Photo by Jill Wellington on

David shows us what it looks like to have a life that is fully centered on the Lord, and on the love, security and joy that we can find only in Him.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

For some people, the player above may not work. If that happens to you, use the link below to either download, or open a player in a new page to listen.

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Psalms Part 4

PSALMS #4. PSALM 16:1-11

Once again, I want us to begin by letting this psalm engage us at the level of heart and soul. Stop, and pray, and ask the Lord to engage your spirit and emotions as you read this psalm. Now read it. I have formatted it below to try and show the poetic parallels.


1 Preserve me, O God, for in you I take refuge.
     2 I say to the LORD, “You are my Lord;
     I have no good apart from you.”

3 As for the saints in the land, 
     they are the excellent ones,
     in whom is all my delight.

4 The sorrows of those who run after another god shall multiply;
     their drink offerings of blood I will not pour out
     or take their names on my lips.

5 The LORD is my chosen portion and my cup;
     you hold my lot.
     6 The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
     indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance.

7 I bless the LORD 
     who gives me counsel;
     in the night also my heart instructs me.

8 I have set the LORD always before me;
     because he is at my right hand, I shall not be shaken.
     9 Therefore my heart is glad, and my whole being rejoices;
     my flesh also dwells secure.

10 For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol,
or let your holy one see corruption.

11 You make known to me the path of life;
in your presence there is fullness of joy;
at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.

This psalm is a song of praise, and also a declaration of trust in the Lord. It is attributed to David, and the apostle Peter also confirms that David wrote it (more on that below). The very first line is “Preserve me, O God, for in you I take refuge.” I don’t think this means that David is in trouble when he writes this psalm – the rest of it, for the most part is joyful and peaceful. But it is a declaration of trust. David is announcing that his security is in God, not in any earthly thing. The remainder of the psalm makes this quite clear. He declares his full allegiance to God: “You alone are my Lord.”

David also says, “I have no good apart from you.” I don’t think David means that his life is so terrible that he has nothing good going on except God. Instead, what he means is that every good thing he has in life comes through the hands of God, and is a gift from God. Every good thing in his life has only one source: God. This reminds me of something written by James:

16 So don’t be misled, my dear brothers and sisters. 17 Whatever is good and perfect is a gift coming down to us from God our Father, who created all the lights in the heavens. He never changes or casts a shifting shadow.

(James 1:16-17, NLT)

Among the gifts to enjoy for those who love God are other people who also love God. That’s the point of verse three. David delights in those who, like him, have God as their greatest treasure. Verse four gives us a contrast: if we learn to love God himself as our greatest treasure, and we treasure others who do so, we find that we do not want to participate with those who are pursuing other things. We may be friends with such people, and even love them, but we do not go the way they are going, or pursue the things they pursue.

However, I don’t think we should miss the main point David is making: the greatest treasure is God himself, not his gifts. He demonstrates this again in verse five. Let’s start with the idea of “cup,” as David means it here. In the Bible, sometimes the word “cup” is used in a metaphysical way. In psalm 23, David says, in a way similar to here: “my cup overflows.” At other times, the prophets speak about the “cup of God’s wrath.” When James and John ask Jesus for a special position in the Kingdom of God, Jesus asks: “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink?” So, used as it is in psalm sixteen, the cup means: “the present and future that God has planned for me.” David is saying: I choose the cup that God offers me. I will drink in the life that he gives me, including all the blessings he chooses to give, and all the hardship that he allows. As it turned out, David’s life included both many hardships and many blessings. His life was very full, and almost never boring.

David also uses three key terms: portion, lot, and boundary lines. When the people of Israel came into the land of Canaan, God, through Moses, gave careful instructions about how the land was to be divided up between the tribes, and clans and families of Israel. Portions, lots, and boundary lines all refer to the dividing, and inheritance, of the land. In those days, in that part of the world, virtually all wealth came from land. Land allowed you to grow grain and pasture animals, so that you had enough to eat. It was security. It was sacred. Someone without land had nothing. Land-inheritance was a sacred right for Israelites; the land was given to them, and their families, in perpetuity, by God himself.

Now, David writes that he finds his inheritance beautiful. That could mean he is delighted with his ancestral lands. However, the way he puts it makes me think that he is saying something that would be shocking to those who first heard it. He says first: “The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot.” I think he is saying, “rather than my ancestral land, I choose the Lord. I choose him even above my land. He is the inheritance I want, and He is beautiful. He is everything I want and need.”

This fits with the psalm as a whole. To understand how shocking this sentiment is, imagine someone who inherits a sizable amount of money from his or her parents. With diligent management, that money will provide a lifelong income for this person. But that person says: “Forget the money. All I want is the Lord. He is worth more to me than my inheritance. I choose Him as my inheritance.”

David goes on to bless the Lord for counsel. God directs him, and gives him wisdom. It seems to me that is a wisdom that comes through the head, and thinking. I find it interesting that he adds: “In the night also, my heart instructs me.” He had an instinctive awareness that God speaks to us through our hearts, as well as our heads. This is part of his joyful experience of following the Lord: the Lord speaks to his head, and to his heart.

Again in verse eight he declares that his faith gives him more security than land, or anything else on earth. He once more proclaims his delight in God’s presence with him. He has chosen God above all else, and this means that his greatest treasure cannot be taken from him. He rejoices in God with everything within himself.

The last three verses are very interesting. From David’s perspective, it looks like, because of his faith in God, he is not afraid to die. The writers of the New Testament saw this part of the psalm as a prophecy about Jesus, and the resurrection of Jesus. In the book of Acts, after the Holy Spirit was poured on the apostles and the group of close disciples, the apostle Peter preached a sermon. He explained what was happening with the Holy Spirit being poured out on the believers, and then he spoke about the resurrection of Jesus. He quoted directly from this psalm, psalm sixteen, and after quoting it, he said:

29 “My friends, I must speak to you plainly about our famous ancestor King David. He died and was buried, and his grave is here with us to this very day. 30 He was a prophet, and he knew what God had promised him: God had made a vow that he would make one of David’s descendants a king, just as David was. 31 David saw what God was going to do in the future, and so he spoke about the resurrection of the Messiah when he said,
‘He was not abandoned in the world of the dead;
his body did not rot in the grave.’
32 God has raised this very Jesus from death, and we are all witnesses to this fact. 33 He has been raised to the right side of God, his Father, and has received from him the Holy Spirit, as he had promised. What you now see and hear is his gift that he has poured out on us.

(Acts 2:29-33, GNT)

So what does all this mean for us?

I think David is a model for us. He shows us the joy, comfort and security we have when we choose the Lord above all else. The best this world can offer us is only temporary joy, temporary pleasure, temporary security. But when our deepest treasure is God, we can be joyful and secure even when things are not great in our outward circumstances. He writes:

8 I have set the LORD always before me;

because he is at my right hand, I shall not be shaken.

9 Therefore my heart is glad, and my whole being rejoices;

my flesh also dwells secure.

As it turned out for David, this was an extremely important lesson, one that he must have relied on again and again during the many occasions when his life was in danger, and he had nothing to his name. He writes that because the Lord is at his right hand, he shall not be shaken. Well, we know that his circumstances were shaken again and again. But he was not shaken, because everything he really wanted and needed he had in the Lord.

Something else is worth remembering here. David is saying that his entire life is centered around the Lord. As we think about this we should remember that David was not a priest, nor was he any kind of full time minister for his vocation. David felt this way about the Lord, and arranged his life around his relationship with the Lord, and he kept up that heartfelt attitude to the Lord in the midst of “ordinary life.” He didn’t retire to a monastery (those hadn’t yet been invented). We know that David loved to worship with others who loved the Lord, and he did so joyfully whenever he had the chance. But his life was spent mostly as a warrior, and a king (and also a short gig as a professional musician).

As I just mentioned, for a time he was a professional musician for King Saul. He also engaged in military maneuvers, and in battles. He spent many years actively running for his life from other military units. Later, he became a king, and he had to have meetings with advisors, and engage in formal ceremonies, and do a lot of administration. In short, he always had a “secular job.” He wasn’t just sitting around praying, and contemplating God. And yet, whatever he was doing (with the exception of one or two horrible sins) he did with an awareness of God’s presence, and a desire to be used by God. He was a full-time God lover in all that he did.

I think this is a very important point. Sometimes, we compartmentalize our faith. On Sundays, we get encouraged in faith, and we seriously think about the role of the Lord in our life. But it’s easy to forget the presence of God in the middle of a phone call with a superior who is blaming you to cover her own mistakes. It’s easy to forget that we can be secure in the Lord when we’ve just been laid off, or when someone we love tells us that they are angry with us. It’s also easy to forget our Lord when we are kicking back with our friends and some cold beverages.

But the kind of faith that we read about in the Bible is meant to be for every day, and every situation. We are followers of Jesus (who is the Lord) at all times: at work, with our families, and when we are relaxing, or with friends. David understood, and rejoiced, that faith is a way of life. We don’t merely “practice it” on Sunday mornings, or whenever we happen to remember. It is full time. David shows us that anyone, no matter what their circumstances can live a life that is centered on the Lord.

I also think it is really important to connect with David’s word: “Apart from you, I have no good thing.” This doesn’t mean that the only good in the world comes through Christians, or things created by Christians; that is not remotely what it says. But it does mean that every bit of true joy we’ve ever had was originated by God, and brought to us by God, whether we know it or not. Paul, preaching a sermon in the town of Lystra, said this:

We are here to announce the Good News, to turn you away from these worthless things to the living God, who made heaven, earth, sea, and all that is in them. 16 In the past he allowed all people to go their own way. 17 But he has always given evidence of his existence by the good things he does: he gives you rain from heaven and crops at the right times; he gives you food and fills your hearts with happiness.”

