Things That Are Above

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God is Good, Just, and Sovereign in Our Suffering (Part 1)

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How should we think about God’s sovereignty in relation to our suffering? Do our sufferings disprove God’s goodness, if not his sovereignty and even existence, as well? Such rebellious unbelief is the default human response to God in the midst of suffering, but this response is an unbiblical, un-Christian response to suffering. James upholds Job as an example of one “who remained steadfast” and through whom later readers of the Bible can see “the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful” (Jas 5:11). Even in the midst of our suffering, God is sovereign, and God in his sovereignty, even over our sufferings, is good. This point is the main point of Job 38:1–42:6, where God confronts Job’s wavering faith in the preceding chapters in order to strengthen Job’s faith so that it is truly steadfast.

As we work our way through Job 38:1–42:6 over the next month, we will see how God’s good sovereignty shines through each section. In Job 38:1–40:2, God establishes his just goodness in the natural world, which prompts Job to respond in 40:3–5 with an initial response of humility and faith. However, Job’s reply to God’s first speech is explicitly a humble promise of silence, so God renews his rhetorical assault in 40:6 and continues through 41:34. God’s second speech emphasizes his good sovereignty over the supernatural world, particularly over the enigmatic figures of Behemoth (40:15–24) and Leviathan (41:1–34). At this point Job finally responds with mature humility and faith by repenting of his previous ignorance and admitting that God has been in the right all along (42:1–6).

Job 38:1–42:6 is a foundational text for thinking biblically about God’s sovereignty in relation to human suffering. As we will see in more detail, this text teaches that God is good and just in his exercise of sovereignty over our suffering. This truth should prompt us to respond to God in humble faith even when we suffer. As James says, Job teaches us that God’s purpose is to be “compassionate and merciful.” If Job believed this fully at the end of God’s two speeches, how much more should we believe this truth today, when we have the whole counsel of God in the Bible? How much more should we trust God to be compassionate and merciful even when we suffer, since God has supremely revealed his compassion and mercy in the life, death, and resurrection of his Son Jesus Christ, the Savior and Lord? I pray that this study of Job 38:1–42:6 in the coming weeks will help us to set our minds on things that are above, where Christ is, because he is the ultimate reason we can think and feel biblically about suffering as taught in this text.

Written by Jordan Atkinson

June 22, 2015 at 12:04 PM

A Call to Repentance

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Last month it was my privilege to preach at Eastside Baptist Church in Winfield, AL, on Genesis 6:5-8. This text functions as a call to repentance, as it gives four reasons why people should repent and turn to God in faith that he will save them by Jesus’ death and resurrection:

  1. Repent because God sees your wickedness (v. 5).
  2. Repent because God grieves over your wickedness (v. 6).
  3. Repent because God will judge your wickedness (v. 7).
  4. Repent because God offers you salvation from your wickedness (v. 8).

My sermon can be listened to here.

Wisdom in Lament (Wisdom Wednesday #4)

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Our sufferings don’t surprise God. Neither do our tears. God can sustain us in sufferings, and he can comfort us in our sorrows. That’s why it’s wise to lament as the Psalmists so often did. Some Psalms are particularly known for being “Wisdom Psalms,” such as Psalms 1 and 127. But even Psalms that are commonly called “Psalms of Lament” are examples of divinely inspired Wisdom Literature (as much as are the other “poetical” books of the Old Testament).

Take, for example, Psalm 10. This is a typical Psalm of Lament: the Psalmist is suffering at the hands of wicked people (vv. 2-11). He feels separated from God by his suffering (v. 1). He prays for God both to punish the wicked who are causing suffering (vv. 2-11 and 15) and to alleviate his suffering (vv. 12-14). Psalm 10 is a Psalm of Lament.

