No one gets anywhere alone (Philippians 1:3-11)

No one gets anywhere alone.  Think you’re the master of your own destiny?  Just wait.  Sometimes something as simple as a cold or a check-engine light can remind you that you don’t have it together the way you think you do.

In a very real sense, that’s what the letter to the church in Philippi was all about.  At its simplest, Philippians represents a thank-you letter, issued by Paul to his supporters in the metropolitan city of Philippi.

These past few days we’ve looked at Paul’s relationship with the church as its founder.  But to better understand the themes of this great book, we have to peel back its pages to see the larger story that lies underneath.

THE THEOLOGICAL STORY

Our understanding of the gospel has to begin with the character of God.  I don’t know about you, but growing up Christianity always struck me as a list of rules.  Don’t cuss.  Don’t watch R-rated movies.  Read your Bible more.   In other words, God always seemed like a cosmic traffic cop, watching with his radar gun to bust you at nearest available opportunity.  Want to stay out of jail?  Simple.  Avoid sin.  Be nice.  But as I’ve grown older I’ve begun to wonder how much of this message has to do with the Bible, and more to do with the mixed-up religious culture that we’ve created.

Instead, what if God was deeply, powerfully, ferociously committed to our joy?  What if his fundamental design for all of reality was that we experience overwhelming joy in his presence, his character, and his creation?   What would change?

See, now I understand that God’s desire for my heart and for my life are not rooted in arbitrary standards of “goodness,” but in the eternal designs that he has for the whole world.  The Bible says that if we violate those designs, we are in a state of “sin.”  The only thing that stands between you and your joy…is you.  Sin, therefore, is displaced love.  Instead of a steadfast love of God, I’ve come to value things like career, sex, entertainment—even religious duty—as ways to measure myself, and find value and security.

The cross changed all that.  On the cross, Jesus paid the penalty for my misplaced love.  The empty tomb promises hope for a better world to come.  What do we do in the meantime?  We pursue God’s kingdom by sharing the good news of the gospel with everyone we meet.

PAUL IN PRISON

That brings us to Paul.  Have you ever looked through the Bible and struggled to know how you’d relate to these obscure characters?  When you meet Paul, your search is over.   As we’ll learn later, Paul was one of the most religious people you’ll ever meet—raised in a devout home, privileged with the finest Jewish education.  But Paul was equally one of the least religious people you’ll ever meet—when Christianity was beginning, Paul was so desperate to silence this disruptive movement that he had early Christians dragged from their home and executed.  Do you get these extremes?   Home school kid.  Murderer.  No matter where you lie on the spectrum of belief, Paul will tell you, Been there; done that.  Who better to pen the majority of our New Testament?

So after Paul has a miraculous vision of the risen Savior, his whole life changes.  Now, he abandons his religious pedigrees to become a church-planter throughout the Mediterranean world—we touched on this in the book of Acts in our previous posts.

But toward the end of his life, Paul is taken into Roman custody.  He’s placed under house arrest.   Now, being in house arrest was better than being in an actual prison—but this wasn’t exactly high living, either.  He was free to write, but he was entirely dependent on supporters for supplies and for meals.

So imagine Paul’s joy when a knock came at the door.  The man’s name was Epaphroditus.  He’d come with a gift basket for Paul—which probably included some writing supplies and some food.   This, then, forms the occasion for Paul’s thank-you letter to the church.

When I was a graduate student at Dallas Seminary, I went through something similar.  Okay, I exaggerate, but you get the idea; I’d just lost my job—didn’t know where to turn.  Checking my mailbox one day I received a slip informing me that a package had arrived for me at the campus mail center.  The sizeable box confused me, since I hadn’t ordered anything.  Opening it up, I found a small—maybe 10” tall—doll in the shape of Bob’s Big Boy.  And I was confused.  But when I heard the rattle, I pulled its head off (it was designed that way—don’t give me that weird look) to discover it was filled with wadded-up bills.  I assumed—based on the quantity—that they were dollar bills.  They were twenties.  To this day, I have no idea who sent it; I only know that I received enough to pay my upcoming bills.  I named the doll Epaphroditus, whose gracious gift came to me while I was (ahem) imprisoned in graduate school.  He’s been on my shelf ever since.

THE LETTER TO PHILIPPI

We finally get to the actual text of Philippians.  This is the story that Paul’s been living; now we see how he responds to his supporters in Philippi:

I thank my God in all my remembrance of you,  4 always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy,  5 because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now.  6 And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.  7 It is right for me to feel this way about you all, because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel.  8 For God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus.  9 And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment,  10 so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ,  11 filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.  (Philippians 1:3-11)

If there’s a key phrase to the book of Philippians, it’s found in verse 5.  The “partnership in the gospel.”  No one gets anywhere alone.  The gospel gives the church her identity; its love that fuels her mission.

Do you hear how the gospel penetrates Paul’s every word here?  Righteousness—including righteous deeds, or “fruit”—isn’t something that comes naturally.  It comes supernaturally, through the One who “began a good work” in us.  And that tells us something else: no matter who we are, no matter where we are, God’s not finished with us yet.  If our joy ever seems less than full, if our love ever seems less than complete, it’s only because we are but a few chapters into a much larger, much more expansive story.  And to best understand this story, we need each other.  We need the Church.  And we need more grace than we could ever have conceived.

