Read in Light of Psalm 25:14
The friendship of the LORD is for those who fear him,
and he makes known to them his covenant.
One doesn’t need to read very far in Scripture to discover puzzling things. Angels wave a flaming sword to drive away sinners. An oven and fiery torch float through the air among pieces of dead animals. A man wrestles with an angel through the night, and the man never walks without a limp again. A beloved son is taken from his family for decades. This is just a sampling, and just from Genesis, of the sorts of puzzling things that Bible readers encounter.
Many people are undoubtedly mystified by the Bible, and there are probably all sorts of potential responses to that puzzlement. Ungodly people might decide that they can make of the Bible anything they want, so they concoct their own ideas about what it all means. I remember hearing one person interpret Jacob’s wrestling with the angel as Jacob being a tough fighter, not quitting, and gaining the Lord’s respect! Others might give up in disgust trying to understand the Bible, thinking, It’s impossible. But even godly people might feel a sense of frustration—they want to know God, but it seems he has deliberately made it hard for them to do so.
God doesn’t want you to be confused about him. He gave the Bible to give understanding to his people, not confusion. Light, not darkness. And yet people struggle, and it is hard to rejoice always (Phil 4:4) when you feel that you are having difficulty understanding the person who is supposed to give you joy. In fact, if you cannot understand a person, you will undoubtedly feel unable to relate to that person, perhaps unable to trust; and certainly you will feel like there are roadblocks to progress in your relationship. No one likes walls between loved ones.
What do you do when you feel this way about God’s Word? Your read your Bible and then go, What was that all about? Or, That was weird. Or, How confusing! Try reading Ezekiel, for example, and see how many enigmas you discover. The very first chapter has living wheels with eyes all over them! A little later, Ezekiel eats scrolls and gets a stomachache, and then later God abandons his own temple—apparently for good.
So if God doesn’t want me to be confused, why are there so many head-scratchers in the Bible?
The answer is actually a bit profound and yet simple. God put the enigmas there for you to overcome. As someone once put it, “God doesn’t spill his guts to the casual observer.” The puzzles are in the Bible because people who seek God earnestly will seek and find. They will knock and the door will opened. God put puzzling things in the Bible for the same reason that Jesus spoke in parables: to enlighten his people and harden the wicked.
The process of encountering a puzzle, being mystified, praying about it, ransacking Scripture for more understanding, and then gaining insight by God’s illuminating grace—this process actually ingrains truth. In other words, it doesn’t hinder knowing God; it helps you know God better! The person who fears God, who trusts him and seeks him despite head-scratchers, who even seeks harder because of head-scratchers—that person will find. God will reveal his secrets to them.
In fact Psalm 25:14’s statement, “The friendship of the Lord is with those who fear him,” refers to the intimate counsel of the Lord. It could even be translated “The secret of the Lord is with those who fear him.” God reveals his innermost thoughts to the godly. "It is between the closest friends that the most is shared" (James & Joel Beeke, Developing a Healthy Prayer Life, 11). "The man that feareth God shall know more of God's mind than others shall" (David Dickson, Psalms, 133). The enigmatic parts of the Bible are actually invitations to come closer.
What does this mean for our Bible reading? Don’t be discouraged by the puzzling things. Read them as God’s invitation to dig deeper rather than as a put-off. There will be some things you’ll never get to the bottom of, but God does make known many of his secret counsels (Psa. 25:14). There are things in the Word that are hard to understand (2 Pet. 3:16). But God invites us to call to him so that he can reveal to us things we do not presently understand: “Call to me, and I will answer you and show you great and mighty things you do not know” (Jer. 33:3).
Too many people read the Word to get something quick and easy. Thankfully, there are plenty of things like that in Scripture, and God describes himself as carrying lambs—so there is no rebuke to people of weak capacity, or those who are sick, or in a phase of life that makes intense study difficult. Yet there are deep things in Scripture, and God wants his people to seek him and plumb those many deep places. Rather than fainting at the hard work, we should gird up the loins of our minds, preparing them for action (1 Pet. 1:13). We should let the mysterious or difficult parts invite us to work harder and pray harder for understanding.
A lot of people don’t want to work hard at reading their Bibles because more work sounds like no fun. But actually the opposite is the case. When a person depends on the Spirit and works hard at understanding Scripture, it adds depth to our knowledge of the Bible and ultimately of God, who speaks in it. Adding this depth will actually foster greater, deeper, and more lasting joy. It will foster tough joy, joy that endures hard work and even thrives in hardship. It is joy that is grounded in intimate acquaintance with the Lord. To put it most simply, it is joy that really knows God! And it laughs at the days to come (Prov. 31) and smiles at all its foes.
Read your whole Bible with this in mind—God has put enigmas in it to call his children to work harder at knowing him. That way, when they’ve strengthened their spiritual muscles by some intense seeking, their joy can be fuller and stronger.
I realize that many people are frustrated by how long the lockdowns are being drawn out, not to mention the slow process of reopening. Then there are the ever-present suspicions that the coronavirus situation, though undoubtedly serious, has been overblown and used as a political tool by various interest groups in our country and in the world. Much of this—from the lockdowns, the reopening, and the political scene—we have little-to-no control over. And it does little good to speculate about matters about which we really can’t come to firm conclusions.
