Our new book, How to Forgive, looks at this vitally important subject from a practical perspective, showing what the Bible actually teaches about this topic and how we can best apply the guidance it gives us. As with all our e-books, this new title is absolutely free and does not require any kind of registration or giving an email address. The book is available in three formats – so you can download a copy to read on your computer, phone, kindle or other e-book reader. Simply click on the version you want on our sister website here.
You may not know at this moment when you will need to exercise forgiveness, but you can be certain that sooner or later you will have to forgive someone for something. Perhaps right now there is an old hurt that you have never been able to completely forgive, or perhaps the necessity will not arise until tomorrow or next week, but whenever the need to forgive comes up or to prepare you for when it does, our latest free e-book is designed to help you.
Our new book, How to Forgive, looks at this vitally important subject from a practical perspective, showing what the Bible actually teaches about this topic and how we can best apply the guidance it gives us. As with all our e-books, this new title is absolutely free and does not require any kind of registration or giving an email address. The book is available in three formats – so you can download a copy to read on your computer, phone, kindle or other e-book reader. Simply click on the version you want on our sister website here.
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” (Deuteronomy 6:5).
The biblical command to love God “with all your heart…” given in Deuteronomy and quoted by Jesus as the most important of all commandments (Matthew 22:37) lies at the very center of the Christian Faith. But knowing exactly what loving God with our “heart” means is not as simple as many people presume. Love is so fully equated with the emotions and the heart in modern society that it is easy to think that the command simply means to love God “dearly” or “from the heart.”
The many biblical passages that speak about the heart can easily be misunderstood if we are unfamiliar with the way the term was understood and used in the world in which the Bible was written. Both the Hebrew word lebab (or leb) and the Greek word kardia that we find translated “heart” in our English Bibles had a very different meaning from our modern idea.
When these biblical words are used metaphorically – as opposed to talking about the physical organ we call the heart – they rarely have anything to do with emotions. In the Old Testament, for example, lebab primarily refers to thought, understanding, or memory, and even things such as awareness or courage.
In other words, “heart” in the Old Testament usually refers to things of the mind rather than the emotions. That is why we find biblical verses such as “As [a person] thinks in his heart, so is he” (Proverbs 23:7), or “…the Lord has not given you a heart to understand …” (Deuteronomy 29:4), and why Solomon prayed “… give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong…” (1 Kings 3:9). That is also why many modern Bible versions translate the word “heart” in these verses as “mind” (NIV, Holman, etc.).
Although on the surface some uses of “heart” in the Old Testament may seem to relate to emotions, the essential idea is almost always one of thought rather than feeling. In fact, when biblical writers wanted to refer to “feelings,” they usually spoke of them as being located not in the heart, but in the lower organs – the intestines (1 Kings 3:26, etc.)!
In the New Testament we find the word “heart” (kardia) has the same metaphorical usage as lebab – most frequently meaning “mind” – as when we are told “Knowing their thoughts, Jesus said, ‘Why do you entertain evil thoughts in your hearts?’” (Matthew 9:4) and “For out of the heart come evil thoughts” (Matthew 15:19). In fact, when the New Testament writers seem to be speaking of the heart and mind as two separate things – as in the verse “All the believers were one in heart and mind” (Acts 4:32) – they are usually using a common Jewish expression which was literally “one heart and one soul” – meaning they were completely unified (Jeremiah 32:39, etc.).
As we saw with the use of the Hebrew, when New Testament writers wanted to speak of the emotions they usually used a term for the lower organs, just as the apostle Paul wrote that we should put on “bowels of mercies” (Colossians 3:12 KJV), meaning we should have compassionate feelings toward others.
When we understand this background, we realize that modern versions of the Bible may actually confuse us somewhat by translating “intestines” as “feelings” and “heart” as “mind.” While these translations give us the actual sense of a verse in most cases, when they do translate “heart” as “heart” (as in “Love the Lord your God with all your heart”), we may miss the point that it is really talking about loving God with all our mind.
In other words, when the English Bible speaks of the heart, we must be careful to determine whether we are reading a verse giving the modern meaning of “emotions” or the ancient meaning of “mind.” This can be important in many cases. When the Old Testament tells us that David was “a man after [God's] own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14) and this is repeated in the New Testament as “a man after my heart” (Acts 13:22), we must realize that God’s “heart” means his thoughts and attitudes rather than his feelings.
This fact is especially important in understanding the greatest commandment of all – that we must love God with all our “heart.” Easy as it may be to see this command in modern terms as referring to deep feelings and emotions for God – good as such feelings may be – the Bible actually means that we must love God with all our mind. Loving God with all our “heart” means not leaving the slightest part of our minds separate from the rule and influence of God. This is what Paul was speaking of when he tells us we must “… take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5).
There is no place for any kind of divided affection in the command to love God with all our heart. Just as Jesus stressed that “No one can serve two masters” because we will invariably love one and “hate” or love the other so much less by comparison (Matthew 6:24), loving God with our whole heart means having a love that includes nothing short of total and complete dedication of mind. Only when we give our minds – our very selves – completely to God are we loving him with all our heart.
“Imitation is not just the sincerest form of flattery - it's the sincerest form of learning.”
― George Bernard Shaw
The word “imitation” often has a negative connotation – we can think of imitation designer clothes that don’t look as good as the real items, imitation coffee or milk that doesn’t taste as good as the real thing, and many other examples. Usually, the imitation is just not as good as the thing imitated – the real thing.
But there is one type of imitation that is perfectly acceptable - in fact desirable: when God himself is involved in the process of imitation. The first chapter of Genesis clearly tells us that God made an imitation when he made the first human. “Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness…. So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them…” (Genesis 1:26-27). And, of course, when God had done this, God looked at the imitation he had made and “God saw… it was very good” (vs. 31).
Naturally, the imitation God made of himself was not endowed with the power, wisdom, goodness and countless other qualities that God has, but it had a small measure of these qualities – just enough to show the family likeness – and it was good, but it wasn’t as like the original as might be possible.
In most cases, if you have an imitation of something, that’s what you are stuck with. It’s always going to be a kind of second-class item. But the interesting thing about the imitation that God made is that it was upgradable. God made the imitation of himself with the ability for countless ongoing upgrades – with the potential to make the imitation ever more like the original. In one sense, that’s what life is – or should be – all about: taking the opportunity to fulfill that potential .
So this kind of imitation is not wrong – or in any way second class. It’s something we should all be doing in our lives – seeking to be a better imitation of God. You may not have thought about it this way, but that was what Jesus himself was doing, on a daily basis, during His physical life. Notice what he said in this regard: “… the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does” (John 5:19). Jesus plainly says that even though he was the Son of God, his focus was on imitating God. He knew the Father and constantly imitated him in his actions and thoughts.
How do we do this? Although we do not have the unique knowledge of God that Jesus had, fortunately God has made available clear templates and instructions for us to follow to continuously “upgrade” ourselves to become increasingly better imitations.
First, we can imitate the original by getting to know God better through in-depth study of his word, not just in looking to see what it says, but looking to see what it says about him. It’s a different approach when we don’t just read the story, but read the story like we would read the instructions for updating the software on our computers – carefully, and focusing on what the words are showing us that we should do to successfully make the upgrade.