(Acts 14:15-17, GNT)

All good things come originally from God, and we can and should receive them as such. I receive a lot of music as goodness from God, even when I know the musicians don’t believe in Him. He exists, and he is kind to us, and sometimes uses us to bless others, whether we believe it or not. The same is true of many books I read. It is true in the company of the people we love, and in awe-inspiring encounters with nature. These moments of joy, happiness and goodness are hints of what life is like in the full presence of God. Right now, our sin prevents us from experiencing more, but we are promised the fullness of God’s joy in the New Creation. I think that is what David means when he writes:

in your presence there is fullness of joy;

at your right hand are pleasures forevermore. (Psalm 16:11, ESV)

I think it is good for us to learn to recognize the goodness of God in every moment of joy and happiness we experience. The more we do so, the more we will start to feel the way David feels, as expressed in this psalm. It is easier to love God, and choose him above all else, when we realize how wonderful he is, and how kind he has been to us. This is not something we can do just once. I think the key is to develop a habit of gratitude, and a habit of recognizing the hand of God in everything around us.

Let the Holy Spirit speak to you right now!


Photo by Kat Smith on

Psalm six is a good example of a psalm of lament. There is a pattern here that shows us what a life of faith looks like when times are difficult. It begins with genuine honesty: “I’m struggling. This is rotten. I feel awful.” Then as David, we ask for help: “Deliver me Lord! Be gracious to me! save me!” And then finally, we trust that God does indeed hear our prayers, and will certainly take notice of them. We don’t minimize what we are feeling. But at the same time, we trust and acknowledge that God is more powerful than all things, including our struggles, and we entrust ourselves to him, resting in the faith that he loves us and will deliver us in his way and time. We are honest, but we also cling to God in faith, and that requires that we trust him even when we don’t yet see how he will make it right.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

For some people, the player above may not work. If that happens to you, use the link below to either download, or open a player in a new page to listen.

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Psalms Part 3


I know that some of you prefer to read these messages, rather than listen to the audio version. I myself typically prefer to read something, rather than listen to it, if there is a choice. Also, I’m a writer, so I love it when people like to read.

Even so, every so often it seems to me that the Holy Spirit moves me in a special way when I’m preaching one of these messages, a way that doesn’t quite show up in the written version. This message is one of those times. So, I’m encouraging you to listen to the audio version. If you have time, I’d be thrilled if you read it first, and then listen, and then tell me what you think, because maybe my perception about this is wrong. In any case, I do encourage you to listen this time.

Let’s get a couple of “technical” details out of the way, before we jump into Psalm 6. Some Bibles have created titles for various psalms. For psalm six, the ESV has “O Lord Deliver My Life” written in bold type. This is not part of the text of the actual Bible – it is a title added by the publishing company. There is however, something written in Hebrew before the psalm begins:

“To the choirmaster: with stringed instruments; according to The Sheminith. A Psalm of David.”

These words are not really part of the psalm itself, but they are technically in the text of the Hebrew Bible. Clearly, as with many psalms, they were added by the time the book of psalms was gathered together. Just a reminder: “of David” could mean that David himself wrote the psalm. It could also mean that it was written “in the tradition of David’s psalms.” For simplicity’s sake, I’m just going to refer to the writer as David.

“The Sheminith,” means something like “the eighth,” or “to the eighth.” Some people speculate that it refers to an eight-stringed instrument. Others suggest it is a musical instruction having to do with scales/octaves (there are eight whole-steps in a musical octave). This shows us that at some point, psalm six was probably used musically, probably in worship.

One more little note that is helpful when we read the Old Testament in English. The name of God that God revealed to Moses is “YHWH” which we usually pronounce “Yahweh,” (there are actually no official vowels in Hebrew). The Hebrew people, however, would not say “Yahweh” for fear of taking God’s name in vain. So instead, when they saw “YHWH” in the text of the Bible, they would read it out loud as “Adonai,” which can mean “Lord.” As a result of this tradition, most English Bibles translate “YHWH” as “LORD.” So when you see “LORD” as in this psalm, the Hebrew word is actually “Yahweh.” Also, sometimes the name given to God in the Hebrew text is: “Adonai YHWH.” In those cases it is usually translated “the Lord God.” (Just for additional confusion, the term “Jehovah” is what you get when you combine the Hebrew letters in “YHWH” with the vowel sounds of the Hebrew word “Adonai.”) I say all this, however, so that you can see that David is using the personal name for God – Yahweh – as he prays. He is praying specifically to the God of Israel, and he calls him by his special, personal name.

I chose this psalm because it is a good representative of a type of psalm that we might call “a prayer for help” or “a lament.” There are many other psalms that are similar to this one in both language and structure. Also, this is one of the shorter ones of its type, so it’s easier to cover the whole thing in one sermon.

Before we “analyze” this psalm, take a moment to feel it first. This is one important thing about the psalms – they weren’t written primarily to “teach” but rather to engage us at the level of heart and soul. So, let it engage your heart and soul. Feel what the psalmist feels. Enter into his experience and relate it to your own life. If you want to, speak the words out loud yourself as a prayer, thinking about your own life as you do so. If you can’t relate personally, think about someone you know who might relate to this psalm. (If you’re really stumped you can think of me: I felt very much like the writer of this psalm several times while working on this message). Before you do that, pause for prayer, and ask the Lord to speak to you through this scripture today.

Now, ready? Read the psalm:

1O LORD, rebuke me not in your anger,
     nor discipline me in your wrath.

2 Be gracious to me, O LORD, for I am languishing;
heal me, O LORD, for my bones are troubled.

3 My soul also is greatly troubled.
 But you, O LORD—how long?

4 Turn, O LORD, deliver my life;
save me for the sake of your steadfast love.

5 For in death there is no remembrance of you;
in Sheol who will give you praise?

6 I am weary with my moaning;
          every night I flood my bed with tears;
          I drench my couch with my weeping.

          7 My eye wastes away because of grief;
          it grows weak because of all my foes.

8 Depart from me, all you workers of evil,
for the LORD has heard the sound of my weeping.

9 The LORD has heard my plea;
the LORD accepts my prayer.

10 All my enemies shall be ashamed and greatly troubled;
they shall turn back and be put to shame in a moment. 

I think this particular psalm was probably written by David himself, so I’ll call him “him,” or “David.” Obviously, David is experiencing some kind of pain and suffering, possibly physical. Certainly, he is also experiencing turmoil of the heart, because he says so pretty plainly.

In the ESV, it says, “Be gracious to me LORD, for I am languishing.” We don’t often use the word “languishing” any more, which is a shame, because it’s a great word. It means “slowly wasting away,” or “slowly falling apart.” David’s life is slowly coming apart. In short, he is suffering. Some people assume that the main problem is sickness, because he asks God to heal him, and he mentions his bones. But the Hebrew word for heal, like the English one, can mean physical healing, as well as emotional or spiritual restoration, or even cultural restoration (as in “Lord, heal our country.”)

We know that David was a man of faith, and even if it wasn’t David who wrote this, the words of the psalm itself express faith in God. So I think the first thing to engage with is this: The life of faith sometimes involves suffering, pain and inner turmoil. David was not somehow “out of faith,” when he wrote this. He addresses the psalm to God, and clearly believes that God alone is the source of all deliverance, help and salvation. Someone with no faith would not talk to God, certainly not the way David does here. Even so, he is miserable as he writes this, and he does not pretend otherwise.

This brings me to a second point: People of faith should be honest about where they are physically, emotionally and mentally. Frankly, a lot of Christians in America are terrible about this. In fact, some seem to believe that if you admit you are struggling, that amounts to a lack of faith. I’ve met many people who have really tough stuff going on in their lives, and they say things like: “Well, it’s not ideal, but I’m just believing things are going to turn around.”

They seem to think that if they admit that they are having a hard time, it somehow means that they are letting God down; they apparently believe it indicates a lack of faith, or weak faith, to say: “Life is really hard right now.” They think faith means always thinking positive thoughts, or always looking on the bright side.

However, I’d say it’s the other way around. If you can’t be honest with yourself, God and others, you probably don’t have much faith. You think God is so fragile, he can’t handle it if you are unhappy. Or maybe you believe that God will only come through for you if you show the right attitude, and it seems to me that means you have faith in your own actions more than in God. Maybe it’s a kind of faith in your own faith, if you know what I mean. You might be putting your trust in the fact that you are saying the right kinds of things, and maintaining the right kind of positive attitude. But that is not faith in God.

Even more troubling, some people believe they can control God by always sounding like they have faith (though they wouldn’t describe it as controlling God, that’s what they are trying to do). In other words, they think that if they never acknowledge the negative, it motivates God to “honor” their “faith.” Again, this is a sort of faith in your own actions and attitudes, more than faith in God.

The same people often claim things like: “we speak things into existence.” So they are afraid of saying something negative, because then maybe the negative thing will happen to them. This is superstitious garbage, but unfortunately it is taught by many prominent ministers who use those ideas to make themselves a lot of money from fearful people.

