Saturday, April 10, 2021

“I am alive for evermore” – Rev. 1:18

I find this to be one of the most comforting verses in all the New Testament.  It means that right now, as I speak these words, the risen and ascended Christ is living and real and present and near with grace and love and power for his people.  He ever lives to make intercession for us (Heb. 7:25).  It means that his promise, that he will be with us to the end of the age, is not an empty one.  And throughout history, the saints have found it to be so. 

I love the testimony of John G. Paton, a missionary to the New Hebrides in the South Pacific, who ministered and preached the gospel to cannibals there.  At one point, he was hidden in a tree by some of the natives who were of questionable reliability while war went on all around him.  Many on that island wanted him dead.  Many were looking for him to kill him.  And there he was, all by himself in a tree!  But this is what he says: “I sat there among the branches, as safe in the arms of Jesus!  Never, in all my sorrows, did my Lord draw nearer to me, and speak more soothingly in my soul, than when the moonlight flickered among these chestnut leaves, and the night air played on my throbbing brow, as I told all my heart to Jesus.  Alone, yet not alone!”[1]  Our Lord is not some sage we simply look back upon with respect.  He our very present help in time of trouble.  He is not far, he is near.  And all this is because he is risen from the dead.

The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is one of the most important truths of the Christian faith.  The apostle Paul put it this way in his epistle to the Corinthians: “if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain.  Yea, and we are found false witnesses of God; because we have testified of God that he raised up Christ: whom he raised not up, if so be that the dead rise not.  For if the dead rise not, then is not Christ raised: and if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins.  Then they also which are fallen asleep in Christ are perished.  If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable.  But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept” (1 Cor. 15:14-20). According to Paul, it is the linchpin of the faith.  If you don’t have this, you don’t have Christianity. 

There have been a lot of people, theologians and philosophers, who have tried to argue that you can have the essence of Christianity without the miraculous – without believing things like resurrection.  But this is false!  You cannot be a Christian without believing in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.  The essence of Christianity is the resurrection of Jesus from the dead and the consequences that flow from that reality.  The truth is that if you take the resurrection of Christ out of the gospel, you are left with a hollow gospel. 

So we need, we must, believe in the risen Christ.  It is our only hope in life and in death.  And we are invited this morning in this text to consider this great truth.  You hear it in the words, “Behold, I am alive.”  We are told to look.  Upon what are we told to look?  Upon the one who was dead and is now alive.  Upon the resurrected Christ.  Consider with me this morning the one who was dead, and is alive, and will be alive for evermore.

In particular, I want to look at three things that the resurrection of Christ tells us.  First, it tells us something about the work of God.  Second, it points us to the word of God.  Last, it points us to the victory of God.  To sum up, it tells us something about God and what he has done for us poor sinners. 

The Work of God.

First, our Lord’s resurrection from the dead points us to the work of God in our salvation.  The resurrection is God’s breaking into the realm of human history to accomplish for us what we could not.  It is important that we remember that.  This fact means that the salvation for which we long and hope is not based upon something that we do but upon something that God does for us.  This fact points us away from ourselves and our works and our accomplishments.  It means that Christianity is not a work of man, it is not a moralistic system or a self-help system.  The gospel is not a manual for self-improvement but the announcement of what God has done in the person of his Son, Jesus Christ. 

The gospel is not a means of psychologically manipulating people to believe the best is going to happen.  But if the resurrection is not true, then that’s the most we can say about the gospel.  I’m thankful that the reality is that our salvation does not depend upon our moods or emotions.  I’m thankful that it’s not merely a religious symbol that encourages us to sacrifice for the good of others.  Like the Exodus, it is a real, historical event in which God saves his people from bondage to sin. 

The intervention of God into our story is essential because we cannot save ourselves.  Our Lord himself said, “With men it is impossible, but not with God, for with God all things are possible.”  For this reason, “if Christ be not risen . . .” can only be followed by bad news.  We have no hope apart from the salvation accomplished by Christ which hinges not only upon his death but also upon his resurrection.  God is the only one who can create something new, who can bring life out of death, who can erase our guilt and restore righteousness.  On the other hand, all we can do is to rearrange the wreckage.  That’s all we can do, as the modern world demonstrates.  Technology doesn’t help us for we only invent new ways to kill each other.  Education doesn’t seem to help, for it at most can make us into clever devils.  Morality by itself doesn’t help us, for it only turns us into self-righteous Pharisees that condemn and cancel others (the modern Pharisaism is alive and well today).

This is why it is so important that we steadfastly affirm the historicity of the resurrection.  It is not a mere academic question.  The fact of the matter is that our salvation hinges upon it.  So is it in fact true that Christ rose from the dead?  Did he? 

Now I know it is unlikely that one is going to believe in the resurrection just based on the evidence for it, no matter how strong it is.  This is because if one is already committed to an anti-supernaturalistic viewpoint, they are going to be automatically against any explanation that involves a miracle.  Never mind the fact that such reasoning is circular.  It reminds me of how C. S. Lewis began his book, Miracles.  He says that he had only met one person who ever said he claimed to have seen a ghost, and this man still didn’t believe in ghosts!  This kind of person needs to first understand that his or her commitment to a purely materialistic viewpoint is unsustainable philosophically.  It is usually tied to the idea that science is the only door to knowledge (which is an irrational statement since that is a statement that cannot be validated by science).

But if you are open to the idea that God exists and that God can intervene in his creation, then the evidence for the resurrection is very strong.  In fact, it is the best explanation of the facts of the case.  Let me summarize it for you in four steps (I am indebted to William Lane Craig here and the quotations in the following four paragraphs are taken from this website[2]).

