February 13-15, 2015
The Inkwell: A (Gospel) Blog
This Sunday night at FBC Henryville in our series “Follow: The Jesus Focused Life For All of Life” we are going to look at WORK. Why do we work? Is our work important to God? Should I enjoy my work?
This sermon is going to be one of the most important sermons in this entire series because it is about what we do with the vast majority of our lives. We work! Day in and day out, we work. And the truth about us is that we will work till Jesus comes back. But wait a minute! Will the return of Christ bring an end to our work? Hmmm! That’s a really good question. We would love for you to come Sunday night at 6:15 to learn the answer to that question and more.
Here is a video teaser for the sermon
I’ve always enjoyed TV shows that take me and other viewers behind the scenes into factories and workshops to give us a glimpse into how so many of the products we love and depend on are actually created. I’ve even enjoyed some of the “behind the scenes” tours of factories and plants where I’ve been given a first-hand demonstration into the assembly process of something that until that moment I’d only known as a finished product. Whether they’re manufacturing electronics, automobiles, or candy, I’m always fascinated by the process that culminates in something that is at once both familiar and spectacular. In the end it gives me a greater appreciation for some of the things that I’m too often tempted to take for granted.
That’s why I want to give you a “behind-the-scenes” look into my own process of preparation for an upcoming sermon series, from its earliest stages to the time that I preach. Oftentimes we only see the “finished” sermon when it is preached during a worship service. Certainly that act of preaching is what everything has been aiming toward, but you might like a glimpse behind the closed doors to see how the sermon you hear on Sunday or Wednesday has made it to the moment of being preached.
If so, then I’d like to take you on a short tour of my own preaching process. As many of your already know, in just a few months we’ll be starting a new Midweek sermon series in the book of Revelation. I’m in the middle of preliminary research and preparation for this series, so this is a great time to pull back the curtains and let you see what I’ve been working on, what I am working on, and what I will be working on as this series is developed. In good “Revelation” fashion, we’ll see what was, what is, and what’s to come.
Before we jump in, let me say that this is how I prepare for a series and for sermons. Others have their own techniques, and I’m certainly not saying that my way is the best or only way! This isn’t a step-by-step clinic in how to do it best. It’s just a walk-through of my own path from text to sermon. So what you’ll see is how I’m working right now (and have been working) on the upcoming Revelation series. In so doing, I really hope that you’ll be encouraged to pray for me all the more as we all prepare to step into this mysterious and wonderful book. Additionally, relentless and desperate prayer is the foundation and fuel for ALL sermon preparation at every stage in the process. Prayer isn’t listed as its own step in the process simply because it’s the fire and the glue that powers and gives substance to every part of preparation and preaching from beginning to end!
I. 1 Year Out: I Commit to Where We Go Next
I’m always somewhere in our church’s preaching schedule, and as I’m preaching I’m aware of where we (as a local church) have been, what books we’ve preached through, what topics we’ve covered, and what some of the issues are that we’ve had to deal with as a community of believers. With all that in mind, as a preacher I’ve got a lot of sermon series ideas and concepts on different parts of the Bible that I’m eager to preach at some point in the future.
As we preach through a book, and when I think that I’m about a year from finishing the series or sets of series that I’m presently in, I begin to seriously take stock of where I believe we should turn next. I spend time praying, talking with folks in the church, and meeting with and bouncing ideas off the other pastors. All of this is so that about a year-out I’m pretty settled with where I’ll be turning next in our preaching schedule. I take into consideration who I’ll be preaching to, the places and genres in the biblical text that we have been through in the recent past and are currently going through at the moment. I look at how in-depth or long a sermon series might be, and after prayerfully considering all that information I’ll privately commit to a new sermon series in my own mind and heart.
II. 8-6 Months Out: The Very Earliest Stage of Preparation
1. I’ll try to begin a focused, devotional, and meditative read-through of the Bible book, and maybe listen to some various sermons from other preachers from different texts in the book.
2. I’ll sketch out a first draft series title. I’m a big believer in giving a sermon series a title. It helps with promotion and gives listeners a framework to think about the sermon series. I want the title to be broad enough to give me freedom as the series develops yet specific enough to give our church an idea as to what is actually coming up.
3. I’ll begin making a list of resources/books I’ll want to have on hand for the series.
III. 6-4 Months Out: Real Preparation Starts
1. Once we’re about six months out, I’ll begin to be more open about the upcoming series. It won’t appear in announcements or promotionals yet, but it won’t be just something that’s kept to myself and/or the other pastors.
2. I begin gathering and organizing reference and research materials. Some of these materials I may already have, but regardless I try to begin to get as many as 10-20 books/commentaries that I’ll be using for research and study. The pictures above are the hardcover and kindle editions that I’ve gotten for research work in Revelation.
3. I begin slowly working through preliminary research. This includes some general works on the Bible book, some background materials, and some commentaries. Depending on the text, I might work from a collection of five to ten commentaries as I’m dealing with a specific text to preach throughout the series, but I won’t typically read but two (maybe three at the most) commentaries (at various levels of difficulty) all the way through before the series starts (or at all). The Revelation series is a little different from other series simply because of its size, scope, and notorious difficulty. So I’m trying to put a lot more into the research compared to some of the other series we’ve gone through. This research will continue from this point on through the sermon series to some extent.
IV. 4-0 Months Out: The Final Preliminary Phase
1. By this point in the sermon series that I’m currently preaching (right now it’s 1 Samuel) I’ll be working to bring it to a conclusion. I’ll know where I’m going with finishing the series up, and more of my study attention will be ramped up on the upcoming series.
2. I’ll begin intensive and focused readings of the Bible book that I’ll be preaching through in the next series. Before I preach my first sermon in the next series I want to typically have sought to read through the entire book as many as 25-40 times (all of the way through in one sitting in many cases). I want to familiarize myself with the text, to internalize the text, to know. I’ll also try to read through the text at least a few times in the original language (if it’s Greek!) and at least once in each of the common English versions (KJV, NASB, NIV, HCSB, NLT, RSV, etc) and the rest of the times through in the version that I’ll be preaching from (ESV) I’ll also read through the study notes in a trusted Study Bible.
3. I’ll outline the book (maybe a few times) and divide it up into potential preaching segments.
4. I’ll make a rough-draft of a possible preaching schedule of the various textual segments throughout the book. This will give me a general idea about how many sermons the series will contain. As the series progresses this preaching schedule will certainly be adjusted as needed, but this begins the very real process of thinking through how I’ll be preaching the book.
5. I’ll begin to make notes on key theological themes, important terms, and a series of questions that I’ve asked myself throughout my readings of the text. I’ll start a notebook/file for this series.
V. 2-0 Months Out: First Real Sermon Preparation
1. The announcements for the new series will be more visible.
2. I’ll make a rough-draft of sermon titles for the first few weeks/months of sermons. I won’t title every sermon, and the sermon titles will almost always change, but this begins my own serious thinking about how I’ll be approaching the series through an attempt to describe the initial sermon passages through a title.
3. I’ll begin initial work on the first introductory sermons in the series, spending some deliberate time with the direction the series will be starting. Like a sermon itself, the beginning and ending of a series is vastly important.
VI. Weekly Sermon Preoaration: From Preparation to Pulpit
So far the planning and preparation that I’ve recounted has taken a wide-angle view that shows the development of an entire series, months in advance. So what does the preparation for an individual sermon look like over the course of a normal five-day work week (Monday-Friday for instance). Well, I’ll briefly show you:
1. Day 1: This is the day immediately following the preaching of the last sermon on Sunday or Wednesday. So Day 1 is usually on Monday or Thursday depending. I’ll read through the text for the next week, and write down just some initial thoughts, questions, or ideas that come to mind. In other words, I face the text. Regardless of how I may have felt about the last sermon, and regardless of what this week might hold, I know that I’ll be preaching in a week, and I know the text that I’ll be preaching. I try to remind myself not to get overwhelmed because I know it’s going to take time and effort. It varies from week to week and from sermon to sermon, but on average a typical weekly sermon is going to take at the very least 10-20 hours of study, writing, development, and editing. That’s not including everything else a pastor’s schedule might demand on a weekly basis: family time, counseling, visitation, evangelism, leadership meetings, or Bible studies that have to be taught, etc. And that’s for each full-length sermon.
2. Day 2: I spend the time in the text. I’ll read through it in the original languages. I’ll read through study notes. I’ll outline and diagram the text. I’ll jot out questions and mark key words or themes that come to mind. I want to get into the text and walk around, examining it from every angle.
3. Day 3: I’ll begin the actual sermon work. I’ll write out the main point of the passage, jot down application points/preaching points and begin a rough draft of how I will preach the text. Only after all this is done will I then turn and spend some time with some commentaries. I’ll make notes on what other scholars and pastors have noted, write out some important insights that I might read, and work through any difficulties if I’ve reached any different conclusions about the text than some of my most trusted commentators and pastors.
4. Day 4: I’ll write out the sermon. This may include a manuscript, or it may simply be a very detailed and fleshed out preaching outline. This is how most of this day will be spent, writing and rewriting.
