For the follower of Jesus, it can be a great encouragement to hear and read stories of past saints who have finished the race well. We see that in the Scriptures, as God gives us what has been called by many the famous “Hall of Faith” chapter in Hebrews 11, detailing how the saints of the Old Testament stood firm on their faith in God and His Word.
In my experience, reading the stories of past believers who have followed Jesus even to the point of death can be a convicting and riveting practice. Whether it’s Foxe’s Book of Martyrs or biographies of past theologians and missionaries, these stories have fueled the fire of devotion and perseverance for generations of Christians seeking to walk the same faithful path, myself included.
I recently finished reading a fine example of this type of spiritual biography that I was pleased to add to my bookshelf: Don Karns’ She Did What She Could. This is a collection of historical accounts, Scripture passages, and biographical tracts from past eras that tell the stories of little-known women of the faith. The title references Mark 14, in which a woman (whom John identifies as Mary, sister of Lazarus) anoints Jesus’ feet with a sweet-smelling ointment. When the disciples complained, Jesus defended her and said she has done all she could to honor him.
Through this collection of historical accounts that Karns has gathered across the centuries of church history, the pleasing aroma of these saints’ devotion is still powerful and praiseworthy.
I was delighted to receive Don Karns’ slim volume in the mail from my friend Michael Coughlin, with a request to share my thoughts. I’m more than happy to satisfy that request now.
The Evangelist with a Pastor’s Heart
The first things about this book that struck me were the notes from Karns himself. In his “Preface,” “Words of Encouragement,” and “Conclusion,” Karns labors to proclaim the Gospel clearly and urgently, in the hope that unsaved readers will understand why these stories are being told and what would drive people throughout the centuries to give up their lives and suffer hardship and martyrdom. The tone of Karns’ writing is winsome and pleading, seeking to make his appeal instead of shout down any expected critics.
I did a little internet research on the author and learned that he is a long-time evangelist and open-air preacher who seems to be respected by many who are familiar with his ministry. When critical or nasty comments are posted on his ministry website’s homepage, the responses from the site account are nothing but pleasant, earnest, and humble as they refute the accusations of the pagans and respond with Scripture.
Just as the testimonies of the inconspicuous women being highlighted in this work draw out the sweet aroma of Christ, I was touched by that same sweetness in the language Karns uses. Without knowing anything about him specifically, I can tell what kind of man he might be, making me all the more willing to read his compilation of testimonies.
In Memory of Her
The bulk of the volume consists of various historical accounts of women of faith. A few notable names are included in the group (such as Ann Judson and Joni Erickson-Tada), but most of them are all but unknown to most readers. This accounts of “the young cottager” or “the dairyman’s daughter” provide portraits of humble folk (often the very young or those facing the shadow of death) who are transformed by the Gospel. In many ways, these accounts remind me of The Pilgrim’s Progress, not because they are in any way fictional but because the lofty speech and conversation are full of allusions to Scripture.
In some of these accounts, I have to confess that I struggled to follow the dialogue sometimes. That might be blamed on my “reading muscles” becoming a bit too flabby as of late. At times, I did wonder if these conversations were a bit too lofty to be realistic, but that also may be due to the low expectations of a modern mind! Even if some of the wording of these accounts might have been “polished up” a bit to make clearer points, I have no reason to doubt they are truthful in the main.
My favorite section by far was the one titled “Women of the Covenant,” recounting the martyrdom of several women who were part of the Scottish “covenanters.” While the stories are just as challenging and encouraging as the other sections, the writing of this particular passage was poetic and vivid, and I found myself stopping to re-read several sentences that were perfectly crafted.
Karns closes the book by throwing the reader a curve ball. After regaling us with story after story of women of faith, he closes with a sermon excerpt from the Prince of Preachers, Charles Spurgeon, and a brief account of Luther’s prayer on the night before his “Here I Stand” speech at the Diet of Worms. However out-of-theme these inclusions were, they were fully in-step with the spirit of the book as a whole, calling unbelievers to trust in Jesus for salvation and challenging believers to live lives of faith and sacrifice for His glory.
A Treasure in a Rough-Hewn Case
As lovely as the contents of this volume are, I would be remiss not to address the problems I have with its presentation and production. It’s clear as soon as you pick the book up that it was self-published. On the whole, there’s nothing wrong with self-publishing a book. I’ve read more than a few self-published works in my time (I may even write a few someday), and they can be edited and produced to meet or even surpass the industry standard. However, I should note certain issues with this one, if for no other reason than the off-chance the author or his ministry partners are considering an additional print run and would be willing to make corrections.
The formatting of the work is inconsistent throughout, changing font types and sizes. Sometimes, the formatting is oppressively dense, including several sections of block text without visual breaks that go on for pages at a time. While I recognize that the source material was likely written and typeset in the same manner, I would ask the author (or others producing similar works) to take the liberty of reformatting these entries for better readability and acknowledging the changes with an editor’s note of some kind. There are also a handful of typos that should have been caught during the proofreading process; those sorts of things happen in even the big publishing houses, but that means it’s all the more important for the small team working on a book like this to be extra careful, as fewer eyes will see it before its release.
These may be considered nit-pick criticisms, but if one’s goal is to bring these stories to a new audience, or even (as the author seems to indicate) to share them with non-believers, part of the ministry work is taking the time to put out an excellent product free of the editorial distractions that could undercut or cheapen the overall presentation.
To Don Karns and anyone else who may be working on a self-published book like this, I urge you not to skip out on this vital step in the process. (By the way, if you are looking to hire a manuscript editor / proofreader for a bit of contract work, I’m available!)
She Did What She Could is a worthwhile read that presents a collection of mostly-unknown Gospel conversion and martyrdom stories from church history. From a publishing standpoint, the book needs some polish and updates, but that doesn’t detract from the message. If you love Jesus, this volume will help you to treasure and trust him all the more, as you walk through these short histories of women of whom the world was not worthy.
[Background/Disclaimer: The following sermon was delivered at Cornerstone Community Church in Montgomery, TX, on 07/11/2021. I adapted the section covering verses 3-4 from an earlier sermon I preached on 6/20/2021 at my home church, University Park Baptist Church, in Houston, TX.
In preparing for that first sermon, I relied mainly on the ESV Exegetical Commentary covering the epistle of Jude, Matthew Henry’s commentary on Jude, and various available study Bible notes. While I try to cite any direct quotations, I also want to acknowledge the background assistance of these study helps, in case there are any turns of phrase or linguistic connections that I may have appropriated without realizing and acknowledging it.
I’m sharing this sermon manuscript solely as a blessing to my readers in their personal spiritual walk, and I hope it is edifying in that regard.]
I’d like to open this morning with a lengthy, but I think beneficial, quote:
“The purpose of this book is not to decide the religious issue of the present day, but merely to present the issue as sharply and clearly as possible, in order that the reader may be aided in deciding it for himself. Presenting an issue sharply is indeed by no means a popular business at the present time; there are many who prefer to fight their intellectual battles in what Dr. Francis L. Patton has aptly called a “condition of low visibility.” Clear-cut definition of terms in religious matters, bold facing of the logical implications of religious views, is by many persons regarded as an impious proceeding. May it not discourage contribution to mission boards? May it not hinder the progress of consolidation, and produce a poor showing in the columns of church statistics? But with such persons we cannot possibly bring ourselves to agree. Light may seem at times to be an impertinent intruder, but it is always beneficial in the end. The type of religion which rejoices in the pious sound of traditional phrases, regardless of their meanings, or shrinks from “controversial” matters, will never stand amid the shocks of life. In the sphere of religion, as in other spheres, the things about which men are agreed are apt to be the things that are least worth holding; the really important things are the things about which men will fight.”
J. Greshem Machen, Christianity and Liberalism
Machen wrote this opening paragraph to Christianity and Liberalism in 1923. It seems that not much has changed in the last 100 years. At this moment in the life of the Evangelical church, we are hard pressed on all sides to be very broad-minded and tolerant when it comes to doctrine and practice, urged from both without and within to focus on what we agree about instead of what we disagree about, when it comes to the world around us. Machen disagrees, suggesting that what matters most is what we’re willing to fight for.
Over the next few weeks, we will be looking at the epistle of Jude and thinking about why we as Christians are called to “contend for the faith.” This morning, we’ll look at the first four verses, which encompass the introduction and main thesis statement of this powerful letter.
For those taking notes, the outline has 3 points: 1) A Chosen People (v.1-2); 2) A Change of Plans (v.3); and 4) A Church in Peril (v.4).
Let’s take a look at the full text:
Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ and brother of James,
To those who are called, beloved in God the Father, and kept for Jesus Christ:
May mercy, peace, and love be multiplied to you.
Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.
Jude 1-4 ESV
A Chosen People (v.1-2)
This letter begins the way many of the other epistles do, typical of first-century correspondence: we have a statement of whom the letter is from and to whom the letter is written. In verse 1, we see “Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ and brother of James.” Well, who’s Jude? For that matter, who’s James? What we know from the writings of the early church is that this James is James the half-brother of Jesus, the writer of the epistle of James in the New Testament and the apostle who eventually became one of the elders of the Jerusalem church, taking over for the more famous disciple and apostle James (Son of Thunder, brother of John) after that James was martyred in Acts 12.
So what do we know about this James? He was the son of Mary and Joseph, and at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, he didn’t seem to believe Jesus was the Messiah. In Matthew 13, we see that Jesus goes back home to Nazareth to teach, and the response of the crowd is, “Don’t we know this guy? Isn’t he the carpenter’s son, Mary’s boy?” In verse 55, it continues, “And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas?” So James (and by extension, Judas or “Jude”) are half-brothers of Jesus, sons of Mary and Joseph.