Second, we can imitate good copies. God has given us the examples of his trained and trusted servants who closely imitate him. This is why the apostle Paul repeatedly stresses that we need to look at his example and that of others to the extent that they imitate Christ. Look at these instances of what Paul says about this:
“Therefore I urge you to imitate me. For this reason I have sent to you Timothy, my son whom I love, who is faithful in the Lord. He will remind you of my way of life in Christ Jesus …” (1 Corinthians 4:16).
“We did this… in order to offer ourselves as a model for you to imitate” (2 Thessalonians 3:9).
These words of Paul dovetail with those found in the Book of Hebrews:
“… imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised” (Hebrews 6:12).
“Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith” (Hebrews 13:7).
Third, we can pray specifically for help in becoming a better imitation. Notice in Philippians Paul tells us something about imitating. He says we should “… have the same mindset as Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5), and after discussing this he then goes on to say “…continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose” (vs. 12). If we are praying for God’s will in our lives, we should be getting his help to better imitate him and those he has changed – and we can pray for this specifically.
We need to remember that humans are actually programmed to imitate. That’s how we learn language, social skills, and countless other things. It’s in our natures to imitate, and God put that there for a reason. As a result, we must be careful, as John says, that we “do not imitate what is evil, but what is good” (3 John 1:11a). If we are diligently studying, watching and praying to better imitate the model we have been given, God will continue his work in us and our spiritual imitation of his nature will truly be “very good.”
By Kevin DeYoung *
Everyone who knows anything about the gospels—and even those who don’t—knows that Jesus was a friend of sinners. He often drew the ire of the scribes and Pharisees for eating with sinners (Luke 15:2). Jesus clearly recognized that one of the insults hurled against him was that he was “a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” (Luke 7:34). As Christians we love to sing of this Pharisaical put-down because it means that Jesus is a friend to sinners like us. We also find ourselves challenged by Jesus’ example to make sure we do not turn away outsiders in a way that Jesus never would.
As precious as this truth is—that Jesus is a friend of sinners—it, like every other precious truth in the Bible, needs to be safeguarded against doctrinal and ethical error. It is all too easy, and amazingly common, for Christians (or non-Christians) to take the general truth that Jesus was a friend of sinners and twist it all out of biblical recognition. So “Jesus ate with sinners” becomes “Jesus loved a good party,” which becomes “Jesus was more interested in showing love than taking sides,” which becomes “Jesus always sided with religious outsiders,” which becomes “Jesus would blow bubbles for violations of the Torah.”
Here we have an example of a whole truth being used for a half truth in the service of a lie. Once, as a younger man in ministry, I made an offhanded comment about how Jesus “hung out with drunks.” I was gently and wisely corrected by an older Christian who had himself overcome alcohol addiction. He challenged me to find anywhere in Scripture where Jesus was just “hanging out” with people in a state of drunkenness. In an effort to accentuate the grace of Christ, I stepped beyond (around, over, and away) from the biblical text and made it sound like Jesus loved nothing more than to yuck it up with John Belushi in Animal House.
If we are to celebrate that the Lord Jesus is a glorious friend of sinners—and we should—we must pay careful attention to the ways in which Jesus actually was a friend to sinners. Omitting the story of the woman caught in adultery (for reasons of textual criticism), I count five main passages in the gospels where Jesus is chastised for getting too close to sinners.
So what lessons can we draw from these episodes? In what way was Jesus a friend of sinners? Did he have a grand strategy for reaching tax collectors? Did he indiscriminately “hang out” with drunks and prostitutes? Was he an easy going live-and-let-live kind of Messiah? What we see from the composite of these passages is that sinners were drawn to Jesus, that Jesus gladly spent time with sinners who were open to his teaching, that Jesus forgave repentant sinners, and that Jesus embraced sinners who believed in him.
Jesus was a friend of sinners not because he winked at sin, ignored sin, or enjoyed light-hearted revelry with those engaged in immorality. Jesus was a friend of sinners in that he came to save sinners and was very pleased to welcome sinners who were open to the gospel, sorry for their sins, and on their way to putting their faith in Him.
*Republished with permission from The Gospel Coalition website.
When the expression “a life of prayer” comes to mind, people usually think of a devout figure whose life is characterized by frequent and extended prayer.
But there is another very different possible meaning that we should always remember is contained in this expression. In a very real sense our lives are part of our prayers: we pray what we live, not just what we say.
Although we may not find a biblical verse that makes this statement in exactly those words, we find many scriptures that make the principle clear. For example, the apostle Paul wrote: “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters … to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship” (Romans 12:1). When we remember the many biblical verses that equate prayer with sacrifice (Psalm 141:2, etc.), what Paul writes takes on even clearer meaning – that just as our prayers are given as offerings or sacrifices to God (Revelation 8:4), the sacrifice of our “bodies” – our lives – is also part of our worship. Paul urges us to make our lives just as much a pleasing offering to God as our verbal prayers.
The Christian writer and preacher A. W. Tozer referred to this principle when he wrote: "We cannot pray in love and live in hate and still think we are worshiping God." Tozer’s comment is well known, but he followed it up with an analogy that is not so often quoted and which summarizes the broader principle:
Let us suppose we are back in the old days of the high priest, who took incense into the [temple sanctuary] and went behind the veil and offered it there. And let us suppose that rubber—the worst-smelling thing I can think of when it burns—had been available in those days. Let us suppose that chips of rubber had been mixed with the incense, so that instead of the pure smoke of the spices filling the temple with sweet perfume, there had been the black, angry, rancid smell of rubber mixed with it. How could a priest worship God by mixing with the sweet-smelling ingredients some foul ingredient that would be a stench in the nostrils of priest and people?
Tozer’s analogy is a good one, and we might well contrast it with what Paul instructs us in Ephesians: “Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:1-2). Paul shows here that our walk – if it is in the way of love – is equivalent to a fragrant offering or sacrifice, just as that of Christ was.
But the principle of our lives being prayers is not just an analogy that we can dismiss or overlook. The relationship between our lives and our prayer “offerings” is as important as it is direct. We see this from the beginning of the biblical record with the story of Cain whose offering was rejected by God:
The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast. Then the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it” (Genesis 4:4-7).
In Cain’s case God rejected a physical offering because of his not doing right, but the New Testament makes it clear that the same applies to our verbal prayers: “We know that God does not listen to sinners. He listens to the godly person who does his will” (John 9:31). The Book of Hebrews gives a clear example of this interaction between our everyday and prayer lives: “Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that openly profess his name. And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased” (Hebrews 13:15-16). Our sacrifice of prayer and praise is directly linked, Hebrews says, to our walk, our behavior and our deeds.
The Bible’s teaching is clear, then: our everyday life is part of our “prayer” life and God “hears” what we do just as much as what we say. It is often said that our private lives must match our public prayers, but our everyday lives must match our private prayers, too. One of the greatest ways we can improve our prayer lives is to bring our everyday lives into alignment with them. It’s a fact that gives new meaning to the old question, “How’s your prayer life?”
