Love the One You’re With

Love the One You’re With

It can be really hard to love the church. Every Christian, who’s been one for very long, knows this.

The earthly church has always been a motley crew. It’s never been ideal. The New Testament exists because churches, to differing degrees, have always been a mess — a glorious mess of saints still polluted by remaining sin, affected by defective genes, brains, and bodies, and influenced by life-shaping pasts.

This mess rarely looks glorious to us up close. It looks like a lot of sin and a lot of blood, sweat, and tears invested into a lot of futility. It often looks like something we’d rather escape than join.

But this is the way it’s supposed to be. Because the mess is what draws out the one thing that advances the church’s mission more than anything else. And this one thing is why we must not, for selfish reasons, leave the church.

The Church We Didn’t Choose

Jesus’s very first disciples didn’t get to choose each other. Jesus chose them (John 15:16). They just found themselves thrown together.

The very next generation of early Christians didn’t get to choose each other either. They too were thrown together with others they likely wouldn’t have chosen: Palestinian and Hellenistic Jews, Jews and Gentiles, educated and uneducated, slaves and slave owners, impoverished and aristocrats, former zealots and former tax collectors, former prostitutes and former Pharisees.

And Jesus gave these early disciples, and all disciples afterward, an impossible command: love one another (John 15:17). It had to be impossible to obey in mere human power because this love was meant to bear witness of Jesus in the world (John 13:35), and to give visible evidence of the invisible God (1 John 4:12). It had to demonstrate that “what is impossible with man is possible with God” (Luke 18:27).

And Jesus gave his disciples an impossible context in which to carry out this impossible command: the church (Matthew 16:18) — a community of diverse, sin-polluted, defective individuals from all sorts of life-shaping pasts living life together in an impossible love.

Then Jesus gave his church an impossible mission: preach the gospel throughout the whole, God-rejecting, Christ-hating world (Luke 21:17; John 15:18), and plant impossible communities among every people where diverse, sin-polluted, defective individuals from all sorts of life-shaping pasts would live out Jesus’s impossible command to love one another (Matthew 28:19–20).

Impossible love, impossible community, and impossible mission: this is a plan doomed to fail. There’s no way this works, unless a God exists who makes possible the humanly impossible.

And here we are, two thousand years later. The impossible mission has produced impossible communities carrying out this impossible command throughout much of the world. For all the church’s problems, and they are legion, something miraculous is at work here.

Miraculous, Struggling Community

But the church rarely looks miraculous at any given moment. “The church,” as we most directly experience it, looks like the less-than-ideal local church we belong to, made up of ordinary people struggling to get along, struggling to figure out how to “do church” in a world of constant change, and struggling to do its part to fulfill the Great Commission.

Struggling doesn’t look or feel miraculous. It’s fatiguing, frustrating, and at times exasperating. Struggling can make us want to give up.

But we must not give up on the church. Because it’s the messy things — those extraordinarily difficult and painful things that can drive us crazy — that provide the very opportunities for the humanly impossible love of Christ to be exercised, giving visibility to the existence of the invisible God.

According to the New Testament, a church’s success is not measured by the number of its attenders, the size of its budget, the excellence of its event production, or the scope of its public influence. Its success is measured by the quality of its love. A church that most effectively witnesses Jesus in the world pursues love through:

  • Honoring each other (Romans 12:10),
  • Contributing to meet each other’s needs (Romans 12:13),
  • Showing hospitality to one another (Romans 12:13),
  • Rejoicing over each other’s joys (Romans 12:15),
  • Weeping over each other’s griefs (Romans 12:15),
  • Pursuing harmony with each other in spite of differences (Romans 12:16),
  • Not excluding the lowliest members (Romans 12:16),
  • Submitting to each other (Ephesians 5:21),
  • Persistently striving for agreement over thorny issues (2 Corinthians 13:11),
  • Using individual freedom in Christ to serve each other (Galatians 5:13),
  • Bearing with each other’s weaknesses, foibles, and immaturity (Ephesians 4:2),
  • Covering each other’s multitudinous sins with forgiveness (1 Peter 4:8; Colossians 3:13),
  • Stirring up each other to press on in the mission of love (Hebrews 10:24),
  • And not neglecting to meet regularly together (Hebrews 10:25).

And what calls such love out? Read each line again and ask what situations prompt such opportunities to love. The short answer is: lots of various kinds of struggling. It’s the messy struggles that call out love.

Churches are designed to be communities of impossible love that only work if God is real, and Christ’s sacrifice is real, and heaven is real. In void of love, the community falls apart or degrades into consumer event products, empty formalism, formless “spirituality,” social advocacy groups, or essentially civic gatherings — all dying or dead remains of a past vitality.

Graciously Disappointing Community

Jesus did not design the church to be a place where our dreams come true. Actually, it’s where many of our dreams are disappointed and die. And this is more of a grace to us than we likely realize, because our dreams are often much more selfish than we discern.

Our personal expectations easily become tyrants to everyone else, because everyone else fails to meet them. When we are more focused on how others’ failings and foibles obstruct the ideal community we want to pursue than we are on serving those others and pursuing their good and joy, our expectations can kill love, which impedes the real mission.

Jesus designed the church to be a place where love comes true, where we lay our preferences aside out of deference to others. It is meant to be a living laboratory of love, a place where there are so many opportunities, big and small, to lay down our lives for each other that the love of Christ becomes a public spectacle.

That’s why when it comes to church in this age, the picture of community we should have in our minds is not some utopian harmony, but Golgotha. In living life together, we die every day (1 Corinthians 15:31). We lay down our lives for each other (1 John 3:16).

Love the One You’re With

Over forty years ago, Stephen Stills sang, “If you can’t be with the one you love, honey, love the one you’re with.” Though he certainly didn’t write this with the church in mind, we can draw a redemptive application.

There are numerous legitimate reasons to leave a church, and departures are one more messy opportunity to extend gracious love. But we must have a healthy suspicion of our motives if disillusionment, restlessness, boredom, discontentment, burnout, relational conflict, and disappointed expectations are fueling our impulse to leave. Often these fruits have roots in selfish soil. We must not love the church we can’t be with — that idealized community of our imagination. We must love the one we’re with.

We don’t get to choose the disciples we live with; Jesus does. We get thrown into a motley group of sin-polluted, defective saints, among whom, in our own ways, we are the polluted, defective foremost (1 Timothy 1:15).