Advertisements

The Music of the Gospel (Acts 16)

Arpeggio.  Decrescendo.  Fermata.

For some of you, these words must sound like some sort of European shopping list.  But if you read music, each word means something very specific.

The gospel works like this.  To those outside, the language of the church must sound alien—maybe even intimidating.  It would be the same as handing someone a page of sheet music.  If they can’t read music, the page must seem like a foreign set of symbols.  Even if they read music, they may catch only a sense of the composition—something only made complete by hearing it out loud.   We would call that “mission.”  To be on mission means to live out the gospel in every facet of life, so that those who don’t speak our language can hear the gospel “out loud” in the lives of Christ’s followers.

Yesterday, we learned how Paul’s church-planting efforts led to the conversion of a woman named Lydia.  Now, we return to his church-planting efforts in Philippi to understand some of the cultural background of Paul’s journey.

THE GOSPEL OUT LOUD

For some, like Lydia, Christianity becomes attractive through rational conversation.  But there are many others who need an experience to hang their faith on.  Listen to the amazing story of what happened with Paul and Silas:

As we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners much gain by fortune-telling.  17 She followed Paul and us, crying out, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation.”  18 And this she kept doing for many days. Paul, having become greatly annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And it came out that very hour.  (Acts 16:16-18)

If you’re reading this story in the original Greek, you notice the text says that the girl was afflicted with “a spirit, namely a python.”  A snake???  In his commentary on Acts, Bruce Longnecker notes that this image had a lot of cultural baggage:

“The Python was a mythical serpent or dragon that guarded the temple and oracle of Apollo, located on the southern slope of Mount Parnassus to  the north of the Gulf of Corinth. It was supposed to have lived at the foot of Mount Parnassus and to have eventually been killed by Apollo (cf. Strabo Geography 9.3.12). Later the word python came to mean a demon-possessed person through whom the Python spoke—even a ventriloquist was thought to have such a spirit living in his or her belly (cf. Plutarch  De Defectu Oraculorum 9.414).” (Longnecker, Acts… p. 462)

In other words, there are many people who try to manage their lives by trying to order the world around them through spirituality.  Here, the slave girl seems to be the possession of some sort of evil spirit.  But it gets worse.  Even after Paul heals her through Christ’s power, we see that her bondage persists:

19 But when her owners saw that their hope of gain was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the rulers.  20 And when they had brought them to the magistrates, they said, “These men are Jews, and they are disturbing our city.  21 They advocate customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to accept or practice.”  22 The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates tore the garments off them and gave orders to beat them with rods.  23 And when they had inflicted many blows upon them, they threw them into prison, ordering the jailer to keep them safely.  24 Having received this order, he put them into the inner prison and fastened their feet in the stocks. (Acts 16:19-24)

She’s not merely enslaved by an evil spirit; she’s also enslaved by a culture that takes advantage of her for profit.  There’s a lesson here.  Christianity will always be attractive to some—like Lydia—but offensive to others.  And when the gospel challenges the prevailing songs of self-satisfaction that come from “personal spirituality,” well, then you have a recipe for ridicule, disbelief—even persecution.  So when this happened to Paul and Silas, they were placed in prison.

TESTIMONY FROM A JAIL CELL

What happened next stretches past our wildest belief:

25 About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them,  26 and suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken. And immediately all the doors were opened, and everyone’s bonds were unfastened.  27 When the jailer woke and saw that the prison doors were open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, supposing that the prisoners had escaped.  28 But Paul cried with a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.”  29 And the jailer called for lights and rushed in, and trembling with fear he fell down before Paul and Silas.  30 Then he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”  31 And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.”  32 And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house.  33 And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds; and he was baptized at once, he and all his family.  34 Then he brought them up into his house and set food before them. And he rejoiced along with his entire household that he had believed in God.  35 But when it was day, the magistrates sent the police, saying, “Let those men go.”  36 And the jailer reported these words to Paul, saying, “The magistrates have sent to let you go. Therefore come out now and go in peace.”  37 But Paul said to them, “They have beaten us publicly, uncondemned, men who are Roman citizens, and have thrown us into prison; and do they now throw us out secretly? No! Let them come themselves and take us out.”  38 The police reported these words to the magistrates, and they were afraid when they heard that they were Roman citizens.  39 So they came and apologized to them. And they took them out and asked them to leave the city.  40 So they went out of the prison and visited Lydia. And when they had seen the brothers, they encouraged them and departed. (Acts 16:25-40)

The only thing more staggering than the earthquake was the fact that Paul and Silas didn’t use it as an opportunity for escape.  Jailers were often older, retired military servicemen.  They had one job: to keep the prisoners in jail.  If they failed?  They could expect death—or worse, torture at the hands of the Roman officials.  So the jailer saw suicide as preferable to facing his superiors.  Paul’s choice to remain saved the man’s life.