Jude identifies himself as the brother of James, so that the readers know who is speaking—but notice that he didn’t call himself the brother of Jesus. Instead, he calls himself Jesus’s servant (or, in the Greek, bondservant or slave), just as James does in James 1:1. And notice also that Jude calls Jesus “Christ”—Messiah, Anointed One. What would have caused such a change in Jude, and in James?
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.
I Corinthians 15:3-7 ESV (emphasis mine)
Seeing your older brother working miracles, teaching with wisdom and authority, and then coming back to life after being brutally crucified would probably do the trick! Now, Jude isn’t just the brother of “Jesus of Nazareth, the carpenter’s son”; he’s the bondservant and slave of Jesus the Risen Messiah!
Who is Jude writing to? He doesn’t indicate a specific church or region. Some commentators point to context clues to suggest it may be specific churches in Israel or nearby regions—churches with lots of Jewish believers who would recognize the references to the Old Testament and other Jewish works throughout the letter. However, I would suggest that while Jude certainly had a specific audience in mind, his greeting and message to all of us who are in Christ, because they are universally applicable to the church in every age: “To those who are called, beloved in God the Father, and kept for [or by] Jesus Christ.” We could spend all day on this one verse, because there is such richness in it. But I want to take just a few moments to help you see why it’s so important that we know who we are when we make our stand. If you are a born-again disciple of Jesus Christ, this is who you are:
You are called. The God of the Universe chose to reveal Himself to you and to draw you to Himself through the effectual call of the Holy Spirit. Jesus says in John 10 that His sheep hear His voice. Because you have been called by God, you are now His, you are in His hand, and nothing and no one can take you out of it. You have been adopted by God and have all the rights and privileges that come with that adoption.
You are beloved of the Father. You are loved by God—all 3 persons of God, the Father, the Son, the Spirit. Our position in Christ gives us security and confidence that we can approach the throne of grace boldly, not only because we are cleansed from our unrighteousness and given the righteousness of Jesus, but because we are truly and completely loved by God.
You are kept for Jesus Christ. Those whom God calls, God keeps. Those who are born again to new life are secure in their salvation. We’ll spend some more time at the end of the series talking about this, but let’s just revel in this reality for a moment.
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.
What then shall we say to these things? 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? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?
As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Romans 8:28-39 ESV
What beautiful promises we have in just this one verse—a verse that, let’s admit it, we’re tempted to gloss over.
Then Jude gives an initial blessing in his greeting in Verse 2: “May mercy, peace, and love be multiplied to you.” As if his previous comment weren’t enough, Jude prays that God would not just grant his readers mercy, peace, and love, but that they would have these graces in abundance—that they’d be multiplied to them! Throughout the New Testament, we see prayers and promises to this effect: the gracious generosity of God toward His people, granting them mercy, peace, and love in Himself, which they then extend and display to the world!
After this beautiful introduction, we move on to the main message of Jude’s letter in verse 3.
A Change of Plans (v.3)
In the first phrase of verse 3, we see a change in plans. “Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation…” Jude tells us that his original intent for writing was pastoral and didactic—his desire was to write about theology. He tells his brothers and sisters, beloved of the Father, that he was very eager to expound on “our common salvation.” He wished to establish the faith of the believers by reminding them of the truths of the Gospel taught by the apostles—the very faith he describes as being “once for all delivered to the saints.” We don’t know what that epistle would have looked like. Perhaps, like Paul, he would have talked about how there is no distinction or favoritism when it comes to who has access to God in Christ Jesus, or how all believers have the same Father and the same Lord and the same Spirit and the same baptism. Maybe Jude would have reminded the churches what his brother Jesus taught about the narrow way of salvation and the call to all who were willing to come and drink from Him the water of life. Perhaps Jude might have commented on Peter’s letters that reminded the church of the rich blessings of salvation and the calling to live as holy exiles.
We have no indication what his specific focus might have been, because as he considered taking up the pen (or, possibly, dictating to his personal scribe) to write to the scattered churches, he was moved by the Holy Spirit to address a different matter. He says that he “found it necessary to write, appealing to you to contend for the faith…” Rather than focusing on the more uplifting topic of our salvation, Jude is compelled to sound a warning bell for the churches. This was his duty as a servant of the Lord, a responsibility that Paul writes in Titus 1:9 is laid upon every minister of the Gospel: “He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.” Don’t miss that two-part requirement: a faithful elder/pastor must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught—the “faith once delivered to all the saints”—AND be able to rebuke those who try to subvert it. In this passage, Jude is calling out not just to church leaders but to all believers to contend for the faith.
Commentators indicate that the word contend here has a grammatical root from which we derive the English word “agonize.” This is a word from the athletic arena, as wrestlers and combatants grapple and strain and struggle and fight for ground. This word “contend” is not a word with a clean and wrinkle-free jersey; “contend” here is a sweat-soaked and blood-stained word. It’s similar to the phrasing in Paul’s instructions in I Corinthians 9 to run the race to win, and his declaration in II Timothy 4 that he has fought the good fight and finished the race, in keeping the faith. Jude is pleading with the believers to fight, to wrestle, to struggle for the sake of the unadulterated and undiluted faith, the true word that was handed down to them from Jesus and His apostles.
What is this precious word? It’s the word of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the good news that begins with bad news: All people are sinners by nature and choice, and all of us deserve the just wrath of a holy God for our rebellion and sin. But Jesus, the son of God, came to us, born of a virgin, born under the law, lived a perfect life of holy obedience and complete righteousness before God, and then died in the place of sinners as a sacrifice for sin, taking on the guilt of our sin and the wrath of God against it, satisfying justice, dying and then rising again 3 days later, in victory over death and as a sign that the penalty for our sin has been paid. Now, we who turn away from our sins and believe on Jesus as Savior AND Lord, trusting in His death and resurrection in our place, are credited with Jesus’ perfect righteousness and have peace with God in Him. When we are born again from death to life, we receive the Holy Spirit as a guarantee of our future inheritance, we are sanctified bit by bit, remade day by day into the image of Jesus, and looking forward to the last day, when we will be raised up with Him, freed of all trace and effect of sin, to live forever in perfect communion with God and His people!
That’s the message that Jude urges his hearers to fight for. Not a social program, not a political strategy, not an ideological agenda: a declaration that Jesus is Lord of all and an invitation to all who have ears to hear to repent and believe this good news.
My friend, if you don’t know this Jesus or believe this message, I’m thrilled to get to tell you: Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners. Are you a sinner? Turn from your sin and rebellion and run to Jesus! There is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved. He is your only hope. Don’t put this off another day, even another hour, because you truly don’t know for sure how much life you have ahead of you. I’m begging you—come talk to me after the service, for the sake of your very soul.
So, why was Jude compelled by the Holy Spirit to sound the alarm and call the churches to stand firm and fight for the faith? Because Jude recognized they were in danger. That’s our third point.
A Church in Peril (v.4)
Look at the beginning of Verse 4: “For certain people have crept in unnoticed…” Jude knows that there are false teachers who have worked their way into the churches. These spiritual saboteurs didn’t kick open the front door, announcing their apostasy openly. As John MacArthur puts it, the phrasing here describes someone who slides in through the side door, making his way among the flock, before his works become plain.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise to believers; throughout the New Testament, we have been warned about it by Jesus and the apostles. Four examples:
Jesus warns of wolves in sheep’s clothing and false teachers (Matthew 7:15-23)
Paul warned the Ephesian elders as he was leaving that they would eventually be infiltrated (Acts 20:25-31)
Paul tells Timothy in II Timothy 3 and 4 that apostates will arise even within the church, and that in the last days, false converts will be drawn to false teachers that please their appetites (II Tim. 4:1-4)
In Peter’s second letter (which covers many of the same themes as Jude), he warns of false teachers who infiltrate the church in much the same way (II Peter 2:1-10).
Are we surprised that the sons of the Serpent have the same methods as their slithering father, who smoothly approached Adam and Eve and hissed, “Has God really said…?”
I was reading recently some of Charles Spurgeon’s articles in which he described the Downgrade of evangelicalism in his day. In one piece describing the slide of certain churches into error (often by name!), he noted how it usually wasn’t the lead pastor who would fall into theological error directly; instead, these men erred by not being vigilant in whom they welcomed as guest speakers or whom they hired as assistant ministers. They welcomed false brothers to come alongside them in ministry, excusing or ignoring the occasional red flag in that person’s teaching, until finally the older minister would retire and be succeeded by these younger men who were steeped in theological liberalism and humanism. The lack of watchfulness on the part of the shepherd and the flock allowed the wolves to enter the sheep pen.
This is a danger we should be on guard against, even among “conservative” denominations and associations, as some people, even some influential voices, decry calls for doctrinal clarity and accountability as “the leaven of the Pharisees” and a rising tide of “fundamentalism.” But we must not let fear of being called “legalists” cause us to run into the opposite ditch of becoming complacent about what we affirm together as believers. By all means, let us strive to be kind, winsome, and humble in what we proclaim and how we communicate, but our efforts to be gentle or welcoming must NEVER come at the expense of compromising or downplaying what the Scriptures clearly state.
In our text, Jude is sounding the alarm that the churches should be on the alert against these false teachers, and it would benefit us, as it has every generation before us, to mark these characteristics in our minds. In verse 4, Jude describes the false teachers in 4 ways:
They were long ago designated for destruction:
They are ungodly people;
They pervert the grace of God into sensuality
They deny their Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.
First, these false teachers were designated for destruction; the wording here is that their doom was written out beforehand, warned about in the past. Jude is pointing to the various Scriptural warnings (including the ones we’ve looked at already) about the destiny of all those who corrupt the truth of God’s word for selfish gain. Beyond that, these false teachers were designated for destruction in that their fruits showed they were themselves “vessels of wrath prepared for destruction” as Paul describes in Romans 9—doomed by their rebellion against the truth to face the wrath of God for their wickedness.