5. Day 5: I’ll edit the manuscript or outline. I’ll work on transitions, wordings, illustrations, and sharpening my introduction and conclusion. I’ll transfer the edited sermon/outline onto a new sheet/preaching pages, and put it aside. At least one day a week (ideally) is spent free of any sermon prep work. The day I’m preaching (changing whether or not I’m preaching in the morning or evening) I’ll go back over my notes and with a pen make any final changes. I’ll put my preaching outline sheets in my Bible, preach…
…and the whole process starts again.
As you sit in a darkened movie theater suddenly the lights dim, the screen lights up, and sound begins to flood the room as a voice booms: “Cinedigm, a new paradigm in cinema!” Cinedigm is an entertainment company that has worked to transform theater showing into a digital format over the last few years. As that voice booms at the beginning of a show, it’s absolutely clear that they want the audience to know that they are offering something different, something new, something better.
But different and new isn’t always better. Vinyl records have made a huge comeback in recent years. J.C. Ryle, the Anglican evangelical and contemporary of Charles Spurgeon, reminded us over a hundred years ago that oftentimes the old paths are the best paths after all. C.S. Lewis spent time confronting the dangers of what he termed “chronological snobbery,” the misguided view that newness is better just because it happens to be new. Oftentimes the old things are far better than any innovation.
With that in mind, I want to introduce you to a new trend in Bible publishing that really isn’t that new after all: Reader’s Bibles. We might say that they’re “an old paradigm in Bible reading!”
These new(er) editions of Reader’s Bible seek to create a format more like an actual book. That typically means thicker paper, no cross-references, no study notes, simplified typeset and no verse numbers. Granted, the format creates problems for study and teaching/preaching, but it’s great for reading, for sitting down and trying to cut-back the distractions and dig into the text of the Bible.
And as I said, this new “trend” in Bible publishing is downright ancient. Stephanus’ Greek edition of the New Testament was the first edition of the Bible to include chapter and verse divisions. The Geneva Bible (pictured above) was the first English Bible to include chapter and verse divisions, in 1560. These new reader editions are modern editions and translations that seek to highlight the strengths of reading the Bible the way readers would have approached the text for hundreds of years before the modern era. In 386 A.D, when the North African playboy Augustine picked up the Bible in his garden after hearing a voice say “tolle, lege…take up and read,” that’s the way he would have encountered the text, and that’s the way these new editions want you and I to encounter the text.
These reader’s editions have some very real benefits:
1. Their clean and simple design (without two text-columns for instance) makes for an attractive text format.
2. Without the added bulk of cross-references, concordances, and other study aids, these editions are often smaller and in some ways easier to carry.
3. They focus the reader onto the text instead of unnecessary distractions.
4. They aid in reading the Bible in context, seeing the various books of the Bible as a united and flowing unit without the artificial and uninspired verse divisions. This helps us see more clearly how a biblical author would have composed his work.
While there are some very real strengths to these formats, there are, however, some very real drawbacks:
1. In-depth study isn’t as easy without the helpful aids of concordances and references.
2. Not having verse divisions makes it harder to use these Bibles for teaching/preaching and/or following along while someone else teaches or preaches.
3. Knowing the chapter and verse references is helpful for scripture memorization.
The most recent (and currently available) version is an ESV Reader’s Bible from Crossway. It comes in a one-volume hard-back boxed edition. I love this edition because it’s the English version that I already use for most of my teaching and preaching, it’s relatively inexpensive (about $25.00), and the top of each page does contain the corresponding chapter and verse divisions which make it a bit easier to navigate (photos courtesy of the Bible Design Blog).
I’m also looking forward to checking out another reader’s edition that will release later this year. It’s called Bibliotheca and is a modernized American Standard version that will be published in four separate hard-cover volumes: (1) The Old Testament Law and Early Prophets (2) The Old Testament Later Prophets (3) The Old Testament Writings (4) The New Testament.
With all that said, I’m really excited to use these new editions in my own personal reading and devotion times and I commend them to you as something you may want to check out for yourself. If you’d like to see my copy of Crossway’s reader’s edition, just ask me about it at church. I’ll have it with me!
Yours in Christ,
In 1536 the young French lawyer, theologian, and author John Calvin rather unexpectedly found himself in Geneva. He had not planned on moving to the lakeside city. He had arrived in the town only for an overnight stay, planning to travel on the next day. He had no allegiance to Geneva, nor any prior reason to plant himself there, and yet it was to be the city that would be connected to his name for the rest of history. It caught him off guard, yet there he was, and there he began to work alongside his friend William Farel in the ministry to the church. By 1537 Calvin was serving as pastor of the church, and he took to his task in a simple and revolutionary way. He preached the Bible. He taught the Bible. Every week would find him taking his hearers into the depths of God’s word sequentially through the Scriptures, preaching and teaching verse by verse.
Then things went wrong. In new city elections a town council was elected that was opposed to many of the reformation initiatives introduced by Calvin and Farel, and in 1538 both of the men were banished from the town. Calvin was fired from the pastorate and exiled to Strasbourg. He would remain there until 1541, teaching, writing, marrying a former Anabaptist widow, and continuing his service in ministry to the church under his mentor Martin Bucer.
Then his life changed once again. The religious and civil work in Geneva had imploded in the absence of Calvin and Farel. Now in 1541 the city council of Geneva sent letters begging for Calvin to return and resume his work as pastor in their town. After much reluctance (for obvious reasons) Calvin returned to Geneva where he would live the rest of his life until his death in 1564. On his first Sunday back he set the tone for the rest of his ministry. He opened his Bible and began to preach from the same passage where had left off three years before, as if no time had passed in his preaching schedule. He simply moved to the next verse.
We live in a society that places a high premium on innovation, advancement, and flair. The future belongs to those with big ideas, who demand results, who think outside the box. Our church life can oftentimes have a tendency to mirror the heart of the world’s culture. We want snappy services, cutting-edge music, and dynamic speakers who will hold our attention with his devotion to relevance and flash. We want to see explosive growth, engaging programs, and first rate facilities. “Sure,” we may think, “read something from the Bible, but don’t forget to give us a cool light show.”
This is the era of the tweet, the bite-sized breakdown of information, the instant communication, the breakneck speed of always moving on to something else. Slowness is primitive. Patience is overrated, and we have more social media sites to keep checking, and time is of the essence. In such a world it is especially tempting to want to mold our preaching ministry into that model. There is a pull to shortened services, and fast paced series usually over a controversial or practical topic – bite-sized sermons that are condensed down to the minimum number of characters possible, an attempt to reduce our message to an easily remembered slogan.
But we don’t believe that’s what is best.The pastors of FBC Henryville are convinced that a healthy diet for God’s people will consist of regular, slow, and careful preaching through the entire Bible through sermon series that preach through the whole of various books of the Bible. We believe that it is healthy for a church to be slowly immersed, marinated, soaked in the aromatic sauce of God’s Word, and we equally believe that preaching through books of the Bible and/or sections of the Bible are the best recipe to see that happen. In response to a culture advocating speed, innovation, and constant change, we believe that slow, purposeful, and deepened preaching is the heart of faithful preaching. The Anglican bishop J.C. Ryle was right: “The old paths are the best paths after all.”
It’s true that preaching through books of the Bible has its challenges, and we even admit that it’s not the only way to preach. It’s not even the only way to preach faithfully. Nor is it the only way to preach expository sermons. There have been plenty of pastors who have faithfully preached their entire ministries without taking their people straight through books of the Bible. Charles Spurgeon (perhaps the single greatest preaching influence on both Toby and myself) didn’t preach that way. Neither did Jesus or Paul for that matter. Nor is it true that topical series have to be shallow or non-exegetical. Topical series have their place, and that’s why we preach those type sermon series regularly.
But we still believe that the primary textual diet for the church should be a patient preaching ministry through whole books of the Bible. When I say “patient,” I’m not necessarily referring to slowness. We’re not saying that we should spend ten years in every book of the Bible. But I am saying that we want to submit ourselves wholly to the text, and that means being committed to let the text take it where it will, and not impose our own fast paced schedule onto it. An expository sermon is one in which the text controls the aim, emphasis, purpose, point, and boundaries of the sermon. An expository sermon series, then, is a series in which a larger body of text does the same thing for a whole series of sermons that are linked together.
In the last four years (in addition to various topical series) we have preached through John, Ruth, Job, Philippians, Jonah, Malachi, and Galatians, and we’re halfway through both Romans and 1 Samuel right now. After we finish 1 Samuel we’ll move into the book of Revelation, and we’re already discussing and praying about where we’ll be going when Toby finishes his series in the book of Romans sometime next year.
Why do we believe this is best? Why are we so committed to this type of preaching? Why in a world of iPads, smart phones, and online shopping do we believe that the patient and careful preaching through whole books of the Bible is so important for the life of the church? Well, there are several reasons:
1. It allows the text to set the parameters for the preaching ministry, not the cleverness or interests of the preacher. In other words, when I commit to preach through a book of the Bible I am saying that the specific book of the Bible will be setting the agenda for my preaching, not whatever topic I may want to comment on publicly from the pulpit. The text is in charge, not me. It keeps me from only preaching the hobby-horse topics that I personally find the most exciting. In the same way it forces a sermon to be preached and heard on the basis of what the text says, not on the basis of what we may “feel.” It seeks to show that the text is authoritative, not our feelings about the text.