Together they went to the man’s household—where the entire family heard the gospel.   “Believe in Jesus,” Paul says, “and your whole house will be saved.”  What does he mean?  Surely he’s not saying that if the jailer believes, the rest of his family can be “grandfathered in.”  No; I think what Paul is saying is that the belief in Jesus is what saves—regardless of whether you personally witnessed such a miracle.  Sure, the jailer witnessed something powerful.  But ultimately it was faith in Jesus that brought him deliverance, and the same became true of his family.

The point?  Most of us will never spend time in a Roman prison.  But all of us have opportunities to live out the gospel in front of others.  In that sense, we are all missionaries to the various parts of our culture, and to a world that longs to hear the gospel’s beautiful melody in a world full of static and noise.

THE CHURCH IN PHILIPPI

All of which brings us to the church in Philippi.  Paul opens his letter with a customary greeting:

Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons:  2 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (Philippians 1:1-2)

By this time, Paul is surely in prison in Rome.  In our next posts, we’ll look at the way Paul leaned on this fledgling church for support—and cautioned them about the rough days ahead.

Living above the Circumstances – Acts 16:1-15

Welcome to Day 1 of our new devotional series on the book of Philippians. There will be a total of 15 writings and readings that come out daily on Monday to Friday of the next three weeks.

Today and tomorrow Chris and I begin by giving some of the background of the Christians who comprised the church at Philippi, which was one of the better fellowships of those we see in the New Testament Scriptures.

Something I have been profoundly impressed with in recent months is the number of people whom I know well and who are living with ALS – a.k.a. Lou Gehrig’s disease. I know of four godly people suffering with this condition. In each case, these are among the most joyful and vibrant Christian folks that I know! One might say that they are “living above their circumstances.”

It was my old Dallas Seminary professor friend and renowned Bible teacher Howie Hendricks who used to often include in his messages a conversation with a certain Christian acquaintance, where Howie would ask, “How are you doing?” … to which the response would be some version of “Not bad under the circumstances.”  And Howie’s humorous retort would be to say, “Under the circumstances? What are you doing down there?”

The letter to the Philippians rings with a theme of joy. We can have joy in all circumstances, even if we don’t always have happiness. It depends upon our measuring stick. If our measuring device is only limited to the circumstance and events of our immediate physical world, well, we are going to come up short quite a bit. But if our measurement is calibrated in eternal numbers and true realities, we are in possession at ALL TIMES of God’s magnanimous grace and the promise of His eternal relationship with us.

When we calibrate our earthly sorrows and challenges against the greater spiritual reality, well, we see the smallness of our problems, along the lines of the old hymn that says “and the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace.”

Philippians is a prison epistle – written by Paul while chained to a Roman soldier. But you’d never know it by the joyful tone of his writing.

Philippi ruins

Philippi ruins

The church at Philippi was begun when Paul and Silas were on a missionary journey – one that has a lot of travel details. Let’s pick up at the beginning of Acts 16 …

Timothy Joins Paul and Silas

16:1  Paul came to Derbe and then to Lystra, where a disciple named Timothy lived, whose mother was Jewish and a believer but whose father was a Greek. 2 The believers at Lystra and Iconium spoke well of him. 3 Paul wanted to take him along on the journey, so he circumcised him because of the Jews who lived in that area, for they all knew that his father was a Greek. 4 As they traveled from town to town, they delivered the decisions reached by the apostles and elders in Jerusalem for the people to obey. 5 So the churches were strengthened in the faith and grew daily in numbers.

Paul and Silas pick up a new partner in Timothy. This occurred in Lystra – the same place where, on the first missionary journey, Paul was stoned, believed to be dead, and dragged out of the city. He dusted himself off and went back into town to finish his sermon, and it was then that Timothy was saved and came to belief in Christ. (Actually, I don’t really know if that is how it happened – I just made that up! But in that Timothy is later called by Paul “my disciple in Christ,” it would appear certain that he came to faith during the prior ministry of Paul in that town.)  Here, in Luke’s fashion, he briefly introduces Timothy – a young man who will be a major player later in the Acts narrative.

The churches of the South Galatian region were revisited, and Paul used the opportunity to encourage them with the decisions of the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) and to continue to build them up in the faith.

6 Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia. 7 When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to.

As they travelled on to the northwest, it seemed that the Spirit was closing door after door that one would presume should be open! It is a pattern of the Christian experience that when God closes doors, it is to move us on to a greater open door we might not have otherwise found on our own. And so Paul and his companions travel all of the way to the Aegean Sea – to the town of Troas. Here we see in verse 10 the first mention of the pronoun “we,” which certainly indicates that Luke himself had now become a part of the travelling team.

Paul’s Vision of the Man of Macedonia

8 So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas. 9 During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” 10 After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.

God’s Manifest Destiny

You have probably heard the phrase, “Go West, young man!”  This was the quote of the famous 19th century newspaperman and author Horace Greeley – who greatly favored American expansionism to the west in the then-popular concept of Manifest Destiny. While the justice of this era of American expansion may be debated, God had a manifest destiny for the Gospel message to spread to the west. And today’s passage records one of the great moments in world history – when the message of Christ went from Asia to Europe.