Second, the false teachers are ungodly people: Their lives and lifestyles were oriented away from God and toward selfish gain. They are irreverent, impious, disregarding or even mocking what is holy. Later, in verse 18, Jude describes them as “scoffers, following their ungodly passions.” It should always put us on alert when a professing teacher of the Gospel is happy to make light of the things of God or mock what is holy.
Next, Jude writes that they pervert (or twist/replace) the grace of our God into sensuality: Even while they pretend to be spiritual leaders and faithful teachers, their actions reveal their true desires. These false teachers abuse the very concept of grace by using it as an excuse to indulge in sensuality—a shameless flaunting of immoral behavior, usually in regards to sexual sin. These people push the boundaries of what is appropriate or acceptable, under the guise of “spiritual freedom.” They are driven by their passions and lusts and often struggle (and fail) to hide their sinful hungers—all the while claiming “grace” as a cover for sin. Consider how Paul rebukes this thinking in Romans 6. Throughout the Scriptures, the people of God are called to live holy lives—and the standard of holiness is set by God, not by the culture around them. Yet these false teachers abuse the grace of God for their own selfish ends and teach their followers to do the same.
Finally, they deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ: The rebellious nature of their false doctrine ultimately leads to a denial of the lordship of Jesus (either directly or indirectly) over the life of the believer. Jesus said in Luke 6:46, “Why do you call me ‘lord, lord’ and not do what I tell you?” False teachers pay lip-service to the lordship of Jesus but deny it by their lives because they refuse to obey the commands of Jesus. In some cases, they may even deny their Lord and Master by creating a false version of Jesus to worship and serve in His place: a counterfeit Jesus who excuses sin and perversion, who feeds their ego and looks the other way when it comes to their greed and selfish desires. Like the Israelites bowing before the Golden Calf and calling it “Yahweh,” false teachers present a false Jesus that promises everything and demands nothing, a pseudo-Christ who just so happens to look like HE was made in OUR image.
Jude goes on in his letter to describe these false teachers in greater detail, before closing out the letter with exhortations to the churches to stand firm and build themselves up in the faith, but for now, we will stop here and spend the rest of our time considering how these warnings apply to the church in our day. Because we should make no mistake: this is a warning bell that should be ringing in the ears of every generation of Christians until Jesus returns. Our enemy hasn’t taken a vacation; he is still seeking to steal, kill, and destroy. He is still sowing weeds among the wheat field. And he’s still sending out false teachers to try to ensnare true and false converts in a web of deception.
So I want to close with some applications and exhortations for you, brothers and sisters:
Hold fast to the faith once for all delivered to the saints.
You may have heard it said before, but the way that federal agents learn how to recognize counterfeit money isn’t by spending their time looking at fake bills but by extensively studying the authentic ones. Beloved, we have been graciously given the very words of God, in a book preserved through the ages. We have no reason not to study it, to fill our minds and hearts with it, to know the truth and be able to distinguish truth from the “almost-but-not-quite-truth” or the “truth-plus-a-little-something-else.” And we don’t study the Scriptures merely to increase our knowledge (this was the error of the Pharisees in John 5, who studied the Scriptures thinking that this is what would give them eternal life); we study the Scriptures because we want to know the God who wrote them. When my wife writes me a little card or encouraging note, I don’t put it away without opening it and say, “Thank you so much. I appreciate your thinking of me.” Of course not! I read it and take in its meaning; why? Because I adore my wife, and her words reveal her heart and mind to me. How much infinitely more does the perfect, inerrant, sufficient, authoritative Word of God reveal to us who He is and what He expects of us! Christian, we are to be people of the Book. That is our first and greatest defense against the schemes of false teachers. We need to be diligent to learn these precious truths, so that they shape our thinking and speech.
Be careful whose voices you welcome as your teachers.
We live in a world that is jam-packed with messaging. All day long, we are being bombarded with ideas and suggestions from marketers, influencers, and would-be teachers. Every single piece of media we consume, from books to music to visual entertainment to social media feeds, has a specific worldview behind it. We cannot be naïve about this. We must—MUST—be on guard about which voices we are giving our attention to. Everything we take in and engage with needs to be run through the filter of “Is this true? Is this consistent with what God says in His Word?”
I want to speak a word here specifically to the men in the church, to the husbands and fathers. As a husband and father myself, I want to urge and exhort you my brothers to stand guard over the eyes and ears, the hearts and minds of your household. You are responsible as the spiritual leader of your home to guard your wife and children against those who would try to lead them astray. And I’m not saying that wives or even children are helpless or unable to discern truth from error—not at all; in fact, that should be one of our goals, to teach, train, and help them do just that. And there is a great blessing in having a godly wife who is equally vigilant over herself and her children. My wife recently encouraged me when she watched a movie before showing it to our daughters, and later told me she decided against it because she recognized the subtle worldview implications that were hidden inside the otherwise sweet and innocent-looking cartoon. She understands how media can catechize our children in ways we don’t expect.
Men, we must not follow the pattern of our first ancestor Adam, who passively stood by as his wife was lied to by a false teacher telling sweet little lies about who God is and what He has commanded. We need to be paying attention to what voices come into our homes, into our car radios, into our children’s electronic devices. I’m not calling for a locked-down, 1950’s hyper-fundamentalist “keep out the world” approach either. I spent part of my childhood in that kind of church. That well-intentioned approach doesn’t work. What I’m talking about is active participation in advising and exhorting and supporting your wife, in taking the lead with her help to train your children to engage the world as Christians, to think Christianly, to be good Bereans and measure everything against the Scriptures. We dare not check out and back off, because we’re too busy or we want to avoid conflict in our homes over certain media. Men, your family is being hunted. Our enemy is a predator who wants to ensnare and drag away the hearts and minds of you, your wife, and your children. I’m not being overdramatic. I’m telling you the truth. Let’s get serious about this.
And that even means having a discerning ear when it comes to voices that claim to be Christian. Did you pick up on this from the text? These aren’t teachers from the outside, trying to lure the believers into worshiping an obvious idol. These are false converts, using the language of Christian faith as a cover for worldly philosophy and practice. In other words, we can’t let our guard down when we turn on Pureflix or tune the car radio to the local Christian station. Some of the most damnable heresies are smuggled into our homes through the “safe for the whole family” programming we are fed under the banner of “Christian.” No matter how many times a song says the name Jesus, we need to listen carefully to make sure they’re talking about the right one!
Again, please don’t mishear me: I’m not trying to create an extrabiblical code of conduct or confuse the commands of God with the traditions or cultural preferences of men. But, brothers and sisters, we who have been called, redeemed, and kept by God, who live in this world as strangers and pilgrims, need to remind ourselves what the Scriptures say: anyone who loves this world and its system and its wicked ways does not have the love of the Father in them.
Speak up when it comes time to take your stand.
Finally, we should heed Jude’s exhortation in verse 3: our brother urges the Church then and the Church now not just to hold onto the faith, but to contend, to struggle, to wrestle for it. This means there comes a point where we must engage the people and ideas around us with what we know is true.
This contending isn’t a physical struggle; we’re not called to wage a holy war and physically destroy those who oppose us—that’s not the way of Christ. Rather, as Paul writes in II Corinthians 10:
“For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ, being ready to punish every disobedience, when your obedience is complete.”
This means that, in the arena of ideas, Christians are called to contend for the truth of God with the weapons God gives us in the way that God commands us to do so. In our generation, as in past generations, the plain truths of the Scriptures are called into question. Today, the Bible’s teaching of God’s design for human sexuality and holy marriage is denied or contradicted as being hateful and harmful. The truth about how the blood of Jesus tears down the dividing wall of racial hostility and gives us new identities in Christ is called insufficient, simplistic, or even oppressive. The insistence that Jesus is Lord of His Church and that we must in all things obey God rather than men is considered by some to be subversive and dangerous. In the marketplace of ideas, we should be ready for these doctrinal truths that we hold to be mocked, opposed, or even shouted down. This should not surprise us. Yet here we stand; we can do no other.
But in the midst of our contending, let’s not forget what we’re fighting for. We are not merely culture warriors; that’s not our true calling. We have not been given a divine mandate to save western civilization or American culture; that’s not our true kingdom. Our king has given us marching orders, based on His having all authority in heaven and on earth, to go into all the world and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey all that King Jesus has commanded us. That’s our mandate. That’s our mission.
Saints, contend for the faith: in your hearts, in your homes, in the world. To God be the glory.
My friend Michael Coughlin put out the call on Twitter this morning to folks in Texas that the Texas legislature will soon be considering bills that limit and/or outlaw abortion. He encouraged any friends who are against the scourge of abortion to submit comments that would be part of the public record and provided to the legislators.
As I’ve discussed in the past, I am thoroughly and unwaveringly convinced that abortion is evil, that it is the premeditated murder of a human being, and that it should not exist. So naturally, I was happy to lend my voice to the proceedings, as a citizen of the great state of Texas. I’ve included these comments below, so that I’m fully “on the record” on this subject.
Good morning. I’m writing to encourage and exhort my representatives to take a stand and make Texas a state that affirms the value and dignity of human life from the moment of conception.
The unborn child is a unique human being, with her own unique DNA, distinct from her parents’. She is not a blob of tissue or a mere collection of cells. From the moment of conception, the unborn child’s cells are totipotent, carrying within themselves the complete blueprints to develop into a fully-formed human being, if given the time, nutrition, and protection necessary. In time, the child will develop her own nervous system, internal organs, blood type, fingerprints. All of the hallmarks of a unique and precious individual are there in the womb within the space of mere weeks. If we claim to be a society that “believes in science” and affirms the inherent rights of human beings, then it is hypocritical to dismiss the scientific reality of an unborn child’s humanity at any stage of development or to allow the decisions of others to make the life of that unborn child discardable.