What we get is the incredible privilege of and plethora of opportunities for loving these fellow disciples like Jesus loved us. We get to love them, warts and all. Because it is through the mutually self-dying, forbearing, forgiving love warty disciples have for one another that Jesus is most clearly shown to the world and his mission is most powerfully advanced.

Love Yourself Less

Love Yourself Less

This will date me: the year I graduated from high school, Foreigner released its pop megahit, “I Want to Know What Love Is.”

This quintessential 80’s power ballad went platinum, not because of its vague, incoherent verses, but because, I believe, its title refrain asks a profound, universal human question: What is love?

What Is Love?

We know Foreigner’s producers understood this, at least intuitively, as a religious question, because the song builds into a gospel choir anthem by its end. We all share their intuition.

We know that eros is more than sex, and agape more than sacrifice. We know love is more than a feeling, but certainly not less than a feeling. We know it’s not just a decision, and we know it requires resolve. We know it’s not just a noun, not just a verb, and not just an adjective.

Our greatest stories, songs, poems, even our greeting cards, all bear witness that we know there is something transcendent and ultimate about love. We can’t help ascribing mystical, even metaphysical qualities to it. Yet with all the words we devote to it, we find love simply cannot be contained in human language. Like beauty or glory, it is easier to point to love than to define it.

This is a clue.

God-Haunted Love

Love, like beauty and glory, is a God-haunted human experience. We all know love is transcendent because we innately know “God is love” (1 John 4:8).

The knowledge that love is meant to be a sacred thing is a deep, often suppressed memory in the human soul that God exists (Romans 1:18–19), that he is holy (Revelation 4:8), and that love is at the core of his nature. And therefore, love, in all its unsullied forms, is from God (1 John 4:7), which is why it’s beyond words: love is ultimately inexpressible and filled with glory (1 Peter 1:8).

This makes love a stubborn apologetic, a velvet-covered hammer smashing hollow materialistic assertions. Love simply refuses to be reduced to a genetic illusion or an enlightened self-interest that evolutionary biology speculates we adapted for survival. We all know better. That isn’t what love is.

Humans in every culture have always most admired the most selfless, even self-sacrificial expressions of love far more than desperate acts of self-preservation. Christianity, with its self-sacrificing God, didn’t create this admiration. It just most beautifully and gloriously fits the shape of love our souls most admire and deeply desire — like the missing puzzle piece we’ve always been searching for.

Love points to God. We know this deep down. Our biggest problem is that the god we want to see at the end of the pointer is often a false one.

The End of Love

The year after Foreigner pleaded to know what love is, Whitney Houston sang a chart-topping answer: “Learning to love yourself: it is the greatest love of all.” It also sounded like a song right out of church.

But it’s a worship song to a different, but all too familiar god: self. It celebrates the tragic myth fallen humanity has always wanted so badly to be true: We are worthy of our own supreme love and worship.

It’s a tragic myth because, when believed, it proves to be the death of love. It makes the wrong god the source and object of ultimate love (“the greatest love of all”). We are not love, and love has not come from us, because we are not God.

God is love. And when love is detached from God, it loses its true meaning. When we make ourselves the ultimate reference point for love, love devolves into whatever each of us wishes it to mean. Everyone loves in the way that’s right in his own eyes, and therefore also hates in the way that’s right in his own eyes.

This is the world as we know it. It’s the human story: the rejection of God resulting in the diseasing and disintegration of love. Humans defining love for themselves has led them to become supremely “lovers of self” (2 Timothy 3:2), and so live “in the passions of the flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind . . . by nature children of wrath” (Ephesians 2:3).

It is not hard to understand why there is so much confusion, heartbreak, and violence in the world. Many of the horrifying things we see in the news are what the disintegration of love looks like.

Loving ourselves supremely is not the greatest love of all. It’s the end — the death — of love.

The End of Selfishness

This is why the Christian message is good news for everyone who really wants to know what love is.

The God of love, the God who is love, the God from whom all love comes, so loved us that he gave his only Son to become love incarnate and lovingly sacrifice himself to liberate all who believe in him from the suicidal slavery of supreme self-love (John 3:16). Jesus showed us what love is, the greatest love of all: laying down one’s life for one’s friends (John 15:13).

But Jesus is not content with us merely observing and admiring his love. For freedom he has set us free (Galatians 5:1). Our freedom is more than being loved; it is entering fully into the experience, the fellowship of love by loving God and others in the same way: “just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another” (John 13:34).

And loving the way Love loves means some kind of self-dying, for as he laid down his life for us, we lay our life down for our brothers and sisters (1 John 3:16). But as self-worship proves to be the death of love in this fallen world, this self-sacrificing proves to be the resurrection of love in this fallen world.

The love of Christ in the life of Christians is the end of selfishness and the foretaste of what Jonathan Edwards called heaven: “a world of love.”

All who wish to know what love is must look to whom love is. For God is love. And if we wish to experience true love, we must love in the way he loved us.

You Become What You Eat

You Become What You Eat

Hope is to our soul what energy is to our body. Just like our bodies must have energy to keep going, our souls must have hope to keep going.

When our body needs energy, we eat food. But when our soul needs hope, what do we feed it? Promises.

Why do we feed our soul promises? Because promises have to do with our future, and hope is something we only feel about the future — about ten minutes from now, or ten months, or ten thousand years.

We’re never hopeful about the past. We can be grateful for the past. The past can inspire or even guarantee a hopeful future for us. But all the wonderful things that have happened to us in the past will not fuel our hope if our future looks bleak.

However, if our future is promising, our soul will be hopeful even if our present is miserable, because hope is what keeps the soul going.

So, we “eat” promises, which our soul digests (believes) and converts to hope.

Toxic Soul Food

When feeding the body, there is “healthy food” and there is “junk food.” Both will, in the short run, produce energy. But healthy food provides the right kinds of energy, enhances the operation of the body’s complex systems, strengthens its resilience against disease, and increases its durability and longevity. Junk food, on the other hand, has essentially the opposite effect in all these areas, and contributes to the breaking down of the body over time.

Similarly, there are “healthy promises” and “junk promises.” Both will, in the short run, produce hope. But healthy promises provide the right kind of hope and promote health throughout the complexities of the human soul. Junk promises prove ultimately toxic and lead to soul-death.