*Download our free ebook on prayer, YOUR CALL: USING THE DIRECT PRIVATE LINE OF PRAYER here.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
For many Christians John 3:16 is their best known and most loved verse in the Bible. It has been called the “golden verse” of Scripture, one of the Bible’s most succinct summaries of the gospel, and the ultimate single-verse summary of God’s plan for humanity. But many do not realize just how much meaning is packed into this one short verse – its very familiarity often obscures its richness – and it can be profitable to look at each part of the verse more closely:
“For…” The word “For” with which this verse begins points back to John’s previous statement that: “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him” (John 3:14-15). This refers, of course, to the bronze image of a serpent that God instructed Moses to place on a high pole for the healing of the Israelites who acknowledged their sin in the wilderness (Numbers 21:4-9). In that story, everyone who “looked at” the serpent was granted life, and in John’s Gospel we see Christ made it clear that in the same way whoever “believes” on him is granted eternal life (John 3:16). Looking and believing are equal in these accounts of the same story – faith is “looking” without the eyes, or beyond what the physical eyes see, to a reality that saves (see our article “Seeing Is Believing: The Serpent on the Stake” here). That is the background to John 3:16 – that our belief is not just the acceptance of an abstract idea about God and what he has done, but an active looking to the Person who is salvation.
“God so loved…” We should also realize that when this verse tells us that God “so” loved the world, it does not mean God loved the world “so much.” Instead, the Greek in which the verse was written clearly means God loved the world “in this way.” In other words, “God loved the world in this way – he gave his only son …” It’s an important difference. The Old Testament often stresses God’s love (Isaiah 63:9; Hosea 11:1-4, etc.), but John 3:16 shows the way in which that love was expressed.
“the world…” The Greek word translated “world” is kosmos which can mean not just the physical world or universe, but also – as in this case – all the inhabitants of the world. Rather than just telling us that God loved people in general, “the world” emphasizes the all-inclusive and universal love that God displayed – love of everyone without exception.
“that he gave…” Giving is, of course, characteristic of the nature of God – it is one of the things that most clearly defines him – and the gift of his son is his greatest gift, eclipsing all others (Romans 8:32). The gift was foreshadowed in the prophets, as Isaiah wrote: “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given…” (Isaiah 9:6).
“his one and only son...” In this phrase John stresses that God’s love extended to giving his “one and only" son – a sacrifice that reminds us of the story of Abraham’s willingness to give up Isaac (Hebrews 11:17). Here the expression marks the unique nature of the gift that God was willing to give (1 John 4:9).
“that whoever believes on him…” The word “whoever” signifies “everyone” and stresses again the universal nature of God’s gift and its availability to anyone who will accept it. John reiterates this truth a little later in the same chapter: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life …” (John 3:36). Unseen in our English translations is the fact that the word “believes” is a “present participle” in the Greek of the New Testament – a verbal form that stresses continuity of action. The required belief is not just associated with a one-time emotional occurrence – it is ongoing, and it only those who continue to believe who receive the gift (Matthew 24:13).
“shall not perish but have eternal life.” Here we see as much stress on God’s desire that we do not perish (2 Peter 3:9) as on his desire to grant us life. The specific words “eternal life” are typical of the teaching of the apostle John, who uses them more than twice as many times as all the other Gospel writers combined. John here uses the expression in the present tense to stress that the life God offers us is not just life that we “shall” have at some future time, but spiritual life that begins now, in the present, and continues eternally from now.
The total message of this great verse is echoed by John in his first epistle: “This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him” (1 John 4:9). But it is only in John 3:16, the verse we all know but do not always appreciate to the full, that the great message is so clearly and thoroughly explained.
The Gospel of Luke records a group of parables in which Jesus gave three examples of the concept of lost and found: the story of the lost sheep, the parable of the lost coin, and the parable of the lost son (Luke 15:1-31).
We know these are not just three similar stories that were grouped together thematically as Luke specifically shows they were given at the same time (vss. 3, 8, 11) in response to the Pharisees’ criticism that Jesus ate with “sinners” (vss. 1-2).
In the first parable, Jesus said: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it?” (vs. 4). In the second, he continued: “Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it?” (vs. 8). And in the third and best known parable we are told that Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them. Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had and set off for a distant country (vss. 11-13). This parable also tells us that when the prodigal son finally returned: “…while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him” (vs. 20), showing that the father had been waiting and looking for his son.
In all three of these parables we are told that when that which was lost was found there was great rejoicing (vss. 6, 9, 32), and the moral of each is clearly that God rejoices in “finding” the lost soul. But these are not just a group of similar parables. Not only were they given at the same time in response to the same situation, with a clear connection between the stories, but also if we look closely, there is another important aspect of what is said.
In the first parable we are told specifically that the sheep that was lost was one in a hundred; in the second parable the coin that was lost was one in ten; in the third parable the son who was lost was one of two. Although each parable makes the same point, there is an additional message in the complete sequence – in all three taken together.
Jesus began by showing that even one of many (one in a hundred) has great value. One hundred sheep would have been a very large flock in ancient Palestine, and one missing sheep might hardly be noticed. Spiritually, the message is clear: God values everyone who is lost – even if they are “only one” of the vast number of humans who have lived. The sequence continues, however, in showing the relative worth of the one of ten coins that was lost. The fact that the woman called on her friends to rejoice with her when the coin was found shows that its value must have been significant to her – probably a tenth of all her savings. In the final parable, the sequence concludes by showing the tremendous value to his father of the one of two sons who had been “lost.” The father in the story is shown as perhaps having been searching the distant road continually, hoping for his son’s return.
In this parable we often concentrate on the uncharitable reluctance of the elder of the two sons to rejoice when the younger one returned. Although that is an important part of the story, we should not forget that the discussion between the father and the elder brother also serves another purpose – to show the great value of the lost brother who was found. The elder brother’s argument is essentially that the father was placing as much value on the young brother as on the one who had stayed faithful – and that argument was in fact accurate.
The parable makes it clear that the elder brother would receive his due reward (vs. 31), but the father replies to him that: “… we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found” (vs. 32).
The three “lost and found” parables Jesus gave were not just repetition for effect. The interlinked stories show successively the value to God of the one who is lost. The sequence demonstrates at its beginning God’s personal attentiveness towards all of humanity and at its end his deeply focused love for each individual. Together, the parables show that no one is too small or insignificant to be viewed as of great value to God, and that every individual who returns to God, whatever their sins of the past, is of immense value – as valuable in God’s sight as any other. The three parables show as clearly as anything in the New Testament not only the joy of the lost being found, but also the loving acceptance with which God views the one who is found.
* For more about the parables of Jesus, download our free e-book The City on a Hill.
The two unmistakable themes of the Gospel of John are belief and love.* Although John sometimes stresses these concepts separately, he also frequently connects them, as we see in verses such as John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (emphases added here and in the following scriptures). John also shows how the two great themes of love and belief were tied together in the words of Jesus himself: “… the Father himself loves you because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God” (John 16:27).
When we move beyond John’s Gospel to his epistles, we find the same two themes are also linked there. For example, the connection between belief and love is perfectly summarized in a single verse in the apostle’s first letter: “And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us” (1 John 3:23).
But although these two themes are clear enough in John’s writing, we do not always notice that he is teaching us an important lesson regarding them: that the one spiritual quality affects the other.
Belief Increases Love
Notice what John says regarding the first aspect of this interaction – that of belief affecting love. In 1 John 4:19 the apostle tells us: “We love because he first loved us.” Although the word belief does not appear directly in this verse, the concept is obviously implied – we come to love God because we believe God first loved us.
John connects belief with love in many other verses in this letter – such as 1 John 5:1 where he tells us: “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and everyone who loves the father loves his child as well.”
But John evidently did not feel the necessity to elaborate on the connection between belief and love, as it is not a difficult one to see for ourselves in our own personal experience: the more we come to see and understand God and believe in him and his nature, the more we come to love him. Put simply, the more we come to know God, the more we come to love him.
