Category Archives: Exegetical Studies

James Montgomery Boice on “The First Miracle”

An Expositional Sermon By James Montgomery Boice on Acts 3:1-26

Acts Boice


One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the time of prayer—at three in the afternoon. Now a man crippled from birth was being carried to the temple gate called Beautiful, where he was put every day to beg from those going into the temple courts. When he saw Peter and John about to enter, he asked them for money. Peter looked straight at him, as did John. Then Peter said, “Look at us!” So the man gave them his attention, expecting to get something from them. 

Then Peter said, “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.” – Acts 3:1–6

In chapter 3 of this study I pointed out that Acts is a transitional book. Acts comes between the Gospels and the Epistles. When we begin to read it, the Lord Jesus Christ is still here. The characters we come across are people who knew Jesus, those who in many cases had traveled with him during the days of his ministry. Most of them were witnesses of his resurrection. But then as we go on through the book, we come to people who did not have those experiences. Paul himself did not live with Christ during the days of his earthly ministry. And there are people like Timothy and Titus, Aquila, Priscilla, and Apollos, who had not even seen him. The flow of the book is from those early days in Jerusalem, when Jesus is still present, to Rome, which is where Acts ends. Acts is a transition in another way too. It is a transition from an age in which miracles were common to a time more closely resembling our own.

Better Than Gold

Luke described the early fellowship of believers by saying, “Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles” (Acts 2:43). In Acts 2 Luke does not give us any indication as to what those miraculous signs may have been. But now, when we come to Acts 3, we have the account of at least one of them.

Why did Luke choose to chronicle this particular miracle? The answer is two-fold: (1) because it was the occasion for a second sermon of Peter’s, which Luke wants us to hear; and (2) because the miracle and sermon were the cause of the first persecution of the church.

Verse 1 tells us that Peter and John were going up to the temple at the time of prayer. We were told in chapter 2 that one of the things the early church did was gather in the temple courts to pray. In time God would cause a break with formal Judaism. But the break had not come yet. The apostles and other early believers were still Jews as well as being Christians, and they were continuing to take part in the worship that their people had enjoyed for centuries.

As Peter and John were doing this, they met a man who had been placed at the temple gate to beg from those who were entering. He was unable to walk. But he had friends, and they had put him in what was obviously a good position. They must have reasoned that it would be difficult for people to enter the temple, offer heartfelt worship to God, and then, as they left, utterly ignore a poor man who clearly needed help. Peter and John saw him and stopped. We are told that Peter fixed his attention on him and demanded that the man look at them.

That is what the man wanted. I can imagine that if his experience was that of most beggars, most people would simply have walked by. If you see somebody who is needy and you do not want to help, you try not to notice him. That is what most people would have been doing. So when Peter and John stopped, looked at him, and said, “Look at us,” the man must have looked up very hopefully, thinking that they were going to give him something. I do not know what they begged with in those days. But if he had owned a tin cup, I imagine he would have held the cup out to them, no doubt thinking, This is going to be a good day. These people are going to give me money.

Then Peter uttered the words that most of us know very well: “Silver or gold I do not have.…”

Can you visualize what must have happened at that moment? The man was expecting silver or gold. So when Peter said, “Silver or gold I do not have…” his eyes must have dropped, and he must have put his cup down. But Peter went on, adding, “But what I have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk” (v. 6).

Notice, first, that it was to Peter’s credit that he could utter both parts of that sentence. There is a story from the Renaissance period that I have come across in several different versions. It may or may not be true. In any case, the version I like best goes like this: St. Thomas Aquinas was in Rome. He was walking along the street with a cardinal. The cardinal noticed a beggar. Reaching in his pocket, he pulled out a silver coin and gave it to him. Then he turned to Aquinas, the great doctor of the church, and said, “Well, Thomas, fortunately we can no longer say, as Peter did, ‘Silver and gold have I none.’ ”

St. Thomas replied, “Yes, that is true. But neither can we say, ‘In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.’ ”

It has always been sadly true that people have used religion as a means of acquiring wealth. We see much of this today, particularly in the way some “ministries” are promoted on television. The heads of these ministries make a great deal of money. Peter was not one of these people. I suppose that in the early church there were people who kept the church’s money. Later on we find that there was a treasury. Perhaps Peter had learned something from Judas, who dipped into the common purse when he needed something. Peter apparently did not. So when he went up to the temple to pray, he said quite honestly, I do not have any money. His penniless state may even have been a factor in his being close enough to God that he could also say, “But I am going to give you what I have.”

When Peter reached down, he took that man by the hand. Luke, who perhaps was interested in this miracle from the point of view of a physician, records with particularly vivid language how strength flowed into the man so that his feet and ankles could now bear his weight. He was completely restored to health. And he was so exuberant in his new-found health that he leaped—“walking and jumping, and praising God.” The language itself literally leaps, just as he leaped. This was a great, great day. And the people who knew the man because they had gone in and out of that gate many times and had seen him often were filled with amazement and undoubtedly praised God also.

In the case of the man who had been born blind, whose story is told in John 9, the man’s appearance was so altered that the people questioned whether or not this was the same man. In the case of the man healed by Peter there was no doubt at all. Everyone understood at once what had happened. A miracle had taken place by the same power that had been displayed in the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth and at Pentecost.

Peter’s Second Sermon

At this point Peter began to preach his second sermon. When we compare Peter’s first sermon with this one, we find some differences. Yet there are similarities too, because regardless of the circumstances, Peter was trying to do the same thing here as on the earlier occasion: He was trying to point his listeners to Jesus as the Savior of the world. He also confronted them with their sin, appealed for their repentance, and gave reasons to repent and believe.


Just as in the sermon at Pentecost, this new sermon focuses on Jesus. I suppose it would have been possible for Peter to have focused on something else. He could have focused on the miracle itself. He could have said, “This is an important thing that has happened, and I want to make sure that you understand that this really is a miracle. Look at this man. Let’s all gather around and examine him.”

Peter’s sermon could have led into a testimony service. He could have said, “Now, brother, you have been healed. Here’s your chance to give a testimony. Stand up and tell everybody what Jesus has done for you.” A testimony like that might have focused on the man. The man could have said, “Let me tell you about my experience. Let me tell you how I first came to be part of what is going on here today.…” The man could have gotten quite a bit of personal attention out of that.

Instead, Peter said, “Men of Israel, why does this surprise you? Why do you stare at us as if by our own power or godliness we had made this man walk? The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of our fathers, has glorified his servant Jesus” (vv. 12–13). Jesus! This is where the emphasis of the entire sermon lies.

In speaking about Jesus, Peter is inevitably biblical. I say inevitably because this sermon is not so obviously biblical as the previous one. When we were studying the sermon Peter gave at Pentecost, I pointed out that it focuses on three great texts (see chapter 5 of this study). The way Peter preached that sermon was to quote each text at length and then explain it. The fact that he is biblical is not so obvious in this second sermon—although at the end he does quote from Deuteronomy and Genesis. Nevertheless, Peter is biblical.

The biblical nature of the sermon is apparent in Peter’s choice of words. When Peter refers to Jesus as God’s “servant,” as he does in verse 13, he uses the word for servant that occurs in the Septuagint (Greek) translation of Isaiah 52:13–53:12, where the coming servant of God (52:13) is described as the one who would be “pierced for our transgressions [and] crushed for our iniquities” (53:5). The concept of the “servant of the Lord” was well-known in Israel because of Isaiah 53 and other texts. So when Peter used “servant” and then went on to speak of “the Holy and Righteous One”—another title for the Christ that also appears in Isaiah—it is pretty clear that he was thinking of these chapters. He was teaching that Jesus is the Messiah promised in the Old Testament Scriptures.

When Peter talked about Jesus, he had a number of important facts to mention. One is that Jesus was a real man. Earlier when he spoke to the paralyzed man, he referred to Jesus as “Jesus Christ of Nazareth” (v. 6). It was not some imaginary, philosophical Jesus that Peter was proclaiming. It was a Jesus they all knew, a Jesus who had lived in Nazareth and who had traveled about the country teaching and doing good. But notice: That Jesus was also the same Jesus who had died for sin and then had been raised from death by the power of God. Peter was not retreating into philosophy, nor was he de-supernaturalizing the gospel, as some modern Bible critics have done. He was preaching a biblical Jesus who was both the Son of God and fully man.

When you think about Christianity, do you think primarily about Jesus Christ? And do you understand who Jesus is by the words and doctrines of the Bible? There is a lot more that Christians talk about, of course. But properly understood, those other things all relate to Jesus in some measure. Without Jesus you do not have Christianity, and the Jesus of Christianity is the Bible’s Jesus. To be a Christian is to have a personal relationship with him. Therefore Peter was preaching about him in this sermon.

Grappling with Sin

Peter’s sermon is also direct in speaking about sin. Even more than in his earlier sermon Peter emphasizes the sin of the people in disowning Jesus and handing him over to Pilate to be crucified.

He does it in a personal way. Where Peter begins to talk about the sin of the people he uses the word “you” (the second person plural pronoun) four times. In the previous sermon he only used it in that way once: You, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross” (Acts 2:23, italics mine). That is pretty blunt. But I suppose that as Peter reflected on it (and even got a little better with practice), he figured that when he got around to preaching a second time he would give that point emphasis. So now he says, “You handed him over to be killed, and you disowned him before Pilate, though he had decided to let him go. You disowned the Holy and Righteous One and asked that a murderer be released to you. You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead” (vv. 13–15, italics mine).

Peter is saying this in the very city where the people had cried out against Jesus, saying, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” He is speaking to these same people, perhaps with the very same leaders who had urged them to cry out looking on, and he is saying, You did it; you crucified him. The verbs are powerful, too: “You handed him over to be killed. You disowned [him]. You killed the author of life” (italics mine).

From time to time when I am preaching I will say something about the death of Jesus and how the Jewish leaders handed him over to Pilate to be crucified. Whenever a study like that appears on the radio later, as many of my studies do, I get letters from people who object to my saying that Jews demanded the death of Jesus. That is understandable, of course, because it is a sensitive point in Judaism, and I usually answer by pointing out that the Gentiles in the person of Pilate were also guilty. We are all guilty of Jesus’ death, and if we had been there at the time, we might all have joined in the cries of those who demanded Jesus’ death. But I notice here that, sensitive as that point may be, it was certainly never any more sensitive than it was in this early day when Peter preached in Jerusalem. In spite of the sensitive nature of the issue, Peter did not allow people’s feelings to stand in the way of preaching clearly. He did not say “Jews” to the exclusion of others. He included Pilate in his “you.” He included the Romans. They had actually put him to death. But that was not what concerned Peter in this sermon. Peter’s “you” meant everybody, including the Jews and perhaps even the Jews particularly. He was not pulling his punches.

We need to realize that we are all to blame for the death of Christ in one way or another. Even though we were not there at the time Jesus was arrested, tried, and crucified, it was our sins that took him there. And if Jesus were here today, we would spurn him today, just as the masses of Israel spurned him in Jerusalem long ago.

An Appeal for Repentance

Third, not only does Peter’s sermon point to Jesus and highlight the listeners’ sin—making it clear that the people of Jerusalem had something to repent of—but it also contains an appeal. This is because in the final analysis, Peter was not interested in merely condemning his hearers. On the contrary, he wanted them to repent of their sin and believe on Jesus.

He begins with the words “Now, brothers” (v. 17). He does not treat them as foreigners, aliens, or enemies. Indeed, how could he, since what he said earlier, “You disowned him… you disowned the Holy and Righteous One” (he repeated it), was the very thing Peter himself had done? Peter had denied Jesus on the night of his arrest. So he does not stand aloof now as he appeals to these people. He calls them brothers, saying, “I know that you acted in ignorance, as did your leaders.” Their ignorance did not make them guiltless. Nevertheless, they were not fully aware of what they were doing, and Peter was in exactly that category himself.

Where our English text has Peter encouraging his listeners to “turn to God” (v. 19), the Greek text actually says “flee to God.” That was probably intended to suggest a powerful image. In Israel there were cities set aside from other cities as “cities of refuge.” If an Israelite accidentally killed someone else, he could flee to one of these cities and there be protected from an avenger of blood, a relative of the deceased who might try to kill him in retaliation. These cities were not to protect real murderers. If somebody intentionally killed someone, well, he was to be tried and punished, as he should be. But if the killing was accidental—if it was what we would call “manslaughter” rather than “murder in the first degree”—then the killer could flee to the city and be protected there. He was to stay there until the high priest died. Then he could go home.

There is something like that idea in Peter’s sermon. Peter told the people that they were guilty of killing Jesus, but he taught that God would forgive their sin if they would repent of it and flee to the refuge that he has provided in Christ.

Peter tells them to “repent, then, and turn to God” (v. 19). These two things always go together. Sometimes we feel sorry for what we have done. But it is not enough merely to feel sorry. Sorrow is not repentance. Repentance is feeling sorry enough to quit, and quitting means turning from sin to Jesus Christ. When Peter tells the people, “Repent… and turn to God,” he makes the connection apparent and indicates exactly what we need to do.

Reasons to Repent and Believe

The fourth thing Peter does in this sermon is offer inducements to repent and believe on Jesus. The first is: “so that your sins may be wiped out” (v. 19), that is, so that you might be forgiven. Forgiveness is what people need, and the only place anyone will ever really find forgiveness is in Christ. A director of a large mental institution in England said to John Stott some years ago, “I could send half of my patients home tomorrow if only they could find forgiveness.”

Most people carry heavy loads of guilt. This may be true of you. You may not have not told anybody what you have done. You are afraid that if you told someone else, that person would reject you. Nevertheless, you remember what you have done, and you carry the guilt of your actions around with you day by day, week by week, and year by year. Your burden keeps you from being what you might otherwise be. Moreover, you do not find forgiveness in the world. The world is not capable of that. The world can judge you for your sin or pretend to overlook it. But it is not capable of forgiving it. On one occasion the Lord Jesus Christ said to a man, “Your sins are forgiven,” and the religious leaders who were standing by replied, “Who can forgive sins but God only?” They were absolutely right. They did not recognize that Jesus was God and therefore had the right to forgive sin. In that they were wrong. But their theology was right. Only God can forgive sin. That is why the world is so unsatisfactory in this respect. Peter is saying that God can forgive your sin; he can lift that great load of guilt. Clearly this is one great inducement to turn from sin and believe in Jesus Christ.

Peter has another inducement too. It is the “times of refreshing [that] come from the Lord” (v. 19). This may be understood in different ways. On the one hand, it probably concerns a future day of blessing when the Jewish people will turn to Christ in large numbers and a final age of national blessing will come. Paul talks about it in Romans 11. On the other hand, there are also “times of refreshing” for all God’s people even now.

Many of us go through much of life feeling pretty stale in what we do. We feel like the horse that eats hay and oats on Monday, oats and hay on Tuesday, hay and oats on Wednesday, and so on throughout the week. Many people find, especially if they are in an unrewarding job, that life is often quite dreary. And sometimes even their Christianity becomes stale. They say, “I’ve been coming to church every week. But somehow it just isn’t what it used to be. I feel so flat when I come.” Well, that happens. We all go through dry spells. Times like that do not necessarily mean that we are far from God. They only mean that we feel far from God. Sometimes the cause is bad health. Sometimes the cause is the weather. A few days of gloomy rain and cold sometimes plunge me into a dark night of the soul. What we are told here is that in Christ there will be times of refreshing.

Haven’t you known times when Jesus became so real and the gospel so vivid that your whole spirit, soul, and body were revived? If you want times of refreshing, times that make life really worth living so you can say, “Oh, it is good to be a Christian,” turn from sin and follow close to Jesus.

There is another inducement here also, in verse 26. After Peter gets through saying that all that has happened in Christ is a fulfillment of prophecy and that they ought to know it because it is clear in their Bibles (he quotes from Deuteronomy 18:15, 18, 19 and Genesis 22:18), he says, “When God raised up his servant, he sent him first to you to bless you by turning each of you from your wicked ways.” First to you! To whom? Well, to the Jews! But more than that, because it was not just to Jews generally that Peter was preaching on this occasion. Peter was preaching to Jews who had been instrumental in the death of Jesus. They handed him over to be killed, disowned him, asked that a murderer be released to them, and demanded that Jesus be crucified. It is to these people, the very ones who had been instrumental in the greatest crime in human history, that God now comes with the gospel of salvation. And he comes to them first. It is God’s way of saying, “I know what you have done, but I do not hold it over you. I love you anyway. It is precisely for people like you that I caused Jesus to die.”

You and I cannot say that God sent his servant to us first of all. Many have come to Christ before us in former ages of human history. But the principle is the same. Regardless of what you have done, the low self-image you may have, or the guilt you may carry, God proclaims his Son to you. And the reason the gospel is proclaimed to you is because God says it is for you that Jesus died.

About the Author

Boice JM in pulpit

James Montgomery Boice, Th.D., (July 7, 1938 – June 15, 2000) was a Reformed theologian, Bible teacher, and pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia from 1968 until his death. He is heard on The Bible Study Hour radio broadcast and was a well-known author and speaker in evangelical and Reformed circles. He also served as Chairman of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy for over ten years and was a founding member of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. James Boice was one of my favorite Bible teachers. Thankfully – many of his books and expositions of Scripture are still in print and more are becoming available. The sermon above was adapted from Chapter 7 in Acts: An Expositional Commentary. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997, 2006.