As a Psalm of Lament, however, Psalm 10 is also a Wisdom Psalm; it teaches us how to live wisely. In the Bible, wisdom is God-centered. Proverbs 9:10 teaches, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom” (ESV, as are all subsequent Bible references). And the Psalmist, even in the midst of his suffering, fears the Lord. The Psalmist feels like God his “stand[ing] far away” from him and “hid[den]” from him, but he addresses God as “LORD,” Yahweh, the God who is in a compassionate covenant relationship with him as he is with all his people (Ps. 10:1; cf. Exod. 34:6-7). From this attitude of faith, the Psalmist cries out to God in prayer (Ps. 10:2, 12, and 15). The Psalmist ends his lament confident both in God’s sovereignty (Ps. 10:16) and in God’s goodness (vv. 17-18). Biblical wisdom denotes rightly relating to God (and others) in everyday life. By modeling for us how to relate to God in the midst of suffering, the Psalmist who penned Psalm 10 illustrates the truth that Psalms is not only a book of poetry but also a book of wisdom, a book of how to live by faith in God, especially when that faith is so sorely tested by suffering.

Like the Psalmist, we should cry out to God in prayer. We Christians are in a covenant relationship with God because Jesus is our Passover lamb. By faith in his sacrificial death for us we are freed from our bondage to sin, as the Israelites were freed from bondage to the Egyptians. Like the Psalmist, then, may we through prayer come before God’s throne of grace boldly to receive help in our times of need (Heb. 4:14-16).

Why is it wise to pursue God in the midst of suffering, when perhaps he himself seems to be allowing it—if not directly causing it? Psalm 10 teaches us that it is wise to pray to God in our suffering because atheism is a trait of the wicked (v. 4) and is a self-imploding dogma (vv. 11, 13). It is wise to pray to God in our suffering because he sees us in our suffering and “note[s] mischief and vexation” (v. 14). To borrow from the New Testament, we should cast our cares on God because he cares for us (1 Pet. 5:7). It is wise to pray to God in suffering because one day he will alleviate the suffering of his people—for all eternity (Ps. 10:17-18). The apostle John describes our eternal deliverance from suffering this way:

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Rev. 21:3-4)

Abandoning God because we feel abandoned by him in our suffering is the most foolish thing to do. As Psalm 10 (and, indeed, the whole Bible!) teaches us, we should instead wisely cry out to God in prayer for final salvation from the very presence of sin, which is the true source of all earthly suffering. John understood the wisdom of Psalm 10 and cried at the end of his book (despite his own adversity of being exiled on Patmos), “Come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev. 22:20). May we wisely join him in the midst of our own varied sufferings by earnestly pleading for Jesus’ soon return, when he will make all things new.

Walking the Wise Way (Wisdom Wednesday #3)

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One of my favorite poems is Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” It begins,

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth; (lines 1-5)

Frost is talking metaphorically about one’s life journey. Throughout life, you make choices that determine your “way.” These choices can be simple and bear little consequence. What shirt will I wear? Do I want fries with that burger? Those choices can be more complex and have significant consequences. Do I stay single or get married? Do I attend college after high school or immediately embark on a career? The most important choice of all has eternal consequences. Will I take God at his word, the Bible, and follow Jesus as my Savior and Lord? How you answer this question will determine not only your eternity but the rest of your life. And the wrong answer could easily lead to the “worldly grief” that “produces death” instead of “repentance” (2 Cor. 7:10, ESV, as are all subsequent Bible references), which is the kind of regret Frost expresses at the end of “The Road Not Taken”:

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference. (lines 16-20)

Frost’s regret is expressed in his “sigh” and in the fact that he has entitled this poem, nostalgically as it were, “The Road Not Taken.” A major theme in Proverbs is the “two ways” to live life, the wise way and the foolish way. The foolish way leads to regret, like Frost’s road “less traveled by,” and ultimately eternal death, whereas the wise way leads to joy, like Frost’s “road not taken” presumably would, and ultimately eternal life. Which way will you choose? That is the question Proverbs poses to us.

Proverbs exhorts us to choose to walk the wise way of pursuing God. According to Proverbs 21:6, “Every way of a man is right in his own eyes, but the LORD weighs the heart.” We can justify anything we do, but what matters is whether God justifies us. As we read elsewhere in Proverbs,

Those of crooked heart are an abomination to the LORD,
but those of blameless ways are his delight. (11:20)

The way of the guilty is crooked,
but the conduct of the pure is upright. (21:8)

In other words, God delights in the pure, the blameless, the upright; he hates the crooked and justly condemns them as guilty. The wise way is the way of loving God and loving others, to sum up the Old Testament as Jesus does in Matthew 22:34-40. The foolish way is the way of rebelling against God and harming others.