2. It forces me to preach a wide variety of texts and genres. If I’m just picking random verses to preach throughout the year, then I’m almost always going to be preaching verses and genres that I’m most comfortable with. Preaching through entire books of the Bible forces me to step outside my own comfort zone.
3. It provides a congregation with a wide exposure to the entire Bible. Sometimes patient expository preaching through whole books of the Bible gets a bad reputation for just being unbearably slow. But that’s not the case. Again, in just the last few years we’ve preached through gospels, epistles, prophetic books, and historical narratives. Within those genres we’ve covered everything from the basics of Christian discipleship (Philippians), the person of Jesus Christ (John), living in the grace of the gospel (Galatians), suffering and the sovereignty of God (Job), true worship (Malachi), missions to the ends of the earth (Jonah), and a whole host of other issues that we desperately need to have spoken into our lives. In the middle of a series it may seem like a slow walk through a long book, but when taken over the course of an entire ministry we find that we are faithfully feeding all the Bible to the people of God.
4. It forces us (or at least it should!) to keep our preaching in the context in which the passages are written. That simply means that by preaching through whole books of the Bible we’re spending time on passages and everything that went before and after. We’re seeking to prevent misunderstanding the text by isolating a verse out of its immediate, textual, and biblical context.
5. It shows us clearly how the entire Bible is a witness to the person and work of Jesus Christ. The four gospels are the narrative recounting of God’s incarnational ministry in Jesus, focusing particularly on his death, burial, resurrection, and ascension. They are called gospels for good reason, and yet it in a larger sense every book of the Bible is a gospel book. They are all about Jesus, each and every one of them.
6. It forces us to plunge into the depths of hard texts and hard topics. Some parts of the Bible are hard to understand. Some parts of the Bible are easy to understand but hard to accept! Some parts of the Bible just deal in uncomfortably graphic and blunt ways with sensitive topics that we’d like to tiptoe around. There are some parts of the Bible that if left to myself I just might avoid. Preaching through books of the Bible won’t let us do that. It safeguards the preacher from cowardice. It forces us to preach what’s next. Over the last three weeks Toby has preached through one of the most difficult passages in all the Bible, Romans 9:10-24. I’ve told people that his three sermons there have felt like rafting through three class-5 rapids! I’m not very brave. I’m skittish! So preaching through books of the Bible forces me to let God say what God says to his people – all of it, even (and especially) the hard parts.
7. It forces us to recognize that the power of transformation in a believer’s life and in the life of a whole church doesn’t take place over night through the work of one dynamic preacher. It happens slowly, like trees that are shooting up out of the soil, growing into living plants that bear much fruit. Planting a garden is slow. There’s no magic fertilizer that will just automatically turn your vegetable garden into a supermarket. It takes work. It takes patience. It takes time. Preaching through whole books of the Bible keeps us focused on that truth. You will never be grown in Christ simply because you listen to a good preacher. You’ll be grown because a faithful preacher patiently walks into the pulpit each and every week and pours out the life giving Word of God to those who hear.
That’s the type of preaching that we’re committed to. We’re all in. There’s no turning back. We know who we are. We know what we’re called to. In our vainer moments we’re tempted to believe that we’re mighty warhorses for God’s kingdom, fast race horses who speed the message of the gospel forward, mighty steeds of power and beauty that will impress all those who see us. That’s not just wrong; it’s stupid. Preachers, even the best of us, are nothing more than pack mules and work horses, slowly hauling the bread of life to the table of God’s people each and every week. We are the donkey and its foal that patiently carries Christ into the presence of God’s people so that they might glimpse him and shout their hosannas as they lift up palm branches. We are Balaam’s burdened messenger, simply following the command of our creator to stop and speak the words and warnings that we have been given for the sake of our weary rider.
William Carey, the founder of the modern missions movement and the famed Baptist missionary to India in the early nineteenth century endured seven whole years on the mission field before seeing one single convert. He faithfully preached, served, and worked for seven years before he even saw the first evidence of fruit. Carey attributed his perseverance to a single-minded commitment. He wrote, “I can plod. I can persevere in any definite pursuit. To this I owe everything.”
I can plod, and that’s what I intend to do. For as long as God gives me breath I desire to be single-minded in one great endeavor – to preach and teach the “whole counsel of God” as God gives me strength to do so.
The Roman emperor (and architect) Hadrian is famous for building his colossal defensive wall across the width of northern Britain. It’s construction was a mammoth undertaking. It is said that when his builders asked in amazement how Hadrian expected them to erect such a massive and daunting feat of engineering, Hadrian replied, “Brick by brick, my citizens; Brick by brick.”
When you ask how we endeavor to fulfill our God given task to disciple believers, reach the nations, evangelize the lost, and minister to the church, our reply is similar: “Verse by verse, my friends; verse by verse.”
Under His mercy,
Honor such men.
That’s what Paul wanted for Epaphroditus and the other servants of the church like him. They had risked their lives. Epaphroditus had nearly died on his voyage to reach the Roman quarters where Paul was being held in state custody. Those who had gone above and beyond to meet the needs of others in the service of others were to be honored. Granted, Paul is speaking of a very specific type of service. At its heart the service that Epaphroditus rendered was commendable because it was in the service of him who is infinitely commendable. The risk was taken “for the work of Christ.” That certainly sets his example apart.
And yet it is from verses like these that all of Western Civilization, ascending from a Judeo-Christian heritage, establishes the rightness of honoring those among us who have made sacrifices on behalf of others. We believe deeply that those of us who have received gifts should be grateful to those who have given the gift. We believe firmly that those of us who have been defended and rescued from danger should be thankful to those who have done the defending and who have done the rescuing. We should honor those who have given of themselves in our service, on our behalf, and for our good. As Abraham Lincoln noted in the Gettysburg Address when he gathered with others to honor the memory of the Union dead at the dedication of a national cemetery, “it is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.”
Today we honor those who should be honored. It is fitting and proper to do this.
Just before dawn seventy years ago today, bombs began to fall on German defenses along the English Channel. During the night troops had parachuted into the darkness behind enemy lines, and as the sun began to rise on June 6, 1944 nearly 200,000 allied soldiers charged across a narrow swath of beach into the Normandy region of France, followed by hundreds of thousands of more troops who would push into the interior of the continent for the liberation of Europe. For almost five years (since 1939) all of Europe had fallen under the dark shadow of the Nazi regime as Hitler’s war machine blitzed in every direction, crushing any resistance in its way. It had only slowed as it reached France’s coastline, and from there Hitler stood waiting to launch his much anticipated invasion of Churchill’s Britain.
But that invasion would not come. Britain held fast in the skies over London. Churchill did not surrender. England stared down Hitler. The Royal Air Force defended the British Isles. The all victorious German army did not follow in the steps of the Conqueror. They did not cross the Channel. Instead, their focus was turned to other fronts. They turned their gaze to Russia and Stalingrad. Then in late 1941 the United States entered the war, sweeping across North Africa and up into Mussolini’s underbelly in the Italian mountains.
All this led into the closing weeks of the Spring of 1944 when the war in Europe moved into its final phase. The entire world’s focus once again zoomed onto that small space of sea separating the allies in Britain from Nazi controlled France. The world held its breath, and in that pause Eisenhower, Bradley, Montgomery, and many others opened Operation Overlord. Hitler would be confronted and defeated. Europe would be regained. Those who had lived through the murderous conquest of the Reich’s evil empire would be liberated, and it would all begin on the blood soaked sands of Normandy, a peaceful stretch of shoreline that would be drowned in violence and forever be known by the haunting names of Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword.
Winston Churchill, commenting on the heroic service of the airmen over Britain in 1940, said “never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.” Those words apply to those troops who waded ashore into the fires of death seven decades ago.
Amy and I have been married almost five years. In the Fall of 2009 we gathered with friends and family in a beautiful church in Natchez, Mississippi. Several hundred guests joined with us as we made vows of marriage to one another and to God. We love each and every person who attended that service. We are so thankful for all the many gestures of love and support that we received on that special day.
And yet there was one person whose presence at our wedding stood out, at least to us. Bud Roberts, along with his wife Dot, have been longtime friends of our family from Greenwood, Mississippi. He was a U.S. Army Ranger in World War II. He and the other members of his unit scaled the cliffs over Omaha Beach under murderous fire from German machine guns on June 6, 1944 to help secure the heights allowing for reinforcements to follow. He later marched across France, fought at the Battle of the Bulge, and pushed into Germany as the war in Europe came to a close.
Amy and I know that it was because of men like Bud Roberts and the sacrifices they made, the deaths they died, and the lives they gave, that we were allowed the privilege of celebrating a fairytale wedding all these years later. Bud Roberts attended our wedding in 2009. But Bud Roberts, and all the other veterans of D-Day (along with the long line of veterans throughout our history) gave us the gift of our wedding seventy years ago in the early morning hours of a French dawn. Those soldiers paid for our wedding dearly on the shores of Normandy’s beaches with their very lives. They gave us the gift of marriage the moment the doors of those landing vessels opened and they ran into the fire and not away from it.
Again commenting on the RAF’s actions over Britain in 1940, Winston Churchill said:
“The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be freed and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands.