Both physical and spiritual nutrition are important, because we always become what we eat. We must take greater care, though, in what we feed our souls, because so much more is at stake.

The world and the devil are very aware that we feed our souls promises, which is why, like junk food, junk promises are everywhere. They are heavily marketed (notice every temptation to sin is a promise of some kind of happiness), attractively packaged, tasty (though not truly rich), convenient, and have a particular allure when you’re running low on hope. They deliver a fast buzz of false hope and ruin your appetite for truly healthy promises.

But junk promises always disappoint because their buzz is followed by a hope-plunge into guilt, shame, and emptiness. They never deliver the happiness they promise because our souls are designed for a far better hope. And yet, junk promises can be addicting, because our hope-plunge can send us back seeking another fast, false buzz.

Living Food

“Man does not live by bread alone, but . . . by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 8:3; Matthew 4:4). Our souls are designed to be nourished by God’s “precious and very great promises” (2 Peter 1:4).

But these promises are not mere human words; they are living and active (Hebrews 4:12), proceeding directly from the living Word, Jesus Christ (John 1:1). He is the Word of God (Revelation 19:13) and “all the promises of God find their Yes in him” (2 Corinthians 1:20).

What could possibly give more hope to our sinful souls than Jesus’s promises to forgive all of our sins completely, to remove all of the Father’s judgment and wrath against us, to always be with us (Matthew 28:20), and to give us eternal life in God’s presence with full joy and pleasures forever (Psalm 16:11)? Only in him do we find “a future and a hope” (Jeremiah 29:11).

This is why Jesus called himself the bread of life (John 6:35). The past grace of his death and resurrection guarantee a never-ending stream of hope-giving future grace for us extending into eternity. To eat these promises is to eat this living bread and live forever (John 6:51).

And Jesus has made the Bible the storehouse of nourishing, living soul food for his saints. It is stocked full of promises, and he invites us to come eat our fill for free (Isaiah 55:1)!

You Can Change

This living soul food is more vital to our ultimate health than bodily food. But learning to eat well for the sake of our body’s well-being has valuable lessons for eating well for our soul’s well-being. And one of those valuable lessons is that our taste preferences can be changed.

Our tastes are conditioned by habits and wrong ways of thinking about food. Like eating healthy food, eating healthy promises requires more work to plan — new habits of discipline that aren’t as convenient and entertaining as junk promises. And if we’ve become conditioned to heavily processed, sugary, empty-carb promises, artificially engineered to be addictive, we may find the taste and texture of true food less enjoyable at first.

But these habit and taste preferences will change as we stick with it and increasingly experience the benefits of substantial, hope-sustaining and deepening benefits.

The only way to break a habit of eating junk food promises is cultivating a taste for rich, nourishing, long-lasting, deeply satisfying, and true promises. It takes eating real food to develop the taste for real food. We must be patient. Old tastes do not diminish and new tastes are not acquired overnight. We might find it helpful to change some bodily food habits at the same time, and let that experience illustrate the spiritual reality. But as we press in, God will meet us and help us “taste and see” that he is good (Psalm 34:8).

“The God of hope” wants us to feast on his promises and be filled “with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit [we] may abound in hope” (Romans 15:13).

Judge Not?

Judge Not?

Jesus said, “Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you” (Matthew 7:1–2).

This teaching of Jesus is widely misunderstood. A common reduction we often hear is, “Don’t judge me.” What’s interesting is that this reduction is the inverse application of Jesus’s lesson. Jesus is not telling others not to judge us; he’s telling us not to judge others. What others do is not our primary concern; what we do is our primary concern. Our biggest problem is not how others judge us, but how we judge others.

Caution: Judge at Your Own Risk

Actually, when Jesus says, “Judge not,” he’s not really issuing a prohibition on judging others; he’s issuing a serious warning to take great care how we judge others. We know this because Jesus goes on to say,

“Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” (Matthew 7:3–5)

It’s not wrong to lovingly help our brother remove a harmful speck from his eye. It’s wrong to self-righteously point out a speck in our brother’s eye when we ignore, as no big deal, the ridiculous log protruding from our own.

So, Jesus is placing, as it were, a neon-red-blinking sign over others that tells us, “Caution: judge at your own risk.” It is meant to give us serious pause and examine ourselves before saying anything. Our fallen nature is profoundly selfish and proud and often hypocritical, judging ourselves indulgently and others severely. We are quick to strain gnats and swallow camels (Matthew 23:24), quick to take tweezers to another’s eye when we need a forklift for our own. It is better to “judge not” than to judge like this, since we will be judged in the same way we judge others.

Jesus takes judgment very seriously. He is the righteous judge (2 Timothy 4:8), who is full of grace and truth (John 1:14). He does not judge by appearances, but judges with right judgment (John 7:24). Every judgment he pronounces issues from his core loving nature (1 John 4:8).

Therefore, when we judge, and Scripture instructs Christians to judge at times (1 Corinthians 5:12), we must take great care that our judgment, like Christ’s, is always charitable.

Be Quick to Believe Innocence

The first way to take great care how we judge is to be slow to pronounce guilt when evidence is scant or hearsay or ambiguous. This runs counter not only to fallen human nature, but also our media-saturated culture that encourages hair-trigger judgments. We are wise to practice something codified in our judicial system.

In the United States, when a person is accused of a legal transgression, but the evidence against him is inconclusive, our jurisprudence demands we presume his innocence until sufficient evidence can demonstrate his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Such demonstration is typically not quick or easy.

Be Thorough Before Pronouncing Guilt

Circumstantial evidence is not placed before a “reasonable” judge who then renders a verdict based merely on his judicial common sense interpretation. Millennia of human history have taught us that appearances can be deceiving and “reasonable” people have conscious and unconscious biases that shape how they interpret evidence.

So, our courts demand a rigorous process of evaluating evidence in an effort to ensure that deceptive appearances and biases do not distort the truth. This process requires diligence, patience, and restraint. And while reasonable doubt regarding a person’s guilt persists, we are bound to believe — at least in a legal sense — the best about that person. We give him “the benefit of the doubt.”

When Paul wrote, “love believes all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7), he was talking about this kind of charitable judgment. Christians are called to believe the best about each other until sufficient evidence confirms beyond a reasonable doubt that a transgression has occurred.

Aim for Restoration

When evidence does confirm that a transgression has occurred, a second way we take great care how we judge is to “aim for restoration” (2 Corinthians 13:11).

