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Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace. (Hebrews 4:16)
Because Jesus sits at the right hand of his Father in heaven, repentant sinners can approach the throne of God with boldness, no matter how filthy we feel. We can come when we have nothing to show for ourselves. We can come when we have just awakened from the stupidity of sin. We can come when so much inside of us feels cold and dead. And we can do so because we do not come on our own merits, but rather on the merits of Jesus, heaven’s Great High Priest.
It was not always so. For centuries, God’s people could only wait outside the temple where God’s presence lay veiled, wondering how he would one day make a way.
If you were an Israelite living under the old covenant, and you did not belong to the tribe of Levi, ninety feet is as close as you would ever get to the presence of God in the Holy of Holies.
God had fulfilled his promise to dwell among his people (Leviticus 26:11–12), but his holiness demanded separation. He was near, yet guarded; present, yet veiled; inviting, yet intimidating. The mere presence of the temple revealed God’s desire to be near his people. But everything about the temple said, “You dare not approach me on your own.”
The cherubim that once flashed a flaming sword at the entrance to Eden now blocked the way to the Holy of Holies (Genesis 3:24; 1 Kings 6:31–32). Any who broke through the barrier would fall before the consuming fire of Sinai (Leviticus 16:2). Safer for a man to walk on the sun than a sinner to stand unshielded before God.
Every day, the temple preached a silent sermon to any who had ears to hear: You need a mediator to make atonement. You need an advocate to intercede. You need a priest to make a way.
Ever since the wilderness of Sinai, Levi had served as Israel’s priestly tribe. Only the Levites showed zeal for God’s holiness as the rest of their brothers bowed down to a golden calf (Exodus 32:25–29). From then on, they would stand in the gap between God and the people (Numbers 3:5–10).
The days soon came, however, when Levi’s sons lost the zeal of their fathers. They stole food from the people, and preyed upon female assistants (1 Samuel 2:12–17, 22). They defiled the holy with the common, and the clean with the unclean (Ezekiel 22:26). They taught God’s word for a price, and cared nothing for his presence (Micah 3:11; Jeremiah 2:8).
But even apart from the Levites’ corruption, a perceptive Israelite could see that the problem of the priesthood went deeper, down to the very stones of the temple. The sons of Levi, even at their best, were still sons of Adam. The mediators needed a sacrifice for themselves. The intercessors eventually died. And the blood of the animals spilled on the altar could never take away sins.
The priest we need could not come from Levi — nor even from Adam. Our priest must be a branch from a different tree altogether. He must come from another line, just as that enigmatic figure in Genesis named Melchizedek.
In Psalm 110, King David listens as the Lord God speaks to David’s other “Lord”:
The Lord has sworn
and will not change his mind,
“You are a priest forever
after the order of Melchizedek.” (Psalm 110:4)
Our perfect priest — the second “Lord” in David’s psalm — finds his pattern not in Levi, but in Melchizedek, who drops into the story line of redemption as if from heaven (Genesis 14:18–20). It would take another Israelite, looking back centuries later, to spell out the implications of David’s prophecy.
The final priest, like Melchizedek, must be “king of righteousness” and “king of peace” (Hebrews 7:1–2). Just as Melchizedek, from the reader’s standpoint, is “without father or mother or genealogy,” so must our priest be (Hebrews 7:3). And, most surprising of all, he must continue as a priest forever, “having neither beginning of days nor end of life” (Hebrews 7:3). A perfect, eternal priest-king, at once David’s son and David’s Lord: he is the one we waited for.
The day would come when the sons of Levi could step aside to welcome this Priest of priests. Through his high-priestly work, the smoke of every altar would finally cease, the cherubim would finally sheathe their sword, and the doors to the Holy of Holies would finally open.
Some ten centuries after David penned his psalm, when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son. He came as a prophet to speak the words of God. He came as a king to establish the reign of God. And he came as a priest to open the way to God.
On Good Friday, the priest entered his sanctuary. Golgotha was his temple mount, the cross his altar, his own body the acceptable sacrifice. In a moment, all the murders, adulteries, blasphemies, slanders, selfishness, spite, and hatred of the world pressed upon his shoulders. The knife came down; the flames rose up. The Son fell slain into the consuming fire.
If Jesus were just another son of Levi, he would have lain forever in the ashes, another priest returned to the dust. But Jesus was not a son of Levi, but the Son of God: without beginning of days, without end of life. Having finished his work, he rose in “the power of an indestructible life” (Hebrews 7:16) and soon ascended to heaven and sat down at the right hand of his Father.
Jesus is the priest the Levites never could be. He is “holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners” (Hebrews 7:26), and yet he sympathizes with his tempted brothers below (Hebrews 2:11–12; 4:15). He sits upon the highest place (Hebrews 10:12), and yet he lives to plead the sinner’s cause (Hebrews 7:25). Of all the men and women who ever walked upon the earth, he alone needed no sacrifice, and yet, in unthinkable love, “he offered up himself” (Hebrews 7:26–27).
If you are in Christ, let no sin, guilt, or shame keep you waiting in the temple courts, ninety feet from the presence of your God. Hear your God whisper from within, “Draw near” (Hebrews 10:22). Walk past the bronze altar and the washbasins, the bread of the Presence and the lampstand, and open the door to the Holy of Holies. The throne of majesty has become a throne of mercy, where Christ our high priest sits in victory (Hebrews 4:14–16). And wherever he is, we are welcome.
Only he whose hands bear the scars of nails, hands strong enough to bear our wrath, can hold the scepter over the redeemed people of God.
Is “gender” a social construct? Should male or female be a matter of personal choice? Are there more than two “genders”?
Ten years ago, these questions were unheard of apart from English and Women’s Studies departments at secular universities. But as peculiar and even sacrilegious as it may sound, many people today would say yes to all three. Maybe your kindergartener has a playmate being raised “gender neutral.” Or your coffee shop is starting to use name tags with “preferred pronouns.” Or a bit closer to home, you might have a family member who is “transitioning.”
Although the modern West has lost its boundaries and celebrates a plethora of so-called gender options, how should Christians understand and critique today’s concepts of gender in light of Scripture? We begin with understanding, and not conflating, four categories: sex, gender, norms, and callings.
The term sex has a couple of definitions. It can refer to the act of sexual intercourse or the categories of male and female. For this discussion, we’re focusing on the second definition.
Sex as male or female is an objective, binary classification. In this sense, sex refers to divisions based on reproductive functions. Many today, however, claim that sex is not objective but arbitrary. For example, some assert that sex is “assigned” at birth. This is simply untrue. The sex of a newborn is observed physically by the baby’s sex organs and confirmed genetically through a DNA test.
But what about people who are “intersex”? Does this exceptionally rare condition (by all counts, one in thousands, not hundreds) prove sex is nonbinary and on a spectrum? No. Intersexuality is a biological phenomenon where an individual may have genital ambiguity or genetic variance. In human biology, however, anomalies do not nullify categories.
The modern notion of “gender,” on the other hand, is a quite recent invention and is more difficult to examine. Unlike sex, gender is a category that exists objectively only in the realm of linguistics. It doesn’t point to anything tangible. Instead, “gender” now is being used to refer to a psychological reality independent from biological sex. It’s the subjective self-perception of being male or female.
