SERIES: GENESIS – PART 9
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. – Genesis 1:1-2
In the past four messages (the past four weeks) we looked at four competing views of creation: atheistic evolution, tehistic evolution, the gap theory, and six-day creationism. Each has been well presented and well defended by able advocates; but each has problems, as we have seen. As a result, in recent years a fifth approach to the creation process has appeared: progressive creationism. Briefly stated, it says that God created the world directly and deliberately, that is, without leaving anything to “chance,” but that he did it over long periods of time that correspond roughly to the geological ages. Moreover, this creation is still going on. Progressive creationism attempts to show how current scientific theories of the origins of the universe and the formation of the earth match the revelation in Genesis.
This approach is not entirely new. For example, some elements of the progressive creationists’ description of the early formation of the earth sound much like things the gap theorists were saying earlier in this century. Parts of the theory would be affirmed by evolutionists.
One book that takes this position is Genesis One & the Origin of the Earth by Robert C. Newman and Herman J. Eckelmann. Newman, who holds a doctorate in astrophysics from Cornell University, is professor of New Testament at the Biblical Theological Seminary, Hatfield, Pennsylvania. Eckelmann has been an associate with the Center for Radiophysics and Space Research at Cornell University but is now pastor of a church in Ithaca, New York. A second book that espouses progressive creationism is Creation and the Flood: An Alternative to Flood Geology and Theistic Evolution by Davis A. Young, son of the well-known Westminster Theological Seminary professor of Old Testament, Edward J. Young. Important to each of their views is the idea that the creative days of Genesis launch creative periods in the sense that the work begun on the earlier days continues to unfold in some form during the later days. The progressive creationists want to make possible the appearance of some new forms of vegetation in late geological periods even though the Genesis account places the creation of plants and trees on day three—to give just one example.
This view is held by many Christians who are in scientific fields, even though they have not published books on their position. It is held by quite a few biblical scholars and theologians.
A Possible Interpretation
Since even scientists are unsure precisely how the earth may have formed, it is an exercise in speculation to suggest an early history of the earth and universe. Nevertheless, since an outline of that history is given in the first chapter of Genesis, it is not out of place to look at it in terms of current geological theory, which is essentially what the progressive creationists have done. The result is something like the following (composite) picture of development.
Initial creation. The first verse of Genesis tells us that “God created the heavens and the earth.” It does not tell us how God created the heavens or the earth, nor when. So it is permissible to view this statement in terms of the prevailing “big bang” theory. That is, the universe had a definite beginning on the order of 15 to 20 billion years ago. At that point all the matter in the universe was together, but it began moving outward by sudden rapid expansion. Scientists estimate that nearly all elements would have been formed by the end of the first half hour. As matter expanded, galaxies, solar systems, and satellite bodies were formed. In this early period the earth would have been quite hot. Most of the water would have been in the atmosphere. Consequently, there would have been a heavy cloud layer that would have shrouded the earth in impenetrable darkness. As the earth cooled some of the cloud cover would have condensed and would have fallen as rain, thus forming oceans. Progressive creationists feel that this state of things is well reflected in Genesis 1:2, which says, “Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.”
The first day. After the first verse of Genesis the focal point of the creation narrative is the earth. Therefore, the statement of God in verse 3 (“let there be light”) refers to the appearance of light on earth. This would mean that the clouds covering the earth had now thinned enough for the light of the sun, which had been shining all along, to penetrate to the earth’s surface. As the earth rotated there would be periods of night and day, although the sun and other heavenly bodies would not themselves be visible. This is called the first day of creation because it was the first significant event in the preparation of the earth for habitation.
The second day. On this day the cooling process continued with a further thinning of the clouds and a separation between them and the waters that now lay on the earth. These verses (vv. 6–8) speak of the firmament (correctly translated “an expanse” in the New International Version), the waters under the firmament, and the waters above the firmament. What is distinct about this day is neither the existence of the cloud cover nor the existence of the waters that covered the earth; these existed before. The new element is the appearance of the firmament or atmosphere, what we call the sky. This separated the two waters that before were close together. Interestingly, current scientific thought also views the development of the atmosphere and oceans as a fairly recent event in earth’s history (See P. Brancazio and A.G.W. Cameron, The Origin and Evolution of Atmospheres and Ocenas. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1964. Cited by D.A. Young, Creation and the Flood, 124.
The third day. This day marks the separation of the great land masses from the oceans and the appearance of vegetation on the land. Presumably the land appeared as the result of volcanic eruptions and the buckling of the earth’s crust. Psalm 104:6–9 describes this appearance: “You covered it [the earth] with the deep as with a garment; the waters stood above the mountains. But at your rebuke the waters fled, at the sound of your thunder they took to flight; they flowed over the mountains, they went down into the valleys, to the place you assigned for them. You set a boundary they cannot cross; never again will they cover the earth.” These verses suggest that the land appeared gradually as it was drained of its covering.
Mention of the plants, particularly “seed-bearing plants and trees,” creates some problems with the science of paleobotany. So far as we know, only very simple plants existed early—namely, seaweed, algae, and bacteria—and these are associated with the oceans rather than the land. More complex plants appeared later. The seed-bearing plants mentioned in Genesis are found first in the Devonian period (about 400 million years ago). The first trees appear in the Pennsylvania period (i.e., about 320 million years ago). Again, the Genesis account seems to say that plants appeared before animals, but the fossil record shows that these appeared simultaneously. What can be done with these difficulties? It may be impossible at this stage to give a definitive answer, but two things may be noted. First, the creative acts compressed into Genesis 1:11 did not necessarily take place all at one time. They could have taken place over a fairly long period in which grasses could have come first, followed by herbs, followed by fruit trees. Second, most of the geological record is derived from marine rocks. Therefore, it does not necessarily give an accurate picture of what may or may not have existed on land. One does not really expect to find fossils of large land plants in such beds. As time goes on there may well be additional light on this particular period of the earth’s development.
The fourth day. Light had been reaching earth since the first day of creation; it was through this influence that the vegetation created on day three was enabled to appear and prosper. But now the skies cleared sufficiently for the heavenly bodies to become visible. It is not said that these were created on the fourth day; they were created in the initial creative work of God referred to in Genesis 1:1. But now they begin to function as regulators of the day and night, “as signs to mark seasons and day and years” (Gen. 1:14).
The fifth day. On the fifth day God began to create living creatures. The word “create” (baraʾ) is used here for the first time since verse 1, probably indicating a de novo act of God, unrelated to what had been done previously. Earlier God is said to have “separated,” “made,” and “formed” various things. The land itself is said to have “produced” vegetation. Not so with the birds and sea creatures! These were created by God and now began to fill the earth that had been prepared to receive them.
On this day too we have problems with the fossil record, as Young and others recognize. But these are not overwhelming. Young writes, “The fact that many marine invertebrate animals such as corals and trilobites appear in the fossil record prior to land plants implies a contradiction between Genesis and geology. We must, however, keep in mind the incompleteness of the plant record and our lack of knowledge as to the exact limits of the categories described in verses 20–22. It is important to point out that the major groups in view here, that is, birds, most fish, swimming reptiles such as crocodiles or the extinct mosasaurs, flying reptiles like pterodactyls, seals and whales, do appear later in the fossil record than most land plants. As a generality such is the case. Birds first appear in the Jurassic period, fish are well-developed from Ordovician onwards but proliferate in the Tertiary, complex marine and aerial reptiles are Mesozoic, and large swimming mammals are Tertiary” (D.A. Young, Creation and the Flood, 130).
Young, as most other progressive creationists, allows for some overlap of the creative days.
The sixth day. One of the best arguments for the days of Genesis 1 being periods of long duration is the amount of creative activity recorded as having taken place on day six. God created land animals, divided into three general categories: livestock (that is, animals capable of being domesticated), creatures that move along the ground (the reference is to animals such as squirrels, chipmunks, and woodchucks, and may include reptiles), and wild animals (that is, those that could not be domesticated). Many categories of each are involved because each is said to reproduce according to “their kinds” (plural). On this day God also created man, last but at the peak of the created order. Since God is said to have created each of these three categories of animals and man independently and after certain specific kinds, the possibility of general evolution seems to be discounted. Still there is no reason to rule out some kinds of development within species (microevolution), such as the alleged development of the horse. The language of the verses suggests a pause between the making of animals and the creation of man, and there may have been other pauses also.
The progressive creationists’ view of God’s creation is tentative, for not all scientific evidence is in and even the narrative of Genesis may not be understood as well as we shall understand it some day. But in general terms this is what the progressive viewpoint holds. Its adherents regard it as a reasonable harmony between the Genesis record and the facts of geology and other scientific disciplines.
What are the Problems?