But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new dark age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves, that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, This was their finest hour.”
Seventy years later all of us who live on this side of D-Day look back in thankful wonder. That was the greatest generation indeed. What manner of men were these? Their gift can never be repaid. All we can do is stand in honor and acknowledge their sacrifice. That was their finest hour indeed, and it is our finest hour still.
In awe-filled gratitude,
This is the second piece in an ongoing series of articles and reflections on Romans 9:10-24. Because of its subject matter, this particular article is necessarily far longer than the others. I wanted to be very thorough and careful in handling this text. For this reason it will take a bit longer to read through than many of the other articles. For the convenience of the reader I have outlined the article and structured it so that it can be read fully from beginning to end or it can be read through its individual sections.
I. Introduction: The Difficulty of Romans 9:13
II. The Life of Esau in Genesis 25-36
III. Malachi 1: “Jacob I Have Loved. Esau I Have Hated.”
IV. Biblical Hate Language in Connection to God
V. Putting the Pieces Together: Toward a Theology of Holy Hatred
VI. Romans 9:13 as Scripture: Inspired and Profitable
VII. Conclusion: The Gospel According to Romans 9:13
And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad — in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls — she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means!- Romans 9:10-14
I don’t know of a more shocking, startling, and unsettling verse in the entire Bible than Romans 9:13. Paul, in explaining the righteousness of God in sovereignly choosing Jacob, the younger son of Isaac, says that God “hated Esau.” That hatred is vividly contrasted with the preceding statement that God had instead “loved Jacob.”
I remember the first few times I read through that chapter as a serious reader of the Bible. I had to read it again to make sure I was seeing it right. Something seemed wrong. Something didn’t seem to fit. This wasn’t what I was expecting to read. So I looked through other translations. I was reading the NIV at the time, so I pulled out my other versions, the KJV, the ESV, the NASB, and there it was. They all used that strange, unnerving, and horrible little word “hated.” It was just staring back at me blinking like a flashing traffic signal barricading my path through the passage. I didn’t know what to do. So I did what I wanted. I stopped reading! I was tempted to be like Joey on Friends and stick my Bible in the freezer!
But eventually I had to pick the Bible back up. I couldn’t let it go. To put it more plainly, it wouldn’t let me go, but my questions still lingered. What was Romans 9:13 saying that God is like? How do I understand it? What does it mean?
If you’ve read that verse then you know what I’m talking about. When Toby preached through this passage last Sunday I’ll go out on a limb and guess that this verse is the one that caused all of us to get a big lump in our throats. I think there are several big reasons for this and several big questions that cause this verse to be such a problem:
1. First, Romans 9:13 names names. It’s speaking of actual persons, real people. We’re okay with hearing that God hates sin. We know that God hates rebellion. But that’s not what Paul is saying here, is it? Certainly there are wider angles that are implied. Yes, it’s true that Jacob is Israel and Esau is Edom, but those two nations had two definite points of origins: two individuals, and God’s stance towards them becomes the foundation stone for his stance toward their people. And Paul isn’t primarily focusing on the nations of Israel and Edom. He is establishing the justice of God in saving some individuals and not others. Therefore, whatever Romans 9:13 means, we’re clear that real individuals are its object.
2. Second, this verses raises questions about the character of God. What does this verse do to our understanding of God? Can a loving God be said to hate? Is that a contradiction? I mean, isn’t God loving? Doesn’t the Bible say that God is in fact love? Doesn’t the entire gospel message flow from the proclamation of God’s love for sinners? So what’s all this talk about God hating somebody?
3. Third, this verse creates problems for the church. What on earth does this verse say about the people of God? Everyone I know (including myself) is appalled (for good reason!) by the distorted anti-gospel that comes out of groups like Westboro Baptist “Church.” They’re known for standing in protest with signs that read, “God hates fags.” I genuinely believe that they are horribly and nauseatingly wrong, but if so, then we’re still left with the question: What do we do with this verse? What do we do with Romans 9:13?
In trying to understand it, there are several mistakes we want to avoid:
1. First, we can’t ignore the verse. We can’t pretend it’s not there. We can’t take an eraser and make it go away.
2. Second, we can’t twist the wording to make it say something that it doesn’t say. Whatever is meant by “hate,” that is still the word that is used and that’s why it’s the word that English translations pick.
3. Third, we shouldn’t seek to lessen its shock value. There’s a reason why Paul follows the statement up with the question, “Is God unjust?” If this verse had been easy to handle then there wouldn’t be any need to respond to that reaction! This verse is supposed to shake us a bit.
4. Fourth, we can never begin to understand this verse apart from the whole and complete biblical revelation of God and the gospel. Yes, Romans 9:13 says that God “hated Esau.” But that’s not all the Bible says about either God or Esau. The fundamental principle for interpretation is this: Scripture always interprets Scripture, so we have to take into account everything the Bible says everywhere in seeking to understand what is meant here.
5. Fifth, and finally we shouldn’t believe that this verse doesn’t matter for the Christian’s life. Paul tells us that “all Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable.” That includes Romans 9:13. It’s these hard passages like Romans 9:11-24 that really shows us what we believe about the Bible. Was Paul right? Is all Scripture inspired and profitable? I think so, even Romans 9:13.
So, that’s what we want to explore together. I want to come to terms with what this verse doesn’t mean, does mean, and why it’s all important for the Christian life. Particularly, I want to explore how this verse relates to the goodness of God, the righteousness of God, and the love of God. We’ll do this in six stages. First, we’ll recount the life of Esau as it is recorded in Genesis. Second, we’ll transition to interpret Malachi 1:1-5. Third, we’ll look at how the rest of the Bible (outside of Romans 9:13 and Malachi 1) uses the language of hatred in relation to God. Fourth, we’ll seek to put the pieces together to finally come to terms with the meaning of Romans 9:13. Fifth, we’ll briefly explain why hard verses like this are important and applicable for the Christian’s life. Finally, we’ll conclude by briefly exploring how the gospel is displayed in Romans 9:13. Because this article is somewhat in-depth and long, I’ve divided these various stages into sections so that readers can read through the whole article as a whole or read the various sections as they can.
We are told in Genesis 25 that Esau was the older twin of Jacob and was given his name because of the ruddy tone of his skin and his distinct red hair (v.25). The other description we’re given is that Esau was a skilled hunter and outdoorsman (v.27). We’re given this picture of a man’s man, a strong man, a mighty man, a born leader. This firstborn mighty man, however, had a huge problem. At the end of Genesis 25 we begin to see the internal character description of Esau, and it’s not a pretty picture. Esau, in a fit of hunger, rashly sells his birthright inheritance to his younger brother Jacob for a small bowl of lentil soup.
The second description we receive of Esau is equally dark. Instead of following in the steps of Isaac and later his brother Jacob, Esau marries a Hittite, marries outside the covenant community, identifying himself publicly with the people of the land (the Cananites with their worship of many gods and goddesses), not the sojourning visitors who were following the one true God (Genesis 26:34). If there was any question as to what this meant, the author of Genesis tells us immediately that Esau and his wife “made life bitter for Isaac and Rebekah” (Genesis 26:35). He settles down in Canaan. He begins raising a Canaanite family, and just like his descendants (Edom) after him, he becomes an engaging tormentor to his own kinsmen. He was a skilled hunter with the bow, but he was deliberate in continually piercing the hearts of his mother and father.
In Genesis 27 we read the climactic moment. Jacob deceptively steals his older brother’s blessing from their aged father. Esau is cut out. Jacob is forced to flee for his life. So in response Esau “hated Jacob because of the blessing with which his father had blessed him” (Genesis 27:41). In the next chapter Esau once again strikes out at his father in anger. Jacob, for all his deception, had obeyed his father and mother and gone into exile with their kinsman Laban to find a wife among their own people. So to add torment to his parents Esau takes another wife deliberately out of spite, this time the daughter of Ishmael, Isaac’s older half-brother, the son of Abraham and Hagar (Genesis 28:6-9).
We next encounter Esau in Genesis 33. Many years have passed. Jacob finally returns home from his exile in the distant land, and Esau comes to meet him. The two brothers, for all their past, are reunited in peace. We glimpse him once again in Genesis 35 as both Jacob and Esau join together to bury their father Isaac. The end of Esau’s story comes in Genesis 36 recounting the lineage of Esau and his descendants summarizing how Esau’s family settles away from the land of Jacob and grows to become its own separate nation named Edom.
From its beginning Esau’s life was wild and tempestuous. It was hard, forcing him to make his way in the world through his own skill and power. And yet Esau’s own character, his heart, is continually displayed as being evil, disobedient, foolish, sinful, and reckless. He is in his own heart, an enemy of God.
Granted, Jacob’s life wasn’t better. Jacob was a thief, liar, scalawag, trickster, and coward. Yet before Rebekah gave birth to her twins God had made his choice of Jacob clear. The younger twin was the son of promise. It was to Jacob (not Esau) that God’s covenant love would be poured out. It was to Jacob (not Esau) that God’s faithfulness would be demonstrated. It was to Jacob (not Esau) that the line of God’s people would descend.