When taken in the context of the whole Bible, the foolish way is the road we’re all traveling from birth. The Ephesian Christians, prior to their conversion, Paul writes, “were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind” (Eph. 2:3). Paul here tells us that we’re all naturally under God’s wrath, we’re all an abomination to him, because we’re all foolish and crooked; to use Paul’s phrasing in Ephesians, “we all once lived in the passions of our flesh,” which means we were living in rebellion against God. And James adds that the cause of human conflict–failure to keep the second greatest commandment–is our “passions” (Jas. 4:1). We’re all sinful, all foolish, all on the way to hell.

But the good news of the gospel is that Jesus offers a way–the only way–off of the path of folly and onto the way of wisdom. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said,

“Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” (Matt. 7:13-14)

Jesus calls everyone to enter by the narrow gate, to take the road that isn’t taken by most othersAnd Jesus himself is the gate by which we embark on the wise way: “So Jesus again said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. … I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture'” (John 10:7, 9).

How do we take the road not taken? The gospel breaks into the world of Frost’s poem by giving hope, hope that you can get onto the wise way no matter how many times you’ve taken instead the foolish way before. As Paul promises, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Rom. 10:13). Everyone. No matter how foolish and sinful you are. If you call on the name of the Lord to save you, if you repent, turning away from your sin, and trusting Jesus to save you from your sin by his death and resurrection, you will be saved.

And fellow Christians, following Christ on the way of wisdom means following him in holiness. Paul exhorts us: “train yourself for godliness” (1 Tim. 4:7). Peter concurs: “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 3:18). Ultimately, God himself speaks to us throughout Scripture to equip us “for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:17). Fellow Christians, let us walk by faith in Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit the wise way set out for us in Proverbs and in all the books of the Bible, to the glory of God the Father.

Is God Anti-Gay? (Review Thursday #2)

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71gwlJNkHoLSam Allberry. Is God Anti-Gay? And Other Questions About Homosexuality, the Bible and Same-Sex Attraction. The Good Book Company, 2013.

This short book, part of the Questions Christian Ask series published by The Good Book Company, is worth well over its weight in the wisdom it contains on homosexuality. Perhaps more than any other subject, homosexuality is the “hot topic” of recent years both in American evangelicalism and in the broader American culture at large. Not only unbelievers but also Christians have been asking the question, “Is God anti-gay?” So Allberry’s answer is timely. More importantly, Allberry’s answer is biblical.

Allberry’s biblical answer to the titular question is most evident in his constant grounding of the issue of the Bible (and God) on homosexuality in the gospel. In Allberry’s own words: “God’s message for gay people is the same as his message for everyone. Repent and believe. It is the same invitation to find fullness of life in God, the same offer of forgiveness and deep, wonderful, life-changing love” (10). No one is reducible to his or her sexuality, so the gospel–although it addresses our sexuality–addresses our whole persons. This truth resurfaces repeatedly in this book, most notably in the final chapter when Allberry answers the question, “What’s the best way to share Christ with a gay friend?” (75-76). The central strength of Is God Anti-Gay? is its tight focus on the gospel of Jesus, which is good news for both heterosexual and homosexual people.

Allberry’s book is superb from first to last. The introduction builds Allberry’s rapport with the reader: he is a Christian who has struggled with same-sex attraction (SSA) since his teenage years (10-13). Chapter one appropriately begins with the broader issue of which homosexuality is but a part: sexuality. Specifically, Allberry reviews how God ordained all people to express their sexuality exclusively in monogamous, heterosexual marriage. From there, Allberry notes how the Bible specifically addresses homosexuality in chapter two. After concluding that the Bible consistently condemns homosexuality, Allberry counsels Christians who struggle with SSA to pray, think about homosexuality biblically, and seek others’ support. He also affirms the application of the Bible’s teaching on sexuality for Christians who struggle with SSA. The sexual options for them, as for all people, are either heterosexual marriage or chaste celibacy. Himself celibate, Allberry does an excellent job highlighting the healthiness of singleness, going so far as to call singleness (rightly) a “blessing,” just as much a blessing as marriage is for married couples (54). The final two chapters of the book go hand-in-hand because Allberry offers practical advice to Christians on how to relate both to homosexuals within the church (whether visiting nonbelievers or Christians who struggle with SSA) and homosexuals in the world. Allberry concludes these chapters well:

It will be the quality of our community life as a church, as much as our ability to speak clearly into the public square, that will most visibly show a watching world that the Christian stance on sexuality is the most compelling. (79)

To reflect on the conclusion of the book is to return to the gospel-saturated nature of Is God Anti-Gay? because the conclusion is itself a meditation on John 6:35, where Jesus says, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst” (ESV). Allberry’s main point about this verse is that Jesus is the bread of life. In Allberry’s own words: “The great gift that Jesus gives us is himself” (83). Amen. The gospel is the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ, who promises everyone who repents–turning away from sin, whatever forms it takes in an individual’s life–and believes this good news that Jesus has given himself to us and for us to save us from our sins by his life, death, and resurrection.

For all these reasons, I cannot more highly recommend to Is God Anti-Gay? to every Christian I know. This book is accessible and gives great returns for the less than $10 investment to purchase it. The wisdom Allberry shares in this book is valuable because it is biblical–and being biblical, this book is first and foremost gospel-saturated. The gospel of Jesus Christ undergirds every page. May Is God Anti-Gay? help Christians respond biblically not only to the ideology of homosexuality but also to homosexuals. May this book help Christians “speak the truth in love” to homosexuals, for they are no worse sinners than we.

Wisdom for a King (Wisdom Wednesday #2)

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Two basic questions to ask when reading a book are (1) who wrote this book? and (2) to whom was this book written? Knowing both the author and audience of a book helps the reader to read the book well. Applying these questions to Proverbs is thus helpful in understanding how it applies to us Christians today.

Solomon wrote and compiled Proverbs in the tenth century BC. Proverbs begins by identifying him as the author of the book as a whole: “The proverbs of Solomon, son of David, king of Israel” (1:1). According to Prov. 10:1, “the proverbs of Solomon” continue through 22:16. According to Prov. 22:17, the following two and a half chapters are comprised of “the words of the wise” that Solomon has incorporated into his “knowledge.” Chapters 25-29 “also are proverbs of Solomon which the men of Hezekiah king of Judah copied” (25:1). Proverbs 30 and 31 conclude with “the words of Agur” and “the words of King Lemuel,” which “his mother taught him,” respectively (30:1 and 31:1). Solomon is thus the main author of Proverbs, both by writing original proverbs and by compiling others, all under inspiration of God’s Holy Spirit.

Solomon originally wrote Proverbs to his sons, especially Rehoboam who was to succeed him on the throne of Israel. The father-son dynamic in Proverbs is apparent early on and throughout the book. In Prov. 1:8, Solomon writes, “Hear, my son, your father’s instruction, and forsake not your mother’s teaching.” He also addresses his “son” in 1:10 and 15, as well as 2:1; 3:1, 11, and 21. Solomon addresses his “sons” in 4:1-9 before focusing again on his “son” in 4:10, 20; 5:1; 6:1, 20; and 7:1. Solomon, the wisest man ever to live, recorded his God-given wisdom for his sons, especially Rehoboam, who would need this wisdom in order to govern the nation of Israel well.

The individual Proverbs of Solomon gave Rehoboam practical advice for being a wise king. “Where there is no guidance, a people falls, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety” (11:14). “By justice a king builds up the land, but he who exacts gifts [or taxes heavily, ESV footnote] tears it down” (29:4). “It is an abomination to kings to do evil, for the throne is established by righteousness” (16:12). Biblically, a king should be just and merciful. Sadly, Rehoboam was neither. Though the wisest man in the world, Solomon was not perfect, and in Proverbs he urges his sons not to repeat his mistakes but rather to learn from them. Rehoboam, however, both repeated and worsened his fathers mistakes, which cost him ten of the twelve tribes of Israel (1 Kings 12:1-24). The wisdom for a king found in Proverbs was humanly impossible even for the wisest man on earth and his descendants, which ultimately lost the kingdom of Judah to the Babylonians in 586 BC (2 Kings 25:1-21).