At present, this psychological concept of “gender” is essentially being enforced linguistically, with demands to use preferred pronouns and newly chosen names to match self-perception rather than objective truth. But this is how minds are changed — by first changing language.
Given that sex is objective and gender is subjective, you would think we would value conforming one’s subjective ideas to objective truth. Instead, the opposite is true: our culture now values altering the objective, physical reality of our bodies to accommodate the subjective impression of ourselves.
Most people’s self-perception is congruent with their biological sex. For a small percentage of others, it’s not. The mental distress from this dissonance is called gender dysphoria — a psychological consequence of the fall. Some choose to identify as transgender male-to-female or female-to-male, in essence elevating psychology over biology.
However, this new form of dualism separates mind from body and elevates self-understanding as the determiner of personhood — hence the neologism gender identity. The truth of the matter is that sense of self at best describes how we feel, not who we are.
But some assert that male and female are actually determined by culture. This categorical fallacy is a conflation of male and female with the separate classification of masculinity and femininity. Masculinity and femininity are behavioral characteristics associated with being male or female. Admittedly, these social norms can sometimes be shaped by our culture and expectations.
For example, in some parts of the United States, being masculine frequently means being rough, tough, unemotional, and inartistic. For some, the quintessential all-American man might be a rugged, loud, and bombastic football player or construction worker. Yet in many other places, these two examples would not be considered masculine, but barbaric!
Who says a man can’t be artistic? Jubal was “the father of all those who play the lyre and pipe” (Genesis 4:21). Moses led Israel in a song of victory over Egypt (Exodus 15:1–18). David was skilled at the harp, and wrote numerous psalms (2 Samuel 23:1). He also assigned men to be musicians in the temple (1 Chronicles 25:1–31).
Who says men cannot be emotional? Many of the prophets, such as Ezra, Nehemiah, and Jeremiah, were not afraid to express their emotions through public tears (Ezra 10:1; Nehemiah 1:4; Lamentations 1:16). Even Jesus himself wept publicly (John 11:35). Strong emotions are not reserved for women only.
King David was known for having a heart after God. He’s famous for his brave exploits — first as a shepherd boy when he fought lions and bears to protect his sheep, then as a youth who defied the giant Goliath, and later as a warrior-king. But David was known for also being sensitive and intuitive, exhibiting traits that macho culture would view as inappropriate for a “real man’s man.” Had David grown up today as a young boy playing the harp, some kids may have teased him for being a sissy.
Does this mean there are no distinctions between male and female? Instead of looking for cues primarily from society, we must look to Scripture. Cultural norms for male and female may be shaped by society, but God’s word communicates that men and women, while being equal in value, are also distinct in their callings. We identify this distinction of calling as biblical manhood and womanhood, a category the secular world doesn’t acknowledge.
In the creation account, God creates the woman to be the man’s “helper fit for him” (Genesis 2:18). The word helper (Hebrew ‘ezer) does not denote a person of lesser worth or value. In fact, ‘ezer occurs 21 times in the Old Testament, and 16 of these refer to God as Israel’s help.
“Fit for him” (kenegdo) communicates complementarity — both similarity and dissimilarity. Adam and Eve are both alike as human beings and also not alike as male and female. God intends for the woman to complement and not duplicate the man. This difference of calling is God’s design from the beginning.
The apostle Paul exhorts husbands to love their wives “as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25) and wives to submit to their husbands “as the church submits to Christ” (Ephesians 5:24). These distinct callings are vital in marriage, the church, and other realms as well.
In the first chapter of the Bible, God creates the heavens and the earth, and fills the earth with living creatures. The crown of creation is adam, or man (humankind). And among all the various human characteristics, God highlights one in particular: male and female.
Genesis 1:27 conveys an undeniable connection between “the image of God” and the ontological categories of male and female. This verse consists of three lines of poetry, with the second and third lines structured in parallel, communicating a correlation between God’s image and “male and female.”
So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
Being created in the image of God and being male or female are essential to being human. Sex (male and female) is not simply biological or genetic, just as being human is not simply biological or genetic. Sex is first and foremost a spiritual and ontological reality created by God. Being male or female cannot be changed by human hands; sex is a category of God’s handiwork — his original and everlasting design.
As hard as anyone may try to alter this fact in his or her own body, the most that can be done is to artificially remove or augment body parts, or use pharmaceuticals to unnaturally suppress the biological and hormonal reality of one’s essence as male or female. In other words, psychology usurps biology; what I feel becomes who I am. When denying this physical and genetic reality, we allow experience to supersede essence, and more importantly, the image of God.
As Christians living today in baffling times, we must recognize that the world confuses and conflates these four categories. The world will suggest that masculinity is a social construct (which it may be in part but not the whole) and then assert that male and female is also a social construct — which it emphatically is not.
The ultimate question is: Where should Christians place their emphasis when engaging in discussions on this topic? Transgenderism is not exclusively a battle for what is male and female, but rather a battle for what is true and real. Christians cannot simply nod and smile politely in the face of damaging lies.
Postmodernism, coming out of romanticism and existentialism, tells us that “you are what you feel.” Thus, experience reigns supreme, and everything else must bow before it. Sola experientia (“experience alone”) has won out over sola Scriptura (“Scripture alone”).
But God is saying, You are who I created you to be. The truth is not something we feel; it is not based on our self-perception. In fact, Scripture tells us that the fallen heart “is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). We can’t trust our own thoughts and feelings, so we need to submit them to God because we can “trust in the Lord forever, for the Lord God is an everlasting rock” (Isaiah 26:4).
I refuse to place my psychology over my biology, and as a Christian, I refuse to put either above Scripture. I am who God — who makes no mistakes — made me to be. So who am I? Who did God make me to be?
I am created in the image of God, and I am a redeemed Christian man. Nothing more. Nothing less.
Did the biblical writers expect Jesus to return at any moment, or were they waiting for certain events to take place before the end would come?
“No one ever spoke like this man.” There is a brief, tense conversation recorded in John’s Gospel that encapsulates, in certain ways, the last two thousand years of Jesus’s confounding impact on world history.
Given Jesus’s troubling and growing influence on the Jewish public, the chief priests and Pharisees decided to send officers to arrest Jesus (John 7:32). The officers, however, returned empty-handed. When the furious Pharisees asked why, the officers responded, “No one ever spoke like this man” (John 7:46). This dumbfounded them. Even the officers were infatuated with Jesus! You can hear the religious leaders’ exasperation:
Have you also been deceived? Have any of the authorities or the Pharisees believed in him? But this crowd that does not know the law is accursed. (John 7:47–49)
This pattern has recurred over and over, throughout history, with what Jesus of Nazareth said and did.
Leaders and scholars have repeatedly and relentlessly tried to bring charges against Jesus, to expose him as a heretic, or a lunatic, or a fraud, or a misunderstood political revolutionary, or an opiate of the masses, or a vassal of imperialism, or as his disconsolate disciples’ legendary wish-projection upon the cosmos. But despite all their best efforts, Jesus repeatedly resists arrest, confounding crowd after crowd, and generation after generation: No one ever spoke like this man.