As a unique human being, each unborn child has been endowed by his or her Creator with inalienable rights recognized under the United States Constitution, including the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. To allow the mother or another individual to make the decision to end the life of that child denies those rights. Not only is such a premeditated act of violence tantamount to murder, ending the life of a distinct human being, but it is a clear instance of social injustice. If Texas is going to be a state that protects the rights of its citizens, it must begin doing so at the very earliest stage of existence.
Finally, I call on my state government to recognize that every unborn child, no matter the circumstances of their conception, is made in the image of Almighty God. From the moment of conception, they have been knit together in their mothers’ wombs, intricately woven in secret, as the Psalmist poetically described it. Every person is an image bearer of God, no matter their age, stage of development, level of ability or disability, ethnicity, economic circumstances, sex, or location. Every person deserves dignity and respect. Every person has the God-given right to be born.
It is the duty of this state and its leaders to protect and defend the rights of its citizens against injustice and premeditated violence. Friends, we have failed to do so when it comes to our youngest, most innocent, and most vulnerable citizens. I plead with you, in the name of Jesus Christ, to consider this, and to ask yourself if we really want to be a people that denies the basic humanity of others, and treats human beings like objects to be owned or discarded at the whim of another. May it not be so. May it never be so in the state of Texas.
Thank you for your time and attention. Know that I and my family will be praying for you.
I know this is a challenging subject with a lot of strong feelings on both sides. You may disagree with me, and you may even be upset about this. If you’re willing and able to discuss the issue in the comments, I’m happy to engage in good faith. (As always, just don’t be a jerk.) So I’m leaving the com-box open for now. Thanks.
I was struck by a thought during a night of fitful, fretful worrying.
It wasn’t a new insight, or a brilliant observation–just an old truth that sometimes needs to be reapplied to my anxious mind.
As I lay in bed, tossing, turning, fretting over the tightness of my chest, the shallow breathing of my wife, the shadows obscuring my daughters across the hall through our two open doors, the creaks and groans of the house, and all the other things outside of my finite control, the question flashed like lightning in my head:
Is He good?
Of course, He is, I thought. God is good.I’d never say otherwise.
Is He kind?
Yes, He’s kind. He is the very definition of kind.
Do you trust Him to keep His promise to do good to you and your family?
I paused. He promised that He would work all things to bring about my good.He has never broken His promises, because God does not lie.
Can He keep His promises?
There’s nothing He can’t do. He does all He pleases.
Then why do you worry?
That’s the rub, isn’t it. I worry and fret over things I can’t control, because (at least momentarily) I am tempted to doubt that God is good, that God is kind, that God is omnipotent. I’m tempted to disbelieve that He will keep His promise to work all things together for the good of those who love him and are called according to His purpose.
My sinful fretting is a feeble attempt to control the uncontrollable because (at least in that moment) I don’t really trust the One who is all-powerful.
The force of my will cannot heal illness or control the actions of any who would wish us harm. The strength of my worry cannot extend my life by even one hour.
But I serve a God who heals the sick, who turns the heart of man this way or that, who has the number of my days written in His book.
What’s more, this God that I serve? He loves me. He knows me. He cares for me. Because He is kind. He is good. And he is trustworthy.
Sometimes, I just need to remind myself what is true, and ask my soul why it’s so downcast.
The end of December is usually a time of reflection on the past year—and after this year, many of us are perhaps a little skittish at the prospect. I have to admit, I have enjoyed and shared several “2020 is terrible” jokes and memes over the last several months. But a few weeks back, I was reminded of a verse I had memorized as a child:
“This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.”
As I meditated on this verse, I was reminded that not only did the Lord make “this day,” but He indeed made this week, and month, and even this year. The Bible teaches that the Lord is sovereign over all of human history, seeing the end from the beginning, and nothing takes place outside of His will and divine plan. What’s more, for those of us who are in Christ, all things—ALL things—work together for our good, to shape us into the image of our Savior (Rom. 8:28-30). If all of this is true, then even a year like 2020, checkered as it seems with challenges and even disappointments, has played out as our Lord ordained it to.
This certainly does not mean that it was an easy year. In no way am I minimizing the hardship that 2020 has brought with it. In the last 12 months, most of us have known loss of one sort or another. Many of us have lost family members in death, faced difficult medical diagnoses, struggled with job loss or financial hardship, and wrestled with family conflict.
However, dear friends, the fact remains: this is the year that the Lord has made. And while this year has brought its particular challenges, it has also contained particular blessings.
If you don’t mind, I’d like to share a few things I’m thankful for that happened during 2020.
My wife and I found out we are expecting our third little girl in early 2021, and couldn’t be happier.
I began working from home back in March and have been able to enjoy being with my family every day in a way I didn’t get to in previous years. As a result, my bond with my wife and daughters seems stronger than ever.
The number of readers on this little blog of mine have exploded this year, and as a result, I started my first “affiliate link” partnership with the kind folks over at Monk Manual, which has provided some extra income for our household.
God has opened other areas of provision that have come at just the right time to take care of unexpected bills.
Our church merged with a sister church a few weeks before the initial “shutdown” happened, and somehow we’ve emerged from this difficult season as a stronger body.
In addition to serving as an elder in my home church, I’ve had several opportunities to preach at other area churches while their pastors were away or had retired/relocated.
While it’s easy to be dour along with the rest of our culture at this “horrible year,” I would challenge you (and myself) to change how we think about and speak about the past year. Though the world would say there is little to consider good about 2020, that’s just not true. Despite it all, God has indeed been good to us—we just need to take the time to see it.
The Choice to Rejoice
Psalm 118:24 affirms that the Lord has made this day, and then follows with the exhortation, “Let us rejoice and be glad in it.” This is one of those reminders in Scripture that joy is not only a gift of God and a fruit of the Spirit, but it is also a choice. The psalmist calls to the faithful and encourages them to make the choice to rejoice and be glad in this day of the Lord’s making.
While this verse is written within a specific context (which we will examine shortly), it’s worthwhile to pause and consider: Are there times when I can make the decision to rejoice, in spite of my circumstances? Again, this does not imply a “Pollyanna” sort of naïve blindness to the difficulties of life. Scripture reminds us that Jesus Himself was a “man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3). He is sympathetic with our weakness and our suffering.
Yet Paul also reminds us (from a Roman prison cell) in Philippians 4:4 to “rejoice in the Lord always—again, I will say, rejoice”! There don’t seem to be any exceptions in that word “always.” Rather, Paul gives—and repeats—this command. If these are commands from the Lord (and they are), then we will be enabled to obey them by the strength the Lord provides. Indeed, “the joy of the Lord is your strength!” (Neh. 8:10). We can call on the Holy Spirit to help us obey this command and rejoice in what the Lord has done, no matter what circumstances we face.
Thus, when we consider this year that the Lord has made, friends, we can and should choose joy. By the grace of God, we should fight to rejoice and be glad in it. Why? Because the Lord made it, and He has used it and is using it for our good and His glory (Rom. 8:28-29).
“His Steadfast Love Endures Forever”
One of the ways we can move toward joy is by recounting how the Lord has been faithful (as we just did earlier). This is clear in the first 18 verses of Psalm 118. The psalmist calls on God’s people to confess together the steadfast love of the Lord, and then recounts specific incidents in which God has shown Himself gracious.
The Lord is a rescuer (v. 5-6), a helper (v. 7), a refuge (v. 8-9), and our victory (v. 10-12). He will keep us from stumbling (v. 13), be our salvation (v. 14), and do valiantly for us (v. 15-16). Even in His discipline of us, He does not give us over to death (v. 18).
In verse 19, the psalmist asks the Lord to “open the gates of righteousness,” and this begins not only the section in which our key verse is found, but it points us to the greatest good that the Lord bestows on His people—a good that we have been celebrating in this Christmas season.
The fact is, there is nothing coming from us that is innately righteous. “There is none righteous; no, not one” (Rom. 3:10). On our own merits, even at our best, the “gates of righteousness” should be slammed shut in our faces. And yet, God has made a way for us to enter these righteous gates, through the work of His son Jesus, our Redeemer.
Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus
Do you recognize the language of verses 22-23?
“The stone that the builders rejected has become the Cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.” (Ps. 118:22-23)
This passage would later be quoted by Jesus in Matthew 21 and Peter in I Peter 2—both describing the ministry of Jesus the Messiah! He was the “stone of stumbling and rock of offense” for those who would not believe, but the rock of salvation for all who would call on His name!
If you keep reading in Psalm 118, you’ll also find these words in verse 26: “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!” These were the very words spoken by the people during Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem at the end of His ministry.
Then, verse 27: “The Lord is God, and He made His light to shine upon us.” Or perhaps, as John would put it in his gospel: “In [Jesus] was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
Psalm 118 ultimately points forward to the coming of God’s Messiah, the Deliverer who would bless His people and bring them joy and success, a living demonstration of the steadfast love of God. And the coming of that Messiah would be “the day that the Lord has made,” a day worthy of rejoicing!
And what happened when that day arrived? John again tells us: “…light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil…” (John 3:19). Jesus the Messiah stepped into human history, a miracle baby in a manger in a small village. He lived the perfect life of righteousness that God’s Law demands of mankind. He taught the true words of God, did miracles, healed disease, cast out demons, and brought light into our darkness. And the response of the people was to slander Him falsely and deliver Him up for torture and execution.