In contrast, right here in the psalm, we find David, the greatest King of Israel, the one who is known as a man after God’s own heart saying: “I’m falling apart. My soul is in turmoil. I’m soaking my sheets every night with my tears. I am so grieved, I can hardly see any more.” If David, the true man of God, wasn’t afraid to say such things, we shouldn’t be either. I think real faith requires that kind of honesty, and if we avoid it, it is because of fear, not faith.

Considering all the negative feelings that are expressed, Psalm Six might be called a kind of lament. Bible commentator Rolf Jacobson says this:

Lament is not the absence of faith or an expression of faith being tempted into despair. To lament is to speak precisely from the position of faith, from a position which recognizes that the Lord hears the cries of those who suffer and is not indifferent to them. To lament is to lay claim to God’s hesed with the faithful expectation that the Lord will vindicate the lowly.

(The New International Commentary, Old Testament: Book of Psalms, psalm 6. I will explain the term “hesed” shortly)

Now, having made that point, I stand by it. I have something else to say also, not to contradict what I’ve just written, but to explain it, and add to it. There are some folks who are not afraid to be honest when they are struggling. They own the fact that their hearts are sad and troubled. But some of those people forget what else is in this psalm. They end up making their own troubles the dominant thing, the main thing. They own their struggles but they forget the lesson here about trusting God. They say: “I am troubled. End of story.” They make everything about their struggles, rather than about God. But that’s not how David approaches his problems at all. He owns his struggle, but he also trusts God.

Where do we see David trusting God? In the very first line, David asks God for mercy and grace.  In verse four, he prays for deliverance. In verses 8-10, David expresses confidence that God has indeed heard his prayer, and will answer him in due time.

So that is the next piece I think we ought to pay attention to. We should not only be honest about our struggles, but we should also make our problems submit to our faith. What I mean is, we should say, “I’m struggling. This is rotten. I feel awful.” Then as David, we ask for help: “Deliver me Lord! Be gracious to me! save me!” And then finally, we should trust that God does indeed hear our prayers, and will certainly take notice of them: “The Lord accepts my plea, the Lord has heard my prayer (verse 8).” We don’t minimize what we are feeling. But at the same time, we trust and acknowledge that God is more powerful than all things, including our struggles, and we entrust ourselves to him, resting in the faith that he loves us and will deliver us in his way and time. We are honest, but we also cling to God in faith, and that requires that we trust him even when we don’t yet see how he will make it right.

I want to focus on verse four for a minute. This is the heart of David’s prayer:

4 Turn, O LORD, deliver my life;

save me for the sake of your steadfast love.

There are two key words in Hebrew here that are worth knowing for all Christians. The first is “turn,” which, in Hebrew, is sub (pronounced “shoob”). It means to turn around, to change course. In many contexts, it means “to repent.” David is asking the Lord to change the whole course of events, to turn everything around. Sub is a powerful word, and, as I say, it’s worth knowing for the future. The point here is that David is not asking for just a minor adjustment. He’s asking God to change the whole course of the future. In other words, David feels he is close to dying, and he wants God instead to save his life. It is important to realize that for David, whatever he’s struggling with is a very big deal, and he needs a major intervention from God.

The second word comes at the end of the verse. In the ESV it is translated “steadfast love.” The Hebrew word is hesed (pronounced heh-sed, except use a faint clearing-of-the-throat sound with the first ‘h’). In some ways, it is the agape of the Old Testament, but some of the shades of meaning are slightly different. I might define hesed as unconditional, everlasting love that expresses itself by acting on behalf of the one who is loved. God’s hesed is found in his covenant to care for his people faithfully.

When David asks God to save him, he gives this reason: “for the sake of your hesed.” It is connected to God’s covenant with his people. This is important. David is saying “help me because you have promised to be my God. Help me because you are loving by nature.” Not: “Help me because I’m showing my faith by being positive and minimizing negative words.” Not:“help me because I need it,” or “help me because I ask it,” and certainly not “because I deserve it.” Instead, it is: “help me, because that would be according to your own character and your own promise to your people.”

Many people, when they are struggling, try to make bargains with God. “God, if you just help me now, I’ll give up this, or I’ll do that.” That is never the way of faith. In reality, we have nothing to bargain with. God doesn’t need anything from us. When he wants us to give up something, or start doing something else, it is always for our own benefit, not his. Instead, our only hope, as David knows, is to give up on trying to offer God anything, and appeal to God’s own character, and to the love that he showed us in Jesus Christ. And when we cry for help, we know for certain that God does love us, and that he does have our best interests at heart. We know it because Jesus gave up his own life, and went through unimaginable suffering to save us. Though we may not understand what he is doing, we always have a solid basis to trust God’s love for us.

David ends his lament in faith. He trusts that the Lord has heard his prayer. He declares to his enemies that God is his God, and will indeed come through for him. I think this psalm encourages us to be honest, but also to have faith, as David did.

Let the Holy Spirit speak to you today.


Photo by Alexander Kovalev on

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

For some people, the player above may not work. If that happens to you, use the link below to either download, or open a player in a new page to listen.

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Psalms Part 2


1 Blessed is the man
          who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
          nor stands in the way of sinners,
          nor sits in the seat of scoffers;

2 but his delight is in the law of the LORD,
and on his law he meditates day and night.

3 He is like a tree planted by streams of water
          that yields its fruit in its season,
          and its leaf does not wither.
          In all that he does, he prospers.

4 The wicked are not so,
but are like chaff that the wind drives away.

5Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;

6for the LORD knows the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish.

Last time we did an introduction to the book of psalms. We considered what it is, and how the book was formed, and who wrote it, and when. We also looked at the structure of Hebrew poetry. Without being too technical, the thing to look for in Hebrew poetry (and songwriting) is parallelism. The poets group thoughts in parallel to one another. Sometimes they are parallels that reiterate an idea. At other times, the parallels are set in contrast to one another. As best as I could, I tried to format psalm one (above) to show the parallels, and how they are grouped.

Psalm 1 is a “wisdom” psalm. It is a poem, or song that was made to help us vividly picture something wise that we should remember, and, especially, that we should put into action.

With that in mind, let’s dig in to the psalm.

It starts with this overall thought: Blessed is the one who does not find himself, or herself, in the company of those who reject God. Notice the poetic triple-parallel about these godless ones: walk, stand, sit. In other words, we are talking about all of life.

Notice also, if you use a good translation, the blessed one is, in fact, one person, where as the godless ones involve three groups of people. The implication is that to be blessed, to shape your life around God’s Word (which is here called “the law”), means that you might feel alone against the crowd. It’s easy to find people walking in the counsel of the wicked, or making their stand with sinners, or sitting and mocking those who are different from them. The one who meditates on God’s Word looks strange and alone in comparison. This reminds me a bit of what Jesus said:

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

Walking in the counsel of the wicked implies behavior. Those who shape their behavior based upon the advice of godless ones around them are not blessed. They are listening to people who refuse to listen to God, and acting accordingly. Standing implies declaring allegiance. Some people choose to stand with a sinful lifestyle, to persist in ignoring God’s revelation (the Bible) and to commit themselves to a way other than God’s way. Sitting gives us a picture of someone settled into a position. These are so settled that now not only do they behave according to the advice of those without God, not only do they take a stand with wickedness, but they openly mock, insult and deride those who do follow God.

In a way this seems to paint a picture of a process for someone who has turned away from God. It starts by listening to those who do not listen to God, taking their advice, behaving accordingly. It continues as a person commits more and more to godless ways, and identifies him/her self with those who reject God’s word. It ends up with the person openly insulting and mocking those who do follow God.

Let’s consider the opposite picture, the one who is blessed. The primary thing that sets this person apart is that he/she delights in the law of the Lord, and meditates on it constantly.

It is worth taking time to think about the word “law.” It is used quite frequently in the psalms, and it usually has the same meaning in most cases. But it is not exactly the meaning we typically think of for the word “law” in this day and age. When we hear “law” we usually think of rules and regulations. The law (we think) is something we must obey, or we will get in trouble with the authorities.

However, the Hebrew word is “torah,” and one primary meaning of that is “instruction.” Most particularly, the law/torah is the special, divine revelation given to the people of Israel by God himself through Moses. In other words, for the ancient Israelis, “the law” meant “the Bible.” So, for Christians today, if you read the word “law” in the psalms, it is usually appropriate to think “God’s Word,” or “the Bible.”

It is certainly true of psalm 1 that we should think of “the law” as “God’s Word.” So the thing that makes someone blessed and sets her apart from others, is God’s Word. The blessed person shapes her life around what God has revealed to human beings. She thinks about it throughout the day. She builds her life upon it. She is like a tree by a constant water source.

Here in Tennessee, a generic tree is not a particularly impressive picture. I can see literally hundreds of trees from the windows of my house, maybe thousands. But when we read this psalm, we should remember that to those in ancient Israel, a large tree was something unusual and impressive, and no tree would reach any kind of large size without a regular supply of water. Much of the climate of Israel was (and still is) quite dry. Some of it is outright desert, and other areas could maybe be called semi-arid. There is only one major river in the whole country, the Jordan, though there were (and are) various smaller streams. Some of the streams only flow when it rains. Even as far back as the time of Abraham, large trees were so rare in some areas that they were used as landmarks.

When they came to the land of Canaan, 6 Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. (Genesis 12:5-6, ESV)

A large tree would be an inviting sight, offering shade, shelter and sustenance to travelers.

So, the one who builds his life on God’s Word is like a great tree, alone in a dry, hot land. He can only thrive there because he is constantly tapped in to refreshing and life-giving water: the Word of God. Like a big tree in that part of the world, the one who builds on God’s Word is different from others, and obviously so, and because he is rooted in God’s word, he can become a source of comfort to those around him.