Last week I was excited by the President’s short message about immediately opening up churches. But the 9th circuit court stepped in quickly to stop that, and there have been more recent court decisions, even from the Supreme Court, indicating that the slow reopening is going to stand. Reopening will occur, Lord willing, but it will apparently involve some discomfort and awkwardness for us. The main thing to keep in mind is gratitude for the freedom to meet and obey Christ’s ordinances for public worship.
Here are some things we all should be doing now or very soon. We should be progressing in our relationship with God, advancing in holiness. A pastor recently wrote that “our personal holiness is God’s agenda for us.” That is excellent and helps us keep perspective in times of upheaval. We also should be seeking to edify people by pointing them to Christ. Use social media to advance God’s thoughts. We also can reach out to each other personally via phone calls and texts. And soon, Lord willing, Phase 2 will start for all of us, and once it does I encourage you to invite another family over to your home and show hospitality. You can gather in small groups such as this for our Wednesday night video conference, and you can gather on Sundays to watch the Sunday Sermon together. When you visit each other, enjoy one another’s presence and pray with each other as families! What a blessing that will be. Once Phase 3 starts, I plan to restart services.
The city recently told me that they will not open the Anacortes Senior Activity Center until Phase 4, a minimum of eight weeks from now; so I am currently pursuing other possible meeting places. Please be praying that I will find something for us. I will let you know once something looks promising. When we are ready to meet we will provide safety guidelines that we can follow to minimize the risk of getting sick. Keep an eye out for further pastoral emails. I plan to get back to “How to Have Joyful Devotions Always,” but there will also be updates about our ever-changing situation.
God bless you and keep you and cause his face to shine upon you,
Read in Light of Hebrews 12:8
If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. (Hebrews 12:8 ESV)
As we saw in a previous letter, it is immensely comforting to know that God is at work in our lives, keeping us from falling and continuing the good work that he began when he saved us (Phil. 1:6). If we’re concerned about degenerating into evil like the people in the time of the judges did, this thought from God’s Word comes as very good news. But you might have another thought that cancels out that comfort—isn’t it true that Christians can backslide? Can’t we stumble into sin? Can’t we even live in a sinful state for a long time? If so, the comfort from Philippians 1:6 seems a bit diminished, doesn’t it?
We should admit at the outset that a Christian can backslide. Backsliding in the Bible often refers to total apostasy, but it sometimes refers to a true believer’s sinful degenerating (cf. Jer. 14:7). We see in the New Testament that believers sometimes fall into sin and error and need to be corrected (see Galatians and Corinthians). There is little doubt that a believer can even live in sin, insensible and hardened, for a time. David did so for months (see 1 Sam. 12). In Psalm 32, he describes the experience of keeping silent and not confessing sin. He says it drained his strength away, making him weak. Then he confessed and found the relief of experiencing God’s forgiveness. So yes, a Christian can backslide and even live in a state of not being honest with God and not enjoying power to live rightly.
Though Christians can backslide, it isn’t wise to speculate how long a Christian can live in such a state. Not only does the Bible not specify how long, it says over and over that the normal state of a Christian is one of not being dominated by sin.
Sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under the law but under grace. (Rom 6:14)
Everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. (1 John 5:4)
The Bible even goes so far as to deny that true Christians will persist in sin.
No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him. (1 John 3:6)
Such verses may be confusing when compared to the earlier ones, but they make it quite clear that a true Christian has substantial victory over sin, though not complete victory in this life. Empowerment is what you should expect, and if you are not experiencing that, you must flee to Christ for his gracious filling of the Spirit (Eph. 5:18; Gal. 5:16). Empowerment over sin is your birthright, so take hold of what is yours!
What are we to think of those whose life is awash in evil and rebellion? If a person is experiencing no power over sin, if that person has little to no inclination to do right, and if that person is making excuses for sin while claiming the identity of a Christian, there is little doubt about how Christians should view that person—as very possibly in need of salvation. He or she may conceivably be a true Christian, but since we are to “know them by their fruit” (Matt. 7:20), believers should be deeply concerned for the person’s soul and eternal state.
When Christians really get a hold of what this means, they get serious about mortifying sin in their lives by the Spirit (Rom. 8:13). They begin realizing that true Christians are known by their holiness, and they think, I’d better get busy showing it. They realize that “without holiness no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14). As people used to say, “The proof of the pudding is in the eating.” The proof of a Christian is in his fruit. If you have tolerated sin, dismissed God’s commands, pointed fingers at others, and if you have thought of obedience as merely optional, wake up now and see your danger. Ultimately the Bible offers little hope to people who want Christ and want their sin too. It offers hope to repentant believers in Christ.
The only right response to Scripture’s teaching on all this is not to try to make room in your life for a measure of sin. The only right response is to flee to Christ immediately in repentance—“Be afflicted and mourn and weep,” as James 4 puts it. The moment you are aware that you have tolerated sin in your life and have lived in it for any length of time, start mortifying it. “Always be killing sin, or sin will be killing you” (John Owen).
Is there hope for believers who fear they might end up living in sin, since they know it is a possibility, despite God’s continuing his good work? The answer is, yes, there is massive hope and comfort to be found in God for anyone who seeks him in repentance.