What is it about Jesus that makes him speak like no other? Of course, there isn’t a single answer to this question. Countless volumes have been written, and Jesus’s uniqueness still hasn’t been exhausted. But in John 7, Jesus himself clues us in on one crucial truth that governed all he said (and didn’t say):
The one who speaks on his own authority seeks his own glory; but the one who seeks the glory of him who sent him is true, and in him there is no falsehood. (John 7:18)
Key to understanding the unique power of Jesus’s words is understanding why he spoke them.
In a previous discussion with Jewish leaders, Jesus told them, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life” (John 5:39–40). In other words, one can look long in the right place and still miss the most important truths.
It is possible to spend a lifetime theorizing and debating why Jesus said what he did and miss what he actually said about what made his words unique and unforgettable. Here’s a sampling:
All of these statements (and more) reveal what motivated everything Jesus said and did. His one great goal in life, his one all-consuming passion, was to glorify his Father by speaking only what the Father told him to speak and doing only what the Father directed him to do. We hear this clearly in his priestly prayer just hours before his trial and crucifixion:
I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do. And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed. (John 17:4–5)
Jesus was more concerned for the glory of God his Father than anything else. Jesus did not fear people — he “did not entrust himself to them” (John 2:24) and he did “not receive glory from [them]” (John 5:41). He loved and feared his Father. And this overriding pursuit of God’s glory freed him to say only what needed to be said when it needed to be said — and it made what he said so powerful and frequently unpredictable.
One way to see the radical freedom with which Jesus spoke is to put yourself in Jesus’s place in certain instances in the Gospel narratives and imagine what you honestly would have said, given all that was at stake. The courage and faith of Jesus to say certain things (and not say others) is remarkable.
If you had been Jesus that night Nicodemus, a sympathetic Pharisee who could be a powerful and needed ally, visited him with questions, would you have responded with confusing answers like, “Unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3)?
If you had been Jesus that day near Sychar, sitting by Jacob’s well, when (1) an unescorted woman, (2) who was a Samaritan, and (3) a discredited moral outcast even among her own outcast people, showed up, would you have trusted her to be among first people to whom you explicitly disclosed your Messiahship (John 4:26)?
If you had been Jesus that day a paralyzed man was brought to him, knowing full well how blasphemous it would sound to the religious leaders present, would you have had the courage to say, “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven” (Matthew 9:2)?
If you had been Jesus on that Sabbath day when the Pharisees rebuked him for allowing his disciples to pick and eat grain, would you have responded, “I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. . . . For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:6, 8)?
If you had been Jesus in tense discussions with religious leaders, would you have uttered such incendiary truths like, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58), or “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30)?
Would you have told Simon the Pharisee that the immoral woman inappropriately touching your feet had a greater love for God than he did (Luke 7:36–49)? Would you have told the spiritually sincere rich young man that he needed to give all his riches away to the poor to be saved (Mark 10:17–22)? Would you have called your most devoted disciple “Satan” (Mark 8:33)? Would you have sealed your own brutal death by making it impossible for Pilate, who was trying to prevent your crucifixion, to prevent it (John 18:28–40)?
No one ever spoke like this man. Jesus was stunningly and unexpectedly tender toward people condemned under the law, like a woman caught in adultery (John 8:1–11). And he was stunningly and unexpectedly tough on those who appeared to keep the law most rigorously, like calling Jewish leaders children of the devil (John 8:44). He delivered Gentile girls from demons (Matthew 15:21–28), kindly blessed “bothersome” children (Luke 18:15–17), and called scribes and Pharisees hell-bound “serpents” (Matthew 23:33).
Why did Jesus say these things? Because he was pursuing his Father’s glory by faithfully saying only what his Father’s honor led him to say. His goal was to reveal the Father to those given eyes to see (Luke 10:22). Seeking his Father’s glory, and not his own, freed him to say what needed to be said (John 8:28) and constrained him from saying what didn’t need to be said — at least not yet (John 16:12). And with regard to his own glory, he trusted his Father to glorify him (John 17:5). Jesus humbled himself under his Father’s mighty hand and trusted his Father to glorify him at the proper time (1 Peter 5:6).
Jesus spoke like no one else because he pursued his Father’s glory like no one else.
How do you define Christlikeness? Do you know how Jesus defined it? Listen to how he prayed for his disciples, and for us:
Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth. I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. (John 17:17–21)
To be like Jesus is to be sanctified — set apart for God’s holy use — in the truth of God’s word (John 17:17), which becomes our word (John 17:20). The most Christlike people have “the word of Christ” dwelling in them richly (Colossians 3:16), and they speak what should be said, and refrain from speaking what should not be said (Ephesians 4:29). The most Christlike people seek God’s glory more than anything else, and this pursuit is what governs what they say.
The glory we seek has a great deal to do with what we choose to say or not say. When our primary pursuit is our own glory, we will hardly ever say anything that might endanger it. What others think of us will dictate our words (John 5:44). We will speak like everyone else speaks for the reasons everyone else speaks. What frees our tongues for God is what freed Jesus’s tongue for God. He sought the Father’s glory and trusted the Father to glorify him. If our tongue is tied, it very well could be that we value our glory above God’s.
One of the great freedoms for which “Christ has set us free” (Galatians 5:1) is the freedom from the tyranny of pursuing our own glory. True freedom is pursuing God’s glory and trusting the Father, like Jesus did, to glorify us in the most satisfying ways at the proper time.
Parents are as anxious, active, and vigilant as ever, but is that good? With all the time, and energy, and tears, are we really accomplishing what God has asked us to do?
Many parents take our responsibility very seriously because we love our children and want them to grow up to have happy, successful lives. While we want this for our children, though, what does it really mean to live a happy and successful life? What is the goal of our parenting?
The obvious answer might be that parents want their children to have loving, meaningful relationships, a good education in order to land a good job, money and resources to meet their needs, and the ability to do the things they enjoy doing. These are noble desires for all parents. As Christian parents, however, we must remember that God created us and our children for much more than anything they might have or experience here.
If our only horizon is the seven or eight decades our son or daughter might have on earth, and if we believe that happiness comes when we make enough to live comfortably and are able to do the things we want to do, it would make sense to focus on managing time and circumstances to make that happen.
Because our horizon stretches far beyond this life, however, and because we believe no comfort, possession, or achievement can ultimately make us happy, Christians set the bar much higher. As C.S. Lewis put it so well in The Weight of Glory,
It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.
Earthly success and pleasure are not necessarily bad, but when these are the goal, they are mere mud pies compared to the riches we have in Christ. The world may settle for less, but we believers know we were created for more. Much more.
Our children need most to know we were created by God not simply to live nice mud-pie lives for seven or eight decades on earth, but to be in a loving relationship with our Creator throughout eternity, joyfully living here and forever to bring glory to him. When it comes to parenting, this changes everything.
How do we know this is what we were created for? The simple answer is that God tells us over and over in his word.
Why does God himself do everything he does? We don’t have to wonder. In Christ, he has already made known “the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Ephesians 1:9–10). Everything and everyone is heading toward that day when God unites all he has made and done in Christ — “to the praise of his glory” (Ephesians 1:14).