Such a person, planted and rooted in God’s word yields fruit in season. That means that God uses this person’s life to accomplish his purposes. She becomes a blessing to others. It is wise to pay attention to the little phrase: “in season,” also. In other words, there is a time for fruit to show up on the tree, and there is a time when fruit is being created through all sorts of internal processes, but cannot yet be seen. I think a lot of Christians put pressure on themselves if they do not see constantly some concrete way in which God is using them. But there are seasons when God works on us internally, and fruit is not yet visible externally. Fruits have seasons, and so does the Christian life.

 The one who builds his life on God’s word does not wither. The Israelis lived in a climate that sometimes included harsh, desert-like conditions. So too, the person of faith might have to live at times through very difficult things. The idea is not that such a person will have no difficulties, but rather, that the difficulties will not destroy him.

Finally, the one who builds on God’s Word prospers. This is another word that I think has changed over time in our culture. Mostly, we think prospering means getting rich, or, at the very least, that things are going well for us. But that is only one possible shade of meaning from the Hebrew word. It means to move forward purposefully, to prevail against hinderances. Honestly, I think a much better one-word translation into English would be “thrives.” The one who builds on God’s word thrives, whether things are going well, or not. For those who build on God’s word the momentum of their lives is moving in the right direction, through difficulty and through good times. God’s direction prevails in their lives. I think we need to be realistic about this, also. It doesn’t mean we always feel good, or feel like God’s will is prevailing in us at each moment. But looking back, we find that today, we are further along, closer to God’s will than we were a year ago, and five years ago. On any given individual day or moment we might go backwards or forward, but over time, the prevailing direction is toward God.

In verse four, we again contrast this to the wicked. Instead of like a giant, immovable tree, slowly growing, bearing fruit in season, thriving  spiritually, the wicked are like chaff that the wind drives away. Let me explain “chaff.” In the days that this was written, the Israelis, like all people at the time, were farmers. In Israel, they grew a lot of grain, like wheat and barley and oats. When the grain had been harvested, farmers would beat the heads of the plants (where the grain kernels are attached) to loosen it up, and knock the kernels of grain loose from the rest of the plant. Now they had a kind of dusty mess in which there were grain kernels, but also the inedible pieces, which were called “chaff.”  Then they would go to a windy hilltop, and throw it all up into the hard-blowing air. The kernels of grain were heavier than the chaff (the inedible parts of the plants), and they would fall back onto a cloth laid out for that purpose. But the chaff was as light as dried leaves and dust, and would be whipped away by the wind.

The picture is that the wicked amount to nothing. For all of their standing against God, for all of their mocking, they come to empty dust in the end, whipped off into the wind. There is meant to be a huge contrast between a mighty oak, rooted deep into the soil by an everlasting stream, and dust that blows away in the wind and is gone. There is almost no comparison. The wicked are no-account, meaningless, just dust that blows away to reveal the good grain that is kept.

The psalmist adds:

5Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,

nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;

The point here is that the wicked will not be able to endure God’s judgment. When God calls people to account, the wicked will come to nothing, their schemes will crumble to dust. They will not be found anywhere, and only the righteous will be left.

And then, the final parallel thoughts:

6for the LORD knows the way of the righteous,

but the way of the wicked will perish.

Although the ESV which I’ve just quoted, is most true to the literal Hebrew, other translations capture the sense of it a bit better. When it says the Lord “knows,” that word contains a wealth of meaning. In this context, it means that the Lord watches over the righteous, guiding, guarding and protecting them. It is a very comforting thought, a picture of God actively caring for, and looking out for, the righteous ones.

Now, for many years verses like this about “the righteous” in the Old Testament bothered me. I know myself, and I know there is a lot of unrighteousness within me, even still today. I used to wonder if I really would be in the congregation of the righteous, or if maybe I would be blown away with the wicked. But this is an example of where it is helpful to ask “Where is Jesus?” in this psalm. It is true, I am unrighteous within myself. But through Jesus Christ, God has declared me righteous. This is not because of anything I have done, but solely because of what Jesus has done.

21 But now God’s way of putting people right with himself has been revealed. It has nothing to do with law, even though the Law of Moses and the prophets gave their witness to it. 22 God puts people right through their faith in Jesus Christ. God does this to all who believe in Christ, because there is no difference at all: 23 everyone has sinned and is far away from God’s saving presence. 24 But by the free gift of God’s grace all are put right with him through Christ Jesus, who sets them free. 25-26 God offered him, so that by his blood he should become the means by which people’s sins are forgiven through their faith in him. (Romans 3:21-26, GNT)
21 Christ was without sin, but for our sake God made him share our sin in order that in union with him we might share the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:21, GNT)

Through Jesus, and through him alone, I am called “righteous” by God. Through the Holy Spirit, as I trust him, God imparts the righteousness of Jesus to me. He brings me into spiritual union with Jesus. I don’t deserve it, but God offers me that righteousness even so. So, when I read any psalm, and I read “the righteous” I think first of all of Jesus, who is ultimately the only truly righteous human being to have lived, but I can also include myself in “the righteous” because of Jesus. I can’t claim my own righteousness, but I can, through faith, claim the righteousness of Jesus. And so because of Jesus, all the promises given to “the righteous” are also given to me. And they are given to anyone and everyone who puts all of their trust and hope in Jesus. Through Jesus, these wonderful promises are ours.

Through Jesus, we can be like a mighty tree in a dry land, secure in faith, watched over by our loving Lord.


We generally evaluate any historical event by three main types of evidence: documents, historical studies, and after-effects. By these three standards, the resurrection of Jesus Christ is as plausible as anything else we think we “know” about the ancient world.

What might be the “after effects” of the resurrection on you, personally?

To listen to the sermon, click the play button: To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Resurrection 2023

Resurrection Sunday 2023. Acts 26:22-29

I’m going to use a slightly unusual text for Resurrection Sunday this year. Let’s set it up:

After three different missionary endeavours, Paul journeyed to Jerusalem, because he believed God was leading him there. Once there, Jews from the province of Asia recognized him and began to cause trouble. Some people tried to kill him. Others started riots in protest of his presence. The Romans, never very worried about getting the responsible party, arrested him for causing trouble.

Paul says that the sticking point, the reason people were so angry with him, is because he believes in the resurrection of the dead (Acts 24:17-21). In fact, this is true in almost all of the opposition that the apostles faced. In virtually every sermon in the book of Acts, you find that the main point the apostles make is that Jesus rose from the dead, fulfilling the scriptures, and proving his claims to be the messiah, the divine God-man. Most of the persecutions they faced came about because of that claim, as did Paul’s in our text today.

The Romans kept Paul in prison. Some time later, a new Roman governor, named Festus, was visiting King Agrippa (a descendant of King Herod). They invited Paul to speak to them. Paul told his story, and then ended like this:

22 To this day I have had the help that comes from God, and so I stand here testifying both to small and great, saying nothing but what the prophets and Moses said would come to pass: 23 that the Christ must suffer and that, by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles.”
 24 And as he was saying these things in his defense, Festus said with a loud voice, “Paul, you are out of your mind; your great learning is driving you out of your mind.” 25 But Paul said, “I am not out of my mind, most excellent Festus, but I am speaking true and rational words. 26 For the king knows about these things, and to him I speak boldly. For I am persuaded that none of these things has escaped his notice, for this has not been done in a corner. 27 King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know that you believe.”

28 And Agrippa said to Paul, “In a short time would you persuade me to be a Christian?”

29 And Paul said, “Whether short or long, I would to God that not only you but also all who hear me this day might become such as I am—except for these chains.” Acts 26:22-29

It is Paul’s claim that Jesus rose from the dead that provoked governor Festus to shout: “You are out of your mind!” But Paul’s response is very interesting. He says, “on the contrary, I am speaking true and rational words.” He then appeals to King Agrippa, who has spent his entire life in Judea. Agrippa knows the facts of the life and death of Jesus, and Paul appeals to him on the basis of those facts, and also what he knows of the Old Testament.

This is one of the several important things that make Christianity different from every other religion. In the first place, it is rooted in actual history. It names government officials, and locations, and other historical events. It refers to true aspects of life at that time in history. The stories of Jesus do not read like myths and legends, and in fact, they are not. The gospels and Acts are historical documents that can be placed in real historical time, and in a real geographical place, with known historical figures. There are other ancient documents which (though not as well preserved as the New Testament) attest to many of the same events and people. The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus was born just a few years after the crucifixion of Jesus, and he treats that event as well-known history during his lifetime. The Roman court historian Tacitus, alive near the same period, also records many of the same events and several people referenced in the gospels and Acts. Archaeologists have continually affirmed that the New Testament accurately describes the world of the First Century Roman empire.

As Paul says to king Agrippa: “You are familiar with the events I am talking about.” These are not myths, they are actual happenings. As he says: “these things were not done in a corner.” The facts and the situations, and the people were known by many people who were alive at the time, and those people also left a lot of documentary evidence of these things for future generations.

The claims of Christianity might be true, or they might be false, but they are not irrational. They are not made-up legends or “magic” stories like those we tell children sometimes. I want us to spend a little time evaluating the historical evidence for the resurrection, looking at the facts that Paul said were well known.