There is the promise we looked at, the promise of God’s continued working in us; it is a mighty promise that ought to bring joy out of us always. But even more, God takes care of his children who stumble into sin, and this fatherly care takes the form of chastening—“The Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives” (Heb. 12:8). Not only does God empower Christians to do right (Phil. 2:13) and continue that good work in them (Phil. 1:6), he also diligently chastens us when we wander! It might seem strange to get excited about chastisement. Admittedly, it doesn’t sound like a very encouraging prospect, but a little reflection will reveal that it actually is quite encouraging to Christians who fear God, hate evil, and don’t want evil to cling to them. The picture of God that emerges is one of almost doting care over his people. God empowers us to fight and overcome sin, he keeps diligently pouring on the help, and he also corrects our deviations. He is providing for our needs in all sorts of ways. He is approaching our problems from many angles. He is lavishing care upon us. No wonder the Bible uses terms for God such as Shepherd and Father!
Now, how does this affect Bible reading? How does it relate to having joyful devotions always? Well, when we read of godly people in the Bible suffering punishments for their sin, we might begin to fear and draw back from God, like Peter who said, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man” (Luke 5:8). Instead, we need to see those punishments not as God’s wrath and anger, like when God judges the wicked. We should see it as God’s love. We should see it as his fatherly care and shepherding. Chastening should lead us to him not drive us from him.
Read the difficulties and hardships in Christian’s lives as the chastening that God lovingly administers to his children. When you see David’s hardships after his sin of adultery, see those hardships as God’s fatherly love; don’t misinterpret it as God’s hate. God didn’t default on “surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life” when David fell into sin. God’s actions toward David after David’s fall were chastenings, and chastenings are evidence of God’s love. Though chastening is painful, it is not incompatible with joy. When we read that Moses was not allowed to enter the promised land, remember that he was instead taken to the heavenly Canaan. When we read about Job’s sufferings we are told that his story is supposed to show us how merciful God is (James 5). Yes, chastening can be hard, but we can rejoice even in chastening when we realize it is evidence of God’s fatherly care, and every true child receives it.
Read in Light of Philippians 1:6
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. (Philippians 1:6 ESV)
When you read Scripture you are bound to encounter awful, cringe-inducing sins. You’ll read about the incident of Lot and his daughters, which is horrible (Gen 19). You’ll read about Judah and Tamar, which is simply hair-raising (Gen 38). You’ll read about Israel’s constant rebellion (e.g., Exod 32). Then there is the cycle of repentance, corruption, and bondage in the book of Judges (Judges 3:1ff). Then there is David’s sin with Bath-Sheba (1 Sam 12). And these selections are just a small sample of the terrible things you’ll read about! If you’re like me, reading these things will disturb you. You may even fear at times that you’ll be like the people in the era of the judges—that you’ll degenerate into a vicious downward spiral like they did. Or you might hear echoes of the words of well-intentioned believers: “If David can fall as bad as he did, who are we to think we can stand?” It may seem to you that your future is far from assured, and how can joy result?
When we encounter other people’s’ sins in Scripture (or in life), we can become overwhelmed with fear that we’ll fall like they did, that we’ll fail to persevere, or that we’ll degenerate into great evil. We may even wonder if, after all our efforts, after all our hopes and aspirations, we’ll end up disqualified, wretched, a posturing hypocrite full of pretensions and sin. It goes without saying that such fears are incompatible with, “Rejoice in the Lord always!” (Phil 4:4). Where do such fears come from? If a Christian is feeling such fears, they are the result of thinking that progress in sanctification depends primarily upon self. I think we are often tempted to view ourselves as separated from God and on our pilgrimage all alone, when actually the opposite is true. God has provided great help, and a big part of the Christian life is learning to believe, appreciate, and rely on what he has already done.
What must we as believers do when we encounter horrific sins in Scripture? We must read them as a beloved child of God in Christ should read them. We should read them as one who has been fully equipped by the Spirit and the Word. Read awful sins as what God gave the Spirit to combat and to overcome. In fact, for believers, here is an absolutely marvelous fact—God’s commands against sin become promises of overcoming sin. That is, God binds himself with an oath to work obedience into his children by his Spirit. Every time we come across a command, what we are actually finding is yet another goal God has set his omnipotence to achieving in our lives. Commands to us are promises to us in Christ. This means that sin will not have dominion over us as believers (Rom 6:14).
Consider some Scripture passages that teach what I am saying.
First, “I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules” (Ezek 36:27). Did you catch what God promises there? He promises that he will accomplish our obedience. As another prophet put it, “from me comes your fruit” (Hos 14:8). God’s commands are actually promises of what he will do in our lives. We’re not alone in our pilgrimage. Far from it, for God is active in working out his best for us. This doesn’t mean that there will be no struggle. But it does mean that we can expect growth, not degeneracy, and we can look forward to eventual complete victory at glorification. What a basis for joy when we encounter someone’s massive moral failure! But we must not simply comfort ourselves. Taking comfort in these promises is also a way we can pray for others, and it offers a glorious opportunity to both uphold the law and preach the gospel.