If we’re personally involved in such a situation, our goal in confronting someone caught in sin or, if necessary, initiating a process of church discipline, is to gain back our brother or sister (Matthew 18:15). Our goal is not punitive, but redemptive. We must vigilantly remain “kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave [us]” (Ephesians 4:32). Even if the guilty person is unrepentant and fellowship must be severed, the purpose remains redemptive for the offender (1 Corinthians 5:5) and for the church (1 Corinthians 5:6).

Keep Quiet If Possible

If we’re not personally involved or are distant observers, we can still aim for the person’s restoration by, if possible, not saying anything. A wise rule of thumb: the greater our distance, the greater our ignorance. And ignorant commentary about a person or situation is never helpful and is usually nothing more than gossip or slander, which Jesus calls evil (Matthew 15:19).

We must remember how faulty our perceptions are and how biases distort our judgment. We often think we understand what’s going on, when in reality we do not. From a distance, love covering a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8) looks like not repeating a matter (Proverbs 17:9).

Judge with Right Judgment

How we judge others says far more about us than how we are judged by others. This is why God will judge us in the manner we judge others, not in the manner they judge us. Therefore, we must judge with right judgment (John 7:24). And right judgment is charitably quick to believe innocence, charitably slow to pronounce guilt, charitably redemptive when it must be, and charitably silent if at all possible.

And when in doubt, “judge not.”

Lord, Search My Heart

Lord, Search My Heart

I usually walk when I pray. For me, it’s practical: I concentrate better and don’t fall asleep. It’s also allegorical: a frequent biblical metaphor of the life of faith is “walking with God” (Genesis 5:4; Deuteronomy 11:22; Colossians 1:10).

I was prayer-walking recently when Micah 6:8 came to mind with the kind of sharp clarity that often proves to be the prompting of the Spirit. I pulled it up on my phone app and read it:

He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:6–8)

Two words stopped my in my tracks: “Love kindness.” The imperative scanned my heart like a searchlight. Do I really love kindness? Or do I mainly love the idea of kindness? I frequently pray, “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts!” (Psalm 139:23). He was taking me up on my invitation.

This heart examination continued and spread through the rest of verse: Do I really “do justice”? Or do I mainly affirm the idea of justice? Is my “doing justice” mainly “not doing injustice” myself, but rarely pursuing justice for others?

Micah 6:8 exposes me: I can love abstract ideas of justice and kindness, and neglect their concrete expression. It admonishes me: I cannot “do justice” or “love kindness” without loving real people. It humbles me, which is just what the Doctor ordered, if I’m really ready to walk with him.

Do Justice

My flesh would prefer the command to, “Love justice.” Phrased that way, justice subtly becomes more abstract, and it’s always easier to affirm what’s abstract than perform what’s concrete.

For example, if asked, virtually everyone will say they love justice. But probe into how someone is specifically doing justice, and conversations turn awkward quickly. It’s much easier to “love justice” than to “do justice.” It’s much easier to rant against injustice than to take meaningful action to stop it. Ranting costs us little to nothing. Doing justice makes personal, time-consuming, heart-rending demands on us.

That’s why when people asked John the Baptist what repentance looked like, his answers were things such as, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none,” or, “Collect no more [taxes] than you are authorized to do,” or, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your [soldiers’] wages” (Luke 3:11–14). Feeling conviction over sin and getting dunked in water was good, but it wasn’t enough. The heart is deceitful (Jeremiah 17:9). Real heart transformation would be revealed in tangible, sacrificial acts of justice.

Loving the idea of justice is cheap. But doing justice almost always requires loving a vulnerable or oppressed person in a way that is personally costly to us. True love is not cheap, so God tests our hearts by making justice concrete, something we must do.

Love Kindness

When it comes to kindness, God flips this around and commands us to “love kindness,” not “do kindness.” Why? Because the command to “love kindness” has the same heart revealing effect as the command to “do justice.”

My flesh would prefer (only slightly) the command to read, “Do kind things.” In this case, commanding action rather than affection is a bit more manageable and measurable (particularly when measured against others).

But the command to “love kindness” pierces to the heart of things. This is far more demanding than merely doing kind things, which can easily be reduced to “occasional kind acts.” Loving kindness demands a deep structure heart orientation that shapes all our actions.

This command is also abstraction-resistant. Loving kindness is a kind of loving, for “love is kind” (1 Corinthians 13:4). And we can’t love kindness without loving people. We might be able to get away with telling others we love justice without doing much justice. But it’s very difficult to get away with saying we love kindness if others know us to often be harsh, defensive, self-centered, impatient, irritable, critical, or willing to step on people to get our way.

We wear our love of kindness (or lack of it) on our sleeves.

And like doing justice, loving kindness is costly. It almost always requires loving people in ways that place their needs and preferences ahead of our own. We can’t love kindness and love selfishness at the same time. So, God tests our hearts by making kindness not merely things we do, but something we love.

Walk Humbly

As I stood that day, letting the Spirit shine the searchlight of Micah 6:8 into my heart, recent unkind words, actions, and non-actions flashed through my mind, along with the faces of those who had received my unkindness. I began, and continue, to repent of my failures to love kindness. And as the searchlight has exposed my failures to do justice, I am repenting of that too, and trying to discern what doing justice should look like for me.

The Spirit is using this verse in my heart to fulfill what it commands. He once again has told me what he requires; and in the telling, he is exposing my sin; and in the exposing, he is kindly leading me to repentance (Romans 2:4), and in leading me to repentance, he is teaching me to walk humbly with my God.

Walking humbly with God is to walk in repentance. That’s why Martin Luther said in his first of 95 Theses, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent,’ he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” To walk in repentance is not to walk in condemnation, but in freedom. For the Father so loved us in kindness (Ephesians 2:7), that he sent his only Son to do justice for us (Romans 3:26), in supreme humility (Philippians 2:5–8), that we might have eternal life in which to know and enjoy him (John 3:16; Philippians 3:8–11).

The glorious gospel miracle is that what God requires of us in Micah 6:8, he purchases for us and accomplishes in us. So when the Spirit convicts a Christian of sin, he never condemns (Romans 8:1). His searchlight is redemptive. He exposes us only to break the power of cancelled sin and set us increasingly free to walk as Christ walked (1 John 2:26): doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God.