If you’re not in Christ, this is devastating news, but for those of us who know the joy of receiving forgiveness for our sins, of having a completely new life in Christ, and of grounding our identity in the saving grace of Jesus, this is wonderful news. We are united, now and forever, with God as his beloved children and made coheirs with Jesus himself of the new creation (Romans 8:17), as long as we joyfully and faithfully dedicate our lives to living for his glory (1 Corinthians 10:31), come what may.
Paul prays what we ought to be striving and praying for most — for ourselves and for our children,
that Christ may dwell in [our] hearts through faith — that [we], being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that [we] may be filled with all the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3:17–19)
“Filled with all the fullness of God!” We can hardly imagine what this means. This is the glory C.S. Lewis was pointing to, and what we want to experience with our children forever.
We need to teach our children the joy of learning to obey what Jesus affirmed is God’s most important command:
Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. . . . And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. (Matthew 22:37, 39)
Unless we make it our highest priority to live in a love relationship with God, we will quickly be distracted by the world and live our lives in mud puddles, separated from him and prone to fear and anxiety about our (and our children’s) purpose and future.
The truth about God’s astounding love for us, and his command for us to make loving him and glorifying him our most important priority, is what God wants us to teach diligently to children (Deuteronomy 6:7). When we, and our children, establish our lives on the foundation of loving God most, he is faithful to work the hardest things and the greatest joys for our good (Romans 8:28). Is there anything greater that we might want for our children?
Now, some will immediately ask, “Can’t we teach this and work really hard to help our children have happy, enriched lives on earth?” And the answer is, of course, yes. But how we parent depends on what we really believe, in our heart of hearts, is the goal.
If knowing and loving God is just another important idea among many that our children will learn, a fact that we believe has little relevance to whether they’re prepared to get a good job or afford a house and a family, then we will send the message that what our children learn in family devotions or Sunday school or when reading the Bible is just more information along with math and science and literature.
But if we truly believe that we were created not simply for this world but to be in eternal relationship with God, that this God is sovereign over every single thing that happens every single day (in other words, he is in control, not we), and that, ultimately, our happiness hinges on getting this relationship right, our strategies change, big time. All of the sudden, all of the other things the world tells us we have to teach our children become secondary. Of first importance, we have to see ourselves as appointed by God to teach our children about the wonders of him and his loving plan for them.
If we are going to do this well, we need to be sure we know what this loving, sovereign God thinks is important, and display and teach these truths really well. This begins from birth and means we need to be in God’s word every day with our family and also be part of a good Bible-teaching church. Children need to see our joy in this!
Then, we look at the world around us as God’s world. He is responsible for and holding together everything in it (Colossians 1:17). Helping our children delight in wonder as we see him in the things and organization of the world, and showing them how the largest and smallest things, and the whole sweep of history and science and the arts all flow from him, will open the eyes of our children to delight in the glory of it all in light of the truth we learn from God.
This is a dramatically different assignment than non-believing parents can or will understand. The beauty of Christian parenting is that, as we teach our children the things of God, we grow spiritually ourselves, and fear and anxiety about our children’s future begins to dissolve. Increasingly, we are sustained and inspired by the promises that this powerful God will be with us, encourage us, help us, and is the one ultimately responsible for the result.
The goal of our parenting isn’t simply to help our children find fulfillment in this world. We need to help them find fulfillment for all eternity.
Our heavenly Father will direct our paths and the paths of our children in this world and throughout eternity as we love and trust him. Christian parents, remember the goal: Teach your children that true happiness and success follow from doing what they were created to do: to love the Lord most and best, to see him as the loving author of everything, and to join in a loving relationship with him as they embrace the glorious good news of Jesus Christ.
When they begin to understand and welcome this reality into their hearts, they will not only be filled with confidence and joy; they will see their lives as the means they’ve been given to love and serve God and others, especially by sharing this good news. A different goal than the world understands, to be sure, but a far more glorious one.
ABSTRACT: We live in an age of outrage, an age when anger inflames our public discourse, disrupts our families, and distorts the church’s witness to the world. If the vice of anger is among the severest spiritual afflictions of our age, then the virtue of gentleness is among the most needful spiritual medicines. Far from weakness or mere “niceness,” gentleness is self-mastery flowing from humility and the fear of the Lord. Christians cultivate gentleness in union with Christ, the fountain of all gentleness, who gently invites us to draw freely upon his inexhaustible fullness.
Until recently, the inability to control one’s anger, because it was somewhat rare and exotic, was something we could laugh about. Late-night talk show hosts lampooned road rage. Anger Management was the title of a 2003 comedy film starring Adam Sandler and Jack Nicholson.
Today, lack of impulse control is no rarity and no laughing matter. We live in a world aflame with anger. A recent New York Times documentary tells the story of the online “Outrage Machine” that, with a little misinformation and a viral hashtag, can rally a social-media mob and destroy a person’s life. On college campuses, many have lost the ability to interact reasonably with opposing viewpoints. Students complain of being triggered by “microagressions” and demand the summary dismissal of anyone who would offend them, calling for “safe spaces” where fragile perspectives can rest unchallenged by opposing arguments.1
When it comes to public discourse, we have become a culture that sees red. Our constant state of unhinged political outrage makes us unable to process reality, unable to determine wise courses of action, and unable to carry them through with calmness, deliberation, and justice. In our churches and homes, we also witness the consequences of untamed anger. How many ecclesiastical debates go unresolved because there are no adults in the room to discuss issues with cool heads? How many marriages have been destroyed by wrath, quarreling, and resentment? How many parents have traumatized their children because they cannot control their tongues, “setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell” (James 3:6)?
We have anger issues.2
When the vice of anger is the spiritual diagnosis, Holy Scripture prescribes the virtue of gentleness or meekness as the spiritual medicine. Gentleness is the spiritual virtue that tempers or moderates the desire for vengeance we experience when we suffer or witness injustice. According to Protestant moral theologian Niels Hemmingsen, gentleness is “the virtue by which minds that have been rashly stirred up toward hatred of someone are restrained by kindness.”3
Such gentleness is widely commended in Holy Scripture. Psalm 37 counsels us to “fret not” ourselves “because of evildoers” (Psalm 37:1) and declares that “the meek shall inherit the land” (Psalm 37:11). Psalm 45 celebrates a handsome king who rides out victoriously in battle “for the cause of truth and meekness and righteousness” (Psalm 45:4). Zephaniah 3:12 promises that, in the latter days, the Lord will remove the proud and haughty from his holy mountain and leave “a people humble and lowly” who will take “refuge in the name of the Lord.” In similar fashion, Zechariah 9:9 prophesies the day when a king will come into Jerusalem “humble and mounted on a donkey.”
Matthew 5:5 echoes the beatitude of Psalm 37:11, declaring that the meek “shall inherit the earth.” In Matthew 11:29, Jesus presents himself as one who is “gentle and lowly in heart.” And in Matthew 21:5, Jesus enters Jerusalem, in fulfillment of Zechariah’s prophecy, “humble and mounted on a donkey.” In Ephesians 4:2 and Colossians 3:12, Paul encourages us to clothe ourselves with “compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.” Similarly, James 3:13 calls the wise among us to demonstrate by our excellent way of life that our works are performed “in the meekness of wisdom.”
