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Tim Keller on “THE WOUNDED SPIRIT” – Proverbs Series

SERIES: Proverbs: True Wisdom for Living

Tim Keller teaching at RPC image

Preached in Manhattan, N.Y. on December 5, 2004

Book of Proverbs

Proverbs 12:

25 An anxious heart weighs a man down, but a kind word cheers him up.

Proverbs 13:

12 Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.

Proverbs 14:

10 Each heart knows its own bitterness, and no one else can share its joy.

13 Even in laughter the heart is sad, and the end of joy is grief.

30 A tranquil mind gives life to the flesh, but passion makes the bones rot.

Proverbs 15:

The tongue that brings healing is a tree of life, but a deceitful tongue crushes the spirit.

13 A happy heart makes the face cheerful, but heartache crushes the spirit. 14 The discerning heart seeks knowledge, but the mouth of a fool feeds on folly.

Proverbs 16:

All a man’s ways seem innocent to him, but motives are weighed by the Lord.

Proverbs 18:

14 A man’s spirit sustains him in sickness, but a crushed spirit who can bear?

Proverbs 28:

The wicked man flees though no one pursues, but the righteous are as bold as a lion.

We’re looking at the book of Proverbs every week, and we continue to do that. We’re looking at the subject of wisdom. We’ve said wisdom is competence with regard to the complex realities of life. It means being not less than moral and good, but more. For example, if you want to help a poor family out of poverty, that’s wonderful. That’s right. That’s good. It’s moral.

If you’re a simpleminded conservative and you think poverty is completely the result of lack of personal responsibility or if you’re a simpleminded liberal and you think poverty is completely the result of unjust social structures … In other words, if you’re reductionistic, if you’re simplistic, if you’re not savvy about the complex realities of poverty, though you mean well and you’re being moral and right and good, you can ruin that poor family’s life.

Tonight what we want to do is talk about wisdom with regard to the complex realities of the inner being, the inner life, or what we would today call the psychological life, which is, as we’re going to see in a moment, a modern category that’s actually itself too reductionistic. Nevertheless, what are we talking about?

We all at certain times just have a lot of trouble understanding and dealing with the very deep, conflicting, confusing, powerful, sometimes warring dynamic impulses and feelings that just roll through our hearts, roll through ourselves. Sometimes we don’t feel we have any power over it. We feel helpless, and we don’t know how we got to feeling like that. We know there’s something deeply wrong with it. We don’t know what to do about it.

Tonight maybe we’ll get some wisdom because we’re taking a look at what the book of Proverbs says about this subject, and I’d like to look at the passage under four headings. Let’s see what we learn from these collected proverbs. You’re not going to be wise unless you understand the priority of the inner life, the complexity of the inner life, the solitude of the inner life, and the healing of the inner life.

1. The priority of the inner life

Take a look at the second from the last proverb in the list, and we’ll learn something about the priority of the inner life. “A man’s spirit sustains him in sickness, but a crushed spirit who can bear?” What does the word spirit mean? In the Hebrew Scriptures, in the Old Testament, the word spirit is actually literally the word for wind.

Whenever the word wind, ruwach, is used in the Old Testament it has to do with force, with power, with energy. When it refers to your inside, the human inner being, the human spirit is roughly analogous to what we would call today emotional energy, passion for life, that which propels us out into life, makes us want life, makes us want to take it on, navigate, deal with it.

What’s a crushed spirit? A crushed spirit then is to look out at life and to have no desire for it, have little or no joy in it, have no passion to get out there and deal with it. Of course, there are degrees of a crushed spirit. It can be anywhere from listlessness and restlessness to discouragement to despondency to being very, very cast down and to losing all desire to live.

What is this proverb saying? Look at it again, and here’s what it’s saying. There is nothing more important than maintaining your inner being. When it says, “A man’s spirit sustains him in sickness, but a crushed spirit who can bear?” here’s what it’s saying. “A broken body can be sustained with difficulty by a strong spirit, but a crushed or broken spirit can never be sustained or carried by the strongest body of all.”

In other words, this proverb is getting at something actually the whole Bible gets at. We human beings are obsessed with the idea that our happiness is determined by our external circumstances, that our happiness is completely determined by whether our body is healthy or whether our body looks good, whether we have money, whether people are treating us right, whether things are going well out there. That’s what makes us happy, or that’s what makes us unhappy.

The Bible actually says, “No, it has nothing to do with your circumstances. Happiness is determined by how you deal with your circumstances from inside, how you process, how you address, how you view them.” That’s the reason why Paul’s prayers for the churches he’s writing in the New Testament letters are amazing.

When you consider when he’s writing all these churches, he’s writing churches that were in great difficulty and straits. He’s writing churches that were persecuted. He’s writing churches where civil magistrates had broken in and pulled off some of the Christian families to jail. Yet whenever he says, “I’m praying this for you” or “I’m praying this for you,” he never mentions things like that.

He never says, “I’m praying that civil magistrate won’t come and take any more of you off to jail.” He doesn’t pray for protection. He doesn’t pray against suffering. What does he pray for? He prays this sort of thing. Here’s Ephesians 3. He says, “I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being …”

Do you know what he’s saying? “If your life is all broken, all things are wrong, and your spirit is strong and powerful, you move out into the world in strength, but if everything about your life is going fine, just all the circumstances are doing fine but your spirit is crushed, you move out into the world in weakness.”

Do you believe that? Do you understand the priority of that? The Bible says, Proverbs says, if you don’t, you’re a fool. I’ll put it another way. Are you far, far, far more concerned to deposit grace in your spirit than you are to deposit money in your bank account? If you’re not, you’re a fool.

2. The complexity of the inner life

After having said what we just said, it’s natural to ask a question like, “All right. So what do you do to keep your inner being from deteriorating? What goes wrong with a spirit? What causes a crushed spirit? Why do our emotions and our feelings seem to get out of control? Why do we get so downcast sometimes? Why do we lose all passion for life? Why do we struggle so much? What is our problem?”

Do you know what the biblical answer is? It’s complicated. I want to show you this for the next couple of minutes. In fact, the Bible’s understanding of human nature, understanding of what goes wrong inside is more nuanced, more multifaceted, more multidimensional, more complex than any other answer I know of, any other counseling model, any book on despondency or what’s wrong or how to have emotional health or how to have a happy life.

You read them all, and compared to the Bible they are one-dimensional. They are reductionistic. They boil everything down. They’re too simpleminded. They’re too simplistic. They’re not savvy. They’re not wise. The Bible gives you the most fully nuanced, the most complex assessment of what can go wrong and lead to despondency and lead to a crushed spirit. Let’s take a look at five of them. They’re right in here.

A. A crushed spirit may have a physical aspect. I know that sounds very weird. For example, let’s take a look at 14:30. “A tranquil mind gives life to the flesh, but passion makes the bones rot.” The word passion means literally a hot feeling. That word can refer to anger or bitterness or envy or fear or something like that. What it’s giving us here is a very nuanced and sophisticated understanding of the relationship of the body to the emotions.

Emotional unhealth leads to physical unhealth in all kinds of ways, disintegration, deterioration, but what’s the implication? The implication, of course, is since the body and the emotions are united, then bodily weakness can lead to emotional unhealth. If you’re weary, if you’re not eating right, if you have chemical imbalances, there’s a physical aspect to being crushed in spirit. There can be. There often is.

You say, “How could that be?” For example, I had a thyroid problem a couple of years ago. Of course, the problem is gone, as well as the thyroid. That’s why it’s gone. One of the things I learned about is what happens when you don’t have the thyroid hormone or you don’t have enough of it. Oh my word! Even though I didn’t experience anything like this, here’s something I can just tell you the truth of.

If you don’t have enough thyroid hormone in your body, you’re going to eventually want to kill yourself. You say, “Of course, that’s all in your head.” Of course, it’s all in your head! The crushed spirit is in your head, but the point is if you lose all desire to even live because of something wrong with your body, you have a crushed spirit. It doesn’t matter what the cause is, and one of the causes can be the physical.

B. A crushed spirit may have an emotional, relational aspect. Look at the very first proverb on the list. “An anxious heart weighs a man down …” That’s synonymous with a crushed spirit. It’s talking about literally sinking. “An anxious heart weighs a man down, but a kind word cheers him up.” Don’t trivialize it. In English it comes across a little bit trivial-sounding.

What is it saying you need sometimes? What do you need? You need an outside word of love, of kindness. You need support. Sometimes you don’t need medicine. Sometimes you don’t need therapy. You don’t need an answer. You don’t need complicated reflection. You need love sometimes, because we have an emotional, relational nature. You just need arms around you. You need a shoulder. You need intimacy. You need support.

C. A crushed spirit may have a moral aspect. Take a look at the last of the proverbs in the list. “The wicked man flees though no one pursues, but the righteous are as bold as a lion.” What’s that talking about? It’s a quote from Leviticus 26, where God says, “If you disobey me, you will flee though no one pursues.”

My word, look how nuanced this is. It’s talking about conscience. It’s talking about guilt. It’s talking about what can go wrong inside, in your spirit, in your emotions, what can go wrong inside if you know you’re not living right, if you know you’re not living up to standards, if you feel guilt, if you feel shame, if you feel like a failure in any way.

Look how nuanced it is. It doesn’t say you flee when someone pursues; you flee when no one pursues. Guilt just generalizes a sense there’s something wrong with you, so you not only feel guilty for some things you ought to feel guilty for, but you also can’t help then feeling guilty for all kinds of things you shouldn’t feel guilty for.

Someone criticizes you, and you feel assaulted, attacked. It’s a bad conscience. You make a little failure, and you feel like a total failure. It’s a bad conscience. There’s a moral aspect. There’s a conscience aspect. That’s not all. Do you realize how wrong it would be if you treat a crushed spirit that’s basically a physical problem as a moral problem?

D. A crushed spirit may have an existential aspect. Go to the fourth proverb down. “Even in laughter the heart is sad, and the end of joy is grief.” When you first read that, do you know what you’re automatically doing? You say, “Oh, I think I know what that’s talking about,” and you’re relativizing it.

You’re saying, “Sometimes some people are laughing and they’re having fun, but down deep they’re still sad. They’re putting on a happy face. They’re trying to forget their troubles. Though they are laughing, down deep they’re sad. Though they’re trying to be happy, in the end they’re still grieving.”

It doesn’t say, “Some people in laughter the heart is sad,” does it? It’s an absolute statement. What amazed me was every single Hebrew commentator, every Hebrew scholar, I looked at about this verse says we mustn’t relativize it. We must realize what a profound thing it’s saying. This is true of everybody. Why?

Do you not realize there’s an existential angst that comes down deep from under …? Everybody knows all parties eventually are going to be over. All joy really does end in grief. You say, “What are you talking about?” Let me just give you some examples. Here’s the happy family, sitting around the dining room table. The simple reality is one of those people is eventually going to see every other member dead.

Death ends everything. Everything your heart wants out of life eventually will be taken away from you. If you don’t die a tragic young death, eventually your health will be taken away from you. Your loved ones will be taken away from you. Everything will be taken away from you. It’ll all be gone.

Some of you are saying, “Gee, I’m so glad I came tonight. This is a wonderful … I guess that’s right. I guess that’s true, but do you have to tell me about it? Do we have to think about it?” Guess what? Try not to think about it. This is saying down deep you know about it. There is a ground note of sadness you cannot overcome.

New York is filled with people who say, “Well, I don’t believe I was created. I believe I’m here by accident, and I believe when you’re dead, that’s it. You rot. That’s it. You’re gone. I understand that, but the point is have fun while you’re here.” Wait a minute. If your origin is insignificant and your destiny is insignificant, which means someday nobody will even remember anything you ever did, have the guts to admit your life is insignificant.