With that review in mind we next turn our focus to Malachi 1:1-5. This passage is foundational. This is where Romans 9:13 comes from. This is the verse that Paul cites in Romans 9 to support and explain exactly what he is teaching about God’s sovereignty in the salvation of his people, and that’s why we need to understand what Malachi says. Paul is not playing fast and loose with the biblical text. Paul is a wise, thorough, and divinely inspired interpreter of the Old Testament. That means that Paul is not misreading Malachi. He is not twisting the prophet’s words. He is not mistreating or misunderstanding Malachi. Here’s what the prophet wrote:
1 The oracle of the word of the LORD to Israel by Malachi.
2 “I have loved you,” says the LORD. But you say, “How have you loved us?” “Is not Esau Jacob’s brother?” declares the LORD. “Yet I have loved Jacob
3 but Esau I have hated. I have laid waste his hill country and left his heritage to jackals of the desert.”
4 If Edom says, “We are shattered but we will rebuild the ruins,” the LORD of hosts says, “They may build, but I will tear down, and they will be called ‘the wicked country,’ and ‘the people with whom the LORD is angry forever.’”
5 Your own eyes shall see this, and you shall say, “Great is the LORD beyond the border of Israel!”
Malachi was the final prophet sent by God prior to the emergence of John the Baptist on the banks of the Jordan River, and his book is the final word in the long and sprawling pages of the Old Testament. In the book Malachi is calling the people of God to covenant faithfulness to the God who has saved them and that they claim to worship. He unfolds the passions of God for his people and calls the people of God to live in the light of those holy passions.
He begins by proclaiming that God is passionate for his people. God loves Israel. God has rescued them. God has been faithful to them. God has provided for them. God has been a husband to them. They are his. He loves them.
Yet the people didn’t feel very loved. They look around at the world and things don’t seem to be right. The kingdom of David has obviously ended. The glorious temple of Solomon has been rebuilt but without the glory. It looks more like an adobe garage than the house of golden splendor that Solomon had built. So they ask God, “How have you loved us?”
And God answers. He points their attention to the Southeast in the direction of their kinsmen the Edomites, the descendants of Esau. God says, “look there.” Wasn’t Esau Jacob’s older brother? Weren’t they twins? Wasn’t Esau the oldest? Weren’t they both sinners deserving of wrath? Neither one was deserving of God’s grace. And yet, God says, Jacob and his descendants have been the objects of God’s undeserved grace and love, while Esau was “hated.” He was rejected. He was passed over. He was judged. He was condemned in his sin, and God had rejected Edom along with him.
Notice a few key aspects of God’s judgment on Esau/Edom as it displays his love for Jacob: 1) God’s judgment on Edom/Esau was deserved, while God’s grace to Jacob was undeserved. They are described as “wicked.” They place their hope in their own strength by saying they “will rebuild.” 2) God’s judgment on Edom/Esau was connected to his wrath or “anger.” 3) God’s “hatred” of Edom/Esau was more than an emotional feeling or response. It was a righteous judgment. It was a handing over to destruction in the form of final judgment. 4) God’s election of Jacob and his judgment on Esau was for a twofold purpose. It was an expression of his unique love on his people, highlighting his covenant faithfulness to the descendants of Jacob, and it was a a display of God’s holiness, greatness, and glory. The final purpose of his elective purposes between Esau and Jacob was for God’s greatness to be seen and known “beyond the borders of Israel.” Global worldwide worship is God’s ultimate aim in salvation and judgment.
Now that we’ve spent some time exploring the presentation of Esau in Genesis and have sought to understand Malachi 1:1-5, we next want to spend some time digging into the way the Bible uses the language of hatred in relation to God. The truth is, if Romans 9:13 bothers us, then there are some other verses in the Bible that will bother us. True, God is not said to “hate” in the same way or as often as he is said to “love,” but Romans 9:13 and Malachi 1:1-5 are not isolated passages. If we’re going to understand what Paul is saying then, we need to spend some time considering other passages where God is said to hate something or someone, and we need to look at the actual word(s) for “hatred” that the biblical authors use.
Before we examine the precise words and their etymologies, it’s good to take a brief look at the way the Bible typically uses the language of hate in connection to God. The overwhelming usage in the Bible tells us that God hates sin. Deuteronomy 12:31 and 16:22 tell us that false worship is an abominable thing that God hates. Proverbs 6:16-17 says that “There are six things that the LORD hates, seven that are an abomination to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood.” Isaiah 1:14 and Amos 5:21 tells us that God hates the empty and hypocritical religious ceremonies of his people. In Isaiah 61:5, God says “I hate robbery and wrong.” Hate language is not limited to the Old Testament. In Revelation 2:6 Jesus says that he hates the works of the Nicolaitans.
The above verses are the primary and predominant usage of hate language connected to God. In his holiness, he hates sin. Yet, these verses are not all that Scripture tells us. It also makes some statements that are just as shocking as Romans 9:13, because there are other places where God is said to hate not just sin, but sinners, actual people:
In Hosea 9, in a book that is all about how much God loves Israel, we find a verse where God is said to hate Israel in rebellion against him. In speaking of the rebellion of his people, God says that “I began to hate them” (Hosea 9:15). The “them” is referring to people, not inanimate objects or actions. In his despair and suffering Job cries out from pain and declares that God “has torn me in his wrath and hated me” (Job 16:8-10). Psalm 5:5 is even clearer. The Psalmist says that “The boastful shall not stand before your eyes; you hate all evildoers.” Likewise, Psalm 11:5 says that God’s soul “hates the wicked and the ones who love violence.”
God hates sin. The biblical witness is clear, but there are places (seldom, but there) where God’s hatred is said to be directed not merely at sin, but also toward sinners, actual people. Even if we omit the verse in Job (which is Job’s painful cry in the midst of his suffering), there are still clear statements where hate is directed toward people.
But before we try to put the pieces together, we should first ask about the actual words that are used and what they tell us about the sense in which God is said to hate. Paul uses the word ἐμίσησα (emisésa) from the word μισέω (miseo). This is the basic word for “hate” or “detest,” in the New Testament and is the same word that is used elsewhere in verses like Matthew 5:43, Mark 13:13, Luke 14:26, and John 15:18. The Old Testament Hebrew typically uses the word שְׂנֵא (sânê’) which again always carries with it the idea of hatred, abhorrence, or detesting. It is the word that is used in both Malachi and Psalms for God’s hatred.
These words always carry the force of “hate,” but they are linguistically more expansive. They have a broad range of meanings along a set spectrum. They are sometimes used to convey hatred in the human sense of that emotion or in a comparative sense with love, yet when used in connection with God they also imply wrath, judgment, condemnation, anger, handing over, passing over, and rejection. In other words, when used in connection with God they are not referring to hatred like unto my hatred of cabbage or even the world’s hatred of God and Christians. It is referring to a very specific type of hatred. Hatred then becomes the word that is used to describe God’s holy wrath toward sin as well as his just condemnation of those who practice it.
The language that Scripture uses in regards to God’s holiness and wrath are vivid. They are not meant to be light or dulled. They are sharp and terrifying. So how is God’s holy wrath being demonstrated in Romans 9:13? What exactly is the verse saying about God and his relation to Esau?
First, it is important to point out what this verse is not saying:
1. This verse is NOT saying that God did not love Esau. It is saying, at the very least, that God did not love Esau in the same sense as he loved Jacob. He did not love him in a saving sense. He did not love him as a part of the covenant people, the redeemed people of God. There is a very real sense in which God’s love for his people is far deeper and more intimate than his love for the rest of creation and humanity, just as a husband’s love for his wife is far deeper and distinct from his love for his mother, sisters, cousins, or female coworkers and colleagues. A distinction in love, however, does not make the reality of God’s love for Esau any less real. Esau was blessed. Esau was made into a great nation. Esau was given great talents and skills. Esau was protected and provided for. Esau enjoyed a large family and good things. Esau’s descendants prospered. All of this was due to the mercy of God and completely undeserved by Esau himself, for they were good gifts from the hands of the loving God. The Bible is not lying when it says that “God loves the world,” that God loves sinners (who are indeed truly sinful). Indeed, we are told that God makes it to rain on the just and the unjust (Matthew 5:45). God loved Esau. In the end, it’s not just that God loved Esau less than Jacob. He loved them differently, but he genuinely loved both of them. As David Platt has written, “God hates sin, AND God hates sinners, AND God loves sinners.” God abhors sin. God responds with full and just wrath toward sinners, even as he truly loves those who are sinners and made in his image.
2. This verse is NOT saying that God’s hatred is synonymous with human hatred. It is not a sinful action or emotion. It is not disgust or a detesting of a person as a person, or a person due to something about them but accidental or incidental to who they are. It is the response, rather, of wrath upon a person who is a sinner.
3. This verse is NOT saying that hatred is an attribute of God alongside or equal with his love. Verses that speak of God as hating are rare in Scripture (although as we have seen they are there). Verses that speak of God as loving are too numerous to count! God’s love is always spoken of as the intrinsic and essential essence of the character of his person, of his being, while his hate is always a holy fury in response to sin. The Bible says that “God is love” (1 John 4:8). There is no comparable verse (for good reason) that speaks of God being hatred. In other words, God’s love is who God is. God’s hatred is God’s just response to and stance toward sin.
