Grace

Learning From Sinful Angels

We have a lot to learn from angels. They are a model of loyalty, service, reverence, worship, holy curiosity and strength. We do well to study the Scripture to better understand these brilliant creatures we will spend eternity with.

We have a lot to learn from fallen angels. They are a model of pride, disloyalty, rebellion, deception and sin. We also do well to study Scripture to better understand the nature of sin in our own souls, the weapons of our foes and the actions that will separate one from God.

In Jude 6 we are given a window into the transgression of the angels. Check out what the brother of Jesus who became his servant says about this.

“And the angels who did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains under gloomy darkness until the judgment of the great day.”

The fall of the angels was fundamentally a rejection of their proper place before God. They had authority, they held a position of honor, they had a proper place in the presence of God—in their created nature and given vocation. They had a seat at the table.

Sin viewed from this angle is pushing outside one’s boundary. It is beliefs and actions that transgress God-given boundaries. The Creator sets the parameters of all created things. He tells the ocean, “thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stayed ?” (Job 38:11).

He tells the angels here is your place, here is your role, here is your authority to execute your vocation. The angelic rebellion was a rejection of the joy and freedom set by divine limitation. Rather than embracing the gift of existence and vocation they audaciously stormed the gates of heaven. Authors of the first coup the angelic host found slavery on the other side of their trespass.

Human transgression is made of the same stuff. My rebellion toward my Creator is no different. Like Adam and Eve before me I reject my creaturely limits. I reach outside my capacity and grasp for deity. I crave omnipotence. I claim omniscience. I attempt omnipresence. I determine morality.

Rather than embracing the freedom of creaturely limitation I transgress my parameters. A hardwired idolater, my heart is constantly striving to dethrone my Maker. Thank God for Jesus Christ! The only remedy for idol-ridden human beings, transgressing creatures, and trespassing image-bearers.

Remarkably God could have chosen to rescue fallen angels, but he did not. He came for us. The fall of angelic beings and their certain eternal destruction should create in us deep humility and rich gratitude. The writer of Hebrews captures this wonderful mercy.

“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. For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham. Therefore he 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” (Heb 2:14-17).

Praise be to God! He helps us! Mercy is the only explanation. He provides no help to the angels, he certainly did not have to provide help to humanity. The incarnation and cross was the form his help took. To accomplish our salvation “he had to” be made like us. There was no other way.

The “elect angels” (1 Tim 5:21) who have remained in their proper positions “long to look” into these matters of salvation. Their angelic curiosity is matched by their astonishment at the Creator’s humility and grace. It is angels who set the pace for worshipping the Lamb who was slain with fierce zeal (Rev 5:11-12). We have much to learn.

Freedom for Slavery

Paradox lies at the heart Christian faith. Strength is found in weakness, the first will be last and losing life is how we find it. Most striking, we find the mighty God in a crib and on a cross. The majesty of the Creator is his humility.

Peter touches another paradox in his first letter. He states, “Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for what is evil, but living as servants of God” (1 Pet 2:16). You are free, the gospel has done that for you. But people freed by the gospel are strange. They use their freedom to ensure their slavery.

The word servants (δοῦλοι) literally means “slaves.” The gospel liberates us for joyful service to others. Martin Luther’s book, The Freedom of the Christian builds on this paradox. His preface says it well.

A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.

A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.

These two theses seem to contradict each other. If, however, they should be found to fit together they would serve our purpose beautifully. Both are Paul’s own statements, who says in I Cor. 9:19, “For though I am free item all men, I have made myself a slave to all,” and in Rom. 13:8, “Owe no one anything, except to love one another.” Love by its very nature is ready to serve and be subject to him who is loved. So Christ, although he was Lord of all, was “born of woman, born under the law” [Gal. 4:4], and therefore was at the same time a free man and a servant, “in the form of God” and “of a servant” [Phil. 2:6–7].

Another great treatment on this theme is a book by Murray J. Harris called Slave of Christ: A New Testament Metaphor for Total Devotion to Christ. We are freed for slavery.

Gospel Strength

“You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus.”

In one sentence Paul pulls back the curtain on the link between strength and the gospel (2 Tim 2:1). What can we learn from Paul’s words to Timothy?

  • The source of strength in this text is grace. Paul affirms here that the journey of the Christian is by “grace alone.” In other places, Paul asserts that we are “saved by grace” (Eph 2-8-10). Here he shows us that we are “strengthened by grace.” The journey begins and continues by grace.
  • The grace that Paul speaks of is that which is located in Christ Jesus. Here he pushes us toward a gospel-centered understanding of strength. The grace of God is found in the message of the incarnate, crucified, risen and exalted Lord. As we press into the gospel of our salvation, meditate on it, study it, internalize it, speak it to one another, trust it and allow it to permeate our hearts and minds we are strengthened.
  • The word translated “be strengthened” is the present passive imperative form of a verb that is concerned with being strong (ἐνδυναμοῦ). Paul commands Timothy toward strength and yet, Timothy’s role is passive. Strength is required of us, it is a command. Strength comes to us, it is a gift. Timothy is called upon here to unfurl the sails of faith and position himself to catch gospel wind. The call here is to strategically position ourselves to be reminded of the gospel of God. We are to put ourselves in situations where reading, hearing, speaking and believing the gospel is sure to happen.
  • Strength comes from the gospel. Weakness must also be gauged by the gospel. Proximity to the gospel determines both strength and weakness. Full battery on a cell phone indicates recent close proximity to its power source, just as low battery indicates distance from its power source. Paul is helping us grasp that weakness is no mystery in the Christian journey. When we are far from the gospel we will certainly be weak. When we are near the gospel we will certainly be strengthened.