What that means is unless you have some way of dealing philosophically with this, unless you have some way of ascribing meaning to the daily things you do, which is really pretty hard, you’re going to have this ground note of sadness that underneath all your laughter you’re going to be sad, because you know all joy eventually ends in grief. I’m not exaggerating. Do you see what’s happening now? This is a philosophical problem, and a lot of people have it.

In fact, we all have it until somebody helps us deal with death. If you’re not able to deal with the idea of death, if you’re not able to overcome your fear of it, if you’re not able to find some way in light of death you can ascribe meaning to the things you’re doing now, today, do you see there’s a medical possibility for a crushed spirit?

There’s an emotional, a relational, a moral, an existential, a philosophical … Do you see, by the way, doctors don’t want to think about philosophy, and friends don’t want to think about medicine? They just want to love you. Do you know what Christians do? We turn everything into moral.

We say, “Oh, you’re downcast? You’re down? Well, have you claimed all the promises? Have you confessed all known sin? Are you having your quiet time? Are you praying? Are you thanking God? Are you doing everything right?” Check, check, check, check. Checklists. We turn everything into a moral issue. We’re reductionistic.

Of course, the people who are into self-esteem, what do they say? “It’s all emotional and relational.” Of course, the people who think we’re just a body, what do they say? “It’s all the physical.” That’s not all. There’s a physical aspect, but not only a physical aspect. There’s an emotional aspect. There is a moral aspect. There’s an existential aspect.

E. A crushed spirit may have a faith aspect. Here’s what I mean. Look at 15:13. “A happy heart makes the face cheerful, but heartache crushes the spirit.” A lot of people would say, “Wait a minute. I thought the heart and the spirit are pretty much the same thing.” In English heart means emotions versus head which means the reason. That’s why we would say, “Wouldn’t the spirit, which seems to be emotional passion, and the heart be the same thing?”

No, in the Bible the heart means something quite a bit more than that. The heart is your core commitments, the things you most fundamentally trust, the things you most fundamentally love, the things you’re most fundamentally living for, the things you most fundamentally hope in. That’s why the second proverb that we’ll get back to in a minute says, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.” That word longing means a desire from the depths of your personality.

When your heart has been set on something … It has to be set on something. You have to set your heart on something as your ultimate hope, your ultimate trust, the thing you’re looking for to really make yourself happy, really make yourself feel significant, the thing you say, “If I have that, then my life means something, then I know I’m somebody, then I know I’m all right.”

You have to put your heart on something because that’s the kind of beings we are. This is telling you if you put your heart on something in the most fundamental way and any problem happens to it, anything threatens it in any way, it’s deferred. You won’t even want to live. You’ll be crushed in spirit.

For example, if you’re dating somebody and you’re starting to really love them and then they break up with you, you break up, that’s going to create great sorrow, but if romance, having somebody love you, is the ultimate hope of your life, if you really do believe down deep what the Righteous Brothers said years ago, “Without you, baby, what good am I?” There’s another one. “You’re nobody till somebody loves you …”

Listen, if you really look at somebody else and say, “You’re my fundamental hope. You’re the thing that really makes me know I’m okay,” and you break up with that person, you won’t even want to live. Heartache creates a crushed spirit. A bad conscience creates a crushed spirit. Existential angst creates a crushed spirit.

Look at this. Go into Barnes and Noble, and you’ll never find a book that will tell you how complicated you really are. Every book on emotional health, every book on counseling, every book is going to reduce you. It’s going to simplify you, because some people think you’re basically a body. “That’s basically what you are.” They don’t believe in a soul, “So let’s deal with it physically.”

Some people are going to say, “You’re really your emotions. Your deepest feelings are the real you, not your conscience, not your beliefs, your emotions. We just have to nonjudgmentally support people to just follow their feelings.” You’re not just a body. You’re not just your emotions. You’re not just your conscience. You’re not just a will. You’re not just your thinking.

Of course, you have object relations, then you have cognitive therapy, you have psychoanalysis, and every one of them does something the Bible won’t do, because you are not mainly a body or mainly your emotions or mainly your conscience or mainly any of these things. You are a man or a woman in the image of God, and God’s image is stamped on absolutely every aspect of your being.

Unless you’re living with every aspect of your being before God, you are going to have despondency. You are going to have out-of-control emotions. You’re going to have despair. You’re going to have a crushed spirit you will not be able to remedy. You’ll get the books, and you’ll go and listen to people who tell you the way to emotional health. They’ll always be too simple. They’ll always be foolish.

When I read the books compared to the Bible, I want to look at those books, and I want to say what Hamlet said to his friend Horatio: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

3. The solitude of the inner life

If you take a look at the third proverb in the list, it’s a very interesting proverb. “Each heart knows its own bitterness, and no one else can share its joy.” What in the world does that mean? You say, “Well, I have friends. They can share my joy. I have people who understand me.”

Do you know what this is saying? Again, don’t relativize this. Here’s what this is saying. Your insides, the movements and motions of your heart, are so complex, they’re so inward, and they’re so hidden there’s an irreducible, unavoidable solitude about human existence. Nobody will ever completely understand you.

Do you know what they’re going to do? They’re going to do the same thing to you you’re doing to them. You’re going to think you understand them. You’re going to put them in a category and say, “It’s just like what happened to me” or “It’s just like what happened to so-and-so.” No, this is saying you are so unique and you are so hidden and you’re so inward nobody in the end, in the final analysis, will ever really understand you.

You’re going to have to basically go through life alone. Nobody can completely … Even the people closest to you very often just will not understand you. You can sense that, and it’s horribly disappointing. This is saying get over that. Don’t be shocked at being misunderstood, especially in light of the fact … Look at the third proverb from the bottom. It says, “All a man’s ways seem innocent to him, but motives are weighed by the LORD.” Do you know what that’s saying?

You don’t even understand yourself. You have absolutely no idea what’s all down there. You have a better idea than anybody else, but nothing compared to what God can see. You are alone. There is no human being who can walk with you everywhere you go. There is no human being who can help you interpret really everything you’re going through. Do you know what this means? Here’s what it means. Listen carefully.

If God is only somebody you believe in, if he’s an abstraction or maybe he’s somebody you don’t believe in at all, but if God is not a friend, if God isn’t someone you know personally, if God isn’t someone you have a personal relationship with, if you don’t have sometimes a sense of God really with you, putting his love and his truth palpably on your heart, if you don’t have an intimate, personal relationship with God, you are utterly alone in the world. You are absolutely alone in the world, and human beings can’t live in that kind of isolation. They cannot.

He’s the only one who can walk with you through every dark valley. He’s the only one who can understand. He’s the only one. If you don’t have him … It’s not good enough to be good or moral or even to believe in God in some general way. If you don’t have him as a personal friend, if you don’t have an intimate, personal relationship, a sense of real dealing with him, you are utterly alone.

4. The healing of a crushed spirit in the inner life

What happens then? If you have a crushed spirit, what do you do? Do you see? I’ve actually set up (on purpose) how hard it is to heal a crushed spirit, and here’s the reason why. We just said we need a kind word from outside. We can’t heal ourselves. We need someone from outside to come in with love. Yet we also just said nobody really understand you.

We said we have a conscience. Years and years and years of therapy … You can go to therapy for 30 or 40 years. I know people who have. Some of you have and have been told almost every week, “Stop feeling guilty about everything. Don’t let them put that guilt trip on you. You don’t have to feel guilty. Don’t feel guilty.”

Guess what? You still do after 30 or 40 years, because even when no one is pursuing, you flee. There is something indelible about a sense that, “I’m just not right. I’m not living up. I’m not doing what I ought to do.” What are you going to do about that? What are you going to do about existential angst in the face of death, and how in the world are you going to stop your heart from putting its ultimate trust and ultimate hope in things you can lose?

Here’s the answer. The secret is the Tree of Life. What do I mean by the secret being the Tree of Life? The Tree of Life, which is mentioned twice here, actually three times in Proverbs, is an interesting reference because the Bible talks about the Tree of Life in Genesis and the Bible talks about the Tree of Life in Revelation, but there’s nowhere else in all of the Bible where it’s discussed except in the book of Proverbs.

Through wisdom, the book of Proverbs says, you can actually get a taste of it. If you go back to Genesis, the Tree of Life was in the middle of the garden of Eden, Paradise. What does the Tree of Life mean? What does it represent? It represents, not just eternal life being endless; it represents fullness of life, absolute satiation of the deepest desires.

You have creative desires to accomplish things. You have aesthetic desires for beauty. You have romantic and relational desires for love. You have epistemic desires for knowledge. The Tree of Life represents absolute satiation a million times over, a million times magnified, of the greatest amount you could think you could want. That’s the Tree of Life, but the book of Genesis also tells us we lost it.

The end of Genesis 3, says there is a flaming sword that turns and sweeps back and forth keeping us from the Tree of Life, because when we turned to be our own masters, to be our saviors, to be our own lords, when we decided we want to be in charge of our own lives, we lost the Tree of Life. What does that mean? Here’s what it means. What is this saying here? Look at the second proverb. “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.”

It would be possible to read this as just saying, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick. Okay, when you really have your heart set on something, it’s a disappointment,” but it’s talking about something different. What it’s really saying is the things we put our hearts on to fulfill our deepest longings will never fulfill them because what we’re really looking for in everything we do is the Tree of Life.

In other words, when you get into your career and you get so excited about the new career, when you get a new boyfriend or girlfriend, when you get into a new relationship, when you go on a vacation, when you travel to some place you’ve never been, there’s always something. It promises something it can never actually deliver. Why? One commentator says this Tree of Life image in the Bible is not simply referring to eternal life.

One Hebrew commentator puts it like in the Bible the Tree of Life is an image of immortal, eternal life, but also it’s an image of irretrievable loss. It’s an image of cosmic nostalgia, a longing for something we remember yet we’ve never had. In all of the music you go to to kind of give yourself a high, you’re actually looking for a song you remember but you have never heard.

What you’re looking for in love is you’re looking for arms you remember but you never really had. That’s what the Bible is saying; that’s what the Tree of Life is. Unless you understand what you’re looking for in everything you’re looking for is the Tree of Life, you’re not going to be wise.

Of course, there’s nobody who has put it like Lewis, who says, “Most people, if they had really learned to look into their own hearts, would know that they do want, and want acutely, something that cannot be had in this world. […]

The longings which arise in us when we first fall in love, or first think of some foreign country, or first take up some subject that excites us, are longings which no marriage, no travel, no learning, can really satisfy. I am not now speaking of what would be ordinarily called unsuccessful marriages, or holidays, or learned careers. I am speaking of the best possible ones. There was something we grasped at, in that first moment of longing, which just fades away in the reality.”

In another place Lewis writes, “… our lifelong nostalgia, our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off, to be on the inside of some door which we have always seen from the outside, is no mere neurotic fancy, but the truest index of our real situation.” Once you get a little older … Some of you look like you have a ways to go. Some of you look like you don’t. You start to realize every single thing you looked for to give you a sort of satisfaction it never really delivers, and there are several things you can start doing.

One is you can be really stupid and say, “I need a new city. I need a new job. I need a new wife. I need a new husband. I need a new lover. I need a new place to go,” and you’re just constantly changing all the time. You could just get mad at yourself and blame it on yourself. “You’re a failure. It’s something wrong with you.” You could just get cynical and say, “You shouldn’t expect anything out of life.” In every case you’re going to have a crushed spirit or at least an atrophied spirit.

What’s the solution? Do you know the New Testament continually says Jesus died on a tree? “Yeah, in the book of Acts and 1 Peter 2 and Galatians 3. They hung him on a tree. He was nailed to a tree. He died on a tree.” Have you ever wondered about that? Have you said, “That’s kind of an exaggeration. It was a cross. Obviously, there was a big trunk, but it wasn’t really a tree, was it? Why do they say a tree?” Oh, it’s so significant, and I’ll tell you why.

In the garden of Eden, God comes to Adam and Eve and says, “Obey me about the tree. Don’t eat it, and you will live.” They didn’t. Centuries later, Jesus comes into a garden, the garden of Gethsemane. God comes to Jesus and says, “Obey me about the tree.” He did, but look at the difference.