How to Be a Miserable Comforter: Two Ways We Fail the Hurting

How to Be a Miserable Comforter

People in pain often say painful things. Acute pain, whether physical or psychological, is not a balanced experience. It’s a dominating experience. Such pain shoves its way to the front of our priorities and almost always distorts our perspective. When it’s flaring, we tend to say things that we wouldn’t otherwise say, and in ways we wouldn’t otherwise say them.

What’s crucial for any comforter or counselor is to discern whether angry or exasperated or despairing words are coming from an afflicted person’s soul-core (their deeply held, life-governing beliefs) or from their soul-sore (a flaring pain temporarily distorting a person’s perspective). There is a huge and important difference.

The Sores of the Soul

The book of Job is a case study on how severe affliction feels and distorts our perceptions. Job’s anguished screams are raw and real. They are disturbing. When Job’s friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, came to “show him sympathy and comfort him” (Job 2:11), here’s how the most godly, wise man in the ancient east (Job 1:3) expressed his devastation:

  • “Let the day perish on which I was born, and the night that said, ‘A man is conceived’” (Job 3:3).
  • “Why did I not die at birth, come out from the womb and expire?” (Job 3:11).
  • “Or why was I not as a hidden stillborn child, as infants who never see the light?” (Job 3:16).
  • “Why is light given to him who is in misery, and life to the bitter in soul, who long for death, but it comes not, and dig for it more than for hidden treasures?” (Job 3:20–21).

“The dead are better off than I am and I wish I’d never been born.” There’s not much gospel in that perspective. There’s no expressed gratitude for prior blessings, or faith that God might have higher, hidden purposes that someday would work for a yet unknown good. Just horror.

Did these words accurately represent Job’s deepest beliefs? No. Like David in Psalm 22:1 and Heman the Ezrahite in Psalm 88:14, Job’s words were shrieks of pain. Like the puss of infection oozing from the sores on Job’s body (Job 2:7–8), words of desolation were oozing from the sores on his soul.

How to Be a Miserable Comforter

The book of Job is also a case study on how not to counsel. The three comforters are legendary for their errant theology (Job 42:7) and soul-physician malpractice (Job 16:2). They had an overly simplistic explanation for evil: God rewards righteousness with prosperity and iniquity with destruction. This resulted in their misdiagnosing Job’s spiritual state: “C’mon, Job, confess your secret sin.” Job’s evaluation was eloquent: “miserable comforters are you all” (Job 16:2).

Numerous things made these men “miserable comforters,” but let’s look at two particular mistakes, ones we are also prone to make: misapplied truth and ill-timed reproof.

Misapplied Truth

Some things these men said were theologically spot-on. Eliphaz is a good example — Paul even quoted him when writing to the Corinthians (Job 5:13; 1 Corinthians 3:19). Eliphaz was the first to offer Job “comfort,” and among the things he said was this:

“Behold, blessed is the one whom God reproves; therefore despise not the discipline of the Almighty. For he wounds, but he binds up; he shatters, but his hands heal.” (Job 5:17–18)

Now, as a statement, this is clearly true, as Psalms, Proverbs, Hosea, and Hebrews attest:

  • “Blessed is the man whom you discipline, O Lord” (Psalm 94:12).
  • “My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline or be weary of his reproof, for the Lord reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights” (Proverbs 3:11–12; Hebrews 12:5–6).
  • “Come, let us return to the Lord; for he has torn us, that he may heal us; he has struck us down, and he will bind us up” (Hosea 6:1).

But the statement being true did not make it right. In its context (Job 3–4), it’s clear Eliphaz assumed Job’s afflictions were God’s merciful reproof for a hidden sin for which he should repent (Job 4:7–8). But Eliphaz’s assumption was wrong. It’s true, God’s corrective discipline is redemptive. But Job’s suffering was not God’s corrective discipline (Job 1:6–12). Eliphaz misapplied this truth and therefore damaged Job.

We must take great care. Presumption, which can spring from the bias of our experience, as well as from the ignorance of our inexperience, can result in misdiagnosing a problem and misapplying biblical truth. And this only adds insult to injury.

Ill-Timed Reproof

Job himself articulated the second mistake:

“Do you think that you can reprove words, when the speech of a despairing man is wind?” (Job 6:26)

Job’s comforters heard his bleak, imbalanced, frustrated, hopeless, bewildered words and figured what he needed was a good dose of correction.

Reproof is merciful therapy for a soul-core problem (2 Timothy 4:2), because wrong beliefs lead to damaged lives. But reproof is salt in the wound for a soul-sore problem, because the sufferer’s words are cries for relief, not statements of belief — what Job calls “wind words.”

It’s easy to critique Job’s comforters because, unlike them, we have the advantage of seeing the big picture. But in our real-life situations, how often have we made the same mistake and given ill-timed reproofs?

I think I most often make this mistake in parenting. Many times I have quickly reproved a child for angry, defensive, or accusing words, assuming they came from a rebellious soul-core, only to discover later that they oozed from a soul-sore. I harshly reproved when I should have carefully probed and applied the balm of patient, gracious, kind, forbearing, servant-hearted, quick-to-listen, slow-to-speak love.

Skilled Comforters Are Slow

Discerning the difference between soul-core words and soul-sore words is no easy thing. Human souls are complex and wounds are messy. Skilled physicians are not rash; neither are skilled soul-physicians. They are quick to listen carefully and slow to diagnose carefully (James 1:19). They take time to ponder before answering (Proverbs 15:28).

And when skilled comforters do speak, they speak appropriate (Proverbs 25:11), life-giving (Proverbs 10:11), nourishing (Proverbs 10:21), wise (Proverbs 10:31), and restrained words (Proverbs 17:27).

Becoming a skilled comforter takes time. But if we are willing to love patiently and forbearingly (1 Corinthians 13:4, 7), and not presumptuously trust our own understanding (Proverbs 3:5), we will likely avoid the miserable mistakes of Job’s comforters. For, as John Piper once said, “Restoring the soul, not reproving the sore, is the aim of our love.”

God Plans for the Unexpected and Inconvenient

God Plans for the Unexpected and Inconvenient

When Luke recorded his version of the Lord’s Prayer (Luke 11:2–4), he included Jesus expounding on this prayer through an odd parable that would have made his original hearers cringe:

“Which of you who has a friend will go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves, for a friend of mine has arrived on a journey, and I have nothing to set before him’; and he will answer from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed. I cannot get up and give you anything’? I tell you, though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his impudence he will rise and give him whatever he needs.” (Luke 11:5–8)

What’s odd is that a story about a socially humiliating situation and a reluctant, irritated benefactor is supposed to encourage us to pray. What does Jesus want us to see in this kind of need and this kind of provider?