Indwelt: The Presence of God In Us

Biblical scholar Alfred Edersheim said this about the indwelling of the Spirit. “The absolutely highest stage of intercourse with God is the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the New Testament Church, when man’s individuality is not superseded nor suppressed, but transformed, and thus conformed to Him in spiritual fellowship.”

During the last few months we worked through a series of posts on the indwelling Spirit. I have spent time expanding what was written. I wanted to share the finished product with you. My hope is that you will find it helpful, encouraging and challenging. Please let me know any feedback you may have. Thanks so much! Here you go: Indwelt: The Presence of God In Us.

The Considerate God

Working through the gospel of Mark I have been consistently moved by the way Jesus interacts with people. As the God-man he perfectly manifests true humanity and true deity. In Jesus we behold God. “He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (Heb 1:3). “In him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (Col 1:19).

God is thoroughly considerate in his engagement with humanity. He listens to people, shares a meal with anyone, touches people with frightening diseases, generously gives his time, heals the blind, the paralyzed and the sick, cares about people’s pain and questions, and grieves over the suffering of others.

On two occasions Jesus feeds thousands of hungry people by miraculously multiplying loaves and fish. He cares for the physical needs of people. On one occasion Jesus miraculously raises a twelve year old child from the dead. The surrounding story of this miracle reveals a deeply considerate God (Mk 5:21-43).

In the narrative Jesus listens with concern to the fear and desperation of the parents. He responds to their heartfelt requests with care and action. He speaks words of comfort to them. He speaks life into the lifeless child. Everyone is astonished and overwhelmed.

I was struck by the dialogue that follows the miracle. “He gave strict orders not to let anyone know about this, and told them to give her something to eat” (Mk 5:43). Sustenance was the furthest thing from anyone’s mind, they had just observed a lifeless girl sit up! But it was on the mind of God. Jesus gave her life back and then made sure she had something to eat. I love this picture of God, so considerate, so kind, so practical.

The Depth of the Golden Rule

A close friend and co-worker of ours recently lost her mother after a long battle with dementia. I was amazed by the way she handled the difficult journey with such grace, patience and transparency. This past week she described the heart-wrenching decisions that had to be made along the way as well as the twists and turns of grief, pain and even joy.

She shared something so simple, yet so profound about the lens through which she viewed the whole journey. “I put myself in her shoes and asked, ‘how would I want someone to treat me.'” The golden rule drove her decisions big and small. She explained what this looked like in her conversations with her mother, the time they spent together, her choices regarding living situation and those who would be her care-takers. Each of these areas and more were informed by a genuine desire to treat her mother as she would want to be treated.

Our discussion triggered a realization. First, I recognized a depth in that command I had never felt before. Such a simple yet profound truth, sufficient for caring for a loved one with dementia. Second, I realized that I have not thought deeply about applying the command of Christ we call the golden rule. I think I have hovered around the surface of that imperative, but have rarely explored its significant implications. Let’s look at the text together briefly. In Matthew’s account we are given the following

“So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12).

On this command hang the law and the prophets, this is no small thing. The moral concerns of the entire law and prophets can be summarized under this banner. Jesus uses this same language when discussing the overlapping concept of loving one’s neighbor as one’s self (Matt 22:39-40). In other words, this critical command is intended for pervasive application. Every corner of our lives should have the light of this imperative shine on it. Every relationship should be viewed through this lens.

First step in application is to think through the way you want to be treated in different situations. When fearful I wish others to be reassuring. When in pain I want others to be compassionate. When angry I want others to be patient. When excited I want others to share my joy. When I fail I want others to show grace.

The second step in application is to think through our relational contexts. What would it look like to apply this command in these different relationships?

  • In our homes
    • Spouses
    • Children
    • Parents
    • Extended Family
  • At our jobs
    • Bosses
    • Co-workers
    • Employees
  • With our neighbors
    • Friends
    • Acquaintances
  • In our churches
    • Pastors/Elders
    • Members
    • Visitors

A great variety of relational scenarios arise in these different contexts. Taking the golden rule and pressing it into each unique situation would change the we way we relate and the way people feel with us. What would happen if this truth guided how we engaged in all our relationships? How would things be different? How would people feel? How would we feel? The command requires intentionality and sacrifice. It requires Christ-likeness…for “Christ did not please himself” (Rom 15:3). He put the interest of others before himself. He embodied the command to love neighbor and fleshed out the golden imperative.

Immanuel: God With Us In Our Sin

Names mean something. This was especially true in the world of Christ. Names were carefully chosen and would often set the trajectory of a child’s life. In the Matthew narrative we learn that the naming of Jesus was no different. The text says that Mary and Joseph received divine guidance regarding what they would call Jesus. “You shall call his name Jesus for He will save his people from their sins” (Matt 1:21).

The name Jesus has Hebrew roots, it literally means “God saves.” God the Father makes clear what the saving work of Jesus is focused on…sin. His name indicated the reason for his coming. His name was a constant reminder of why he was born. Jesus came to deal with sin, this is absolutely central to his purpose. In the context it is very interesting to see that the author moves on to state that his name will be called Immanuel, which means “God is with us” (Matt 1:23).

Placing these two names side by side is instructive, something the context also seems to require. God is with us and God saves us from sin. Jesus is the God-man who enters the fray, he comes alongside and is present with us even in our sin. To save us from our sin he must walk with us as we struggle and falter. The saving work of God is not accomplished at a distance. He is uncomfortably present…so much so that “he who knew no sin became sin so that we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21).

When we speak of the God who is with us, we mean to say that he is with us in our darkest moments, our greatest sins, our desperation, our brokenness, our weakness, our pain, our grief, our suffering…he is with us in the places where we need him most. Luther was right, God is “with us in the muck and in the work that makes his skin steam.”