To the first Adam God said, “Obey me about the tree, and you will live,” but to the second Adam God says, “If you obey me and go to the tree and go to the cross and do what I’m asking you to do, you will be crushed, crushed in spirit, crushed in body, crushed eternally,” and he did it. In Psalm 22, which he quotes from the cross, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” there’s a place in verse 14 where it says, “My heart has turned to wax; it has melted away within me.”

There is a crushed spirit. Jesus lost his ultimate hope. He put all of his hope in his Father, and the only person in the history of the world who put his ultimate hope in his Father, the Father, lost the Father eternally on the cross. He was crushed in spirit. He was infinitely crushed. He went through all that agony. Why? For us, to pay the penalty.

George Herbert, the great poet, puts it perfectly, sums up the whole Bible in one stanza in that great poem “The Sacrifice,” in which he depicts Jesus speaking from the cross, and there’s that one stanza where Jesus says …

O all ye who pass by, behold and see;

Man stole the fruit, but I must climb the tree;

The tree of life to all, but only me …

The cross was a tree of death, but because he climbed the tree of death, we have the Tree of Life. Actually, he turned the tree of death … The cross was a tree of death to him; therefore, it was a tree of life for all of us. To the degree you let that melt your heart, to the degree you see what he did for you, to the degree you rejoice in that, to the degree you orient your heart toward that and it just melts you at the thought of that love, to that degree you will experience what Tolkien calls, “… Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”

There is a joy. It’s the foretaste to the Tree of Life. That’s the gospel. When you take the gospel and you start to use it on your spirit, that’s what you finally need. That’s the ultimate kind word. It’s the ultimate good word. We just said, “Do you need to get rid of your isolation? Do you need emotional connection and yet nobody understands you?” The only eyes in the universe who can see you to the bottom love you to the skies. Use that on your emotion. Use that on your relational aspect. Use that on your conscience. This last verse I was looking at a minute ago …

Howell Harris, I think it was, was an old Welsh preacher 200 years ago. When he was a young man, he wasn’t a Christian yet. He was like 14 or 15. His aunt was dying, and the family was all gathered around her. Back in those days they were waiting for her to die, and it looked like she was dead.

They said, “I think she’s gone. Poor Aunt So-and-So.” She opened her eyes, she looked up, and she said, “Who calls me poor? I am rich, and I will stand before him as bold as a lion.” Then she died. It had a big impact on Howell Harris, who later on wrote a hymn, I think, that went like …

What though the’ accuser roar

Of ills that I have done!

I know them well, and thousands more;

Jehovah findeth none.

Come on. He took the tree of death so you could have the Tree of Life. Use that on your emotion. Use that on your conscience. Use that on your existential angst. That’ll get rid of your fear of death. Most of all, use it on the hope of your heart. Love the people you love and love the things you love, but through them realize the ultimate song, the ultimate beauty, the ultimate arms, the ultimate Tree of Life you’re going to have.

Am I saying to you, “Okay, you really don’t need people now. You just need God. You just need to take this tape home, take this CD home, and listen to it. ‘Just me and God and my Bible, and I’ll be able to overcome all my depression’ ”? No, that’s not what I’m saying. That’s way too simplistic.

Besides that, do you know how hard it is to get the gospel deep down inside every aspect of your being? Do you realize how long it takes? Do you realize how almost always you need somebody to tell it to you over and over and over again? You need friends. You need counselors.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it something like, “It is possible that a person may by God’s grace break through to certainty, new life, the cross, and fellowship without the benefit of confessing to a brother or sister. It is possible a person may never know what it is to doubt his own forgiveness in Christ.

Most of us cannot make that assertion. When the confession of sin, when opening up the heart, is made in the presence of a Christian brother or sister, the last stronghold of self-justification is abandoned. The sinner surrenders. He gives his heart to God and finds the forgiveness of all his sin in the fellowship of Jesus and his brother.

The expressed, acknowledged sin has lost all its power. It has been revealed and judged as sin, and as the open confession of my heart to a brother or sister ensures against self-deception, so too the assurance of forgiveness becomes fully certain to me only when it is spoken by a brother or sister in the name of God.”

Put your hope in him. Take hold of the gospel. Work it into one another’s lives, not just into your own life, and you will know power in your inmost being. Let us pray.

Father, we ask that you would help us now, as we come to your Table, to really taste the Tree of Life. We know the sacrament can be a foretaste of that, and we pray that you would nourish us and feed us in our hearts through our faith in you. We pray this in Jesus’ name, amen.

ABOUT THE PREACHER

In 1989 Dr. Timothy J. Keller, his wife and three young sons moved to New York City to begin Redeemer Presbyterian Church. In 20 years it has grown to meeting for five services at three sites with a weekly attendance of over 5,000. Redeemer is notable not only for winning skeptical New Yorkers to faith, but also for partnering with other churches to do both mercy ministry and church planting.  Redeemer City to City is working to help establish hundreds of new multi-ethnic congregations throughout the city and other global cities in the next decades.

Dr. Tim Keller is the author of several phenomenal Christo-centric books including:

Joy for the World: How Christianity Lost Its Cultural Influence and Can Begin Rebuilding It (co-authored with Greg Forster and Collin Hanson (February or March, 2014).

Encounters with Jesus:Unexpected Answers to Life’s Biggest Questions. New York, Dutton (November 2013).

Walking with God through Pain and Suffering. New York, Dutton (October 2013).

Judges For You (God’s Word For You Series). The Good Book Company (August 6, 2013).

Galatians For You (God’s Word For You Series). The Good Book Company (February 11, 2013).

Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Plan for the World. New York, Penguin Publishing, November, 2012.

Center ChurchDoing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, September, 2012.

The Freedom of Self Forgetfulness. New York: 10 Publishing, April 2012.

Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just. New York: Riverhead Trade, August, 2012.

The Gospel As Center: Renewing Our Faith and Reforming Our Ministry Practices (editor and contributor). Wheaton: Crossway, 2012.

The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God. New York, Dutton, 2011.

King’s Cross: The Story of the World in the Life of Jesus (Retitled: Jesus the KIng: Understanding the Life and Death of the Son of God). New York, Dutton, 2011.

Gospel in Life Study Guide: Grace Changes Everything. Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2010.

The Reason For God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. New York, Dutton, 2009.

Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Priorities of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope That Matters. New York, Riverhead Trade, 2009.

Heralds of the King: Christ Centered Sermons in the Tradition of Edmund P. Clowney (contributor). Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2009.

The Prodigal God. New York, Dutton, 2008.

Worship By The Book (contributor). Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002.

Ministries of Mercy: The Call of the Jericho Road. Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 1997.

 
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Posted by on January 8, 2014 in Sermons, Tim Keller

 

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SUNDAY NT SERMON: Tim Keller on “The Presence of the King”

Series: The King and the Kingdom Part 3 – Acts 4:23–37

Tim Keller teaching at RPC image

Preached in Manhattan, NY on August 6, 1989

Our Scripture reading is found in the book of Acts 4, and we’re going to read from verses 23–37. Just keep in mind the apostles have just been interrogated by the civil authorities, and they’ve been warned not to preach the gospel upon the peril of their lives. We pick it up at verse 23.

23 On their release, Peter and John went back to their own people and reported all that the chief priests and elders had said to them. 24 When they heard this, they raised their voices together in prayer to God. “Sovereign Lord,” they said, “you made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and everything in them.

25 You spoke by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of your servant, our father David: ‘Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? 26 The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the Lord and against his Anointed One.’ 27 Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed.

28 They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen. 29 Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. 30 Stretch out your hand to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.”

31 After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly. 32 All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had. 33 With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was upon them all.

34 There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales 35 and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need. 36 Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means Son of Encouragement), 37 sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet.

In just a few weeks, we’re going to be launching a new church, and I believe it’s fair and right that these last weeks of the summer we would spend our time looking at what the church is, see what it ought to be, and see what it can be. Now what I’d like to do tonight is very simple, and it had better be. There is one central fact, one central principle, one great essence of the church, and when you’re talking about the church, it is so easy to run and immediately begin discussing what the church should do. What does the church do?

When we talk about what the church does, we immediately get into the lists of functions and duties and responsibilities, and that’s all important, but before we talk about what the church does, we have to understand very clearly what it is, because you see, if you look at what it does and not what it is, you can really go astray. If you define a human being in terms of what he or she does, you might come up with an android. You know, an android can do everything a human being does, but it’s not a human being because the android doesn’t have the essence of a human being, whatever that is.

In the same way, it is very possible to have very busy churches; the only thing I can call them is robotic. Robotic churches that have focused in on the functions, and they’ve learned and decided what the church is supposed to do, but they haven’t got a good grip on what it is, and that’s very important. I think we need to be very honest about the condition of the church today, and it’s very easy when a church is brand new or when a church hasn’t even started to throw rocks at the way other churches are, and I don’t want to do that.

It’s a little bit like running for office when you have no record. It’s very easy to lash the incumbent, you see. Yet, we have to see what the Scripture says. In 1 Peter 1:8, Peter writes to a church and he says, “Though you have not seen him … you rejoice [in him] with joy unspeakable and full of glory.” Now here is Peter and he’s writing to a whole congregation, and he’s able to confidently assume every one of them has a joy in Christ that leaves them speechless. He can write them, and he says, “I know you’re in that condition. Why? You’re the church.”

Or you go to Acts 2, which we’re going to look at next week, and at the very end of Acts 2, it says the church was “enjoying the favor of all the people [of the city]. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” Here was a church full of people and those people were so radiant, so compassionate, so responsible, and yet so unassuming the church was the praise of the whole city. Every day the church added people. Now how many churches are like that?

The normal church Peter was writing to … the normal church Acts 2:47 is talking about … how many churches are like that? Maybe those of you who have come and are either intending to come or just considering coming to this church are very happy because you might have found a church (and it’s only maybe; I admit it) you can bring friends to and not be embarrassed, and you think you’ve come across something cool. (Well, not tonight.) You’re excited. Friends, give up your small ambitions.

The glory, the brilliance, and the stupendous nature of what the church is … That is what I want to look at tonight and the next few weeks. The thing that’s going to be so hard is every one of us is going to look at what the Bible says the church is supposed to be through spectacles, and do you know what those spectacles are? They’re the spectacles of your own experience in the church. Some of you have had bad experiences. Many of you (most of us) have had mediocre experiences.

We’ve been stifled by mediocrity for years in the church, so when you read what the Bible says the church ought to be, you have these spectacles on, and what you tend to do is twist it and make it look like what you already expect. You see things the Bible says, and you whittle it down and say, “Well, I know what it’s talking about.” No, we don’t! We don’t, or what Peter said would be normal. The Acts church would be normal. It’s not, so I want to ask you tonight and the next few weeks if you’re able to come not to be passive.

If I just lay out what the Bible says here, you’re going to read it through the spectacles of your own experience and you’re going to filter out half of what is there. You have to help me. You have to help yourselves. You have to listen, grasp, and get a vision for what the church is supposed to be. Tonight, one thing I want to show you is the essence of the church. It’s in verse 31. This is the heart. This is the essence of what the church is. This is the central fact without which all the rest of the ministries and functions of the church are nothing but android operations.

Do you know what the central fact of the church is? It’s in verse 31. No, it’s not what you think. You think I’m going to say they were filled with the Spirit. That’s not what I’m going to say. That’s a symptom. That’s a result. What was the cause? The shaking. Realize that was the answer. In verse 29 (in fact, that whole passage) what are the apostles praying for? They’re praying that they might do the church’s ministry. They’re saying, “Oh, Lord, make us your servants,” they say in verse 29. They say, “Help us to preach the Word.” They say, “Help us to do all the things the church is supposed to do.”