Some of the problems with this view have already been suggested. The most obvious are the apparent discrepancies between the fossil record and the order in which plants, fish, and land animals are said to have been created in Genesis. This is serious. On the other hand, it is not of such weight as to immediately disqualify the theory. Science assumes that life first appeared in the oceans or other watery places, but it does not know this and it is possible that life may have appeared on land before it appeared in the water. Moreover, if one discounts the earliest forms of life, such as algae, bacteria, and seaweed, which mean a great deal to botanists but are probably not in view in Genesis at all, the order of the appearance of life in Genesis and in the fossil record is quite similar.
Second, there is the linguistic problem of taking the days of Genesis as long periods, which the six-day creationists regard as impossible. This has already been discussed in presenting the creationists’ view. Here we may simply note that there are at least two sides to the argument. On the surface it would be natural to take the word “day” in Genesis 1 as referring to a literal twenty-four-hour day. But even this is not without question, for the account clearly indicates that God did not establish the sun and other heavenly bodies for the regulating of “seasons and days and years” until day four. Augustine noted this fifteen hundred years ago, and so have others. James Orr wrote, “It is at least as difficult to suppose that only ordinary days of twenty-four hours are intended, in view of the writer’s express statement that such days did not commence till the fourth stage of creation, as to believe that they are symbols” (Orr, Christian View, 421). There are other places even in Moses’ writings where “day” clearly means “period” (cf. Gen. 2:4; Ps. 90:4).
The third and, in my judgment, most serious objection to the progressive creation theory is that it introduces death into the world before the fall (or even the creation) of Adam. If death was the punishment for sin, as the Bible seems to indicate, and if this punishment was imposed upon the whole world (including the animals) as the result of Adam’s sin, then there could not have been death in the world before Adam, and the fossil record must be post-Adamic, as the flood geologists state. Morris puts it tersely: “The day-age theory … accepts as real the existence of death before sin, in direct contradiction to the biblical teaching that death is a divine judgment on man’s dominion because of man’s sin (Rom. 5:12). Thus it assumes that suffering and death comprise an integral part of God’s work of creating and preparing the world for man; and this in effect pictures God as a sadistic ogre, not as the biblical God of grace and love” (Morris, The Genesis Record, 54).
The objection is serious, but these points must be considered:
1. The actual curse of God as the result of man’s sin, recorded in Genesis 3, says nothing about the animals. It is a curse on four things only: the man, the woman, the serpent, and the ground for the man’s sake. Nowhere is it said that the earth or universe underwent a drastic transformation, nor even that the serpent, though an animal, was to die in punishment for its part in the temptation. Its curse was only to crawl on its belly and thus be cursed “above all the livestock and all the wild animals” (Gen. 3:14).
2. The curse on Adam and Eve did not involve physical death only, though that was horrible enough in that they were created for communion with God who is eternal; it involved spiritual death. But this does not really pertain to the animal realm in that animals do not have God-consciousness in the first place. It is conceivable that animals could be created to enjoy a normal life span and then to die without this having any of the judgmental qualities death has for man.
3. The texts often cited from the New Testament in support of the view that death came to the animal world as a result of man’s sin do not prove the point. Romans 8:19–21 does not contrast the present imperfection of the world with a more glorious past state but with the future state when it shall be delivered from its “bondage to decay” along with the final redemption of God’s children. Similarly, Romans 5:12, though it speaks of the introduction of death into the world through Adam’s sin, does not necessarily speak of the infliction of this penalty on any creature other than man.
4. It is hard to imagine a world of living things in which death does not occur in some form, if only because living things live by eating other living things. Even assuming that the carnivores were herbivores before Adam’s fall, these still had to eat plants that thereby died. Did birds not eat insects? Did fish not eat other fish? We can imagine that the birds all ate berries; but even if the fish ate plankton, the plankton died.
In view of these points, progressive creationists would argue that death did indeed exist in the world before Adam—otherwise, how would he know what the threat of death meant (“You must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die”)? But it did not have the horror for animals that it had for Adam and has for us today. Young writes, “The most that can be said with certainty about the effect of the fall on geological phenomena is that it introduced death and suffering into the human race for the first time. … It cannot be proved from the Scripture that the curse resulted in anything other than pain, sorrow, agonizing labor, and death for man and degradation for the serpent. Ideas about structural changes in the animals, death among animals, and drastic transformations in the laws of nature such as the laws of thermodynamics must from a Scriptural perspective forever remain pure speculations” (D.A. Young, Creation and the Flood, 168).
We have come to an end of our examination of the various main views of creation, and it may seem that nearly everything is undecided. For many it may be; nearly anyone—anyone who can see the difficulties, whatever view he or she holds—will face problems. Still it is not true that everything is undecided. We have not settled everything, but we have established a framework in which our thinking about creation may go forward.
First, we have dismissed atheistic evolution and have come close to dismissing theistic evolution as well. This means that the world of man and things did not come about by chance happenings over long periods of evolutionary history but as a result of God’s direct creative activity.
Second, we have suggested that any view that makes the earth a relatively new thing (on the order of twelve thousand to twenty thousand years old) flies in the face of too much varied and independent evidence to be tenable. Some would dispute this, of course. But in my judgment the earth and universe are indeed billions of years old.
Third, we have shown the possibility of God’s having formed the earth and its life in a series of creative days representing long periods. In view of the apparent age of the earth, this is not only possible—it is probable. Nothing is to be gained by insisting that God had to create all things in six literal twenty-four-hour days.
This does not mean, however, that everything said by evolutionists about the many millions of years in which the earth and its life are supposed to have formed is factual. The periods involved may be considerably shorter than current evolution and geologic theory suggest, since the main reason for insisting on such interminable ages is to give the amount of time supposed to be necessary for life to emerge through chance occurrences. In particular, there is no need to argue for the great antiquity of man. Man may be relatively recent, though how recent is unclear. (The fossil evidence for man’s antiquity will be considered when the creation of man himself is discussed in Part 11 in this Series on Genesis.)
Finally, we can make these “spiritual” applications. We have discussed the theory of evolution in which everything we know is supposed to have evolved by mere chance. We have rejected evolution. But there is a sense in which those who know God are enabled to evolve increasingly into that image of what he would have us to be, and we rejoice in that. Again, we have discussed the gap theory. We have seen that there may be gaps in what is told us in the historical sections of Genesis; there may be gaps in our knowledge. But there are no gaps in the wisdom, knowledge, or love of God, and in this we rejoice. We have discussed the twenty-four-hour-day theory. We have seen evidence for and against that option. But whether the days of Genesis are twenty-four hours long or much longer, all time is God’s time and is used by him. Our days are also God’s days. Last, we considered progressive creationism. It may be close to the true picture. But we need to remember that there is never any true or lasting progress that is not God’s doing and that where God works there is always progress. Let us ask him to make progress with us as we strive to grow in the knowledge of his will and ways.
About the Preacher
James Montgomery Boice, Th.D., (July 7, 1938 – June 15, 2000) was a Reformed theologian, Bible teacher, and pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia from 1968 until his death. He is heard on The Bible Study Hour radio broadcast and was a well-known author and speaker in evangelical and Reformed circles. He also served as Chairman of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy for over ten years and was a founding member of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. James Boice was one of my favorite Bible teachers. Thankfully – many of his books and expositions of Scripture are still in print and more are becoming available. The sermon above was adapted from Chapter 9 in Genesis 1-11: An Expositional Commentary. vol. 1: Creation and Fall. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006.
Under Dr. Boice’s leadership, Tenth Presbyterian Church became a model for ministry in America’s northeastern inner cities. When he assumed the pastorate of Tenth Church there were 350 people in regular attendance. At his death the church had grown to a regular Sunday attendance in three services of more than 1,200 persons, a total membership of 1,150 persons. Under his leadership, the church established a pre-school for children ages 3-5 (now defunct), a high school known as City Center Academy, a full range of adult fellowship groups and classes, and specialized outreach ministries to international students, women with crisis pregnancies, homosexual and HIV-positive clients, and the homeless. Many of these ministries are now free-standing from the church.
Dr. Boice gave leadership to groups beyond his own organization. For ten years he served as Chairman of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy, from its founding in 1977 until the completion of its work in 1988. ICBI produced three classic, creedal documents: “The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy,” “The Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics” and “The Chicago Statement on the Application of the Bible to Contemporary Issues.” The organization published many books, held regional “Authority of Scripture” seminars across the country, and sponsored the large lay “Congress on the Bible I,” which met in Washington, D.C., in September 1987. He also served on the Board of Bible Study Fellowship.
He founded the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals (Alliance) in 1994, initially a group of pastors and theologians who were focused on bringing the 20th and now 21st century church to a new reformation. In 1996 this group met and wrote the Cambridge Declaration. Following the Cambridge meetings, the Alliance assumed leadership of the programs and publications formerly under Evangelical Ministries, Inc. (Dr. Boice) and Christians United for Reformation (Horton) in late 1996.