Before we get into it, however, I want to point out that there is no historical event at all that can be proved the way certain things can be proved in laboratories. For instance, you can prove beyond doubt that water boils at one-hundred degrees Celsius at sea level. But historical events are not experiments in which we control variables and repeat over and over again. We believe in certain historical events based upon evidence, and for most of history the main kinds of evidence come from documents, historical studies (including archaeology), and after-effects.

Let’s take the assassination of U.S. President Abraham Lincoln as an example. We cannot go to a laboratory and prove that it happened. But there are documents that claim that it did happen. Those documents contain the testimony of some people who say they were there to see it. The documents appear to genuinely belong to the same period in history as they claim to. Compared to other documents that also come from the same time, the use of language is similar. Some of the same people are named elsewhere, by other sources. Documents are the main source of our information about Lincoln’s death.

In addition, there are historical studies. In the case of Lincoln, Ford Theater, the place where he was shot, has been preserved, as has the building across the street where he was taken immediately afterwards. The fact that these buildings are there doesn’t prove that Lincoln was shot there, but it lends credence to the story. Historians know generally about the weapons, culture, and procedures of that time, and the documents describe such things as they would if they were genuine. In other words, there is a great deal of consistency between what we know about that time in history, and the documents that describe Lincoln’s death.

Finally, we see the after-effects (from documents and historical studies) of the event. Immediately after the time Lincoln was allegedly shot, Andrew Johnson became the new President. Lincoln was not seen in public after that time. There is a burial site with his name on it. Mary Todd Lincoln lived like a widow afterwards.

I don’t think anyone seriously doubts that Abraham Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth in Ford theater, and died on April 15, 1865. It may surprise you, however to know that we have exactly the same kind of evidence, and quality of evidence, for the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ as we do for the death of Abraham Lincoln.

As with Lincoln, our primary evidence is from documents – specifically the New Testament. I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: The New Testament is the best preserved, most thoroughly tested and vetted historical document of its time. The evidence that the New Testament is what it claims to be is many orders of magnitude better than evidence for any other ancient document. If you believe anything at all about the ancient world – say, for instance, that Julius Caesar was a real person, or that the Romans held circuses – then you should also believe what the New Testament says. If you haven’t been around to hear me talk about how we know that the New Testament is so reliable, I can point you to my speaking and writing on that subject, and I am certainly not the only one who talks about this.

Next, historical studies lead us to accept what we find in the New Testament. Pontius Pilate was truly the Roman governor of Judea. The Romans later abandoned the practice of crucifixion as too cruel, but we know that they were still doing it during the time described by the Bible. Even today, you can go stand in the places described by the New Testament.

Finally, we have the after effects of the resurrection. Something surely happened back then. The resurrection started a movement that has literally and profoundly changed the history of the world. It changed the way people think and live. You can trace the emergence of hospitals, universities, science, and even modern democracy back to the movement that began when Jesus rose from the dead.

Let’s look briefly at the substance of the claim that Paul was making to governor Festus and King Agrippa:

First, that Jesus was, in fact, physically dead. This is not described as a coma, but as complete death. The Roman soldiers saw and testified that he was dead (John 19:33; Mark 15:44-45). John describes a physical phenomenon in John 19:34. He writes: “But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear and at once blood and water came out.” Crucifixion is essentially death by slow drowning in body fluids. As the pain in Jesus’ arms and feet became too intense, he would be physically unable to raise himself into a position where he could breathe properly. Body fluids would begin to collect around his lungs and heart, eventually either making it impossible for him to breathe, or putting so much pressure on his heart that it would stop. So when the soldier plunged the spear into the side of Jesus, from below, the spear would penetrate areas of the body where those fluids had collected. John saw not only blood, but a clear body fluid he describes as “water.” This is entirely consistent with death by crucifixion. Only one who had seen such a thing would have described it like that.

Some people have protested that the primitive Jews and Romans did not have our modern medical knowledge, and so they thought Jesus was dead, but he was really just in a coma. Therefore, he was not “resurrected,” but rather, just recovered from a coma. But there are two problems with this idea. First, the people in those days saw dead bodies first hand far more often than we do. Ordinary people saw death all the time, and certainly Roman soldiers saw it even more. It is in our modern world that we don’t know what it really looks like unless we are medical professionals. Second, if Jesus was in a coma, consider this: He was brutally beaten and whipped, twice, and then crucified. He was also stabbed in the torso, and given no medical treatment for any of it. Then he was tightly wrapped in burial cloths, in a way that might suffocate an ordinary, healthy person. Then he was placed in a tomb which was then sealed in such a way that two grown women could not open it. After two days, Jesus unwrapped himself, rolled away the huge stone and went walking all over the countryside; in fact, the day he left the tomb he covered at least fourteen miles. No, the coma story requires a miracle just as much as the resurrection.

Next, that Jesus was physically raised. In other words, he wasn’t a ghost. Jesus was physically present on earth after his resurrection. His body was definitely different than an un-resurrected body, since he could go through locked doors (John 20:26) and disappear from visual perception (Luke 24:31). Even so, the New Testament says he ate (Luke 24:41-42), he touched people (John 20:27-29) and his breath could be felt (John 20:22). He said to them:

“Why are you troubled?” He asked them. “And why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet, that it is I, myself! Touch me and see, because a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you can see I have.” (Luke 24:38-39)

Finally, that both the death and resurrection were predicted by the Old Testament scriptures, and by Jesus himself (look at Isaiah 53 sometime).

Considering the evidence that he was dead, and the claim that he later physically rose from death, we need to ask ourselves: “If he was not raised from death, what are the alternatives?” Remember, we know, from extensive scholarly research the Bible was not edited or changed later; these texts were written not long after the actual events, and they haven’t been changed since they were first written.

 One possibility is that the disciples made up the story. This, of course, is what the Jewish and Roman authorities said at the time. But there are some big problems with this. The Romans would often let the dead bodies of crucified criminals hang for a few days after death, as an example for the living to submit to Rome. In this case, they took the bodies down (there were two others, besides Jesus) in order to placate the Jews, since it was during a special festival. But once the disciples started talking about Jesus being resurrected, all the authorities had to do was go get the body and display it outside Jerusalem for all to see. That would not have been an uncommon practice. That would have certainly shut the disciples up quickly, and ended the story. But the authorities didn’t do that. Obviously, they could not produce the body.

So then the next question is, since the officials didn’t produce the body in order to silence the disciples, what happened to the body?

Possibility 1: Since the officials didn’t have the body, the disciples must have stolen it. There are several problems with this. First, these are the same disciples that ran away when Jesus was arrested; they deserted him while he was still alive. Are we to believe that now, after he’s dead, they’ve suddenly found courage to attack the soldiers guarding his tomb and then take his body?

Second, supposing they did somehow become transformed from cowardice to courage, and they fought the guards, or snuck around them, and stole the body. Next, they come back to Jerusalem and start preaching that Jesus is alive. They are brutally whipped for it – and remember, if they stole the body, they know they are suffering for a lie. Then some of them get imprisoned, and then even killed – all the while knowing that they are dying for a lie. If it was a lie, they got nothing from it – no riches, no power, no influence in their own lifetime, no revenge – nothing positive in their lifetimes, and a great deal of suffering instead. Why in the world would they sacrifice so much for no possible gain, and in fact, end up persecuted and dead for the sake of something they know is false? Of course, the answer is, they wouldn’t. So obviously, the disciples didn’t steal the body.

Possibility 2: The body was misplaced. This is the least likely of all alternatives. All four gospels clearly state that a Jewish leader named Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus, which he placed in his own tomb (Matthew 27:57-61; Mark 15:42-47; Luke 23:50-56; John 19:38-42). Joseph is described as a member of the Sanhedrin – that is, part of the Jewish ruling council that ultimately condemned Jesus to death. The first three gospels all explicitly state that several of the women who followed Jesus went with Joseph to see where Jesus was placed. John implies that same thing in 20:1. So all three interested parties know how to locate the body: The disciples; the Jewish authorities; and the Roman authorities. Pilate knows that Joseph of Arimathea asked for it. And Joseph isn’t some anonymous peasant – he is a Jewish ruler, and Pilate would know how to lay hands on him and find out where the body was placed, if he needed to. The Jewish leaders knew Joseph because he was one of them. In fact, Matthew records that the Jewish leaders went to Pilate and asked him for soldiers to guard the tomb to prevent the disciples from stealing the body. Pilate granted their request, and there seemed to be no confusion about which tomb it was placed in (Matthew 27:62-65).

On the other hand, there is positive evidence for the resurrection. There is, of course, the documentary record, the New Testament. The New Testament claims there were over five-hundred eye-witnesses who saw Jesus alive after he died (1 Corinthians 15:6). When Paul writes about those five-hundred witnesses, he says, “most of these are still alive.” In other words people could talk to them, and see for themselves if Paul had the story straight. This is Paul’s point to King Agrippa as well. He saying: “You know about this stuff. It didn’t happen in secret. There are still people you could talk to, who remember it personally.”

Once again, some of the evidence in favor of the resurrection is the after effect. There is the amazing transformation of the disciples from cowards to heroic martyrs. In addition, the resurrection of Jesus has continued to transform lives so much that it has affected the entire course of world history. I have already mentioned our learning, our knowledge, our hospitals, universities. There is also the exploration of the world, even our system of dating history – all of these sprang originally from Christianity and the Christian church, which, of course came about because of the resurrection. In addition, local churches and charities have made a difference all around the world for two thousand years. Something happened back then that resulted in a movement that changed history, and all the evidence is consistent with the idea that Jesus physically rose from the dead, giving people the courage to live for something beyond this life.