Second, “It is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil 2:13). Here is another wonderful promise, this time in the New Testament! God promises to make us willing and able to please him. What a basis for confidence that we will not dry up and blow away spiritually! God has us in his hand, from which we can’t be plucked, but he has us there not just to protect us, as great as that is, but to empower us. He not only provides for us externally, but he literally provides the internal, spiritual resources that enable us to please and obey him.
So, when you read the Bible and find grotesque sins in it, remember this—these are all the sins God has saved you from! When you read of David’s adultery, you ought to recoil in horror and sense your own tendency to various sins, but then immediately flee to Christ and rejoice that he gave his Spirit to you to empower you to live for him. When you read about Nabal who couldn’t speak a kind word to anyone, rejoice that God has given you his Spirit, and one aspect of the Spirit’s fruit is kindness. When you read about King Saul losing the Holy Spirit, remember that God offers believers an everlasting covenant, even the sure, certain, mercies of David (Isa 55:3). When you read the book of Judges and behold the consistent degeneracy of the people of Israel, remember that God promises that you will not follow that horrible pattern, for he says he will continue the good work he has begun in you all the way to the day of Jesus Christ (Phil 1:6).
Whenever you come across horrific and potentially depressing examples of sin in the Bible, flee to the promises of God and rejoice in all that Christ has done for you once more. Just like when you encounter God’s laws, encountering failures to keep those laws is an opportunity to refresh your faith in the gospel. You should go on your way trembling but also clinging to Christ and thus having a tremendous basis for joy, for there is no lack in him. If you indeed were on your own, you ought to fear. But Christ is our all in all, and he has been exalted as head over all things for the benefit of his church. He ever lives for you. He is a friend that sticks closer than a brother. He is a shepherd that tenderly cares for each lamb in his flock. He will uphold and strengthen you till the end. If you cling to Christ, you can be assured that though you may struggle, and though you may experience chastening, God will “keep you from stumbling” and “present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy” (Jude 24).
P.S. It may be that our church will be able to begin meeting again sooner than expected. Please pray that our state and city will follow the President’s encouragement (in his Press Conference May 22nd) to reopen churches immediately. I will be reaching out to the city very soon to request a starting date. Please be in prayer.
Read in Light of Galatians 3:24
The law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith (Gal. 3:24)
As we saw in the last letter, we should never let our Bible reading produce in us any emotion that defies the fruit of the Spirit, one aspect of which is joy (Gal. 5:22-23). This is to say that God wants us to be joyful in Christ, and our Bible reading must foster and nurture that joy. Therefore, when we encounter the judgments and dooms in Scripture, we should read them as a child of God ought to read them: as warnings, which we should be in awe of, but also as what God will never do to his children, for he has assured us that all things work together for good to those who love him (Rom. 8:28). Faith in God’s steadfast love should lead us to rejoice in his salvation (Psa. 13:5). Curses and judgments, whether recorded in Scripture or seen in life, should not eradicate joy.
But there is a difficulty. God’s judgments come upon people because of their sin, and God wants us to be convicted of sin, right? But conviction hardly seems compatible with joy, and clearly God wants us to experience both. He tells us to “be afflicted and mourn and weep” (James 4:9), and he tells us to rejoice always (Phil. 4). But how can these things go together?
The short answer to this question is that conviction is a doorway to a right sort of joy. There is flippant worldly happiness and there is biblical Christ-centered joy; you can’t have the biblical joy without conviction of sin and tenderness toward God’s commands. True repentance is a necessary prerequisite to biblical happiness. It may be that our lack of joy in the Lord is due to a hard heart about God’s commands and a tolerance of sin in our life.
We should not ignore God’s commands and curses as we blithely say without conviction of sin, “Oh well, Jesus forgives me.” This is presumption, not faith. Tolerating sin while taking comfort in the sacrifice is no basis for joy but only for a guilty conscience. Christ came to make us a people zealous of good works, not apathetic toward them! See Titus 2:11-14.
This means that one of the most important things in our Bible reading is that we take God’s law and judgments seriously and not reject them for their severity. The Bible tells us to “behold the goodness and severity of God” (Rom. 11:22).
Therefore, an important question is, How do you respond to the law of God? Here are a few points, not given as a check-off list! Use them to evaluate your response to God’s commands and judgments in the Bible.
Let God’s law convict you. If you read, “Love is patient, love is kind,” and you recognize you are not, then do not ignore the commands but instantly humble yourself and repent before God. If you read “be quick to listen, slow to speak” and you realize you are the opposite, do not rush past conviction and say “well Jesus forgives me.” This is to desire joy at the expense of conviction, and it actually ruins joy. No, instantly humble yourself and repent before God. If you read “redeem the time,” and you realize you waste time, do not tolerate it. If you read “be courageous” and you realize that you are fearful…. you get the idea. Mortify sin by God’s grace and Spirit (Rom. 8:13). Don’t short-circuit joy by failing to fight sin.