Dr. Boice was a prodigious world traveler. He journeyed to more than thirty countries in most of the world’s continents, and he taught the Bible in such countries as England, France, Canada, Japan, Australia, Guatemala, Korea and Saudi Arabia. He lived in Switzerland for three years while pursuing his doctoral studies.
Dr. Boice held degrees from Harvard University (A.B.), Princeton Theological Seminary (B.D.), the University of Basel, Switzerland (D. Theol.) and the Theological Seminary of the Reformed Episcopal Church (D.D., honorary).
A prolific author, Dr. Boice had contributed nearly forty books on a wide variety of Bible related themes. Most are in the form of expositional commentaries, growing out of his preaching: Psalms (1 volume), Romans (4 volumes), Genesis (3 volumes), Daniel, The Minor Prophets (2 volumes), The Sermon on the Mount, John (5 volumes, reissued in one), Ephesians, Phillippians and The Epistles of John. Many more popular volumes: Hearing God When You Hurt, Mind Renewal in a Mindless Christian Life, Standing on the Rock, The Parables of Jesus, The Christ of Christmas, The Christ of the Open Tomb and Christ’s Call to Discipleship. He also authored Foundations of the Christian Faith a 740-page book of theology for laypersons. Many of these books have been translated into other languages, such as: French, Spanish, German, Japanese, Chinese and Korean.
He was married to Linda Ann Boice (born McNamara), who continues to teach at the high school they co-founded.
Source: Taken directly from the Aliance of Confessing Evangelicals’ Website
James Montgomery Boice’s Books:
1970 Witness and Revelation in the Gospel of John (Zondervan)
1971 Philippians: An Expositional Commentary (Zondervan)
1972 The Sermon on the Mount (Zondervan)
1973 How to Live the Christian Life (Moody; originally, How to Live It Up,
1974 Ordinary Men Called by God (Victor; originally, How God Can Use
1974 The Last and Future World (Zondervan)
1975-79 The Gospel of John: An Expositional Commentary (5 volumes,
Zondervan; issued in one volume, 1985; 5 volumes, Baker 1999)
1976 “Galatians” in the Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Zondervan)
1977 Can You Run Away from God? (Victor)
1977 Does Inerrancy Matter? (Tyndale)
1977 Our Sovereign God, editor (Baker)
1978 The Foundation of Biblical Authority, editor (Zondervan)
1979 The Epistles of John: An Expositional Commentary (Zondervan)
1979 Making God’s Word Plain, editor (Tenth Presbyterian Church)
1980 Our Savior God: Studies on Man, Christ and the Atonement, editor (Baker)
1982-87 Genesis: An Expositional Commentary (3 volumes, Zondervan)
1983 The Parables of Jesus (Moody)
1983 The Christ of Christmas (Moody)
1983-86 The Minor Prophets: An Expositional Commentary (2 volumes,
1984 Standing on the Rock (Tyndale). Reissued 1994 (Baker)
1985 The Christ of the Open Tomb (Moody)
1986 Foundations of the Christian Faith (4 volumes in one, InterVarsity
Press; original volumes issued, 1978-81)
1986 Christ’s Call to Discipleship (Moody)
1988 Transforming Our World: A Call to Action, editor (Multnomah)
1988, 98 Ephesians: An Expositional Commentary (Baker)
1989 Daniel: An Expositional Commentary (Zondervan)
1989 Joshua: We Will Serve the Lord (Revell)
1990 Nehemiah: Learning to Lead (Revell)
1992-94 Romans (4 volumes, Baker)
1992 The King Has Come (Christian Focus Publications)
1993 Amazing Grace (Tyndale)
1993 Mind Renewal in a Mindless Age (Baker)
1994-98 Psalms (3 volumes, Baker)
1994 Sure I Believe, So What! (Christian Focus Publications)
1995 Hearing God When You Hurt (Baker)
1996 Two Cities, Two Loves (InterVarsity)
1996 Here We Stand: A Call from Confessing Evangelicals, editor with
Benjamin E. Sasse (Baker)
1997 Living By the Book (Baker)
1997 Acts: An Expositional Commentary (Baker)
1999 The Heart of the Cross, with Philip Graham Ryken (Crossway)
1999 What Makes a Church Evangelical?
2000 Hymns for a Modern Reformation, with Paul S. Jones
2001 Matthew: An Expositional Commentary (2 volumes, Baker)
2001 Whatever Happened to the Gospel of Grace? (Crossway)
2002 The Doctrines of Grace, with Philip Graham Ryken (Crossway)
2002 Jesus on Trial, with Philip Graham Ryken (Crossway)
1985 “The Future of Reformed Theology” in David F. Wells, editor,
Reformed Theology in America: A History of Its Modern Development
1986 “The Preacher and Scholarship” in Samuel T. Logan, editor, The
Preacher and Preaching: Reviving the Art in the Twentieth Century
(Presbyterian and Reformed)
1992 “A Better Way: The Power of Word and Spirit” in Michael Scott
Horton, editor, Power Religion: The Selling Out of the Evangelical Church?
1994 “The Sovereignty of God” in John D. Carson and David W. Hall,
editors, To Glorify and Enjoy God: A Commemoration of the 350th
Anniversary of the Westminster Assembly (Banner of Truth Trust)
SOURCE: from the Tenth Presbyterian Church, Philadelphia, website
Sermon: The Joy of Jesus by Dr. Timothy Keller
Series: The Fruit of the Spirit—The Character of Christ—May 3, 1998 on John 16:19–24
I’m going to read from John 16:19–24.
19 Jesus saw that they wanted to ask him about this, so he said to them, “Are you asking one another what I meant when I said, ‘In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me’? 20 I tell you the truth, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy. 21 A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world.
22 So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy. 23 In that day you will no longer ask me anything. I tell you the truth, my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. 24 Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete.”
We’re doing a series here in the morning that has to do with character change, how we actually change. The premise is moral reformation is not the same thing as spiritual transformation. In moral reformation, you can make changes that aren’t the deep spiritual changes, the habits of the heart. One of my wife’s favorite authors is Judith Martin, “Miss Manners,” and she wrote a book called Miss Manners Rescues Civilization.
There’s one spot in there where she asks, “Where did manners come from?” Of course, she gives her learned opinion along the lines of, “Some caveman learned it paid to restrain and control his impulses through courtesy, manners, and customs. It was worth it to avoid living among people who were perpetually furious.”
Her whole idea is she says, “What are manners? Restraining your impulses, controlling your heart. Otherwise, you’ll just live amongst people who are perpetually furious.” That’s right. Moral reformation is fine. Over the years, people have been honest, people have been generous, and people have been self-controlled, simply so we don’t have to live amongst people who are perpetually furious with us.
But notice what she said. Moral reformation is restraining the heart. It’s controlling the heart. It’s sort of jury-rigging the heart. It’s not really changing the heart. What do I mean by jury-rigging? For example, you want self-control. You’re filled with fear. Use the fear to get self-control. “I’d better change, or people are going to find out.” Use the pride to get self-control. You see, out of self-interest, out of pride, out of fear, we can make these kinds of changes.
I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with them. In fact, the world would be a terrible place without them. But that’s not the same thing as changing the habits of the heart. That’s not the same thing as, instead of restraining the heart, changing the heart so that out of the heart flows, at least with increasing naturalness and freedom, love, joy, peace, patience, generosity, integrity, courage, humility, and self-control. The fruit of the Spirit. Galatians 5.
What’s the difference? We’ve said moral reformation comes by looking at the rules and conforming, but spiritual transformation comes from looking at Jesus Christ and regenerating and transforming. Paul lays it down in 2 Corinthians 3:18. He says, “With unveiled faces we contemplate the glory of the Lord and are transformed from one degree of splendor to the next.”
Spiritual transformation does not come like moral reformation, restraining the heart by looking at the rules and conforming. Spiritual transformation comes from looking at Christ and being melted with spiritual understandings of his person and work. That’s the premise. Boy, that sounds so sweet, doesn’t it? That sounds so beautiful. What in the world does it mean? I know where you are. What does it mean?
That’s what we’re doing in this series. We’re looking at the character of Christ and how that character can come in and produce deep changes in our hearts. Today I want to look at something Jesus says: that he gives us joy. There is a joy Jesus gives. On the night before he died, not only in chapter 16 of John, but also in chapter 14 and in chapter 17, in this very last discourse, the last time Jesus had with his disciples before he died, he’s continually saying, “I have a joy to give you.”
I want to look at this joy. He tells us three things in this passage about this joy. He tells us about the promise of it. It’s real. He tells us something about the structure of it, and he tells us about the growth of it, how it comes. Let’s just take a look at that for a moment. The reality, the promise of this joy, then the structure of it (what it’s made of, it’s nature), and then how it comes to us, how it grows.