The first fact is that after his death, our Lord was buried in the tomb owned by Joseph of Arimathea.  This is significant because the tomb would have been known.  And, by the way, there simply is “no other compelling burial story” (Craig).  But if the disciples proclaimed Jesus as risen when he was not, all people would have had to do was to check!  Moreover, this is not some late tradition that evolved over time.  It is attested as early as a few years after his death (cf. 1 Cor. 15:3-5), before any of the canonical gospels were written and even before the writings of the apostle Paul (1 Corinthians was most likely written in the mid 50’s A.D. and the already accepted tradition that Paul quotes was before that). 

The second fact is that on the Sunday following his crucifixion, Jesus’ tomb was found to be empty by his followers.  We know this because all the gospels agree to this, including Mark which is the earliest of the gospels written.  The gospel accounts bear no mark of embellishment at this point (which is in contrast to later apocryphal gospels, one which has the cross emerging from the tomb and speaking!).  Moreover, the gospel writers tell us that the first ones who discovered the empty tomb were women, which – given the culture of that day – would have been exceedingly unlikely if these accounts were made up.

The third fact is that it is simply indisputable that many people on multiple occasions claimed to have experienced seeing Jesus risen from the dead (cf. 1 Cor. 15:5-7, and the gospels).  Moreover, this believe was so strong that those who had been skeptical of Jesus’ claims just a few years after his death were willing to die for him, believing that he had risen from the dead (like his brother James, a fact recorded by the Jewish historian Josephus).  In fact, a leading critic of the resurrection has had to admit, “It may be taken as historically certain that Peter and the disciples had experiences after Jesus’ death in which Jesus appeared to them as the risen Christ.”

The fourth fact is that “the original disciples believed that Jesus was risen from the dead despite their having every predisposition to the contrary.”  (Note Paul’s argument in 1 Cor. 1).  It was no Jewish belief that the Messiah would die and rise again.  Resurrection didn’t happen in the here-and-now: it happened at the end of the age.  Moreover, their leader had died an ignominious and cursed death (Deut. 21:23).  Nevertheless, they believed.  (Neither was such a belief nurtured by the Greco-Roman culture, as can be seen in Paul’s interaction with the philosophers at the Areopagus in Acts 17.)

I would also add to this the emergence of the early church.  Now if Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, then the gospel accounts are a massive fake.  It means that the disciples made all the material about Jesus up, including events involving specific people at specific places at specific times – all of which could have been easily checked since the early church began and grew in the very places where all these things were supposed to take place.  It would also have meant that the apostles went out knowingly proclaiming lies and willingly being persecuted for it.  How is that possible?  I can understand dying for a cause you think to be true when it is actually false; but I can’t fathom dying for a cause you know to be false.

For these reasons, I take the gospel accounts of the resurrection of Jesus to be historical accounts.  The actual, physical resurrection of Jesus from the dead is the best explanation of the facts.  Craig writes, “Indeed, the evidence is so powerful that one of the world’s leading Jewish theologians, the late Pinchas Lapide, who taught at Hebrew University in Israel, declared himself convinced on the basis of the evidence that the God of Israel raised Jesus of Nazareth from the dead!”[3]

The resurrection of Jesus says something about history.  It tells us that God has not merely said something to us, but that he has done something for us.  The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.  He kept the Law that we break every day.  Upon the cross, he absorbed God’s wrath upon sin that we deserve.  And having done that, he rose from the dead, and in so doing he declared that God had accepted his sacrifice and that redemption had truly been accomplished.  This is why the gospel does not come to us as a how-to manual but as an announcement of peace with God through Jesus Christ.  It places before us the crucified and risen Christ and says that all who believe and trust in him and come to him will be saved.  It doesn’t tell you to look into yourself to save yourself but to look away from yourself to Christ.

The Word of God.

The resurrection doesn’t just tell us something about the work of God in history but also about the word of God.  It is often said that God has revealed himself through redemptive acts.  That is true.  But often this is said in order to get around the need for God’s word, for his spoken and written revelation.  But we not only need God to act, we also need him to interpret those acts.  That is why the Bible is so important.  We need God to speak to us.  Thank God, he has.  And the resurrection of Jesus proves this.

How?  The resurrection authenticates Jesus to be who he said he was.  Think about the argument of the blind man in John 9.  His argument was that Jesus could not have healed his blindness if he had not been sent by God.  Healing a blind man is one thing – rising from the dead is on a different level altogether!  If healing a blind man points us to the authority of Christ, much more his resurrection!  It proves that he is the Son of God (cf. Rom. 1:2).  As such, he speaks with absolute authority.  And so his attitude towards the Bible is clearly important.

What does our Lord say about the Scriptures?  Well, he quotes the Old Testament as having authority as being completely true down to the last word and detail.  He says, “For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and hearth pass, one jot or one tittle (referring to the Hebrew letter yod, and to the serifs that distinguish letter from another) shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled” (Mt. 5:18).  Some people have a problem with the doctrine of the verbal inspiration of the Bible.  This is the doctrine of verbal inspiration in its strongest form.  Our Lord is saying that the OT is without error and inspired (since it will be fulfilled) down to the dots and the serifs of the Hebrew letters.

Yes, our Lord believed that the OT was true down the very words.  Here is what he said in an argument with the Pharisees, quoting Psalm 82:6, “Is it not written in your law, I said, Ye are gods?  If he called them gods, unto whom the word of God came, and the scripture cannot be broken” (Jn. 10:34-35).  Note that his argument hinges upon a single word – the word “gods.”  When our Lord says that scripture cannot be broken, he is saying that down the very words of Scripture, it is true.