1. Expect Unexpected Needs

The first thing to see is that the protagonist’s guest was unexpected. Jesus’s original hearers would have implicitly understood this.

In first-century near-Eastern cultures, having no food to offer a guest was deeply shameful. Note that this man would rather wake his sleeping friend’s entire family in the middle of the night than fail to provide food for his unexpected guest. Both situations (no food and sleeping friend) would have been deeply embarrassing and he would have avoided them if at all foreseen.

Lesson One: Jesus wants us to expect unexpected needs and respond to them.

2. Prepare Yourself for Inconvenience

A second thing to see is that the protagonist’s unexpected guest arrives at midnight. Of course it would have to be midnight.

Most of us today would consider midnight an inconvenient time to meet an unexpected need. Back then it was a really inconvenient time. We could assume our protagonist also had a family who also had their sleep interrupted. It’s not hard to imagine the crankiness and culturally equivalent grumbling whispers of “Are you serious?” when suddenly forced to entertain an unexpected midnight guest — especially when there’s no food to offer them. With no 24-hour convenience stores, and no phones to discreetly call for help, the man is required to trudge over to a friend’s house in the dead of night, and wake an entire family to ask for three small loaves of bread.

Lesson Two: Jesus wants us to expect to respond to unexpected needs at very inconvenient times.

3. Admit Your Insufficiency

A third thing to notice is what the protagonist says to his sleepy friend: “Friend, lend me three loaves, for a friend of mine has arrived on a journey, and I have nothing to set before him.”

“I have nothing.” These are powerful words about impotence. The man in the parable found himself suddenly called on to respond to a need he lacked the resources to meet, and this forced him to beg provision from someone who had the resources.

Remember, this is a parable about prayer, not hospitality. In the man’s words, “I have nothing,” Jesus means for us to see our condition before God. Does this not describe our frequent sense of desperation in the face of someone else’s need? I feel this daily as a husband, father, friend, pastor, writer — as a Christian. I don’t have resident in me the resources to meet the needs around me. Our lack tempts us to avoid others’ needs rather than expose our insufficiency.

But Jesus not only knows our impoverished condition; he designed it. He’s the Vine; we’re the branches. “Apart from [him we] can do nothing” (John 15:5). He wants us to feel keenly that we have nothing to offer on our own because this desperation moves us to ask God for what we need. That’s why immediately after telling this parable, Jesus says, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you” (Luke 11:9).

Lesson Three: Jesus wants our inability to meet unexpected, inconvenient needs to drive us to plead with God to supply the resources we need to serve others.

4. Remember God Is Eager to Help

A fourth thing to notice is the sleepy friend’s reluctance to help his desperate friend. This is what really makes the parable odd. The sleepy friend doesn’t want to be bothered. This forces the already inconvenienced and humiliated protagonist to become impudent (stubbornly persistent) in begging for help.

Why did Jesus use a reluctant friend to encourage us in prayer? We can see his reason in a similar point he made a few sentences later:

“If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:13)

Jesus’s point here is that our heavenly Father is more inclined to give us good gifts than we evil fathers are inclined to give our children good gifts. Similarly, the friend’s reluctance in the parable is not a reflection of our heavenly Father; he is a contrast to our heavenly Father. If a selfish, inconvenience-avoiding friend can be moved by “impudence” to meet his friend’s need, how much more will our eager, generous heavenly Father be moved by our persistent prayers! If God delays in answering our prayers, it is not due to reluctance on his part.

Lesson Four: Jesus wants us to respond to unexpected, inconvenient needs we cannot meet, with persistent prayer, remembering our Father’s eagerness to provide for us.

Will You Accept the Invitation?

This odd parable about prayer is a wonderful gift. Jesus is reassuring us that unexpected needs, arising at the most inconvenient times, which are beyond our ability to meet, and so press us to plead with God for provision, are part of the normal Christian life.

They are, in fact, God’s design. Few things have the power to make people feel more loved than our willingness to joyfully sacrifice to make them a priority. And few things honor God more than our willingness to really trust him to provide for our needs. The two forces combine when we face unexpected, inconvenient, overwhelming needs. They are opportunities to sacrificially love like Jesus and radically trust in Jesus at the same time.

When It’s Hard to Believe

When It’s Hard to Believe

Believing what we cannot see is hard. All of us are skeptics to some degree. Some more than others. But there is often more going on inside a skeptic than meets the eye. And, as Thomas’s experience illustrates (John 20:24–29), Jesus knows how to reach them.

The following imaginative story explores what it might have been like for Thomas to linger alone in his skepticism for eight long days. I have combined John’s account with accounts in the other Gospels to put together a new fictional account for fellow skeptics.

It Can’t Be True

Jesus’s death had been difficult and confusing for everyone. Having been welcomed into Jerusalem like a king, he was dead before the week was over. And when the shepherd was struck, the sheep scattered (Mark 14:27). But they regathered in a secret hideout in Jerusalem.

On Sunday things took a weird twist. It began with Mary Magdalene insisting that she had seen Jesus alive that morning. True, Jesus’s body disappearing was admittedly strange. But still, everyone knew Jesus had really died. No one could really believe Mary’s claim, except maybe John.

Then later in the day Peter announced that he also had seen Jesus alive. This troubled Thomas. But he figured he could cut Peter some slack. After denying Jesus publicly, who could blame Peter for desperately wishing it to be true? He just needed time.

But then Cleopas burst into the house Sunday night claiming that he had walked — walked! — with Jesus to Emmaus that afternoon (Luke 24:13–35). What Thomas found particularly hard to believe was that Cleopas and his friend hadn’t recognized Jesus the entire time until dinner, and then poof! he just disappeared.

Well, this excited everyone else. But Thomas only felt agitated. He desperately missed Jesus too, but he wasn’t going to let grief make him believe the bizarre. Jesus was dead.

Yet he didn’t feel like dousing everyone’s unreal hope with a wet blanket of reality. They weren’t ready to hear it anyway. Thomas decided he needed to clear his head with a walk. By himself.

Could It Be True?