1. The promise of it
The reality of it. Here’s what he says. In this passage, Jesus Christ says, “If you come to meet me and you come to know me, you will have a joy that is deep and powerful and is now.” Essentially, he says here, “Joy is inevitable if you meet me.” Right here in the very beginning he talks about this “little while and little while.” Do you see this? Right at the top. He has already said, “In a little while you will grieve; then in a little while you will see me. I tell you the truth, you will weep and mourn, and then in a little while your grief will be turned to joy.”
What is he talking about? Most commentators, though they think there may be some levels of meaning here, say basically he’s talking about the time between his death and his resurrection. He says, “I’m going to die, and you’re going to weep, but when you see me, when you meet me, the resurrected Lord, you’ll rejoice.” You will rejoice. He doesn’t say, “Some of you who are more emotional in temperament will rejoice.” He doesn’t say, “Some of you who have nicer lives will rejoice.” He says, “You all will rejoice.”
The reason it’s important to see what he’s saying here … He’s not saying, “You will see me at the second coming and rejoice.” He is not saying, “You will see me on the last day, you will see me when you die and go to heaven and rejoice.” He says, “When you see me resurrected you’ll rejoice.” Now why is that so important? Those of you who were here on Easter remember this, but those of you who weren’t here, don’t.
In a nutshell, why is it that Jesus Christ’s tomb was lost? Why is it that by AD 120 Christians weren’t even sure where it was anymore? Why is it, when the tomb of every prophet, every religious founder was always venerated …? It was a shrine. It was a place of pilgrimage. How could the Christians have lost the tomb of Jesus?
We said the reason would be that when you have your son, your son’s room, your son’s things, aren’t all that important. There’s nothing special about his room. There’s nothing special about his shoes, about his clothes, if you have your son. But if your son goes away, or your son leaves for a long time, or your son dies, suddenly those things become important.
The reason the tomb didn’t matter to them was that they had him. He wasn’t away. Real Christianity is to meet the risen Lord. It’s not just the apostles who have met the risen Lord. Anyone who’s a Christian doesn’t need to go to the tomb, because you have him. You don’t need a relic. You have him. You have a relationship. There’s a giving and taking of love.
Why is that so important? Because what Jesus is saying here is Christianity does not only promise this incredible joy in the sky, by and by. He doesn’t say, “You’ll see me in heaven and you’ll rejoice. You’ll see me on the last day and rejoice.” He says when you meet the risen Lord you rejoice. He says, “This is it. Everybody, you’ll have this joy. It will come. It has to come.”
In fact, the illustration of the woman … He says, “Joy is like a woman in labor; when her time has come, she has the child.” I’ve watched, very intimately, a woman have children three times, and I know one thing about labor and children. It will come. When it comes, it’s coming. There’s no stopping it. You don’t say, “Well honey, could you hold it until next week so we could have this trip?”
It will come. In fact, you can’t even say, “Honey, could you hold it for five minutes?” When Jesus Christ gives this woman in labor as the illustration of joy, what he is saying is, “If you actually meet me, you will have joy.” You will. It is inevitable. It has to be there. You’re not a Christian without this joy.
The Bible goes over and over. Listen. When I read this stuff, I got so convicted this last week. What the Bible says about joy … I guess, frankly, until I read it, at least in my mind and my heart and my head, I kind of had this idea that joy is optional. You know, “Some of us have harder lives than others. Joy is optional.” It can’t be. Joy will come. It’s like labor. It’s like birth. “When you see me you will rejoice.”
In the New Testament, the very first miracle of Jesus … Remember it? John 2, the wedding feast at Cana. What was the first miracle of Jesus? This is the beginning of his public ministry. When you begin your public ministry, you make sure you do the very thing that gives people the essence of what you’re about. Your first speech, your first ad, your first event … When you’re starting a campaign, you give them the essence.
What did Jesus do when he was trying to get across to people the essence of what he came for? He didn’t raise the dead. He didn’t walk on water. He didn’t heal the sick. He created 150 gallons of incredible wine to move a party to a new level. What was he saying? He was saying, “Have you heard of the myths of Dionysus? Have you heard of the legends of Bacchus and Dionysus? Have you heard about forests dancing and running with wine and dancing and joy? That’s kid stuff compared to what I’m bringing. I am Lord of the feast.” At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.
What about the beginning of the church, the day of Pentecost? Jesus goes to heaven, the Spirit comes down, and the New Testament church is inaugurated. Everybody who saw them that day, everybody who saw the fullness of the Spirit … What did they say about them? “These people are drunk.” Yes. That’s Christianity. Not just the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, not just the beginning of the church; the beginning of every Christian life. What does the Bible say about how to become a Christian? What does the Bible say about conversion?
Paul was writing to the Thessalonians, and he said, “You became followers of the Lord.” He’s talking to them about their conversion. “You became followers of the Lord, for you received the message with the joy given by the Holy Spirit.” Do you know what it means to become a Christian? Some of you say, “Well I guess I’m a Christian.” What’s a Christian? You say, “Well, to believe Jesus is the Son of God, to believe he died on the cross, to believe he rose from the dead.”
The devils believe that, and they’re still devils. What’s the difference between a devil and a Christian? The devils know he’s the Son of God. The devils know he died on the cross. The devils know he rose from the dead, but they have no joy in it. The difference between a Christian and a devil is only joy. At the very essence of faith there has to be a kernel of joy, or it’s not faith. Do you see?
The kingdom of God, Jesus says, is like a man who discovers a treasure buried in a field, and when he discovers it, he sells all he has and goes with joy. He sells all that he has and buys that field. The beginning of Jesus’ ministry, the beginning of the church, and the beginning of the Christian life. What’s the kingdom of God? The kingdom of God, Jesus continually says, is a power that descends upon you and sends you out into the world to change the world, to do the will of God, on earth as it is in heaven.
What is that power? How do you know if you’re in the kingdom? Is it the way you dress? Is it the way you look? Is it the way you eat? Ask Saint Paul, and he’ll tell you. Romans 14:17: “The kingdom of God is not meat or drink, but righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.” When you’re right with God, a tidal wave of joy sends you out into the world to change it. That is the power of the Spirit.
Look at the gospel. Do you know what the word gospel means? Euangelion. It means literally the joy news. Jesus Christ is born. What do the angels say? “Behold, I bring glad tidings …” That’s the news. “… of great joy.” The word gospel means joy news. J.R.R. Tolkien in his famous essay “On Fairy-Stories” … Don’t you hate it when somebody says something is famous and you’ve never heard of it? You say, “What am I? Chopped liver?” I’m sorry. I don’t know if it’s famous, but it’s a great one.
J.R.R. Tolkien, in his great essay “On Fairy-Stories,” says there’s a kind of story … There are all kinds of stories, and they move us. He says there’s a kind of story (and he ought to know) that brings us unbelievable joy, whether it’s a movie, or a story we’re reading, or a story we see depicted on the stage, or a story we hear sung about. There are certain stories, he says, that bring us unbelievable joy.
He says these stories always have a certain kind of kernel to them. He says there’s always some incredible hopeless situation, and victory is snatched out of the jaws of defeat. But how? Always through someone who comes in, and whose weakness turns out to be strength, someone whose defeat turns out to be a victory. He says it’s those kinds of stories that just seem to bring us joy. He believed (and I think he’s right) … He called them eucatastrophes.
Do you know what the word eucatastrophe means? The joyful catastrophe, the tragedy that turns out to be a triumph, the sacrifice that turns out to bring joy, the weakness that ends up being strength, the defeat that ends up being victory. He said, however, there’s a Eucatastrophe of the eucatastrophes. There is a Story in all of the stories. He believes there’s a bass string to the human heart, and those stories can kind of make it reverberate a little bit but can’t pluck it. He says there’s only one story that can: the story of the gospel.
All of the other stories are based on that. From the ugly duckling who turns out to be a swan, to Beauty and the Beast, the Beauty who gives up all of her happiness to throw herself in the arms of this Beast and, because of her incredible sacrifice, gets a love and frees this person beyond anything she ever understood. Tolkien says the gospel story is the only story that will pluck that string so the whole heart never stops reverberating and vibrating with joy.
The reason it will reverberate is, of all of the great stories, this is not one more myth pointing to the great reality; this is the reality to which all of the other stories point. It happened. It really happened. There really is a Beauty who kisses the beast. There really is a Hercules who defeats the villain. There really is a hero. There really is Jesus. The word gospel means the joy news. Joy. It’s real. You have to have it. It has to be there.
Let me put it to you this way before I go on. Do you know this? Let me talk to two kinds of people. One of the great things about Redeemer is there are always two kinds of people. Actually, there are three. There are people who say, “I’m a Christian,” and there are people who say, “I’m not a Christian,” and then there are a lot of people who say, “I wish I knew what I was.” That’s it. You’re all there.