4. Finally, this verse is NOT saying that God’s hatred of Esau was arbitrary, malicious, or random. It is saying that God, in his sovereign freedom, without regard to their actions (whether good or bad) chose Jacob as the object of his saving love and rejected Esau as the object of his judging wrath (Romans 9:11-12). But it is not saying that God did this in any sense that was separate from or disconnected from them as sinners who both deserved God’s wrath and judgment. The election that is being described in Romans 9:10-13 is the election of real flesh and blood people, real sinners, real rebels, the real Jacob and Esau, not nonexistent or hypothetical versions of Jacob or Esau. That means that God’s decision to judge Esau was a commitment to judge Esau the sinner not Esau the righteous or even Esau the morally neutral idea or possibility. There was and is no sense in which God has or ever would elect to judge anyone apart from their actually deserving judgment. It is not as if Esau could have lived a perfect life of faith and obedience and then at the end heard God say, “Wow, you really didn’t mess up any, but sorry I decided you’re going to Hell anyway even though you really don’t deserve to be there.” That doesn’t happen. That cannot happen. That will not happen. That would be in conflict with God’s character, but that is not what is being described in this passage. God’s saving election of Jacob really was a gracious election, meaning that he in no way deserved what he had been given. God’s condemning election of Esau really was a righteous election, meaning God chose to only give Esau the full weight of everything he did deserve.
These four clarifications allow us to reach an interpretive conclusion about Romans 9:13 and the hatred that is attributed to God in this verse. God’s hatred is a holy hatred because it is nothing more than the active response of his holiness. In other words, God’s hatred toward sin and his wrath toward sinners is an expression of his love for himself, his holiness, his righteousness, and his sinless perfection. God doesn’t hate in spite of his being good and loving. God hates sin and unleashes that hatred on those who practice it because God is good and loving. It is the righteous demand of his loving holiness and his holy love.
God’s hatred in Romans 9:13 and Malachi 1:1-5 is God’s eschatological, eternal, just, and holy wrath toward and judgment poured out on sinners who truly hate God and refuse in their own willful rebellion to repent, believe, and have life.
And these verses are infinitely applicable to our lives. I know it doesn’t seem that way. I know that at first glance it seems like this is just a downer of a verse that really doesn’t help the believer at all. But remember what I said, it is verses like this that test whether or not we really believe 2 Timothy 3:16. All Scripture is inspired and profitable, even Romans 9:13. How? Well, I believe there are several key applications that this verse has for the believer.
1. It tells us more about God. We want to know God, not the idea of God and not a product of our own imaginations. We want to know him for who he is, and verses that give us a clearer understanding of who he is really are good for us.
2. It confronts and destroys our domesticated views of God. God isn’t a housecat. He’s a lion. He cannot be tamed, confined, or controlled by his creation. We desperately need to be reminded that God is indeed God, and we need to always be reminded that we can never in any way put him on a leash or keep him in a kennel.
3. It confronts us with the full seriousness of sin. Sometimes because you and I have a tendency to take sin lightly, we have a tendency to believe that God takes sin lightly too. We have a habit of thinking, “it’s just a character flaw or struggle, it’s just something everyone does. God loves me so it doesn’t matter.” But it does matter. Sin is something God hates and his holiness can never be taken for granted or ignored. A wise man once wrote that “fools rush in, where angels fear to tread.” One of the problems with our Christianity is that it seems we have lost any fear of treading too closely. God in his holiness is far more dangerous to sinners than a nuclear reactor gone horribly wrong. God’s holiness is disgusted by sinners and is deadly to sinners.
4. It calls us to repentance, true broken repentance. The point of Romans 9:10-13 is NOT that God is free to save sinners or condemn sinners as he pleases, so it doesn’t matter what we do since God already has everything sorted out. The point is this: “God is completely sovereign, in complete control, and he is free to save sinners or condemn sinners freely as he pleases. He is not indebted to us, nor does he owe salvation to sinners. Therefore, since we have heard this good news gospel, and since we have heard of God’s holy hatred, and since we have been given this unpromised opportunity to repent and believe, let us not ignore God’s call and invitation, but all the more come running to the cross where we are covered in the crimson flow of saving grace. The force of these verses is not fatalistic (que sera sera) but urgent. Do not be hardened like Esau! Repent! Believe! Trust! Come!
And that is ultimately where Romans 9:13 takes us and leaves us. It does not leave us in the shadow of Esau, the condemned rebel who suffered the just penalty for his sin. It leaves us in the shadow of the cross, where Jesus, the condemned king suffered voluntarily to take the just penalty for the sin of sinners.
Earlier I stated that it was never the case, was impossible in fact, for God to ever condemn a man who did not deserve it. That’s true, but it’s true because God has only done it once. There has only been one innocent man who fell under the crushing weight of God’s holy hatred. There has been only one man who could rightly scream into the darkness asking in pain why he had been forsaken by the Father. There has been only one man who has ever been judged in the place of those who justly deserve judgment. His name is Jesus.
Ultimately, Romans 9 paints us a picture of the face of Jesus, not Esau. Because it is Jesus who has carried the weight of the sin of rebels from every tribe, tongue, nation, and people so that they might be the objects of God’s saving love. The horror of this verse doesn’t leave us reeling with the question: Why would God do that to Esau? They leave us mesmerized, wondering “why would a just God be gracious to Jacob?”
To put it more personally and more bluntly, they leave me with this echo:
Cade have I loved. Jesus have I hated, condemned, judged, forsaken, cut off, and passed by in the fullest and truest senses of my wrath.
Such holy hatred met with such boundless love is truly unfathomable, and yet they violently collide on a hillside outside Jerusalem called Calvary, for sinners like you and like me.
Under His mercy,
This is the first in a series of meditations on Romans 9:10-23.
Huckleberry Finn sure was honest (most of the time). That’s why he is still loved today. He just spoke the truth as he saw it. So many of us might identify with his thoughts on going to church. In chapter 18 of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, our narrator tells us about a church service he sat through:
“Next Sunday we all went to church…It was pretty ornery preaching – all about brotherly love, and such-like tiresomeness; but everybody said it was a good sermon, and they all talked it over going home, and had such a powerful lot to say about faith, and good works, and free grace, and preforeordestination, and I don’t know what all, that it did seem to me to be one of the roughest Sundays I had run across yet.” – Mark Twain, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” Chapter 18, p. 119
Have you ever had a Sunday like that? Sunday isn’t all about peace and quiet, and naps, and big dinners with fried chicken. Sometimes Sundays are just downright unsettling. That’s especially the case when the Bible is opened and takes charge. There’s a popular book titled The Dangerous Book for Boys. We might as well call the Bible The Dangerous Book for Everybody, because that’s exactly what it is. Charles Spurgeon once compared the Bible to an uncaged lion, and for good reason. When it gets on the loose it just might tear us apart. No wonder the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard wrote these words: “Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament.” The Bible really is a very dangerous book, the most dangerous book in the whole wide world.
We felt that danger yesterday as Romans 9:10-14 was unleashed, didn’t we? No matter how long I read and study the Bible, I’m never quite ready for passages like that. It always seems to catch me off guard. It always seems to knock the wind out of me a little. It always seems to unsettle my equilibrium. I’ll be honest, listening to sermons from Romans 9 sometimes makes me feel like I’ve been to the dentist. I know I need it. I know it’s good for me. I know it’s for my best, but in the end I’m sure glad when it’s over. Did you feel like that yesterday around 12:30? I sure did.
That’s why this series of meditations on this mountain of trouble and river of song called Romans 9 (to reference Amos Lee) will hopefully be good for all of us, and as we get started we first have to just state the obvious: These verses are hard. It’s not that they’re all that difficult to understand. They’re just hard to take in. Peter did say that one time that some of Paul’s writings were hard to understand (2 Peter 3:15-16). But I think the big problem we have with Romans 9 isn’t in knowing what it’s saying. It just in what it’s saying. Like God himself, these words in the Word aren’t safe. They’re not tame. But neither is God. But he is good. He’s the king I tell you.
I’ve been a believer for a long time. I’ve been a student of the Bible for a long time, and I’ve found that the Bible always gets the best of me. It always escapes every attempt to censor it. It always refuses to play nice. It never lets me be in charge. It just talks. And unlike Huck, always tells the truth. And it doesn’t even wait for me to catch up and get ready. It never softens its message. It never feels the need to be politically correct, palatable, easy to digest, and easy to understand. It just speaks the honest to goodness truth and lets it hang there in the air. God seems to assume that he has the authority and the freedom to just be who he is in all his glory, and then to reveal it to us in plain matter of fact honesty, whether we like it or not.
“Here I am”, he says. “Take me or leave me. This is me.” And we don’t really like that. It has been said that God created people in his image, and so we in turn have spent several thousand years trying to make him in ours. But the Bible won’t go along with this experiment. It gives us God, and he’s always bigger and better and wilder and fiercer than we’d ever imagined, totally unlike anything or anyone else we’ve ever encountered, absolutely different than he would ever have been if we’d invented him out of our own imaginations.