If Jesus’ resurrection changed the course of history, how might it change the course of your life? What difference does it make to you? Well, of course, it means that the claims and teachings of Jesus are true. He claimed not only to be human, but also to be God living in human form. If he wasn’t raised, we don’t need to worry about that claim. But if he was, we need to pay attention to him. That gives us a starting point, and that’s what makes it so important for us to read the Bible, to find out what his teachings are.

In the first place, Jesus said that his mission was to remove the obstacles between us and God. We are self-centered, and we consistently choose our own desires over those of God. When we do this, we are worshipping ourselves in the place of God. This is sin, and obviously, it creates a problem. But Jesus came, and died, precisely to reconcile us to God:

6 When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners. 7 Now, most people would not be willing to die for an upright person, though someone might perhaps be willing to die for a person who is especially good. 8 But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. 9 And since we have been made right in God’s sight by the blood of Christ, he will certainly save us from God’s condemnation. 10 For since our friendship with God was restored by the death of his Son while we were still his enemies, we will certainly be saved through the life of his Son. 11 So now we can rejoice in our wonderful new relationship with God because our Lord Jesus Christ has made us friends of God. (Romans 5:6-11, NLT)

Jesus calls us to find peace and rest by reorienting our lives around him:

28 Then Jesus said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30, NLT)

We live in a different way because of Jesus, and because he will share his resurrection life with us:

1 So now there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus. 2 And because you belong to him, the power of the life-giving Spirit has freed you from the power of sin that leads to death. 3 The law of Moses was unable to save us because of the weakness of our sinful nature. So God did what the law could not do. He sent his own Son in a body like the bodies we sinners have. And in that body God declared an end to sin’s control over us by giving his Son as a sacrifice for our sins. 4 He did this so that the just requirement of the law would be fully satisfied for us, who no longer follow our sinful nature but instead follow the Spirit.
5 Those who are dominated by the sinful nature think about sinful things, but those who are controlled by the Holy Spirit think about things that please the Spirit. 6 So letting your sinful nature control your mind leads to death. But letting the Spirit control your mind leads to life and peace. 7 For the sinful nature is always hostile to God. It never did obey God’s laws, and it never will. 8 That’s why those who are still under the control of their sinful nature can never please God.
9 But you are not controlled by your sinful nature. You are controlled by the Spirit if you have the Spirit of God living in you. (And remember that those who do not have the Spirit of Christ living in them do not belong to him at all.) 10 And Christ lives within you, so even though your body will die because of sin, the Spirit gives you life because you have been made right with God. 11 The Spirit of God, who raised Jesus from the dead, lives in you. And just as God raised Christ Jesus from the dead, he will give life to your mortal bodies by this same Spirit living within you. (Romans 8:1-11, NLT)

Because Jesus rose from the dead, I have an unshakeable eternal hope. I’m old enough to feel the truth that no one gets out of this life alive. Last year a friend of our family, just forty-years old, died of cancer. Last month we lost two extended family members. We will all follow, someday. And within a generation or two, anyone who ever knew us will also be dead. Everything, all the struggle, all the work to build something good, all of it is pointless…unless there is something more. Jesus’ resurrection gives us a solid foundation to hope for more. His resurrection shows us that there is more to life than just this life we have right now. I can sacrifice and build for a future that I won’t be here to see, because, through Jesus, I actually do have a future that extends beyond my death. I can be at peace, because the very worst that anyone might do to me is to kill me, which only means my resurrection is nearer.

He is Risen!


To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer:
Download Palm Sunday 2023

Palm Sunday, 2023. Matthew 21:1-11

 This week we celebrate Palm Sunday. In many churches, Palm Sunday is celebrated with waving palm branches, songs of joy and praise and a big celebration. I’ve been in churches where someone actually rides a donkey down the aisle; I’ve seen camels in church (excerpt from building committee minutes “…discussed how to remove camel dung from carpeting in narthex…”) and just big Palm Sunday productions in general. I think Palm Sunday appeals especially to American Christians. It’s loud. It’s super-sized. It’s positive and fun. It’s a big ol’ church party.

Picture it. A swarming, wiggling mass of humanity has gathered near Jerusalem, to celebrate the Passover in the Holy City. The crowd struggles to squirm through the ancient gates. This is Christmas, only better, because it’s a week long. Some of the out-of-towners are telling stories about a man they’ve seen out in the countryside, near their homes. They tell that this man, named Jesus, borrowed a little boy’s lunch and fed 5,000 people with it. Some of the people in the crowd had personal contact with this Jesus character, and were healed of various diseases and ailments. One man in the crowd claims he was leper until Jesus healed him – some of the people move uneasily away from that one.

Now some of these country folk meet up with people who live nearby, in the town called Bethany. They recount how one of their own hometown boys, a guy named Lazarus, recently died of an illness. They buried him, naturally, and four days later, along comes Jesus, and raises Lazarus from the dead.

Soon a good portion of that boisterous, loud, pushy crowd is shouting back and forth snippets of gossip about Jesus. And then suddenly, from the middle of the crowd, the yelling rises above the usual raucous level. People ask their neighbors what’s going on. Soon the word comes back.

“That Jesus guy is here. He’s riding a donkey over there. Look at him!”

“He’s got a kingly bearing.”

“Who but God’s chosen messiah could do the things he’s done?”

“Jesus! Jesus!”

“Praise God! The messiah is here! Alleluia!”

The shouting catches on. The crowd sees a few Roman soldiers nearby and yells even louder, in defiance of their oppressors. Soon the whole crowd is cheering in one sustained unquenchable voice. The excitement grows. What a King Jesus will be! He’ll end hunger and poverty – after all he fed the 5,000. He’ll end sickness and disease – he’s done it before! And when we fight the Roman oppressors and kick them out – well if any of us get killed by the soldiers, Jesus will just bring us back to life and we’ll go on. With him as our King, we’ll be unstoppable! And so the crowd cheers. They cheer because it seems like God is about do something for his people Israel, once more. They cheer because they want their lives to be better, and for the moment, it seems like it is about to become so. They cheer because their neighbors are cheering. They cheer because they are stuck in this big hot crowd, and it relieves the boredom. They cheer because it gives vent to inarticulate passions that gnaw unfulfilled inside them. They cheer because they hate the Romans.

But in all that great thronging mass there is one man who is not cheering. He doesn’t rejoice with the crowd. The excitement and noise utterly fail to touch him. Their desire to overthrow the Romans doesn’t even begin to move him. The man who seems so different from the rest of the crowd, so disconnected from their excitement is right there in the middle of it all, even so.

He is the man on the donkey. Jesus.

Because he is a man of infinite compassion, Jesus, when he saw people who were hungry, fed them. Because he cares more deeply than other being that exists, Jesus healed sick people when he was near them. Because of his great friendship with Mary and Martha, Jesus raised their brother Lazarus from the dead.

But he didn’t come into the world mainly to heal people and feed them. He didn’t come to raise people from the dead and place them back into this mortal life of pain, sin and suffering – a two-edged resurrection if ever there was such a thing. And so, in the middle of that rollicking crowd, he’s the only one who truly understands that he is entering Jerusalem not as a King, but as a sacrifice. He came for something better than temporary healing, more satisfying than temporary food and more eternal than temporary resurrection. He came to give these people life that was far greater, deeper and permanent – life far more wonderful than what they are cheering about.

Lloyd Douglas, in his excellent novel, The Robe describes how a fictional Corinthian slave named Demetrius made eye contact with Jesus on “palm Sunday.”

The eyes calmly appraised Demetrius. They neither widened nor smiled, but in some indefinable manner, they held Demetrius in a grip so firm it was almost a physical compulsion. The message they communicated was something other than sympathy, something more vital than friendly concern, a sort of stabilizing power that swept away all such negations as slavery, poverty, or any other afflicting circumstance. Demetrius was suffused with the glow of this curious kinship. Blind with sudden tears, he elbowed through the throng and reached the roadside. The uncouth Athenian, bursting with curiosity, inopportunely accosted him.

“See him – close up?” He asked.

Demetrius nodded; and turning away, began to retrace his steps toward his abandoned duty.

“Crazy?” persisted the Athenian, trudging alongside.



“No,” muttered Demetrius soberly — “not a king.”

“What is he then?” demanded the Athenian, piqued by the Corinthian’s aloofness.

“I don’t know,” mumbled Demetrius in a puzzled voice, “ but – he is something more important than a king.”

The Robe, Lloyd Douglas

I think that often, I am like that Palm Sunday crowd. I cheer for Jesus because of what I think he will do for me – provide for me financially, or heal me, or get me out of the mess I’m in, or squash the people I don’t like. I am often interested in Jesus because he can make my life more comfortable right now. But Jesus — on that first Palm Sunday, and today as well – is interested far more real, eternal, life for me. That life starts right now – not when I die. But that doesn’t mean I automatically get to be more comfortable here. It’s sort of like asking him to get you an air mattress for the tent you live in next to the city dump, when all the while, he’s building you a 3 million dollar house in the countryside. The difficult part is, you have to give up the dump before you can move the country, before you can even see what the country is like. And you might have to go without the air-mattress so you can learn to want a feather-bed.

Jesus knew that to get that life for the crowd, he had to die. They thought he was coming as a king. He knew that he was coming to die a gruesome, ignoble, humiliating death. That Sunday was the same day that most people drove the lambs into Jerusalem – the Passover lambs that would be killed to remember God’s deliverance of his people. Jesus came into town like them – not gentle and fearful like a lamb – but like a Passover lamb in just this one respect – he was a sacrifice that would save all people from death and deliver us from our slavery to sin and grant us a new life.