For those of you who are Christians, I want to ask a quick question. If this is true, if joy is what it’s all about, if it’s the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, the beginning of the church, and the beginning of Christianity in your heart, it it’s inevitable, if it’s not for the second coming but for now, how can you live with the moroseness that you do? How is it possible?
Remember when Elizabeth was carrying John the Baptist and Mary was carrying Jesus in the womb? Mary gets near Elizabeth, and suddenly she starts. Mary says to Elizabeth, “What happened?” She says, “At the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy.” Psalm 96 says that when Jesus Christ comes back, the trees of the wood will sing for joy. If the trees, if babies in the womb, if anything getting near Jesus leaps for joy, why aren’t we?
Here’s what I have to suggest. When the Bible says, “Rejoice, and again I say rejoice,” when it commands your joy, it cannot be saying, “Force your feelings.” That’s impossible. You can’t anyway. I’ve had people say, “Is the Bible telling me to force my feelings?” The Bible is not going to say, “Two plus two is five.” It’s not going to tell you to do something that’s impossible. What it must mean is this joy is so inevitable that if it’s not flowing through your life, you must be doing something to stop it. You must be.
I know there are times of grief. Joy is like a tree. It doesn’t always blossom. The joy can be growing in wintertime, just like a tree can be growing in wintertime. Joy is not always in blossom time. But here’s what I want to know. What comparatively small thing are you doing to keep you from seeing what you have in Jesus? What comparatively small thing are you so upset about it’s keeping you from seeing what you have in Jesus? You must be doing something. We must be doing something, if all of the things the Bible says are true.
Secondly, for those of you who are not Christians, or you’re not sure you’re Christians, one of the things that keeps you from Christianity has always been … You say, “You know, religion would be good at some time in my life, but right now I’m not bald yet. I’m a size 8. Later on I may need something to help me deal with life. Right now Christianity is interesting, but I like to have fun.” Jesus Christ throws down the gauntlet to you, and I’m going to try too.
If Jesus could make himself visible, he would say, “Look, if you have a real objection, okay. Suffering and evil? That’s a real objection. The injustice done by the church in my name in history? That’s a real objection. But when you tell me, ‘I don’t want to become a Christian because I want to enjoy myself, I want to enjoy life,’ first, that means you don’t even know what you’re rejecting. That has no integrity. Secondly, how could you possibly turn later to something you mustn’t even know about now or you wouldn’t say such a thing? How can you turn to it later? You don’t even know what it is.”
If you know anything about Lord Byron’s history, you’ll know he tried exactly what you’re doing: to have fun. Somewhere near the end of his life, he said, “There’s not a joy the world can give like that it takes away.” He’s right. Christianity is not something that makes you philosophical. It’s joy now.
2. The structure of it
What is the structure of this joy? This joy is very, very different. In a way, Christian joy is like every other kind of joy. You rejoice in that which you find beautiful. What is something you find beautiful? You find beautiful something that doesn’t give you something else but is satisfying in itself, just for what it is.
Some of you might find this weird. When I can’t relax, or if I can’t get to sleep at night and I just want to really get peace … There is a high mountain pass in Northern Wales I have driven over three times in my life. When you get over the top of it, you go down into the most beautiful valley I’ve ever seen in my life. I think of that. I have a couple of pictures of it, but I also have a memory. I think about it.
Maybe you have places like that: a seashore … What gives you joy about that? What does it give you? All it gives you is itself. Joy and beauty … it’s the same thing. Keates said so. The only thing that can always give you joy is something you find beautiful not for what it gives you, but for what it is in itself. Why is the woman so happy that a child is born? Bad parents say, “Oh great, now I can have love in my life.”
If you have a child and the reason you rejoice is you say, “Finally, somebody will love me; somebody I’ll have a relationship with,” you’ll be a lousy parent. You’ll destroy that child, and the child will destroy you. Good parents rejoice in the child for what it is in itself, and as it grows up, you do everything you can just to let the child go off. You’re happy if your son or your daughter is happy. Why? Because that’s real joy. Real joy is you don’t want the thing to give you something else; you just find it beautiful for what it is in itself.
The structure of this joy is so incredibly different, because it tells us the spiritual joy Jesus gives is like the joy of a woman … Take a look. It says she’s in this incredible pain. She’s in this incredible labor. She’s beaten up like nobody can be beaten up. It says suddenly the child is born, and it says literally in the Greek, “She remembers her pain no more.” Notice it doesn’t say her pain is gone. I happen to know. I’ve watched this. When the child is born, her pain is not gone, but she remembers her pain no more.
What does the word remember mean? The Bible says when you become a Christian, God remembers your sin no more. Does that mean he’s not aware of the sin? Does that mean he says, “Did they ever sin?” No. He’s aware of the sin, but the sin doesn’t control the way in which he reacts to me. If he doesn’t remember my sins anymore because I’m in Christ, he’s not controlled by it. He doesn’t focus on it. It hasn’t captured his heart. Love has captured his heart.
Here’s what’s going on. Here’s this woman and she’s all beaten up, but the structure of her joy is not that she’s in denial. She’s not saying, “Well, doctor, I don’t feel a thing. I’m fine. Everything is fine.” She’s not saying that, but she’s furiously and lovingly and joyfully looking at the child, and she forgets her pain. It doesn’t mean she denies it. It doesn’t mean she’s not even hurting. It doesn’t control her. The pain can’t get her down anymore. Not when she has this.
The structure of Christian joy is that you’ve located your greatest joy and your greatest beauty in God. He gives you more joy, and you find him more beautiful than anything else in life. That’s the reason Jonathan Edwards, years ago, could say the difference between a religious person and a Christian is not that one is obedient and one is disobedient. Oh no. He says religious people and real Christians both obey God. They’re both committed to God. In fact, a religious person might look more obedient and committed.
The difference is that only the Christian is attracted to God. The religious person finds God useful, but the Christian finds God beautiful. What does that mean? It means the religious person will obey as long as God answers his prayers, but if God doesn’t answer his prayers, he says, “What good is it to be a Christian?” Some of you have done that. Some of you said years ago, “I worked my fingers to the bone, and I did all these incredible things, and I didn’t get into the law school I wanted to get into, and I’ve never had the career I wanted to do, so I walked away.”
What does that mean? It means your law career was the beauty. It was the satisfying thing. God was a means to an end. God was useful; he wasn’t beautiful to you, so you’ve never tried Christianity. You have a joy that is very different than Christian joy, because Christian joy coexists with suffering. Christian joy coexists with sorrow. She remembers her sorrow no more. It doesn’t mean she isn’t aware of it. It means it doesn’t control her anymore.
Worldly joy has to avoid suffering, worldly joy has to deny suffering, but Christian joy coexists and, in fact, is enhanced by it, because it shows you where true joy is going to be found. The structure of Christian joy is you’ve relocated your beauty, you’ve relocated your joy in God, and now circumstances can’t touch it.
This is, by the way, the reason why Christians should be the least sentimental people in the world. Christians should never be denying their own pain, and Christians should never be denying that the world is painful, and Christians should never be afraid of getting empathetically involved with people who are suffering. Why? Because you have a joy that coexists with that.
The world’s joy says, “I can’t admit how bad things are. I can’t admit how much I’m hurting. I can’t admit how bad the world is.” Christians should be the least sentimental people in the world, because they have a joy that coexists with sorrow. They have a joy that grows deeper … Just like the darker the night, the brighter the stars. Christian joy is like that. It gets brighter when things get darker. Everybody else’s joy just goes out. That’s the structure.
3. The growth of it
Up to now you’re saying, “Okay, that’s fascinating. This incredible joy, you rejoice even in suffering, and it’s a different structure and everything, but I can’t do that. I read these texts, ‘Rejoice, and again I say rejoice.’ I tried to be happy. I can’t do it.” Well, it’s not a matter of trying. When Jesus Christ tells us about this woman … Who is this woman?
The New International Version, the translation I read from, has done us a little bit of a disservice. The New International translation says she’s in all this incredible pain, she’s in all this labor, and then it says … Why? Why is she in all the pain? What does it say? “Because her time has come.” Gee, that’s unfortunate. Literally, the Greek says, “Because her hour has come.”
If you have ever read the gospel of John, you’ll know the word hour has a very technical meaning and has a very focused meaning. It has a very specific meaning. In 7:30; in 8:20; in 13:11; and in chapter 12, I can’t remember quite where; even in chapter 2 … Remember when Mary says, “They have no more wine,” Jesus turns and says, “Woman, it is not my hour”? What is the hour?
Do you know what the hour is in the gospel of John? “It was the sixth hour, and darkness took over, and Jesus Christ cried out, ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ ” In those days before epidurals and anesthetics, every time a woman gave birth she was in incredible agony, and she was right on the verge of losing her life. Jesus Christ is saying two things to us here.