In Troas, Paul has a dream that he understands to be from God – a vision of a man of Macedonia calling to him to come there. This is the region of northern Greece; and to travel there would require a multiple-day trip by sea. The group ends up in Philippi – a significant Roman city named after the father of Alexander the Great, Philip of Macedon.

11 From Troas we put out to sea and sailed straight for Samothrace, and the next day we went on to Neapolis. 12 From there we traveled to Philippi, a Roman colony and the leading city of that district of Macedonia. And we stayed there several days.

Lydia’s Conversion in Philippi

13 On the Sabbath we went outside the city gate to the river, where we expected to find a place of prayer. We sat down and began to speak to the women who had gathered there. 14 One of those listening was a woman from the city of Thyatira named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth. She was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message. 15 When she and the members of her household were baptized, she invited us to her home. “If you consider me a believer in the Lord,” she said, “come and stay at my house.” And she persuaded us.

On the Sabbath day, the group goes to a place along the river – a place known to be a spot for prayer. And there they meet a business woman named Lydia, who is described as a worshipper of God. Though not a proselyte, she was one who believed and worshipped the one true God, and the Lord brought the truth of the Gospel to her and her household … and to the European continent!

Lydia was apparently very successful in the purple cloth industry that was especially associated with her hometown of Thyatira, producing a highly-valued product in the Roman world. Her hospitality is immediately evident as she hosts the missionary team. Philippi would be among the finest of the churches founded by Paul, consisting of people who were generous in supporting God’s work – as we read in Philippians 4:15-16 …

Moreover, as you Philippians know, in the early days of your acquaintance with the gospel, when I set out from Macedonia, not one church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you only; for even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me aid more than once when I was in need.

God’s expansive grace reverberates down through the corridors of time and across the centuries to our own day. And his desire continues to be that we too look for those open doors he will supply for us to press through and share the message of Christ’s work with those who are yet to know God personally.

Welcome to “Measuring Up” – The Message of Philippians

This will be the devotionals/readings web page to accompany the Tri-State Fellowship of Hagerstown spring 2014 sermon series on the Book of Philippians.

The sermons will encompass the four Sundays of 4/27, 5/4, 5/11, and 5/18.

These devotionals will begin on Monday, April 28.

You may come to this site to see them, or you may sign up to have them delivered daily to your phone or device.

Heaven is a Place on Earth (Isaiah 65)

I’m always fascinated by so-called “designer funerals.”  You know the ones—where the deceased has left some elaborate last wishes for their funeral.  Columnist Gina Gallo writes of this absurdity, describing a “gaming theme” funeral:

“For a nominal deposit and low monthly payments, a ‘gaming theme’ funeral offers authentic slot machines discreetly positioned around the neon-lit casket, gambling chips the size of manhole covers, and a jumbo deck of cards in lieu of a flower spray covering the deceased. Instead of folding chairs, jumbo dice scattered about the viewing parlor will serve as ottomans, cocktail tables or the perfect surface for a memorial craps game.”

We don’t know what to do with death, so we try to domesticate it as if it were a wild dog.  But death refuses to be reasoned or bartered with.  Since the day we left Paradise, we breathe out, and death is no more.

SHALOM STORY

It’s why we have to keep coming back to the concept of shalom—the Hebrew word meaning “wholeness,” “completeness”—the way things were meant to be all along.  Man was made to experience shalom in three dimensions: spiritually (between man and God), socially (between man and neighbor), and environmentally (between man and creation).  Sin ripped all of these apart.  The gospel is about putting shalom back together again.  The cross removes my sin, allowing me to be spiritually restored to God (spiritual shalom).  And because it happens by grace, it removes the sense of superiority and inferiority that prevents me from fully loving my neighbor—thus restoring social shalom.

But that leaves one final piece for God to fix.  That’s why I cringe when I hear people speak of being “complete in Christ”—because I’m not.  I get sick.  I will one day die.  Death is all around me, whether in a designer funeral or the evening news.  In the words of the rock band U2, “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.” I truly believe that one of the reasons so many are quick to dismiss Christianity is because we expect happiness to be immediate—and lasting.  The gospel says no; we have to wait for the end of the story.  We need to see the restoration of environmental shalom.

That’s what Isaiah’s text is all about.  The latter portion of his prophetic masterpiece details God’s future plans for restoring shalom in all areas of life.