Gentleness has a central role to play in the storyline of scriptural revelation and in the Christian life. The gospel proclaims that divine Wisdom has become incarnate in the gentle and lowly person of Jesus Christ, and that, in and through Jesus Christ, divine Wisdom comes to indwell us by the Spirit of Christ. In Christ, God calls us to be a gentle and lowly people who, forsaking all forms of vicious anger, and boasting in God alone, are prepared to receive the good gifts that God would give us and to share those good gifts with others.
If the vice of anger is indeed among the severest spiritual afflictions of our age, then the virtue of gentleness is among the most needful spiritual medicines. In what follows, we will consider the spiritual virtue of gentleness, addressing three questions: What is gentleness? Where does gentleness come from? How can gentleness be cultivated?
In order to appreciate what gentleness is, we must first understand what it is not.
Gentleness is not a personality type. Both big personalities and quiet personalities are called to exhibit gentleness.
Gentleness is not Stoic lack of emotion. Gentleness is the moderation of emotion, not its absence.
Gentleness is not weakness. Nor is it timid lack of agency. Gentleness is a form of strength that enables a distinctive kind of agency that, in the long run, is the most productive kind of agency, for it bears “a harvest of righteousness” (James 3:18).
Finally, gentleness is not mere “niceness.” The gentle person is not someone who is never disagreeable, someone who never upsets the status quo. In fact, there is a kind of niceness that is the counterfeit form of true and godly gentleness.
We can better appreciate what gentleness is by locating it among the virtues.
Habits are settled dispositions that predispose us to think, feel, and act in specific ways. One can have good habits and one can have bad habits. Virtues are habits of intellectual and moral excellence, whereas vices are habits of intellectual and moral decadence.
Titus 2:11–12 teaches that the grace that saves us is also a grace that trains us in virtue: “The grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live temperate, righteous, and godly lives in the present age” (ESV, altered). Included among the list of virtues mentioned in Titus 2:11–12 is the virtue of temperance or moderation. If godliness is the virtue concerned with our relation to God, and righteousness is the virtue concerned with our relation to neighbor, temperance is the virtue concerned with our relation to self. Temperance is the virtue that moderates our appetites in accordance with divine wisdom.
God created us with various appetites for food, drink, sex, honor, justice, and so forth. Because these appetites are created by God, they are fundamentally good.
However, sin disorders our appetites. Due to the blindness of sin, wisdom no longer governs our desires (Ephesians 4:22). Our appetites thus either rule us in wild excess (2 Peter 2; James 4:1), or else we try to suppress our appetites through expressions of false virtue, following the dictates of false religion: “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (Colossians 2:21).
God’s grace in Christ renews and reorders our appetites. Far from destroying our appetites, grace trains us to renounce our sinful appetites and, by means of the virtues, to moderate our appetites so that they can function in accordance with divine wisdom for God’s glory and the common good.
Gentleness, then, is a form of temperance or moderation. Gentleness is the virtue that tempers our anger, wrath, and desire for vengeance when we suffer or witness injustice.
Because it is a form of temperance, gentleness is distinct from self-control. With self-control, our anger is held in check by bit and bridle. Like a Doberman pinscher that, only when muzzled, is able to be in the presence of humans, self-control restrains our passions. With gentleness, our anger is tamed and trained by wisdom. Like a Doberman pinscher that is able to walk peacefully on the neighborhood sidewalk, held only by a leash, gentleness is more than self-restraint; it is self-mastery.
Gentleness is the moderation, not the absence, of anger. Gentleness is the virtuous middle road (the “mean”) between prideful anger (anger in excess) and lazy apathy (anger in defect). Gentleness is opposed to all forms of prideful anger: “quarreling, jealousy, anger, hostility” (2 Corinthians 12:20). But gentleness is also opposed to lazy apathy and insensitivity. The person who is “cool with everything,” who is never disagreeable, who always compliments and never criticizes, is not necessarily gentle. There are some things we should not put up with for the sake of “keeping the peace.” There are some cases where a failure to be angry is a failure with respect to virtue.
Meekness is not opposed to all forms of anger. The meek person does not forsake all desire for vengeance when wronged. That is an impossible ideal, not biblical meekness. The meek person entrusts vengeance to the Lord and, out of love for the offender, hopes and prays for the conversion and reconciliation of the offender (Romans 12:19–21).4
Moreover, in circumstances where God’s honor or our neighbor’s good is at stake, holding back our anger is sinful. There is such a thing as righteous anger. Consider the example of Moses and the stone tablets at Sinai (Exodus 32:19) or of Jesus and the moneychangers in the temple. John 2:17 describes Jesus’s example of righteous anger in language drawn from Psalm 69:9: “Zeal for your house will consume me.”
Gentleness is the little sister of humility. Gentleness and humility are often paired together in Scripture (Zephaniah 3:12; Matthew 11:29; 2 Corinthians 10:1; Ephesians 4:2; Colossians 3:12). Whereas humility is moderate or proper self-regard, gentleness, which follows from humility, is moderate or proper self-restraint.
The connection between pride and sinful anger is evident, as is the connection between humility and meekness. People who think too much of themselves are easily angered. Conversely, those who don’t think too much of themselves are not.
Along with humility, gentleness is a daughter of the fear of the Lord. Whereas gentleness (proper self-restraint) follows humility (proper self-regard), both are rooted in the fear of the Lord (proper God-regard).
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 9:10). True humility reverently and joyfully acknowledges that the Lord alone is God and that nothing else is God but God. The acknowledgment of God’s sovereign supremacy, however, does not entail human debasement. Humility acknowledges that the Lord alone is God and that the Lord will not give his glory to another (Isaiah 48:11). Humility also acknowledges that God’s glory does not shine at the expense of the creature. Far from it: true humility acknowledges and rejoices in the fact that the God of glory delights in glorifying and dignifying his creatures.
In creation, God made us “a little lower than the heavenly beings” and “crowned” us “with glory and honor” (Psalm 8:5). In redemption, God graciously takes image-bearers ruined by sin and, through union with Jesus Christ, makes them sons and daughters of the living God, joint-heirs with Christ (Galatians 3:27–29; Romans 8:17). The Lord of glory “bestows favor and honor” (Psalm 84:11).
This is why gentleness flourishes in the company of humility and the fear of the Lord. Proud, self-important people are easily angered, easily offended. When they do not receive the respect they deserve (or think they deserve, like Haman!), when their opinions are not validated, when their advice is not heeded, they rage, they resent, they seek revenge.
The humble, however, are not easily angered or easily offended. Because they recognize that their true dignity is both given and guarded by God, when they are wronged, they entrust vengeance to God and pursue the path of forgiveness and reconciliation with their neighbors. Because they know that God will maintain their cause, they are free from having to maintain their own cause, and they are free to devote themselves to God’s cause and to the cause of their neighbors. Indeed, only the meek are truly qualified to pursue the cause of truth and righteousness (Psalm 45:4).
The virtue of gentleness or meekness is of inestimable value.