He is the one in labor, and the first thing he says is, “I went into labor, but the labor pains I endured were my hour.” They were far greater than any woman has ever endured, because they weren’t physical. The only way for a mother to give the baby the joy of life is to take away her own joy at that moment. She has to give away her joy and maybe even give away her life to bring life to the child.
Jesus Christ says, “I gave away a joy to bring joy to you, and the joy I lost and the pain I suffered was my hour. Do you want to know what I threw away for you? Go back and read Proverbs 8. When my Father and I were creating the universe, I danced before the Father, and we delighted in the human race, the men and women we were creating to take part in our joy. Because of your sin, I lost everything. I lost that.
Don’t you say, ‘Oh, how bad could it have been? It was only three hours.’ No, no, no. I suffered something you’ll never understand. That’s why I suffered it, so you wouldn’t understand it. I lost something you will never know. I went into labor. It was my hour. I lost something you will never know. I suffered something you’ll never know. I lost all the joy I had, a joy you never will know, so you could have joy.”
That’s the first thing he’s saying, but do you know the second thing he’s saying? It’s just about as astounding. Not only does the woman show us how Jesus suffered, but the woman shows us why Jesus did it. In Hebrews 12, it says, “For the joy that was set before him, he went to the cross, despising the shame.” For the joy that was set before him. How could that be? What joy was it? What does the woman see? The baby.
Do you know what this means? What did Jesus get out of it? What did Jesus get out of that incredible, infinite experience of agony and torment he went through? Did he get out of it a sense of accomplishment? He didn’t need that. He had that. Did he get out of it the admiration of the Father? He already had that. Did he get out of it self-esteem? He already had that. What didn’t he have? Us. What could he have gotten out of us? Nothing.
What does that mean? He located his joy in us. He wanted us just because we were beautiful to him. It tells us in Isaiah 53, “The results of his suffering he shall see and be satisfied.” He’ll look at us and say it was worth it. How could that be worth it? The only way would be if he has located his joy in us. He has linked his heart to us. He has made us his treasure. He has made us his beauty. The great philosophical minds of the world have noticed that.
Jonathan Edwards says, “… Christ has his delight, most truly and properly, in obtaining [our] salvation, not merely as a means [conducive to his joy and delight], but as what he [actually] rejoices and is satisfied in, most directly and properly. […] ‘As the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall thy God rejoice over thee.’ […] ‘The Lord thy God in the midst of thee is mighty; he will save, he will rejoice over thee with joy; he will [quiet thee with] his love, he will rejoice over thee with singing.’ ”
We are his jewels. We are his treasure. There it is. How can this joy grow? It’s very simple. Actually, in some ways this sets up next week’s sermon, so I hope you can come back. Next week’s sermon is about suffering. The fact is, if you just see somebody say, “Be joyful,” you’ll never do it, but if you see Jesus Christ did this and he made you his joy, that will change you.
If you see him locating his joy in you and making you the ultimate beauty of his life, that means you will be able to finally … It’ll melt you, and you’ll be able to put your joy in him. Then you’ll have that joy with that whole new structure. He’ll become the joy. He’ll become all you want. You just want him. You don’t say, “I want him plus law school.” You say, “I want him.” Then you’ll finally be happy. Then you’ll look at him.
When I look at that valley or when I listen to some great music, that’s what my eyes … Your senses are made for a certain sight. Your eyes are made for certain kinds of visual beauty, and your ears are made for certain kinds of auditory beauty, and your nose is made for olfactory beauty, but your soul is made for this. Do you see him doing it? Are you affected by it?
Don’t you see? This is how all the fruit are connected. You say, “Okay, so that’s how I get joy, but how do I get patience?” Rejoice in his patience for you. “Well okay, how do I get peace?” Rejoice in his wisdom. You’re fearfully and wonderfully made. If you know how to rejoice in what he did for you, at the moment you lack peace or lack patience or lack courage or lack humility or lack self-control … What is self-control? You want a kind of beauty. You want a kind of pleasure. Rejoice in him as the ultimate pleasure.
Let me end this way. For those of you who say, “I don’t know much about this joy,” I’ll tell you how it happens. You never have a birth without labor, and you never have a resurrection without death, and you will never get this incredible joy if you come just for happiness. If you come to Jesus for comfort, you’ll never get it. On the far side of repentance is comfort. On the far side of labor is a birth. On the far side of death is a resurrection. Therefore, you need repentance in order to have this incredible joy.
You say, “What do you mean by repentance?” It’s simply this. If you think Christianity is saving yourself, if you think Christianity is living a good life, if you think Christianity is trying your best to live like Jesus Christ, of course there’s no joy in your life. You’re trying to save yourself. You don’t have the joy of the Holy Ghost, and you never will. Your life is humorless. You’re trying real hard. If you’re willing to say, “I am a sinner, and I deserve to be lost, but look what he has done for me,” that will give you joy. Don’t you see that?
I never get a chance to say this. There are people in New York City I run into relatively often. They’re women who say, “I can’t relate to a Savior in Christianity who’s just a man. I can’t relate to a man. He’s a man. He doesn’t understand. I can’t relate to that, a male Savior. How can I get into Christianity?” Don’t you see? This is the only man who ever gave birth. What does that mean? Of course Jesus was male when he was on earth. Historically he was male. But don’t you see what this is saying?
Jesus is trying to say, “I’m not less than a man; I’m more. The problem is not that I don’t understand what it means to be a woman or what it means to give birth. The problem is you don’t understand my labor over you. That’s your whole problem.” To the degree you understand that, to that degree, even in sorrow, it’ll just push you more into the joy. Even in your troubles, it’ll push you more to the One who is the final and true joy. Do you see? Look to him and be radiant. Let’s pray.
Our Father, we pray that now, as we take the Lord’s Supper, your Son Jesus Christ would become real to us. Help us to see the brokenness being the broken body giving birth to us. The cup poured out is his heart and his lifeblood poured out for us. Help us, as we see him locating his joy in us, doing all this just for us, just because of his love for us, his delight in us, give us that delight in him that will give us that impervious joy that will help us to move out into the world and change the world, because the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking; it’s righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. We pray in Jesus’ name, amen.
About the Preacher
Timothy Keller is founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church (PCA) in New York City and the author of numerous books, including Every Good Endeavor, Center Church, Galatians For You, The Meaning of Marriage, The Reason for God, King’s Cross, Counterfeit Gods, The Prodigal God, and Generous Justice.
*Augustus Toplady is perhaps best remembered for his Hymn “Rock of Ages” – and as you will see in reading this sermon – he was theologically deep, and astute at applying the gospel to all of life.
“Who is able to stand before this holy Lord God.” 1 Sam. 5:20.
And before this holy Lord God, every soul must one day stand. “We will all stand before the judgment-seat of Christ,” says the apostle, “that every one may receive according to the things he has done in the body.” In some sense, we may be said to stand before Him now: “for He is not far from everyone of us;” yes, “in Him we live, and move, and have our being.” The consequence of this is, that there is no creature which is not manifest to His sight, but all things are naked and open to the eyes “of Him with whom we have to give an accounting.” With regard therefore to His own Omniscience and Omnipresence, we already stand before this holy Lord God. He is about our bed, and about our paths, and is acquainted with all our ways; nor is there a word in our tongues, or a thought in our hearts, but He knows it altogether. “The eyes of the Lord are in every place, beholding the evil and the good.”
I will not detain the reader with considering on what occasion the men of Bethshemesh spoke the words of the text: but only observe, that the miraculous judgment inflicted on them for looking into the ark, was that which gave rise to the above question, and made them cry out, with trembling and astonishment, “Who is able to stand before this holy Lord God?” But in whatever sense these words were meant by the speakers, they certainly contain a most momentous inquiry; — an inquiry in which every soul of man is deeply concerned.
If the Lord God, before whom each individual will shortly stand, is a holy God, a God of truth, and without sin, and of purer eyes than to behold sin with impunity; we may well ask, “Who is able to stand before Him? — Who can abide the day of His coming, or stand when He appears?” Appear He certainly will; and stand before Him we inevitably must. God only knows who will first be summoned to do this; but, first or last, the citation will be sent to all. Health is a tender, precarious flower; life is a brittle, slender thread; how soon the one may wither, and the other break, He alone can tell who lent us both. This only we know, from Scripture and from daily observation, that all below is of uncertain tenure; that we are no more than tenants at will, removable at the pleasure of God, the great Proprietor of all.