17 For look, I am ready to create new heavens and a new earth! The former ones will not be remembered; no one will think about them anymore.  18 But be happy and rejoice forevermore over what I am about to create! For look, I am ready to create Jerusalem to be a source of joy, and her people to be a source of happiness.  19 Jerusalem will bring me joy, and my people will bring me happiness. The sound of weeping or cries of sorrow will never be heard in her again.  20 Never again will one of her infants live just a few days or an old man die before his time. Indeed, no one will die before the age of a hundred, anyone who fails to reach the age of a hundred will be considered cursed.  21 They will build houses and live in them; they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit.  22 No longer will they build a house only to have another live in it, or plant a vineyard only to have another eat its fruit, for my people will live as long as trees, and my chosen ones will enjoy to the fullest what they have produced.  23 They will not work in vain, or give birth to children that will experience disaster. For the LORD will bless their children and their descendants.  24 Before they even call out, I will respond; while they are still speaking, I will hear.  25 A wolf and a lamb will graze together; a lion, like an ox, will eat straw, and a snake’s food will be dirt. They will no longer injure or destroy on my entire royal mountain,” says the LORD.  (Isaiah 65:17-25)

I believe in heaven; I just don’t believe this is our destiny.  We were created for earth, you and I.  That’s partly what separates the Christian story from every other religious tradition.  Other religions promise some form of “escape” from earth—whether a literal heaven or some ethereal state like Moksha or Nirvana.  Christianity is the only faith that says that God will restore the earth.

1,000 YEARS

This means there are some features to this text that might seem confusing.  If this is God’s perfect world, why does he speak of death at all (v. 20)?  We won’t live to 100—we’ll live forever, right?  I tend to think that God—through Isaiah—is hinting at the larger story that we don’t see unfold until John’s book of Revelation.  There—in Revelation 19:1-6—we see a promise that God will reign on earth for 1,000 years before He finally completes the work of restoration.  Granted, there are many ways of understanding this complex subject, but I tend to believe the most literal reading of scripture tells us that on an undisclosed day, the church will be taken away (“raptured,” to use today’s terms).  Following a seven-year period of judgment (the “tribulation”), Christ will return to rule and reign for 1,000 years.  During this time, Satan will be bound.  Yet I tend to believe that death and sin will still persist.  Why?  Because man is depraved, and for the first time we’ll see what life is like when we can no longer say “the devil made me do it.”

It’s only after this that we see God restoring all things to goodness and perfection:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and earth had ceased to exist, and the sea existed no more.  2 And I saw the holy city– the new Jerusalem– descending out of heaven from God, made ready like a bride adorned for her husband.  3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying: “Look! The residence of God is among human beings. He will live among them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them.  4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death will not exist any more– or mourning, or crying, or pain, for the former things have ceased to exist.” (Revelation 21:1-4)

I don’t know what happens to our memories—the Bible’s less than clear.  Will we remember the past at all?  Or will the future glory simply overshadow it?  And on that day—will it matter?

EUCATASTROPHE

Artistically, we’ve come to shun the “happy ending.”  Artistic expression demands that in film, movies show a gritty world where things don’t always work out in the trite way of fairy tales.  There’s just one problem: this isn’t what the public seems to want.  Recent data reveals that in 2013, nearly half of Americans hadn’t seen any of the films nominated for Academy Awards.  Apparently people are eschewing films such as The Wolf of Wall Street and The Dallas Buyers’ Club, favoring films like Disney’s Frozen or Iron Man 3—movies that chronicle sacrifice, and happy endings.  Could it be that we are all uniquely wired to believe in happy endings?

In a famous essay entitled “On Fairy Stories,” J.R.R. Tolkien coined the term eucatastrophe—literally “good catastrophe”—what Tolkien calls “the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears.”  The gospel represents the ultimate “eucatastrophe.”  It promises that death does not have the last word—and that shalom might finally be restored.

The Story of the Lamb (Isaiah 53)

I can remember an old Peanuts cartoon, where Charlie and Linus pass by a sign that reads “Jesus is the answer!”  In the next panel, Linus turns to Charlie and asks, “What was the question?”

The question changes everything.  The way we define the problem shapes the way we view the Solution.  In today’s world, it’s easy to forget just how much of a problem “sin” truly is—both inside and outside the church.

If you don’t have a background in church, then “sin” must sound like a throwback to an archaic, “Leave-it-to-Beaver” style America where we frowned at anything fun and women were burned as witches for learning math.  But in the fourth century, a man named Saint Augustine wrote that sin is a form of “dis-ordered” love.  Think of your heart as a pyramid.   You will never flourish, Augustine would say, until God rests at its apex.  All other loves are meant to occupy the lesser spaces below.  And we know this, even implicitly.  If I love possessions more than people, my soul withers under greed’s dark shadow.  If I become preoccupied with sex, I become a prisoner of lust.  Even the self-esteem movement has recently conceded that high self-esteem can often lead to self-absorption.  Nothing is more caustic than our devotion to self.

But if I come from within the church, then I tend to minimize sin as merely “doing bad things.”  I can learn to “manage” sin through a codified system of behavior and morals.  And that’ll never work, the Bible says, because nothing can erase the damage that’s already been done.

All of that serves as backdrop to the story of the Lamb.

THE SUFFERING SERVANT

One of the keys to understanding Isaiah is to recognize the “suffering servant” passages that appear in the latter half of his text.  These texts point to an idealized servant of God whose suffering is part of God’s larger redemptive framework of creation, fall, and redemption.