How does God answer that? He answers it with the shaking. They prayed, and here is the answer. “… the place where they were meeting was shaken. And [as a result] they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and they spoke the word of God boldly.” Now what is the shaking? That’s a very important thing. Is this a Steven Spielberg special effect? Is it just a nice touch God put in there? Maybe it was a thunderclap. Maybe it was a bolt of lightning. That would be a nice effect. No. It’s not an effect. It’s the heart of things.

The shaking is a theophany. It means a visible representation of the presence of God. In Exodus 19, when God came down on Mount Sinai, his presence came down on the mountain, the mountain was crowned with smoke and fire, and the mountain shook. Hebrews 12:26 says on that day the earth shook with his voice. Whenever God comes down there is an earthquake. Israel never forgot him coming down on Mount Sinai, and they constantly prayed, “Oh, Lord, come back.”

For example, Isaiah 64:1. Listen to this prayer. “Oh that thou wouldest rend the heavens, that thou wouldest come down, that the mountains might flow down at thy presence.” The presence of God is so powerful, Isaiah is saying, that the timelessness of the mountains looks like brevity compared to this presence. The solidity of the mountains looks like liquid compared to the presence. Whenever God comes down, he shakes things. In Hebrews 12 we read about a commentary on Exodus 19. Listen to this.

It’s talking about Mount Sinai. The Hebrew writer says, “At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, ‘Once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.’ The words ‘once more’ indicate the removing of what can be shaken—that is, created things—so that what cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our ‘God is a consuming fire.’ ”

What is that saying? It’s saying whenever God shows up (when his presence descends) there is a shaking because next to God everything else that looks so strong and so solid is revealed as being shaky. Do you see? When the presence of God comes down, when his reality is clear, when we’re seeing him face to face, then things that look solid suddenly appear very shaky. Now that’s very important. Next to God’s power, all other things that impressed you as power are just popguns. Next to God’s love, all the things that look like love are very pale.

Why do you think the people who experienced the presence of God, like David, like Moses, like Jacob, were so bold? Why do you think people are able to die for their faith? Why is it that many of us in this room, if we were honest, would say, “I’m not sure I would die for my faith?” David, who saw the presence of God, had a very interesting verse that explained it. He said, “… thy loving kindness is better than life …” You’ve heard that. There is a song that says, “Thy loving kindness is better than life.”

Do you know what you’re saying when you sing that? You’re singing the loving kindness of God (the love of God) is that solid, and that’s more important than anything else in my physical life, my prosperity, and my goods. Everything else is shaky. It’s expendable. In the light of God’s face, I see what is really solid and what is shaky, and that’s why in the Old Testament Isaiah was saying, “Oh, I want your presence.” That’s why Moses was saying, “I want to see your face.” That’s why they prayed for that presence, because anyone who saw the face of God became unshakable.

Their love couldn’t be broken. Their courage couldn’t be broken. They wanted that! Some of you, if you’re thinking, and I hope some of you are thinking still, might say, “Now wait a minute. This presence of God stuff … I thought God was everywhere. How can you talk about coming into the presence of God? You might say, The only time I have felt the presence of God was when I was on the lip of the Grand Canyon and I was just overwhelmed with the beauty of nature, and I recognized God was in all of this, and I felt close to God. Isn’t that experiencing the presence of God?”

Not really. There is an Eastern concept of God that says, “God is everywhere. God is in everything.” The presence of God means coming to see that you are part of God and God is everything. Now friends, the Bible says that is only half true. The Bible says God is definitely everywhere because he’s a spirit, but the Bible also teaches God is not only a spirit, but a person. The Eastern view of God says he’s a spirit. Period. The biblical view says he’s not only a spirit; he’s a person, which means you can’t experience him at the Grand Canyon.

But because he’s a person, you don’t want to just experience God; you want to meet him. You don’t want to just experience God; you want to see him. You want to know him face to face. I’m not a computer expert, but maybe somebody out here is. Suppose I said to you, “Hey, listen. I have a friend named Jack, who is a terrific computer expert, and he designed this computer.” You started to look into it, and you noticed the design, and you began to say, “Man, this was a brilliant guy. I have never seen anything like this. Oh, look! He must be into this, and he must have read so and so. Oh, look! He’s done this.”

You’re deciphering this computer in a way I can’t. When you’re done, do you know anything about my friend, Jack? A lot. Have you learned about him? Have you experienced him? Yes, you know a whole lot about him. Do you know him face to face? Absolutely not. You can stick your head in there with the microchips and say, “Jack, Jack. Are you in there, Jack?” You can stick your head in the Grand Canyon but you won’t meet the Creator that way. You can’t!

The glory of the gospel is just this: Yes, God is everywhere because he’s a spirit, but there is also a royal throne-room presence. Everybody in this room is in the presence of everybody else. I don’t know how many people are in here. It looks like 90 or 100 people. You’re in the presence of 90 or 100 other people, and yet, the only person you’re facing right now (I think) is me. So because I’m a person, the fact that you’re facing me means there is a sense in which you’re in the presence of everyone else in the room, and yet you’re in my presence to a heightened degree?

There is greater communication, except some of you are poking each other and saying, “Gee, what do you think of that?” But most of you are looking at me, and if somebody would walk up here and sit down so our faces were closer together and we were talking one to one, you’d have to move our face-to-face knowledge, our communication, our intimacy up another notch. If you’re a person, face-to-face meeting is subject to degrees. The Bible says though you can kind of know God from the backside, from a distance, sort of the way I know there are a lot of people out there in New York …

I’m living in the presence of 18 million people, but I don’t know them. You can live in the presence of God in a general, backside way, but the Bible says there is a way to know him personally, and that’s what the Old Testament saints wanted. That’s what Jacob wanted, and when Jacob woke up after he had his dream and there was a stairway and the angels came back and forth, that was a theophany, because wherever the angels are there is the presence of God. God came down the stairway and talked with Jacob, and when Jacob woke up, what did he say?

“Boy, that was fun?” “Boy, he promised me a wife and kids. I always wanted to know if I was going to get married.” No. He said, “How awesome is this place!” “This is the [very] gate of heaven.” “This is Bethel, the house of God.” Now do you know why he talked like that? Because all the ancient people in Mesopotamia built these pyramids. They were called ziggurats, and the ziggurats had steps on them. You probably have seen pictures of them, but do you know archaeologists have dug those things up and found the steps were far too big for human beings to use?

What were they there for? Well, they were landing pads for the gods. They were trying to establish a link between heaven and earth. See, even the pagans wanted to come into the presence of the gods. When Jacob woke up, what did he say? He said, “Guess what? This is the stairway to heaven. This is Bethel. I’ve seen God face to face, and I’ll never be the same,” and yet, sad to say, if any of us had gone back to that spot to try to see God, would we have done it? Could we have met him face to face? No.

This is where the New Testament comes in. The New Testament makes a claim that is astonishing, and that is … now listen … the presence of God that was available sporadically, occasionally to the great men of the Old Testament (Moses, David, Jacob) … The presence of God that was fatal to people …

When God came down on Mount Sinai, no one could touch the mountain because his holiness and power and majesty were so great. They couldn’t even listen to him. That power, that presence, that reality which was available sporadically is now available continually to all those who know Christ as Savior and who gather in his name for worship.

When Jesus Christ was gathering his disciples, he talked to Nathaniel. Nathaniel had never met Christ. He went to Nathaniel and said, “Nathaniel, I saw you under the fig tree.” Now Nathaniel falls off his chair, but we don’t know why. Nobody really knows why. Obviously, Nathaniel was doing something under that fig tree that was either very bad or something very, very important happened to him there. Whatever it was, Jesus was showing Nathaniel he knew what really made him tick.

What did Nathaniel do? Nathaniel said, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel.” “I can’t believe it. You’re clairvoyant. It’s a miracle.” What did Jesus say? A weird thing. He said, “You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You shall see greater things than that.” “I tell you the truth, you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” Real clear, right? Do you know what he’s saying? “You get excited by a miracle. Big deal. Wait till you see. I am the gate. I am the stairway of heaven.

The thing Jacob had for a moment, I am the axis mundi, the axis of the world. I am the link between heaven and earth. I bring the presence of God into your midst. You will see angels ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” In John 3, Jesus told Nicodemus, “You must be born again.” Nicodemus said, “How? How can you be born again?” He said, “You must believe me because I’m the only one who both descended and ascended to heaven.” Do you know what he’s saying?

He’s again saying, “The reason you can be born again is I’m the stairway. Through me, the presence of God that made Mount Sinai smoke and tremble, that killed cattle and killed people, can come right into your life, transforming you, and you can know it continually.” Then in the book of Hebrews, you have this absolutely, incredible passage without which you can’t understand the gospel, really. Hebrews 12. It’s the latter part of chapter 12 and goes like this:

“You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire …” “The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, ‘I am trembling with fear.’ But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly … You have come to God … to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant … and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.”

Do you get that? Can I translate? It says there was a mountain that could be touched, and it was burning and smoking with the presence of God, but now you’ve come to a mountain just as real, a presence just as real, though you can’t touch the mountain. You come right into God’s presence. You’re right there with the angels.

Every time Christians meet to worship, the same presence of God that was on the mountain that could be touched is present here. It’s available. How could that be? Because of the mediator, Jesus Christ, whose blood speaks more graciously than the blood of Abel. You remember when Cain killed Abel, his blood spilled on the ground, and God came to Cain and said, “Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.”

It cries out vengeance and revenge. But Jesus’ blood cries out grace, and the minute Jesus died, the veil in the temple that separated the presence of God in the Holy of Holies from the people outside was ripped. It’s the death of Christ. Those of us who have come in under his blood, those of us who have just asked him to be our Savior, the presence of God is now safe for us.

It’s no longer a terrific thing. It’s no longer a terrible thing because we’re covered by the blood. Because of the mediation of Christ, we can come right into the presence of God, and that is the central fact of the church. Aren’t you glad I only have one point tonight? This is it. Everything the Bible says about the church hinges on this, and you’re going to be a cynic if you don’t understand this, and if you understand this, you cannot live in cynicism. How many of you are cynics? “What do you mean? I live in New York.”

First Corinthians 14:24–25 says when an unbeliever comes into your worship and sees us worshipping, “he will be convinced by all that he is a sinner … the secrets of his heart will be laid bare. So he will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, ‘God is really among you!’ ” That is saying in worship the presence of God is so real, even an unbeliever walking in, though he cannot account for it, will be forced to acknowledge it. Does that happen? You see, there’s the claim for ministry.

Paul, the apostle, writes the Ephesians. The Ephesians were Greek people, and they lived far away from Palestine, and he said Christ, “… came and preached peace to you …,” therefore, you believed. Now we know for a fact Jesus Christ did not come and preach to the Ephesians while he was on earth. Then what could Paul mean? What he means is when any of us who are Christians receive the presence of God into us, when we go minister we’re not ministering out of our own power, but Christ is ministering through us.

That’s the only reason Christ could say to people when he was on earth, “You will do greater works than I.” That is a promise. “You will do greater works than I.” That is only possible if the very presence of God is in our midst. That’s the thing that is promised, and because of the shaking, which happens again and again (not once) in Acts 2, 4, 12, 13, 14, and so on (then again 400 years like in the Old Testament), continually. God descended. In verse 31, it says when that happens the result is people are filled with the Holy Spirit.

Fortunately, those of you who don’t have much of a church background (there are plenty of you, and that’s great) haven’t heard about all those controversies, but, you know, Christians argue a whole lot about what it means to be filled with the Spirit. Let me tell you what I think. People who are aware of the presence of God, who are living in the presence of God, are filled with the Spirit. Period. To be in the presence of God means reality.

When I’m talking to my kids and I’m driving along (I just did 10 hours of that yesterday) and I want to say something to one of my children … “You have to stop picking on your brother.” My face is looking out the windshield. The kids are back there. Maybe they don’t get the point. I stop the car. I turn around. I put my face in the child’s face, and I say, “Go ahead. Make my day.” Now what I’ve done at that point is I’ve filled his vision and filled his attention and filled his focus and attention with me and my word. What I say has more reality than any of his little impulses.