This is because our Lord understood the OT to be the word of God.  It’s interesting that when our Lord quotes Gen. 2:24, even though God is not explicitly said to be speaking, our Lord ascribes it to God anyway (Mt. 19:5-6).  Why?  Because it is God’s word.  This is why when our Lord faced the temptations of the devil (Mt. 4), he turned away the assaults of Satan by quoting, again and again, from the Scriptures.  “It is written,” was enough for our Lord.  His resurrection is a tremendous argument that it ought to be enough for you and me.

But what about the New Testament?  We can have absolute confidence in the NT because they are the writings of the apostles of our Lord, and they were commissioned by him.  The apostles understood their writings to be authoritative, not because of any intrinsic worthiness on their part, but because they were commissioned by the risen Christ.  This is why the apostle Paul opens his letter to the Galatians as he does – for his authority and teaching was being questioned by the false teachers – “Paul, an apostle, (not of men, neither by man, but by Jesus Christ, and God the Father, who raised him from the dead” (Gal. 1:1).  Note the authenticating factor of the resurrection of Jesus and its bearing upon the authority of the apostle.

The apostles themselves understood this.  They knew they were writing Scripture.  It’s why when Peter talks about Paul, he puts his writings in the category of Scripture (2 Pet. 3:15-16).  It’s why when Paul quotes Luke 10:7, he writes “For the Scripture saith…” (1 Tim. 5:18).  And it’s why the early church only looked to those writings which were either written directly by an apostle or under supervision by an apostle for its authoritative canon.

Do you understand the importance of this?  We live in a day that is swimming in knowledge.  If I may use a mathematical illustration, a few years ago statisticians had to worry about drawing conclusions from the paucity of data; now they have to worry about sifting through too much data.  There is so much information.  But are we really better off?  Are we any closer to the truth than we were a hundred years ago?  I think not.  If anything, there is more reason than ever to despair of finding truth amid all the conflicting claims. 

Even apart from the problem of information today, the finitude of man precludes us from being able to arrive at absolute truth on our own.  This is because we can never be sure we have enough information.  We could only know with certainty if we knew everything there was to know about everything (or if we knew someone who knows everything about everything).  Massive amounts of information does not solve the problem, either.

Now we may be able to afford being agnostic on many issues.  But when it comes to matters of ultimate reality, how can we afford to do this?  Like Tom Cruise in the movie A Few Good Men, we should just want the truth!  But how can we get at it!  How can we find the proverbial needle in the haystack?  Is it even possible to know it?

Yes, and again, yes!  For God has spoken.  He has spoken through his Son the living Word and in so doing he has validated for us the written Word.  And he knows everything there is to know about everything and he knows it perfectly.  As we hear God’s word in the written word we can have confidence that we hold in our hands that which is truth.  And it is truth about what matters most: truth about who God is and who we are.

The victory of God.

The resurrection tells us about history in the work of God, and it tells us about truth in the word of God.  But as wonderful as these realities are, it does even more than that.  For it gives us faith and hope.  For it tells us about the victory of God.

Now in some sense we have touched on this in the work of God in Christ.  It is the work of God in raising his Son that gives us hope.  But I want to look more particularly at how this gives us hope. 

It gives us hope because in rising from the dead, our Lord has defeated sin.  He was delivered for our offences and raised again for our justification (Rom. 4:25).  If he had not risen from the dead, we would be yet in our sins, but he is risen and is become the firstfruits of them that slept.  It is the testimony of the empty tomb that God accepted the sacrifice of his Son.  In the old tabernacle, people waited with bated breath which the high priest ministered in the presence of God in the Holy of holies.  As long as they could hear the bells at the hems of his garment ringing they knew he was still alive.  Not every priest fared well.  Aaron’s own sons found this out.  But when Jesus rose from the dead, having purged our sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high (Heb. 1:3).  He rose victorious over sin.

Guilt is a powerful thing.  People will do all sorts of things to try to ignore or elude it.  If we are honest with ourselves, we have to recognize that we are guilty people.  We have not just done wrong things, but we are fundamentally wrong.  Because of this, guilt is perpetual.  We cannot get rid it unless we pretend it isn’t there.  But that doesn’t make it go away.

Religion can’t make it go away, either.  What I mean is that no matter how many good deeds we can do, we will not be able to erase the guilt of our sins.  Martin Luther found this out as a monk.  No matter how hard he tried, no matter how hard he pushed himself to be better, he never could arrive at a place of peace.  How can a sinful man be right with God?

It was not until Luther saw that it was not by trying but by trusting that a sinful man is justified that he came to have peace.  It was not until he stopped looking within and started looking solely to Christ that he could find joy again.  For when we look to Christ and see the one who knew no sin become sin in our place, and when we see that not only has he taken our sin but gives to those who trust in him his righteousness (2 Cor. 5:21), it is then that we can have peace.

The problem of peace with God is like the problem of truth. You can never know enough to be sure you have the truth.  And you can never do enough to have the confidence that you have dealt with your sins.  But when you look to Christ and see the Son of God purging our sin, how can we not have confidence?  Is this not a tremendous statement: “Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God” (Rom. 5:1)?  Not, we might have peace, but we have peace with God.  And therein we find hope: “we rejoice in hope of the glory of God.”

And then there is the problem of death.  But in rising from the dead, our Lord defeated death.  I love the title to John Owen’s book on the atonement: The Death of Death in the Death of Christ.  Amen!  He put death to death.  He not only rose victorious over death himself, but he did so as the representative of his people.  Through death he destroyed the one who had the power of death, the devil, and delivered those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage (Heb. 2:14). 