In the larger picture of the Bible, we can easily see the way that Jesus is the true and better servant.  All of these texts point to His atoning work on the cross.  In his excellent work The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross, Leon Morris observes that over time, Israel came to see all shed blood as atoning for sin—meaning every sacrificial lamb, goat, etc. were viewed as having the same purifying quality.  So when we later hear John the Baptist refer to Jesus as “the Lamb of God who lifts away the sin of humanity” (John 1:29, 36), he’s saying that Jesus fulfills this sacrificial system once and for all.

But we get ahead of ourselves.  Let’s take a look at what Isaiah had to say about this servant:

Isaiah 53:1-12  Who would have believed what we just heard? When was the LORD’s power revealed  him?  2 He sprouted up like a twig before God, like a root out of parched soil; he had no stately form or majesty that might catch our attention, no special appearance that we should want to follow him.  3 He was despised and rejected by people, one who experienced pain and was acquainted with illness; people hid their faces from him; he was despised, and we considered him insignificant.

Growing up I’d always wondered why Jesus’ earliest followers were so quick to cast aside their lucrative fishing careers to follow a guy they’d never met.  One ancient writer thought that “there must have been some divine quality in the face of the Savior.”  And I hate that, because it just smacks of bad Sunday School art that depicts Jesus as a white guy with feathered hair who looks suspiciously like Kenny Loggins.  But if Isaiah is right, that “he had no stately form or majesty that might catch our attention,” then it means that Jesus was never one of the “popular” crowd.  Instead, I tend to think the early disciples were drawn to a message of hope and forgiveness—something they’d never find on the inside of their tacklebox.

4 But he lifted up our illnesses, he carried our pain; even though we thought he was being punished, attacked by God, and afflicted for something he had done.  5 He was wounded because of our rebellious deeds, crushed because of our sins; he endured punishment that made us well; because of his wounds we have been healed. 6 All of us had wandered off like sheep; each of us had strayed off on his own path, but the LORD caused the sin of all of us to attack him.  7 He was treated harshly and afflicted, but he did not even open his mouth. Like a lamb led to the slaughtering block, like a sheep silent before her shearers, he did not even open his mouth.  8 He was led away after an unjust trial– but who even cared? Indeed, he was cut off from the land of the living; because of the rebellion of his own people he was wounded.  9 They intended to bury him with criminals, but he ended up in a rich man’s tomb, because he had committed no violent deeds, nor had he spoken deceitfully.  10 Though the LORD desired to crush him and make him ill, once restitution is made, he will see descendants and enjoy long life, and the LORD’s purpose will be accomplished through him.  11 Having suffered, he will reflect on his work, he will be satisfied when he understands what he has done. “My servant will acquit many, for he carried their sins.  12 So I will assign him a portion with the multitudes, he will divide the spoils of victory with the powerful, because he willingly submitted to death and was numbered with the rebels, when he lifted up the sin of many and intervened on behalf of the rebels.”

We could go on for hours unpacking all this.  But here we have the gospel in its purest form.

First, Isaiah sees sin as a universal form of disobedience.  But in the same breath, Isaiah says that God “caused the sin of us all to attack him.”  Keep in mind, the cross was more than a death sentence.  It was designed to not only inflict pain, but also to bring shame.  Jesus paid for our sin—and he also paid for the consequences of sin—the shame, the blame that began in Paradise long ago.

“Because of his wounds,” Isaiah tells us, “we are healed.”  The “punishment that made us well,” Isaiah calls it.  If you’re reading that in the original Hebrew, you’d instantly notice the word shalom.  The word—as we’ve noted before—refers to God’s peace, joy, and wholeness.  It refers to what Cornelius Plantinga calls “the way it’s supposed to be.”  Jesus puts everything back together again, and repairs what you and I broke.

Do you see why the idea of sin is so necessary?  Let’s go back to Linus and Charlie—the way the question shapes our view of the Answer.  If our greatest problem is social, then when I look to Jesus I expect to see another social revolutionary—another Gandhi.  If our greatest problem is moral, then when I look to Jesus I expect to find a religious teacher.  If our greatest problem is intolerance, then when I look to Jesus I expect to find a spiritual and ethical visionary.  But if our greatest problem is sin, then when I look to Jesus I can’t be satisfied with just another religious figure.  I need forgiveness.  I need a Lamb.

The story of Christianity is a story of how God provided what man could not: a sacrifice that would eradicate the stain of sin once and for all.  For humanity, faith marks the boundary between a life of sin and a life with God.

Free Gift (Isaiah 55)

Has this ever happened to you?  You need something.  You go shopping.  But once you enter the store, you realize you can’t afford anything they sell.

I can remember a few years ago I needed a pair of dress shoes.  So I found myself entering a shoe store at the local outlet mall.  At the door, I was greeted by a pair of grandmotherly-types who welcomed me to the otherwise-empty store, and handed me a piece of butterscotch candy to enjoy while I perused their wares.  But as I did so, I discovered two things: (1) I thought all their shoes were weird (tassels? People like tassels?) and (2) the cheapest pair they sold started at around $75 or so—though most were significantly more.  So there I was.  No intention—or financial means—to make a purchase, trying to avoid eye contact with the pair of salesladies, grinning ear to ear as they watched their sole customer enjoy their butterscotch candy, seemingly unaware that he was fake shopping so as not to appear ungrateful.