Let conviction drive you to Christ, who perfectly kept the law for you and who paid the penalty of death for your sin on the cross. Let your dismay over your sin turn your eyes on Christ who never did or thought or felt anything sinful. And remember—his righteousness is your own if you are a believer (1 Cor. 1:30). His death was in your stead, all your guilt was laid on him (Isa. 53:6). Rejoice that, as your surety, his work perfectly and completely deals with all your sin and the wrath of God against it. There truly is no curse against you, if you find refuge in him (Rom. 8:1). The joy of this becomes palpable if you’ve really let conviction do its work. Don’t think that this experience of fleeing to Christ is a one time thing. We are to be rooted in Christ and built up in him (Col. 2:6-7). We are to hold our first confidence steadfast to the end (Heb. 3:14). We don’t just hold our doctrinal positions firm to the end, but our original confidence in Christ. This implies that we continually cling to him, and that only happens when we are aware of our need of him. The older we grow in the Lord the more sensitive we should become to our sinfulness. Our experience of being saved was a one-time thing, but it has continuing results as we keep on going to Christ for cleansing. When we find rest in Christ, let your experience cause you to view the commands of God as having no threat left in them for you. Perfect love casts out fear. Welcome God’s commands as your delight and seek to obey them by the Spirit without fear of judgments and dooms.
When people realize conviction and repentance is a big deal, they might begin to emphasize sorrow for sin too much. They might begin to wonder if their repentance is good enough. Sometimes in past centuries, when people were generally more serious about God, people even began to think that they had to have a certain amount of moaning on their face before they had the right to think they were saved. This is to think of repentance as savior, when Christ is savior. Be careful of this sort of thing! If you can’t remember all the sins you need to confess, don’t shrink back from God; he has your back, and he’s had your back for a long, long time—he chose you before the world began (Eph. 1:4; 2 Tim. 1:9)! Your sins are old news to him. If you fear that you haven’t been sorry enough for your sins, realize that the Bible does not say that your acceptance with God is based on perfect repentance. Nothing you’ve ever done is perfect, so how could it be? Just honestly confess your sin to God to the best of your ability and then rejoice in the only perfect one, Jesus Christ, even as you seek to walk in his ways.
So, how to sum up all this? Don’t ignore the laws and judgments in Scripture. Let them inspire you once more to flee sin and run to Christ, for he bore our curse for us. He bore our doom so we would forever bear his blessing. The law was given to lead us to Christ (Gal. 3:24) and to expose sin (Rom. 3:20); therefore we need to always read the laws the way they were intended to be read. Oh the joy in Christ that will result!
P.S. Someone emailed me recently telling me that they were continuing on rejoicing in the Lord. That greatly encouraged me. Feel free to email me and fill me in on how you are doing or pass along a prayer request to me. And don’t forget our Wednesday night video prayer meetings! I am praying for you all, and looking forward to June, when, Lord willing, we will be able to meet again.
What do you do with the dooms, threats, horrific sins, bracing punishments, and strange enigmas found in Scripture? How can you as a believer derive joy from the hard parts of God’s Word? Encountering hard things in Scripture is a bit like encountering them in life. In fact, when you are living through difficult times, it might be hard to turn to your Bible for a nice comforting quiet time and discover that your Bible reading has brought you to God’s judgment on the Amalekites, David’s sin with Bathsheba, or Jeremiah’s weeping over a ruined Jerusalem. You come to the Bible from a life of jabs and get jabbed again. What do you do? Whether you discover sin and the curse in Scripture or in life, the answer is the same.
The main thing, as I noted in the last letter, is to believe in Christ and therefore read the Bible as one of God’s children. Read it as someone for whom Christ died a substitutionary and effective atonement. If Christ paid for all your sin at the cross, you can therefore be assured you have been perfected forever (Heb 10:14). Read the Bible as someone who presently and everlastingly has peace with God (Rom 5:1). Read it as a joint heir with Jesus (Rom 8:17). Read it as someone who cannot be condemned (Rom 8:1), who has been promised all things (1 Cor 3:21), and who will enjoy an abundant entrance into the kingdom of our Lord and savior Jesus Christ (2 Pet 1:11). In other words, let the hardships in Scripture solidify your grasp on the promises, just as you do when you encounter hardship in life.
That way, when you encounter the hard parts, they won’t shake your faith, make you shrink back, or lead you to question God. Read the Bible in the full light of God’s salvation in Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. This is crucial. There is nothing more important than holding on to Jesus Christ in faith, and holding on hard. Never let anything loosen your grip on him, especially not your sin. If your conscience bothers you, he is your answer. If the Word makes you feel condemned, he is your answer. If the wrath of God booms and crashes from Sinai, he is your answer. Be honest with him and believe with all your soul in his power to save you. Cast all your confidence on Christ.
Now let’s put this to practice in a concrete example.
Read in Light of Romans 8:28
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose (Rom 8:28)
Let’s take a look at one thing you can do when you read dooms and threats and curses in the Bible: read them as what God will never do to his children but only to the wicked. God cannot curse someone whom he has promised to always bless. This verse (Romans 8:28) gives you an objective basis to see the positive in things. It allows you to reframe the curses and threats as positives to you. When you find a curse or doom, ask, What is the opposite of this? Whatever is opposite to these curses and dooms and judgments you're reading about (or seeing in the world) is what God is giving you.
For example, let’s say your Bible reading has brought you to the little book of Obadiah (I highly recommend it!). God announces doom on Edom, and since you are not an Edomite you read on unconcerned—until you read the following statement.
The day of the LORD is near upon all the nations.
As you have done, it shall be done to you;
your deeds shall return on your own head (Obad 1:15).