Modern man does not know how to deal with either of these things.  Not with sin, as we can see in the cancel culture.  The only way post-modern man knows how to deal with wrongs is by canceling those who do them.  They don’t know anything about atonement.  They don’t know how to show mercy and get justice at the same time.  And you know what?  This is not a problem that can be solved apart from the cross.  For only on the cross do we see mercy and truth kiss, do we see the grace of God and the justice of God perfectly displayed.

Nor does modern man know how to deal with death.  If anything, we do all we can to avoid the very mention of it.  Secularism has no way to deal with this thing that is the most certain fact of our existence except by ignoring it or to deny its significance.  But our Lord has conquered it.  “I am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive forevermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell and of death.”  No one else in the universe can say that.  How do we know he can say that?  He is risen.  There is our hope: Christ is our hope.  He is the resurrection and the life.  Our Lord put it this way to Martha: “I am the resurrection and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die.  Believest thou this?” (Jn. 11:25-26)  Do you?  Do you believe it?  Our Lord in his word asks us this question today.  You can have no hope apart from Christ.  We have perfect hope in Christ, in the one who is risen, who is alive today and has the keys of death and hell.



[3] Ibid.

Thursday, April 1, 2021

The Final Doxology – Romans 16:25-27

How does Paul end this epistle?  He does so in a doxology, which is a word of praise to God.  Paul ends on this note of prayer and praise.  Note that the main idea here, the main verb, is found in verse 27 which completes the thought began in verse 25 – “Now to him . . . to the only wise God be glory forevermore through Jesus Christ! Amen.”  In other words, this is a prayer that God be glorified.  That is really the only appropriate way to end an epistle which is about God and his gospel.  This God is the God from whom and through whom and to whom are all things.  “To him be glory forever. Amen” (11:36).  This is the reason why God saves men and women.  He saves us for his glory: “in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory” (9:23). 

I want you to hear that last verse because a lot of people think that God being for his glory means that makes him selfish and vainglorious in a bad way.  But this is not the case.  God is the only being in the universe for which it would be wicked for him not to be for his glory.  For he is God and we are not.  As John Piper has put it, God is not an idolator: he has no other gods besides himself.  But this does not mean that God being for his glory puts us at a disadvantage. That is certainly the way it is when people are out for themselves.  It means that they are willing to walk over you to get ahead.  But when God seeks his glory, he does so through the sacrifice of his Son for the salvation of sinners like you and me.  That is what Paul means in 9:23.  God makes known his glory for vessels of mercy (sinners) by bestowing glory upon them.  He makes us kings and priests to God. 

This of course does not mean that we are made into gods.  There will always be an infinite distance between the creature and the creator.  God will always be the only one worthy of worship.  The creature being bestowed with glory means that we are restored by grace in a relationship with God so that we can truly enjoy seeing his glory and his experience his fellowship.  That is where the truest happiness and joy and satisfaction and peace and contentment is found.  It doesn’t happen by making much of yourself.  It happens by making much of God, by knowing him, and seeking him.  “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God” (Mt. 5:8)!  How are we blessed?  Be seeing and knowing and experiencing the love and mercy of God. 

“The chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever” (Westminster Shorter Catechism, Question 1).  To glorify God and to enjoy him are not things at odds with each other.  They are complimentary.  God is not a cosmic killjoy, as some like to represent him.  No, my friends, God calls us to enjoy him and to glorify him.  And that is what Paul is calling us to do here.

The reality is that because you praise what you love, it is inevitable that the gospel will lead us to praise.  The gospel tells sinners like you and me how to be saved, and about the God of grace who does this through his Son Jesus and his life and death and resurrection, through his ascension into heaven and his ongoing intercession for his people.  And if you really believe this message, you are going to fall in love with the God of the gospel, this God of glory.  And if you love him you are going to praise him.  Doxology is the inevitable consequences of theology.  It is the natural response of sinners who have been saved by grace alone through faith alone in the work of Christ alone – for the glory of God alone.

Do the truths of the book of Romans lead us to this?  It is an important question to ask ourselves.  Does the gospel create within us a heart of praise to God?  Does it cause us to love him and therefore to worship him?  Do its truths resonate in our hearts?  Because if they don’t, there is something very wrong with us.  It certainly means that we are in a very poor spiritual condition.  It might even mean that we are not yet saved. 

Now that is the main idea.  This is a doxology.  But this is not like so many “praise songs” that are sung in churches today.  There are songs out there which call people to praise God but don’t really give much reason to do so.  Many times, it seems to me, the praises of the people are carried by the tune or the instrumental accompaniment instead of by the message of the song itself.  But that is not the case here.  It is not the case with any of Paul’s calls to doxology.  There is a rich theological content in these verses and we need to understand this if we are going to join the apostle in true praise to God.

So what does the apostle say about God here?  To see it, I want you to trace with me the flow thought in verses 25-27.  Paul begins in verse 25 by saying, “Now to him . . .” (remember, this thought is completed in verse 27).  What follows is a description of God.  Now what does the apostle say about God?  The chief thing he says here is that God is the one “who is able to strengthen you.”  What follows that is a description of the way God does this.  He does it “according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but has not been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all the nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith” (25-26). 

When you step back and consider the structure of this doxology, it becomes clear that the main thing here that causes the apostle to break forth into worship and doxology is the fact that God is the one who strengthens us and establishes us.  He does this through the gospel and through faith in its message.  So by believing the message of the mystery, which is fully revealed and manifested in the gospel, we are strengthened by God.  It’s interesting, isn’t it, that the apostle began this epistle by expressing a wish that the Roman Christians might be strengthened and established (1:11).  He ends the epistle by commending the Romans Christians to God who is able to strengthen and establish them (16:25). 