But even that day was the day that the Lord had made, for it was only through that dark day that our redemption would be accomplished! Because Jesus our Savior was crucified in the place of ruined sinners, He became our vicarious substitute, bearing the full weight of God’s wrath and justice against sin, so that we who believe in Him might be declared righteous before God, one day entering the righteous gates of the New Jerusalem, “dressed in His righteousness alone, faultless to stand before the throne” (as the hymn goes).
The deliverance of God was made manifest on the darkest of days, a day we call “Good” Friday, because that unfathomable suffering brought us cleansing. It brought us hope. It brought us joy.
The suffering of our Savior was the day of our deliverance. Let us also rejoice and be glad in that day!
Look Back in Gratitude, Look Forward In Hope
The year 2020 is coming to a close, friends. Admittedly, it did not follow any of our plans or hopes for what would transpire. But nevertheless, this was the year that the Lord has made. Let us choose to rejoice and be glad in it—glad in what the Lord has done among us, glad in what the Lord has taught us, glad in how the Lord has shown Himself always faithful, and glad in the knowledge that we have hope because the Lord ordained the darkest of days 2000 years ago as the day of our salvation, for all who repent and believe on Jesus Christ.
Happy New Year! Be blessed this day, and rejoice, my friends! Rejoice!
[I meant to get this posted last week ahead of Christmas day, but I think it still applies. So, here’s something to mull over as we enter the new year.]
The Christmas story has deep roots in the Old Testament. The “seed” of the Woman, Eve, whom God promised would crush the work of the Serpent, was promised to come through the lineage of Abraham the patriarch and David the king. The promised descendant would be Himself a King forever, with an eternal inheritance. Through the house of Abraham and the lineage of David, the glory of God would be proclaimed to all the earth, and all the peoples of the earth would be blessed. This “seed,” this king, would be God’s messiah, His anointed one.
And so, prophet after prophet, century after century, the people of God waited for this sign, this Seed, to be revealed, bringing their deliverance with Him. Curiously, the last prophecy by the last prophet of the Old Testament wasn’t about the Messiah, but about His herald, a forerunner who would prepare the way for Him. After the prophet Malachi’s last word, there was silence for 4 centuries. No new word from the Lord. No new proclamations to the people of Israel. Just waiting.
My friend Edhiel, a native Spanish-speaker, made a beautiful observation after lunch one time:
“There is something beautiful about how you describe a pregnant woman in English. You say she’s ‘expecting.’ In Spanish, we don’t use that word in this way. But I just love that idea of expecting. The husband and wife prepare a place for the child, pick out the name and the colors of the room and the toys and everything. They are looking forward to when the baby arrives…That’s how I want to be with the next year. My expectations are high that I will grow closer to God and know more of His goodness. That’s how I want to live.”
Isn’t that awesome? The idea of “expecting.” And it reminded me of the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth.
Zechariah and Elizabeth were faithful followers of Yahweh. Zechariah was a priest from the family of Aaron in the tribe of Levi, and his wife was also of the priestly tribe. Luke’s account described them as “walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord.” By all accounts, you would assume this faithful couple to be blessed and highly favored by God.
And yet, God had decided, in His purposes, not to give them children. Remember, this is a day in which children were considered the greatest legacy one could have, and to be childless was to bear the reproach of the community (and perhaps, some thought, the curse of God). In such a time and culture in which children were considered the greatest legacy one could have, Zechariah and Elizabeth had none. A faithful minister, a faithful wife, an empty home, a barren womb. And though this disappointment could easily become bitterness–and for a time, it may have, we don’t know–what Scripture records is that Zechariah and Elizabeth remained steadfast, even as the years passed and the idea of ever having children became a lost cause.
Even when they had passed their child-bearing years and still had no offspring, this faithful couple continued to trust God. Then, one day, as Zechariah was chosen by lot to enter the temple and burn incense, an angel of the Lord appeared to him and told him that his prayer has been answered.
Which prayer of Zechariah’s was the angel referring to? Deliverance from Rome? The coming of the Messiah? A child (which at this point was practically an impossibility)? The answer turned out to be all three.
Days of Elijah
Consider the message of Gabriel to the past-his-fathering-prime Zechariah:
And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”
Gabriel’s announcement is first that Zechariah and Elizabeth will finally have a child, a son on whom God’s favor and Spirit will rest. The angel includes an allusion to Malachi 4:5-6, the last prophecy given to God’s people before the four-century silence–a prophecy of “Elijah the prophet” being sent ahead of his Lord to prepare the way for Him.
The expectations of a faithful minister and his wife–for their Savior, for their deliverance, for their own household–all bound up in this unexpected birth announcement. The announcement of the “second Elijah” meant that the promises of God for the redemption of man were finally coming to fruition, and the faithful couple with an empty crib were going to be part of that story.
Today, it’s not hard to find people making promises on God’s behalf, tossing out “prophetic words” over the coming year like so many Mardi Gras beads. We should be extremely careful not to put words in God’s mouth, or assign promises to Him that He has not made to us directly.
But I wanted to bring up this part of the Christmas story to encourage you that God is faithful to keep His promises to you. They may not come to pass in the way we expect or the timing we desire, but He is always faithful and He is always on time. The past year has been challenging in numerous ways, but through it all, God has still remained faithful. If you are a follower of Jesus, I hope you can see that and hold on to that truth.
If you do not follow Jesus, then I invite you to think about your life: what, if anything, has been sure and certain this year? In what do you have your hope? Because I’m here to tell you that trusting in anything outside of Jesus Christ is like building a house on so many fistfuls of sand that slip away with a gust of wind. If you do not “build your house” on the firm foundation of Jesus and His words, the final storm of God’s judgment will come and blow and beat upon your house, and great will be the fall of it. Your only hope, your only peace, can be found by turning away from your sin and selfish rebellion and trusting in Jesus’ sacrifice to give you peace and right standing with God.
This is a promise you can know for certain God will keep: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” This is the promise of Christmas! The baby in the manger one day became the Savior on the cross, dying like a criminal in the place of sinners like you and me, to rescue us from the wrath and judgment we deserve for our sin and offering us forgiveness and grace, and then rising from the dead in victory over death itself. If we turn to Jesus in humility and repentance, He will in no way cast us out. We can be redeemed, made new, born again with a living hope and the promise of eternal life in Heaven with Jesus.
For all who know Jesus, who have tasted this forgiveness and mercy, it should have been a merry Christmas indeed, and we can look forward to a happy, joyful, blessed new year!
Grace and peace to all those who love our Lord Jesus Christ! Amen!
[The following sermon was preached in August 2020 at Central Baptist Church in Livingston, TX. You can find the video of this sermon here. There are some variations between the two, as happens when you preach, but this is more or less my transcript. Thanks for reading!]
When I first began thinking through which passage I wanted to preach on this morning, I heard about a sister in Christ who had drawn comfort from this passage in particular recently, and I decided to look it over. To be honest, it’s a psalm I’ve read more times than I can even remember, and I felt that I was fairly familiar with it. Well, as you may know, the Bible has a way of catching us off-guard, and some passages seem to be cast in a new light, depending on the circumstances in which we find ourselves. The subject matter of this psalm in particular sounds a lot different to my ear in 2020 than it did in 2019! As I began to dig in and study, I came to realize that many pastors and commentators over the centuries have been drawn to Psalm 91 in particular during seasons of plague and pestilence. One German doctor wrote in the 1800’s that this psalm was the best preservative during a time of cholera. So it is my sincere hope that it will be an encouragement to us as well, in this particular season of pandemic.
Now, I recognize that some of you may have seen the title of the sermon in your order of worship and thought, “Oh boy, here we go.” If your church family is anything like mine, there are folks who are particularly concerned about the coronavirus, and others who are particularly unconcerned. Some of you may be very adamant about wearing masks and social distancing, while others of you may hate every bit of it and avoid doing so whenever possible. I’m going to ask you all to do me a favor: take all of those feelings, all of those disagreements, and put them away for the next hour. I’m not going to bother with litigating those issues of the moment, because the word of God is inspired, inerrant, trustworthy, true, and timeless. What we will look at this morning will apply just as much in the year 2020 as it did in the year 1020 or as it will in the year 3020, if the Lord gives us that long. The truth of God stands the test of time, and as such is just as timely today as it has ever been.
Here’s the big idea for us to consider today: In the day of trouble, God always provides exactly what His people need.
Our outline for this passage is broken down into 4 sections: God gives us his PRESENCE (v. 1-2, His PEACE (v. 3-8), His PROTECTION (v.9-13), and His PROMISES (v. 14-16). To be honest, these are somewhat blurry lines, because the whole psalm is a meditation on these repeated themes. I’ve just broken it down this way for the sake of those who like outlines.
Psalm 91 has no specified author—the previous psalm (Psalm 90) is attributed to Moses. Some past theologians suggest that Psalm 91 was penned by Moses also, citing both this immediate context as well as the similarities this psalm have with Moses’ language in Deuteronomy. Others argue that we should assume this unattributed psalm was written by David, inspired by the sad outcome of the census he made late in his reign. I think the context clues point more strongly to Moses, but it doesn’t affect our reading of this chapter either way. There is no doubt, however, that this psalm seems to allude to the events of the Exodus and journey to the Promised Land, as we will see shortly.
Let’s look at the first provision of God in this psalm: His Presence.
1 – God’s Presence (v. 1-2)
1 He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty. 2 I will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.”
What should stand out right away in Verses 1-2 is a sense of intimacy—God is not a far-off deity like Zeus on Mount Olympus, nor is He the Cosmic Watchmaker of the Deists who stands back and refuses to interfere. No, here we see right away the active involvement of God in the lives of His children. The psalmist says those who dwell in God’s shelter will rest in His shadow –you can’t be in someone’s shadow if you’re not close to him, especially in the heat of the day when the sun is at its highest. The shelter of the Most High God is a place of direct divine protection.