To understand how Solomon’s wisdom for kings applies to us Christians today, we must go through the perfectly wise king, King Jesus. Jesus “established” his throne “by righteousness.” As it is written in Romans 3:21-26,

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

Jesus’ life and death were wholly righteous, and his righteousness established his eternal throne over the universe, as Paul puts it elsewhere,

And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name (Phil. 2:8-9).

Jesus is the perfectly wise king who established an eternal and universal throne by his perfect righteousness.

Which brings us to how Proverbs’s wisdom for kings applies to us Christians. Adam and Eve were originally meant to rule over creation (Gen. 1:28) but abdicated the throne of this world to Satan when they sinned in Eden (Gen. 3). Jesus, however, has fulfilled God’s promise in Gen. 3:15 to crush the head of the serpent. By his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus has defeated Satan. Although Satan still functionally rules over nonbelievers, Jesus has established his throne over all the universe, and we believers are no longer under Satan’s dominion. Paul says that we believers are “fellow heirs with Christ” (Rom. 8:17)–and if fellow heirs, then restored vice-regents as were Adam and Eve before their fall. We believers should therefore strive to live righteously in this life. Put simply, Solomon’s wisdom for kings is universally wise. Kings should be righteous as an example for their people to follow. King Jesus is perfectly righteous, and by the grace of God, we his people are being conformed to that righteousness day by day (Rom. 8:29). Let us Christians therefore wisely “walk in newness of life” because through faith we have been “raised from the dead” with Christ (Rom. 6:4).

“Why Jesus?” A Sermon on Romans 10:5-13

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In the midst of editing my research paper on Romans 9-11, I had the privilege to preach on Romans 10:5-13. This text is the heart of Romans 9-11, this section’s main point. In his recent Pauline theology, N. T. Wright convincingly argues that Romans 9-11 is a chiasm, the center of which is 10:5-13, most specifically 10:9 (Paul and the Faithfulness of God, 1161-1176). (Wright’s book was published subsequent to my initial writing of the paper, and my initial reading of its section on Romans 9-11 allowed me to cite Wright solely for his explicit rebuttal of theologians who try to argue that Jews can be saved by Jesus without believing that he is the Christ. Although I find Wright’s chiastic structure of Romans 9-11 compelling, I do not agree with some of his interpretations concerning Romans 9-11. Once I read this mammoth tome in its entirety I hope to engage its many arguments in more detail.) Because Romans 9-11 is chiastic, the central text is central to the section’s meaning. The basic problem of Romans 9-11 is how God is faithful despite many Jews’ rejection of Christ’s gospel and thus exclusion from the people of God. Romans 10:5-13 solves this problem: “confessing with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believing in your heart that God raised him from the dead” (Rom. 10:9) is the only way for God to be faithful and save people.

In the broader argument of Romans 10:5-13, Paul maintains that no one has ever been saved by keeping the law because no one (except Jesus) keeps the law (Rom. 10:5). In fact, the law itself has always pointed to the need of Jesus to save us from our lawlessness (Rom. 10:6-10). Finally, the law has always called all people to believe in the Messiah, who we know is Jesus of Nazareth, for salvation (Rom. 10:11-13).

So my sermon on Romans 10:5-13, “Why Jesus?” answers the question, “Why trust Jesus for salvation?” Romans 10:5-13 gives us three good reasons:

  1. Put your faith in Jesus because you can’t save yourself (v. 5).
  2. Put your faith in Jesus because the law calls you to trust him for salvation (vv. 6-10).
  3. Put your faith in Jesus because anyone can be saved by faith in him (vv. 11-13).

The audio for this sermon was recorded at Calvary Baptist Church on March 23, 2014. You can listen to the sermon here by clicking play on the on-screen Flash player. May God use this sermon to bring non-Christians to faith in Jesus for salvation by his death and resurrection, and may he use it to encourage us Christians to continue confessing and believing Christ firm to the end.

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