Now it may be a curious thing to you why the apostle would focus on this particular thing in these last verses as he closes his epistle to the Romans.  Paul is praising God that he strengthens us by the gospel.  That begs several questions, which I want to explore with you.  First, why does Paul praise God for this?  Second, what is it about the gospel that it leads to our being established?

Why does Paul praise God for this?

I think the reason Paul picks this particular thing, that God is able to strengthen us, is because the apostle understood the need not only to grasp and believe the truths as some point in our lives, but the necessity of persevering in them.  It’s fine if you like what Paul has written up to this point.  But you don’t want to be a person who enjoys one book but then goes on to another and forgets what he read in the first book.  You don’t want to be the person who rejoices in the truths of Romans only to find something else more compelling later on.  You need to persevere in these truths.  And that is what the apostle is commending to the Romans here: he is commending them to the God who is able to strengthen them so they don’t give in and don’t give up.

But do I really have the right to make this connection between being strengthened in the faith and persevering?  I think so.  This is what the New Testament scholar Thomas Schreiner says about this verse: “The strengthening envisioned is the ability to resist temptations and trials with the result that they do not forsake and abandon the Christians faith.”[1]  And if you look at other passages where this word “strengthen” is used, it is often used in this very connection.  For example, when Paul is writing to the Thessalonians, he talks about how he sent Timothy “to establish [same Greek word] and exhort you in your faith, that no one be moved by these afflictions” (1 Thess. 3:2-3).  The apostle was clearly worried that the trials they were going through might cause them to have second thoughts about their commitment to Jesus.  This is why he sent Timothy to them: “For this reason, when I could bear it no longer, I sent to learn about your faith, for fear that somehow the tempter had tempted you and our labor would be in vain” (5).  And so he prays for them: “Now may our God and Father himself, and our Lord Jesus, direct our way to you, and may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, as we do for you, so that he may establish [again, same Greek word] your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints” (11-13).  This is a strengthening for perseverance.

In order to really appreciate this doxology, therefore, you need to understand two things.  First, you need to understand the absolute importance of persevering in the faith and the danger posed to those who don’t.  Second, you need to understand that all the resources we need for persevering – the strengthening – don’t come from you but are found in God through Christ.

So how important is this need to persevere?  Well, let me put it this way: there are no promises for those who do not persevere.  Our Lord put it this way: “But the one who endures to the end will be saved” (Mt. 24:13).  When you hear his exhortations to the seven churches in Asia, given to us in the second and third chapters of Revelation, everyone of them ends with an exhortation and a warning like this: “To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of live, which is in the paradise of God” (2:7; cf. 2:11, 17, 26; 3:5, 12, 21).  This is not a promise that if you persevere (this is implied in the language of conquering) you will have a rich spiritual life this side of heaven.  Of course that’s true as far as it goes.  But that is not what the Lord is saying here.  He is saying that if you persevere in the faith you will be saved.  And there are no promises for those who do not!  In fact, this is what the apostle John has to say about those who fail to persevere: “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us.  But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us” (1 Jn. 2:19).

Or consider how Paul put it to the Corinthians.  He writes: “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize?” (1 Cor. 9:24).  By the way, what is the prize here?  It is “an imperishable [wreath]” (25).  Now note the word “all” in verse 24.  Then drop down to 10:1,ff.  Not all who get in a race cross the finish line and win the wreath.  Paul illustrates this with the story of the Israelites coming out of Egypt: “For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink.  For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ.  Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness” (10:1-5).  Not everyone who came out of Egypt entered the Promised Land, an example for us (10:6,ff).  Indeed, “let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (12). 

Do you see the obvious application here?  Just because you call yourself a Christian doesn’t mean a whole lot if you don’t persevere.  Not everyone who gets in a race finishes well.  Not all those who came out of Egypt entered the promised land.  It’s not just a matter of starting well, but of finishing well.  It’s a matter of being able to say with Paul, at the end of his life, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.  Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing” (2 Tim. 4:7-8).

But this leads to the next thing you really need to understand about persevering in the faith.  It is this: you don’t have the resources to get you to the end.  But God does.  And he will keep you!  He is able to strengthen you.  Yes, you!  You with all your weakness and sins and mistakes and limited vision.  It is in our weakness that we are made strong by God’s grace (cf. 2 Cor. 12:9).  That is what this doxology is all about.  It is about God’s power to keep his people.  It is a fact that we persevere only because God preserves us.  There is no real difference between the doctrine of the final perseverance of the saint in faith and the doctrine of the preservation of the saint by God.  The latter secures the former.  It is what the apostle Peter was getting at in 1 Pet. 1:5, when he reminds the believers that they “by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.” 

We need to be reminded that we do not live the Christian life in our own strength but in the strength which God provides.  We all probably have the tendency sometimes to fall back on our own reserves.  But we don’t just have grace in the forgiveness of our sins but we are given grace in the daily living out the life marked out for us by Jesus Christ.  We are to look to Jesus (Heb. 12:1-2).  We are to remember the blessed truth in another great doxology: “Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and forever. Amen” (Jude 24-25).