It was awkward.

And the truth is, I can’t help but wonder if that’s how a lot of people feel about church.  I mean, there’s no shortage of churches handing out butterscotch candy, is there?  I’ve lived in Dallas—the nightmarish capital of the evangelical world—so I’ve seen some of the absurdity that abounds.  Gyms.  Ferris wheels.  Some churches have even given away things ranging from gasoline to electronics.  At tax season, some churches even offer shredding services, sure to cater to those ranging from savvy professionals to corrupt bureaucrats.

Here’s the problem: you enjoy those services for so long, until you start to realize what the cost really is.  Soon you begin to hear about what God expects from you, and if the gospel is absent what you’re left with is a pile of moralistic demands.  If you’re good, you hear, God will love you. 

If I’m good?  Well, in today’s evangelical culture that means not just abstaining from the big sins like pornography and Disney movies,  but also paying the cost that comes from Christian culture.  Christian radio, Christian films, Christian music, Christian coffeehouses, Christian schools, Christian gyms (yes; those exist)—and once you join a small group (usually with a name like JUICE or VOLT or TRANCE or something) you’d better get working on your Christian lingo, ranging from “quiet time” to “guarding your heart,” after which you pray for something called “traveling mercies” even though you live two blocks away.

And I think that a lot of people come, enjoy the butterscotch, but they end up fake-shopping because they don’t want to shatter the smiles of the people that brought them in the door.  But deep down, it’s hard to really “buy in” to the culture of the church when you feel like there’s nothing in your pocket that allows you to afford it.

Enter the gospel.

SAVED BY GRACE

Remember that Isaiah is talking about what life would look like if God reigned completely—on earth as it is in heaven, so to speak.  And, as we already noted, this is what life will look like in the new heavens and the new earth.

I love this passage, because what better way to illustrate the free gift of God’s grace:

“Hey, all who are thirsty, come to the water! You who have no money, come! Buy and eat! Come! Buy wine and milk without money and without cost!  2 Why pay money for something that will not nourish you? Why spend your hard-earned money on something that will not satisfy? Listen carefully to me and eat what is nourishing! Enjoy fine food!  3 Pay attention and come to me! Listen, so you can live! Then I will make an unconditional covenantal promise to you, just like the reliable covenantal promises I made to David.  4 Look, I made him a witness to nations, a ruler and commander of nations.”  5 Look, you will summon nations you did not previously know; nations that did not previously know you will run to you, because of the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, for he bestows honor on you. (Isaiah 55:1-5)

Grace.  It’s an incredible gift.  Isaiah didn’t even have the full picture in his day.  When we pause to consider the way Christ’s blood paid the debt of sin, we easily see how the gospel leads to great joy.  I experience God’s blessing not because I could “afford” it, but because it was secured for me through the blood of Jesus.

TRANSFORMED BY GRACE

But, you might object, surely God doesn’t just want us to remain as we are.  Surely he wants us to worship him with pure hearts and not stained garments.  And you’re right.  The problem is, we often think that means working really hard.

Martin Luther, the great sixteenth-century reformer, once compared the Christian life to building a house.  We allow Jesus to lay the foundation; then we wait for Moses to come finish the job.  In other words, people see Jesus as the ticket “in.”  Once we’re “saved,” we rely on God’s Laws to make us better.  But if we are saved by grace alone, how can we be transformed except through grace?

6 Seek the LORD while he makes himself available; call to him while he is nearby!  7 The wicked need to abandon their lifestyle and sinful people their plans. They should return to the LORD, and he will show mercy to them, and to their God, for he will freely forgive them.  8 “Indeed, my plans are not like your plans, and my deeds are not like your deeds,  9 for just as the sky is higher than the earth, so my deeds are superior to your deeds and my plans superior to your plans.  10 The rain and snow fall from the sky and do not return, but instead water the earth and make it produce and yield crops, and provide seed for the planter and food for those who must eat.  11 In the same way, the promise that I make does not return to me, having accomplished nothing. No, it is realized as I desire and is fulfilled as I intend.”  12 Indeed you will go out with joy; you will be led along in peace; the mountains and hills will give a joyful shout before you, and all the trees in the field will clap their hands.  13 Evergreens will grow in place of thorn bushes, firs will grow in place of nettles; they will be a monument to the LORD, a permanent reminder that will remain.

Everything here is described as a joyous song.   Even the trees clap their hands.  Isaiah says that the distance between us and God is the same as the distance between the earth and heaven itself.  And that’s why the gospel is so beautiful.  No one can reach that far.  The gospel says that God comes down to us in the person of Jesus.

So what does this have to do with our sanctification—that is, with the process by which we are made into Christ’s likeness?  Everything.  Because it means that if I labor to obey God out of a need for his acceptance, then I either feel frustrated when I fail, or arrogantly self-righteous when I succeed.  But if I trust in God’s gracious power through His Spirit, then I can experience joy as He brings me ever closer to His side, and ever shapes me into someone who resembles His character.