My friends, to be in the presence of God means always his power is so real you’re not intimidated by anything else. His love is so real you’re not swayed or wooed by any higher loyalty. Now the fact is the presence of God is subject to degrees. I said so. Some of you are in my presence now, but you could walk forward and be more in my presence. It’s natural. An experience in the presence of God, which is available to all Christians, is something we have to seek continually because it’s available continually.

Sometimes it comes through with incredible power. Jonathan Edwards, some of you have heard of him. He was a Congregational minister in New England 200 years ago. Listen to this little note from his prayer diary: “Once, as I rode out into the woods for my health, in 1737 … I had a view that was for me extraordinary. [The inward eyes of my heart were opened and I saw the] glory of the Son of God … and his wonderful, great … pure and sweet grace and love.

The person of Christ appeared ineffably excellent with an excellency great enough to swallow up all thought and conception, which continued as near as I could judge [as a condition of me, for] about an hour, which kept me the greater part of the time in a flood of tears and weeping aloud. I felt an ardency of soul to be … full of Christ alone; to love him with a holy and pure love; to trust in him; to live upon him; to serve … him.”

Now I don’t know about you, but when I read a statement like that, this is what I think. “Is this guy in the same religion I’m in?” Maybe I’m in the international league, and he’s in the big leagues or something. Don’t be discouraged. He was experiencing the presence of God at a heightened degree, and the presence of God is something you cannot push buttons and experience to the same degree when you go before him in your private prayer or when you come together and go before him corporately, but what the Scripture teaches is we expect far too little of this. We expect so little reality in our lives.

The people of the church experienced this, and you see in verses 33 and 37 a lot of interesting descriptions, but they all boil down to two things, and they’re both in verse 33: Great power and great grace. Power and grace. If you see God’s power, if it’s real to you (you know, it’s up in your face) first of all you will stop being a coward about a lot of things. You’re not afraid. That’s why every time in the book of Acts where it says they were filled with the Spirit, they got bold. Because you see God and you say, “What in the heck am I afraid of? This is for me.” It also means, when you see the power of God, you stop being cynical.

I warned you I was going to get to this. Let me push this button. Cynicism is a condition where shaky things look solid to you. Things that are shaky, things that can come down, the habits in your life you haven’t been able to kick, the people in your life you know you’ve given up on … they’ll never change … who are either too powerful and together to ever, ever be reached for Christ or the people who are too messed up and weird and twisted to ever be helped by Christ, the cultural trends that will never, never change and reverse.

All these things make you cynical. You don’t expect much. You are not living in the presence of God. It’s impossible to have any kind of a grip on his power and be cynical. Repent! I know starting up here, at least 80 to 90 percent of us tonight ought to respond to this passage by going home and repenting for the cynicism we have in our lives. Do you hear that? If you don’t do that, if you don’t even think about it … You can always say, “Oh, well, it was awfully hot and it was hard to really concentrate that night.”

The other thing that always is a result of being in the presence of God besides great power is great grace. You see, there is a hardness and a toughness that come from seeing God, and there is an intimacy, because to be in the presence of God means his love washes over you. The effect of that is to make you generous. That’s why these people were incredibly generous with their money and with their time. In fact, I want you to know the early Romans thought Christians were unbelievably strange in two major ways.

Christians stood out completely in the Roman Empire because of their sexual purity and because of their incredible financial generosity. Those were the two things that set them completely apart from their society. On the one hand, they believed sex was something exclusively for the marriage covenant. Period. On the other hand, they were anti-materialistic, incredibly generous, and deeply involved in helping the needs of the poor.

You see, I think when you see somebody who is incredibly licentious in their personal life but wonderfully altruistic in their social action or when you see somebody who is unbelievably upright and moral in their personal life but proud and greedy and materialistic when it comes to their social ethics, you cannot see in either of those mirrors God, because anyone who sees God is both full of great power and great grace. Without God, you can be a barbarian or you can be a wimp, but you can’t be …

A person who is being transformed into the image of Jesus Christ … The more we look at him face to face … You know, the medieval concept of chivalry (the Knights of the Round Table) was a Christian concept, because knights were not just supposed to be fierce; they were also supposed to be meek and cultured. They weren’t a compromise between fierceness and meekness, sort of a happy medium; they were fierce to the nth degree and they were meek to the nth degree.

That is a picture of what a Christian is. It’s a picture of what the church is, and a church that is continually living in the presence of God will constantly be looked at as weird, because on the one hand, we won’t be a legalistic church, always talking about repentance without any talk of grace and compassion, nor will we be an inspirational church always talking about positive, wonderful self-esteem without ever calling people to the bad news of the gospel. Do you see that? If we live in the presence of God, we’ll be weird.

All right. In the next few weeks, I’ll talk to you a quite a bit more about how you get there, but let me just say this. If you look to see how the apostles got into this condition, I will challenge you to look at two things. First, they did not form a committee. They prayed, and it’s a long prayer. It takes up the whole chapter. You know, when I was getting ready to preach on this thing, I wanted to find points in this. You see, a good preacher wants to find points in his text.

Well, the whole point is they prayed, and they prayed, and they prayed, and they prayed. It goes on verse after verse, and then God came down. I said, “Gosh! There is only one point.” Actually, there are two. They prayed and they prayed. They didn’t form a committee. They didn’t jump to what the church does. They started with what the church is, and they filled their minds with it and they prayed. The prayer is completely unselfish. They’re not praying for themselves at all. They don’t say, “Oh, Lord, protect us. Protect our kids.”

They don’t say, “Oh, Lord, when the new election comes in, bring a mayor in and an administration that will be more open to religious freedom.” They say, “Oh, Lord, just don’t let us chicken out.” They pray. It is kingdom centered. It’s corporate. It’s prevailing. But the other thing they do is they make themselves a living sacrifice. Now this is another sermon, so I can just summarize. In the Old Testament, whenever God’s fire came down it was because somebody put a sacrifice there, and the bigger the sacrifice (the more goats and sheep and oxen, and all that) the bigger the fire.

The lavish sacrifices, the most extravagant and expensive sacrifices, brought down the biggest fire. These apostles made themselves living sacrifices in that prayer. If you look carefully, what they’re saying is, “Oh, Lord, take us. We don’t care if we’re killed. We go flat-out for you. We make ourselves a living sacrifice.” Do you know how they did it? They said, “We’re going to obey you, and we’re going to trust you, and no matter what happens, we’re going to obey and trust you and make our lives a sacrifice.”

Until you do that, you can forget about experiencing the presence of God and being people of power and grace. Until a group of people does this, you can forget about the church ever being anything remarkable. Don’t you see? What does it mean to make yourself a sacrifice? What does it mean to put yourself on the altar? It means, number one, to give him your agenda. Some of you have agendas you won’t give up. You believe the basic Christian principles, you come to church, you try to be moral, but do you know what your agenda is?

You’ve decided your life has to go a certain way, and if God is going to be loving and kind and good to you, he’s going to give you that agenda you have set, and you’re going to take that agenda or nothing at all. You’re watching God to see whether he does it, and some of you are pretty upset because he’s way behind your schedule. You sacrifice your agenda or you’re not a sacrifice. You have to say, “Lord, your agenda, not mine.” You have to say, “My time, my money, my will,” and if you give him those things, he turns it to gold.

I’ll just finish with a story. It was an old beggar … (This can’t be a true story. Who cares?) Years ago, there was an old beggar who lived back when there was a king. The king came to town, and the beggar lifted his plate to him. It was full of foodstuffs and things that had been put in there by people who had been donating all day. He lifted it to the king, and the king said, “Oh, no. I’m not going to give you anything. I want you to give me something.”

The beggar said, “Wait a minute. This isn’t very democratic,” but he put his head down and reached in and pulled out all the rice that was in there: five grains. There were a lot of other things in there, but he pulled out five grains of rice and put it in the king’s hand. The king said, “Thank you.”

That night, the fairy tale goes, the beggar came back and looked into his bowl, and he found five nuggets of gold in there with the carrots and potatoes, and he looked down and said … This is how the fairy tale ends, and it’s not a Christian fairy tale, but I’m making it that, you know. “Oh, that I had given him all!” No sacrifice, no fire. No power, no grace. The only way to receive a King into your life is to give him the key to the house, to the life. Let’s bow in prayer.

Our Father, all we ask is that you would enable us to see we cannot lose anything worth keeping if we give ourselves to you totally. Corporately, we need to do that as a body, but individually, first of all, we need to do that. Many of us are holding on to our agendas. Many of us are holding on to our time, holding on to many things we believe we cannot lose, but Father, we have to put everything on that altar and then we will gain you yourself. Enable every person here to do that. We pray it in Jesus’ name, amen.

ABOUT THE PREACHER

In 1989 Dr. Timothy J. Keller, his wife and three young sons moved to New York City to begin Redeemer Presbyterian Church. In 20 years it has grown to meeting for five services at three sites with a weekly attendance of over 5,000. Redeemer is notable not only for winning skeptical New Yorkers to faith, but also for partnering with other churches to do both mercy ministry and church planting.  Redeemer City to City is working to help establish hundreds of new multi-ethnic congregations throughout the city and other global cities in the next decades.

Dr. Tim Keller is the author of several phenomenal Christo-centric books including:

Joy for the World: How Christianity Lost Its Cultural Influence and Can Begin Rebuilding It (co-authored with Greg Forster and Collin Hanson (February or March, 2014).

Encounters with Jesus:Unexpected Answers to Life’s Biggest Questions. New York, Dutton (November 2013).

Walking with God through Pain and Suffering. New York, Dutton (October 2013).

Judges For You (God’s Word For You Series). The Good Book Company (August 6, 2013).

Galatians For You (God’s Word For You Series). The Good Book Company (February 11, 2013).

Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Plan for the World. New York, Penguin Publishing, November, 2012.

Center ChurchDoing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, September, 2012.

The Freedom of Self Forgetfulness. New York: 10 Publishing, April 2012.

Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just. New York: Riverhead Trade, August, 2012.

The Gospel As Center: Renewing Our Faith and Reforming Our Ministry Practices (editor and contributor). Wheaton: Crossway, 2012.

The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God. New York, Dutton, 2011.

King’s Cross: The Story of the World in the Life of Jesus (Retitled: Jesus the KIng: Understanding the Life and Death of the Son of God). New York, Dutton, 2011.

Gospel in Life Study Guide: Grace Changes Everything. Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2010.

The Reason For God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. New York, Dutton, 2009.

Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Priorities of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope That Matters. New York, Riverhead Trade, 2009.

Heralds of the King: Christ Centered Sermons in the Tradition of Edmund P. Clowney (contributor). Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2009.

The Prodigal God. New York, Dutton, 2008.

Worship By The Book (contributor). Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002.

Ministries of Mercy: The Call of the Jericho Road. Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 1997.

 

 

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SUNDAY SERMON: Dr. Tim Keller on “CHRIST OUR HEAD”

SERIES: THE KING AND THE KINGDOM – PART 1 – EPHESIANS 1:15-23

Tim Keller preaching image

15 For this reason, ever since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints, 16 I have not stopped giving thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers. 17 I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. 18 I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, 19 and his incomparably great power for us who believe.

That power is like the working of his mighty strength, 20 which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, 21 far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. 22 And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.

I keep reading articles and books about New York. This week I read that whereas New York has to compete with Los Angeles as media capital of the world, has to compete with Tokyo as financial capital of the world, has to compete with London as theater capital of the world, and has to compete with Paris as fashion capital of the world, there is one area where there is no competition.

The article said New York is the power capital of the world, not just because it’s the only city that competes in all those categories, but because this is the place where people who want power and where the people who have power come to live. When I looked up the word power in the dictionary, I found all the dictionaries say the same thing. Power is the ability to act, the ability to do. This week again I saw an interesting quote that said people do not come to New York City to think or to reflect; they come to do.