Love Increases Belief
But John also shows this principle is reciprocal: the more we love God, the more our belief is strengthened. Consider the following verses.
“Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love” (1 John 4: 7B).
In this case, love is mentioned first and then knowing God – our belief in him – comes as a result. It is easy to read over this verse without seeing the connection John is making, but it is clear once we focus on it. The apostle makes the same connection in other verses. For example:
“No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us” (1 John 4:12).
What proof do we have of God? John asks. His answer is straightforward – if we truly love one another, then God is living in us and we experience him in our lives in this way. John looks at the other side of this situation a few verses later:
“… whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen” (1 John 4:20).
This obviously has vital relevance for Christian life and belief. As we come to love, John tells us, we come to experience God – and so to believe in him. Near the end of his letter, John unites the two principles of love and belief once again:
“In fact, this is love for God: to keep his commands… This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith” (1 John 5:3).
John is not alone in making this connection. The New Testament shows on many occasions that spiritual qualities, such as belief and love, do not exist in a vacuum. The apostle Paul, for example, wrote on how belief interacts with love: “…The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” (Galatians 5:6). John’s epistles show the same truth from both directions – the more we come to truly believe, the more we will also love; and vice versa, the more we truly love, the more we will come to truly believe.
Ultimately, for John, love and belief cannot be separated. We cannot develop the kind of love God exhibits without believing, or truly know and believe God without loving. As has been wisely said, “Belief is the eye of love, love is the heart of belief.” Both are necessary for the eternal life that, John tells us, God has desired to give us from the beginning (1 John 2:24).
* See the chapter on these two themes in our free e-book Inside the Four Gospels.
During the course of this past year we published well over a hundred blog posts here and on our sister site.
The list below gives the 12 posts that were most popular on this site, so check out the list to see how it compares with your own favorites and to see if you missed any of these posts ...
Being Encouraged by our Discouragement
Puah and Shiprah: The Sanctity of Life
The Message behind the Message in Jude
The Three Things that Matter Most
Sowing and Reaping in Galatians 6
The Gifts and Fruit of the Spirit
The Priest, the Plot, and the Parable
What We Love and What We Don’t
Four Ways to Please God
Putting a Price on Forgiveness
Growing the Two Directions of Love
Peace of Mind in the First Epistle of John
You might also like to see the parallel list of most popular posts this year on our sister site:
The star that appeared to the wise men in the East announcing the birth of Christ and which led them to him (Matthew 2:1-9) shone brightly till its purpose was fulfilled, then it disappeared from view. In a similar manner, John the Baptist, who was called the “greatest of those born of women” (Matthew 11:11), accomplished a short intense ministry aimed also at announcing and pointing to the Christ, then likewise faded from view.
The star that heralded Jesus’ birth, bright as it appeared, was to be obscured by the one to whom it pointed – the Messiah himself. Here we also see a parallel with John the Baptist. As Christ affirmed, “He was a burning and shining lamp” (John 5:35), but John nevertheless came only as a witness because “The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world” (John 1:8-9). Once Jesus’ ministry began, John’s “light” was dimmed by the rising of his successor. As John himself said using this very analogy, “He must wax, but I must wane” (John 3:30). But like the heavenly star that also preceded the Messiah’s birth, John the Baptist’s job was fully accomplished in the short but intense work which God intended for him. Both were powerful witnesses to the coming of the Messiah.
How does this apply to us? Although we may not live in the age which saw a heavenly light or a great prophetic “light” like John the Baptist pointing to Christ, the apostle Peter reminds us that “We also have the prophetic message as something completely reliable, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts” (2 Peter 1:19). That “morning star” is Christ himself (Revelation 22:16); and the “prophetic message” is not so much all of prophecy as it is the prophetic message regarding the meaning and purpose of the coming of Christ.
The star of the nativity, the “lamp” of John the Baptist, and the “light shining in a dark place” were different announcements made available to different groups of people: the first to only a select few, the second to all who heard John, the third to all who come in contact with the word of God throughout the whole world. The three forms of announcement also increased in the level of understanding they provided those to whom they were given. Bright as the heavenly star may have appeared, powerful as John’s testimony may have been, we can be thankful that the announcement that has come to us is the fullest, clearest and most profound light of all.
The Prophet Elijah was certainly one of the greatest figures of the Old Testament. When Christ appeared in the Transfiguration before his key disciples, the vision they experienced involved Jesus speaking with Moses and Elijah – doubtless representing the very personifications of the Law and the Prophets of Old Testament revelation (Matthew 7:1-13).
Yet Elijah was just as subject to human problems and the need to learn as you and I are (James 5:17). The Old Testament records many stories about the prophet, and one is particularly fascinating regarding lessons that Elijah perhaps needed to learn and from which we certainly can profit. The book of 1 Kings tells us that after Elijah delivered an unwelcome message to Ahab, king of Israel:
Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah: “Leave here, turn eastward and hide in the Kerith Ravine, east of the Jordan. You will drink from the brook, and I have directed the ravens to supply you with food there.” So he did what the Lord had told him. He went to the Kerith Ravine, east of the Jordan, and stayed there. The ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning and bread and meat in the evening, and he drank from the brook. Some time later the brook dried up because there had been no rain in the land. Then the word of the Lord came to him: “Go at once to Zarephath in the region of Sidon and stay there. I have directed a widow there to supply you with food.” So he went to Zarephath (1 Kings 17:2-10).
It's a small story, but one packed with lessons and reminders that apply in our own lives. Here are just five that are immediately clear:
1) The first thing we learn from this story is that sometimes God protects us, and sometimes he encourages us to flee. God protected Elijah on numerous occasions, but on this occasion he specifically informed the prophet to flee and “hide” (vs. 3) until God was ready to have him speak truth to power again. This is an important principle found throughout the Bible (see our article, “Should Christians Flee?”), and Elijah was either taught the lesson or given it as one of many examples recorded in Scripture for our benefit.
2) Sometimes God lets us look for what we need, and sometimes he brings it to us. God did not instruct Elijah to try to forage for food or to miraculously replace the same food, as he did on another occasion (1 Kings 17:13-16). Rather, God sent what Elijah needed directly to him by means of birds – ravens. Sometimes we have to learn to let God provide, also. Interestingly, Jesus used ravens as a means of teaching this very lesson (Luke 12:24).
3) God provides, but often not more than we need. The story tells us that twice a day the ravens brought enough food for a half day. It is clear that God sent a number of ravens, and we know that these large birds can carry quite large objects and weights with ease – but God only had them deliver food for Elijah’s immediate need. This is similar to the way in which God provided manna to the Israelites on a daily basis, and it is clear that he was teaching them lessons in that situation, also (Exodus 16:4-27).
4) Sometimes God lets things happen to move us on. The story ends by telling us that the small stream that provided water for Elijah dried up. This was God’s way of preparing Elijah for the news that it was time to move on, and it’s a reminder we can all remember. Sometimes God ends something good to give us something better – in Elijah’s case, it was a better opportunity to serve others who needed help and that may sometimes be our situation, too.
5) Perhaps the most important lesson or reminder we can take from this story is one that applies to all the points we have considered above. In each aspect of this story, God acted in an unexpected way. In every case we are reminded that God’s way of doing things is often not what we would have expected. It may not be what we would have done or even chosen. Humanly, we could question every aspect of this small story. Why didn’t God just protect Elijah – why did he have to flee? Why did God send Elijah to an area with no food within many miles and then force him to just sit and wait to be fed? Why did God not provide at least a whole day's food at one time? Why did God have the stream dry up – why not just tell Elijah it was time to go back?