There is indeed a lot to cheer about here – but it is not the stuff we most often dwell upon, or think about yelling for. As we celebrate Jesus today, let’s celebrate not so much the earthly, temporary things he could get us, but rather the eternal, unbreakable life, and forgiveness that he won for us, riding a little donkey toward his own painful death.


Photo by Ravi Kant on

The psalms invite us into fellowship with Jesus in every conceivable frame of mind, state of heart, and situation in life.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

For some people, the player above may not work. If that happens to you, use the link below to either download, or open a player in a new page to listen.

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Psalms Introduction


Today we will begin a new sermon series on the book of psalms. My goal is to have these sermons continuously available, so you might be reading this years after I wrote it. In my present time, however, I have just finished a sermon series on the book of 1 Peter. It took us 33 sermons to cover the five chapters in that book, or approximately 6.6 sermons per chapter. There are 150 chapters in the book of psalms. If we go at the same rate as we did for 1 Peter, it will take us 19 years to finish the psalms – and that’s if I never miss a single week!

Thankfully, I am planning to approach the psalms a little bit differently. In the first place, I will not preach a sermon on every single psalm. Secondly, there is a large difference between the genre of Psalms and the genre of 1 Peter. 1 Peter is an epistle, and it aims to teach us truth that applies to Jesus Christ in a straightforward, and theologically dense way, which means there is a great deal of meaning packed into every phrase and verse.

The book of Psalms is something else entirely. We will begin this time by considering what it is, and what that means for how we should read the psalms.

Let’s start with the name. “Psalm” is basically a Greek word that is a translation of a Hebrew word that means “song,” or “poem.” There are two other Hebrew words associated with the book of Psalms: one means “prayers,” and the other means, “praises.” The book of psalms, then, is a collection of songs and poems that have been used for many centuries by God’s people for prayer and praise. To reiterate: a psalm is a song or poem.

In a book like 1 Peter, each verse and chapter builds upon what was written before. If you read chapter three without reading chapter two, you will not fully understand what Peter intends to say. In the psalms, however, each “chapter” is actually a self-contained unit. This makes Psalms one of the only books in the Bible where it doesn’t really matter if you read it in order. You don’t need to read psalm 22 in order to understand psalm 23. You could flip to almost any chapter in the book of psalms and find it meaningful without reading the preceding chapters.

There are just a few exceptions to this. It appears that psalms 1-2 are meant to go with each other. It is likely that is also true of psalms 9-10 and also, perhaps, psalms 42-43. The reason for this is that although scholars can be confident about the content of the book of psalms, there has been some confusion, in just a few places, about how, exactly, it is to be divided into separate psalms.

Also, because we are talking about poetry, we won’t necessarily be analyzing each verse the way we do when we look at a letter, or the teaching of Jesus. In general, the best way to approach a psalm is to look at the entire thing, paying attention to the overall emotion and message. There are, however, a few psalms that are too long to do that with. In fact, the longest single chapter in the Bible is psalm 119. I guess we’ll see how it goes as we proceed, but the way we approach the psalms should be somewhat different from how we look at other parts of the Bible.

A quick word about how we talk about the book. The book overall is called “Psalms.” When we talk about a single chapter, however, we are speaking about a single psalm. So I might say “the book of Psalms.” But, about one single chapter I would say: “psalm 10 (no ‘s’).” Again, this is a reflection of the fact that normally, each chapter is its own, self contained poem or song (psalm).

Speaking of poems, at first glance, the psalms don’t appear to be very, well, poetic. This is because Hebrew poetry is a bit different than what we call poetry in English. In English, poetry often has rhyme. Even when it doesn’t, it still usually has meter – in other words, a poem conforms to certain rules about how many syllables should occur in each line of the poem. So there is a kind of obvious rhythm to most English poems. There is also a kind of English poetry called “free verse,” which has basically no rules.

Hebrew poetry – the poetry of the psalms – does not normally use rhyme, rhythm, or meter. Unlike “free verse,” however, It does have a typical form, and that is parallelism. In Hebrew poetry this means that ideas are set up “in parallel.” A parallel consists of the same idea that has already been written, but is now re-stated in a slightly different way. Just as in geometry, you can have a virtually unlimited number of parallel lines, so in Hebrew poetry, parallels might come in groups of two, or three, or even more. There is an almost infinite number of ways to combine parallels. They might be set up to repeat an idea, or to contrast other ideas, or to play off one another, or to highlight certain thoughts.

For an example of one kind of parallelism, look at Psalm 43:1

Vindicate me, O God, and defend my cause
against an ungodly people,
from the deceitful and unjust man
deliver me! (ESV)

In the ESV, this is formatted to help us see the four parallel thoughts. The first line, “vindicate me and defend my cause” is parallel to the fourth line, “deliver me.” They are two different ways of expressing the desire of the writer, and he puts them in parallel. The second line: “Against an ungodly people” is in parallel with the third line “from the deceitful and unjust man.”

You can also see that these parallels are organized into a structure with an “outside” parallel (vindicate me/deliver me) containing an “inside parallel” (ungodly people/unjust man). To map it out in an overly simple way, the structure looks like this:

First thought: Help me O God!

Second thought: save me from ungodly people

Second thought in parallel: save me from ungodly people

First thought in parallel: Help me, O God!

But of course, the poet uses more interesting words and expressions to express these parallel thoughts. Besides being ingenious and beautiful, this particular poetic expression has a way of highlighting what is most important. God’s vindication or deliverance are the first and last thought; the ungodly people, though a problem, are contained within thoughts about God’s salvation. In other words, the main point is the writer is praying for God’s help. Though he is in trouble, his main focus is not on his problem, but on God’s help.

By the way, I didn’t spend a lot of time looking for a verse to help me demonstrate this. My Bible app was bookmarked to Psalm 43, and I just picked the very first verse to show us how Hebrew “parallel poetry” works. It’s all over the psalms, though it has many different types of configurations. We’ll consider those different configurations when we encounter them in the psalms that we study.

By the way, when it comes to the psalms, I think it pays to be picky about the Bible translation you use. Not all of them capture the beauty and poetry of the psalms equally well. For instance, I checked a few other English versions, and they did not really capture the inside/outside parallelism I just described for Psalm 43:1. To make sure, I double checked the Hebrew, and the ESV did indeed portray it as it was originally written. Other English translations changed the word order to make it easier to read, but then they lost the underlying structure of the poetry.

By the way, though I know just enough Greek to be dangerous, I am basically incompetent with Hebrew. However, I have been trained in how to use various tools designed for incompetents like me, and so I know how to find the information we need when it comes to that language.

Now, at this point, I know that some of you are thinking, “I’m sorry Tom, but I’m not going to spend hours analyzing ancient Hebrew poetry.” Don’t worry, you won’t have to. But I want you to start with the psalms by understanding that, in fact, they are made out of a very intricate, complex and beautiful poetry. In fact, it is no exaggeration to say that the psalms contain some of the world’s greatest literature of all time.

If you want to, you can spend time analyzing the parallels, but you don’t need to do that in order to appreciate the psalms. The biggest thing is to understand that the psalms are expressed in poetic, emotional language. Enter into the thoughts and feelings that are expressed here. Let them move you. If you find you are not being moved, try a different Bible translation.

 On the other hand, if, with any given psalm, you are having trouble understanding what the poet is trying to say, you might want to try to see the parallels he uses, and how he groups them. For that, you probably want a version like the ESV.

I say “he” about the poet, because in every instance where we know who wrote a given psalm, it was a man. However, there are many psalms for which we don’t know the author, and some of those could have been written by women.

So, for those we know about, who did write these psalms? A number of them say, in Hebrew “of David.” In some cases, it is almost certain that King David himself wrote them. He was definitely a poet and musician, and a couple of these same psalms also appear in 1-2 Samuel. In other cases, “of David” might mean something like “in the tradition of David.” The same is true for the psalms attributed to Asaph, or the Sons of Korah. It could mean that they were written by those actual people, or that they were written in the tradition and style of those people, or, more likely, sometimes the first, and in other cases, the second. One psalm says it is “Of Moses” but it isn’t clear whether Moses himself wrote it, or it is about Moses, or in the tradition of Moses.

Generally most of the psalms were probably written during a six hundred-year period, going from the time of David in 1000 B.C. until after the time the people of Judah returned from exile in Babylon, around 400’s B.C.. It is likely that many of the older psalms were well known and used in worship by the people of Israel for many centuries.

Some time after the return from exile, in the 400’s B.C., prophets and priests organized the psalms into the order that we now find them. They gathered them into five “books,” which were probably originally, five scrolls with the psalms divided up between them. Certainly, having them all together would have made for a large scroll that would be difficult to use, so it makes sense that they would  be divided up into smaller scrolls. Most Bibles indicate these book divisions somehow, usually just by a bold heading saying “Book II” and “Book III” and so on. Also, If you pay attention, you will notice that the last psalm at the end of each book contains a kind of blessing that uses words like: “Blessed be the Lord forever! Amen!” or something similar, and then some other phrases.

It appears that someone (probably a group of people) deliberately organized the psalms within the five scrolls into a certain order. The majority of psalms of lament, and cries for help, are within the first two and a half books. The majority of the psalms of praise and thanksgiving are found in the latter half of the collection.