In fact, when I read the interviews of famous people around here and I listen to what they’re saying, the interviewers are basically trying to find what makes you tick. When it comes down to it, though there are hundreds of different answers, I think you can reduce them. Basically the people are saying, “Do you know what makes me tick? Power. Why do I build this skyscraper? Why do I throw this party? Why do I hold this concert? I want to show you what I can do. Look what I can do. Look at the power I have. Look how I count.”

Paul here talks about power that makes all the power of New York combined look like a pop gun, a power that makes all of the power of New York comparatively look like a soggy paper airplane. It says here in verse 19 (and this is what the passage is about) God has “incomparably great power.” That’s a great phrase. Great power in Greek is completely understandable in English. Did you know that? The word greatness is the word megethos, and the word power is the word dunameōs. So what you have there is the megaton dynamite of God. It’s a great phrase, and everybody knows what it’s talking about. It doesn’t need translation. It talks about the megaton dynamite of God.

The real kicker word is the word incomparably. If you have an older translation, it might say, “The exceeding power of God.” The word incomparably is a good word. What Paul is saying is, “It can’t be compared.” Ordinarily the way in which we would measure or try to describe power is we try to describe it by comparing it to something else you know. So you can say, “A hurricane has one thousandth of the power of a nuclear warhead. A nuclear warhead has one millionth of the power of an explosion on the surface of the sun. The sun has one billionth of the power of an exploding supernova.”

How do we describe the power of God? Do we say, “His power is the power of 100 supernovas, a million supernovas, or a billion billion?” Paul is saying here, “No, no, no. God is not at the top of a scale. God has never been on the scale, so he is not even off the scale. He utterly transcends scales.” The reason for that we’re told again and again in the Psalms. The Psalms tell us, “… power belongs to God.” Now look at that. Look and wonder. “… power belongs to God” means not that God has more power than anything or anyone else, but that anyone or anything that has even an atom of power has it because God has delegated it to him. God has all the power.

Now this is an extremely practical teaching. How could Jesus Christ look Pilate right in the eye with calmness and with serenity when he knew Pilate was about to tear him apart and he had the power? Did he have the power? That’s what Pilate was saying: “I have the power to crush you.” Jesus looks at him calmly, not flippantly, because he knew Pilate had power. What did he say? Where did he get his calmness? He said, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above.” Jesus says, “I know you have power. I respect that power, but you don’t have one atom more of it than what has been given to you.” All power belongs to him. That’s what we’re being told here. It’s incomparably great power.

Take a look at all the big power brokers of the world. I don’t mean the ones even now. Look at Alexander the Great, absolute monarch of all the Western world. Look at all the Caesars. Look at Hitler. Look at the incredibly wealthy people we’ve had in the history of the world. Do they really have power? Can they really determine the course of events in the world? It says here, “Jesus Christ is above every title.” Isaiah 40: “He brings the rulers to nothing.” Now that’s power. That’s power.

Friends, my question to you here is … Do you believe that? Now most of you have backgrounds where you have heard this. I think many of you probably do. If your background is Jewish, if your background is Roman Catholic, if your background is Protestant, you’ve heard this. That’s not what Paul is praying for here. Do you see what Paul is praying for? He is saying, “I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope … the riches … and his incomparably great power.”

You might know about this power, but do you know it the way Jesus knew it? Do you grasp it? Has it sunk in? Do you act on it? Does it affect the way in which you deal with powerful people? Does it affect the way in which you deal with your fears? Has it radically changed your priorities?

Even further, is it flowing through you? Because it says here in verse 19, “… his incomparably great power for us who believe.” For us. It’s the little Greek word eis, which means through or within. Paul means here that the power of God can come through us. You can thrill under it. It can surge through you, and you can become effective, because that’s what power is: the ability to act, the ability to bring about effect, the ability to bring about impact. Now the question is … Do you know this and not just know about it? That’s a pretty good question. Could you look at Pilate in the eye like Jesus did?

If you’re going to know it, you need to take a look at the passage. The passage tells you a lot, but it tells you three things we’re going to look at tonight. Those three things are first of all this is resurrection power. Secondly, it tells us this is headship power. It only comes to people through the headship of Jesus. Thirdly, it’s power that only comes to people born again by the Spirit. It’s resurrection power, it’s headship power, and it’s spiritual power. I’ll explain that as we go along. Let’s roll.

1. Resurrection power

Paul says, “Let me tell you about the incomparably great power of God. This is the power he used to do what? To raise Jesus Christ from the dead and seat him at the right hand above all rule and authority and power and dominion.” Now why does Paul use that illustration? After all, why didn’t he say, “This is the great power God used to put the planets in orbit?” Now that’s pretty powerful. “This is the power God used to scatter the stars across the heavens.” That’s pretty powerful.

No, he goes to the resurrection of Jesus, and here’s why. Of all the powers you can find in the world, there is no power like death. Why does a hurricane have power at all? Why do we say a hurricane is powerful? Because it has some of the power of death. It can kill. Mankind can harness some of the power of creation. We can split the atom. We can do all that, but we will always die.

Don’t you realize, therefore, death is the main power that is arrayed against us? The Bible calls it the last enemy. If you could lick that power, the power of death, don’t you realize there would be no other power that would be a match for you? If you could lick the power of death … do you want a sunny vacation? You could go to the sun and camp out there for the weekend. If you licked that, there would be no other power.

That’s exactly what God did. He snapped the power of death. In Acts 2, Peter says, “But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.” It was impossible. That’s why Paul can say, “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” That is a taunt, and that is incredible. That’s absolutely incredible that someone can taunt death. There are all kinds of other things which are very, very powerful. A supernova is nothing like death.

This is a letter from a young Lutheran German minister who was put to death in a Nazi death camp. This letter was published after the war. He is not famous. You’ve never heard of him. His name is Hermann. This is what he wrote to his parents the day he died. Listen to this.

When this letter comes into your hands I shall no longer be among the living. The thing that has occupied our thoughts constantly for many months … is now about to happen. If you ask me what state I am in I can only answer: I am, first, in a joyous mood and, second, filled with a great anticipation. ‘God shall wipe away every tear from their eyes.’ What consolation, what marvelous strength emanates from Christ. I am amazed. In Christ I have put my faith, and precisely today I have faith in him more firmly than ever.

My parents, look up the following passages: 1 Corinthians 15 and Romans 14:8. Look anywhere you want in the Bible, and everywhere I find jubilation over the grace that makes us children of God. What can really happen to a child of God? Of what indeed should I be afraid? Everything that till now I have done, struggled for, and accomplished, has at bottom been directed to this one goal, whose barrier I shall penetrate today. “Eye hath not seen nor ear heard, neither has entered into the heart of man the things which God has prepared for them that love him.”

For me, believing will become seeing; hope will become possession, and I shall forever share in Him who is love. Should I not, then, be filled with anticipation? What is it all going to be like? The things that up to this time I have been permitted to preach about, I shall now see. There will be no more secrets nor tormenting puzzles. Today is the great day … From the very beginning I have put everything into the hands of God, and now he demands this end of me. Good. His will be done. And so, until we meet again above, in the presence of the Father of light. Your joyful, Hermann.

I don’t know. I hope I could write a letter like that. What kind of power can enable a human being to laugh in the face of death? When Paul says, “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” that’s mockery. That is scorn. That’s humor. That’s incredible. That’s why Paul picks out the resurrection.

Here’s the weird part, and here’s the staggering part. He is trying to show us that the power that is working eis (in us, through us), that’s surging through us if we have Jesus Christ as our Savior, is this resurrection power. What Paul is saying is, “This is the way you measure it. The resurrection is the unit by which you can measure the power in us.” That is incredible.

A unit of measurement is important. If I say, “Do you know how much this book weighs?” and you say, “How much?” and I say, “It weighs five,” that doesn’t help you much, does it? You say, “I want to know what your terms of measurement are. Do you mean five ounces? Do you mean five tons? Wow. Do you mean five pounds?” You have to know what the unit of measurement is.

Paul is saying right here, “This is the unit. This is the only way you can measure it. Death-breaking resurrection power, the same stuff that raised Jesus from the dead when death itself, with all of its fury and all of its power and all of its inevitable strength, tried to bind Jesus up. He broke the bands of death like a thread. That’s what’s in your life now. It’s the only way to measure it.”

That means the things of death in your life, the decay, the destructive emotions and habits, the addictions, the confusions, the brokenness … Even though the power of death is gradually being broken so sometimes it’s here, sometimes it’s greater, and sometimes it’s less, eventually the power of the resurrection will be ascendant in your life.” Will be ascendant in your life.

Why do you think Paul can write the whole Philippian church and he can say, “[I am sure] that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus?” How can he be so sure about that? A lot of you aren’t sure at all about that, are you? You say, “I know God began a good work in me, but I have screwed up so badly. I don’t have the confidence God will ever bring it to completion.”

Do you know why? Do you know why Paul is sure and why you’re not? Because Paul knows the power of God, the incomparably great power of God, and you don’t. At least you’re not thinking it out. You might know about it, but you don’t know it. Do you rejoice in that? Do you understand that? Do you realize that’s what’s in you? Death-breaking power?

2. Headship power

Verse 22: “And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.” If you look carefully you’ll see something very interesting. Jesus is said here to be a head over the world and over the church. It says here he is ruling over everything. He is head over all things for us. So there is a sense in which he is directing everything for us. Yet this verse also tells us we are part of his body. It’s talking about the very important Pauline teaching that Jesus is the head and we are part of his body, the church.

So we see here two kinds of power. There’s a power God exercises for us by ordering everything in the world for us, and there’s a power God exercises in us. There’s an external kind of power, and there’s an internal kind. There’s a power he operates in the world, and there’s a power he operates in us. Look at those. They’re both kinds of headship.

First of all, do you see what it says? Let’s drink this one in. “God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church …” This is nothing less than Romans 8:28, that great promise, “All things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.” All things work together for good. This is saying if you belong to him, everything that happens out there is happening is for you.

Now it’s very seldom we can see how that works. Occasionally God pulls the curtain back and we get a glimpse of him. I remember when I first came to my first church in Virginia. It was a little Presbyterian church that was struggling, and they were so happy to get a pastor. I was so desperate that I took the church. They were just amazed they got a pastor. Of course there were just one or two desperate enough people to take it.

I remember one day getting up, trying to explain this passage, and saying to them, “Listen, friends, do you know why I’m here? I’m glad I’m here. You’re glad I’m here. I’m glad I’m here. It has worked out beautifully. It’s because at the very end of my seminary career I decided to become a Presbyterian. That’s why I could go to a Presbyterian church. Do you know why I decided to be Presbyterian?

Because I fell under the influence of a particular teacher my last semester at seminary. Do you know why I fell under that man’s influence? He came from England after having tremendous visa problems (and probably wasn’t going to get there until the following year). At the last minute somebody cut through the red tape. He came, and I fell under his influence. Do you know why the red tape was cut? The dean of my seminary was on his knees praying about how we were going to get this guy over here when Mike Ford, Gerald Ford’s son, walked in and asked him what he was praying for. Mike Ford was a student at the seminary at that time.

Do you know why Mike Ford was able to cut the red tape? Because his father was the president. Do you know why his father was the president? Because Nixon had resigned. Do you know why Nixon resigned? Because of the Watergate scandal. Do you know why there was a Watergate scandal? Because one day a guard noticed in the Watergate building a particular door ajar that should have been closed.

Who knows why? Maybe that day he took a drink at the water fountain he shouldn’t have, and he just happened to notice it.” I looked at my people, and I said, “What am I doing here? Watergate was for you. Watergate was for me.” Occasionally God rips aside the veil, and you begin to see this very fact: All things happen for you. All things. Everything is knit together.