Whatever the answers may be to some of the questions that are raised by this story, we see that things worked out – God looked after Elijah and Elijah was able to fulfil God’s purposes. Our own lives are really no different. The greatest lesson we can learn from this small story is that, like Elijah, we can always accept on faith what God commands or does (1 Kings 17:5, 10). It is a story that reminds us even if we do not always know why God does what he does in our lives, we can be sure he has a purpose and that he always knows what he is doing.
The first epistle of John displays a unique writing style. One of the most characteristic aspects of this apostle’s letters is the way in which he frequently compares or contrasts spiritual situations.
In 1 John 1:9-10, for example, he contrasts “If we confess our sins” with “If we claim we have not sinned.” As we continue through his letter we find that he compares “Whoever loves his brother” with “whoever hates his brother” (1 John 2:10-11); “The one who does what is right” with “The one who does what is sinful” (1 John 3:7-8); “Every spirit that acknowledges … Jesus …” with “every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus” (1 John 4:2-3), and so on.
This frequent use of comparison or contrast lends a dynamic force to what John writes – it is straightforward, to the point, and unequivocal. But sometimes the lesson behind the comparison is not quite as easy to see, and we may miss it if we do not keep an eye open for occurrences of the pattern. A good example of this is found in the third chapter of John’s letter:
This is how we know that we belong to the truth and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence: If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God … (1 John 3:19-21).
The immediate contrast between “If our hearts condemn us” and “if our hearts do not condemn us” is clear enough, but the lesson John points to here is perhaps not as obvious. At face value it might seem that John is simply saying if our hearts or “consciences” condemn us, God is greater than our hearts (vs. 20); but what does that mean?
To understand the contrast John is making, we must widen our view to look at the context in which these verses appear. Beginning in verse 10 of chapter 3, all the way up to verse 19 where John begins to talk about our consciences condemning or not condemning us, John speaks continually about whether we love one another or not: “This is how we know who the children of God are … Anyone who does not do what is right is not God’s child, nor is anyone who does not love their brother and sister. For this is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another…. We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love each other… Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth” (1 John 3:10-18).
John then states that “This is how we know that we belong to the truth and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence: if our hearts condemn us …” (vs. 19-20). Knowing that “we belong to the truth,” as John puts it, is not a result of what he says next – our hearts condemning or not condemning us – because we cannot always trust our own conscience to be a judge of our behavior (Jeremiah 17:9). Rather, John refers to what he has just said: that we love others in our behavior and in truth (vs. 18); and to what he says after this verse, that we have confidence before God because we keep his commands “… to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us” (vs. 23).
The theme of love is really the main point of the third chapter and of John’s entire letter, and this immediate context allows us to paraphrase the point of 1 John 3:19-20 something like this:
“… because we demonstrate our love for one another in actions and in truth, we know that we are the children of God and this sets our conscience at rest… Even if our conscience sometimes causes us to doubt our standing before God, we know our conscience is not the final judge and that God, who sees the love he has placed within us, accepts us and hears us – for ongoing love of others in our lives is the proof that God does not reject or condemn us, and that he hears us.”
We all occasionally groan under the weight of conscience and in our most discouraged moments we may wonder if we are really a child of God, or if God hears us. But John’s message shows us that the outgoing and ongoing love God places in us through his Spirit is the proof that we are indeed his children. It's a tremendously encouraging lesson, but – like many of John’s lessons – it is one we can only see properly when we consider what he wrote in its full context.
The four Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – lie at the very heart of Christianity, recording its most essential teachings and providing us with most of what we know about the person of Jesus Christ, his fulfillments of Old Testament prophecies, his message, and his true identity. Without them the rest of the New Testament would not make any sense, and we would have no idea of the true significance of a great deal of what is written in the Old Testament.
Yet many Christians do not know why there are four Gospels, exactly how they differ, or what their unique lessons are. This book answers those questions by looking at the “stage,” the “actors,” and the “story” of the Gospels and by providing background and perspective that can greatly increase your understanding of their message. The four Gospels are certainly among the most important books of the Bible. Isn’t it time you got to know them better?
Our free new book Inside The Four Gospels is available in formats for computer, e-book reader and smart phone. Download a copy here.
Many Bible verses affirm the importance of giving thanks. Here are ten scriptures that can remind us of that fact, and what Thanksgiving is all about:
When you sacrifice a thank offering to the Lord, sacrifice it in such a way that it will be accepted on your behalf.
1 Chronicles 16:34
Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever.
Those who sacrifice thank offerings honor me, and to the blameless I will show my salvation.
Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise. Give thanks to him; bless his name.
Always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.
And be thankful… with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
1 Thessalonians 5:18
Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.
1 Timothy 2:1
I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people ...
Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably …
It might seem strange to talk of putting a price on forgiveness, yet that is exactly what Jesus did in his parable* of the unmerciful servant (Matthew 18:21-35). In that parable Jesus painted a detailed word picture of a king’s servant who owed the ruler ten thousand “talents” (vs. 24).
A talent was not a unit of currency, but a unit of weight. The NIV translates this verse “ten thousand bags of gold,” but it is far more likely that silver would have been the precious metal involved in the transaction, as even ten thousand talents of silver would represent an almost unimaginably large amount. In fact, ten thousand talents of silver would be too large to have normally been a personal debt. The word “servant” Matthew uses could refer to a king’s high-ranking servant who had control of massive amounts of money as part of his work.
By contrast, the second servant in the parable who owed the king’s servant money was doubtless a far less powerful individual who had borrowed “one hundred denarii” (KJV “a hundred pennies,” NIV “a hundred silver coins”). We read in the parable that the servant who owed a huge amount that was forgiven was himself unwilling to forgive the individual who owed him a much smaller debt.
To get a true sense of the relative amounts Jesus spoke of, notice that in another parable – that of the men working in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16) – Matthew specifically tells us that an acceptable rate of pay for a laboring man was one denarius per day (vs. 1, etc.). So, the debt of the minor servant who owed the king’s servant 100 denarii was the equivalent of a hundred days pay – some four months of wages calculated on a regular workweek – and certainly not a small amount.
But to get a sense of the debt for which the king’s servant was responsible, we must realize that a “talent” was equal to approximately 6,000 denarii in value, so that debt equaled ten thousand times about six thousand days pay for an average laborer – some 60 million days or 200 thousand years pay at 300 workdays per year – based on talents of silver, not gold.
So the price of the forgiveness given by the king to his servant in Christ’s parable was an astronomically high one – far beyond the realm of any possibility of being repaid. But it is easy to think that this parable was simply teaching that our neighbor’s spiritual debts to us are far less than what we “owe” God as a debt of forgiveness, but while that is true, the parable has greater depth than that.
Clearly, the king in the parable represents God, and the king’s servant represents us as debtors to God through our sin, while the minor servant represents those who are “indebted” to us through sins against us. But we should remember that the amount owed by the minor servant – a hundred days’ pay – was not a trivial amount. It is important to realize that Christ was not downplaying the “debts” or sins of others against us – rather his parable admits that those who sin against us may indeed sin to a substantial degree, leaving us significantly hurt.