Beyond the Surrogate (Isaiah 40)

What do you think of when you think of God?  An old man with a long white beard?  A cosmic judge?  An ineffectual grandfather, who winks at sin and pats our heads approvingly?

A number of years ago, a group of psychologists did an experiment to test the parental bonds formed in young monkeys.  The research animals were presented with two “surrogate” mothers.  The first offered food, but it was made of cold, steel wire.  The second offered no food, but it was made of soft cloth, made to resemble animal fur.  Which do you think the monkeys clung to?  That’s right; even though the soft cloth “surrogate” offered no food, no sustenance, the monkeys clung more tightly to its warmth than to the cold steel alternative.

And that’s what it’s like, for a lot of people.  Our lesser “gods”—sex, career, entertainment, you name it—offer us no substance or enduring value.  But they “seem” warmer, or offer more immediate security than a God that I can’t hear or see or touch.

But God is closer than we think, Isaiah tells us.  Isaiah’s prophecy offers us a rich, multi-textured portrait of God.  His righteousness collides violently with man’s wickedness, and in the aftermath we see the grace he extends to those who trust in His name.

GOD OF COMFORT

It’s hard to summarize Isaiah’s entire message in a few paragraphs.  In Isaiah chapters 1-39, Isaiah’s prophecy centers on the judgment coming to Israel.  Then, in chapter 40, the tone of the entire book shifts.  Now, Isaiah describes God as the One who comforts Israel following her return from exile.  Keep in mind, all of this is yet future.  If God knows the events of the future, then surely he can speak through Isaiah to describe the events following the time of exile.

But this also tells us something timelessly significant about the character of God.  The character that Isaiah describes here is the same God who will one day offer comfort to all people in the formation of the New Heavens and New Earth—themes that we will explore as we see Isaiah’s prophecy unfold before our eyes.

Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.  2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins.  3 A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.  4 Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.  5 And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”  6 A voice says, “Cry!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field.  7 The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the LORD blows on it; surely the people are grass.  8 The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.  9 Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good news; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good news; lift it up, fear not; say to the cities of Judah, “Behold your God!”  10 Behold, the Lord GOD comes with might, and his arm rules for him; behold, his reward is with him, and his recompense before him.  11 He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.  (Isaiah 40:1-11)

The promise of comfort announces that Israel’s “hard service” has been completed, and that “her sin has been paid for.”  Israel looked forward to a day when God would reign on earth as their earthly King.  They also looked forward to the day when God’s presence would be felt on earth in a more direct way than merely in the Temple.  What they never expected was that both these expectations would be fulfilled in the same person.  John the Baptist borrows language here to point to Jesus, the coming Messiah, who brings the presence of God up close and personal, and also points to Jesus’ coming role as King and Lord over His people.

It is a portrait that must be harmonized with the incredible display of God’s power, a theme that Isaiah elaborates on in the next section.

GOD OF POWER

 12 Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand and marked off the heavens with a span, enclosed the dust of the earth in a measure and weighed the mountains in scales and the hills in a balance?  13 Who has measured the Spirit of the LORD, or what man shows him his counsel?  14 Whom did he consult, and who made him understand? Who taught him the path of justice, and taught him knowledge, and showed him the way of understanding?  15 Behold, the nations are like a drop from a bucket, and are accounted as the dust on the scales; behold, he takes up the coastlands like fine dust.  16 Lebanon would not suffice for fuel, nor are its beasts enough for a burnt offering.  17 All the nations are as nothing before him, they are accounted by him as less than nothing and emptiness.  18 To whom then will you liken God, or what likeness compare with him?  19 An idol! A craftsman casts it, and a goldsmith overlays it with gold and casts for it silver chains.  20 He who is too impoverished for an offering chooses wood that will not rot; he seeks out a skillful craftsman to set up an idol that will not move.  21 Do you not know? Do you not hear? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?  22 It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to dwell in;  23 who brings princes to nothing, and makes the rulers of the earth as emptiness.  24 Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown, scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth, when he blows on them, and they wither, and the tempest carries them off like stubble.  25 To whom then will you compare me, that I should be like him? says the Holy One.  26 Lift up your eyes on high and see: who created these? He who brings out their host by number, calling them all by name, by the greatness of his might, and because he is strong in power not one is missing.  27 Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, “My way is hidden from the LORD, and my right is disregarded by my God”?  28 Have you not known? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable.  29 He gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might he increases strength.  30 Even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted;  31 but they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint. (Isaiah 40:12-31)

Stop and think.  Everything we believe about Jesus, we believe about God.  And I love that, because it means that when I read passages like this one from Isaiah, it gives me a deeper and wider understanding of just who Jesus was—and is—and ever shall be.

Too often we worship a god that best serves us.  But who wants a god that can fit in their jacket pocket?  This only deepens our commitment to self rather than call us away from it.  Where’s the comfort in that?  When trouble comes—and it will—what will you turn to?  The God of Isaiah’s text?  Or the god of our own imaginations?  Only one will truly offer us lasting strength, lasting peace, lasting power.