Christianity is a unique religion. The Bible tells us the way in which God operates is utterly different than what either Western religions or Eastern religions say. Just give me a minute about this. That’s all. Western religions in general have said, “You are in charge of your own destiny. You make your choices. If they’re good choices you ascend; if they’re bad choices you descend.” The people who really like that approach to life say, “Yeah. I get where I get because of my choices.” The successful, famous, and well-off people have always believed that, and of course poor people have always been uptight about that.

Have any of you been reading the New York Times magazine recently? There was an interesting article about Oprah Winfrey a few weeks ago. She said, “I got up there because I made the right choices. I got in touch with who I was.” Just this week there have already been letters saying, “She is giving us the impression that those of us who haven’t come to the top just weren’t as wonderful and as in touch with ourselves as she was.”

The people who have always hit that free will stuff and said, “Yeah, it’s all a matter of free will,” are always the ones on the top. The people who are underneath realize an awful lot of it seems to be breaks, an awful lot of it seems to be who you know, where you were, where you born, who your parents were and all that, and they get irked at that theory of why some people are on the top and some people are on the bottom.

Eastern religions have always been very fatalistic. They’ve always had a tendency to say, “Look. There is this great thing called fate. Nobody can do anything about it. All your choices are for naught because where you go is just determined by the faceless fate.” Christianity will have neither of those things.

Christianity says, “The answer to what Oprah Winfrey is talking about, the answer to what the Eastern religions are talking about, the thing that liberates and brings it all together is the incomparably great power of God.” God is so great that he works out a plan, a plan to work everything out for your good if you belong to him, and his glory, which takes into consideration your choices, and still works his plan out infallibly.

Jacob lied to his father, Isaac, and wanted his birthright. He cheated his older brother out of it. Because he cheated, because he lied, he had to flee from his family. Was he guilty? Yes. Did he experience pain in his life because of that choice? Yes. Was he punished for it? Yes. But because he sinned he went and found his wife, Rachel, through whom the Messiah came. Was it all right then that he sinned?

No, but don’t you see because Jacob sinned, though God held him responsible for that choice, did that put him on an eternal plan B? Did he say, “I’ve ruined it from now on because of this sin. God will never give me the best?” My friends, no. When he sinned he went into the best for him. God is far greater than your stupid choices.

Peter says in Acts 2:23 to the people he is talking to, “[Jesus Christ] was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death …” Now wait a minute. You’re wicked for putting him to death, and yet it was all purposed by God. How could they both be? Because we don’t have a mechanistic, impersonal universe; we have a God who’s infinitely wise and incomparably powerful, who is able to work all things together for you.

Now my friends, don’t you see? Yeah, you can scratch your head a little bit and say, “I don’t see how it all connects,” but this liberates, because if I really thought it was all a matter of my choices, that all of my destiny, everything that happened depended on my good choices, I wouldn’t get out of bed in the morning. I’d be afraid. “Which side of the bed should I get up out of?” The guard who found the Watergate door open … That was just because maybe he was 10 seconds later that day or something. I’d be scared to death. If I thought it was all fate, why get out of bed? If I feel like killing and maiming and raping, why not do that? Who cares?

By the way those famous people, when you see them interviewed, go one side or the other. They either say, “It was because I was so brilliant and I made the right choices,” or they’ll say, “I was destined for greatness.” Neither of those is a Christian understanding. Neither of those takes into consideration the incomparably great power of God. Fear gnaws those people because if it was because of your great choices, you ought to always be scared. What if you can’t keep it up? If you’ve made it as a great comic, you ought to be always gnawed with fear because what if tomorrow you can’t think of any more good jokes?

On the other hand, if you think it’s just destiny, you would be always gnawed with fear because what happens if fate just turns you away? “Is it me or is it impersonal fate?” It’s the incomparably great power of God, and that power is bent on your joy and benefit. “All things work together for good …” That gives us responsibility, but man does that give us security. Do you know the power of God? Do you not just know about it? Do you build your life on it? Do you draw your strength from it? That’s what Paul is talking about here. Do you see he is head over all things for the church? Do you have that?

There is another kind of headship: We are his body. That is something amazing. This image is my head, my body. I know it’s not a really good example, but it’s the one I have in hand. The head relates to the body, first of all in the sense of authority. Of course your body does what your head tells you. If it doesn’t it’s a disease. It’s a pathology. But that’s not all headship means.

Headship doesn’t just mean authority; it also means intimacy, because the body and the head participate in the same life. A head is not sewn on to the body nor a body sewn on to a head. It’s not stapled together, but it’s combined by living tissue. Now this gets to the essence of what a Christian is. I don’t know what you think the essence of a Christian is. I’ll tell you what it’s not. Some people say, “The essence of being a Christian is being American or European or Western.”

There are international people who come here all the time to study, and they come to church. Why? Because they’re studying American culture. They say, “Well I come from a Muslim land,” or, “I come from a Hindu land, and you’re in a Christian land. So if I want to understand your culture, I have to understand your religion,” because they see Christianity as being an aspect of culture. Not at all. Christianity can be the heart of any culture, but Christianity is not simply a sociological phenomenon.

Some people think the essence of Christianity is to believe the truth. Of course that is a big part of being a Christian, but there are plenty of people who are orthodox in their doctrine all for the wrong reasons. I know plenty of people who were taught good theology and doctrine as children. They grew up, and the reason I believe they adhere to that doctrine is because of nostalgia. It reminds them of a time when they were cared for. They think of their parents, and so they just feel good listening to the words come out. “I believe in the Ten Commandments. I believe in the Sermon on the Mount. I believe in the Bible.” There is no power in the person’s life.

Some people say, “Being a Christian is following the ideals of Christ.” That’s part of it too, but none of these things get at the essence of what it means to be a Christian. It’s silly to say, “A Christian is someone who follows Jesus’ example or who believes Jesus’ words,” as to say, “A doctor is somebody who wears a white coat.” Now it’s true that a lot of doctors wear white coats, but that’s not the definition of a doctor because there are a lot of other people who wear white coats besides doctors. It’s an incidental thing.

The essence of being a Christian is you’re in the body. I’ll put it another way. There was an old Scotsman named Scougal who wrote a book 200 years ago titled The Life of God in the Soul of Man. That is the essence of being a Christian. The essence of Christianity is the life of God, the power of God, the nature of God, has actually come into your life.

It says in 2 Peter 1:4, “[We are made] partakers of the divine nature …” Now that’s incredible. That means the lifeblood of God comes in. That’s the reason the Bible sometimes talks about Christians being people who are reborn, regenerated, living. The lifeblood, the life-substance of God comes into our lives so we’re renewed. It’s so stupid to do what some people do, and that is to talk about two kinds of Christians. You have the kind who believe and they follow the teachings of Christ, and then there are the “born again” variety. The “born again” variety is the intense types who insist on an emotional experience.

My friends, the Bible says you’re not a Christian at all unless he is your head. That means his life has come into you so his heart now beats through your heart so you feel what he feels, you love what he loves, and you hate what he hates. His mind penetrates your mind so you see what he sees with clarity. His character comes in so you begin to act like him. He is your head. The power comes through. That’s the only kind of Christian there is, and that’s the essence of it: the life of God in the soul of man.

That’s the reason why you have this incredible word right here: “… which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.” Do you know what that is? Fullness is the word pleroma. The best way I can do this quickly is to tell you fullness means we are his glory. One of the best ways to translate it is to say, “He comes into his own through us.” When you say, “A ballplayer has come into his own,” what you mean is his talent was always there, but now everybody sees it. He has come into his own. What this is saying is Jesus Christ is glorified by revealing who he is through us. That is a remarkable statement. That’s scary.

Here’s the best illustration I can give you. When your children do something that is praiseworthy (if you haven’t had children, you have no idea), it astonishes you how good you feel about yourself. It’s totally irrational, but you feel, “Hey, it makes me feel great. They’re beautiful. I feel beautiful.” When your children do something shameful, you’re so cast down because if your children are ugly, it says to the world, “He is ugly.” If your children are beautiful, it says to the world, “He is beautiful.” There is that link. “They’re my fullness.”

This claim is both exciting and also scary. It means, on the one hand, God can reproduce Jesus’ glory in you, breath of Spirit, infectious joy. Nobility and love can happen in you. It also means the way in which you act tells the world what Jesus looks like. He chooses for it to be like that. That means when you’re ugly you’re saying to the world, “This is what Jesus is like.” Let me underline something … let me even say it loud. To the extent that you grasp this truth, you will receive power not to sin. Do you hear it? I have to get your attention. I know it’s late here. To the extent that you understand that and grasp that truth, you receive power not to sin. Fullness.

Paul says, “I don’t want you to just know about this; I want you to know it.” Do you know how you know something? You work it in two ways. Number one, you work it in by thinking it out, living in a holy consciousness of it, praying over it, and reflecting it until your heart gets big with it.

I’ll tell you another way in which you know something is you step out and act on it. Philippians 2 says, “… work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.” What that means is don’t sit here and say, “I’ll do it as soon as I feel the power surge.” It says, “Work out, for God is at work.” It says, “Go do it. Step out. The power comes in the doing. Don’t wait to feel the power. The power comes in the obedience.”

In Romans and in Hebrews when Abraham was told by God to offer Isaac up, we’re told Abraham looked and he was persuaded that God had the power to raise Isaac up from the dead. So he gave glory to God, and he did not stagger at the Word of God. Now what do you think Abraham did there? Do you feel like Abraham got up that morning ready to sacrifice his son and said, “Ah, I just feel the power of God surging through me. I can’t wait to get up there and see what God is going to do in the mountain?” No. What he did was he thought about it.

This is what you have to do. There is no excuse here. Don’t you dare go away saying, “Look, this is a lot of great talk, but frankly I know about the power of God. It’s all abstract, but I don’t know this kind of power in my life. I guess I’ll just have to wait around until the bolt hits.” No. We’re told Abraham got up and he was persuaded. He thought it out. He saw how God’s power bore on his situation, and he acted on it.

Do you think he felt good? It wasn’t until he got to the mountain. When he got up there, he was about to sacrifice Isaac, God showed him the provision, and he gave him the ram to sacrifice instead of Isaac, they named that place The Lord Will Provide. What is that? Jehovah-jireh. In the mouth of the Lord it will be revealed. You won’t find the power until you get to the mountain. You have to be willing to go. You have to be willing to act. Stretch, act.

If you do, you’ll know an honor you’ve never known before. You’ll see growth you’ve never known before. This is the power of God in you, and it has his holiness in you. I don’t care how bad your problems are. I don’t care how bad your habits are. This life that comes in is potent. It’s omnipotent. It’s like acid. Acid must turn whatever it touches into its own image. The holy life of God must overcome the distorted and the evil parts of you.

3. Spiritual power

Friends, this power belongs to those who do what I said, but also it belongs only to people who are born again by the Spirit. Let me just read you verses 15 and 16. Paul says, “… since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus … I have not stopped giving thanks for you … I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation …”

Do you see he doesn’t pray for them and he is not praying for you until he heard about their faith in Jesus Christ? Don’t you see this is only for people with faith in Jesus? What does that mean? It’s nothing mysterious. Some churches teach if you want to be right with God you need Jesus and the sacraments. Some say you need Jesus and good works. Some say you need Jesus and my course on how to be filled with God. Paul says, “It’s faith in Jesus. A Christian is somebody who says, ‘Jesus is my all. The reason I belong to God is because of what Jesus did for me and nothing else.’ If that’s your condition, this is available. It’s available.”

Not one of his promises will fall to the ground because of this power. His promises are so strange. They say, “I’ll give you the bright morning star. All things work out together for good to them who love God. Anyone who gives up lands and family and riches on earth, I’ll give you land and family and riches here and in the world to come, eternal life.” All these promises are incredible, and frankly I don’t know what the heck they mean. But who cares? We’ll never find out what they mean until we trust. The reason they look so strange to us is because we’re sitting back and waiting. Do you know the incomparably great power of God?