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Tim Keller on “Removing Idols From Your Heart”

Sermon: Removing Idols of the Heart – Series: Growth in Christ, Part 1—October 22, 1989

Tim Keller praching w bible image

Colossians 3:5–11

We are in the middle of a series of studies of Christian growth, and eventually we’re going to be talking about the fruit of the Spirit here. We’re going to be looking at love and joy and peace and patience and kindness and goodness and gentleness and self-control. We’re going to be looking at all of those, but for these few weeks here we’re looking at how you can create a dynamic (a cycle) in your life that results in supernatural maturity and character change, and what we have been saying is there is a combustion cycle, you might say, a dynamic, a motor that needs to be going on in the heart of a Christian.

When that cycle is going there is growth, there is progress, and if there is no progress in your life, it’s because that cycle is not going. It’s a two-part cycle, and we have said that cycle is repentance and faith. Let’s again read the passage we’ve continually looked at, but we’re going to be looking at it in more detail in one aspect here tonight. We’ve been looking at it for a number of weeks, but we’re especially going to read Colossians 3, and I’m going to read verses 5–11, because it’s about repentance, and that’s what we’re looking at tonight.

Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices 10 and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. 11 Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.

The Word of the Lord

A quick review, but an important review. Repentance. When Martin Luther nailed the 95 theses to the Wittenberg door to start the Protestant Reformation (one of the watersheds in the history of the world), the first thesis was all of life is repentance. That is misunderstood by the Christian church today. I believe the average Christian believes repentance is something for the bad times. It’s something for when you have done something rather majorly wrong.

You slid back in the Christian life. Then you need these times of repentance, but otherwise a Christian is supposed to walk on (if he or she is doing it right) in a obedience and having victory over sin and over troubles and rising above things and not letting anything get to them and always rejoicing in the Lord, whatever that is. Repentance is not understood the way Martin Luther understood it, who after all was the first Protestant, and we probably better take this seriously. He might have understood more about evangelical religion than many of the rest of us.

You see, he was right, not us. The cycle by which you grow, the thing you must be doing daily, is moving from repentance to faith. You remember in Luke 7, Jesus was in the home of Simon, a respectable pillar of the community, and when he was there a woman of ill-repute came in and began to kiss Jesus’ feet and anoint them, and Simon thought to himself, “If this man knew the kind of woman she was, he wouldn’t be doing this.” Or he probably also thought this, although it’s not listed in the text, “If this man does know what kind of woman this is and he’s letting her kiss his feet, what’s going on here?”

Jesus turns to Simon, perceiving his heart, and he says, “Let me tell you a story.” Whenever Jesus says, “Let me tell you a story,” you’re in for trouble. He has you in a corner, all right. He says, “Simon, there were two debtors. A single man had two debtors, and one debtor owed the man 50 denarii …” I still don’t know exactly what that is in yen yet, but I’ll find out. “… and the other debtor owed the man 500. He forgave both.” He said, “Simon, which of the two will love him more?”

Simon said, “Well, the one who was forgiven 500 denarii.” Then he turned to Simon and said, “Simon, listen. Ever since I got here she has been kissing my feet. She loves me, Simon. You don’t,” and then he said, “Because she was forgiven much, she loves much.” The last line of the little parable is, “… he who has been forgiven little loves little.” Here is what he was saying: “The difference between you and her, Simon, is not that you are more moral and she is less, or that somehow, because we’ve changed our standards, she is more moral because she is more honest or authentic or something like that and you’re a hypocrite or a stuffed shirt. That’s not the point.

She has more love and joy in her life toward me because her repentance is deeper, because she knows the size of her debt.” Because of her repentance being deeper and deeper her joy and her love are getting greater and greater, because the dynamic was unleashed in her heart. It was going on, and it wasn’t in Simon’s heart. Simon kept repentance for the bad times. Simon says, “I’m a pretty good person. I move right along, and as a result, occasionally … Yes, I repented last January, remember, when I did this thing I shouldn’t have done, and I repented maybe the September before that.”

He’s like most of us. Repentance is for the bad times, and as a result this woman is way ahead of him. Her joy and her love are deeper because her repentance is deeper. You see, the dynamic goes like that. If you understand the gospel (that Jesus Christ has covered your sins and he actually is your Savior) that means God doesn’t accept you because of your efforts but because of what Jesus has done. You’re accepted in him. You’re loved in him. If you understand that, then when you see your sins more deeply and when you repent, that releases joy and love.

If, on the other hand, you don’t rest your life on the gospel … If you’re an atheist, or if you’re a criminal, or if you’re a very moral and religious person but you don’t rest your life on the gospel … All those people are in the same boat for the purposes of this discussion because they all basically rely not on Jesus Christ for their sense of self-worth and acceptance, but rather they rely on their own power and ability. If you’re like that, if you’re one of them, then a discovery of your sin and a discovery of your weakness is going to lead you to despair.

In other words, repentance leads to despair if you don’t understand the gospel, and repentance leads to joy and love and a burst of energy and growth if you do, because repentance leads to a greater appreciation and gratitude and thrill at what Jesus has done for us. That is the dynamic and as that’s moving along, you grow. See, it’s very misunderstood. That is how you grow, and that’s what we’re talking about. The reason I keep repeating it is because I know how many of us think about repentance, but, oh, be very careful.

If you find that to look at your sins and to get a deeper knowledge of your sins leads to despair, I have to begin to ask you on what basis do you believe God loves you? What is the basis? Is it your efforts? Is it your moral excellence? Is it coming up to your standards? If so, of course repentance is just going to push you down, but if on the other hand Jesus Christ is your Savior, then repentance is the beginning of that cycle, it gets the combustion cycle going, and that’s what we’re talking about and what we have been talking about.

Now one more thing. See, I’m trying to recap, because I know people are in an out. A lot of you weren’t here last week or the week before last, so I have to recap, but I’m trying to recap using new illustrations so even if you were here, you’re getting a chance to rethink it and rethink it so it becomes clearer. The other thing I have to recap is we have tried to talk about repentance using a different name. We’ve said repentance is identifying and removing the idols of the heart. Now the reason we’re doing that is because if you don’t understand the idols of the heart, you can still think of repentance as just basically stopping certain kinds of superficial, external behavioral sins.

As we reread the Scripture we see the things the Bible talks about such as greed or sexual immorality and so on are really idols, you see. For example, covetousness (greed) is called an idol. Real quickly, again, psychologically from our point of view, an idol is actually something you get your identity from. Now I used an illustration this morning in the morning service I can use again tonight. Rocky Balboa says he wants to go the distance. He’s going to go for it. Why? What is he going for?

He says in the most important line in the film, “If I can just go the distance, I’ll know I’m not a bum.” Now I would submit to you … I propose to you … that you have something just like Rocky does in your life you believe, and you talk to yourself about it, and you say, “If I can have that, if I can get that, then I’ll know I’m not a bum.” We all have some things. In some cases, it might be relationships. In some cases, it might be financial security or independence. In some cases, it might be achievement and status.

It’s different for everybody, but there are some things in your life you look at and you say, “If I have that, I won’t be a bum.” That’s what an idol is, because an idol is making something else besides Jesus Christ your life, and the only way you can tell if something is an idol usually is God sends a problem into your life, and you begin to see you can’t get to that thing. “I can’t get there.” When you can’t get to it, you begin to realize what really is running your life. Now that is the psychological way to look at an idol. It’s identifying with something saying, “That’s my life. Then I’ll know I’m not a bum.”

Theologically, what the Bible says is these are things you are making your righteousness. See, from God’s point of view, God says what you have done is you have gone about to patch up a righteousness of your own. Paul, for example, in Philippians, the book right before Colossians, talks about himself like this. He says, I was “… circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless. But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.”

He says, “… I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from [my striving], but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith.” Now what he is very clearly saying is he’s giving you a list of all the things that used to be his righteousness. He’s saying, “Look at my pedigree. Look at my family background. Look at my career accomplishments. Look at my intellectual attainments, but I count them all as loss.”

What he means is, “They used to be my righteousness. They were the things I relied on and said, ‘This is my honor. This is my glory. This is my dignity.’ ” He said in order to be a Christian he had to give up on that, and he said, “I count them as rubbish.” Some of you know (it depends on your translation) rubbish is a kind of nice word the translators use there because it might be offensive. He said, “I count them all as dung, excrement, bowel movement,” you see, because that had become his righteousness.

Now the fact is, though, when you become a Christian, though you say, “Now I know God accepts me only because of the righteousness of Christ” (that’s what the gospel is), you still have a big part of yourself the Bible calls the “old” man. You have the new man who says, “Only in Jesus Christ am I acceptable, and he is my righteousness. He is my honor. He is my glory.” On the other hand, you have the “old” man who says, “Are you kidding?” You know, like that little 16-year-old girl years ago I remember talking to down in Hopewell, Virginia, at that other church I invited you to today.

I remember sitting down with Debbie. She was 16 years old. She was five foot ten and weighed about 90 pounds, and she couldn’t get dates. She was always saying, “Nobody wants to ask me out.” In as gentle a way as I possibly could do it, I used to say … I mean, I took time doing this. I didn’t just throw this at her, but I gently reminded her since she was a Christian and she professed faith in Christ, we have so many great things in Christ. We have our adoption. We’re in the family. We have guidance. We have protection. We have all these things. We’re going to rule and reign with him forever.

You talk about that, and at one point she looked at me, and she said, “Well, what good is all that if you’re not popular?” You see, Debbie will mature because at some point she’ll realize you don’t say that to ministers, and a couple of years after that, she’ll realize you don’t even say that to yourself because you don’t want to believe you’re really that crass. You don’t want to believe you’re really that enslaved. You don’t want to believe you’re really that childish, but we are, you see, and we do have a little thing down there saying, “If I can just go here, I’ll know I’m not a bum.”

We do have a little thing down there saying, “If I don’t have this, then what good is everything else?” You see, that was Debbie’s righteousness. She was going about doing that. There was an “old” man (a part of her) still operating on the old basis. The job of the Christian in order to grow is to identify what those things are and to pull them out. Now, by the way, we’re not going to go into identifying. That’s what we did last week, but doing that is a process like this. You’re looking at yourself and you’re saying, “Why am I so angry? Why am I so worried? Why am I so depressed?”

Then you say, “Let me analyze this. What is actually driving me? What goals do I feel like I must have?” Here is a good question a counselor friend of mine wrote down and would give his counselees when they were trying to analyze themselves and understand themselves. He says ask yourself this: “Has something besides Jesus Christ taken title to my heart’s functional trust?” That’s a great word, functional trust. Everybody who is a Christian says, “Oh, I trust Jesus and nothing else,” and he says, “I don’t care about what you say and what you believe and what you appear to say. What is your heart functionally trusting? What does it actually trust? What does it really rely on?

Here is the whole question: “Has something besides Jesus Christ taken title to my heart’s functional trust, its functional preoccupation, loyalty, service, and delight?” You can do that when you find yourself getting extremely anxious and biting your nails down to the knuckle. When you find yourself very depressed or extremely angry, you say, “What is it out there that I’m not getting to and why is it driving me like this?” That’s if you’re failing. But what if you’re succeeding and you find yourself stretching and stretching and working harder and enjoying it less?

At a certain point, you need to ask yourself a similar question. You should say, “The desires I have for this achievement, as satisfying as they are, isn’t it possible what’s going on here is I’m trying to go about patching up a righteousness of my own? Isn’t this success actually my effort to do for myself what only Jesus Christ can do for me? Am I trying to patch up a righteousness of my own?” Now that is what repentance is, and as we said before, you realize the flesh (the “old” man) …

Talking about the word, flesh, when the Bible says, “kill the flesh” or “war against the flesh,” it’s not talking about your body. When the Bible talks about the flesh, it will say, “These are the works of the flesh,” and it will say gossip, envy, pride … things that have nothing to do with the body … because the word flesh does not mean the body, usually, in the Bible when it talks like that. Usually, when the Bible talks about the flesh versus the spirit, the flesh is Self. It’s the “old” man. It’s the side of you who still wants to go about making its own righteousness, wanting to live for its own glory.

The fact is your flesh can still operate when you become a Christian. It can still operate, absolutely. People who still have a need to dominate the discussion, the need to hold forth, the need for security, the need for love and approval … You come into the church (the kingdom) and you can still be dominated by the flesh even in all of your Christian activity. Oh, yeah. There are some people who have this deep need for certainty and control.

They come into the church, and every time they take a class on the Bible what they’re actually doing, instead of reading the Bible to say, “Ah, I need to get this into my life,” instead they’re saying, “Aha! Now I can spot heresy. Now I can spot people who are not accurate, who are not preaching the true Word of God. Now I can hit them. Now I can get them. Now I can tell them what’s wrong.” There are a lot of people, you see, who are very critical and love control and love to be always the right ones.

Before they were Christians, they were insufferable, and now that they’re Christians, they’re still insufferable because the flesh is continuing to dominate them. It’s still continuing to control them. It’s very, very important to see. Therefore, every one of us has an “old” man. Every one of us has a flesh. Every one of us has a way of going about patching up our own righteousness, and the only way in which we’re going to grow is to recognize the ways in which that happens and repent of it every day.

You’re going to see pride. You’re going to see selfishness. You’re going to see gossip and defense. By the way, I know one pastor who, when somebody says, “I really don’t see all this going on in my life,” he says, “Okay. I want you to really do a discipline for me. This week a) don’t gossip, b) don’t defend yourself, and c) don’t brag. Now watch yourself. Never, ever, ever gossip. In other words, say nothing bad about anybody else, never defend yourself, and don’t brag. You just try that for a week and just see how easy it is.”

If you start looking for that sort of thing, which is the flesh, you’re going to find it’s all over. Repentance. Now last week, after the service a couple of people came up and said, “You were specific enough about identifying it. You were specific enough about making me feel terrible. You did a wonderful job of that. I thought I was doing okay until you showed me these things, but please give me a very specific one-two-three step way of taking the things out. I mean, it’s nice to see them, but taking the things out.

Okay. Let’s begin. I’ll be real specific, but on the other hand, it’s not that easy. Some of you get more frustrated than you ought to when you begin to see the things that are driving you, and you say, “I just can’t seem to purify my motives.” Some people say, “Now that you’ve helped me look at my motives, now that you’ve begun to help me see that, I begin to realize I can never purify my motives, and I start to feel discouraged, and I start to feel in despair.”

1. When you’re able to spot your problems like you are, half the battle is over

The only way your flesh can completely dominate you is if you are not aware of it at all. In a battle, for example, if the enemy is completely unknown to you (you don’t know where the enemy is or what their movements are at all) you’re going to get annihilated. If on the other hand, you can spot the enemy’s movements then you’re going to have a big fight. You might still lose on a given day, but at least you have a fighting chance.

In the same way, the only way you can be completely dominated by your flesh is if you don’t see it at all. If you know, because people have shown it to you and God has shown it to you, you need to control a group you’re in or if somebody has shown you that you’re extremely sensitive to what people think of you and you constantly get your feelings hurt … In other words, if you begin to get aware of your pride and the way in which your pride is shaped … Some of us, our pride (our Self, our flesh) takes the form of a need for domination and holding forth and telling everybody how they ought to live.

Others of us are just shy, self-conscious, or afraid of what people think and always getting our feelings hurt, which is just another form of self-centeredness. It’s just another form of pride. When you begin to see the form and see it for what it is, it no longer can ambush you the same way. On a given week you may fall prey to it, but if you’re able to name it, if you’re able to see it … In fact, anybody who comes and says, “Oh, I see all kinds of bad motives. I see all kinds of problems. I’m so discouraged,” I say, “You are not being really dominated by your flesh if you’re upset like that, if you can see the movement of it.

You have already basically engaged it. The most important part of the battle is actually over, and that is, you woke up.” You see, if the enemy is after you and you’re asleep, there won’t even be a battle. You’ll be dead, but if you’re awake, at least there will be a battle. If you feel the fight, that is a sign of life, and it’s a sign of growth, and it’s a sign God is working in you. The only people who are really losing are the people who have no struggle in their life at all, you see. Don’t be discouraged when you see the bad motives. That is a sign of life.

2. There are two basic parts to repenting of a sin

I began to tell you about the first one last week, but I’ll finish it and tell you the second part, too. First, you have to unmask it, and secondly, you have to take it to the cross. Unmasking it means make sure you stop doing little rationalizations, calling the sin by nice names, you see. Be ruthless with yourself. If you say, “Well, my feelings get hurt pretty easily, you mean you’re bitter. If you say, Well, I’m just very, very concerned,” you’re actually eaten up with anxiety.

You see, call it by its name, and recognize what is going on. We talked about that last week, and I just can’t go into it. The second part, which is what I really want to bring out, is the way in which you destroy the power of a sin is to take it to the cross, not to Mount Sinai. Take it to Mount Calvary, not to Mount Sinai. I’ll explain this for a minute. If you take a sin to Mount Sinai that means you’re thinking about the danger of it. You’re thinking about how it has messed up your life.

You’re thinking about all the punishments that are probably going to come down on you for it. That is not repentance; that is self-pity. Self-pity and repentance are two different things. I came to a place in my life where I realized 90 percent of what I thought I had been doing as repentance throughout most of my life was really just self-pity. The difference between self-pity and repentance is this: Self-pity is thinking about what a mess your sin got you into.