And that’s ultimately why the Bible has hard texts like Romans 9. They’re spoken by the wild Son of God who won’t let us put him in a box that we’ve fashioned for him. I mean, the last time people tried to seal him into a stone-carved cubicle, he broke out of it pretty convincingly three days later. Jesus is the righteous God. Jesus is the holy God. Jesus is the dangerous God, and so Jesus says some things that pierce us to the heart. Jesus speaks some very hard truths. Jesus says some very unsettling things.
We wince when Jesus calls that lady a dog (Matthew 15:26). We’re uncomfortable with Jesus telling that guy to follow him and forget his dad’s funeral, to let the dead bury the dead (Luke 9:60). We shift a little in our seats when Jesus says that if we want to be his disciples we have to carry a bloody cross and hate our parents (Matthew 16:24-26; Luke 14:26). We feel a little bad when Jesus calls his best friend Satan (Matthew 16:23), and then tells him to mind his own business when he asks about the future fate of one of the other disciples (John 21:21-22). Like the crowds, we’re not huge fans of hearing Jesus tell us we have to eat his flesh and drink his blood if we want to be his people (John 6:56). We think Jesus may need some sensitivity training when he’s asked about a disaster involving a bunch of people being crushed to death by a tower. Jesus doesn’t explain why the tragedy happened. He just tells his hearers rather matter-of-factly to repent or something worse than that will happen to them (Luke 13:4-5). We’re not quite sure what to make of John telling us that Jesus loved Lazarus, loving him so much that when he heard his friend was sick he decides to camp out where he is instead of making the slightest effort to go and heal him (John 11:5-6). We’d rather find an exception clause for Jesus’ remarks that his disciples have to deny themselves and follow him (Matthew 16:24). We look around nervously when Jesus says that it would have been better for Judas Iscariot if he’d never been born, but that his sin of betrayal and condemnation were foreordained from the beginning (Matthew 26:21-25).
That’s the one thing that really stands out when we read through the gospels, isn’t it? Jesus is always saying things that are really, really hard to take in. Jesus won’t stop saying stuff like this. He doesn’t soften their shock. He doesn’t edit their content. He just opens his mouth and stuff like this just pours out.
So we shouldn’t really be surprised that Romans 9 is in our Bibles. Instead of being confused, thinking to ourselves that this doesn’t sound like something Jesus would say, we should just be honest with ourselves and with the text: This sounds exactly like something Jesus would say. And not only that, but when we read the words in Romans 9, it’s Jesus that is saying them. Jesus says that Jacob, that scalawag second-born thief, was chosen before he was born, before he had done anything good or bad (even believe and repent). Jesus says Esau, the rightful heir was rejected, was hated. Jesus says the Pharaoh in Exodus was raised up for the primary purpose of God’s judgment being displayed on him. Jesus says that he hardens whomever he wills. Jesus says he has mercy on whomever he wills. Jesus says he has the right to make from the same lump of clay jars for honor at the royal table of the Father and jars for the fire pit and the ash heap. Jesus says without really seeming to explain himself that he doesn’t want any sassy backtalk from people who might limit his freedom.
“Man,” we say. “That sure is tough.”
They are tough. But they are good, because they are tough words from the very heart of Christ. Hard texts like Romans 9 (and all the other hard texts in the Bible) are words from the very mouth of Jesus. They deserve to be written in red just as much as any of the others. Romans 9 isn’t primarily the cold-hard logic of Paul. It’s first and foremost the words of Jesus Christ, and we’ll really never take them for what they really are until we’re settled on that truth. If Romans 9 is just an ancient text of philosophy, it can be torn from our Bibles. If it’s just the theological nigglings of a rabbinic apostle, then we can set it to the side. If it’s just the unnecessary rabbit-trail in a hard-to-understand epistle, then we can just refuse to teach and preach it. But if Romans 9 is spoken by Jesus, then he won’t let it go. He won’t let us off the hook.
After Jesus had gone on and on a whole lot about eating his flesh and drinking his blood, we may understand what the disciples were saying when they said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it” (John 6:60)? We know what those disciples were feeling! But regardless of how hard it is to take in, we have no other choice. Jesus is God in flesh. Jesus is the Savior of the world. Jesus is the Lamb of God, and only Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. Being God, he’s the only way to God. So read his words. Believe his words. Hear his words. Hold on to his hard words for all your life, because in the end if you have life it is only through them.
After the disciples had confessed that Jesus was saying some pretty tough stuff to stomach, Jesus told them that his words are “spirit and life” (John 6:63). Then as he watched the crowds turn around and walk away, refusing to accept his sentences, Jesus turned back to the disciples and asked them, “Do you want to go away as well” (John 6:67)? Well, do you? Jesus asks: Do you want to throw my words away? Do you want to refuse to hear hard truths? Do you want to stop following me if you see me for who I really am? Do you want to close your Bibles when you read a chapter that makes you squirm in your seats? Do you want to abandon me as soon as I start saying things your tiny little minds can never fully comprehend?
And Peter responds. He replies, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God” (John 6:68-69).
And Peter’s response has to be our response as well. Yes, Romans 9 is hard, and it’s okay to be uncomfortable. You’ll find that Paul even responds to the shock and the questions that naturally arise from reading it. But we can’t walk away, because the God of Romans 9 is the same God that hung on the cross for the salvation of sinners who didn’t deserve his mercy. The Sovereign God is the Sovereign Savior. So where else can we go? He is the Holy One of God. He has the words of eternal life.Romans 9 can be hard to get. It can be hard to read. I know it. I’m right there with you. But as your pastor, I beg you: don’t walk away from the words of the Bible, the hard words of Jesus, because they really are the words of life. There is hope nowhere else. There is life nowhere else. There is grace nowhere else.
In C.S. Lewis’ book The Silver Chair, in the Chronicles of Narnia series, we’re once again introduced to the mighty lion Aslan. A young girl named Jill, who has never been to Narnia, who has never met Aslan, is wandering through the woods trying to get her bearings and trying to find some water to drink to keep her alive. She encounters a brook of beautiful bubbling water, exactly what she has to have. But she soon realizes there’s a problem. A huge, wild, and hungry looking lion (Aslan) is lying beside the creek watching her. And then the unthinkable happens. The Lion starts to talk. Here is how Lewis’ records their conversation:
Are you not thirsty?” said the Lion.
“I am dying of thirst,” said Jill.
“Then drink,” said the Lion.
“May I — could I — would you mind going away while I do?” said Jill.
The Lion answered this only by a look and a very low growl. And as Jill gazed at its motionless bulk, she realized that she might as well have asked the whole mountain to move aside for her convenience. The delicious rippling noise of the stream was driving her nearly frantic.
“Will you promise not to — do anything to me, if I do come?” said Jill.
“I make no promise,” said the Lion.
Jill was so thirsty now that, without noticing it, she had come a step nearer.
“Do you eat girls?” she said.
“I have swallowed up girls and boys, women and men, kings and emperors, cities and realms,” said the Lion. It didn’t say this as if it were boasting, nor as if it were sorry, nor as if it were angry. It just said it.
“I daren’t come and drink,” said Jill.
“Then you will die of thirst,” said the Lion.
“Oh dear!” said Jill, coming another step nearer. “I suppose I must go and look for another stream then.”
“There is no other stream,” said the Lion.
There is no other stream.
When we encounter hard texts like Romans 9 in the pages of the Bible we’re sometimes tempted to say to ourselves: Oh dear, I guess I’ll just have to flip through the pages and find another chapter to read. I don’t think I want to have my quiet time in Romans 9. I don’t like what these verses are saying! I guess I’ll just have to skim through my bookshelves to find another Word.
And Jesus, the Lion of the Tribe of Judah, simply whispers: “There is no other Word.”
Under his mercy,
In the grand scheme of things having a church logo isn’t all that important. A local church is judged on its commitment to its Lord, the gospel, the truth of Scripture, the Great Commission. The measure of a church is seen in how truly it displays the love of God, how clearly it proclaims the message of the cross, how strongly it stands for the truth of the Bible, and how sacrificially it gives and goes for the sake of the glory of God in the salvation of sinners in its own local community and among the nations of the world.
So in some ways the fact that we’ve unveiled the new logo for our church doesn’t deserve much attention. There are genuinely thousands of other things that are more important, and that’s just at the close of office hours on a Friday afternoon in May. And yet, I’m also excited to show off the new logo that was just rolled out this afternoon, designed and provided to us by our friend Adam Kleinert. In the coming weeks you’ll start seeing it on our church letterhead, website, Twitter and Facebook pages, and probably some shirts at some point.
And that’s why a church’s logo matters. In many ways it is the visible symbol, the image that through media and advertisements becomes the public statement of who and what a local church is. It’s what people will see when they encounter our online pages. It’s what people will see on letters. It’s what people will see on flyers, brochures, and banners. So it really needs to say the right thing.
And we believe ours does, because in one image it captures everything we believe First Baptist Church Henryville is all about: the cross.
Our church’s vision statement says that “we exist to glorify God in all things, by proclaiming the gospel of Christ to all people, so their lives are transformed for all time.” That’s who we are. When people think about FBC Henryville, when they encounter our church members, and when they attend our worship services that’s what we want them to know about us most of all.