But the parable also puts that hurt in perspective by showing that the astronomically high debt we have incurred through our own cumulative sins far outweighs whatever sin may have been committed against us – no matter how bad it was. As it is given in Christ’s example, the story shows a ratio of one million to one – the sins of others against us represent one millionth of our own sins against God. That is why Jesus ended his parable by saying that the unmerciful servant was severely punished by the king, and by saying “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart” (vs. 35).
Ultimately, however, Jesus’ parable is not about numbers or balance sheets. Its primary message, of course, is that we ought to forgive as our King has forgiven us. And we should not forget the context in which the parable was given. Matthew makes it clear that Jesus told this story in response to Peter asking how many times we should forgive those who sin against us: “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king… (Matthew 18:21-23, emphasis added).
According to Jesus’ answer to Peter’s question, the forgiveness given to us is extravagant both in amount and in repetition, and finally it is extravagant in terms of the attitude with which the forgiveness is given. True forgiveness, Jesus tells us, is so extravagant that it cannot be repaid; it is so extensive that it does not run out in our lifetime; and it is so truly meant from the heart that no price can really be placed on it.
*Download our free e-book on the Parables of Jesus from this website, here.
There is an old story, I am not aware of its origin, that each day as we go into the world we pass through one of three doors. The first door is the dark way, the door of evil intentions, which leads to harm for ourselves and others. The second door leads to neither good nor bad intentions, and the third door leads to the good intentions of serving and helping others. The interesting thing about the story is that it continues by telling us that most people go out into the world each day by way of the door of no intentions – intending neither bad nor good - but when we do so, we invariably return by way of the dark door.
There is certainly some truth to this simple little story. How many times have we gone out into the day not intending anything in particular only to sooner or later run into traffic, coworkers, messages or whatever that rouse us to frustration, anger, fear, doubt, or other negative feelings or actions. According to the story, it is only as we go out into the day through the light door – the door of intending to do good – that we will return by way of the middle door, or, if our intentions are maintained, through the door of good intentions.
The story has a point, but its weakness is clear. We all know that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions" (as first stated by Bernard of Clairvaux), and that of themselves even the best of intentions usually are not enough. Simply put, the door of our own good intentions really only leads to a partial solution to the problem of how our lives will really play out.
But the old story can remind us, of course, of the words of Jesus which carry a much more profound lesson. The Gospel of John records Christ's words: “I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture” (John 10:9). This was part of the parable Jesus told of the sheepfold with the sheep and the door they entered in and out of. But the words fit our old story well, too.
It is only as we go out into the world through the power of Christ – the true door – that our good intentions will be more fully realized and maintained. That takes conscious thought and determination, but if we remind ourselves daily of the door through which we need to walk, we will be much less likely to go out through the door of wrong intentions or that of no intentions at all.
Normally, we run different blog posts and articles on our two websites each week, but this week we are making an exception with an article we feel is important enough for us to carry on both this site and on our other site – TacticalChristianity.org – at the same time.
The topic is prayer and the point is one which may transform your understanding of this subject. Not all prayer is asking for something, but a great deal of it obviously is. When we ask, do we pray mainly for our own physical and spiritual needs and concerns? It is certainly acceptable to pray for these things – we have Christ’s encouragement to do so – but that is only part of the picture we find in the words of Jesus and in the New Testament as a whole.
The New Testament actually gives us an insight into an important aspect of prayer that we might easily miss. See what that 80% principle is in our latest article, here.
Reading the Bible, it’s easy to think of God only speaking to people in miraculous and stunning ways – from burning bushes, by a voice from the heavens and in great theophanies where the earth shakes. But it’s harder to see those events in perspective viewed from our own lives today.
Although the Scriptures do contain many examples of God speaking audibly to humans, we have to remember that those examples occurred over a relatively vast period of time – thousands of years. They were not “everyday” occurrences even in biblical times. We do not find God routinely talking audibly to his servants all the time. The instances that are recorded are almost all at pivotal times when God desired to confirm that he was moving his plan forward in some new or different manner. Often, God simply spoke to individuals in such a way that they somehow “heard,” but others did not (1 Samuel 3:1-11).
When we understand these things, we can see the error in thinking that God spoke audibly in biblical times but now only speaks to us in other ways (an understanding that many skeptics rightly claim is neither indicative of God’s existence or the historical veracity of the Bible). Rather, God usually speaks to us in ways that he has always used.
Primarily, God speaks to us through his written word (2 Timothy 3:16–17). This is something we should think about. There is no indication in the Bible that God audibly dictated the words to be recorded in the biblical writings, so we should not be surprised that he speaks to our minds through them just as he spoke to the minds of those who wrote under his inspiration.
God also often speaks to our minds directly through urgings that we may call an “inner voice” or our “conscience” (Acts 2:37). Once again, no audible voice is involved, but if you have ever felt the prodding of conscience, you know how real the experience can be. God can work through the Holy Spirit in our minds in just this way – we are convicted of what we do wrong and urged to do what we know is right by this “quiet inner voice.”
Sometimes, God may speak to us through others – especially those who have his Spirit (Acts 21:4-14, etc.). God may use a friend, a pastor or teacher or anyone else to convey a message to us in this way. Naturally, we must use wisdom in assessing input from others, and we should always be sure that the advice or suggestions they give are in harmony with what is revealed in God’s word; but we should never presume that God would not speak to us in this way.
Finally, God can also “speak” to us through events that he allows to happen or that he may even bring about. The Old Testament shows that at a national level the captivities of Israel and Judah were just such events through which God spoke in biblical times. In our own lives events that occur may sometimes be corrective (Hebrews 12:5–11) or perhaps encouraging, but it does become clear that God is teaching us – and thus “speaking” to us – in this way.
While none of these ways in which God speaks to us may seem as earth shaking as many instances in the biblical stories appear, even there we find the same quiet methods of communication. The story of God speaking to Elijah is a wonderful example of this:
The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper… ” (1 Kings 19:11-13).
In the ancient world people believed the gods were speaking in lightning (fire), windstorms, and earthquakes – the very three things 1 Kings mentions – but Elijah found God was not speaking in such a dramatic way. It was in a quiet, barely perceptible manner that God’s communication began. Just as in biblical times, today God usually speaks to us not with great signs, but with the stillness of a quiet whisper. We just need to be listening for the whisper.
“… We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and giving joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light” (Colossians 1:9-12).
The more we grow spiritually, the more we desire to please God; but how do we most effectively do that? The New Testament mentions a number of ways in which we should please God – that we cannot please him without faith (Hebrews 10:38), without “walking in the Spirit” (Romans 8:8), etc. But in his letter to the Colossians, the apostle Paul makes a statement that summarizes the many answers to that question. Paul tells us he prayed that believers “… may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way…” (Colossians 1:10, emphasis added), and he then follows this thought by speaking of four specific ways that, taken together, please God in “every way.”
Paul’s statement is almost startling in both its reach and its simplicity. No other passage in the New Testament claims to tell us how to be completely pleasing to God, so we should look very closely at the characteristics the apostle tells us fulfill this goal. The four things are:
1. Bearing fruit in every good work (vs. 10). Paul makes it clear throughout his epistles that although good works do not save us, God expects us to produce good works as a result of being saved (Titus 3:8, 14, etc.). Throughout the New Testament the expression “good works” primarily refers to works done to help others (Hebrews 13:16, etc.), but it also includes our obedience to God (1 Thessalonians 4:1, Hebrews 13:20-21, etc.). We should also notice Paul’s stress in Colossians 1 is not that “some” good works will please God, but that we are urged to “every good work” – to as many good works as possible!