Self-pity is thinking about the consequences of it, what a wreck it’s made of you, how God will probably get me for it, or how my parents will probably get me for it, or how my boss will probably get me for it, or all the problems it will create in my life or already has created in my life. “Oh, Lord, how sorry I am this has happened. Oh, Lord, get this out of my life.” What you’re really doing is saying, “I hate the consequences of this sin,” but you haven’t learned to hate the sin. What is happening is instead of hating the sin, you’re hating the consequences of the sin, and you’re hating yourself for being so stupid.

Self-pity leads to continuing to love the sin so it still has power over you but hating yourself. Real repentance is when you say, “What has this sin done to God? What has it cost God? What does God feel about it?” Let me give you an interesting example of two guys who wrote 300 or 400 years ago. One man’s name is Stephen Charnock. Stephen Charnock tries to explain the difference between taking your sin to Mount Sinai, where you just look at the danger of it, and taking your sin to the cross, where you see what effect it’s had on God.

When you see what effect it has had on the loving God who died so you wouldn’t do it, who died for your holiness, when you begin to see that it melts you, and it makes you begin to hate the sin. It begins to lose its attractive power over you. Instead of making you hate yourself, you find you hate it, and so the idol begins to get crushed bit by bit. Listen carefully to Stephen Charnock, because he’s using old English. Charnock says there is a difference between a legalistic conviction of sin and an evangelical one.

“A legal conviction [of sin] ariseth from a consideration of God’s justice chiefly, an evangelical conviction [of sin] from a sense of God’s goodness.” Now hear this. “A legally convinced person cries out, ‘I have exasperated a power that is as the roaring of a lion … I have provoked one that is the Sovereign Lord of heaven and earth whose word can tear up the foundation of the world …’ But an evangelically convinced person cries, ‘I have incensed the goodness that is like the dropping of a dew. I have offended a God that had his hands stretched out to me as a friend. My heart must be made of marble. My heart must be made of iron to throw his blood in his face.’ ”

Now you see what he’s done. Don’t you see the difference? Let me tell you. I’m going to have to close. I’ll say one more thing. You unmask the sin. We talked about that last week. You take it to the cross. The way to destroy the power of a sin in your life is to take it to the cross where, you see, Jesus Christ died so you wouldn’t do it. Jesus Christ died out of a commitment to your holiness.

When you see that and realize this sin is an insult to him because it’s putting something as more important than him in your life, yes, that will make you feel bad, but it’s not a pathological kind of bad feeling. Instead, it actually frees you, because instead of making you hate yourself, it makes you say, “I don’t want this. I know what he wants for me. This thing I can do without,” and you’re free. You have to look and see what Jesus has done. You know, there is a place in the Bible where Jesus said to the people, “Fear not those who could destroy the body, but fear him who can destroy body and soul in hell.”

Just keep this in mind. He’s talking to his disciples, all of whom were going to die horrible deaths. Stay with me for one minute here. The people who were in front of him who he talked to, we know historically how they died. Some of them were crucified, which is a pretty terrible death. Some of them were ripped to pieces. You know, one of the things they used to do to Christians was to tie one hand and one leg to this horse and one hand and one leg to this horse and just let the horses go and rip them apart. Some of them were impaled while still alive on stakes and covered with pitch and lit as torches.

Some of them had little holes drilled in their skull while they were still alive and molten lead poured into them. Jesus knew what they were going to go through, and he has the audacity to say that’s a picnic compared to hell. He says, “Don’t be afraid of any of that stuff. What’s that? That’s a Sunday school picnic compared to hell.” Jesus talked more about hell than anybody else. You want to blame hell on Paul or somebody nasty like that, I’m sorry. Go take a look. Jesus Christ experienced not just one hell but all of our hells on the cross. All of them pressed down into three hours.

Why? So you could be holy. Now if you think about it like that … Do you know what I’m doing? I’m telling you how you have to preach to yourself, because when you’re saying, like Debbie, the little 16-year-old girl, “What good is all that if you’re not popular? What good is what he’s done if you’re not popular?” You have to look. I said, “You know, Debbie …” I couldn’t do this to her because it’s a pat answer. You have to give yourself pat answers. You can’t get them from anybody else.

She should have come to the cross and said, “Oh, Lord Jesus Christ, I see what you’ve done so I wouldn’t put anything before you, so I wouldn’t do anything but be holy, because only when I’m holy am I happy. You died so I wouldn’t do this. I drop it. I don’t even want to see it. It’s an ugly thing to me because of your beauty.” That is something you should be doing every day, and usually what I do is I find a verse that works on me. You know, verses get radioactive for a while. Last week, a particular verse that got radioactive for me was the verse in Psalm 32 where it says, “You are my hiding place. You fill my heart with songs of deliverance. Whenever I’m afraid I put my trust in you.”

I began to realize, “Wait a minute here. I find all kinds of things to hide in.” If some friend calls up from some other part of the country and says, “How are things going?” and I say, “Well, we’ve only had five weeks.” “How many people are coming?” I’m so glad he asked me that. I say, “Well, I don’t know, but probably something like …” He says, “That’s wonderful.” I’m so glad he said that. I find myself hiding in that, you see.

But then all day, all week I find myself hiding in things besides him. I begin to see my flesh creeping back in. I began to see myself, and what I have to do is I have to go back to the cross with it and say, “Listen. Nothing is worth what he is. There is nothing as valuable as what he is. I put that to death.” I have to do it. You can. It’s something that is done every day. He who is forgiven much loves much. Let’s pray.

Our Father, we ask you would help us to get ahold of some of these important truths and use them in our lives. What we ask, more than anything else, is you would enable us to see the difference between repentance and self-pity, between legalistic repentance and evangelical repentance.

Father, in many of our lives we have found we’ve stayed away from looking at our sins. We’ve stayed away from dealing with our idols because we just despair when we see them, yet we realize now what we need to do. We need to recognize what they are. We need to take those things to the cross. We need to leave them there.

We pray, Father, you would enable us to do these things, because it’s only then that we grow. We want to have ourselves growing in joy and in love like that woman, because her repentance grew as well. All of life is repentance. We see that now, because all of life is your love. Your love gives us the security for that. Now Father, lead us into this. Grant us repentance into the life, for we pray it in Jesus’ name, amen.

About the Preacher

Tim Keller praching w bible image

Timothy Keller is founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church (PCA) in New York City and the author of numerous books, including Every Good Endeavor, Center Church, Galatians For You, The Meaning of Marriage, The Reason for GodKing’s CrossCounterfeit GodsThe Prodigal God, and Generous Justice.



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Tim Keller on The Joy of Knowing Jesus

Sermon: The Joy of Jesus by Dr. Timothy Keller

Series: The Fruit of the Spirit—The Character of Christ—May 3, 1998 on John 16:19–24

Tim Keller preaching image

I’m going to read from John 16:19–24.

19 Jesus saw that they wanted to ask him about this, so he said to them, “Are you asking one another what I meant when I said, ‘In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me’? 20 I tell you the truth, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy. 21 A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world.

22 So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy. 23 In that day you will no longer ask me anything. I tell you the truth, my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. 24 Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete.”

We’re doing a series here in the morning that has to do with character change, how we actually change. The premise is moral reformation is not the same thing as spiritual transformation. In moral reformation, you can make changes that aren’t the deep spiritual changes, the habits of the heart. One of my wife’s favorite authors is Judith Martin, “Miss Manners,” and she wrote a book called Miss Manners Rescues Civilization.

There’s one spot in there where she asks, “Where did manners come from?” Of course, she gives her learned opinion along the lines of, “Some caveman learned it paid to restrain and control his impulses through courtesy, manners, and customs. It was worth it to avoid living among people who were perpetually furious.”

Her whole idea is she says, “What are manners? Restraining your impulses, controlling your heart. Otherwise, you’ll just live amongst people who are perpetually furious.” That’s right. Moral reformation is fine. Over the years, people have been honest, people have been generous, and people have been self-controlled, simply so we don’t have to live amongst people who are perpetually furious with us.

But notice what she said. Moral reformation is restraining the heart. It’s controlling the heart. It’s sort of jury-rigging the heart. It’s not really changing the heart. What do I mean by jury-rigging? For example, you want self-control. You’re filled with fear. Use the fear to get self-control. “I’d better change, or people are going to find out.” Use the pride to get self-control. You see, out of self-interest, out of pride, out of fear, we can make these kinds of changes.

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with them. In fact, the world would be a terrible place without them. But that’s not the same thing as changing the habits of the heart. That’s not the same thing as, instead of restraining the heart, changing the heart so that out of the heart flows, at least with increasing naturalness and freedom, love, joy, peace, patience, generosity, integrity, courage, humility, and self-control. The fruit of the Spirit. Galatians 5.

What’s the difference? We’ve said moral reformation comes by looking at the rules and conforming, but spiritual transformation comes from looking at Jesus Christ and regenerating and transforming. Paul lays it down in 2 Corinthians 3:18. He says, “With unveiled faces we contemplate the glory of the Lord and are transformed from one degree of splendor to the next.”

Spiritual transformation does not come like moral reformation, restraining the heart by looking at the rules and conforming. Spiritual transformation comes from looking at Christ and being melted with spiritual understandings of his person and work. That’s the premise. Boy, that sounds so sweet, doesn’t it? That sounds so beautiful. What in the world does it mean? I know where you are. What does it mean?

That’s what we’re doing in this series. We’re looking at the character of Christ and how that character can come in and produce deep changes in our hearts. Today I want to look at something Jesus says: that he gives us joy. There is a joy Jesus gives. On the night before he died, not only in chapter 16 of John, but also in chapter 14 and in chapter 17, in this very last discourse, the last time Jesus had with his disciples before he died, he’s continually saying, “I have a joy to give you.”

I want to look at this joy. He tells us three things in this passage about this joy. He tells us about the promise of it. It’s real. He tells us something about the structure of it, and he tells us about the growth of it, how it comes. Let’s just take a look at that for a moment. The reality, the promise of this joy, then the structure of it (what it’s made of, it’s nature), and then how it comes to us, how it grows.

1. The promise of it

The reality of it. Here’s what he says. In this passage, Jesus Christ says, “If you come to meet me and you come to know me, you will have a joy that is deep and powerful and is now.” Essentially, he says here, “Joy is inevitable if you meet me.” Right here in the very beginning he talks about this “little while and little while.” Do you see this? Right at the top. He has already said, “In a little while you will grieve; then in a little while you will see me. I tell you the truth, you will weep and mourn, and then in a little while your grief will be turned to joy.”

What is he talking about? Most commentators, though they think there may be some levels of meaning here, say basically he’s talking about the time between his death and his resurrection. He says, “I’m going to die, and you’re going to weep, but when you see me, when you meet me, the resurrected Lord, you’ll rejoice.” You will rejoice. He doesn’t say, “Some of you who are more emotional in temperament will rejoice.” He doesn’t say, “Some of you who have nicer lives will rejoice.” He says, “You all will rejoice.”

The reason it’s important to see what he’s saying here … He’s not saying, “You will see me at the second coming and rejoice.” He is not saying, “You will see me on the last day, you will see me when you die and go to heaven and rejoice.” He says, “When you see me resurrected you’ll rejoice.” Now why is that so important? Those of you who were here on Easter remember this, but those of you who weren’t here, don’t.

In a nutshell, why is it that Jesus Christ’s tomb was lost? Why is it that by AD 120 Christians weren’t even sure where it was anymore? Why is it, when the tomb of every prophet, every religious founder was always venerated …? It was a shrine. It was a place of pilgrimage. How could the Christians have lost the tomb of Jesus?

We said the reason would be that when you have your son, your son’s room, your son’s things, aren’t all that important. There’s nothing special about his room. There’s nothing special about his shoes, about his clothes, if you have your son. But if your son goes away, or your son leaves for a long time, or your son dies, suddenly those things become important.

The reason the tomb didn’t matter to them was that they had him. He wasn’t away. Real Christianity is to meet the risen Lord. It’s not just the apostles who have met the risen Lord. Anyone who’s a Christian doesn’t need to go to the tomb, because you have him. You don’t need a relic. You have him. You have a relationship. There’s a giving and taking of love.

Why is that so important? Because what Jesus is saying here is Christianity does not only promise this incredible joy in the sky, by and by. He doesn’t say, “You’ll see me in heaven and you’ll rejoice. You’ll see me on the last day and rejoice.” He says when you meet the risen Lord you rejoice. He says, “This is it. Everybody, you’ll have this joy. It will come. It has to come.”

In fact, the illustration of the woman … He says, “Joy is like a woman in labor; when her time has come, she has the child.” I’ve watched, very intimately, a woman have children three times, and I know one thing about labor and children. It will come. When it comes, it’s coming. There’s no stopping it. You don’t say, “Well honey, could you hold it until next week so we could have this trip?”

It will come. In fact, you can’t even say, “Honey, could you hold it for five minutes?” When Jesus Christ gives this woman in labor as the illustration of joy, what he is saying is, “If you actually meet me, you will have joy.” You will. It is inevitable. It has to be there. You’re not a Christian without this joy.

The Bible goes over and over. Listen. When I read this stuff, I got so convicted this last week. What the Bible says about joy … I guess, frankly, until I read it, at least in my mind and my heart and my head, I kind of had this idea that joy is optional. You know, “Some of us have harder lives than others. Joy is optional.” It can’t be. Joy will come. It’s like labor. It’s like birth. “When you see me you will rejoice.”

In the New Testament, the very first miracle of Jesus … Remember it? John 2, the wedding feast at Cana. What was the first miracle of Jesus? This is the beginning of his public ministry. When you begin your public ministry, you make sure you do the very thing that gives people the essence of what you’re about. Your first speech, your first ad, your first event … When you’re starting a campaign, you give them the essence.

What did Jesus do when he was trying to get across to people the essence of what he came for? He didn’t raise the dead. He didn’t walk on water. He didn’t heal the sick. He created 150 gallons of incredible wine to move a party to a new level. What was he saying? He was saying, “Have you heard of the myths of Dionysus? Have you heard of the legends of Bacchus and Dionysus? Have you heard about forests dancing and running with wine and dancing and joy? That’s kid stuff compared to what I’m bringing. I am Lord of the feast.” At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.

What about the beginning of the church, the day of Pentecost? Jesus goes to heaven, the Spirit comes down, and the New Testament church is inaugurated. Everybody who saw them that day, everybody who saw the fullness of the Spirit … What did they say about them? “These people are drunk.” Yes. That’s Christianity. Not just the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, not just the beginning of the church; the beginning of every Christian life. What does the Bible say about how to become a Christian? What does the Bible say about conversion?

Paul was writing to the Thessalonians, and he said, “You became followers of the Lord.” He’s talking to them about their conversion. “You became followers of the Lord, for you received the message with the joy given by the Holy Spirit.” Do you know what it means to become a Christian? Some of you say, “Well I guess I’m a Christian.” What’s a Christian? You say, “Well, to believe Jesus is the Son of God, to believe he died on the cross, to believe he rose from the dead.”

The devils believe that, and they’re still devils. What’s the difference between a devil and a Christian? The devils know he’s the Son of God. The devils know he died on the cross. The devils know he rose from the dead, but they have no joy in it. The difference between a Christian and a devil is only joy. At the very essence of faith there has to be a kernel of joy, or it’s not faith. Do you see?

The kingdom of God, Jesus says, is like a man who discovers a treasure buried in a field, and when he discovers it, he sells all he has and goes with joy. He sells all that he has and buys that field. The beginning of Jesus’ ministry, the beginning of the church, and the beginning of the Christian life. What’s the kingdom of God? The kingdom of God, Jesus continually says, is a power that descends upon you and sends you out into the world to change the world, to do the will of God, on earth as it is in heaven.

What is that power? How do you know if you’re in the kingdom? Is it the way you dress? Is it the way you look? Is it the way you eat? Ask Saint Paul, and he’ll tell you. Romans 14:17: “The kingdom of God is not meat or drink, but righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.” When you’re right with God, a tidal wave of joy sends you out into the world to change it. That is the power of the Spirit.

Look at the gospel. Do you know what the word gospel means? Euangelion. It means literally the joy news. Jesus Christ is born. What do the angels say? “Behold, I bring glad tidings …” That’s the news. “… of great joy.” The word gospel means joy news. J.R.R. Tolkien in his famous essay “On Fairy-Stories” … Don’t you hate it when somebody says something is famous and you’ve never heard of it? You say, “What am I? Chopped liver?” I’m sorry. I don’t know if it’s famous, but it’s a great one.

J.R.R. Tolkien, in his great essay “On Fairy-Stories,” says there’s a kind of story … There are all kinds of stories, and they move us. He says there’s a kind of story (and he ought to know) that brings us unbelievable joy, whether it’s a movie, or a story we’re reading, or a story we see depicted on the stage, or a story we hear sung about. There are certain stories, he says, that bring us unbelievable joy.

He says these stories always have a certain kind of kernel to them. He says there’s always some incredible hopeless situation, and victory is snatched out of the jaws of defeat. But how? Always through someone who comes in, and whose weakness turns out to be strength, someone whose defeat turns out to be a victory. He says it’s those kinds of stories that just seem to bring us joy. He believed (and I think he’s right) … He called them eucatastrophes.

Do you know what the word eucatastrophe means? The joyful catastrophe, the tragedy that turns out to be a triumph, the sacrifice that turns out to bring joy, the weakness that ends up being strength, the defeat that ends up being victory. He said, however, there’s a Eucatastrophe of the eucatastrophes. There is a Story in all of the stories. He believes there’s a bass string to the human heart, and those stories can kind of make it reverberate a little bit but can’t pluck it. He says there’s only one story that can: the story of the gospel.