We don’t want to be known for having a great building and sanctuary, although we certainly think we have one. We don’t want to be known for an awesome online presence or a savvy social media campaign or using the latest technologies, although all those things are good. We don’t want to be known for having great preaching, although as pastors we always want to preach our best. We don’t want to be known for the size of our worship gatherings, although we want to reach as many people as possible. We don’t want to be known for having great ministries and programs, although we really do want to have great ministries and programs.
We want to be known for our total dependence on, clear proclamation of, and unyielding focus on the gospel of Jesus Christ, the message of the cross that alone is the power of God unto salvation. When people think about FBC Henryville, far more than thinking that we’re a great church, we want them to know and believe that we have and love a great Savior. That’s what we believe our logo represents: everything we are and everything we proclaim: the truth of the Bible as it unfolds the beauty of the cross.
It is said that in the late 1800’s a group of American tourists were spending several weeks in London. Over the course of two Sundays they wanted to attend two different churches that were known and famous for their pastors’ preaching. After attending the first church on a Sunday morning they walked away saying to themselves, “that man really is a great preacher!” The next week they attended services at the Metropolitan Tabernacle to hear Charles Spurgeon. They walked away from that service saying to themselves, “that man really preaches a great Savior!”
May that be what is said of us, today and unto the end of the age, amen.
― Mira Bartok, “The Memory Palace”
“What? Where? Go to bed? I need to go home now. Where am I? I want to go home. Who are you?”
Nothing could hurt worse than looking into the eyes of a loved one, a parent, a child, or a friend – and knowing that they don’t know who they’re looking back at. Words cannot describe the piercing pain of looking into those eyes and only seeing a blank and confused and frightened stare blinking back.
Is there a more horrific disease than Alzheimer’s? If there is, I don’t know what it is. Living in this world we all have more than enough options for tragic illnesses, but Alzheimer’s always stands in a class by itself. Other diseases attack the body. Alzheimer’s attacks the mind. Other diseases steal the strength, vitality, and health from those we love. Alzheimer’s steals the person we love long before it turns its attention to killing the body. So we end up losing those we love only to know that we still have to lose them again. It is one long living loss.
I’ve watched family members sink into that sea of forgetfulness. I’ve sat at the bedside of family members who had left us long before their deaths. I’ve sat up in the long hours of the night with family members who had a mother or a father who had gone missing, simply walked away from home. I’ve held my wife as we’ve cried over and prayed for her grandmother who is still suffering from the disease. I have stood in that darkness, and I have wept. Like so many others, this disease has stalked my family, and it is stalking it still.
And that strikes at the heart of why it’s such a nightmare. It is a rare disease that is able to tunnel itself into the fabric of a family’s life and identity, but that’s exactly what Alzheimer’s does. It’s like a boa constrictor that squeezes the life not only from its victim but from everyone they know and love. This isn’t the way things are supposed to be. Parents aren’t supposed to forget their children. Grandparents should always recognize their grandchildren. Husbands shouldn’t be strangers to their wives. Alzheimer’s is a monster that kidnaps our loved ones but leaves their bodies. It makes its victims wholly dependent on others even as they forget who those others are. It locks family members inside its steel-strong prison and locks its victims on the outside, completely unable to get back in no matter how hard they try.
That’s why the gospel is the only hope in the face of this horror. The gospel is the triumphant message that Jesus Christ has defeated every enemy and unlocked every prison. One of the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s is sinking hopelessness. The hallmark of the gospel is indestructible hope. The gospel invades this world and turns everything on its head, upside down.
If you’ve lost a loved one to this disease, or if one of your family members or friends is currently suffering from this illness, I want you to be encouraged with the good news that Jesus Christ is the only anchor and only shelter for this storm. The gospel’s hope is the only refuge in a world where we lose those we love in such horrific ways. If you’ve walked down this dark path before, or if you’re walking down it now, I want you to embrace three gospel truths that shine light on your steps, three gospel truths that really do change everything:
1. Jesus is aware. One of the silent cries of Alzheimer’s is its hiddenness. It attacks in the shadows. Family members watch what’s happening and sometimes we feel like no one else on earth understands, knows, or notices. It is oftentimes a very lonely disease.
But God knows. He knows it all. One of the most beautiful verses in the Bible is Exodus 2:25. The people of Israel had been enslaved in Egypt for hundreds of years. The God of Jacob hadn’t been heard from. They may have felt like God had abandoned them, and yet Exodus 2:25 tells us the truth. It simply says, “God saw the people of Israel – and God knew.” God heard their cries. God saw their suffering. God was not blind to their pain, and he’s not blind to your hurting either. In the throes of suffering God can seem silent. It can seem like we scream out into the heavens and only hear our own voices boomeranging back in reply, and yet the Bible tells us that God is not ignorant about the hurts of his children. Jesus knows.
What’s more, he knows exactly what you’re going through. He understands. The author of the book of Hebrews tells us that Jesus “had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted” (Hebrews 2:17-18). He gets it. He’s been where you are.
Now you may ask, “how?” Jesus didn’t suffer from Alzheimer’s, and as far as we know he didn’t have a family member to suffer with it, so how can he know what we’re experiencing as we suffer through this wrenching pain? Well, that’s just it. He has experienced what every family member experiences with an Alzheimer patient. He knows what it’s like to look into the eyes of those he loves, his closest family members, and know that they don’t recognize him for who he really is.
John begins his gospel by telling us that Jesus was in the world “yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him” (John 1:10-11). Jesus’ own family didn’t know who he was. In Mark 3:21 we’re told that Jesus’ family tried to take him into custody and lock him away because they “thought he was out of his mind.” Jesus knows what it feels like to love someone who didn’t recognize him. He identifies with you.
2. Jesus is stronger. As bad as the disease is and as powerful as it is, Jesus is stronger still. Alzheimer’s is big. Jesus is bigger. Alzheimer’s kidnaps our loved ones. Jesus is the Good Shepherd who doesn’t let his sheep get stolen. Alzheimer’s is a wolf that terrorizes the flock. Jesus kills every predator that threatens those who are his.
One of the questions that I hear sometimes from the family of Alzheimer patients is this: What happens when they forget the gospel? I know longtime believers, longtime Sunday school teachers, faithful saints, who have reached a point in their battle with Alzheimer’s where they don’t remember Jesus. When they hear about the cross they ask, “Who is Jesus? Who died?”
As you can imagine, that question knocks the wind out of family members, and for good reason, and yet it is at this moment when the truth of the gospel shines in its sparkling beauty, and it is in this moment that we have to hold onto everything the gospel is. The power of the gospel is stronger than any disease. The gospel is mightier than memory loss.
Romans 8:38-39 tells us that “neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Paul’s statement here is gloriously broad! Nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord! Nothing! Jesus in John 10:28 tells his disciples about how strong he is. He tells us that he gives his followers eternal life, “and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.” Jesus’ words are gloriously broad too! “No one will snatch them out of my hand!” He doesn’t lose those who are his! No one is strong enough to be snatched from his grip, not even you. Our God is a God mighty in power.
3. Jesus is triumphant. Because Jesus is stronger, we can have confidence in the face of Alzheimer’s that Jesus will indeed be triumphant. There is coming a day when every tear will be wiped from the eyes of God’s people. And therein lies our hope. Jesus is victorious. Satan will not conquer. Satan will not seize God’s sheep as spoils of war. God will defeat every enemy. Paul ends his letter to the Romans with that assurance. He tells the believers in Rome that “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet” (Romans 16:20).
I know what it’s like to look into the eyes of a loved one and hear them say, “What’s your name?” Who are you?” But I also know a Savior who has assured me that in the age(s) to come he will restore all creation and resurrect our bodies. And so I am confident that there is coming a day, a day on my calendar as certain as any day that I’ve ever lived, when I will once again look into the eyes of those that Alzheimer’s stole and hear these words once more: “I know you.”
And that’s only because Jesus knows those who are his. Satan, the accuser of the brothers screams out accusations of those suffering with Alzheimer’s. He whispers that serpentine lisp that says, “Look at him. Look at her. They don’t know you God. They don’t trust you. They don’t even remember you.” That’s what Satan says. And the Father then turns to our advocate, our mediator, our faithful high priest who identifies with us, and asks for a response. And Jesus stands up and says, “He’s right. She doesn’t remember me. But I remember her, and I have paid her debt, died her death, and given her my life. This one is mine. Case closed.”
And that is a word that Satan cannot contest. Jesus’ triumph isn’t in our feeble memories, feeble bodies, or feeble faith. Jesus’ triumph is Jesus’ work, Jesus’ victory, Jesus’ finished accomplishment.
Just before he died on the cross all those years ago, in between the mocking screams that were hurled at him from the crowds, Jesus heard a gurgling gasp next to him. One of the criminals who was dying on a cross by his side cried out to him, and in the midst of blood choking cries and straining lungs the thief made one last minute appeal, one desperate plea: “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
The thief had no good works to plead with. He had nothing to offer. He had no gifts or payment to bring in his hands, for his hands were nailed to a piece of wood. But he had one last hope – that maybe, just maybe, this thorn-crowned king next to him would save him a place in his throne room, would know his face, wouldn’t forget his name, and wouldn’t forget his request. At the end, all he could do was cast every hope he had on this dying Savior by simply asking him to remember.
And Jesus did.
And Jesus does.