In commending them to the God who is able to strengthen them, Paul is in effect showing us how to pray.  We are to pray that God will strengthen us.  And we are to pray with the confidence that he will answer this prayer.  I tell you, if it weren’t for truths like this, I would have given up on the pastorate a long time ago.  But knowing that God is able to keep his people is what keeps me from quitting.  He loves his own and he loves them to the end and he will keep them (cf. Jn. 13:1).  As the hymn puts it so well, “He will hold me fast.”  It’s a truth worth exulting over!  It means that God really is willing as well as able to answer such a prayer.

How does the gospel work to strengthen us?

We noted earlier that Paul not only praises God as the one who is able to strengthen us but also tells us how God does this.  He does it through the gospel, which the apostle goes on to describe as “the preaching of Jesus Christ” and “the revelation of the mystery.”  It is the preaching of Jesus Christ – there is no gospel apart from him.  It is the person and work of Jesus that is the gospel.  The gospel is not a new law.  It is not a self-help manual.  It is the announcement that God has come to earth in his Son, has kept the law that we broke and has paid the penalty that we deserved.  It is the good news that all who believe, who put their trust in Jesus Christ, will be saved because of what he has done for us. 

In describing it as “the revelation of the mystery” the apostle is not saying that the gospel is something “mysterious” in the sense that we can’t understand it.  Rather, he is saying that it is a mystery in the sense that we would not have known it on our own.  That is why Paul calls it “revelation.”  The gospel is not a merely human attempt to understand God.  It is God speaking to us and telling us how we can be saved. 

Then Paul connects the gospel with the Old Testament: “through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations.”  The gospel is not something brand new, but the outworking of God’s plan of salvation from the very beginning.  It goes all the way back to the promise in the Garden of Eden to Adam and Eve, down to God’s promises to Abraham and David and the prophets.  Jesus, in fact, is the culmination of all God’s promises to us: all the promises of God find their yes in him!

But how does the gospel work to strengthen us?  It strengthens us because God meets faith in Christ with strength.  He loves to glorify his Son by strengthening those who look away from themselves to his Son for salvation and grace and empowerment.  The apostle himself illustrates this attitude of a life by faith in his letter to the Galatians: “I have been crucified with Christ.  It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.  And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20).  It is what our Lord himself pointed to by saying, “I am the vine, you are the branches.  Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (Jn. 15:5).  On the other hand, as Paul puts it “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Phil 4:13).  This is why Paul connects the gospel to faith: it has not been made known to all the nations for the purpose of admiration merely or as an item of curiosity, but as an object of faith: it has been made known to all the nations “to bring about the obedience of faith.”  That’s how the gospel strengthens us.

In other words, you are not strengthened by looking to yourself, to your resources, to your goodness, to your merit, to your works, to your accomplishments.  You are strengthened by looking to Christ and to his resources, goodness, merit, works, and accomplishments (cf. Rev. 3:17-18).  That is a gospel-centered life.

And this is a fitting conclusion to the book of Romans.  It is fitting because the doctrines of this letter are meant to be believed and loved throughout our lives from beginning to end.  Paul could have concluded this letter by a long soliloquy on the sovereignty of God or justification by faith or the oneness of Jew and Gentile, but actually these doctrines are most magnified when they are lived out in lives of believers.  What Paul is saying here is that the most fitting conclusion is that which is reflected in a life-long commitment of faith and love and obedience to Jesus Christ.  Words can never match a life of faithfulness. 

On the other hand, apostacy is the worst kind of reflection on the gospel that one can give.  And how sad and heart-rending it is that someone will take the treasure of the gospel and sell it for things that cannot ultimately profit! But when people do that, others see and think that the gospel is not the treasure that it really is.  So if we want to honor the doctrines of Romans, we will do it by a life lived out in faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

In doing so, we are not only honoring the doctrines but we are honoring the God of the doctrines.  For in doing so, we are declaring that the only way we can live is by grace, that we are cast upon the grace of God from beginning to end.  In doing so we magnify the grace of God and the power of God and as we loo into the mystery of God and behold its riches we come to magnify the wisdom of God.  And hence verse 27: “To the only wise God, be glory forevermore through Jesus Christ.”

[1] T. R. Schreiner, Romans [ECNT], (Baker, 1998), p. 811.

God will crush Satan under your feet – Romans 16:20

Paul has been warning the Roman Christians against false teachers.  We know that Satan is ultimately behind all the attempts to turn people from the truth, both in the church as well as outside of it (2 Cor. 11:13-15; Eph. 6:10-20; Jn. 8:44).  It was the reason for the fall of man in the first place: Adam and Eve listened to the voice of the snake in the Garden and in doing so rebelled against God.  But this was not just any snake: it was Satan in the form of a snake.  We know this because in other places in Scripture he is called the old serpent, “the deceiver of the whole world” (cf. Rev. 12:9; 20:2).  He was in the very Garden of Eden tempting people away from God.  And he is in the church tempting people away from God.

And he does this through false teachers.  He may not come to us in such an obvious costume, but he comes to us through “smooth talk and flattery” (Rom. 16:18).  He comes to us through slick and sneaky teachers who do all they can to make their soul-killing doctrines look plausible.  And the fact is that he is often successful.  Thus the apostle warns Timothy: “But avoid irreverent babble, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness, and their talk will spread like gangrene.  Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, who have swerved from the truth, saying that the resurrection has already happened.  They are upsetting [“overthrow” KJV] the faith of some (2 Tim. 2:16-18).  Previously, he had given this warning: “Now the Spirit expressly says that in the latter times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared” (1 Tim. 4:1-2). 

The fact that “the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Pet. 5:8), the fact that he is often prowling in the church itself, and the fact that he is often successful makes it a daunting task to withstand his attacks.  And then when we consider our own weaknesses, how can we stand?