All of the other stories are based on that. From the ugly duckling who turns out to be a swan, to Beauty and the Beast, the Beauty who gives up all of her happiness to throw herself in the arms of this Beast and, because of her incredible sacrifice, gets a love and frees this person beyond anything she ever understood. Tolkien says the gospel story is the only story that will pluck that string so the whole heart never stops reverberating and vibrating with joy.

The reason it will reverberate is, of all of the great stories, this is not one more myth pointing to the great reality; this is the reality to which all of the other stories point. It happened. It really happened. There really is a Beauty who kisses the beast. There really is a Hercules who defeats the villain. There really is a hero. There really is Jesus. The word gospel means the joy news. Joy. It’s real. You have to have it. It has to be there.

Let me put it to you this way before I go on. Do you know this? Let me talk to two kinds of people. One of the great things about Redeemer is there are always two kinds of people. Actually, there are three. There are people who say, “I’m a Christian,” and there are people who say, “I’m not a Christian,” and then there are a lot of people who say, “I wish I knew what I was.” That’s it. You’re all there.

For those of you who are Christians, I want to ask a quick question. If this is true, if joy is what it’s all about, if it’s the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, the beginning of the church, and the beginning of Christianity in your heart, it it’s inevitable, if it’s not for the second coming but for now, how can you live with the moroseness that you do? How is it possible?

Remember when Elizabeth was carrying John the Baptist and Mary was carrying Jesus in the womb? Mary gets near Elizabeth, and suddenly she starts. Mary says to Elizabeth, “What happened?” She says, “At the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy.” Psalm 96 says that when Jesus Christ comes back, the trees of the wood will sing for joy. If the trees, if babies in the womb, if anything getting near Jesus leaps for joy, why aren’t we?

Here’s what I have to suggest. When the Bible says, “Rejoice, and again I say rejoice,” when it commands your joy, it cannot be saying, “Force your feelings.” That’s impossible. You can’t anyway. I’ve had people say, “Is the Bible telling me to force my feelings?” The Bible is not going to say, “Two plus two is five.” It’s not going to tell you to do something that’s impossible. What it must mean is this joy is so inevitable that if it’s not flowing through your life, you must be doing something to stop it. You must be.

I know there are times of grief. Joy is like a tree. It doesn’t always blossom. The joy can be growing in wintertime, just like a tree can be growing in wintertime. Joy is not always in blossom time. But here’s what I want to know. What comparatively small thing are you doing to keep you from seeing what you have in Jesus? What comparatively small thing are you so upset about it’s keeping you from seeing what you have in Jesus? You must be doing something. We must be doing something, if all of the things the Bible says are true.

Secondly, for those of you who are not Christians, or you’re not sure you’re Christians, one of the things that keeps you from Christianity has always been … You say, “You know, religion would be good at some time in my life, but right now I’m not bald yet. I’m a size 8. Later on I may need something to help me deal with life. Right now Christianity is interesting, but I like to have fun.” Jesus Christ throws down the gauntlet to you, and I’m going to try too.

If Jesus could make himself visible, he would say, “Look, if you have a real objection, okay. Suffering and evil? That’s a real objection. The injustice done by the church in my name in history? That’s a real objection. But when you tell me, ‘I don’t want to become a Christian because I want to enjoy myself, I want to enjoy life,’ first, that means you don’t even know what you’re rejecting. That has no integrity. Secondly, how could you possibly turn later to something you mustn’t even know about now or you wouldn’t say such a thing? How can you turn to it later? You don’t even know what it is.”

If you know anything about Lord Byron’s history, you’ll know he tried exactly what you’re doing: to have fun. Somewhere near the end of his life, he said, “There’s not a joy the world can give like that it takes away.” He’s right. Christianity is not something that makes you philosophical. It’s joy now.

2. The structure of it

What is the structure of this joy? This joy is very, very different. In a way, Christian joy is like every other kind of joy. You rejoice in that which you find beautiful. What is something you find beautiful? You find beautiful something that doesn’t give you something else but is satisfying in itself, just for what it is.

Some of you might find this weird. When I can’t relax, or if I can’t get to sleep at night and I just want to really get peace … There is a high mountain pass in Northern Wales I have driven over three times in my life. When you get over the top of it, you go down into the most beautiful valley I’ve ever seen in my life. I think of that. I have a couple of pictures of it, but I also have a memory. I think about it.

Maybe you have places like that: a seashore … What gives you joy about that? What does it give you? All it gives you is itself. Joy and beauty … it’s the same thing. Keates said so. The only thing that can always give you joy is something you find beautiful not for what it gives you, but for what it is in itself. Why is the woman so happy that a child is born? Bad parents say, “Oh great, now I can have love in my life.”

If you have a child and the reason you rejoice is you say, “Finally, somebody will love me; somebody I’ll have a relationship with,” you’ll be a lousy parent. You’ll destroy that child, and the child will destroy you. Good parents rejoice in the child for what it is in itself, and as it grows up, you do everything you can just to let the child go off. You’re happy if your son or your daughter is happy. Why? Because that’s real joy. Real joy is you don’t want the thing to give you something else; you just find it beautiful for what it is in itself.

The structure of this joy is so incredibly different, because it tells us the spiritual joy Jesus gives is like the joy of a woman … Take a look. It says she’s in this incredible pain. She’s in this incredible labor. She’s beaten up like nobody can be beaten up. It says suddenly the child is born, and it says literally in the Greek, “She remembers her pain no more.” Notice it doesn’t say her pain is gone. I happen to know. I’ve watched this. When the child is born, her pain is not gone, but she remembers her pain no more.

What does the word remember mean? The Bible says when you become a Christian, God remembers your sin no more. Does that mean he’s not aware of the sin? Does that mean he says, “Did they ever sin?” No. He’s aware of the sin, but the sin doesn’t control the way in which he reacts to me. If he doesn’t remember my sins anymore because I’m in Christ, he’s not controlled by it. He doesn’t focus on it. It hasn’t captured his heart. Love has captured his heart.

Here’s what’s going on. Here’s this woman and she’s all beaten up, but the structure of her joy is not that she’s in denial. She’s not saying, “Well, doctor, I don’t feel a thing. I’m fine. Everything is fine.” She’s not saying that, but she’s furiously and lovingly and joyfully looking at the child, and she forgets her pain. It doesn’t mean she denies it. It doesn’t mean she’s not even hurting. It doesn’t control her. The pain can’t get her down anymore. Not when she has this.

The structure of Christian joy is that you’ve located your greatest joy and your greatest beauty in God. He gives you more joy, and you find him more beautiful than anything else in life. That’s the reason Jonathan Edwards, years ago, could say the difference between a religious person and a Christian is not that one is obedient and one is disobedient. Oh no. He says religious people and real Christians both obey God. They’re both committed to God. In fact, a religious person might look more obedient and committed.

The difference is that only the Christian is attracted to God. The religious person finds God useful, but the Christian finds God beautiful. What does that mean? It means the religious person will obey as long as God answers his prayers, but if God doesn’t answer his prayers, he says, “What good is it to be a Christian?” Some of you have done that. Some of you said years ago, “I worked my fingers to the bone, and I did all these incredible things, and I didn’t get into the law school I wanted to get into, and I’ve never had the career I wanted to do, so I walked away.”

What does that mean? It means your law career was the beauty. It was the satisfying thing. God was a means to an end. God was useful; he wasn’t beautiful to you, so you’ve never tried Christianity. You have a joy that is very different than Christian joy, because Christian joy coexists with suffering. Christian joy coexists with sorrow. She remembers her sorrow no more. It doesn’t mean she isn’t aware of it. It means it doesn’t control her anymore.

Worldly joy has to avoid suffering, worldly joy has to deny suffering, but Christian joy coexists and, in fact, is enhanced by it, because it shows you where true joy is going to be found. The structure of Christian joy is you’ve relocated your beauty, you’ve relocated your joy in God, and now circumstances can’t touch it.

This is, by the way, the reason why Christians should be the least sentimental people in the world. Christians should never be denying their own pain, and Christians should never be denying that the world is painful, and Christians should never be afraid of getting empathetically involved with people who are suffering. Why? Because you have a joy that coexists with that.

The world’s joy says, “I can’t admit how bad things are. I can’t admit how much I’m hurting. I can’t admit how bad the world is.” Christians should be the least sentimental people in the world, because they have a joy that coexists with sorrow. They have a joy that grows deeper … Just like the darker the night, the brighter the stars. Christian joy is like that. It gets brighter when things get darker. Everybody else’s joy just goes out. That’s the structure.

3. The growth of it

Up to now you’re saying, “Okay, that’s fascinating. This incredible joy, you rejoice even in suffering, and it’s a different structure and everything, but I can’t do that. I read these texts, ‘Rejoice, and again I say rejoice.’ I tried to be happy. I can’t do it.” Well, it’s not a matter of trying. When Jesus Christ tells us about this woman … Who is this woman?

The New International Version, the translation I read from, has done us a little bit of a disservice. The New International translation says she’s in all this incredible pain, she’s in all this labor, and then it says … Why? Why is she in all the pain? What does it say? “Because her time has come.” Gee, that’s unfortunate. Literally, the Greek says, “Because her hour has come.”

If you have ever read the gospel of John, you’ll know the word hour has a very technical meaning and has a very focused meaning. It has a very specific meaning. In 7:30; in 8:20; in 13:11; and in chapter 12, I can’t remember quite where; even in chapter 2 … Remember when Mary says, “They have no more wine,” Jesus turns and says, “Woman, it is not my hour”? What is the hour?

Do you know what the hour is in the gospel of John? “It was the sixth hour, and darkness took over, and Jesus Christ cried out, ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ ” In those days before epidurals and anesthetics, every time a woman gave birth she was in incredible agony, and she was right on the verge of losing her life. Jesus Christ is saying two things to us here.

He is the one in labor, and the first thing he says is, “I went into labor, but the labor pains I endured were my hour.” They were far greater than any woman has ever endured, because they weren’t physical. The only way for a mother to give the baby the joy of life is to take away her own joy at that moment. She has to give away her joy and maybe even give away her life to bring life to the child.

Jesus Christ says, “I gave away a joy to bring joy to you, and the joy I lost and the pain I suffered was my hour. Do you want to know what I threw away for you? Go back and read Proverbs 8. When my Father and I were creating the universe, I danced before the Father, and we delighted in the human race, the men and women we were creating to take part in our joy. Because of your sin, I lost everything. I lost that.

Don’t you say, ‘Oh, how bad could it have been? It was only three hours.’ No, no, no. I suffered something you’ll never understand. That’s why I suffered it, so you wouldn’t understand it. I lost something you will never know. I went into labor. It was my hour. I lost something you will never know. I suffered something you’ll never know. I lost all the joy I had, a joy you never will know, so you could have joy.”

That’s the first thing he’s saying, but do you know the second thing he’s saying? It’s just about as astounding. Not only does the woman show us how Jesus suffered, but the woman shows us why Jesus did it. In Hebrews 12, it says, “For the joy that was set before him, he went to the cross, despising the shame.” For the joy that was set before him. How could that be? What joy was it? What does the woman see? The baby.

Do you know what this means? What did Jesus get out of it? What did Jesus get out of that incredible, infinite experience of agony and torment he went through? Did he get out of it a sense of accomplishment? He didn’t need that. He had that. Did he get out of it the admiration of the Father? He already had that. Did he get out of it self-esteem? He already had that. What didn’t he have? Us. What could he have gotten out of us? Nothing.

What does that mean? He located his joy in us. He wanted us just because we were beautiful to him. It tells us in Isaiah 53, “The results of his suffering he shall see and be satisfied.” He’ll look at us and say it was worth it. How could that be worth it? The only way would be if he has located his joy in us. He has linked his heart to us. He has made us his treasure. He has made us his beauty. The great philosophical minds of the world have noticed that.

Jonathan Edwards says, “… Christ has his delight, most truly and properly, in obtaining [our] salvation, not merely as a means [conducive to his joy and delight], but as what he [actually] rejoices and is satisfied in, most directly and properly. […] ‘As the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall thy God rejoice over thee.’ […] ‘The Lord thy God in the midst of thee is mighty; he will save, he will rejoice over thee with joy; he will [quiet thee with] his love, he will rejoice over thee with singing.’ ”

We are his jewels. We are his treasure. There it is. How can this joy grow? It’s very simple. Actually, in some ways this sets up next week’s sermon, so I hope you can come back. Next week’s sermon is about suffering. The fact is, if you just see somebody say, “Be joyful,” you’ll never do it, but if you see Jesus Christ did this and he made you his joy, that will change you.

If you see him locating his joy in you and making you the ultimate beauty of his life, that means you will be able to finally … It’ll melt you, and you’ll be able to put your joy in him. Then you’ll have that joy with that whole new structure. He’ll become the joy. He’ll become all you want. You just want him. You don’t say, “I want him plus law school.” You say, “I want him.” Then you’ll finally be happy. Then you’ll look at him.

When I look at that valley or when I listen to some great music, that’s what my eyes … Your senses are made for a certain sight. Your eyes are made for certain kinds of visual beauty, and your ears are made for certain kinds of auditory beauty, and your nose is made for olfactory beauty, but your soul is made for this. Do you see him doing it? Are you affected by it?

Don’t you see? This is how all the fruit are connected. You say, “Okay, so that’s how I get joy, but how do I get patience?” Rejoice in his patience for you. “Well okay, how do I get peace?” Rejoice in his wisdom. You’re fearfully and wonderfully made. If you know how to rejoice in what he did for you, at the moment you lack peace or lack patience or lack courage or lack humility or lack self-control … What is self-control? You want a kind of beauty. You want a kind of pleasure. Rejoice in him as the ultimate pleasure.

Let me end this way. For those of you who say, “I don’t know much about this joy,” I’ll tell you how it happens. You never have a birth without labor, and you never have a resurrection without death, and you will never get this incredible joy if you come just for happiness. If you come to Jesus for comfort, you’ll never get it. On the far side of repentance is comfort. On the far side of labor is a birth. On the far side of death is a resurrection. Therefore, you need repentance in order to have this incredible joy.

You say, “What do you mean by repentance?” It’s simply this. If you think Christianity is saving yourself, if you think Christianity is living a good life, if you think Christianity is trying your best to live like Jesus Christ, of course there’s no joy in your life. You’re trying to save yourself. You don’t have the joy of the Holy Ghost, and you never will. Your life is humorless. You’re trying real hard. If you’re willing to say, “I am a sinner, and I deserve to be lost, but look what he has done for me,” that will give you joy. Don’t you see that?

I never get a chance to say this. There are people in New York City I run into relatively often. They’re women who say, “I can’t relate to a Savior in Christianity who’s just a man. I can’t relate to a man. He’s a man. He doesn’t understand. I can’t relate to that, a male Savior. How can I get into Christianity?” Don’t you see? This is the only man who ever gave birth. What does that mean? Of course Jesus was male when he was on earth. Historically he was male. But don’t you see what this is saying?

Jesus is trying to say, “I’m not less than a man; I’m more. The problem is not that I don’t understand what it means to be a woman or what it means to give birth. The problem is you don’t understand my labor over you. That’s your whole problem.” To the degree you understand that, to that degree, even in sorrow, it’ll just push you more into the joy. Even in your troubles, it’ll push you more to the One who is the final and true joy. Do you see? Look to him and be radiant. Let’s pray.

Our Father, we pray that now, as we take the Lord’s Supper, your Son Jesus Christ would become real to us. Help us to see the brokenness being the broken body giving birth to us. The cup poured out is his heart and his lifeblood poured out for us. Help us, as we see him locating his joy in us, doing all this just for us, just because of his love for us, his delight in us, give us that delight in him that will give us that impervious joy that will help us to move out into the world and change the world, because the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking; it’s righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. We pray in Jesus’ name, amen.

About the Preacher

Tim Keller praching w bible image

Timothy Keller is founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church (PCA) in New York City and the author of numerous books, including Every Good Endeavor, Center Church, Galatians For You, The Meaning of Marriage, The Reason for GodKing’s CrossCounterfeit GodsThe Prodigal God, and Generous Justice.


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Dr. James Montgomery Boice on The Sufficiency of the Word of God

The 25th Anniversary Sermon, Delivered at Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia on May 23, 1993, by Dr. James Montgomery Boice

James Boice Staniding in 10th Prys image

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus— 2 Timothy 3:14, 15.

On a morning like this it is a temptation to reminisce over the quarter century of ministry I have had at Tenth Presbyterian Church. And I would do it, except for the fact that others have been doing it all weekend and in a much more complimentary way than I could myself— at least if I were to be honest. I could reveal a lot of things that the others are not aware of, including the disappointments and failures. But that would spoil things, and it is not what this weekend is about. It is certainly not what a worship service such as this should accomplish.

I remember that when John, the author of Revelation, fell at the feet of the angel of God to worship him, the angel replied, “Do not do it! I am a fellow servant with you and with your brothers who hold to the testimony of Jesus. Worship God!” (Revelation 19:10). So I remind you and myself that this is what we are about this morning.

And I direct you to God’s Word.

Our text is 2 Timothy 3:14,15. “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.”