God’s judgment on localized sinners like the Edomites is a small sample of what he will do on a large scale to all who sin. Everyone who does not obey everything in the law is under a curse (Gal 3:10). The soul that sins, it shall die (Ezek 18:20). Thus God’s wrath draws near in the pages of Scripture to all who read with a discerning eye. But people don’t want wrath, and so it is easy to simply ignore much of the Bible. But to do so is dangerously close to “falling asleep in the devil’s arms” as one Puritan put it.
But those who do read as they should may get disturbed by these sorts of statements. They sense God’s wrath and they know they deserve it. But here is the glory of the gospel. In it, God promises that even our hardships and difficulties (what someone might say are curses) will be blessed. Nothing can ultimately harm us if we are in Christ. If Edom is being denounced in severe terms for hating Israel, then look at your life and see that, unlike hateful Edom, God has worked in you a love for God's church. And recognize that you are part of God's church, which God protects like the apple of his eye. If God's enemies are cursed, God's children are blessed. Yes, you’ve disobeyed, but Christ your head obeyed perfectly and gives his righteousness to those who flee to him in repentance and faith. Romans 8:28 therefore is true for you, if you repent and believe. Thus, reading grim things in Obadiah shouldn’t shake you but refresh you. It causes you to sense God’s wrath and to renew your commitment to Christ. You have refreshed your basis for joy and ought to be experiencing it wonderfully all over again.
This is just a sample of how to have joyful devotions always. More to come…!
PS: I’m hoping to have something to say to you soon about re-starting public worship and picking up where we left off. Please be in prayer for this. But in the meantime, continue on joyfully with the Lord! Governor Inslee’s announcement today seems to provide a light at the end of the tunnel, though it may be June before are able to meet again.
If we are to have joyful devotions, we must read the Bible with something primarily in mind: it was given to bring people into covenant with God. “Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth!” (Isa. 45:22). “Come to me all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28). Yes, God gave the Bible to inform us about things: himself and Christ and salvation and the church and the end times and many other things. But he has an overarching purpose for providing this information, namely to draw his sheep into his fold and then bless and nourish them once they enter it. Sometimes I like to say that the Bible is a covenant document, and this is what I mean when I say it. It was given primarily to bring God’s people into covenant with him.
There are plenty of places in Scripture that tell us that God gave the Bible with Christian people in mind. For example, the apostle Peter says to New Testament believers that the Old Testament prophets “were serving not themselves but you” when they penned the Bible under the Spirit’s inspiration (1 Pet. 1:12). In short, God wrote the Bible to believers in Christ. They are its intended audience. Therefore, God wants believers to read the Bible as it was intended to be read, as lovingly aimed at them. He wants believers to be warned by it, be convicted by it, but most especially he wants believers to fuel their joy by reading it. That must be true, because he tells us to “rejoice in the Lord always” (Phil. 4:4), and always means always, including having joy in our devotions—especially then! God has given us the Bible to draw us into relationship with himself, a relationship of joy and delight. I wish all of God’s people could accept this and “serve the Lord with gladness” (Psa. 100:2).
God has given us a book that has many judgments and dooms in it, along with many other things that, on the face of it, hardly fuel joy. But believers are given promises that are the opposite of all those dark things! All events work together for the good of believers (Rom. 8:28). Being justified by faith, believers have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ (Rom. 5:1). No one can ever pluck believers out of their savior’s hand (John 10:28), and nothing can separate them from the love of Christ (Rom. 8:39). God has drawn them with an everlasting love (Jer. 31:3) and has set his love on them from before the foundations of the world (Eph. 1:4). These are great and precious promises! Appropriating them by faith and relying on them is the very essence of the Christian life.
How then should believers, who ought to be overjoyed at God’s love, relate to all the grim things in Scripture? Should we just ignore the grimness, since it seems so alien? No, this misses much of God’s goodness in the Bible—God assures us that it is all profitable for our edification (2 Tim. 3:16-17). Judgments and dooms are a dark backdrop to set off the gospel to advantage. Removing the backdrop removes luster from the promises. In fact, people shouldn’t take comfort in the promises until they square up with the judgment their sin deserves. They shouldn’t presume to have joy until they confess that they deserve doom—“Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” (Gal. 3:10). It may be that there are many people who want the comfort of the gospel but have never hated their sin, confessed it, and turned away from it to Christ. The only way to have joy is to gratefully rely on Christ’s suffering the curse we deserved on the cross (Gal. 3:13). The fearsome judgment of God should drive us to Christ who was judged in the place of sinners.
Should we then read all the judgments and let them unsettle us? Perhaps we should, if our assurance of salvation is presumptuous and not based upon Christ’s perfect work. People who are depending on themselves, their works, their relations, or decisions, ought to be unsettled when they read the Bible’s dooms. But we don’t want true believers to be unsettled. They have run to Christ in genuine conviction of sin and have come to rest in Christ’s “righteous life, bitter death, and glorious resurrection” (as John Cotton put it). We don’t want believers to read God’s judgments and begin fearing that they are, in the end, going to hell after all. Nothing dispels joy more than such a fear. God wants believers to know that they have eternal life (1 John 5:13) and to live in the joy of that certainty (John 10:28-30). Should believers then retreat to the portions of the Bible that comfort them? This response can train people to resist whole swaths of God’s Word, as though those portions are distasteful, or as if God once was cruel but in the New Testament has now become loving.