All this, I think, is behind the comfort which the apostle offers in verse 20: “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet.  The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.”  We need to be encouraged and given hope in the fight of faith.  And that is what the apostle is doing here.  He is setting us upon the firm foundation of God’s promise and upon this foundation we will find our footing in the combat against the devil.

What is this encouragement which is given?  Paul is taking us all the way back to Genesis 3, to the fall of man and to God’s pronouncement against the Serpent who deceived Adam and Eve.  Satan had been successful in leading Adam and Eve away from obedience to God by eating the forbidden fruit.  But God would not let him have the final word.  He comes into this world which is now haunted by human rebellion and stinking with spiritual and physical death, and says that it will not always be this way.  And the main reason we know this is because God says the devil will be destroyed through the Seed of the woman.  Here is what he says: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Gen. 3:15).  The fact that the Seed of the woman bruises the head of the serpent indicates that this is a crushing blow whereas the bruising of the heel of the woman’s Seed indicates this is a wounding blow.  Satan does his damage but he is the one who will be destroyed in the end.

This is what Paul is referring to here.  “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet.”  We know it will happen because the Seed of the woman – Jesus Christ – has come.  Satan did indeed bruise his heel: he was the instigator behind the crucifixion.  But he did not win that contest for our Lord conquered death and in conquering death he conquered the devil.  On the cross, our Lord “disarmed the [demonic] rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him” (Col. 2:15).  Or, as it is put in the epistle of Hebrews, “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery” (Heb. 2:14-15).  Through death, he destroyed the devil who brought death into the world in the fall of our first parents.  And he ensures the final destruction of the devil in the Lake of Fire.

Because of our Lord’s victory over death through death – I love the title of John Owen’s great book on the atonement: The Death of Death in the Death of Christ – we can have true victory over the devil.  “And I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, ‘Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God.  And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death” (Rev. 12:10-11).  Here were Christians who found the courage to remain faithful to death, and the roots of that courageous faithfulness are to be found in our Lord’s victory over the death and the devil.

There are three things in this promise here.  First, that God will crush Satan.  Some people present good and evil in eternal combat.  But that is not so: as Martin Luther once put it, Satan is God’s Satan.  He has a beginning and his reign of terror will have an end.  Second, God will do this under the feet of the faithful.  In other words, we will enjoy the sweetness of God’s victory over Satan.  It is a victory in which God’s people will participate.  I think this is why the apostle describes God as “the God of peace.”  God will bring peace to a world which is riddled by evil and death and it will be a peace enjoyed by all of God’s people.  Satan will lie vanquished under our feet!  And third, God will do this speedily.  I know that some want to use this to argue that God did this in 70 A.D.  I find that preposterous.  And it muzzles this promise.  Satan is a defeated foe to be sure (not at 70 A.D. but around 30 A.D!), but he is still going about like a roaring lion on a destructive rampage.  There is coming a day when that will no longer be, and that day has not come yet, even 2000 years after the apostle wrote this.  Why then say that God will soon do such a thing?  This is true because from the perspective of eternity all of this earth’s history will seem like a vapor.  There is coming a time when the trouble the devil now causes will be faint memory. 

Now the question I want to ask of this text and these truths is this: how should we use the assurance provided in this promise to be inspired to persevere in our faith?  For that is clearly the intended purpose in this promise which is given here.  To that end, I propose the following propositions.

First, we are reminded that God’s final victory over Satan is sure.

Note how it goes: “The God of peace will soon crush Satan.”  Consider the distance between the promise given in Gen. 3:15 and Rom. 16:20.  It was initially given thousands of years ago in the Garden of Eden.  As the millennia passed, surely people wondered if this promise would ever be fulfilled.  Then Jesus came and on the cross he gave Satan his crushing blow and in his resurrection he conquered death.  And this is the sure basis for our final deliverance from death and from Satan’s malign influence.  We are reminded that God never forgets his promises and always keeps his promises.  And in particular he keeps the promises that he makes for and to his people.  We can bank on it.  There is no passage of time that will wear out the promises of God or make them less effective.

Now how does this keep us faithful?  For that is the question we are considering here.  It is important to remember God’s faithfulness to his promises because we are so often confronted with circumstances that give the appearance that God’s promises will not go through.  We can find ourselves in the position of Abraham, that possessor of God’s great promises, and yet who had to wait many years for their accomplishment.  In the 25 years of waiting, Abraham’s faith was sorely tried.  He even tried to help out God.  But he needed no help, and in due time his promise was fulfilled.  We are between the cross and the resurrection of Christ and our own resurrection from the dead.  As we journey through this world, we are confronted with many reasons to doubt.  We might be tempted, like Abraham, to help God out, as if he is not able to do what he has promised.  We are surrounded with death and tragedy and apostacy and evil and many other instances of Satan’s apparent triumph.  But we must remember that it will all end.  God will crush Satan.  And we are in an infinitely better position than Adam to believe this, for we not only have the promise of Gen. 3:15 but we have the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus.  He defeated Satan for us and one day we too will participate in this victory, which is what Rom. 16:20 is all about.

This is important because God’s promises for us are mainly future.  There are also many promises for the present of course!  We are promised grace in trial and the presence of our Savior to the end of the ages. Our God is not a God afar off.  He is near to those who are in Christ.  But there are great and precious promises that await the future.  And our hope, and therefore our endurance, depends upon God’s faithfulness to those promises.  If our hope in Christ is limited to the present age, said the apostle Paul, we are of all men most to be pitied.  You see that in our text.  God will crush Satan.  Not has crushed, but will crush.  This is something that is certain, yes, but it is also in the future.  It hasn’t happened yet.  We await with hope God’s promise to us.

