generosity. Even their meals were occasions for praising God with great joy, with hearts full of thanksgiving. This was the joy of salvation—a true sense of gratitude, contentment, and delight given by the Holy Spirit.

Transformed by the Love of the Risen Lord Jesus

Beloved, the reason the early church was devoted to such deep, intimate fellowship was because they had received forgiveness of their sins and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. This community wasn’t simply inspired by the love, forgiveness, patience, and generosity of the risen Lord Jesus; they had received the very Spirit and power of the risen Lord Jesus to actually walk in forgiveness, love, patience, and generosity!

In other words, a Spirit-filled church is transformed by the love of the risen Lord Jesus. Those who have had the love of God poured into their hearts by the promised Holy Spirit; those who have become new creations in Christ by the life-giving, regenerating power of the Spirit; those who have been called by grace into the fellowship of the blessed Trinity will be devoted to fellowship—both bearing burdens and breaking bread.

John pulls no punches when he writes: “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death. . . . By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:14, 16-18).

This is profound: John is saying “Do you want to know if you are a believer? Do you want to know if you have been born again, saved from death and given new life? Then answer me this: Do you love the church? Are you devoted to fellowship?” Say all you want that you are a Christian, that you love Bible doctrine, that you give, that you shovel your neighbor’s driveway. But if you can go about your whole life, day to day, week to week, completely separated from and uninvolved in the life of the church, your failure to show love and concern for the believers testifies against you.

This is why membership in a local church is of the utmost importance for living the Christian life. Membership gives definition and direction to the commands given to Christians. How can you bear the burdens of every Christian? How can you pray for every Christian? How can you show hospitality to every Christian? You can’t. But by joining a local church, you have a defined community of believers with whom you can be devoted to fellowship in these ways.

But what explains the growth of the church? What explains the awe, the reverence, and the favor of the unbelievers towards the church? This brings us to the final aspect of our portrait…

A Spirit-Filled Church is Joyfully Devoted to Prayer

And they devoted themselves to . . . the prayers (Acts 2:42).

The church in Acts was a praying church. The rest of the New Testament shows that the church is to be a praying church (Eph. 6:18-19; 1 Thess. 5:17; 1 Tim. 2:1). And just like Jesus, who spent much of his ministry praying to his heavenly Father, the church will be devoted to prayer because it has received the Spirit of adoption by whom we cry, “Abba, Father!” (Rom. 8:15). These believers knew that in their own strength, they were helpless. They knew that on their own, they would fall into temptation and sin. They knew that if the world hated their King, it would surely hate them. But they also knew that they had been reconciled to God and brought into fellowship with him, and this fellowship was expressed in prayer.

The results? “And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47). What a powerful and beautiful and assuring truth! The church bore witness to the risen Lord Jesus in the power of the Spirt, prayerfully preaching the word of God, and God brought about the miracle of salvation (talk about doing greater things!). It is the risen Lord Jesus alone who builds his church, but he has graciously given us the opportunity to participate with him through prayer. And a church that that truly depends upon God to change hearts of stone, to raise the dead to life, and to build up his church will pray. Salvation belongs to the Lord, and praise God he is still saving today!

We saw before that the early church wasn’t devoted to signs and wonders. Yet in one sense they were, because they were devoted to prayer. They knew that greatest miracle of all was the raising of a dead sinner to life by the resurrection power of God, and so they prayed. They knew that faith comes by hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ, and so the prayed for boldness (leaving the demonstration of the miraculous up to God).

For example, in the face of persecution, they would later pray: “‘Grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.’ And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness” (Acts 4:29-31).

Dependent Upon the Power of the Risen Lord Jesus

In a true “Spirit-filled” church, devotion to doctrine is central; we must aim to be centered fully on the word of God. In a true “Spirit-filled” church, devotion to fellowship is a nonnegotiable; we must seek to be transformed continually by the love of Jesus. But the church will only grow when the power of God is acknowledged, sought after, and depended upon in passionate prayer; we must be devoted to prayer.

You can substitute doctrine for entertainment and your church might see numerical growth. You can substitute online services for fellowship and your church might see a form of growth. But authentic numerical growth due to the salvation of sinners is the result of prayer.

Conclusion

Jesus of Nazareth was crucified on a cross, raised from the dead, and exalted to the right hand of God not only to provide forgiveness of sins and the gift of his Spirit by faith in his name, but to create a people for himself: the Spirit-filled, new-creation, born-again, restored people of God. And the true Spirit-filled church is a church joyfully devoted to doctrine, to fellowship, and to prayer.

Does such devotion characterize you? Can you say that you are centered on the word of the risen Lord Jesus, seen in a devotion to doctrine? Have you been transformed by the love of the risen Lord Jesus, seen in a devotion to fellowship? Are you dependent upon the power of the risen Lord Jesus, seen in a devotion to prayer? To profess to believe in the risen Lord Jesus and yet fail to be devoted to the teaching of the apostles and the fellowship of the saints and to prayer shows that you may never have received the forgiveness of sins and the promised Holy Spirit. Only the gospel of the risen Lord Jesus will fuel such devotion.

So whatever else the phrase “Spirit-filled” may mean today, let this portrait of a true, Spirit-filled church be true of our local churches today. May we all live as though Jesus really is the King of the world.