After whispering a discreet excuse to Nathaniel, he managed to slip outside without notice. After being very careful not to betray the hideout, he covered his head and started down an empty street.

The quiet was refreshing, but the walk wasn’t as helpful as he had hoped. The Jesus sightings disturbed him, especially because the witnesses were credible. He knew them. They weren’t liars. They weren’t unstable. None were given to delusions. Peter, particularly, was a rock of reason.

A rush of memories from the past three years flowed through Thomas’s mind. He had seen so many things that would have been unbelievable if he hadn’t seen them. Most haunting right now was Lazarus.

And Jesus had seemed to know that he was going to die in Jerusalem. He had said those strange things about his death and resurrection.

Suddenly Thomas realized he was arguing with himself. His agitation really wasn’t over his friends’ failure to face the facts. The facts, in fact, were now confusing. He was agitated because part of him actually believed Jesus was alive again. That’s what Jesus had meant, wasn’t it? But this frustrated the skeptic in him who took pride in being a man of common sense. A resurrection just seemed too incredible to be true.

The more he thought, the less sure he became. No one knew where Jesus’s body was. Those who claimed to have seen him were people he trusted. It would make sense of certain prophecies. Could it be?

His skeptic side shouted within him, Show me the body! At least Lazarus could be seen and touched in Bethany by any doubter. If Jesus really was alive, why this game of hide and seek? Wouldn’t he just show himself to them all?

He would believe Jesus was alive if he saw him alive for himself.

Stubborn, Lonely Doubter

When Thomas returned to the house, four of his friends pounced on him (John 20:24), “We have seen the Lord, Thomas! It’s all true! He was just with us! Where were you?”

Thomas felt a surge of shock and unbelief. Then he felt regret for having left. Then he felt isolated. He was the only one who hadn’t seen Jesus.

In self-pity-fueled anger, he blurted out with more conviction than he felt, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe” (John 20:25).

Most of his friends were dismayed. But Peter just watched him, smiling slightly.

The following eight days were long and lonely for Thomas. His friends were gracious. No one debated him. It was, in fact, their calm confidence in Jesus’s resurrection that aggravated Thomas’s growing conviction that he was wrong. Outside he tried to maintain a façade of resolute intellectual skepticism, but inside he was wrestling and melting and wanting more than anything to see Jesus too.

Surrender

And then it happened. Thomas was staring at the floor, sinking again under the fear that maybe Jesus had rejected him because of his stubborn unbelief. If so, he knew he deserved it. Then someone gasped. He looked up and his heart leaped into his throat! Jesus was standing across the room looking at him. “Peace be with you” (John 20:26).

Thomas could hardly breathe. Jesus spoke to him, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe” (John 20:27).

All objections and resistance in Thomas evaporated. And in tears of repentance, relief, and worship Thomas dropped on his knees before Jesus and exclaimed, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28).

Be Patient and Prayerful

Be patient and gracious with the skeptics in your life. Don’t assume their outward confidence accurately reflects their inward condition. Keep praying for them and share what seems helpful when it seems helpful. Keep confidently and humbly following Jesus. And trust his timing. He knows best how and when to reveal himself to each of us.

When It’s Hard to Believe

When It’s Hard to Believe

Believing what we cannot see is hard. All of us are skeptics to some degree. Some more than others. But there is often more going on inside a skeptic than meets the eye. And, as Thomas’s experience illustrates (John 20:24–29), Jesus knows how to reach them.

The following imaginative story explores what it might have been like for Thomas to linger alone in his skepticism for eight long days. I have combined John’s account with accounts in the other Gospels to put together a new fictional account for fellow skeptics.

It Can’t Be True

Jesus’s death had been difficult and confusing for everyone. Having been welcomed into Jerusalem like a king, he was dead before the week was over. And when the shepherd was struck, the sheep scattered (Mark 14:27). But they regathered in a secret hideout in Jerusalem.

On Sunday things took a weird twist. It began with Mary Magdalene insisting that she had seen Jesus alive that morning. True, Jesus’s body disappearing was admittedly strange. But still, everyone knew Jesus had really died. No one could really believe Mary’s claim, except maybe John.

Then later in the day Peter announced that he also had seen Jesus alive. This troubled Thomas. But he figured he could cut Peter some slack. After denying Jesus publicly, who could blame Peter for desperately wishing it to be true? He just needed time.

But then Cleopas burst into the house Sunday night claiming that he had walked — walked! — with Jesus to Emmaus that afternoon (Luke 24:13–35). What Thomas found particularly hard to believe was that Cleopas and his friend hadn’t recognized Jesus the entire time until dinner, and then poof! he just disappeared.

Well, this excited everyone else. But Thomas only felt agitated. He desperately missed Jesus too, but he wasn’t going to let grief make him believe the bizarre. Jesus was dead.

Yet he didn’t feel like dousing everyone’s unreal hope with a wet blanket of reality. They weren’t ready to hear it anyway. Thomas decided he needed to clear his head with a walk. By himself.

Could It Be True?

After whispering a discreet excuse to Nathaniel, he managed to slip outside without notice. After being very careful not to betray the hideout, he covered his head and started down an empty street.

The quiet was refreshing, but the walk wasn’t as helpful as he had hoped. The Jesus sightings disturbed him, especially because the witnesses were credible. He knew them. They weren’t liars. They weren’t unstable. None were given to delusions. Peter, particularly, was a rock of reason.

A rush of memories from the past three years flowed through Thomas’s mind. He had seen so many things that would have been unbelievable if he hadn’t seen them. Most haunting right now was Lazarus.

And Jesus had seemed to know that he was going to die in Jerusalem. He had said those strange things about his death and resurrection.

Suddenly Thomas realized he was arguing with himself. His agitation really wasn’t over his friends’ failure to face the facts. The facts, in fact, were now confusing. He was agitated because part of him actually believed Jesus was alive again. That’s what Jesus had meant, wasn’t it? But this frustrated the skeptic in him who took pride in being a man of common sense. A resurrection just seemed too incredible to be true.

The more he thought, the less sure he became. No one knew where Jesus’s body was. Those who claimed to have seen him were people he trusted. It would make sense of certain prophecies. Could it be?

His skeptic side shouted within him, Show me the body! At least Lazarus could be seen and touched in Bethany by any doubter. If Jesus really was alive, why this game of hide and seek? Wouldn’t he just show himself to them all?