2. Growing in the knowledge of God (vs. 10). Paul next cites our ongoing growing in the knowledge of God and his ways as being central to our ability to please God. It is only as we come to know God that we can learn to properly love, fear, trust, and obey him (Psalm 147:11). Knowledge itself is of no use without application (1 Corinthians 13:1-2), but growing in knowledge can enable us to better grow in good works (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
The first two points Paul gives for how to please God correspond directly with the apostle Peter’s summary admonition that we should “…grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18, emphasis added). Paul also stresses these same two characteristics elsewhere in his writing (Philippians 1:9), but in Colossians 1 he goes further to add two more points that we need in order to fully please God:
3. Being strengthened by God (vs. 11). This is not strength for its own sake, of course, rather “… that you may have great endurance and patience” (Colossians 1:11, Ephesians 3:16, etc.). Given what Paul says in this verse, there is no question that this strengthening is actually something God must do in us: “being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might,” yet we must make this possible by asking God’s help and trusting him in faith to supply his strength. In that sense, this characteristic includes the quality of faith itself, as the basis of our strength, endurance and patience (Hebrews 11:6).
4. Giving thanks to God (vs. 12). The final characteristic that Paul tells us is pleasing to God is deep gratitude on our part: “… giving joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light.” In fact, thankfulness is a theme to which the apostle returns numerous times in this short epistle (Colossians 2:7; 3:15, 17; 4:2) – in this way reinforcing our understanding of its importance in God’s eyes.
So Paul’s four summary characteristics of believers who truly please God are not what many of us might guess. Humanly, we might suppose that never-failing obedience, great sacrifice, frequent or long periods of prayer, or any number of other things that relate to our own lives might be what please God. But Paul’s four characteristics do not focus on our lives – they are all primarily outward looking toward others and God himself.
Perhaps we should not be surprised that the things Paul says greatly please God are all expressions of our love for others and love for God. That is basic enough, but the four specific characteristics Paul enumerates are worthy of our careful meditation – if we truly want to please God, they are among the highest goals for which we can aim.
Scripture in Question: Acts 21:4-14
The twenty-first chapter of the Book of Acts presents what at first may seem like a confusing picture of the warnings the apostle Paul received, apparently from God, regarding not going to Jerusalem – where he was arrested and eventually taken to Rome and executed.
On first arriving back in Palestine, we are told that “…through the Spirit [members of the church] were telling Paul not to go on to Jerusalem” (Acts 21:4). Further, “…a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. And coming to us, he took Paul’s belt and bound his own feet and hands and said, ‘Thus says the Holy Spirit, “This is how the Jews at Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles.”’ When we heard this, we and the people there urged him not to go up to Jerusalem” (Acts 21:10-12).
So it is clear that through the Spirit of God, Paul was warned repeatedly that going to Jerusalem would result in his arrest, and that other believers, also being led by the Spirit, told him not to proceed. But to understand this situation we need to go back to Acts 20 where Paul says specifically:
“And now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there. I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me. However, I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me – the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace” (Acts 20:22-24).
This fact, that Paul was apparently warned before going to many cities that he would be endangered (as Acts clearly shows he was), helps us to understand the situation in Acts 21. It is as though God warned Paul before each dangerous situation he entered. This was a First Century “Your mission, if you choose to accept it….” Paul was given clear warning before each danger but chose to accept the mission he was given. Notice that in Acts 19:21 and Acts 20:22 Paul specifically states that “through the Spirit” and “compelled by the Spirit,” he was going to Jerusalem.
With this in mind we can better understand Paul’s reply to the believers urging him not to go to Jerusalem in Acts 21: “Then Paul answered, ‘What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be imprisoned but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus’” (Acts 21:13).
So while the other belivers may have understood the warning as a prohibition, Paul understood that he had, in fact, been led to go to Jerusalem. He was certainly not disobeying the influence of the Spirit of God; rather, with great faith and courage, he was accepting the Spirit’s mission, despite the warning of impending danger that came with the mission.
Usually, biblical “harmonies” bring together material from different parts of the Scriptures (such as parallel accounts found in the four Gospels) to show the whole story together in one place (see our recent article “Using a Harmony of the Gospels” on our sister site, here). Such harmonies usually compare complete stories and sections of narrative. But Lydia McGrew’s 2017 book Hidden in Plain View deals with harmonies of a much more subtle kind – parallels between small details found in different biblical accounts that might not normally be noticed and which, when we see them, help confirm the veracity of the accounts in which they are found. See our review of Hidden in Plain View here.
“When Jesus … saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick” (Matthew 14:14).
It’s easy to read right over simple verses like this in the New Testament and not notice things.
First, it’s easy to miss what is actually said – that Jesus didn’t just have compassion on the sick in the multitude, he had compassion on the whole crowd, which led to his intervening wherever there was a need.
That means that Jesus didn’t just see and have compassion on the noticeable members of the crowd – the blind, the lame and those clearly afflicted with diseases and problems. It means he had compassion on the ones who were helping carry the lame, lead the blind and support the weak. It means he had compassion on the ones we might not notice as readily in a crowd – the shy, the grieving, the lonely and the discouraged.
Second, it’s easy – of course – not to see what’s not said. When we read the accounts of Jesus’ works, we tend to read them in a vacuum; but we have to remember how much the Gospel writers are summarizing each incident. When Jesus had compassion on the crowds, we get only the highlights of the healings – a kind of Gospel triage in which the most important healings and significant signs were recorded. But in having compassion on the crowds – not just the sick in the crowds – would Jesus not have noticed people with less obvious problems and had compassion on them also?
Surely Jesus saw the loneliness in the eyes of some and, having compassion, offered them a warm and accepting smile. Surely he saw the discouragement in the faces of others (Luke 18:24) and offered a few words of encouragement. In every case in the New Testament where we are told Jesus had compassion on people, he followed it with action; and having compassion on the crowds doubtless meant he interacted with and helped many more than the few people on whom he performed miracles of healing.
Perhaps we may feel we do not interact with crowds in the same way, but the totality of people we see and pass by as well as those we actually meet and with whom we interact in a day is often a small crowd, and for some of us a large one. If we are followers of Jesus, do we have compassion on that daily “crowd”? Do we seek to encourage and to smile, to check that people are all right? These may seem like small things and may seem hard to do in our over-crowded and impersonal world. But following in Christ’s footsteps means doing the things he did to the extent we can.
We know that God pays attention and knows the hairs on our heads, though we don’t tend to think of that in perspective of the teeming world of billions in which we live. But God does see every face in the crowd, and in his physical life the Son of God doubtless did his best to do so also. We are not just a face in the crowd to God, and no one in the crowd should be just a face to us.
[This blog post was first published on our sister site just before Typhoon Haiyan devastated large parts of the Philippines in November 2013. It is just as relevant now in the wake of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Maria, and others that have followed. Hopefully, our prayers and any other support we are able to provide will continue to be with those whose lives have been affected by these and other storms.]
Sometimes it’s not the storm we are expecting that hits us; but whatever the storm, we can learn from it.
It was the weekend he said the tropical storm was supposed to hit his Gulf Coast hometown. His email said they were preparing for a big storm. A dangerous storm. That storm never hit, but a couple of days later his young son was hit by a car while riding his bicycle to school. With his son hospitalized in serious condition, another storm – my friend’s own personal storm - had arrived.