The Priority of God’s Word

I want to talk about the most important thing that Tenth Presbyterian Church has stood for over the one hundred sixty-four years of its distinguished history, and that is the priority of the Bible as the Word of God. That priority has been both doctrinal and practical. It is doctrinal because we believe the Bible to be the Word of God, the only infallible rule of faith and practice, and it is practical because we believe the Bible must be the treasure most valued and attended to in the church’s life.

This has been a factor from the very beginning— from the days of Thomas A. McAuley, the first pastor (1829- 1833), and Henry Augustus Boardman, the first minister to serve a long pastorate (1833-1876). But it is best illustrated by an incident from the early days of the ministry of Donald Grey Barnhouse (1927-1960), who had a profound and personal influence on my own idea of what the ministry should be.

A week or two after Barnhouse became pastor of Tenth Church, he entered the pulpit one Sunday morning and opened the great pulpit Bible to a point near the middle, where he then placed his sermon notes, his Bible and a hymn book. As he looked down he noticed that the words on the pages of the Bible were part of a curse upon those nations that do not know God. It occurred to him that he would like to have before him a passage containing words of a great promise.

He opened the Bible to Isaiah 55:10, 11, which says, “As the rain and the snowcome down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, So is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.”

To his surprise he discovered that for decades his predecessors had apparently done the same thing. The edges of the Bible were worn in half circles curving inward from the bindings at that text, and the pages were torn and mended. As he later observed, those pages “containing the great fifty-fifth chapter of Isaiah and the preceding page with the fifty-third chapter of Isaiah concerning the Lord Jesus Christ as God’s Lamb, give mute evidence that the men who have stood in the pulpit of Tenth Church for more than a century were men of the Living Word and the written Word.” (Donald Grey Barnhouse, “Isaiah 55:11” in Holding Forth the Word: 1927-1952. Manuscript Collection of the Tenth Presbyterian Church).

Later Barnhouse discovered that there was another section of the Bible that was similarly worn. It was the great psalm of the Bible, Psalm 119. Evidently, his predecessors, finding it difficult to keep their notes on the Isaiah pages, looked for another passage that would remind them of the power and priority of God’s Word.

Barnhouse told this story in a memorial booklet marking the twenty-fifth anniversary of his pastorate at Tenth Church, concluding this way: “It is my prayer that no man shall ever stand in this pulpit as long as time shall last who does not desire to have all that he does based upon this Book. For this Book does not contain the Word of God, it is the Word of God. And though we may preach the Word with all the stammering limitations of our human nature, the grace of God does the miracle of the ministry, and though human lips speak the divine Word, and the hearts of the people are refreshed. There is no other explanation for the continuing power of a church that is poorly located, that is without endowment, but which continues to draw men and women to the capacity of its seating arrangements, morning and evening, summer and winter, and which sends its sons and daughters by the score to preach the unsearchable riches of Christ throughout the world.” (Ibid).

The Inerrancy of God’s Word

About ten years into my pastorate, at the end of 1977 and the beginning of 1978, I helped start an organization that was also concerned with the priority of the Word of God but which focused its efforts on the important matter we perceived to be under attack at that time, namely, the Bible’s inerrancy. Our organization was called the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy, and it had within it such outstanding evangelical leaders as Francis Schaeffer, J. I. Packer, A. Wetherell Johnson, R. C. Sproul, John Gerstner, Roger Nicole and many others. It had as its purpose the task of “elucidating, vindicating and applying the doctrine of biblical inerrancy as an essential element for the authority of Scripture and a necessity for the health of the church of God.”

In the 1970s the evangelical church was drifting from its roots, and professors in prominent evangelical institutions were teaching that the Bible contains errors of historical and scientific fact but that it does not matter that it does. We believed that it does matter and tackled this deviation head on.

We held three gatherings of prominent evangelical scholars to hammer out three documents of “affirmation and denial.” They became nearly creedal in some quarters. The first was on inerrancy itself (“The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy”), the second on principles of interpretation (“The Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics”), and the third on application (“The Chicago Statement on the Application of the Bible to Contemporary Issues”). We also held two large lay conferences, the first in San Diego in the spring of 1982 and the second in Washington in the fall of 1988.

In the early days we were often asked why inerrancy was important since “it should be enough merely to believe that the Bible is trustworthy in areas of faith and morals.” But it is not that simple. To begin with, the Bible is an historical book and Christianity is an historical religion. So if the Bible errs in matters of historical fact, Christianity itself is affected. One hundred years of German “historical Jesus” research proved that. The scholars involved in this movement wanted to separate the Christ of faith from the Jesus of history, finding out who the true Jesus was. But as Albert Schweitzer proved in his classic study, The Quest for the Historical Jesus, all they succeeded in doing was making Jesus into the scholars’ own images. Rationalists produced a rationalist Jesus, socialists a socialistic Jesus, moralists a moralistic Jesus, and so on. The attempt to have Christianity without its historical base was a failure.

Besides, if part of the Bible is true and part is not, who is to tell us what the true parts are? There are only two answers to that question. Either we must make the decision ourselves, in which case the truth becomes subjective.

The thing that is true becomes merely what appeals to me. Or else, it is the scholar who tells us what we can believe and what we cannot believe. We argued that God has not left us either to our own whims or to the whims of scholars. He has given us a reliable book that we can read and understand ourselves.

The inerrancy of the Bible is what I wrestled with during my seminary years. It is not that I questioned it. Anyone who had been raised with the teaching of Donald Grey Barnhouse and others like him could hardly doubt that God has given us an inerrant revelation. My problem was that my teachers did not believe this, and much of what I was hearing in the classroom was meant to reveal the Bible’s errors so students would not depend on it too deeply. What was a student to do? The professors seemed to have all the facts. How were professors to be challenged when they argued that recent scholarship has shown that the old simplistic views about the Bible being inerrant are no longer valid and we have to admit that the Bible is filled with errors?

As I worked on this I discovered some interesting things. First, the problems imagined to be in the Bible were hardly new problems. For the most part they were known centuries ago, even by such ancient theologians as Saint Augustine and Saint Jerome. They debated problems of apparent contradictions in their correspondence.

I also discovered that results of sound scholarship have not tended to uncover more and more problems, as my professors were suggesting, still less disclose more and more “errors.” Rather they have tended to resolve problems and show that what were once thought to be errors are not errors at all. Let me give some illustrations.

Second Kings 15:29 speaks of a king of Assyria named Tiglath-Pileser. He is said to have conquered the Israelites of the northern kingdom and to have taken many of them into captivity. A generation ago liberal scholars were saying that this king never existed, because they had no independent record of him, and that the fall of the northern kingdom to Assyria was mythology. But then archaeologists excavated Tiglath-Pileser’s capital city and found his name pressed into bricks which read: “I, Tiglath-Pileser, king of Assyria, . . . am a conqueror from the Great Sea which is in the country of Amurru as far as the Great Sea which is in the Nairi country,” that is, the Mediterranean. In other words, archaeologists have found evidence not only of Tiglath-Pileser’s existence, but even of the very campaign 2 Kings describes. The English reader can find accounts of these battles in James B. Prichard’s Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament.

Here is another example. A generation ago scholars were saying that Moses could not have written the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament, because, so the argument went, writing was not known in Moses day. That seemed irrefutable at the time because, if writing was not known in Moses day, Moses could not have known how to write, and if Moses did not know how to write, he could not have written the Pentateuch. But in this case, it was the underlying premise that was wrong. As it turns out, not only was writing known in Moses day, there were actually many written languages. Today we know of at least six different languages from the very area of the world in which Moses led the Israelites for forty years.

My favorite example is a personal one. At the end of 1974 Time magazine ran a cover story entitled “How True Is the Bible?” It surveyed the liberal attacks on the Bible’s reliability and concluded, somewhat as I did after my study of what the evidence in this area has proved, that the credibility of the Bible has actually grown in recent decades. Time wrote,

The breadth, sophistication and diversity of all this biblical investigation are impressive, but it begs a question: Has it made the Bible more credible or less? Literalists who feel the ground move when a verse is challenged would have to say that credibility has suffered. Doubt has been sown, faith is in jeopardy. But believers who expect something else from the Bible may well conclude that its credibility has been enhanced. After more than two centuries of facing the heaviest scientific guns that could be brought to bear, the Bible has survived— and is perhaps the better for the siege. Even on the critics’ own terms— historical fact— the Scriptures seem more acceptable now than they did when the rationalists began the attack (Time, December 30, 1974, p. 41). 

I found it interesting that the Bible was being defended by a secular magazine. But I said to myself, “I’m going to have to wait two weeks to see the letters that come in reaction to this, because I can’t believe that the liberal scholars will ignore it.” Sure enough. Two weeks later there were two strong letters from two of the most prominent critics: Martin Marty, a regular writer for the Christian Century, and Harvey Cox of the Harvard Divinity School. One of them ended— I do not remember which one— “The faith of your Bible believers is the opposite of biblical faith!”

I was offended. I said to myself, “That’s terribly unfair. Time has presented a balanced article. It hasn’t even claimed inerrancy, only historical reliability, and these men can’t even stand to have the Bible called reliable.” I got so angry, I had to stop and pray. I think the Lord answered me by saying, “Don’t worry about it. It’s not bothering me, why should it bother you. Go on and read the magazine.”

So I did. The letters were on page 38, and I read on to page 65, which turned out to be the section on science. On that page there was a report of an archeological expedition in the southern area of the Sinai Peninsula under the direction of a Jewish archeologist named Beno Rothenberg. He had been working at a place called “Solomon’s mines” because an ancient smelting operation had been there, and he wanted to find out if the area had really been worked by Jews, and who had begun it.

Rothenberg discovered that the area had been occupied by Jewish workmen at the time of Solomon. So it may truly have been where Solomon melted down his gold for the temple. But then he pushed back through the strata at the site and discovered that this ancient foundry had been developed originally by the Midianites. Midianites? Time knew that few of its readers would have any idea who the Midianites were. So the writer explained, “. . . the Midianites, a little-known people who dwelled in the area and are identified in Genesis as the first metal workers” (Time, January 13, 1975, p. 65).

At that point I began to understand why the Lord was urging me to go on and read the magazine. Because of all the places where that little bit of Bible verification could have appeared, it was in the very issue in which the liberal scholars were objecting, “The faith of your Bible believers is the opposite of biblical faith.”

The Holy Spirit really does have a sense of humor.

The Sufficiency of God’s Word

I want to say here, however, that important as I believe the matter of inerrancy is— and I do believe it. I believe churches will flounder and die if this is forgotten. Important as this is, I do not think it is the most critical issue about the Bible facing the American church today. The issue I would pinpoint today is the sufficiency of God’s Word.

I would ask the questions: Do we really believe that God has given us what we need in this book? Or do we think we have to supplement the Bible with other man-made things? Do we need sociological techniques to do evangelism? Do we need psychology and psychiatry for Christian growth? Do we need extra-biblical signs or miracles for guidance? Is the Bible’s teaching adequate for achieving social progress and reform?

The reason I believe this is important is that it is possible to believe that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God, the only infallible rule of faith and practice, and yet neglect it and effectually repudiate it just because we think that it is not great enough for today’s tasks and that other things need to be brought in to supplement the revelation. I think this is exactly what many evangelicals and evangelical churches are doing.

Have you ever realized that this is the point of each of the three great passages about Scripture that were read this morning. These three passages (Psalm 19, Matthew 4 and 2 Timothy 3) are probably the three most important passages in the Bible about the nature of the Word of God. The first contrasts it with God’s general revelation. The second shows how Jesus used the Bible to overcome temptation. The third is Paul’s advice to Timothy in view of the terrible times he saw coming. But notice. Each passage stresses that it is the Word of God alone that is sufficient for these challenges.

Psalm 19 speaks of the wonderful revelation of God in nature. But then it continues,

The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul.

The statues of the Lord are trustworthy. making wise the simple.

The precepts of the Lord are right, giving joy to the heart.

The commands of the Lord are radiant, giving light to the eyes.

The fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever.

The ordinances of the Lord are sure and altogether righteous.

They are more precious than gold, than much pure gold;

They are sweeter than honey, than honey from the comb.

By them is your servant warned, and in keeping them there is great reward. (vv. 7-11)

The revelation of God in nature is wonderful, but it is limited. By contrast, the revelation of God in Scripture is perfect, trustworthy, right, radiant, pure, sure, precious, sweet and rewarding. By what language would it be possible for the psalmist more effectively to emphasize the complete and utter sufficiency of God’s Word?

In Matthew 4 we discover the sufficiency of the Word of God in times of temptation, for it was by quotations from Deuteronomy 8:3; 6:16 and 6:13 that Jesus withstood Satan. Jesus did not reason with Satan without Scripture. He did not resort to supernatural power or ask God for some special sign or intervention. He knew the Bible, stood on it and used it forcefully.

Second Timothy 3 is the same. Paul is warning his young protege against the terrible times coming in the last days. They will be days like ours, in which “people will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God.” And if that is not terrible enough, they will be days in which these vices will be found even in the churches.

For they will be found among those “having a form of godliness but denying its power” (vv. 1-5).

What is Timothy to do when such days come? Surely Paul must have some secret new weapon, some unexpected trick for him to use. No, that is not what we find. Instead of something new, we find Paul recommending what Timothy has had all along— the Word of God— because the Bible is sufficient even for terrible times like these. “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 3:12, 15).

Sufficient in All Areas

But it is not only that the Word of God is sufficient for all times, even times like ours. It is also sufficient in all areas, that is, it is able to do all we need it to do and are commissioned to do as Christians.

Let me list a few of these areas.

1. Evangelism. The Word of God is sufficient for evangelism. Indeed, it is the only thing that works in evangelism. Everything else— captivating music, personal testimonies, emotional appeals, even coming forward to make a commitment to Jesus Christ— all that is at best supplementary. And if it is used or depended upon apart from the faithful preaching and teaching of the Word of God, the “conversions” that result are spurious conversions, which is to say that those who respond do not actually become Christians. They become Christians in name only. The only way the Holy Spirit works to regenerate lost men and women is through the Word of God.

Peter said it: “You have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God” (1 Peter 1:23).

2. Sanctification. I have been preaching on the book of Romans for seven years. I have discovered many interesting things in that time. But the most significant for me has been Paul’s approach to sanctification, which is not at all what we would expect or what many people today desire. When we think of sanctification today, most of us think of either one of two things. Either we think of a method (“Here are three steps to sanctification; do this and you will be holy”), or else we think of an experience (“You need a second work of grace, a baptism of the Holy Spirit,” or something). Paul’s approach is to know the Bible and its teaching about what has been done for us by God in our salvation.

Paul makes this clear in the sixth chapter where he says, “In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus” (v. 11). This is the first time in the letter that Paul tells his readers to do something, and what they are to do is “count” or “reckon upon” the fact that God has done an irreversible work in their lives as a result of which they have died to sin (the verb is in the past tense, an aorist) and have been made alive to God in Christ Jesus. The only way they can understand what has happened to them is to know the Bible, which teaches them what has happened. But then, because they know it, they are to go on with God, acting on the basis of what has been done. In other words, they cannot go back to being what they were before. They are new creatures in Christ. So the only thing they can do is get on with living the Christian life. There is no way for them to go but forward.

That is the Bible’s approach to sanctification, and it has nothing to do with either a method or an experience. It has everything to do with knowing and living by the sufficient Word of God.

3. Guidance. Not long ago we had Phillip D. Jensen, the minister of St. Matthias Church in Sydney, Australia, with us for the Philadelphia Conferences on Reformed Theology. It was his first time in the United States, and it was my privilege to introduce him to American Christians this way. Mr. Jensen has written a book called The Last Word on Guidance whose sole point is that this “last word on guidance” is the Bible. That is what God has given us to indicate how we are to live and what we are to do to please him. All we need is in the Bible. So if there is something we want or think we need that is not in the Bible— what job we should take, who we should marry, where we should live— it doesn’t matter what we do as long as we are obeying what God teaches about living a godly life.

That doesn’t mean that God does not have a detailed plan for our lives. He does. He has a detailed plan for all things, ordering “whatsoever comes to pass,” as the Westminster Confession of Faith has it. But it does mean that we do not have to know this plan in advance and, indeed, cannot. What we can know and need to know is what God has told us in the Bible.

4. Social reform. The final area in which we need to be reminded that the Word of God is sufficient is for social renewal and reform. We are very concerned about this today and rightly so, because we live in a declining culture and we want to see the lordship of Jesus acknowledged and justice and true righteousness prevail. We want to see the poor relieved of bitter want and suffering. How is this to happen? I want to suggest that what is needed is not more government programs or increased emphasis on social work, but first and above all the teaching and practice of the Word of God.

Geneva under Calvin: A Case Study

I want to close with this important example, what happened in Geneva, Switzerland, in the sixteenth century through the ministry of John Calvin. In August of 1535 the Council of Two Hundred, which governed Geneva, voted to reject Catholicism and align the city with the Protestant Reformation. They had very little idea what that meant. Up to this point the city had been notorious for its riots, gambling, indecent dancing, drunkenness, adultery and other vices. People would literally run around the streets naked, singing indecent songs and blaspheming God. The people expected this state of affairs to continue, even after they had become Protestants, and the Council did not know what to do. The Council passed regulation after regulation designed to restrain vice and remedy the situation. Nothing they tried worked. Public discipline and morals continued their decline.