He would believe Jesus was alive if he saw him alive for himself.

Stubborn, Lonely Doubter

When Thomas returned to the house, four of his friends pounced on him (John 20:24), “We have seen the Lord, Thomas! It’s all true! He was just with us! Where were you?”

Thomas felt a surge of shock and unbelief. Then he felt regret for having left. Then he felt isolated. He was the only one who hadn’t seen Jesus.

In self-pity-fueled anger, he blurted out with more conviction than he felt, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe” (John 20:25).

Most of his friends were dismayed. But Peter just watched him, smiling slightly.

The following eight days were long and lonely for Thomas. His friends were gracious. No one debated him. It was, in fact, their calm confidence in Jesus’s resurrection that aggravated Thomas’s growing conviction that he was wrong. Outside he tried to maintain a façade of resolute intellectual skepticism, but inside he was wrestling and melting and wanting more than anything to see Jesus too.

Surrender

And then it happened. Thomas was staring at the floor, sinking again under the fear that maybe Jesus had rejected him because of his stubborn unbelief. If so, he knew he deserved it. Then someone gasped. He looked up and his heart leaped into his throat! Jesus was standing across the room looking at him. “Peace be with you” (John 20:26).

Thomas could hardly breathe. Jesus spoke to him, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe” (John 20:27).

All objections and resistance in Thomas evaporated. And in tears of repentance, relief, and worship Thomas dropped on his knees before Jesus and exclaimed, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28).

Be Patient and Prayerful

Be patient and gracious with the skeptics in your life. Don’t assume their outward confidence accurately reflects their inward condition. Keep praying for them and share what seems helpful when it seems helpful. Keep confidently and humbly following Jesus. And trust his timing. He knows best how and when to reveal himself to each of us.

Look, the World Has Gone After Him: Prelude to Palm Sunday

Look, the World Has Gone After Him

We know from the apostle John why Palm Sunday happened:

The crowd that had been with [Jesus] when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to bear witness. The reason why the crowd went to meet him was that they heard he had done this sign. (John 12:17–18)

The Sunday parade of palms was a celebration of a resurrection.

A Confusing Providence

But that resurrection was preceded by a confusing death.

Lazarus had died. We don’t know what he died of, only that he was “ill” (John 11:1). The Bible rarely provides grisly details. But death by illness in the First Century, with none of the medical aids we modern Westerners take for granted, was no doubt horrible.

His death brought profound grief to his sisters, Martha and Mary, who had nursed him as best they could. And Jesus, their dear friend, who also happened to be the greatest healer in the history of the world, had not come. This added grief upon grief for the sisters (John 11:21, 32). Jesus had not even made it for the funeral. When he finally did show up, Lazarus’s corpse had already begun to decompose.

“Why?” “Where were you?” These were the implied agonizing questions both sisters expressed to Jesus. They weren’t the only ones asking. Others present were muttering, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?” (John 11:37) He had saved others. Could he not have saved Lazarus? To Martha, Jesus gave an ambiguous hint of his purpose (John 11:23), but he was too troubled in spirit to say much to Mary (John 11:33).

And then within a matter of minutes Lazarus, Martha, and Mary were in a tri-fold embrace, weeping together with unexpected, ineffable, awe-filled joy! Jesus had done exactly what he foretold: “Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live” (John 5:25).

A Plan of Prescient Precision

But so much more was going on than the happy siblings, or the stunned observers, or even Jesus’s disciples understood. Not only did this resurrection demonstrate with unprecedented power the reality of who Jesus was, it also set in motion the fulfillment of biblical prophecy.

Word of Lazarus’s resurrection naturally spread like wildfire. The Jewish authorities’ serious concern over Jesus escalated to alarm. They plotted to murder him (John 11:47–50).

Jesus laid low for a few weeks, and then reappeared in Bethany to share one last and remarkable supper at the Bethany home of Lazarus, Mary, and Martha. The remarks got out quickly, and soon a large crowd gathered to get a glimpse not only of Jesus but also of the newly resurrected and probably reluctant celebrity (John 12:9). Being a celebrity for rising from the dead was ironically proving to be deadly, since the authorities were planning to take Lazarus out along with Jesus (John 12:10–11).

But Jesus knew exactly what he was doing. The timing of Lazarus’s horrible death, of his astonishing resurrection, of Jesus’s laying low, and now of his public reappearance was all coordinated with a prescient precision that would not be noticed until later (John 12:16). His hour had come at last. He would no longer lay low. The news must spread. It was time for the ancient gates to raise their heads, and the ancient doors to lift in homage. The King of glory was on his way (Psalm 24:7).

A Prophetic Procession

And so the news spread, and so the crowd swelled to receive in procession the One who had raised a man from the dead. Could there be any doubt that he was the Messiah? Doubts would come, but few doubted it that day. People grabbed palm branches, a symbol of Jewish nationalism, and cried out, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!” (John 12:13).

Few if any recognized in the euphoric moment the fulfillment of Zechariah’s prophecy:

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem!
Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he,
humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. (Zechariah 9:9)

But Jesus recognized the moment. And so he “found a young donkey and sat on it” (John 12:14).

I said few doubted Jesus that day. But the few who did wielded a lethal amount of earthly power. As the Pharisees watched this potent moment with unmistakable implications unfold, they said to each other, “You see that you are gaining nothing. Look, the world has gone after him” (John 12:19). But this was not resignation. The crowd’s jubilation only hardened the authorities’ resolve to kill the dead-raising Son of God.

A Prophetic Precursor

And Jesus knew this. In the midst of the prophetic, palm-waving party, Jesus knew it would trigger the fulfillment of another prophecy:

But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. (Isaiah 53:5)

Jesus knew Lazarus’s expiration would result in resurrection; he knew this resurrection would result in the crowd’s celebration; he knew this celebration would result in the Council’s homicidal determination; he knew this determination would result in his unjust condemnation; and he knew this condemnation would result in his own brutal expiration by crucifixion.

And he knew that his innocent, yet guilt-imputed expiration would result in the imputation of his righteousness to many (Isaiah 53:11; 2 Corinthians 5:21), and in a resurrection far more glorious and world-shaking than Lazarus’s.

Palm Sunday was a celebration of a resurrection. But it was only a prophetic precursor. One week later, a resurrection occurred whose celebration has continued two millennia hence.

And look, the world has gone after him.