Some are dismissed from life in the dawn of infancy; some in the morning of childhood; others in the noon of youth. The sands of some are continued longer; and a very few are permitted to see the night of what we generally term old age. Not a day, nor an hour; no, not a minute passes, wherein multitudes of all ages are not called away to stand before the holy Lord God. Death, that promiscuous reaper, pays no regard to years or station. The infant of a day, and the man of a century, are alike to him; he mows the shooting blade and the mature stem: the growing and the grown unite to swell his harvest and augment his spoils. But is that which we term Death, the offspring of chance, or the result of accident? Surely, no. Death is a scythe! But if I may so speak, it is a scythe in the hand of God. Affliction, sickness, and dissolution, are messengers of His; which come not but at His command.
As King William used to say, with regard to those that died in battle, that “every bullet has its billet”, or is directed by special Providence; so it may truly be said, that every event has its commission from God, and is the effect of at least His permissive will. And therefore, though with regard to the act of dying itself, “all things come alike to all, and there is, in this respect, one event to the righteous and the wicked, and as the good, so is the sinner; and he that sweareth, as he that feareth an oath;” — though good and bad must die, the grave being the house appointed for all living; yet we must beware of thinking, because the holy and the wicked, the useful and the useless, seem to be taken away promiscuously, and without distinction, that therefore death is the effect of that unmeaning thing called chance; for both holy scripture and sound reason join in supporting the assertion of the celebrated Mr. POPE: —
“All nature is but art unknown to thee;
All chance, direction, which thou canst not see.”
So far is anything from being fortuitous or accidental, with regard to God, (however contingent and unexpected some things may be to us) that not a sparrow falls to the ground, but in consequence of His will; and the very hairs of our head are everyone numbered. Nor does the absolute and necessary dependence of all things on God, the first cause, at all interfere with, much less does it supercede, the liberty of second, or subordinary causes. Difficulties, indeed, may attend the reconciliation of human freedom, with the purposes and prescience of God from eternity, and with the efficacious influence of actual Providence in time: but yet it is plain, from experience, that man is free, that is, that he acts without any inward force or violent compulsion. What he does in a moral way, he does with the concurrence of his will. If unregenerate, his will inclines him to the works of darkness, and these accordingly he commits: if renewed by the Spirit of God, his will, from the new bias which grace has given, naturally and spontaneously inclines him to what is good, and he acts agreeably to this renewed will. So that in every view, man is free in what he does; though totally dependent on God, from moment to moment, he yet is free as to the actings of his will: which, according to its bias, naturally excites him to this or that. If therefore man himself may be, and is, subject to the efficacy and energy of divine influence, without any prejudice to his natural freedom: much more may other creatures be so.
Hence we see how prodigiously wide of the mark their reasoning is, who, under pretence of guarding natural liberty, exclude the Providence of God from having any influence on the creatures He made, and represent the Deity as no more than an idle spectator, and scarce that, of what is done below. As if it was either beneath the dignity of Him to superintend and direct the world, who did not think it beneath Him to make it; or as if, having made it, He would suffer the affairs of it to take their chance, and go on at random, without His taking any care or notice. Into such blasphemies and absurdities do those run, who forsake the Scriptures.
How much more exalted views, worthy of God, and comfortable to man, do the treasures of inspiration give us, respecting the Deity and His ever-acting Providence? There we are told, that He worketh all things according to the counsel of His own will; that whatsoever the Lord pleased, that did He in heaven and in earth, and in the sea, and in all deep places; and that His effectual agency begun in creation, is carried on by Providence. “My Father worketh hitherto, and I work,” said He who is in the form of God.
Hence it follows, that if the Almighty is thus operative, that declaration of the apostle is true, which tells us, that “God hath determined the times before appointed;” and that He even “fixes the bounds of our habitation.” — “To everything,” says another inspired writer, “there is a season; and a time to every purpose under the heaven; a time to be born, and a time to die.” — ”Is there not an appointed time to man upon earth,” says Job; “Are not his days also like the days of a hireling,” which consist of just so many hours and no more. And elsewhere, speaking of man, he says, “His days are determined; the number of his months are with thee; thou hast appointed his bounds that he cannot pass.” Conformably to which, he adds, “All the days of my appointed time will I wait, till my change come.”
It remains then, that God is the sovereign Disposer, as of all things else, so of life and death; and consequently, that the awful period is fixed, wherein we must each stand before this holy Lord God. But are we not sinners? And is not sin that which this holy Lord God hateth? All this is true. God abhors sin; we are sinful, and we must stand before Him. How then shall we be able to do this? What will be the result of standing at such a bar, and before such a judge? To be tried by the holy law of God, which we have broken; to be witnessed against by our conscience, and by angels who invisibly throng our most retired concealments; above all, to be heard by Him who is the searcher of hearts, and whose sentence is decisive either for heaven or hell. If the Holy Spirit should alarm the conscience by this consideration, it will stir up the individual to pray, that he may be found of Him in peace, and be enabled to stand with joy before this Holy God? But what can qualify us thus to stand? Is our own goodness sufficient to cover our guilty souls, and ward off the blow of justice? Alas! It is insufficient; as the prophet says, “Our gold is dim, and our wine is mixed with water.” Our purest obedience is sinful, and how can that which is sinful, save a sinner? Can a smaller sin atone for a greater; nay, do not both stand in need of an atonement from some other quarter? “All our righteousness,” says the church, in Isaiah, “ are as filthy rags.”
Now, should a man attempt to go to court, clothed in filthy rags, and endeavor to gain admission to the royal presence in such raiment as that, would not he be refused entrance, and driven with indignation from the palace gate? — Certainly he would; and can we expect to stand in the hour of death and Day of Judgment, undaunted before the holy Lord God, arrayed in no better robe, and defended with no better armor than that imperfect righteousness of ours, which the Scripture calls filthy rags? We must appear in a better dress, if we mean to appear at God’s right hand; a dress superior even to that which angels wear; a dress which God was manifest in the flesh on purpose to supply us with; and which, through grace, is to all, and upon all them that believe in Him. I need not say, that I mean the merits of Jesus Christ, consisting of His active righteousness and His atoning death; of all He did, and of all He endured, in obedience and submission to the law. This is that righteousness, that garment of salvation, in which St. Paul desired to be found; and in which we too must be interested and arrayed, would we reign in life through Him, and stand, at the latter day, in the congregation of the righteous.
The important doctrine of justification by the transfer of Christ’s merit to us, which doctrine is founded on the perfection of His obedience, as our representative, and the reality of His substitution to death in our stead; I say, this supplies us with a satisfactory answer to the question offered, “Who is able to stand before this holy Lord God?” Who? — The soul unto whom Christ is made wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption: wisdom, to discover its native guilt and inability; righteousness, to cover its moral deformity, and render the whole man legally acceptable in the sight of the infinitely holy God; sanctification, to master and subdue the body of sin, to give the will and affections a divine tendency, to fire the heart with holy love, and adorn the outward conversation with all the beauties of practical godliness; and lastly, to whom Christ is made redemption, by the efficacy of His atonement, blotting out our sins and the handwriting that was against us, giving us to see that both one and the other were nailed to His cross, and that therefore there now remains no condemnation to them that are in Christ, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.
Now, if wisdom must be given to us to see our absolute need of an interest in Christ; if His righteousness must be imputed to us for our justification; if we must be sanctified by His grace; weaned from sin and devoted to God; and if the merits of His redemption likewise must be made over to us, in order to our obtaining the forgiveness of our evil works, and the acceptance of our good ones; I say, if these things are necessary for our salvation, and without them, we shall never be able so to stand before the holy Lord God, as to enjoy His favor, and be admitted to His kingdom; then, it behooves us to lay our hand upon our heart, and solemnly to ask ourselves, whether we have a hope that Christ is thus made of God wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption to us. — Soon we shall be called to stand, where self-examination will do us no service; when we appear before God, He will be the examiner alone. Judge therefore yourself, my Christian brother, now, that ye be not then judged of the Lord. Remember, that the night of death is coming on, and the shadows of the evening are stretching out; and as sure as natural night is succeeded by day, so sure will death be followed by the immediate scrutiny of that holy Lord God, who will bring all things to light; and upon your leaving the body will soon put it beyond all doubt, whether you belong to Christ or not.
Death, as I observed, respects not persons, neither taketh reward. Old and young, rich and poor, the serious and gay, the learned and the illiterate, the holy and the profane, one with another, must appear before the judge of quick and dead. When the call is issued forth, when the warrant is made out, it will neither admit of denial or delay. “O that men were wise, that they understood this, and would consider their latter end! “ Look not on what I say as words of course, but know, that if they are unheeded now, a dying bed will convince you of their importance.