The “shadow” is a place of protection, proximity, and care. Psalm 121:5 calls the Lord “the shade on your right hand.” Isaiah 25:4 calls God our “shelter from the storm and shade from the heat.”
Matthew Henry writes that “a sincere believer takes comfort in closeness with God and can rest easy in that closeness. It is a sign of true religion and growing faith when we desire to spend time in God’s presence.”
Charles Spurgeon wrote that the promises of this psalm are particularly held by those who are walking in close communion with the Lord. While all of God’s children draw near from time to time, Spurgeon suggests that those who dwell close to the Lord experience His daily grace and comfort in a richer, more particular way.
In Verse 2, the Psalmist makes this promise personal: “I will say…” “my…” These statements are not abstract or academic observations; they are the confession of personal experience!
Notice, the Psalmist uses God’s covenant name here—YHWH – the name God revealed to Moses and the people of Israel, the name associated with His faithfulness and deliverance. It is He alone who is the Psalmist’s hope. We dare not turn to another god for protection or provision!
Again, from Spurgeon: “Some men love to broadcast their doubts and suspicions… hence, it becomes the duty of all true believers to speak out and testify with calm courage to their own well-grounded reliance upon their God.” I love that phrase, “testify with calm courage.” I grew up in the church and can remember the rise of the “Emerging/Emergent” church movement about 25 or so years ago, a movement influenced heavily by post-modernism that seemed at times to revel in its doubts. This reflected the growth of post-modern thought in our culture as a whole, in which certainty and conviction are seen as arrogant or presumptuous. Yet what do we see in the Bible? We see this calm courage in the mouths and hearts of God’s people, as we say together that we know whom we have believed.
In these first 2 verses, we see God as a rest and residence for His people, and it is a privilege to be able to draw near to Him. As believers in Jesus Christ, we now have the assurance that we can draw near boldly, approaching the throne of grace by the blood of Jesus! (Heb. 4:16)
In a season of pandemic and civil strife in our nation, it is good for us to remember that God has provided us with His very presence—a closeness that we as Christians can partake of through our union with Christ Jesus and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Paul writes in Col. 3:3 that we have died, and our lives are hidden with Christ in God. Jesus said that no one can snatch His sheep out of His hand. There is no greater security for the Christian than the fact that we are held by Christ, united with Him, eternally secure, with the presence of the Holy Spirit as a guarantee of our future inheritance and hope!
See next that God not only gives us His presence, but He also gives us His peace.
2 – God’s Peace (v. 3-8)
3 For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence. 4 He will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and buckler. 5 You will not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day, 6 nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness, nor the destruction that wastes at noonday.
7 A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you. 8 You will only look with your eyes and see the recompense of the wicked.
In Verses 3-8, the Psalmist lists a series of threats and dangers that God’s people face. I would encourage you to notice in this section not only God’s continued presence with His people, but also how He delivers us from fear as well as from danger.
Isaiah 26:3-4 – “You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you. Trust in the LORD forever, for the LORD GOD is an everlasting rock.”
Let’s consider the many dangers, toils, and snares that God’s people face in this passage:
The Snare of the Fowler (v.3): This points to the traps and deceitful schemes intended to catch the righteous. In Psalm 124, David writes that it is only because the Lord was on their side that they “escaped like a bird from the snare of the fowlers.” In Psalm 140 and 141, snares are the traps that the wicked and arrogant set to capture the righteous and pious, to destroy them.
The Deadly Pestilence (v.3): In the Old Testament, pestilence is often used by God as a judgment against His enemies and a tool of discipline and chastening His rebellious and idolatrous people. Here, God encourages His faithful ones by saying He will deliver them from this deadly threat. Spurgeon writes that “Faith, by cheering the heart, keeps it free from the fear which, in times of pestilence, kills more than the plague itself.”
Look now to verse 4: “He will cover you with His pinions, and under His wings you will find refuge.” Like a hen covering her chicks, providing protection and warmth by her closeness, the Lord Himself covers His people with his feathers. Notice the contrast here—God delivers His little chicks from the fowler’s snare by covering them with His mighty wing!
The metaphor of God as a protective parent bird is used throughout Scripture. In Deuteronomy 32, Moses likens YHWH to an eagle, not only protecting Israel but catching her and bearing her up with his wings. In Ruth 2, Boaz describes Ruth as taking shelter under the wings of the God of Israel. In Psalm 17, David asks the Lord to “hide me in the shadow of your wings from the wicked men who do me violence.” In Psalm 57, David asks to take refuge in the shadow of His wings till the storms of destruction pass by. Jesus Himself laments over wayward Jerusalem in Matthew 23, because they refused to come to Him when he sought to gather them under His wings.
Verse 4 continues by describing God’s protection over His people, not just as a tender parent but also as a fierce man of war. The faithfulness of God is called a shield and a buckler—armor that a warrior uses when he engages in hand-to-hand combat. God’s covenant faithfulness is a shield to His people against the attacks of the enemy, and He stands ready in their defense.
Verses 5-6 list 4 fearsome threats common to man: the terror of night, the arrow in daylight, the pestilence in darkness, and the destruction that wastes at noonday.
Sometimes we face the terror of night—the unknown fears that stalk in darkness as we try to sleep. Spurgeon writes, “Our fears turn the sweet season of repose into one of dread… Blessed is that communion with God which renders us impervious to midnight frights and horrors born of darkness.” Matthew Henry writes that even in our homes on our beds, we can be plagued by the fear of unknown or unseen threats. I’ll confess that I tend toward an anxious heart, and have spent too many nighttime hours fretting over imagined noises and invisible attackers. In the last week or two, I’ve prayed through portions of this very psalm to help calm my jangled nerves.
There are also threats that may surprise us in the noonday sun; this is described as the arrow in daylight: Perhaps, like me, you are burdened when you hear stories of brazen, daylight violence. Even in broad daylight, we are not able to fully secure ourselves. The arrow in daylight describes the indiscriminate and unpredictable violence of men. In the day of danger, however, God can certainly deliver us from fear. Matthew Henry: “Wisdom shall keep you from being causelessly afraid, and faith shall keep you from being inordinately afraid. You shall not be afraid of the arrow, knowing that though it may hit you, it cannot hurt you. If it take away the natural life, yet it shall be so far away from doing any prejudice to the spiritual life that it shall [instead] be its perfection… It is also under divine direction, and will hit where God appoints and not otherwise. Every bullet has its commission. Whatever is done, our Heavenly Father’s will is done; and we have no reason to be afraid of that.”
To be clear, thinking about God’s sovereignty should in no way create in us a numb sort of fatalism. That’s not what Matthew Henry is describing here. But we can only be helped when we meditate on the fact that the God who determines the end from the beginning has numbered our days in his book, as it says in Psalm 139. There is nothing in all of creation that can thwart the plans of God for his people, so we can live prudently but confidently in that reality.
The pestilence in darkness and the destruction that wastes at noonday together describe the full spectrum of diseases and plagues known in the ancient world—those that lurk in both cold and heat. It’s amazing how simple and yet profound these descriptions are: we still face diseases that seem to survive better in either cold and damp climates or hot and humid ones. God’s people have always lived in a world stricken by disease, from leprosy to the Black Plague to cholera and typhoid and influenza. There have been countless illnesses in the world before COVID-19 ever showed up, and if the Lord tarries, there will be countless more after it. Spurgeon writes that “those choice souls who dwell in God shall live above fear in the most plague-stricken places—they shall not be afraid of the plagues which in the darkness walk.”
This doesn’t mean that we as God’s people should be careless or flippant about real threats of illness. The Westminster Assembly of the mid-17th century noted that we must not assume or presume the righteous are always exempted from times of plague or pestilence—that would be a “rash judgment” in the context of this passage. Martin Luther, when asked by a friend to provide recommendations regarding how to conduct oneself during a time of plague, basically said to take appropriate precautions (wash your clothes, air out your house, minimize your interactions with others to that which is needful, and stay at home if you get sick) and then trust the Lord’s will without fear. The German theologian Andreas Muesel said that those who dismiss concerns about the threat of plague are neither kind nor pious, and that doing so dishonors the blessings of divine protection from illness.
Nor should we interpret this passage as implying that illness is no big deal, even if we are faced with it. It’s appropriate and natural to be saddened by a debilitating illness or a cancer diagnosis. Jesus Himself was moved with compassion for the suffering of others. The key here is to see all of these things in light of God’s sovereign will for our lives as His children. I don’t say that flippantly, but hopefully. In the midst of our tears, we can have that “calm courage” that all things do actually work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to His purpose.
It would be tempting to take some of these verses out of context and claim them as a promise of divine immunity against all disease, and there are those in the world who might seek to deceive people with that kind of promise. We should be careful not to follow the footsteps of Job’s foolish advisors who argued that nothing bad should ever befall the righteous!
Instead, I think there are two keys to help us understand this section rightly: the first key is the first phrase of verse 5: “You will not fear.” This is the deliverance that the people of God are promised in this passage: not just from evil, but from the fear of evil. Paul Carter writes that verses 3-6 don’t say we won’t have to face trouble—Jesus Himself tells us otherwise in John 16—but rather we don’t have to fear trouble, because the faithfulness of God means we won’t be abandoned to trouble.
I think the second key to understanding this passage is found in the next 2 verses, verses 7-8. Even if there is destruction all around us, it will not come near us. Joseph Caryl writes that “the power of God can bring us near to danger yet keep us from harm.” Matthew Henry writes that “if people around us die in a plague, we can prepare ourselves for death but the fear of it need not come over us.”