Satan’s reign has not yet ended.  His prowling times are not yet finished.  He is still deceiving the nations.  And we are daily exposed to his rampages and his darts and fiery arrows.  Against them we lift up the shield of faith, faith in the promises of God and in the God who never lies and always keeps his word.  That is what Paul is reminding us here.  God is faithful.

Second, we are reminded that God’s final victory over Satan will be complete.

“The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet.”  We are not only reminded of God’s faithfulness but also of his omnipotence.  Satan was defeated at the cross.  But he is not yet destroyed.  That day is coming, however, for God will not only suppress the devil but crush him and destroy him forever.  There is coming a day when he will descend into the lake of fire never to ascend again.  God will once again restore peace to a world that is groaning under the effects of sin and death.

We need to be reminded of this because there are times in the present when it looks as if God is nowhere to be found.  It often looks as if the devil is gaining the victory.  Look around you in the present.  Evil is ascendant everywhere.  Ideologies that are completely contrary to the truths of God’s word are pressed upon us.  Those who subscribe to God’s truth are looked upon not only as ridiculous but as evil!  Real persecution is imminent.  There is therefore a great temptation to give in to the pressure to conform to this world.  Who wants to be hated?  Who wants to be despised?  Who wants to lose their security in this world? Who wants to be persecuted?  No one, of course, and the devil knows this.  If he can’t seduce you through the pleasures of this world he will threaten you with its persecutions.  And in those moments we need to remember that for all the rage of the devil, he will one day be destroyed.  The final victory does not rest with the enemies of God’s people.  We need to remember that.

And we need to remember that just as God’s people will participate in the peace that God brings in his victory over Satan, even so will those who are deceived by Satan participate in his doom: “And another angel, a third, followed them, saying with a loud voice, ‘If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, he also will drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger, and he will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angles and in the presence of the Lamb.  And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image, and however receives the mark of its name” (Rev. 14:9-11).  Now why is this written?  Why the reminder of the doom of these  followers of Satan?  It is the same reason Paul is reminding the Roman Christians of the final crushing of the devil.  It is for the purpose of perseverance: “Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and their faith in Jesus” (Rev. 14:12).

Third, we are reminded that God’s final victory over Satan will be sweet.

I see this in the phrase, “the God of peace.”  Real peace will not come until the devil is finally vanquished.  That day awaits.  But it is worth waiting for, and that is the point.  This world can give you a sort of peace.  It can fill your pockets with money and your body with pleasures and your ego with the praises of man.  The psalmist talks about people like this: “For I was envious of the arrogant, when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.  For they have no pangs until death; their bodies are fat and sleek.  They are not in trouble as others are; they are not stricken like the rest of mankind” (Ps. 73:3-5).  Like the psalmist we can look with envy upon those who enjoy the peace that this world gives.  In fact, he says that “my feet had almost stumbled, my steps had nearly slipped” (73:2).  He is saying that he had almost fallen away from the faith. 

How did he recover?  He recovered, not only by remembering the sure doom of the wicked (ver. 17-22), but also by remembering the sweetness of God’s goodness towards his people: “Nevertheless, I am continually with you; you hold my right hand.  You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will receive me to glory.  Whom have I in heaven but you?  And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.  My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever… But for me it is good to be near God” (23-26, 28).

I am reminded of what our Lord told his disciples shortly before he left them: “Peace I leave with you my peace I give to you.  Not as the world gives do I give to you.  Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (Jn. 14:27).  The peace of this world is not the peace that Jesus gives.  It is peace that is infinitely better.  It is better because it is eternal and it is better because he will bring true peace and wholeness by restoring the image of God in us in which we are intended to exist and live.  It is better because it involves a restoration of our relationship with God and the enjoyment of his fellowship and blessing.  It is better because it deals with our guilt instead of suppressing it. 

When we are tempted to give up on the faith, it is because we are tempted to give up what it infinitely precious and sweet for temporary peace and pleasure.  And when we endure through trials, it is because we remember that the God of peace will soon crush Satan under our feet.  Like Moses, we can choose “to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin.” Why?  Because “he considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt” (Heb. 11:25-26).  We endure because we know that we have “a better possession and an abiding one” (Heb. 10:34).  The following words of exhortation are still relevant: “Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward.  For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised” (35-36).

Fourth, we are reminded that God’s final victory over Satan is a gift of grace.

Note the following words: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.”  It is no mistake that the promise of the God of peace is linked with the grace of his Son Jesus Christ.  God’s final and triumphant peace does not come to us because we have made ourselves worthy of it or because we maintain ourselves in a state of merit but because of God’s grace which comes to us through Christ.  The outcome of God’s final victory and our participation in it does not rest upon our own righteousness or accomplishments.  It rests upon the gracious work of Christ.

Which means that the one critical question for each of us is this: am I in Christ?  God’s grace to us comes through him.  He is God’s greatest gift to us.  Because we cannot save ourselves.  We are sinners and worthy only of God’s judgment.  But Christ kept God’s law perfectly and he substituted himself on the cross and absorbed God’s wrath that we deserved so that those who trust in him will receive God’s righteousness and acceptance and pardon.  The peace of God comes through Christ (2 Cor. 5:18-21).  With the apostles, “we appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain” (2 Cor. 6:1).  For “now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor. 6:2). 

A Prayerful Close to a Powerful Epistle (Hebrews 13:18-25)

  What is the epistle to the Hebrews? What was the author trying to do? Well, he tells us in verse 22, when he writes, “And I beseech you, b...