Meekness enables us to rightly receive divine wisdom. James exhorts us to “put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls” (James 1:21). According to Augustine, after the fear of the Lord, meekness is the second most essential virtue when it comes to biblical interpretation. This is because meekness enables us to receive divine wisdom in Holy Scripture without becoming angry when divine wisdom challenges our sin or when divine wisdom transcends the limitations of our own wisdom (Psalm 141:5).5
The virtue of meekness, moreover, enables us to share divine wisdom with others. Paul instructs Timothy, “The Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth” (2 Timothy 2:24–25). Both parents and pastors understand the apostle’s point well: harshness hinders the transmission and reception of truth, while gentleness assists it. Sadly, one of the biggest roadblocks in our gospel witness today is the lack of gentleness that many Christians display in their public interactions with others both inside and outside the church.
The virtue of meekness is necessary, furthermore, to the flourishing of Christian community. According to Paul, the key to maintaining “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3) lies in adorning ourselves “with all humility and gentleness” toward one another, “with patience, bearing with one another in love” (Ephesians 4:2). Conversely, according to James, where a spirit of humility and meekness is absent, jealousy (James 3:14; 4:2) and judgmentalism (James 4:11) will reign in their places.
Jealousy is a form of pride (James 3:16) that says, “I deserve that.” Judgmentalism is a form of pride (James 4:11–12) that says, “They don’t deserve that.” Both jealousy and judgmentalism are accelerants for the flames of anger, envy, quarreling, and resentment that, like a match dropped in a dry forest, threaten to burn our communities to the ground (James 3:16; 4:1). How contrary are such things to the “harvest of righteousness” that is “sown in peace by those who make peace” (James 3:18)!
If gentleness is so essential, so praiseworthy, then we must ask, Where can we get it? Where does gentleness come from?
Gentleness, along with the wisdom of which it is a fruit, comes “from above” (James 3:17), from “the Father of lights,” the unchangeable source of every good and perfect gift (James 1:17). Gentleness is a divine gift to unworthy sinners. And, as is the case regarding all we have in Christ — our identity, our gifts, our virtues — gentleness is a gift that is “received, not achieved.”6
Jesus Christ is the supreme embodiment of the gentleness that comes from above because he is divine Wisdom incarnate (Psalm 45:4; Matthew 11:29). During his earthly ministry, Jesus displayed supreme gentleness in that, “when he was reviled, he did not revile in return” (1 Peter 2:23), but instead suffered the consequences of our sinful anger “in his body on the tree” (1 Peter 2:24). As “everything the Lord did is a lesson in humility,”7 so everything the Lord did is a lesson in gentleness.
Having sown his body in the ground through humility and gentleness, Jesus reaped a harvest of righteousness for us in his resurrection, ascension, and enthronement at the Father’s right hand (John 12:24; James 3:18), the fruits of which he has poured out upon us in the person of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22–23; Philippians 1:9–11). Accordingly, the meekness that comes from above comes not only in Jesus Christ but also through Jesus Christ, who anoints and endows us with “a spirit of gentleness” (1 Corinthians 4:21; Galatians 6:1).
The divine Wisdom that is incarnate in Jesus Christ now indwells us by means of his anointing, flowing from the head to the body, which is “the fullness of him who fills all” and is in all (Psalm 133:2; Ephesians 1:23). And so, by virtue of his death and resurrection, and by the outpouring of his Spirit, the promise of Zephaniah 3:12 is fulfilled. The Lord Jesus Christ has established a people humble and lowly who make their boast, not in themselves, but in the Lord their God (1 Corinthians 1:30–31).
Gentleness is a gift of the triune God that enables us to glory in him, and in the life we enjoy together in him. Though gentleness is a gift, something that is “received, not achieved,” gentleness can nevertheless be cultivated.
Here two errors must be avoided. On the one hand, we must not think that gentleness can be achieved by pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps. Because of sin, gentleness cannot be rightly cultivated in the strength of the natural man. Gentleness is a “fruit of the Spirit,” not a work of the flesh (Galatians 5:22–23). On the other hand, we must not think that gentleness can be achieved through passivity. The dictum “let go and let God” reflects a popular but false spirituality.
The grace that saves us from sin trains us to cooperate with grace in the cultivation of virtue (Philippians 2:12–13). Gentleness, like all graces which are ours through union with Jesus Christ, is a gift that is to be actively received and appropriated through faith, hope, and love.
Gentleness is cultivated through union and communion with Jesus Christ. The dynamics of union and communion with Christ are well illustrated through the biblical metaphor of being clothed with Christ in baptism.
Being clothed with Christ in baptism is something God does to us — something God bestows upon us (Galatians 3:27). Therefore, it is something we receive. However, as a consequence of what God has done, being clothed with Christ in baptism is also something we are called to actively appropriate — something we are called to “put on” (Romans 6:1–14; 13:14; Ephesians 4:24): “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” (Colossians 3:12).8 More specifically, we are called to “put on” gentleness by cultivating the virtues of faith, hope, and love.
Consider Psalm 37’s instruction on gentleness. Psalm 37 not only counsels us against fretful anger (Psalm 37:1, 7–9). It also counsels us to cultivate faith: “Trust in the Lord, and do good; dwell in the land and befriend faithfulness” (Psalm 37:3). Anger arises when injustice threatens to deprive us or others of genuine goods. Trust in the Lord enables us to continue on the path of doing what is good, even in the face of injustice, because we are confident that, whatever goods we may lose through the injustice of others, we cannot lose the good God and, more importantly, he cannot lose us (John 10:28–29; 1 Peter 4:19).
Psalm 37, moreover, counsels us to cultivate hope: “Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him, and he will act. He will bring forth your righteousness as the light, and your justice as the noonday. Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him” (Psalm 37:5–7). Hope in the Lord enables us to maintain a gentle posture in the face of injustice because we know that, whatever injustice now prevails, the Lord’s justice will finally prevail: “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord’” (Romans 12:19).
Psalm 37, finally, counsels us to cultivate love: “Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart” (Psalm 37:4). Whereas “desire” names the lover’s unquenched thirst for her beloved, “delight” names the state of satisfied repose that comes with the lover’s possession of her beloved. To delight ourselves in the Lord is therefore to find our satisfaction in God as our supreme good and as the one who withholds no good thing from those who delight in him (Psalm 84:11). According to the psalmist, cultivating satisfaction in God produces in us a “stillness” of spirit (Psalm 37:7) amid the winds of injustice that threaten to destabilize us. Such stillness of spirit, in turn, enables us to maintain lips that utter wisdom and speak justice (Psalm 37:30), hands that are generous in giving (Psalm 37:21), and feet that do not slip on treacherous paths (Psalm 37:31), each the anatomical traits of those who, by God’s goodness, “shall inherit the land” (Psalm 37:11).
If the vice of anger is among the severest spiritual afflictions of our age, then the virtue of gentleness is among the most needful spiritual medicines. While there exist many helpful protocols regarding how we might manage our participation in the “outrage machine” of contemporary (especially social-media) culture, the deep cure for our ills will not come merely through adopting such protocols for self-control, but through cultivating the virtue of gentleness.