Calvin came to Geneva in August of 1536, a year after the change. He was practically ignored. He was not even paid the first year. Besides, as everybody knows, his first attempts to preach proved so unpopular that he was dismissed by the Council in early 1538, and went to Strasbourg. Calvin was happy in Strasbourg and had no desire to go back. When the situation got so bad in Geneva that public opinion turned to him again in desperation, he told his friend William Farel, “I should prefer a hundred other deaths than this cross on which I should have to die a thousand times a day.”

Nevertheless, driven by a sense of duty, Calvin returned to Geneva on September 13, 1541.

Calvin had no weapon but the Word of God. From the very first his emphasis had been on Bible teaching, and he returned to it now, picking up his exposition of Scripture at precisely the place he had left it three and a half years earlier. He preached from the Word every day, and under the power of that preaching the city began to change. As the Genevan people acquired knowledge of God’s Word and allowed it to influence their behavior, their city became almost a New Jerusalem from which the gospel spread to the rest of Europe, Great Britain and the New World.

Moreover, this change made other changes possible. One student of this historical period wrote,

Cleanliness was practically unknown in towns of his generation and epidemics were common and numerous. He moved the Council to make permanent regulations for establishing sanitary conditions and supervision of markets. Beggars were prohibited from the streets, but a hospital and poorhouse were provided and well conducted. Calvin labored zealously for the education of all classes and established the famous Academy, whose influence reached all parts of Europe and even to the British Isles. He urged the council to introduce the cloth and silk industry and thus laid the foundation for the temporal wealth of Geneva. This industry . . . proved especially successful in Geneva because Calvin, through the gospel, created within the individual the love of work, honesty, thrift and cooperation. He taught that capital was not an evil thing, but the blessed result of honest labor and that it could be used for the welfare of mankind. Countries under the influence of Calvinism were invariably connected with growing industry and wealth…It is no mere coincidence that religious and political liberty arose in those countries where Calvinism had penetrated most deeply (Marcellus Kik, Church and State: The Story of Two Kingdoms. New York: Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1963, p. 83. See pp. 71-85).

There has probably never been a clearer example of extensive moral and social reform than the transformation of Geneva under John Calvin, and it was accomplished almost entirely by the preaching of God’s Word.


I take you back to 2 Timothy. Paul encouraged Timothy to continue on the path of ministry he has been walking because “from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” Why is the Bible able to do that? It is because it is “God-breathed.” That is, it is the very Word of God and therefore carries with it the authority and power of God. Yes, and it is useful too. It is useful for “teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (vv. 14-17).

That is exactly it. That is what we need. It is what everybody needs. And only the Word of God is sufficient for it.


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John Piper on How to Pray for a Desolate Church

An Exposition of Daniel 9:1-23

Piper w hands up preaching image

Daniel’s Prayer for His People

In the first year of Darius the son of Ahasuerus, by descent a Mede, who was made king over the realm of the Chaldeans—in the first year of his reign, I, Daniel, perceived in the books the number of years that, according to the word of the Lord to Jeremiah the prophet, must pass before the end of the desolations of Jerusalem, namely, seventy years.

Then I turned my face to the Lord God, seeking him by prayer and pleas for mercy with fasting and sackcloth and ashes. I prayed to the Lord my God and made confession, saying, “O Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, we have sinned and done wrong and acted wickedly and rebelled, turning aside from your commandments and rules. We have not listened to your servants the prophets, who spoke in your name to our kings, our princes, and our fathers, and to all the people of the land. To you, O Lord, belongs righteousness, but to us open shame, as at this day, to the men of Judah, to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and to all Israel, those who are near and those who are far away, in all the lands to which you have driven them, because of the treachery that they have committed against you. To us, O Lord, belongs open shame, to our kings, to our princes, and to our fathers, because we have sinned against you. To the Lord our God belong mercy and forgiveness, for we have rebelled against him and have not obeyed the voice of the Lord our God by walking in his laws, which he set before us by his servants the prophets. 

All Israel has transgressed your law and turned aside, refusing to obey your voice. And the curse and oath that are written in the Law of Moses the servant of God have been poured out upon us, because we have sinned against him. He has confirmed his words, which he spoke against us and against our rulers who ruled us, by bringing upon us a great calamity. For under the whole heaven there has not been done anything like what has been done against Jerusalem. As it is written in the Law of Moses, all this calamity has come upon us; yet we have not entreated the favor of the Lord our God, turning from our iniquities and gaining insight by your truth. Therefore the Lord has kept ready the calamity and has brought it upon us, for the Lord our God is righteous in all the works that he has done, and we have not obeyed his voice. And now, O Lord our God, who brought your people out of the land of Egypt with a mighty hand, and have made a name for yourself, as at this day, we have sinned, we have done wickedly.

“O Lord, according to all your righteous acts, let your anger and your wrath turn away from your city Jerusalem, your holy hill, because for our sins, and for the iniquities of our fathers, Jerusalem and your people have become a byword among all who are around us. Now therefore, O our God, listen to the prayer of your servant and to his pleas for mercy, and for your own sake, O Lord, make your face to shine upon your sanctuary, which is desolate. O my God, incline your ear and hear. Open your eyes and see our desolations, and the city that is called by your name. For we do not present our pleas before you because of our righteousness, but because of your great mercy. O Lord, hear; O Lord, forgive. O Lord, pay attention and act. Delay not, for your own sake, O my God, because your city and your people are called by your name.”

While I was speaking and praying, confessing my sin and the sin of my people Israel, and presenting my plea before the Lord my God for the holy hill of my God, while I was speaking in prayer, the man Gabriel, whom I had seen in the vision at the first, came to me in swift flight at the time of the evening sacrifice. He made me understand, speaking with me and saying, “O Daniel, I have now come out to give you insight and understanding. At the beginning of your pleas for mercy a word went out, and I have come to tell it to you, for you are greatly loved. Therefore consider the word and understand the vision.

The reason I titled this message “How to Pray for a Desolate Church” is that I see much of the Christian church today as desolate. The ruin of Jerusalem and the captivity of Israel in Babylon are pictures of the church today in many places around the world. There are pockets of life and purity and depth and faithfulness and power and zeal around the world. God will never give up on his people and he will get his global purposes done, even if he has to use a remnant to do it.

But much of the Christian movement today has become a desolation of disobedience and disunity and dishonor to the name of Christ. So the way Daniel prays for the desolation of his people is a pointer for how we can pray for the desolation of ours.

Three Aspects of the Desolation of God’s People

Let me mention three aspects of the desolation of God’s people in this text to see if you won’t agree that it sounds like much of the Christian movement today.

1. The People Are Captive to Godless Forces

Two times, verses 11 and 13, Daniel says that this calamity of Babylonian captivity was warned against in the law of Moses. For example, in Deuteronomy 28:36 Moses says that if the people forsake God, “The Lord will bring you . . . to a nation that neither you nor your fathers have known; and there you shall serve other gods.” Now that had come true in Babylon.

In 1520, Martin Luther wrote an essay which he called “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church.” What he meant was that forces and powers that were foreign to Christ and to his Word had captured the mind and heart of the church. She was in bondage to godless forces.

That is the situation in much of the church today. Millions of church-goers today think the way the world thinks. The simple assumptions that govern behavior and choices come more from what is absorbed from our culture than from the Word of God. The church shares the love affair of the world with prosperity and ease and self. Many groups of Christians are just not that different from the spirit of Babylon, even though the Lord says that we are aliens and exiles and that we are not to be conformed to this age. So, like Israel of old, much of God’s church today is captive to godless forces.

2. The People Are Guilty and Ashamed

Daniel spends most of his prayer confessing the sin of the people. For example, verse 5: “We have sinned and done wrong and acted wickedly and rebelled, turning aside from thy commandments.” In other words, we have great guilt before God. And because of this real guilt there is real shame. This is mentioned in verses 7 and 8. The RSV has the phrase “confusion of face”“To us belongs confusion of face.” Literally it means, “To us belongs shame of face.” What we have done is so terrible and so known that our face turns red and we want to cover it and run away. That is the way Daniel felt about the people of God. Their guilt and their shame were great.

Today in the church there is an uneasy conscience. There is the deep sense that we are to be radically different, living on the brink of eternity with counter-cultural values and behaviors of love and justice and risk-taking service that show our citizenship is in heaven. But then, we look in the mirror and we see that the church does not look that way. And the result is a sense of shame based on the real guilt of unbelief and disobedience. So we slink through our days with faces covered, and scarcely anyone knows we are disciples of Jesus.

3. The People Were a Byword Among the Nations

Verse 16b: “Jerusalem and thy people have become a byword among all who are round about us.” “Byword” (in the RSV) means reproach, or object of scorn. It means that the nations look at the defeated and scattered Israelites and they laugh. They mock Israel’s God.

That is the way it is with the Christian church in many places. She has made the name of Jesus an object of scorn by her duplicity—trying to go by the name Christian and yet marching to the drum of the world. So the world sees the name “Christian” as nothing radically different—perhaps a nice way to add a little component of spirituality to the other parts of life that basically stay the same.

So when Daniel prays for the desolations of the people of Israel, I hear a prayer for the desolations of the Christian church—captive to godless forces, guilty and ashamed, and a byword among the nations.

Four Ways to Pray for a Desolate Church

Now how do we pray for such a church?

1. Go to the Bible

First, we pray for a desolate church by beginning where Daniel began. We go to the books.

Verse 2: “In the first year of [Darius’s] reign, I, Daniel, perceived in the books . . . “ The books are the prophet Jeremiah and other biblical books. Prayer begins with the Bible.

George Mueller said that for years he tried to pray without starting in the Bible in the morning. And inevitably his mind wandered. Then he started with the Book, and turned the Book into prayer as he read, and for 40 years he was able to stay focused and powerful in prayer.

Without the Bible in our prayers, they will be just as worldly as the church we are trying to free from worldliness. Daniel’s prayer begins with the Bible and it is saturated with the Bible. Phrase after phrase comes right out of the Scriptures. There are allusions to Leviticus (26:40) and Deuteronomy (28:64) and Exodus (34:6) and Psalms (44:14) and Jeremiah (25:11). The prayer brims with a biblical view of reality, because it brims with the Bible.

What I have seen is that those whose prayers are most saturated with Scripture are generally most fervent and most effective in prayer. And where the mind isn’t brimming with the Bible, the heart is not generally brimming with prayer. This is not my idea. Jesus was pointing to it in John 15:7 when he said, “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you will, and it shall be done for you” (John 5:7). When he says, “If my words abide in you . . . ,” he means, “If my words saturate your mind . . . if my words shape your way if thinking . . . if my words are memorized and just as likely to come to your mind as advertising jingles . . . then you will pray so as to heal the desolations of the church.”

So the first way to pray for a desolate church is to go to the Book. Saturate your mind with the Bible. Pray the Scripture.

2. Confess Our Sin

The second way to pray for a desolate church is to confess our sin.

About 12 verses of Daniel’s prayer is confession: verses 4–15. This means being truthful about God and about sin.

It means recognizing sin as sin and calling it bad names, not soft names: things like wickedness and rebellion and wrong (v. 5) and treachery and shameful (v. 7) and disobedience (v. 10). It means recognizing God as righteous (v. 7) and great and fearful (v. 4) and merciful and forgiving (v. 9). It means feeling broken and remorseful and guilty (v. 8) before God.

Before God! There is a difference between feeling miserable because sin has made our life miserable and feeling broken because our sin has offended the holiness of God and brought reproach on his name. Daniel’s confession—biblical confession—is God-centered. The issue is not admitting that we have made our life miserable. The issue is admitting that there is something much worse than our misery, namely, the offended holiness and glory of God.

So we pray for a desolate church by going to the Book and by confessing our sins.

3. Remember Past Mercies Knowing God Never Changes

The way to pray for a desolate church is to remember past mercies, and be encouraged that God never changes.

Verse 15: “And now, O Lord our God, who didst bring thy people out of the land of Egypt with a mighty hand . . . “ Daniel knew that the reason God saved Israel from Egypt was not because Israel was so good. Psalm 106:7–8,

Our fathers, when they were in Egypt, did not consider thy wonderful works; they did not remember the abundance of thy steadfast love, but rebelled against the Most High at the Red Sea. Yet he saved them for his name’s sake, that he might make known his mighty power.

Prayer for a desolate church is sustained by the memory of past mercies. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8). If God saved a rebellious people once at the Red Sea, he can save them again. So when we pray for a desolate church, we can remember brighter days that the church has known, and darker days from which she was saved.

This is why church history is so valuable. There have been bad days before that God had turned around. The papers this week have been full of statistics of America’s downward spiral into violence and corruption. Church history is a great antidote to despair at times like this. For example, to read about the moral decadence and violence of 18th century England before God sent George Whitefield and John Wesley is like reading today’s newspapers. For example,

Only five or six members of parliament even went to church . . . The plague, small pox, and countless diseases we call minor today had no cures . . . Clothing was expensive, so many of the cities’ poor wore rags that were like their bedding, full of lice . . . The penalties for crimes seem barbaric today (hanging for petty thievery) . . . Young boys, and sometimes girls, were bound over to a master for seven years of training. They worked six days a week, every day from dawn to dusk and often beyond . . . If you were unlucky and starving, you might fall foul of the law and be packed off to the stench of New Gate Prison. From there, you might have the chance to go to the New World in a boat loaded with prisoners of all sorts . . . [Drunkenness was rampant] and gin was fed to the babies too, to keep them quiet, with blindness and often death as a result [did you think crack babies were a new thing?] . . . The people’s love of tormenting animals at bull-baitings was equaled only by their delight in a public execution. (“Revival and Revolution,” Christian History 2, pp. 7–8)

All that and more, including a desolate and corrupt and powerless church. Yet God moved with a great awakening. And to add hope upon hope for our prayers, he used two men who could not agree on some significant theological points and one of them was overweight and the other was 5′ 3″ tall and weighed 128 pounds.

We pray for a desolate church by remembering past mercies, past triumphs of grace. We remember that history is not a straight line down any more than it is a straight line up.

4. Appeal to God’s Zeal for the Glory of His Own Name

Finally, we pray for a desolate church by appealing to God’s zeal for the glory of his own name.

Look how the prayer comes to its climax in verses 18b–19: “We do not present our supplications before thee on the ground of our righteousness but on the ground of thy great mercy. O Lord, hear; O Lord, forgive; O Lord, give heed and act; delay not, for thy own sake, O my God, because thy city and thy people are called by thy name.”

The people of God are known by his name. And God has an infinite zeal for his own name. He will not let it be reproached and made a byword indefinitely. That is our deepest confidence. God is committed to God. God is committed with explosive passion to the glory of his name and the truth of his reputation.

So that’s the bottom of our prayer for a desolate church. We are called by your name. We live by your name. Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name give glory. For your name’s sake, O Lord, save. For your name’s sake, revive. For your name’s sake purify and heal and empower your church, O Lord. For we are called by your name.

©2013 Desiring God Foundation. Used by Permission.Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in its entirety or in unaltered excerpts, as long as you do not charge a fee. For Internet posting, please use only unaltered excerpts (not the content in its entirety) and provide a hyperlink to this page. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Desiring God.Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By John Piper. ©2013 Desiring God Foundation. Website:


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James Montgomery Boice on “The Return of Jesus Christ”

An Exposition of Matthew 24:29–35

TTOTK Matthew 18-28 Boice

“Immediately after the distress of those days ‘the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light;the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’

“At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and all the nations of the earth will mourn. They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory. And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other.

“Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. Even so, when you see all these things, you know that it is near, right at the door. I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.”

I do not think there is any great difficulty understanding what Jesus says in the Olivet Discourse up to verse 28 of chapter 24. He has warned the disciples about disruptive world events that will not be signs of his return, and he has predicted the fall of Jerusalem, which, though an exceptionally traumatic event, would be merely another example of the kind of tragedies that will occur throughout history. But the easy part is over. Now we come to the part of the discourse that has given the most trouble to Bible students and commentators.

Was Jesus Mistaken?

The difficulties mostly have to do with timing. Jesus has spoken of the destruction of Jerusalem, which occurred in a.d. 70 by the Roman armies under the command of Titus. But then he continues, “Immediately after the distress of those days ‘the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken’ ” (v. 29). This could refer to something in the future, but if that is the case, why did Jesus use the word immediately, as in “immediately after the distress of those days”? Immediately should mean close in time to the destruction of Jerusalem. But if these portents are tied to the destruction of Jerusalem, we must admit candidly that they do not seem to have happened.

Nor is that all. The next verses begin “at that time” and go on to describe how the Son of Man will come in the clouds, with power and great glory, accompanied by the blast of a trumpet and the appearance of angels to gather the elect from the far corners of the earth. Again, that could be future. Most people have assumed it is. But if that is the case, why does Jesus say, “at that time”? And if he meant what he said, that he would return at the time of or soon after the destruction of Jerusalem, what he predicted did not happen.

We have a nearly identical problem in verse 33, where Jesus says, “When you see all these things, you know that it is near, right at the door.” His second coming cannot be the sign of itself. “These things” must refer to things that will precede his return. But what can they be? If they are the tragedies leading up to the fall of Jerusalem, the second coming of the Lord did not follow those events, and Jesus would seem to have been mistaken.

The most apparent and (for some) the worst problem of all is Jesus’ solemn affirmation: “I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened” (v. 34). What can “this generation” be but the generation then living? Yet if that is what the words mean, Jesus must have been wrong, since many generations have come and gone since that time and Jesus has still not returned. The acclaimed English philosopher and social critic Bertrand Russell said Jesus’ teaching about his return was one reason why he could not be a Christian. “He certainly thought that his second coming would occur in clouds of glory before the death of all the people who were living at that time,” wrote Russell. But he added, “In that respect, clearly he was not so wise as some other people have been, and he was certainly not superlatively wise.”  (Bertrand Russell, Why I Am Not a Christian: And Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects, ed. Paul Edwards [New York: Simon & Schuster, 1957], 16–17).