In Hebrews 2:15, the author of Hebrews says that Jesus came to “destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.” In times of unrest, in times of plague, in times of war, the greatest fear of natural man is the fear of death. You can see it all over our culture today.
Perhaps you’re here this morning or watching online and you’re not a follower of Jesus–you’ve never turned from your sin and trusted in Him for salvation. If that’s you, I’ve very glad you’re listening, because I need you to understand something really, really important: the greatest threat to you is not the threat of disease or violence. It’s not even physical death. The greatest threat you face is what comes after death. The Bible says that it’s appointed for man once to die and then to face judgment. On that day of judgment, you will have to stand before God the Righteous Judge and account for your sin against His holy Law. Standing on your own meager merits, you will fall shamefully short of His righteous standard, and you will have to face the just and holy wrath of God. BUT there is hope for you. Jesus, the Son of God, stepped out of eternity and humbled Himself to be born as a man, lived a perfect life of complete obedience to God’s Law, and then died as a sacrifice to pay the penalty for sin—taking our guilt and punishment upon Himself and satisfying the debt we owe for our sin. Then on the third day, Jesus was raised from the dead, demonstrating that His sacrifice was sufficient to rescue us from God’s wrath. Now, for all who turn from their sin and in faith put their full trust on the work of Jesus to rescue them, His perfect standing before God is credited to our bankrupt account. We no longer have to fear the condemnation of God for our sin, for there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, for the law of the Spirit of Life has set us free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.
So now we can look to verse 8 and see that the judgment of the wicked does not touch those who have been redeemed by God. David writes in Psalm 37: “Wait for the LORD and keep his way, and He will exalt you to inherit the land; you will look on when the wicked are cut off.” Each one of us deserves that judgment, and outside of the grace of God in Christ Jesus, that would be our fate. But, for those of use who have been rescued by Him, we will only look on at a destruction that can never touch us. When we read in this section about snares and terrors, arrows and plagues, we will not be afraid, because our greatest enemies have already been defeated, and all that happens in our life now flows through the hand of our Father in Heaven.
Let’s look now at the protection that God provides His people in verses 9-13.
3 – God’s Protection (v. 9-13)
9 Because you have made the Lord your dwelling place— the Most High, who is my refuge— 10 no evil shall be allowed to befall you, no plague come near your tent.
11 For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. 12 On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone. 13 You will tread on the lion and the adder; the young lion and the serpent you will trample underfoot.
See the assurance that the believer has in verses 9-10: Those who make their home and refuge in God are protected from evil befalling them, from the plague coming near their tent.
All this discussion of plagues and judgment recalls to mind the plagues God visited upon Egypt in the book of Exodus—and no verse seems to indicate this more clearly than verse 10. Just as the people of God in the land of Goshen in Egypt were spared the affects of the judgment upon the Egyptians, including the final plague of the Death Angel killing the firstborn of Egypt, so here the psalmist says that those who call the Most High God their refuge will be protected from the destroyer. Christian, no matter what happens in your life, no evil will befall you.
The Puritan writer Thomas Watson clarified, “God does not say no afflictions shall befall us, but no evil.”
The early church father John Chrysostom: “Faith is endangered by security, but secure in the midst of danger.”
Matthew Henry: “Trouble and affliction may come as part of God’s will for us, and they are not ‘evil’ to us; though in the moment, it may be grievous, in the end it will bear fruit.”
Spurgeon puts it beautifully: “It is impossible that any ill should happen to the man who is beloved of the Lord; the most crushing calamities can only shorten his journey and hasten him to his reward. Ill to him is no ill, but only good in mysterious form. Losses enrich him, sickness is his medicine, reproach is his honor, death is his gain. No evil—in the strictest sense of the word—can happen to him, for everything is overruled for good. Happy is he who is in such a case. He is secure where others are in peril; he lives where others die.”
It’s in this context that we can know that even the “calamities” of this life are blessings. As the hymn writer William Cowper wrote, “Behind a frowning providence, He hides a smiling face.”
Verses 11-13 may be particularly familiar to us, as they are partially quoted by Satan during his temptation of Jesus in the desert in Matthew 4 and Luke 4. Let’s look at them in detail here and then consider how they are used in the New Testament.
First, we see here plainly that God commands his angels to watch over His people. We’re not told in Scripture that we are each assigned one particular angel to watch out for us. This isn’t the charming and childlike Clarence of “It’s A Wonderful Life” or the cherry-cheeked cherubs depicted in popular culture. These spiritual guardians are His warriors, His servants, and like all faithful servants they desire to shift the focus back to their master’s work. They are emissaries of God’s presence, ministering spirits who protect and watch over His children in His name.
In writing about the ministry of angels, William Bridge says God’s angels never fail to obey their master. They do not consider our care to be “beneath” them, and they likely protect us from more threats than we even realize.
Verse 11 says they are tasked with guarding us “in all [our] ways.” The implication here is that we are walking in the way of faithfulness, as has been described thusfar in the chapter. Again, William Bridge writes: “Your ways are to be God’s ways, the way commanded by God. If you be out of God’s ways, you are out of your own way; if you be in ‘your way,’ the angels shall keep you, even in time of plague, and bear you up in their hands that you dash not your foot against a stone. But if you be out of your way, I shall not insure your safety… You may expect the Lord’s protection and the angel’s attendance if you be in your way, but not else.”
Indeed, we hear echoes of these promises in Proverbs 3:19-26 – that the way of wisdom (which begins with the Fear of the Lord!) will give us boldness and sure footing.
Verse 12 says the angels will “bear us up” on their hands—the image here might be of a nursemaid or governess, guarding the wellbeing of the little ones entrusted to her. We see that angelic care is in all circumstances, even down to the smallest details—care that we may not stumble against a stone.
In a sermon on this section of Psalm 91, Spurgeon argued that “all our ways” does not include a path of presumption, sin, worldliness, pride, doctrinal error, or the like—that we may find ourselves stumbling along those wicked ways (and often that is a gracious thing, to call us back to obedience). Rather, we can walk in security when we have humble faith in Jesus, obedience to His commands, childlike trust in the Father, and a life devoted to holiness and watchfulness. All things are thus on our side because God has commanded our protection. We travel as with a royal guard, the servants of the Most High King surrounding us. As such, we should also gladly do the “angelic” work of watching over and caring for our fellow believers.
Verse 13 contains an unusual promise—that God’s people will tread upon the lion and the adder unharmed. This could be taken a few different ways. Some point to times of literal physical protection from these creatures (such as Daniel in the lion’s den, or Paul on the island of Malta). Others point to passages like Psalm 58, which describe the wicked as lions and serpents. Still others point to Luke 10:19, arguing that these creatures are actually symbolic of demonic spiritual forces. To be honest, I think all of these interpretations have merit. As John MacArthur notes, the lion and the adder are a metaphor for all sorts of deadly attacks from which the Lord can shield His people.
Now, I had mentioned this passage in relation to the Temptation of Jesus—let’s take a quick look over at that before moving on. Here’s what we see in Matthew 4:5-7:
5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple 6 and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written,
“‘He will command his angels concerning you,’
“‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’”
7 Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
I want you to notice 3 things here:
First, notice that Satan leaves out a key phrase: “in all your ways.” As we’ve noted previously, there is a clear implication that the promise of angelic overwatch is given to those who are walking in the way of the Lord—it’s not a blanket “Get-Out-of-Gravity-Free” card for anyone who wants to claim it. To treat it as such is to misapply the verse and pull it out of context.
Second, notice that Satan stops at verse 12. Why? Because verse 13 may also contain within it a promise of his eventual downfall. Satan is described in the New Testament both as a lion and as a serpent—and the promise of God from way back in Genesis 3 is that the seed of the woman (the promised Messiah, whom we know now is Jesus) would crush the head of the serpent! Not only that, but because we as Christians are in Christ, we share in His inheritance (Romans 8:17), including His victory over the enemy! In Romans 16:20, Paul writes that “the God of Peace will soon crush Satan under your feet.”
Third, notice how Jesus responds to Satan’s temptation—not by correcting his mangling of the Scriptural text but by recognizing the real root of that temptation: putting God to the test. This is instructive to us as we read and apply Psalm 91. These comforting promises of God are not given so that we can abuse them as His people, making foolish decisions and living reckless lives. Rather, they are given as an encouragement to us so that, as we seek to live in the world “not as unwise, but as wise,” we can rest in the assurance that the Lord’s care for His people extends to the ministry of His holy angels.
Finally, we see in Psalm 91 that God not only provides His presence, His peace, and His protection, but also His promises for our future.
4 – God’s Promises (v.14-16)
14 “Because he holds fast to me in love, I will deliver him; I will protect him, because he knows my name. 15 When he calls to me, I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble; I will rescue him and honor him. 16 With long life I will satisfy him and show him my salvation.”
The psalm closes with a series of promises God makes to His faithful people. If nothing else so far has been an encouragement to you, this surely will be.
God pronounces blessing upon those who know His name, set their love upon Him (or cling to Him), and call upon Him. But even here, we see the matchless grace of God: we don’t do those things on our own. In Deuteronomy 7, God describes how He chose Israel, and then in chapter 10, He says that He set His heart on Israel to be His covenant people. In the New Testament, in John 15, Jesus tells His disciples that they didn’t choose Him, but He chose them and appointed them to bear much fruit. In I John 4:19, John writes we love God because He first loved us! So when we see these precious promises of God, given to those who know and love Him, we can rest assured that the only reason we know God’s name and call upon Him in faith is because He Himself is drawing us, redeeming us, keeping us.
So what does He promise His children in these last 3 verses? Six things:
He will deliver us and protect us: As we’ve already noted, that doesn’t mean a trouble-free life—in His providence, God may carry us through some challenging and even devastating experiences. But He promises that He will rescue us, and that He will preserve us.