Of course, acknowledging this fact can lead to discouragement when we consider the degree to which our own anger has contributed to the dissolution of familial, ecclesiastical, and broader social bonds. And yet, however necessary it may be that lament have the first word when confronted with the disastrous consequences of our own anger (James 4:9), it need not have the final word.
Though we fall short in many ways when it comes to the virtue of gentleness, it is important to remember that Jesus Christ is an inexhaustible fountain of gentleness, and that he gently invites us to draw freely upon his inexhaustible fullness: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28–30).
When it comes to the virtue of gentleness, he is the vine, and we are the branches (John 15:1–5). The strength of our virtue, and of our growth in virtue, lies not in ourselves, but in him whose presence we find “quietness and trust forever” (Isaiah 32:17).
Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation for Failure (New York: Penguin, 2018). ↩
Here my focus is interpersonal conflict, leaving aside the vital functions of church discipline and criminal punishment, which belong to church and state, respectively. As is commonly emphasized throughout the Christian moral theological tradition, “clemency,” a close relative of gentleness, is necessary for the wise exercise of church discipline and criminal punishment. ↩
Timothy Keller, Making Sense of God: Finding God in the Modern World (New York: Penguin, 2016), chap. 7. ↩
For fuller discussion of these dynamics, see Grant Macaskill, Living in Union with Christ: Paul’s Gospel and Christian Moral Identity (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2019). ↩
The greatest ache of the human heart is not to have wealth, comfort, or power, but to see and savor the glory of God in the face of Christ.
Why was Jesus born a Jew? The incarnation undercuts all ethnic boasting and throws people from every tribe, tongue, and nation on the mercy of a Jewish man from Nazareth.
ABSTRACT: The Savior of the world, Jesus Christ, was born as a Jew. What is God’s purpose in the Jewishness of Jesus? The story stretches back to Abraham, and takes us forward to the community of saints from every tribe and language and people and nation. Ultimately, Jesus was born a Jew to devastate every boast in ethnic superiority, and to create one new, joyful, mercy-loving race.
Jesus was born a Jew not only to strip the Christian pretenses from neo-Nazis and the KKK, but also to shut the mouth of all ethnic and racial boasting, including Jewish. He was born a Jew to bring every race and ethnicity to a humbled dependence on mercy. He was born a Jew so that every race would exult in mercy, not degrees of melanin; and every ethnicity would exult in mercy, more than ethnic ways; and every tribe would exult in mercy, more than tribal attributes. Jesus was born a Jew to devastate every boast in ethnic superiority.
Arriving at this conclusion is complicated, even though historically the Jewishness of Jesus has offended all ethnic pride, even Jewish pride. To say it’s complicated, however, is simply to agree with Paul. As soon as he comes to this conclusion, he says, in the next breath, “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (Romans 11:33).
That’s Paul’s response to why the God of the universe entangled himself with Jewishness as a way of saving people in every ethnic group. I say “entangled” not because God is caught or confused, but because the interweaving of his saving ways with Jewishness is, from our perspective, “unsearchable.” Its complexities exceed our powers.
Nevertheless, Paul was granted by God to take us up into this mystery farther than any has ever gone. No one has exhausted it. I invite you to go with me into this mystery, at least as far as I can take you in a single article.
Jesus was born Jewish. The Samaritan woman at the well said to Jesus, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?” (John 4:9). Later Jesus said to her, “You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22).
The Jewishness of Jesus was not incidental for the apostle Paul. He asked, “What advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision?” He answered, “Much in every way. To begin with, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God” (Romans 3:1–2). Then he completed his list like this:
They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen. (Romans 9:4–5)
The capstone of privileges belonging to the Jews is this: “From their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ.” Jesus was born Jewish. And to catapult the privilege out of this world, he is God incarnate — “God over all, blessed forever.” The highest privilege of the Jewish people is that the Son of God was born among them.
So, Jesus was born Jewish. And this was not incidental, but was the high point of Jewish privilege among all the nations. And Paul did not keep it secret, as though it were embarrassing, but flew it like a flag for every Jew and every nation to see.
The question is why. Not just why in the sense of, Where did this come from? But also why in the sense of, Where is it leading? What is God’s purpose in the Jewishness of Jesus? And if it has no present significance, because Jesus is now the Savior of all peoples, why doesn’t Paul let the sleeping dog lie?
God entangled himself with humanity as an ethnic Jew because two thousand years earlier he had entangled himself with Abraham, the father of the Jewish people. “You are the Lord, the God who chose Abram and brought him out of Ur of the Chaldeans and gave him the name Abraham” (Nehemiah 9:7). From then on, the Jews were the privileged covenant people of God. “You only have I known of all the families of the earth” (Amos 3:2). “The Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth” (Deuteronomy 7:6).
To be sure, God had in view, from the very beginning, that through Abraham and his descendants God would bless all the nations. “I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:2–3). But the unique privilege of Israel remained.
For two thousand years, God focused almost all of his saving involvement with the world on Israel, not the nations. “In past generations he allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways” (Acts 14:16). “The Lord set his heart in love on your fathers and chose their offspring after them, you above all peoples” (Deuteronomy 10:15). Forgiveness of sins was provided to the Jews through the prefigured blood of Christ in the sacrifices (Leviticus 4:20; Romans 3:25). And the promise was made to the Jews that the Messiah would come from this people (Isaiah 9:6–7). “The Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever” (Luke 1:32–33).
This is why Jesus was born Jewish. God had chosen the Jews as “his treasured possession” (Deuteronomy 14:2). He had focused his redeeming work on them for two thousand years — not on the Chinese, not on the Africans, and not on the pale Germanic hordes. And “when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law” — that is, born a Jew (Galatians 4:4).
But answering the why question in regard to the past only intensifies the why question in regard to the future. What was God’s purpose for entangling himself with Israel by covenant and with a Jewish Messiah by incarnation? Where was this all leading? And why go about it this way?
Clearly, the life and death and resurrection of this Jewish Messiah was leading to the salvation of the Gentiles, the nations. In his lifetime, Jesus said, “Many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness” (Matthew 8:11–12). He said to the Jewish leaders, “The kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits” (Matthew 21:43). And he ended his ministry with the command to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19).
But salvation was still “from the Jews” (John 4:22). Paul explains how. When Israel rejected Jesus as the Messiah, they were like natural branches broken off of the tree of the covenant with Abraham. When Gentiles believed in the Messiah Jesus, they were like unnatural branches grafted into that Jewish covenant.
If some of the branches were broken off, and you, although a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree, do not be arrogant toward the branches. If you are, remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you. (Romans 11:17–18)
The root supports you! That means God’s commitment to Israel is why you are saved, because you are united to this root.
In other words, there is no thought of Gentiles having one way of salvation, and Jews another. There is one way. Belong to the true Israel — the saved Israel. Paul had made it clear that “not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel” (Romans 9:6). Natural descent does not make one part of the true Israel. And many who are not descended from Israel are made part of the true Israel — “whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the [Gentiles.] As indeed he says in Hosea, ‘Those who were not my people I will call “my people”’” (Romans 9:24–25).