It seems that life is often like that. Sometimes the storm doesn’t hit when it’s expected, sometimes it’s not the expected storm that hits. Sometimes it’s not that which we fear that comes upon us, it’s that which comes out of left field, seemingly out of nowhere. It’s not the disease we fear because of family history, but a different one that we contract. It’s not the illness we are checked for, but another one that shows up in the testing. Yet we learn things in storms we do not learn otherwise.
The Book of Job is instructive in this area. Job’s ultimate life storm was certainly unexpected and terrible, but “the LORD spoke to Job out of the storm” (Job 38:1, 40:6). It’s a truth that we learn through our storms, the things we suffer, as even Christ himself did (Hebrews 5:8), and that surely is the message of Romans 8:28 – that all things work together for good. This doesn’t mean that the destruction caused by storms is good or that suffering is ever trivial or easily discounted; but that good can come out of the storm and faith is formed and deepened in these times.
It’s hard to think about storms without remembering the story recorded in the Gospels of how a great storm came up while Jesus and his disciples were crossing the Sea of Galilee (Matthew 8:23-30). Despite the storm, Jesus was sleeping peacefully on the boat until he was wakened by his fearful disciples asking him to save them. “He replied, ‘You of little faith, why are you so afraid?’ Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the waves, and it was completely calm. The men were amazed and asked, ‘What kind of man is this? Even the winds and the waves obey him!’” (vs. 26-27). The disciples learned something from this experience about the Son of God and how God can control the outcome of storms in our lives.
Katrina, Hugo, Sandy, Harvey, Irma and many others brought great suffering, as future storms will also. Other types of storms in our lives are no different. But for the Christian, every life storm is an opportunity for God to work something within us that might not have been there otherwise. Believing good can be brought out of the storm does not mean the storm is good, but that the One who allows the storms of life to touch us and teach us has the power, when he is asked, to calm the storms around and within us.
Basic as it might seem, the concept of faith can be confusing for many people. The word itself can be understood as what we believe (“the Christian Faith”) or how we believe (“their faith is strong”), though the Bible usually uses the word in the second sense.
But even if we focus on faith in the sense of how rather than what we believe, many people still only understand part of what faith is all about.
Belief and Trust
First, the word used in the New Testament for faith (pistis) primarily means belief and trust. It involves not only believing that God exists, but also trusting him. When Jesus taught “… believe the gospel” (Mark 1:15), he was not just saying believe that the gospel exists, but trust that the message of the gospel is true.
In the same way, the author of the Book of Hebrews wrote “… faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see … And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him” (Hebrews 11:1, 6). This makes it clear that faith involves both belief and trust.
Faith and Faithfulness
However, there is another aspect to faith that even many Christians miss. To see that dimension of faith it helps to go back to the Old Testament. In the book of the prophet Habakkuk there is a vitally important verse that was translated in the King James and some other English translations as “… the just shall live by his faith” (Habakkuk 2:4). But the New International Version and several other recent versions translate this verse as “…the righteous person will live by his faithfulness.” Why the different translations? The answer is that the Hebrew word translated “faith” in the KJV really can mean either “faith” or “faithfulness” (see Isaiah 11:5 where the word is used of the faithfulness of the Messiah).
This verse in Habakkuk was seen as so important by the early Christians that it is quoted three times in the New Testament – twice by the apostle Paul (Romans 1:17, Galatians 3:11) and once by the author of Hebrews (Hebrews 10:38). Looking at the context of these verses we see that while Paul stresses that the believer is justified by faith, the author of Hebrews stresses the aspect of the believer’s faithfulness (see verse 36).
So true faith can – and should – involve both a trusting belief in God and also faithfulness on our part. Faith and works are sometimes said to be antithetical, but they are not. Although the Bible says clearly that we are saved by faith, not works (Romans 3:28, 31), it also shows just as clearly that living, saving faith will produce good works (James 2:17). In that sense the aspects of believing faith and active faithfulness are both expressed in true faith.
The Gift of Faith in All its Aspects
Although we may have some limited human level of faith, deep faith is a gift of God (1 Corinthians 12:9, Ephesians 2:8) that is developed through ongoing spiritual growth and transformation (Romans 4:20, 12:6, Jude 1:20), and this applies just as much to our trust in God as to our faithfulness toward him.
In all of this we see that true faith is far more than just an emotional feeling or even a belief. True faith involves a living trust in God that affects every aspect of our lives. But at its most basic level, true faith is belief and trust on the one hand and faithfulness on the other.
* Extracted from our free e-Book These Three Remain: Why Faith, Hope and Love Are Even More Important Than You Think. Multiple formats are available to read on any computer or e-Reader here.
“But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God” (2 Timothy 3:1-4).
It is often said that what we love in life shows more about us than anything else. In his second letter to Timothy, the apostle Paul gives us some particular insight into that truth. Paul lists a number of characteristics that he says will be prevalent in “the last days.” But we should understand that from the perspective of the apostle’s writings (as is also found in other Jewish writings of that era), the “end times” could be any time from the first coming of the messiah to his second coming. In this sense, the “end times” included the day in which Timothy was living, as Paul says specifically that Timothy should “… Have nothing to do with such people” (2 Timothy 3:5); though the traits Paul lists would also continue and perhaps worsen over time.
But if we read Paul’s description carefully, we see that the characteristics he mentions all revolve around one thing: love – or the lack of it. Love is specifically mentioned six times in just these few verses, and the repeated use of the word seems to form a pattern.
Paul stresses that many people will love: 1) themselves, 2) money, and 3) pleasure. On the other hand, the apostle tells us, these people will not love: 1) others, 2) good, and 3) God. The negative versus positive characteristics are clearly interlinked in verse 4 which speaks of “lovers of pleasures rather than lovers of God,” and it seems clear that Paul is making a comparison with the other characteristics as well. He seems to indicate that people will be:
These selfish characteristics may seem bad enough, along with the negative corollaries that Paul also lists with them – being boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient, etc. – but what we may miss in our English translations, in reading about these aspects of self-centeredness, is the degree of intensity Paul says will be seen in them. The Greek word for “terrible” (chalepoi) that he uses in saying “There will be terrible times in the last days” means almost uncontrollably “harsh,” “fierce,” or “savage” and only appears one other time in the New Testament – where it is used to describe the two demon-possessed individuals who were so violent no one could go near them (Matthew 8:28). In other words, Paul warns that the degree to which many people will put themselves, money and pleasure first in their lives will have terrible consequences.
But what Paul says also has a positive application. We can turn his words around to provide us with antidotes to the problems he describes. By increasing our focus on loving God, goodness, and others, we find a sure way to avoid placing too much emphasis in our lives on money, pleasure and our own selves.
As we said at the outset, what we love in life often shows more about us than anything else. Carefully thinking over how much of our lives we dedicate to money, pleasure, and ourselves – above what is necessary – can tell us a great deal about what we love. Paul’s words to Timothy also help us to see the consequences of what we love and to provide us with antidotes to the poisonous traits that characterize excessive self-centeredness. It’s a sobering but positive message. Sometimes the beginning of loving rightly is coming to see what we really do love.
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Unless otherwise stated, blog posts are written by R. Herbert, Ph.D., who writes for a number of Christian venues – including our sister site: TacticalChristianity.org