Christians must not ignore the darker parts of Scripture, nor should they allow their assurance to be shaken by them, or begin to think hard thoughts of God because of them. What then are they to do? We’ll begin exploring this question further in the next letter, because there is a lot to say about it. For now, rejoice at the thought that Christ has taken the curse you deserve upon himself (Isa. 53:6). Believe that it is true, and put all your eggs in that one basket. That’s faith in the gospel. The wrath we deserved was quenched on the cross of Calvary. And also rejoice that God has lovingly aimed his Word directly at you to fuel your everlasting joy. These starting points are an absolute must if you want to have a right relationship with God through the Bible. Are you enjoying the relationship with God you were born to have?
If we are to rejoice in the Lord always, Scripture must be a key part of fueling that joy. George Müller used to say that he strove in his daily devotions never to leave off until his soul was happy in Jesus. Muller believed that a key purpose that God has in giving us the Word is to produce joy in Christ. He was right.
The Scripture is intended by God to have massive positive emotional impact on the lives of his children. It was given to encourage us. “Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Rom. 15:4). One of the main reasons the Spirit used John to write Scripture was to produce joy: “These things write we unto you, that your joy may be full” (1 John 1:4). Jesus said “these things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves” (John 17:13).
There seems to be no end of obstacles to a meaningful interaction with the Word. Sickness, fears about the future, our own poor prioritizing, work, stormy political times, media. We can be so caught up and distracted that we actually start doubting the reality of joy in the Word. Despair creeps in, and we face the troubles of life with a sigh and a grumble. Nevertheless, these obstacles can be met by resolving by God’s grace to keep coming back to the Scripture where God’s voice can be heard and where joy should be fueled. It is the Word of grace that builds us up and edifies us in Christ (Acts 20:32). I once heard a wise man say,
The trials of life are really God doing us a favor, showing us what’s in our hearts and how much we’re willing to give up to follow God.
This is so true. When you face obstacles to drawing near in the Word, recognize that God is doing you a favor. The obstacles build spiritual muscle, as long as you jump over them!
Once a person accepts that God wants them to fuel their joy by having a rich relationship with the Word of God, they encounter a difficulty which is found in the Bible itself, though the problem is not the Bible’s but rather our own. When we finally do get into the Bible, we discover it to be full of challenges—much of the Bible hardly seems joyful at all. It is full of threats, dooms, deaths, massive moral failures, and awful crimes.
Dooms and sins. God tells Adam and Eve that “The day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” An angel with a flaming sword cuts off the way to eternal life. Lot goes to live in Sodom, where his children are corrupted. Dinah is raped, and her brothers go on a revenge-spree and wipe out the Shechemites. Babies are thrown into rivers. God’s people desert him en masse on many occasions. God says he will not forgive his people’s sins. The ground opens up to swallow people. God commands Israel to wipe out a whole nation for its sins. Moses is barred from the promised land. Saul loses the Spirit and gets an evil spirit instead. David’s family is judged because he committed the terrible sins of adultery and murder. In the prophets God writes chapter upon chapter explaining all the ways he plans to destroy various nations. We’re told that there is a fiery Gehenna where the worm never dies.
Wow. That is a lot of doom. It’s clear why many people who read the Bible regularly stick to the Psalms and parts of the New Testament. But avoiding any part of Scripture is like leaving a letter from a friend unopened and unread. It simply won’t do to turn a deaf ear to what God has said to us. Besides, the Bible contains sobering things simply because it is telling the truth about the state of the world.
The question before us is this: once I finally get it into my head that true, lasting joy is found in the Word of God, how do I find regular joy by reading a book that frankly seems so dark? How can I fuel happiness in God when I read so many stories about him being offended by evil people and bringing judgment on them? Wouldn’t it be easier to turn to myths (2 Tim. 4:4) that offer a rosier view of things than to try to find joy in all that grim realism about sin and judgment? I think there are more people who are bothered by these questions than we, and perhaps even they, realize. The answer, as we’ll explore in the next letter, is always to keep in mind God’s primary purpose in giving us the Bible—to draw his sheep into his flock and nourish them there. Keeping in mind his primary purpose allows us to keep the darker portions in the right perspective, and even to profit from them and rejoice in God.
The Scripture is clear that Christians’ lives, including their devotions, should be full of joy.
Joy in God is supposed to strengthen us: “The joy of the Lord is your strength” (Neh. 8:10). Your knowledge of God should give you joy, and joy is supposed to strengthen you to endure hardship and difficulties, which are inevitable in this life just as Jesus said they would be: “In the world you will have tribulation” (John 16:33).
God wants us to have consistent joy. Our joy is not supposed to wax and wane like the moon. It shouldn’t go up and down like a wave on a stormy sea. Paul says to “rejoice in the Lord always” (Phil. 4:4). God has done much for us in Christ, and therefore persistent joy is always what is requisite. “Rejoice evermore…for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thess. 5:16, 18). Consistent joy comes by considering all that God has done for you in Christ.