*Sermon delivered at Redeemer Presbyterian Church on July 9, 1989.

ABOUT THE PREACHER

In 1989 Dr. Timothy J. Keller, his wife and three young sons moved to New York City to begin Redeemer Presbyterian Church. In 20 years it has grown to meeting for five services at three sites with a weekly attendance of over 5,000. Redeemer is notable not only for winning skeptical New Yorkers to faith, but also for partnering with other churches to do both mercy ministry and church planting.  Redeemer City to City is working to help establish hundreds of new multi-ethnic congregations throughout the city and other global cities in the next decades.

Dr. Tim Keller is the author of several phenomenal Christo-centric books including:

Joy for the World: How Christianity Lost Its Cultural Influence and Can Begin Rebuilding It (co-authored with Greg Forster and Collin Hanson (February or March, 2014).

Encounters with Jesus:Unexpected Answers to Life’s Biggest Questions. New York, Dutton (November 2013).

Walking with God through Pain and Suffering. New York, Dutton (October 2013).

Judges For You (God’s Word For You Series). The Good Book Company (August 6, 2013).

Galatians For You (God’s Word For You Series). The Good Book Company (February 11, 2013).

Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Plan for the World. New York, Penguin Publishing, November, 2012.

Center ChurchDoing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, September, 2012.

The Freedom of Self Forgetfulness. New York: 10 Publishing, April 2012.

Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just. New York: Riverhead Trade, August, 2012.

The Gospel As Center: Renewing Our Faith and Reforming Our Ministry Practices (editor and contributor). Wheaton: Crossway, 2012.

The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God. New York, Dutton, 2011.

King’s Cross: The Story of the World in the Life of Jesus (Retitled: Jesus the KIng: Understanding the Life and Death of the Son of God). New York, Dutton, 2011.

Gospel in Life Study Guide: Grace Changes Everything. Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2010.

The Reason For God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. New York, Dutton, 2009.

Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Priorities of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope That Matters. New York, Riverhead Trade, 2009.

Heralds of the King: Christ Centered Sermons in the Tradition of Edmund P. Clowney (contributor). Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2009.

The Prodigal God. New York, Dutton, 2008.

Worship By The Book (contributor). Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002.

Ministries of Mercy: The Call of the Jericho Road. Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 1997.

 
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Posted by on October 27, 2013 in Sermons, Tim Keller

 

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The Gospel Made Simple: “How Can I Know God?” by Dr. Tim Keller

Series: Presentations of the Gospel #3

prayer before a cross

HOW CAN I KNOW GOD PERSONALLY?

by Dr. Tim Keller

What is Christianity? Some say it is a philosophy, others say it is an ethical stance, while still others claim it is actually an experience. None of these things really gets to the heart of the matter, however. Each is something a Christian has, but not one of them serves as a definition of what a Christian is. Christianity has at its core a transaction between a person and God. A person who becomes a Christian moves from knowing about God distantly to knowing about him directly and intimately. Christianity is knowing God.

“Now this is eternal life; that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” – John 17:3

Why do I need to know God?

Our desire for personal knowledge of God is strong, but we usually fail to recognize that desire for what it is. When we first fall in love, when we first marry, when we finally break into our chosen field, when we at last get that weekend house–these breakthroughs arouse in us an anticipation of something which, as it turns out, never occurs. We eventually discover that our desire for that precious something is a longing no lover or career or achievement, even the best possible ones, can ever satisfy. The satisfaction fades even as we close our fingers around our goal. Nothing delivers the joy it seemed to promise. Many of us avoid the yawning emptiness through busyness or denial, but at best there is a postponement. “Nothing tastes,” said Marie Antoinette.

There are several ways to respond to this:

By blaming the things themselves – by finding fault in everyone and everything around you. You believe that a better spouse, a better career, a better boss or salary would finally yield the elusive joy. Many of the most successful people in the world are like this–bored, discontented, running from new thing to new thing, often changing counselors, mates, partners, or settings.

By blaming yourself – by trying harder to live up to standards. Many people believe they have made poor choices or have failed to measure up to challenges and to achieve things that would give them joy and satisfaction. Such people are wracked with self-doubts and tend to burn themselves out. They think, “If only I could reach my goals, then this emptiness would be gone.” But it is not so.

By blaming the universe itself – by giving up seeking fulfillment at all. This is the person who says, “Yes, when I was young I was idealistic, but at my age I have stopped howling after the moon.” This makes you become cynical, you decide to repress that part of yourself that once wanted fulfillment and joy. But you become hard, and you can feel yourself losing your humanity, compassion, and joy.

By blaming and recognizing your separation from God – by seeing that the emptiness comes from your separation from God, and by establishing a personal relationship with him.

In order to form a personal relationship with God, you must know three things:

1) Who we are:

God’s creation. God created us and built us for a relationship with him. We belong to him, and we owe him gratitude for every breath, every moment, everything. Because humans were built to live for him (to worship), we will always try to worship something — if not God, we will choose some other object of ultimate devotion to give our lives meaning.

Sinners. We have all chosen (and re-affirm daily) to reject God to make our own joy and happiness our highest priority. We do not want to worship God and surrender ourself as master, yet we are built to worship, so we cling to idols, centering our lives on things that promise to give us meaning: success, relationships, influence, love, comfort and so on.

In spiritual bondage. To live for anything else but God leads to breakdown and decay. When a fish leaves the water, which he was built for, he is not free, but dead. Worshiping other things besides God leads to a loss of meaning. If we achieve these things, they cannot deliver satisfaction, because they were never meant to be “gods.” They were never meant to replace God. Worshiping other things besides God also leads to self-image problems. We end up defining ourselves in terms of our achievement in these things. We must have them or all is lost; so they drive us to work hard, or they fill us with terror if they are jeopardized.

2) Who God is:

Love and justice. His active concern is for our joy and well-being. Most people love those who love them, yet God loves and seeks the good even of people who are his enemies. But because God is good and loving, he cannot tolerate evil. The opposite of love is not anger, but indifference. “The more you love your son, the more you hate in him the liar, the drunkard, the traitor,” (E. Gifford). To imagine God’s situation, imagine a judge who is also a father, who sits at the trial of a guilty son. A judge knows he cannot let his son go, for without justice no society can survive. How mush less can a loving God merely ignore or suspend justice for us–who are loved, yet guilty of rebellion against his loving authority?

Jesus Christ. Jesus is God himself come to Earth. He first lived a perfect life, loving God with all his heart, soul, and mind, fulfilling all human obligation to God. He lived the life you owed–a perfect record. Then, instead of receiving his deserved reward (eternal life), Jesus gave his life as a sacrifice for our sins, taking the punishment and death each of owed. When we believe in him: 1) our sins are paid for by his death, and 2) his perfect life record is transferred to our account. So God accepts and regards us as if we have done all Christ has done.

3) What you must do:

Repent. There must first be an admission that you have been living as your own master, worshipping the wrong things, violating God’s loving laws. “Repentance” means you ask forgiveness and turn from that stance with a willingness to live for and center on him.

Believe. Faith is transferring your trust from your own efforts to the efforts of Christ. You were relying on other things to make you acceptable, but now you consciously begin relying on what Jesus did for your acceptance with God. All you need is nothing. If you think, “God owes me something for all my efforts,” you are still on the outside.

Pray after this fashion: “I see I am more flawed and sinful than I ever dared believe, but that I am even more loved and accepted than I ever dared hope. I turn from my old life of living for myself. I have nothing in my record to merit your approval, but now I rest in what Jesus did and ask to be accepted into God’s family for his sake.”

When you make this transaction, two things happen at once: 1) your accounts are cleared, your sins are wiped out permanently, you are adopted legally into God’s family and 2) the Holy Spirit enters your heart and begins to change you into the character of Jesus.

Follow through: Tell a Christian friend about your commitment. Get yourself training in the basic Christian disciplines of prayer, worship, Bible study, and fellowship with other Christians.

Why should I seek God?

On the one hand, you may feel that you “need” him. Even though you may recognize that you have needs only God can meet, you must not try to use him to achieve your own ends. It is not possible to bargain with God (“I’ll do this, if you will do that”). That is not Christianity at all, but a form of magic or paganism in which you “appease” the cranky deity in exchange for a favor. Are you getting into Christianity to serve God, or to get God to serve you? Those are two opposite motives and they result in two different religions. You must come to God because 1) you owe it to him to give him your life (because he is your creator) and 2) you are deeply grateful to him for sacrificing his son (because he is your redeemer).

On the other hand, you may feel no need or interest to know God at all. This does not mean that you should stay uncommitted. If you were created by God, then you owe him your life, whether you feel like it or not. You are obligated to seek him and ask him to soften your heart, open your eyes, and enlighten you. If you say, “I have no faith,” that is no excuse either. You need only doubt your doubts. No one can doubt everything at once–you must believe in something to doubt something else. For example, do you believe you are competent to run your own life? Where is the evidence for that? Why doubt everything but your doubts about God and your faith in yourself? Is that fair? You owe it to God to seek him. Do so.

What if I’m not ready to proceed?

Make a list of the issues that you perceive to be barriers to your crossing the line into faith. Here is a possible set of headings:

Content issues. Do you understand the basics of the Christian message–sin, Jesus as God, sacrifice, faith?

Coherence issues. Are there intellectual problems you have with Christianity? Are there objections to the Christian faith that you cannot resolve in your own mind?

Cost issues. Do you perceive that a move into full Christian faith will cost you dearly? What fears do you have about commitment?

Now talk to a Christian friend until these issues are resolved. Consider reading: Mere Christianity, by C.S. Lewis (MacMillan) and Basic Christianity, by John Stott (IVP) – [or Tim Keller’s The Reason for God (Dutton)].

@ 1991, Timothy Keller.

About Tim Keller:

In 1989 Dr. Timothy J. Keller, his wife and three young sons moved to New York City to begin Redeemer Presbyterian Church. In 20 years it has grown to meeting for five services at three sites with a weekly attendance of over 5,000. Redeemer is notable not only for winning skeptical New Yorkers to faith, but also for partnering with other churches to do both mercy ministry and church planting.  Redeemer City to City is working to help establish hundreds of new multi-ethnic congregations throughout the city and other global cities in the next decades.

Dr. Tim Keller is the author of several phenomenal Christo-centric books including:

Joy for the World: How Christianity Lost Its Cultural Influence and Can Begin Rebuilding It (co-authored with Greg Forster and Collin Hanson (February or March, 2014).

Encounters with Jesus:Unexpected Answers to Life’s Biggest Questions. New York, Dutton (November 2013).

Walking with God through Pain and Suffering. New York, Dutton (October 2013).

Judges For You (God’s Word For You Series). The Good Book Company (August 6, 2013).

Galatians For You (God’s Word For You Series). The Good Book Company (February 11, 2013).

Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Plan for the World. New York, Penguin Publishing, November, 2012.

Center ChurchDoing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, September, 2012.

The Freedom of Self Forgetfulness. New York: 10 Publishing, April 2012.

Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just. New York: Riverhead Trade, August, 2012.

The Gospel As Center: Renewing Our Faith and Reforming Our Ministry Practices (editor and contributor). Wheaton: Crossway, 2012.

The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God. New York, Dutton, 2011.

King’s Cross: The Story of the World in the Life of Jesus (Retitled: Jesus the KIng: Understanding the Life and Death of the Son of God). New York, Dutton, 2011.

Gospel in Life Study Guide: Grace Changes Everything. Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2010.

The Reason For God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. New York, Dutton, 2009.

Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Priorities of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope That Matters. New York, Riverhead Trade, 2009.

Heralds of the King: Christ Centered Sermons in the Tradition of Edmund P. Clowney (contributor). Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2009.

The Prodigal God. New York, Dutton, 2008.

Worship By The Book (contributor). Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002.

Ministries of Mercy: The Call of the Jericho Road. Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 1997.

 

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