Ask yourself, what am I building on, so as to be able to stand before this holy Lord God? If you are ignorant of this, I pray the blessed Spirit to convince you, that there is no “other foundation for any man to lay, but that laid, which is Christ Jesus.” May He give you faith and repentance, so as you may be led to have a total reliance on the righteousness, blood, and intercession of Christ for the pardon of sins, which will give a conformity to His image, and to the mind which was in Christ Jesus. These are the fruits of real grace, the evidences of an interest in Him, and the marks by which His sheep are distinguished from those who belong not to His fold. And for an encouragement to wait upon Him in prayer for the communication of these graces, let us bear this in mind, that the holy Lord God before whom you and I are to stand in judgment, is, at the same time that He sustains this exalted title, that person of the Trinity who assumed our nature, and in it wrought out the salvation of His church and people. The Father hath committed all judgment to the Son. May He be your Advocate as well as Judge!
There is yet another sense wherein men will stand before this holy Lord God; and a blessed standing it will be, a standing peculiar to the just. They shall stand —Where? In the New Jerusalem, the heaven of heavens, before the throne and before the Lamb. They shall stand — How? Clothed in white robes, the robes of justifying merit and sanctifying grace. They shall stand — With whom? With angels and archangels, and all the powers of heaven. They shall stand — Doing what? Singing the song forever new, the praises of the great Three-one, Father, Son, and Spirit. They shall stand — How long? As long as eternity itself; wrapped in the vision of God forever and ever.
Do you ask, Who is worthy to stand thus before this “Holy Lord God?” — Who, indeed, abstracted from the merits of Christ? Without that, we should not only be unworthy, but absolutely incapable of this exceeding great reward. All have sinned and come short of the glory of God. “Understand, therefore,” said Moses to the Israelites, “that the Lord thy God giveth thee not this good land to possess it, for thy righteousness.” And if even the earthly Canaan was not the reward of human merit, much less the heavenly. And yet Christ says of the saints at Sardis, and by consequence of all saints whatever, (for a saint is a saint, let him live in what age or country he will) “These shall walk with me in white,” that is, they shall be my companions in glory, “for they are worthy.” — How! void of merit, and yet worthy? And worthy too of walking with Christ in white? Yes, unworthy, totally so, in themselves; but worthy, completely so, of an eternity of bliss, through the blood of sprinkling and the imputation of Christ’s obedience, styled in Scripture, the righteousness of God, and elsewhere, the righteousness of the saints.
The righteousness of God, because wrought out by Christ, who, from the time of His incarnation, was God and man in one Person; and the righteousness of the saints, because freely imputed to them, and graciously made theirs, to all the purposes of justification and happiness. “Therefore are they before the throne, and serve God day and night;” that is, without end or intermission, “in His temple,” the region of glory. Hence it is, that they shall be able to stand before the holy Lord God; shall stand with joy in His presence, after death; stand at His right hand in the day of universal judgment; and stand before Him in His kingdom to all eternity. Just men made perfect in glory, are elsewhere in Scripture represented as sitting with Christ. Both phrases are evidently metaphorical. Their standing, therefore, may denote their bliss and alacrity; for standing is a posture of gladness and cheerfulness; and when they are described as sitting in heavenly places, the expression may signify the unspeakable freedom and intimacy with the Trinity, to which they will then be admitted.
There are some, it is to be feared, who think little about standing before the holy Lord God. Death and judgment, with what will follow, are seldom or never the subjects of their meditation. Indeed, dissipation and banishment of thought, seems to be one of our national vices at present, and is in great measure, the root of all the rest. Hence, concern for salvation is too generally ridiculed as superstition; and seriousness exploded as fanaticism. This is a melancholy but faithful representation of the state of religion, in this our day, nor will matters ever wear a brighter aspect, while gaiety and amusement, in ten thousand different shapes, and succeeding in endless rotation, are permitted to engross our time, and occupy the place of thought.
“A serious mind,” says Dr. Young, “is the native soil of every virtue.” And, if I mistake not, the same writer, elsewhere, makes this just observation: — that excessive attachment to fashionable pleasures begets levity; levity begets loose morals; loose morals beget infidelity; and infidelity begets death. And I verily believe, for my own part, that if we trace Deism and Libertinism to their fountainhead, we shall find, in most cases, the inordinate pursuit of pleasure to have been the source of both. Recreations are needful at times; but take care of these two things, that your recreations be innocent in themselves, and that you be moderate in your use of them.
If the time is hastening wherein all must, without any exception, stand before the holy Lord God, let the unbeliever tremble. “What!” says a Deist, with a smile, “tremble at that which I do not believe!” Yes, I repeat it again, tremble, lest conscience should be in the right, and what you now profess to disbelieve, should prove true at last. Many a deistical hero has been dismally frightened when death stared him in the face; and some of them much sooner; for I could mention instances of Deists, who, unable to bear the intolerable hauntings of conscience, and their pride disdaining to fly to religion for relief, have, in the madness of despair put an end to their own lives; have plunged into eternity as a horse rushes into the battle, and gone, with all their sins about them to stand before the holy Lord God. “A proof this,” say you, “that they really disbelieved a future state.” O! no; a proof rather, that a conscience gashed with sin, and uncured by the remedy of the gospel, flashes horror on the soul too great for it to hear; and therefore the miserable creature, wishing that there may be no hereafter, chooses rather, in the fury of his pain, to try the dreadful experiment, and run the risk of accumulated misery in the next world, to get rid of his tortures in this.
But I willingly dismiss this dismal part of the subject, on a supposition that the reader of these lines is no professed infidel. I will suppose that you admit the Scriptures to be, as indeed they are, the Word of God; and that you believe every article of the Christian faith. Nay, I will go farther, and put the case, that the historical belief, and assent of your understanding, has some influence on your eternal conversation. I would take for granted, that you are neither profane nor immoral, but stand in awe of that great and terrible name, the Lord thy God; that the temple of your body, is in purity and sanctification, not walking in any lust of uncleanness, like them that know not God; and to add no more, that you are morally honest in your dealings with all men, and are punctual to the worship of God, in your closets, in your families, and in the temple. All this is excellent; all this is needful; but remember, this is not your justifying righteousness. We are not pardoned and entitled to heaven on account of our holiness and good works; but are made holy, and abound in good works, in CONSEQUENCE OF OUR ACCEPTANCE in the Beloved, of our pardon and justification through the propitiation and perfect obedience of Jesus Christ the righteous; do you know any thing of this? In all matters, but especially in spiritual affairs, experience is the life of knowledge.
Did the Spirit of God ever convince you of sin? Do you see yourself liable to the curse of the law, and the just vengeance of God, for the innate depravity of your nature, and the transgressions of your life? Do you come to Christ humbled and self-condemned; sensible that unless you are clothed with the merits of Him our Elder Brother, you are ruined and undone, and can never stand with joy or safety before the holy Lord God? If so, lift up thy head; redemption is thine; thou art in a state of grace; thou art translated from death to life; thou art an heir of God, and a joint-heir with Christ. But, if you never felt, nor desire to feel, this work of the Holy Ghost upon thy heart, this conviction of sin, this penitential faith, all the supposed righteousness of thine own, wherein thou trusted, is but a broken reed; a painted sepulcher; and the trappings of a Pharisee.
Let believers rejoice. The holy Lord God, to whom they must give account, is their Father, their Savior, and their Friend. What is death to such, but the accomplishment of their warfare, and the commencement of an endless triumph? I admire an illustration of the death of the righteous, which I lately met with in a discourse on that subject, by an eminent writer:
“As a man,” says he, “that takes a walk in his garden, and spying a beautiful full-blown flower, he crops it, and puts it into his bosom, so the Lord takes His walks in His gardens, the churches, and gathers His lilies, souls fully ripe for glory, and with delight takes them to Himself.”
If it is in the merits of Christ alone that we can stand with safety before God, let us renounce self-dependence in every view, and rely for justification and everlasting life on Him, making mention of Him and of His righteousness only, in whom all the seed of Israel are justified, and shall glory.
Lastly; Is the Lord God we must appear before infinitely holy? Then let us aim at holiness likewise. There is no true Christianity; that is, there is no dignity nor happiness, without it. He is not a Father, in a spiritual, saving sense, to any on whose souls the Holy Spirit has not impressed His image, and on whose hearts He has not inscribed His law.
*Augustus Montague Toplady (1740-1778), was educated at Westminster School and Trinity College, Dublin, he was converted through a Methodist lay preacher, took Anglican orders in 1762, and later became vicar of Broadhembury, Devon. In 1775 he assumed the pastorate of the French Calvinist chapel in London. He was a powerful preacher and a vigorous Calvinist, bitterly opposed to John Wesley. He wrote the Historic Proof of the Doctrinal Calvinism of the Church of England (2 vols., 1774) and The Church of England Vindicated from the Charge of Arminianism (1769). His fame rests, however, on his hymns, e.g., “A Debtor to Mercy Alone”; “A Sovereign Protector I Have”; “From Wence this Fear and Unbelief?”; and especially “Rock of Ages”.