To be a true Jew is not a matter of ethnicity, but of faith in the Messiah: “For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly. . . . But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter” (Romans 2:28–29). Gentiles, in this way, “become Jews.”
This is how the promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:3 is fulfilled: “The Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, ‘In you shall all the nations be blessed’” (Galatians 3:8). This is how Abraham becomes “the father of many nations” (Genesis 17:5; Romans 4:17).
“Salvation is from the Jews” not just because Jesus was Jewish, but because he saves Gentiles by making them full partners of the Jewish inheritance. Through Christ’s blood, “we both [Jew and Gentile] have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you [Gentiles] are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (Ephesians 2:18–19). The Gentile “strangers” are made full citizens of the true, saved Jewish household. “You [Jew and Gentile] are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” (Galatians 3:29).
Some think this inclusion of the Gentiles in the Jewish inheritance is the final step in God’s dealings with ethnic Israel. It’s not. Paul teaches that when “the fullness of the Gentiles has come in,” then “all Israel will be saved” (Romans 11:25–26). This refers to the ethnic nation as a whole, being converted to Christ at a future time — after “the fullness of the Gentiles” is gathered in.
Some say “all Israel” here does not refer to the ethnic nation but to the total number of the elect, both Jew and Gentile. There are at least five compelling reasons why that does not work. I’ll mention two.
First, it is very unlikely that, with only eleven Greek words between, the meaning of “Israel” would change from “ethnic nation” to “elect Jews and Gentiles” (Romans 11:25–26). The first use, virtually all agree, refers to ethnic Israel. Surely, therefore, the second will as well: “A partial hardening has come upon Israel. . . . All Israel will be saved.” So “all Israel” is the ethnic nation that was once partially hardened. One day that people will be saved.
Second, the parallel between the two halves of Romans 11:28 points to “all Israel” as the ethnic nation. The first half of verse 28 says, “As regards the gospel, they [the ethnic people of Israel] are enemies” of God. The second half of the verse says, “But as regards election, they [this same ethnic people who are enemies] are beloved for the sake of their forefathers.” The point of this verse is to show that even though ethnic Israel now is a covenant-breaking, unbelieving people, that is going to change. The people that are enemies now will be converted later because of election and love. (See also the parallels in Romans 11:12 and 15.)
Now we are in a position to step back and ask, Why did God go about saving his people from all the nations, including Jews, in this roundabout way?
Let me summarize the roundabout way of God:
1. All of humankind fell into sin and corruption when Adam and Eve rejected the goodness of God in favor of their own wisdom (Genesis 3:6; Romans 5:12). As the variety of ethnic peoples emerged in Genesis 10 and 11, all their individual members were “children of wrath” (Ephesians 2:3). No nation on earth was worthy of God’s blessing. All deserved destruction.
2. As God set in motion a plan of redemption for humanity, he chose Israel as the primary focus of his saving work for two thousand years (Deuteronomy 7:6; Amos 3:2). This election of Israel from all the nations was not owing to any traits in Israel that made them more worthy than other nations. Abraham was an idolater before he was called by God (Joshua 24:2, 14). “Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin” (Romans 3:9).
3. For two thousand years, God offered salvation to Israel (Romans 9:4–5) and foreshadowed the Messiah in Jewish history and Scripture (Luke 24:27). Their repeated response was largely unbelief, as Stephen said: “You stiff-necked people . . . always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you” (Acts 7:51). Or as Paul said, “But of Israel he says [quoting God in Isaiah 65:2], ‘All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people’” (Romans 10:21).
4. The effect of this Jewish unbelief, in spite of great advantages, was to show that the law, without a Redeemer, does not lead to justification, but only to the exposure and increase of sin (Romans 3:20; 5:20). By this experience, the mouth of the whole world is stopped. For, if Israel, with all her advantages, could “not succeed in reaching that law” (Romans 9:31), the other nations should not think things stood better with them. “We know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God” (Romans 3:19).
5. By the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of the Messiah, the promises to the patriarchs were confirmed, and mercy was thrown open to all the nations. “Christ became a servant to the circumcised . . . in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy” (Romans 15:8–9).
6. A hardening came upon Israel (Romans 11:25; 2 Corinthians 3:14), lasting into the twenty-first century. It will remain “until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in” (Romans 11:25).
7. During this time — “the times of the Gentiles” (Luke 21:24) — there will be a great missionary advance to all the nations of the world. “This gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (Matthew 24:14).
8. When “the fullness of the Gentiles has come in . . . all Israel will be saved” (Romans 11:25–26).
9. Christ will return and establish his kingdom (Romans 11:26).
This is the roundabout way God planned to redeem his people from every ethnic group, including a final conversion of “all Israel” — a whole generation brought en masse to faith at the end of this age. Why such a roundabout way? Here is Paul’s summary answer in Romans 11:30–32:
Just as you [Gentiles] were at one time disobedient to God but now have received mercy because of their [Jewish] disobedience, so they [Jews] too have now been disobedient in order that by the mercy shown to you [Gentiles] they [Jews] also may now receive mercy. For God has consigned all [Jews and Gentiles] to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all.
Condensing this summary, we can say,
Gentile nations lived in disobedience after the fall.
So God chose Israel.
Israel lived in disobedience in spite of all her advantages.
So God overflowed with mercy to the Gentile nations.
This mercy to the nations will result with great mercy in Israel’s conversion.
Therefore, all peoples are utterly dependent on mercy, not merit.
That’s complicated. Strange. Roundabout. So much so that the next thing out of Paul’s mouth is this: “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (Romans 11:33).
What then is the final aim of such a roundabout salvation? Paul puts it like this: “God has consigned all [Jews and Gentiles] to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all” (Romans 11:32). Paul had already said that the goal was “so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God” (Romans 3:19). That’s the negative goal. Every ethnic group humbled because of their disobedience.
The Jews are humbled because, in spite of all their advantages, they are like broken off branches, with Gentiles taking their place in the Abrahamic covenant by faith alone (Romans 11:19; 9:30–31). Gentile peoples are humbled because they stand only by faith (Romans 11:20) and because it is the Jewish root that supports them, not the other way around (Romans 11:18). You have to become a “Jew” in order to be saved (Galatians 3:7). But no Jew is saved by being an ethnic Jew. For not all Israel is Israel (Romans 9:6). “Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham” (Matthew 3:9).
Every mouth is stopped. The boast of every ethnic group is silenced. All are consigned to disobedience. Each is made to swallow its pride. Gentiles must become Jews (Nazis and KKK included) in order to be saved. And Jews must renounce all dependence on Jewishness and join the Gentiles in dependence on mercy.
Jesus was born a Jew — and every other part of God’s “unsearchable” and “inscrutable” wisdom was put in place — to achieve this purpose. To shut the mouth of all ethnic and racial boasting, including Jewish, and to bring every race and ethnicity to a humbled dependence on mercy.
Christ was born Jewish so that every race would exult in mercy, not in degrees of melanin; and every ethnicity would exult in mercy, more than in ethnic ways; and every tribe would exult in mercy, more than in tribal attributes. Jesus was born a Jew to devastate every boast in ethnic superiority. And to create one new, joyful, mercy-loving race.
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