I suspect that many people nod their heads at this sort of thing but then think it’s naive to expect joy all the time. Whoever thought that up hasn’t experienced much of real life. They may even think constant joy is not desirable, because then they couldn’t grumble, complain, and nitpick as they want to do. Theologically minded people may think that having constant joy isn’t a good expectation because we live in a fallen world that is sin-cursed. We should hunker down, wait for a better time and place, and expect gloom now. Others might think that teaching people that they should have constant joy is close to a prosperity gospel—that perhaps it deludes people into thinking there aren’t any hardships in the Christian life. And yet, to all these objections, the Scripture still says “rejoice in the Lord always.” All these ways of thinking are clearly at odds with God’s expectations and desires for us.
Joy should be the norm. It is true, of course, that joy isn’t the only emotion we should and will experience! But whatever emotional condition God ministers to us, it shouldn’t edge out joy. God encourages us to fear doing evil, to be watchful against temptation, to be convicted of sin, to desire more progress in the Christian life, to sorrow over the fate of the wicked, or to feel horror at the idea of eternal punishment. All these things are right for us to feel at times, and sometimes such emotions should temporarily be prominent in our hearts. But joy is the Christian norm. Joy should predominate. There are very few things Paul says to do always, but rejoicing in the Lord is one of them.
The joy God wants us to experience is joy in Christ, not just happiness in general. The joy God wants us to always experience is a joy and a delight in Christ. “Rejoice in the Lord always.” If I said I rejoice in basketball, you would know what I meant: basketball gives me great joy. This means that the matter in which we find joy is Christ. Or you might say that the subject which gives joy is Christ. Many people seek joy in nature, sports, or travel, and there isn’t anything wrong with enjoying such things. But our joy must be rooted in Christ, not in things that a person who doesn’t know Christ can enjoy. Christian joy lasts when earthly comforts flee, and so it transcends physical comforts. A Christian’s joy should be specifically Christian. And that is what Paul is getting at when he says to “rejoice in the Lord always.” You may think that you enjoy Christ in nature, sports, or travel, and I would agree that you should do so, but if you find no joy in the revelation of Christ found in the Bible, I wonder about your enjoyment of creation—and you should, too. Those who love his gifts but not the giver are no friends of his. Ultimately you know what you love by how much thought you give to it. If you rarely think of Christ, your love for him is negligible.
What could be a sufficient reason to always be joyful in the face of all the downsides to life in a fallen world? There is a basis for experiencing constant joy, and it is the glorious person of Christ and his finished work. God is not advocating a baseless joy. He’s not promoting mindless catchphrases like, “Don’t worry, be happy.” The joy that God wants you to have is fully justified by the facts. True biblical happiness must be rooted in scriptural doctrine. Joy is a plant that grows in biblical soil. Remove it from that soil and it dies. There is no joy that pleases God that is not rooted to the truth of Scripture. Biblical joy is a response to what God has done for us in Christ. Joy should be continual because the results of Christ’s finished work are continual. To descend to gloom is to deny the greatness of his work. To allow depression to win the day is to belittle him and to say to him, “My problems outweigh your salvation.”
All of our struggles as Christians can be understood as situations in which our discouraging circumstances must be made to submit to the joyous truths of the Gospel. This means hardship and downers are actually opportunities to assert the transcendent greatness of Christ in your particular circumstances. The person who wants to fuel biblical joy must get plugged in to Scripture and biblical doctrine, particularly doctrine about Christ. That way, they constantly have truth about Christ in the forefront of their hearts and minds, truth that they can quickly wield and assert when joy must transcend a fallen world. Our Bible study and reading should be understood precisely this way—as expeditions into the sacred country of God in order to bring back the aromatic spices of Heaven to fragrance the air of the shadowlands.
I wanted to offer you some wise advice from Puritan pastor Richard Baxter, author of the classic work of Christian counsel, A Christian Directory. Baxter shows that the need to temporary cancel church services during a pandemic is not a new problem.
May we cancel church services on the Lord’s day, if government officials prohibit them?
- It is one thing for the governing authorities to prohibit services for a temporary period, for some special reason such as epidemic, fire, or war. It is another for them prohibit services frequently, or to prohibit them for openly anti-Christian reasons.
- It is one thing for the government to prohibit church services for a brief period, and another to do it as a matter of regular practice.
- It is one thing for a church to cancel services in formal obedience to the law, and another thing to cancel them out of prudence, or for necessity, because we cannot keep them.
- We must make a distinction between the assembly and the circumstances of the assembly.
a. If the authorities prohibit church assemblies for a greater good, such as the common safety in a time of epidemic, war, or fire, it is our duty to obey them.
- This is because positive duties must be subordinated to those great natural duties (like the maintenance of human life) which are their very purpose. Christ justified himself and his disciples’ violation of the external rest of the sabbath making this very argument: “The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath.”
- Because these prohibitions will not always be present, and doing the right duty at the wrong time is a sin.
- Because one Lord’s day or church service is not worth the many future services that will be lost if church people lose their lives in an epidemic, war, or fire.
b. If the government prohibits public worship either frequently, or as a direct renunciation of Christ and Christianity, it is not lawful to obey them.
c. But it is lawful and prudent to meet secretly for the time being, even when we cannot do so publicly—and to meet with smaller numbers when we cannot have greater ones.
Translation from Elizabethan to contemporary English by Mark Ward