Attempts at a Solution

There are two easy ways to solve these problems, but they have not been accepted by all commentators.

First, we can place all these events together at one point in time and locate that point at the end of history. One advantage of this view is that we can take the time references literally. The fall of Jerusalem, the signs in the sky, and the return of Jesus occur in tight chronological sequence. All are yet future, and the fall of Jerusalem fits events outlined in other biblical books such as Revelation. This is an understanding common among dispensationalists, for whom the distress of Jerusalem is linked to the great tribulation and precedes the battle of Armageddon and the subsequent reign of Jesus Christ on earth for a thousand years, the millennium. In this view, “this generation” refers to the generation living at the time of the final attack on Jerusalem or is understood to mean “this race,” meaning that the Jews will not cease to exist as a race until this happens.

The main reason many people have not been persuaded by this handling of the details of Matthew 24 is that they believe verses 15–22 describe the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in a.d. 70. But they also have a problem with “this generation.” Most commentators believe this can hardly mean anything other than the generation living at the time Jesus spoke these words.

The other easy way to solve the problem of the time references in Matthew 24 is to put these events together but to place them in the first Christian century in connection with the fall of Jerusalem to the Romans. In this view, the coming of Christ mentioned in verses 30 and 31 refers to his return in judgment on Jerusalem, and the signs of his coming are understood as Old Testament images of historical but earthshaking events. The “end of the age” (v. 3) means the end of the Jewish age, which is followed by the age of the church. This means that nearly everything in Matthew 24 and 25 is about God’s judgment on Jerusalem, even Jesus’ strong, reiterated warnings to watch and be ready for his return. The same is true for nearly the whole of the Book of Revelation. This view is known as preterism, which means “what has already taken place.” Preterism has been affirmed recently in a guarded way by R. C. Sproul, but it has a history of defenders going back quite a few years. One early proponent is J. Stuart Russell, on whose work Sproul largely depends (R. C. Sproul, The Last Days according to Jesus [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998]; J. Stuart Russell, The Parousia: A Study of the New Testament Doctrine of Our Lord’s Second Coming [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1983]).

Why hasn’t everyone accepted this view? One obvious reason is that it is difficult to see how Christ’s coming on the clouds, with power and great glory, with the angels gathering his elect from the far corners of the earth, was fulfilled at the time of the destruction of Jerusalem.

There is this problem too—probably the most significant of all. If everything (or nearly everything) in these chapters is about the fall of Jerusalem, then the disciples’ question about the end of the age is not really answered, at least not as almost anyone, including the disciples, would have understood it. The chapters most Christians have always looked to for assurance of the Lord’s return and encouragement to be ready and watch for it are not about the Lord’s future return at all. In fact, Jesus has virtually nothing to say about his second coming. Nor do any of the other biblical writers, including the author of Revelation.

The Flow of the Chapter

How do we solve these difficulties? History suggests that we probably cannot, at least not to everyone’s satisfaction, since disagreements about this chapter have existed throughout church history. But let me try anyway, starting with the flow of thought in the chapter.

Verse 3. As I pointed out in the last study, Matthew 24 begins with the disciples’ two important questions: (1) “When will this happen?” and (2) “What will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” (v. 3). The first question was about the destruction of Jerusalem, which Jesus had predicted, and the second was about his glorious return, which he had also predicted—two events, though the disciples probably held them together in their minds. Jesus began by answering the second: “What will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”

Verses 4–14. The first thing he told them is that there will be many earth-shaking events that might be thought of as signs, but they will not be. The disciples were not to be troubled by them. They will include false messiahs, wars and rumors of wars, famines and earthquakes, persecutions, apostasy, and false prophets. These are “the beginnings of birth pains” (v. 8), but they are not signs of his return. This is because the gospel of the kingdom must be preached in the whole world before the end will come.

Verses 15–22. The next point Jesus makes is that there is going to be one particularly dreadful event, the destruction of Jerusalem, but even this will not be a sign of his return. The disciples should flee the city when they see these things beginning to happen, but this is still not the end.

Verses 23–28. At this point Jesus makes clear that the destruction of Jerusalem is only one example of the bad things that will happen to people in the course of world history. He does so by returning to what he said earlier about false messiahs. They will appear at this time, as at other times. They will not be true messiahs, and the disciples are not to be taken in by them. How will the disciples know that these pretenders are not the true Messiah? By the fact that they will appear in secret (“in the desert” or “in the inner rooms”), while Jesus’ appearance will be sudden, unannounced, and immediately visible to all, just like lightning that flashes suddenly and is seen at once by everyone.

Verses 29–35. This leads to Jesus’ specific teaching about the second coming. There will be signs in the sky, including “the sign of the Son of Man” (whatever that may be), a loud trumpet call, and the work of angels in gathering the elect from the far reaches of the earth. But the point of these “signs” is not that they will precede Jesus’ coming, as if they will be given to enable people to see them and get ready. On the contrary, they will coincide with Christ’s coming and will be sudden. If a person is not ready beforehand, there will be nothing he or she will be able to do when Jesus actually returns. Such a person will be lost.

Verses 36–51. In the last section of the chapter, Jesus stresses the suddenness of his return by a historical reference and several images. His coming will be like the flood in the days of Noah, or like a thief that enters a house at an unexpected time, or a master who suddenly returns home. Jesus’ servants must be ready since “the master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of” (v. 50).

The Difficult Time References

So far so good. But what about the time references, the problem that has led some commentators to the dispensational or preterist positions? I would argue that these must be fitted to the other statements, namely, that distressful times are not signs of Christ’s second coming and that his coming will be so unexpected that no one, not even the angels in heaven nor Jesus himself, can say when it will be. Let’s take the references one at a time.

1. What do we do with the words “immediately after the distress of those days” (v. 29)? The answer is that “the distress of those days” must refer to all the many distressful times throughout history, though perhaps culminating in a time of unusual distress just prior to the Lord’s return. Certainly the earlier statements about false Christs, false prophets, and apostasy support what other Bible writers have to say about the end of history. In fact, when we read passages such as 2 Peter 3:3–13, we hear deliberate echoes of what Jesus taught in Matthew. And why not? It was from Jesus that Peter and the other writers learned it.

What about the sun being darkened, the moon failing to give light, and the stars falling from heaven? Although preterists rightly point out that this is common Old Testament imagery for any cataclysmic historical event—drawn from texts such as Isaiah 13:9–10; Ezekiel 32:7–8; Joel 2:30, 31; 3:15; Amos 8:9—it is also the case that words such as these occur in New Testament passages where they are clearly associated with Christ’s coming at the end of the age. D. A. Carson cites as examples texts such as Matthew 13:40–41; 16:27; 25:31; 1 Corinthians 15:52; 1 Thessalonians 4:14–17; 2 Thessalonians 1:7; 2:1–8; 2 Peter 3:10–12; Revelation 1:7 (D. A. Carson, “Matthew,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 8, Matthew, Mark, Luke [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984], 493).

Moreover, in the parallel passage in Luke 21, the reference to the sun, moon, and stars is prefaced by the prediction that “Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled” (v. 24). That must refer to the Gentile domination of Jerusalem from the time of its fall until at least the present age. But it is only after this that Jesus says he will appear the second time. Paul expresses similar ideas about the Gentile age in Romans 11:11–25.

2. “At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky” (v. 30). I haven’t the faintest idea what the sign of the Son of Man is, nor should I. That is something only those who actually see it will know. But if what I have said about the word immediately is correct, this particular time reference is not difficult. It simply links the actual appearance of Jesus to the astronomical irregularities described in verse 29. At the end of the times of distress, which is all of human history, the sun, moon, and stars will be darkened, and at that time Jesus will appear in heaven with his holy angels. That is when the angels will gather the elect.

3. “When you see all these things” and “this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened” (vv. 33–34). These two references go together because they are part of the same paragraph and occur one right after the other. There is a slight change of tone with verse 32. Jesus has spoken of his sudden return in glory, but now he is giving a lesson for those who will be living in the period between his first coming and his second. They are to learn from the fig tree, which signals summer by developing tender twigs and by putting out leaves. “All these things” are compared to those tender twigs and leaves, which means that the distressful things of verses 2–28 show that the Lord’s return is imminent, which it always is!

What about “this generation”? In this view it really is the generation living at the time Christ spoke these words, because that generation actually did see “all these things.”

(NOTE: There are three ways to understand “this generation.”

(1) It can be the generation then living, which is what I maintain.

(2) It might refer to the Jews or to “this kind of people,” the view of most dispensationalists.

(3) Or it can refer to the generation living at the end of history. John Broadus, like most modern commentators, argues that it must refer to the people living in Jesus’ day, though he still regards verses 29–31 as referring to the final, second coming of Christ. “All the things predicted in vv. 4–31 would occur before or in immediate connection with the destruction of Jerusalem. But like events might again occur in connection with another and greater coming of the Lord, and such seems evidently to be his meaning” (John A. Broadus, Commentary on Matthew [Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1990], 492).

William Hendriksen regards “this generation” as the Jews, and one reason he gives is that “things that will take place” are things spread out over the centuries, such as the preaching of the gospel throughout the whole world. The following section, which clearly describes the final return of Jesus, picks up on the coming in verses 29–31; hence, Jesus must be talking about a generation living at least at that time (William Hendriksen, New Testament Commentary: Exposition of the Gospel according to Matthew [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1985], 868–69).

They knew of many false Christs, heard of wars and rumors of wars, experienced famines and earthquakes, witnessed apostasy, and heard of false prophets. So has every generation since. Therefore, we have all seen everything we need to see or can see prior to Jesus’ return. We have nothing to look forward to except the second coming. The bottom line of this is that we need to be ready, because “no one knows about that day or hour” when the Lord will come (v. 36).

The Lessons to Be Drawn

Let me go back and review the lessons we should draw from the first thirty-five verses of Matthew 24. The coming of Christ and the end of the world are imminent, meaning that they can occur at any moment. Therefore, our present responsibilities must be:

1. To watch out that no one deceives us (vv. 4, 26). Jesus has a great deal to say about deception in this discourse. In fact, having warned against false Christs at the very beginning of the chapter, he returns to this same point after speaking of the fall of Jerusalem, saying, “If anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘There he is!’ do not believe it. For false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and miracles to deceive even the elect—if that were possible” (vv. 23–24). He repeats this again in verse 26, where he warns against expecting to find the Christ “out in the desert” or “in the inner rooms.”

It would be possible to write a history of the church in terms of the errors that have been foisted upon it, sometimes from without but more often from within, and of how believers have either resisted such errors or have been taken in by them. We have deceivers today, but we are warned here not to be fooled by them.

2. To be settled even in times of war or threats of war (v. 6). This warning includes all political and historical events and is a reminder that the city of God is distinct from man’s city and will survive regardless of what happens in the world. We are not to be unduly encouraged by political events, nor unduly frightened by them. Charles Colson once wisely reminded the delegates to one of the Christian Booksellers conventions after the president of the United States had spoken and they were cheering wildly, “We must remember that the kingdom of God does not arrive on Air Force One.”

3. To stand firm to the end (v. 13). We speak of the perseverance of the saints, meaning that God perseveres with his people so that none of those he has elected to salvation will be lost. Jesus taught this clearly in John 10, saying, “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand” (vv. 27–28). But while it is true that God perseveres with us, it is also true that we must persevere. That is what Jesus is speaking of here. He is encouraging us to keep on keeping on, since there is no promise of salvation for those who abandon the faith or deny Christ.

The apostle Paul certainly believed in and taught the security of every genuine believer, but he also wrote, “If we endure, we will also reign with him. If we disown him, he will also disown us” (2 Tim. 2:12). Those words seem to have been based on Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 10:32–33.

4. To preach the gospel throughout the world (v. 14). This is the chief task of the church in the present age. The followers of Christ will be persecuted, and the love of many will grow cold. But throughout the ages of church history, however long they may be, Christians must be strong, faithful, and determined in the task of carrying the gospel to the lost. In fact, this is the note on which the Gospel ends. Jesus’ last words to his disciples were, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matt. 28:19–20).

As we read this chapter, rather than wondering about the specific moment when Jesus will return, we should be asking ourselves if we are ready for it, whenever it might be. The next section of the chapter warns us to be ready precisely because we do not know the time of Jesus’ return.

About the Author

Boice JM in pulpit

James Montgomery Boice, Th.D., (July 7, 1938 – June 15, 2000) was a Reformed theologian, Bible teacher, and pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia from 1968 until his death. He is heard on The Bible Study Hour radio broadcast and was a well-known author and speaker in evangelical and Reformed circles. He also served as Chairman of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy for over ten years and was a founding member of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals.James Boice was one of my favorite Bible teachers. Thankfully – many of his books and expositions of Scripture are still in print and more are becoming available. He was one of only a handful of reformed pastor/theologians that was premillennial in his eschatology (Steven J. Lawson, John MacArthur, Erwin W. Lutzer, S. Lewis Johnson, Rodney Stordtz, John Hannah and John Piper also come to mind). The sermon above was adapted from Chapter 56 in The Gospel of Matthew: The Triumph of the King, Matthew 18-28. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006.


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James Montgomery Boice on the Distinction Between the Rapture and the Lord’s Day

Two Great Days: The Day of the Lord and the Day of Christ

What The Bible Has To Say About The Future: Part 3 in a Series of 9 – By Dr. James M. Boice

To the people of the ancient east the stars had great significance. They were the means by which people determined the hours of the night and the seasons of the year. The morning star was particularly important for it heralded the rising of the sun and the coming of a new day. The Lord Jesus Christ is our morning star, according to the book of Revelation (Revelation 22:16). He is coming. The dark night of human history may be long and filled with grim terrors, but the Daystar is coming and with Him the dawning of a new age.

We will consider the importance of this theme in biblical prophecy, to distinguish between two important aspects of Christ’s coming under the descriptive phrases “the day of the Lord” and “the day of Jesus Christ,” and to develop the relevance of the theme of the Lord’s return.

A Prominent Doctrine

It is unfortunate that in our day the second coming of Jesus Christ has faded to a remote and sometimes irrelevant doctrine in the opinion of many persons, even, it seems, within large segments of the evangelical church. That may be true in part because many extravagant, foolish, and utterly unscriptural  teachings have been linked to the doctrine of the Lord’s return. But that has been true of all biblical doctrines at some point of history, and that alone should not deter us from seeking to appreciate a theme which is prominent in the Word of God.

How prominent is this doctrine? In the New Testament 1 verse in 25 deals with the Lord’s return. It is mentioned 318 times in the 260 chapters of the New Testament. It occupies a prominent place in the Old Testament, inasmuch as the greater part of the prophecies concerning the coming of Christ in the Old Testament deal, not with His first advent in which He died as our sin-bearer, but with His second advent in which He is to rule as King. The return of Jesus Christ is mentioned in every one of the New Testament books except Galatians (which deals with a particular problem that had emerged within the churches of Galatia) and the very short books of the New Testament such as 2 and 3 John and Philemon.

The various New Testament writers obviously believed in the Lord’s return. Mark traced the origins  of his belief to the very words of Jesus. The first reference to the return of Jesus in Mark occurs in chapter 8. There is recorded Peter’s great confession of faith – “You are the Christ” – which was in turn the occasion of a greater revelation by Christ of the most important events that were to come in His ministry. First, He foretold His death and resurrection. He spoke of discipleship. Then, at the very end of the chapter, He spoke of His coming again.   Jesus said, “For whoever is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

Mark 13, where Jesus outlined what would come in the last days, is also full of this doctrine. Jesus spoke of the horror of the days immediately preceding His return, then added, “And then they will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds with great power and glory. And then he will send out the angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.” At this point the discourse moved on to teach that the disciples should be watching for this return; Jesus emphasized the point by an illustration: “It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his servants in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to stay awake. Therefore stay awake — for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or in the morning– lest he come suddenly and find you asleep” (34-36).

Finally, this doctrine is mentioned in the account of Christ’s trial before the Jewish high priest (Mark 14). Jesus answered a question about whether or not He was the Messiah by saying, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven” (Mark 14:62). Here are three expressions of the truth of Christ’s return in a book which most scholars consider to be the oldest of the four gospels.

In the other three gospels the same doctrine is prominent. Matthew and Luke repeated most of the sayings about the second coming given by Mark, sometimes with additions and variations, and John added others. For instance, John recorded a number of lengthy farewell discourses given by Jesus just before His crucifixion. In one of these Jesus declared, “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also” (John 14:1-3). Christ’s return is also referred to in the last chapter of John’s gospel, in the record of Jesus’ conversation with Peter after His resurrection. The reference is incidental to Jesus’ point, but is all the more authentic on that account. Jesus had been encouraging Peter to faithfulness in discipleship, but Peter with his usual impetuosness turned and saw John. He asked Jesus, “Lord, what about this man?’ Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!” (John 21:21-22). John himself then points out that although many of the Christians of his day had interpreted that to mean that John would not die until Christ came back, that was not what Jesus had said. He had said only that even if that were the case, it should not affect Peter’s call to faithful service.