He will answer us: Spurgeon reminds us that we should marvel at the fact that the very God of the universe not only listens to us, but responds at all! As Matthew Henry notes, God responds to our prayers and requests with promises to hold onto, providences to meet our needs, and graces to help us endure.
He will be with us in trouble: Pointing back to the first section, we are reminded that God gives us His own dear presence “to shield and to guide.”
He will rescue and honor us: He not only delivers us from danger, but will honor us. The way of this world is to chase after your own honor, to elevate your own name. Jesus said in John 12:26 that those who serve Him will be honored by the Father.
He will satisfy us with long life: Long life was a specific promise to OT saints for obedience to the Law, and the prophets describe it as a blessing of the Future Millenial or Messianic Kingdom (Isaiah 65:20). This phrase may also be translated “fullness of life” or “fullness of days.” This speaks to a satisfaction at the end of one’s life. One more Spurgeon quote: “The man described in this psalm fills out the measure of his days, and whether he dies young or old, he is quite satisfied with life and is content to leave it. He shall rise from life’s banquet as a man who has had enough and is content.” Or, as Paul put it, to live is Christ and to die is gain.
Finally, he will show us His salvation: To see God’s salvation in the Old Testament was to look toward the resolution of all things, when God finally and fully delivers His people from all their enemies. That deliverance would come in the person of the promised Messiah. Remember Simeon in Luke 2, who took up the baby Jesus in his arms and praised God for letting him live long enough to see “His salvation.” Now, we who live under the New Covenant and have placed our hope in the death and resurrection of Jesus also look forward to His Second Coming, the restoration of all things, and our final home in that new city, the one not made with human hands, where God will dwell among His people.
All of these other promises point us to that final, beautiful day, because all of these promises flow through and are ministered by Jesus our savior.
These now are the great and glorious provisions that our God has made for us in this time of pandemic. He has provided us with His presence, His peace, His protection, and His promises.
And my prayer for us as we face whatever comes next in this crazy year is that we will rest on the sure and settled declaration of our God that He will show us His salvation. Until that day, let us walk in faith, hope, and love as we anticipate His coming.
Amen! Come Lord Jesus. Let’s pray.
Thanks for reading. I hope this sermon encourages you and challenges you. If you have questions about anything you’ve read here, please feel free to comment below!
How do you think about the people around you? How do you see them? How do you speak about them?
There’s been so much that’s gone on in the last month that has burdened and overwhelmed me. So much that I wanted to say but didn’t know how to–or whether or not my words would contribute anything useful or new. I’ve tried to stay out of the online hot-take business (with mixed success), but I think a lot of my thoughts lately are boiled down to this key issue:
When you stop seeing your ideological opponents as human beings worthy of dignity, it makes it a lot easier to justify treating them as sub-human in your speech and actions, both directly and indirectly.
People from my ideological/theological camp talk about the dignity of human life a lot, specifically when it comes to the life of the unborn. But I worry that much of that language is shown to be mere rhetoric when the way we speak to and about our enemies (either political or theological) is degrading, demeaning, and dismissive. (Depending on whom you ask, that makes me a squishy, raised-pinky, “nuance”-obsessed liberal, which is HILARIOUS.)
Labels and categories can sometimes provide a helpful shorthand in conversation, but I wonder if we lean so heavily on those that they start to become personas or avatars to absorb our attacks. It’s easy to make fun of “leftists” or “Trumpists” when you’re thinking about a generic stereotype instead of your parents or siblings. You can take shots, make jokes, dismiss their concerns. But when you start putting names and faces to the labels, it should become a bit harder to be so calloused and contemptuous.
“Should.” But we both know that with practice, we can become very comfortable labelling and smearing even the ones we purport to love with such invective.
“You’re just a…”
“Well of course you disagree, you….”
“Well, if you’d quit listen to all those…”
When Jesus said that in the end times, a person’s enemies would be the members of his or her own household, I don’t think the reason for this was supposed to be who’s on the national ballot or where we stand on cultural hot-button issues.
…I don’t have some great epiphany coming here. I hope you’re not expecting one.
Instead, can I just encourage you to take a few moments and run a mental audit of how you have spoken about people lately, including/especially those you disagree with? Ask yourself, “Am I able to disagree with this person/group while still treating them with dignity, as image-bearers?”
And don’t answer too quickly in the affirmative. I know that my knee-jerk reaction to this is, “Of course I do!” If it’s the same for you, maybe take a second and think carefully about it. If you’re feeling especially bold, ask someone close to you if you tend to speak of those you disagree with in minimizing or dismissive terms.
Perhaps one good step toward addressing some of the bitter divisiveness and tension in our homes and communities is by recognizing that we’re more than our political team-jersey–and the same is true of those on “the other side.”
Look, I’m not calling for some kind of kumbayah, let’s-all-hold-hands-and-sing-Imagine sort of utopian dream, because that won’t ever happen, nor should it. There are serious issues than need to be discussed. There are divides and differences of belief that can’t be ignored or patched over. It’s right and good to disagree, even disagree strongly, about issues of first importance. But if we can’t at least look each other in the eye and say, “you matter,” I think it says a lot about our own hearts. And for those of us who seek to follow Jesus, it may say something mortally serious that we just can’t ignore.
My work day yesterday was broken up by some family responsibilities (yay, working from home!), so when I logged in just before dinner time, I got a bit spooked by my task list. I asked my wife if I could disappear for the evening to try to catch up some things. Back in the pre-WFH days, I would usually do this once a week to stay caught up.
At the end of the evening, as my wife was getting ready to head upstairs to bed, she said, “I’m sorry you have to work so long tonight.” I responded, “Honestly, it’s about 60% have-to, and about 40% anxious-about-my-inbox.”
A few minutes after she went upstairs, the Holy Spirit brought a Bible verse to mind, and I knew I was busted.
A Worried Mind
I don’t know if I’ve mentioned it in this context, but I wrestle with fretfulness, specifically about the safety of my family. For me, going to sleep can be hard in a house that creaks and murmurs when the A/C kicks on. I have a semi-obsessive nightly routine of checking locks and alarms before bed, and if there’s even a bare question in my mind of whether I forgot one, I will go back and do it all again.
One of my current favorite Psalms is Psalm 127, particularly the first verse. I have to remind myself, as my anxious mind races when my head hits the pillow, that unless the Lord is watching over me, all the locks and alarms in the world wouldn’t help. I have to trust in his protection, for “You alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety” (Ps. 4:8).
But it was the second verse of Psalm 127 that came to mind last night, as my wife walked upstairs:
It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved sleep. (Psalm 127:2)
The imagery there resonates with me so much: I’m prone to be up too late at night, chewing over the stale loaves of anxious toil, instead of receiving the gift of sleep.
I realized I was condemned by my own words. I was gnawing on the crusts of worry-work and missing the feast.
Unfortunately, I had also just washed it down with a carafe of full-octane coffee, so the gift of sleep would be a bit…delayed.
An Unexpected Blessing
What to do, then, in my caffeinated condition at 11pm? Take the unplanned opportunity and change my “diet” for the evening. I closed the computer, with its anxious crumbs, and picked up true food.
I was able to enjoy the Scriptures for a while, supplementing my reading with part of a commentary on the section. I nibbled at a few other spiritually-encouraging books. In short, I tried to redeem the coffee buzz!
When my head FINALLY hit the pillow (and I quickly prayed through my nightly temptation to fret), I wasn’t mulling over to-do lists and missed deadlines. Instead, I was grateful for all that God had blessed me with, especially the dear ones sleeping under my roof.
I’m also thankful for the gentle reminder to go a little more “low-carb” in my work-life, so I can better enjoy the good gifts God has given me.
Last week, thanks to some honest conversation with my wife and a few others, I realized I’ve been dealing with a bit of low-grade depression: still functional, but not functioning well, as my life was growing more out-of-balance. By God’s grace and the encouragement of those close relationships, I’ve been trying to get back on track over the last few days, but the struggle I’m having right now is about expectations–specifically, the expectations of others.
One of my most consistent worries is that I’m letting people down. I know everyone struggles with that from time to time, but it’s one of those things that I constantly have to check myself on. And the last 4-5 days have really been rough in that regard, because I’ve made some mistakes, missed some deadlines, or failed to follow-through on things that were expected of me (some expressed, some assumed).
At my lowest last week, I confessed to my wife how much I felt like I was letting everyone around me down and how I was feeling like a failure. What she reminded me of, and what I later heard reaffirmed in my reading and in Scripture, is that even when I’m struggling to meet expectations, my identity is not changed.
That’s a big truth that I have to hang on to on a regular basis: who I am is not what I do. Who I am is not what people think of me. Who I am is not ultimately based on me.
The Bible talks about born again believers being “in Christ,” which is an idea we don’t talk enough about in Evangelicalism. We can acknowledge it cognitively, but I don’t think we (maybe I should just say “I”) do a good job walking out what that means practically.
This is still something I’m working on and working through. But the baseline is this: no matter what I do, no matter how successful or unsuccessful I am at accomplishing my goals or executing my resposibilities, my identity must always be fully located in the fact that I have been washed, sanctified, justified, and glorified by Jesus. I am His disciple. I’m adopted by God and I am a co-heir with Jesus of the inheritance that awaits me.
So when I struggle to hit deadlines, when people are disappointed, when I just can’t get things right, I don’t give up hope or stop trying. I work and I strive, but I do so because it honors my God, not because I’m trying to earn or maintain my identity as a hard worker, dependable pastor, or exemplary husband and father. Those things are noble goals, but they must be located outside of my secure and unmoved identity in Christ.
So maybe a question you can consider today: What is your identity, and where does it come from?
Because the answer to that question matters an awful lot more than we realize.