In all four gospels, then, there are unmistakable quotations from Jesus Christ to the effect that He would return to this earth a second time in glory, and these are quoted in such a way that we cannot doubt that the early church believed that these promises were to be fulfilled literally and in detail, possibly within its lifetime.

Paul’s letters are also full of this doctrine. To the church at Thessalonica he wrote, “For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17). To the Philippians Paul wrote: “But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself” (Philippians 3:2–21).

Peter called the return of Jesus Christ our “living hope” (1 Pet. 1:3). Paul called it our “blessed hope” (Titus 2:13), John declared with conviction: “Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him” (Rev. 1:7a). The same author ended the New Testament with the words, “He who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” (Revelation 22:20).

In these verses and in many others the early Christians expressed their belief in a personal return of Jesus Christ, a return  which would be the first of the unfolding events prophesied in the end time. The return of Jesus would be associated with a time of great wickedness on earth, the resurrection and transformation of their own bodies, an earthly rule of Jesus, and a final concluding judgment upon all men and nations. They comforted themselves with these truths in the midst of persecution or some while attempting to live their lives on a moral plane that would be honoring to the returning One.

The Day of the Lord

In the picture I have just presented, however, two important ideas have been merged. Therefore, to paint the prophetic picture for the end times in clearer detail and to have a basis for understanding some of the most important New Testament prophesies we must distinguish between them.

The first idea is associated with the phrase “the day of the Lord.” This phrase is quite prominent in the Old Testament, but it occurs frequently in the New Testament too, even in the context of some of the passages I have been quoting. This phrase is a technical phrase used initially by the Old Testament prophets to designate a future period of catastrophic judgment. Literally, it the day of Jehovah, the day in which Jehovah will break silence and intervene in history to judge Israel and the Gentile nations. The characteristics of this day can be seen in the following quotations:

“For the LORD of hosts has a day against all that is proud and lofty, against all that is lifted up–and it shall be brought low” (Isaiah 2:12).

“Wail, for the day of the LORD is near; as destruction from the Almighty it will come!…Behold, the day of the LORD comes, cruel, with wrath and fierce anger, to make the land a desolation and to destroy its sinners from it. For the stars of the heavens and their constellations will not give their light; the sun will be dark at its rising, and the moon will not shed its light” (Isaiah 13:6, 9-10).

“Woe to you who desire the day of the LORD! Why would you have the day of the LORD? It is darkness, and not light, as if a man fled from a lion, and a bear met him, or went into the house and leaned his hand against the wall, and a serpent bit him. Is not the day of the LORD darkness, and not light, and gloom with no brightness in it?”  (Amos 5:18-20).

It is obvious from the reference to the darkening of the sun, moon, and stars that this is the event referred to by Jesus in Matthew 24, where Jesus taught that He would exercise judgment. It is also the event of which Peter spoke when he wrote,

“But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed” (2 Peter 3:10).

In the liturgy of the church this is expressed by the Dies Irae, which means the day of the wrath of God. From an examination of these and other texts (Jer. 46:10; Lam. 2:22; Ezek. 30:3ff.; Joel 1:15; 2:1-11; 3:14-16; Zeph. 1:7-2:3; Zech. 14:1-7; Mal. 4:5) several things are clear.

  • First, the day of the Lord is the day of God’s judgment.
  • Second, the day is still future.
  • Third, it is preceded by a time of great trouble on earth.
  • Fourth, it is followed by the earthly rule of the Messiah.
  • Fifth, it has nothing to do with the church of Jesus Christ, for the church is not in these prophecies and was, in fact, completely unknown to the Old Testament writers who compiled them.

To be sure, as Kenneth S. Wuest, who summarized much of the data in his collection of Word Studies in the Greek New Testament, observed, “Some of the references to the day of the Lord in the Old Testament have a fulfillment in the past, and are precursors of the day of the Lord to follow (Kenneth S. Wuest, Wuest’s Word Studies From the Greek New Testament, vol. 3 [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1966, p. 35]). But that does not alter the fact that the strict fulfillment of most of these prophecies awaits a future day.

That day is coming. The disasters of this life — pestilence, famine, wars, natural catastrophes — are only little judgments which come in the most part from man’s activities. When the day of God’s wrath is revealed, these things will pale by comparison, and no one who is not united to Christ by faith will be able to stand against Him.

No one can be sure of defending himself even from man-made destruction. For instance, there is an extensive military radar network called DEW line (Distant Early Waning), which stretches across the North American Continent. This line of defense has cost the United States billions of dollars. It was designed to limit to a minimum  the breakthrough of Soviet long-range bombers coming to wreak nuclear destruction on the United States; but today it is outmoded by missiles. Man can never defend himself adequately against the possibility of future destruction.

Thus, too, does he stand before God. Man has run away from God, and God has pursued him. God came to die for him in Jesus Christ. God has warned us of judgment — distant warnings and near warnings, early warnings, and late warnings — and He has warned us that He can penetrate any defense which we may try to throw up against Him. Man stands naked before God. The day of judgment is near. If you are not yet a believer, let me encourage you to turn to Christ. Martin Luther looked at this day and wrote for those of his time:

Great God, what do I see and hear!

The end of things created!

The Judge of mankind doth appear

On clouds of glory seated!

The trumpet sounds, the graves restore

The dead which they contained before:

Prepare, my soul, to meet him.

If you are a believer in Christ, let me encourage you to look up and be faithful to Him.

The Day of Christ (The Rapture)

The second major idea is associated with the phrase “the day of Jesus Christ.” That is not the same as “The day of the Lord.” The day of Jesus Christ is a happy day rather than a day of judgment. Moreover, far from warning men to fear it, the New Testament actually speaks of it as an event to be warmly anticipated. Christians are to be ready and watching, and they are to encourage one another because of it.

What is the nature of this day? The clearest answer to this question is in the verses already quoted from Paul’s first letter to the Christians at Thessalonica. They were in sorrow over certain of their number who had died, and Paul wrote to them to comfort them with the thought that they would see their departed friends once again at the day of Jesus Christ. He describes it thus:

“For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17).

Quite obviously, this day does not concern Christ’s earthly rule. It is an aspect of His coming to draw believers out of this world to Himself. He will come in the air and gather His church up to meet Him, first those who have died and then — almost in the same instant — those who are living.

Jesus described this event, also stressing its unexpected and selective nature:

“Then two men will be in the field; one will be taken and one left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken and one left. Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming” (Matthew 24:40-42).

In biblical theology this event is generally called the rapture. It is the first in the whole series of events prophesied for the end times. It is possible that at this point some of this teaching has become confusing. So let me elaborate upon the distinction between the day of Jesus Christ and the day of the Lord by looking at the way the Apostle Paul dealt with a similar confusion in his day.

Wherever he went, Paul apparently preached the full body of Christian doctrine as it had been revealed to him. And that included, quite naturally, the doctrine of the Lord’s imminent return to be followed, after certain events, by God’s judgment. These events  included persecution and great tribulation. We know that this doctrine had been accepted by the church at Thessalonica, for Paul alluded to it in his first letter, reminding the Christians there that they were to be comforted by the doctrine of the Lord’s return in face of the death of their friends. Some time after he had written this letter, however, a time of persecution broke out in the church at Thessalonica. Because the persecution seemed terrible and intense, someone began to teach that the persecutions were those leading to the day of the Lord, with its ultimate judgements, and that the Christians in Thessalonica, therefore, had missed the rapture. The Thessalonians may actually have received a letter purporting to be from Paul which affirmed this idea (2 Thessalonians 2:2).

News of their distress reached Paul, and he immediately wrote to the Thessalonians again, attempting to explain the meaning of their present persecution assuring them that they had not missed the coming again of the Lord Jesus Christ for those who believe in Him. First, he dealt with the meaning of present persecution. This occupies the first chapter. Then, in the second chapter, he begins to deal with the view that Christians might already be going through days of tribulation.

“Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we ask you, brothers, not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by a spirit or a spoken word, or a letter seeming to be from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come. Let no one deceive you in any way. For that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction, who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming to be God. Do you not remember that when I was still with you I told you these things?”  (2 Thessalonians 2:1-5).

Paul’s main points clearly were that the present suffering of the Christians at Thessalonica was not the tribulation prophesied  in the Old Testament and taught by himself, that the final tribulation would not come until after the Christians were caught up to meet the Lord Jesus Christ in the air, therefore, that the coming of Christ rather than the final judgment should be uppermost in the minds of believers.

(Note: There is a view in prophetic theology known at “posttribulationism.” According to this view, the church of Jesus Christ will go through the great tribulation, after which Jesus will return for those believers who are remaining. In reply, it is enough to note that, although the church has gone through periods of great persecution in the past and undoubtedly may go through intense persecutions before Christ’s return, nevertheless, the view of a posttribulation rapture is impossible for the simple reason that it makes meaningless the very argument that Paul was presenting in the Thessalonian letters. Paul was arguing for the imminence of Christ’s return. That is to be a major source of comfort for suffering believers. If Christ will not come until after the great tribulation [that is, a specific time of unusual and intense suffering still in the future], then the return of the Lord is not imminent and tribulation rather than deliverance is what we must anticipate. In view of the Bible’s message we must be careful not to adopt any view which turns our minds from Christ. If anything must occur before we see Christ personally, then the anticipation of that event will turn our eyes from Him to it. We may even guess that Satan will try to turn the believers’ eyes from Christ to events or signs that are supposed to precede Him and we should be warned accordingly).

All these themes will be treated in later articles, but even at this point we need to note the importance of the two events which Paul says must take place before the day of God’s judgment. The second event is the appearance of one whom he calls “the man of lawlessness” (2 Thess. 2:3). This person will attempt to centralize all human worship in himself, and will actually sit in the temple at Jerusalem, claiming that he is God. Since that has not happened, says Paul, the day of the Lord is yet future.

The first event that must take place before the day of the Lord comes is called “the falling away” in the Authorized Version of the Bible (2 Thess. 2:3). This is an unfortunate translation. The basis for this translation lies in the fact that elsewhere in the Bible a time of great apostasy or “falling away” from true Christian doctrine is prophesied for the time preceding the Lord’s return. Although this is true in itself, however, it is not the meaning of the Greek word here. The word apostasia, preceded by the definite article. Apostasia has given us our word “apostasy,” but the word itself simply means “a departure.” In a context where the truth or falsity of doctrine is in view, the word would naturally mean, “a departure from true doctrine” or “apostasy.” But here, where the issue is the past or future coming of Jesus Christ for his saints and where a particular event is specified by the use of the article, the word can mean equally well “the departure of believers to be with Jesus” or “the rapture.”

In Kenneth S. Wuest’s study, referred to earlier, these following additional facts are elaborated. Apostasia occurs in the New Testament only twice. But it is based on the verb aphistemi which occurs fifteen times. Eleven times it is translated “depart,” never “a falling away.” Unfortunately, most of the English versions follow the leading of the Authorized text (The ESV translates apostasia as “rebellion”). But it is significant that in the versions that precede the publication of the King James Bible — those of Tyndale (1534), Coverdale (1535), Cranmer (1539), and the Geneva Bible (1560) — apostasia was translated as “departure,” and the reference was obviously to the much-anticipated rapture of God’s saints.

It is worth pointing out that precisely the same order of events is presented in 1 Thessalonians. Once again the two different days — the day of the Lord and the day of Jesus Christ — are in view, as well as two distinct classes of people. The day of the Lord is a day that should concern unbelievers. Paul speaks of this group as “they” and “them.” The day of Jesus Christ is for believers only. Paul speaks of this class as “us” and “you.”

“For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, ‘There is peace and security,’ then sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. But you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief…So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober…For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians 5:2-4, 6, 9).

Paul’s teaching clearly indicates that the rapture, “the day of Jesus Christ,” must come first. Then will come the unfolding of the other events of prophecy, beginning with a period of great tribulation and continuing though Christ’s return to earth to judge Israel and the nations, the millennium, the final judgment, and a complete transition from the life of this world to the life of eternity.

These are the two greatest days of future world history — the day of Jesus Christ and the day of the Lord. Every man who has ever lived must stand before the Lord Jesus Christ on one of these two days. Which will it be in your case? Will it be the day of the Lord with its judgments? Or will it be the day of Jesus Christ with the joy of seeing Him and the glorification and rewarding of believers? Believers wait only for the coming of Jesus Christ, and they rejoice, knowing that this the next event in the unfolding of God’s prophetic timetable.

A Practical Doctrine

Thus far in our study of the return of Jesus Christ we have dealt with the importance of the doctrine of the New Testament books and with the precise meaning of His return as it is related to the catching away of believers first and to God’s judgment. It would be wrong to stop at this point, however, for we must go on to see that the doctrine of the Lord’s return is practical. In other words, it should have a bearing on our lives.

(1) First of all, the imminent return of the Lord Jesus Christ should be an incentive to godly living. That is the point Jesus Himself made when talking about His return in Matthew 24. The chapter is filled with imperatives: “See that no one leads you astray” (v. 4); “See that you are not alarmed” (v. 6), “flee to the mountains” (v. 16); “pray” (v. 20); “do not believe it” (vv. 23, 26); “learn” (v. 32); “know” (v. 33). Jesus concluded with the warning, “Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect” (Matthew 24:44). The apostle John, who undoubtedly heard the Lord on this occasion, later made the identical point in one of his letters, “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who this hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure” (1 John 3:2-3).

This thought should affect every aspect of your personal life — your prayer life, your choices in the area of ethics and morals, even your social concerns. Lord Shaftesbury, the great English social reformer and a mature Christian, said near the end of his life, “I do not think that in the last forty years I have ever lived one conscious hour that was not influenced by the thought of our Lord’s return.” In his case, the expectation of meeting Jesus was undoubtedly one of the strongest motives behind his social programs.

Are you looking for Christ’s return? In an earlier study of this same subject I once wrote:

If you are motivated by prejudice against other Christians or others in general, whether they are black or white, rich or poor, cultured or culturally naive, or whatever they may be–then the return of Jesus Christ has not made its proper impression on you. If you are contemplating some sin, perhaps a dishonest act in business, perhaps trifling with sex outside marriage, perhaps cheating on your income tax return–then the return of Jesus Christ has not made its proper impression on you. If your life is marked by a contentious, divisive spirit in which you seek to tear down the work of another person instead of building it up–then the return of Jesus Christ has not made its proper impression on you. If you first protect your own interests and neglect to give food, water, or nothing to the needy as we are instructed to do in Christ’s name–then the return of Jesus Christ has not made its proper impression on you (James Montgomery Boice, Philippians: An Expositional Commentary [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1971], p. 249).

(2) The second result of a belief in the imminent return of the Lord Jesus Christ should be an effort on our part to comfort Christians who are suffering, particularly those who are suffering the close loss of a friend or relative. We have already seen how the Apostle Paul did this in the case of his friends at Thessalonica. They suffered persecution. They had lost friends through death. Paul wrote to them, reminding them of the blessed hope of Christians. He then observed, “Therefore encourage one another with these words” (1 Thessalonians 4:18).

Dr. R.A. Torrey, a former president of the Bible Institute of Los Angeles (BIOLA) and a great Bible teacher, wrote along the same line: “Time and again in writing those who have lost for a time those whom they love, I have obeyed God’s commandment and used the truth of our Lord’s return to comfort them, and many have told me afterwards how full of comfort this truth has proven when everything else has failed” (R.A. Torrey, The Return of the Lord Jesus [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1966], p. 15). The return of the Lord Jesus Christ is the one doctrine with which God commands us to comfort suffering saints.

(3) Finally, the return of the Lord Jesus Christ should make us more and more energetic in evangelism. If it is true that the Lord is coming, then it is not true, as scoffers say, that all things will “continue as they were from the beginning” (2 Peter 3:4). The end is in sight. The days for evangelism are numbered. Is it not a lesson for our own time that, when the disciples began to ask Jesus Christ for specific details of the time of His coming after His resurrection and before His ascension, He brushed their requests aside and instead reiterated the church’s great commission to evangelize throughout the duration of this age? They were not to look for a precise timetable. They were to go into the world with the Gospel.

He said to them “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:7-8).

These were Jesus’ last words on earth. The next words we hear may well be the question: “How well have you carried out my commission?”

James Montgomery Boice, Th.D., (July 7, 1938 – June 15, 2000) was a Reformed theologian, Bible teacher, and pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia from 1968 until his death. He is heard on The Bible Study Hour radio broadcast and was a well-known author and speaker in evangelical and Reformed circles. He also served as Chairman of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy for over ten years and was a founding member of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals.James Boice was one of my favorite Bible teachers. Thankfully – many of his books and expositions of Scripture are still in print and more are becoming available. He was one of only a handful of reformed theologians that was premillennial in his eschatology (Steven J. Lawson, John MacArthur, Erwin W. Lutzer, S. Lewis Johnson, Rodney Stordtz, John Hannah and John Piper also come to mind). However, what makes him really unique is that he was not Historic Premillennial – but leaned Dispensational (Held to a pre-tribulation rapture) as well. This article was adapted from Chapter Three in one of the first of James Boice’s plethora of books, and is entitled: The Last and Future World, Grand Rapids, MI.: Zondervan, 1974 (currently out of print). This book is based on 9 sermons that Dr. Boice preached at Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia in 1972. Though this book was written almost 40 years ago – it is just as relevant as when it was first written since many of the prophecies taught in the Scriptures and addressed by Dr. Boice in this book have yet to be fulfilled. Scripture verses are quoted from the more modern English Standard Version – DPC.



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