There are several different types of psalms. Some of them are laments. A lament is an expression of pain and grief, or a cry for help and deliverance, or a cry for God to punish enemies. Others are psalms of praise, which I think is pretty straightforward. There are wisdom psalms, which are poems primarily written to teach us something. There are psalms that seem to be intended for specific worship occasions – some of which are, even today, typically used during the Jewish festivals of Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles (Sukkoth). And there are several psalms that seem to be focused on Israel’s king.

When I preached through Matthew a few years ago, during part of that time I happened to be re-reading the psalms for my daily devotional. I was deeply impressed to realize that Jesus quoted from the psalms constantly. Sometimes, he used direct quotes. Other times, he just used the language of the psalms to express something he was saying, without declaring it as a quote. Since Jesus clearly loved this book, and it was in his heart, it is well worth studying.

Therefore, the very first way we interpret the psalms is to remember that they reveal Jesus to us. Sometimes, they show us his character, what he is like. Sometimes, they remind us what he has suffered for us, and a few of them even prophesy about his sufferings, or prophesy other things about his life. In other places, the psalms show us the types of things Jesus does for us. Many of them can be used to praise Jesus. So, first and foremost, as you read the psalms, ask yourself: Where is Jesus in this psalm? You might be surprised and delighted as the Holy Spirit shows you.

The psalms are also a tool for prayer. Sometimes I simply read a psalm out loud, and with my heart I agree with the words, as a kind of prayer. There are other ways to use the psalms in prayer and worship, and we will talk about those more during this series as we engage with individual psalms.

Another helpful idea in interpreting the psalms is this: they reflect and direct our experiences of living in faith. Through the psalms we can engage with all of life: with suffering, with hope, with joy, with anger, with disappointment – virtually every human emotion can be found in this book. But it is not merely emotion on display. It is emotion, and life experience, combined with faith. There is despair in some of the psalms. But it shows what despair looks like in someone who still has faith. It invites us, when we despair, into fellowship with others who walked through similar experiences while maintaining their faith.

In fact, the psalms invite us into fellowship with Jesus in every conceivable frame of mind, state of heart, and situation in life.

If you are using these sermons in a house-church setting, here is your assignment for this week. In addition to reading this sermon, please pick one psalm (any psalm, although psalm 119 might be challenging) and read it. Come to church prepared to talk about your experience reading the psalm.


Photo by Rene Asmussen on

The Bible clearly teaches that the devil, and demons, are real, and that we should be on our guard against their influence. Today, we unpack what it means to be on guard against the forces of evil, including a reminder that the authority of Jesus is far greater than all evil power combined.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

For some people, the player above may not work. If that happens to you, use the link below to either download, or open a player in a new page to listen.

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download 1 Peter Part 33

Peter uses the phrase “be sober” three times in this letter: once at the beginning, in 1:13; once in the middle, in 4:7; and now here at the end. Sober is, of course, the opposite of drunk. If you are drunk, you are not really in control of yourself. People who are drunk are often silly, and they typically make very poor decisions, saying and doing things that they wouldn’t otherwise do. Their judgment is impaired. When people are drunk, it is easy to take advantage of them, or trick them, or manipulate them.

Though several modern English translations say “sober minded,” the underlying Greek just says “sober.” Just like in English, it can mean both literally sober, and also serious-minded. I think both meanings are intended here. So, the first thing Peter means is that followers of Jesus should not get drunk. This is reiterated elsewhere in the New Testament:

18 And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit,

(Ephesians 5:18, ESV)

1 Corinthians 5:11, Titus 2:3, and a few other places also reinforce this teaching. Also, earlier in this letter, Peter tells us that drunkenness should no longer be part of the life of a believer (1 Peter 4:1-6).

By the way, the Bible does not teach that no one can ever have any alcohol. Jesus and his disciples obviously drank wine, and it was common in the culture of Bible times. Paul even tells Timothy to drink a little wine for his health (1 Timothy 5:23). But the message is quite clear that we should not drink enough to affect our judgment or self-control.

Of course, someone who is an alcoholic can not even have so much as one drink, because, in an alcoholic, that will lead quickly back down the road to full-blown addiction. Even if you aren’t an alcoholic, one good rule of thumb to evaluate your drinking is this: if you usually cannot stop after just one drink, you probably have a problem with alcohol at some level. If when reading this you think, “What is the point of having only one drink?” then that is a pretty strong clue that it already has some kind of hold on you. If the Holy Spirit nudges you about this issue, please pay attention.

So Peter’s first concern is literal sobriety. But I believe he also does mean, in a general way, that we are to take our faith seriously, and consider the way we live and the choices we make. We are to live generally in self control – that is, within the limits that God places on us – as Peter wrote in 4:7.

One reason Peter says that a sober attitude (and literal sobriety) are important is because we have an enemy who is looking for any chance to take advantage of us. Peter first describes him as our adversary. He uses a Greek term that is roughly equivalent to our legal idea of a prosecutor: someone who is actively trying to impose guilt upon you, and get you imprisoned.

The next term Peter uses of him is, literally “diabolos,” which you might recognize as similar to the word for “devil” in Spanish. This term actually comes from another Greek word: diaballo, which means “to accuse.” Likewise the name “Satan” comes from a Hebrew word which means “to attack and accuse.”

This is one of the things the Bible teaches that often makes people uncomfortable. The idea of a literal devil, and actual demons, feels sort of superstitious. It doesn’t feel scientific, and at times it even seems sort of childish. Even so, the Bible clearly teaches that there is a real evil spiritual entity which is called Satan, or the devil, and there are other entities, under his control, called demons, or evil spirits.

10 A final word: Be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. 11 Put on all of God’s armor so that you will be able to stand firm against all strategies of the devil. 12 For we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places.
13 Therefore, put on every piece of God’s armor so you will be able to resist the enemy in the time of evil. Then after the battle you will still be standing firm. 14 Stand your ground, putting on the belt of truth and the body armor of God’s righteousness. 15 For shoes, put on the peace that comes from the Good News so that you will be fully prepared. 16 In addition to all of these, hold up the shield of faith to stop the fiery arrows of the devil. 17 Put on salvation as your helmet, and take the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
18 Pray in the Spirit at all times and on every occasion. Stay alert and be persistent in your prayers for all believers everywhere.

(Ephesians 6:10-18, NLT)

The passage from Ephesians above is one of the most extensive, but there are references to the devil, and demonic powers all over the New Testament. You don’t have to read very far in the gospels to see that Jesus encountered demonic powers, and those powers knew who he was.

Another thing you might notice about the encounters Jesus had with demonic powers is that none of them was able to withstand his presence. The Bible tells us that the devil’s power is not even remotely a match for God’s. In the book of Revelation, when John has a vision of the battle that took place in the spiritual realm, Satan was not even a match for one of God’s angels. Jesus sent out some of his followers, and they found to their amazement that through them, the power of Jesus could drive out demons. He makes it clear that when we belong to him through faith, the devil cannot overcome us:

17 The seventy-two returned with joy, saying, “Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name.”
18 He said to them, “I watched Satan fall from heaven like lightning. 19 Look, I have given you the authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and over all the power of the enemy; nothing at all will harm you. 20 However, don’t rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”

(Luke 10:17-20, CSB)

So the Bible teaches that the devil and demons are real, but also that Jesus has overcome them, and when we belong to him, we need not fear them. Even so, Peter tells us in our text to be careful, to watch out for the devil.

What exactly are we to watch out for? The very first thing is lies. Any power the devil gains over a person, he achieves by telling that person lies. If the person believes those lies, the devil can use that as leverage to gain more influence on the person. Jesus said this of the devil:

He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies.

(John 8:44, ESV)

Revelation chapter 12, in a picturesque metaphor, describes the devil as a dragon. One of the titles given to him is “deceiver:”

9 And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.

(Revelation 12:9, ESV)

In Revelation 13, it describes the work of the two “beasts” who serve as agents of the devil. One of their main functions is to deceive people – that is, to get them to believe lies.

Now, what sort of lies does the devil want us to believe? There are three broad categories that might be helpful to consider. First, lies about God. When he tempted Adam and Eve in the garden (Genesis 3) he tried to get them to believe that God was withholding something good from them. He portrayed God as deceptive and manipulative. He convinced them to take control of their own destiny, even if it meant sinning, rather than trusting the goodness of God. He tries to do much the same to us today. He distorts the message of the Bible. He portrays God as weak, manipulative and even evil. He tries to get us to believe that God is not trustworthy. If possible, he tries to get us to reject God altogether. He twists the message of Jesus either into legalism (“You must do a, b, and c, or you will burn in hell”), or license to sin (“God is loving, so you should do whatever you feel like doing. Sin doesn’t matter any more”).

The devil also lies to us about ourselves. He tries to get us to believe that we are unlovable, hopeless, past redemption. He tempts us to agree that we are really just worthless pieces of slime. If that route doesn’t work with some people, he goes the opposite direction: He tells some people that what is really most important is themselves. He gets them to agree that what they, personally want is more significant than what God wants, more imperative than whether or not it is sinful, or how it affects other people. “The most important thing,” he whispers, “is to be true to yourself above all else.”

He tells us that if we just keep drinking, we’ll feel better. Or maybe, just take that pill, and we won’t have to worry about anything. If we just have that affair, we’ll be happy again. If we need to cut a few ethical corners to get rich, it’s no big deal, because when we have enough money, everything will be all right. Especially, the devil does not want us to believe that God loves us, and that Jesus has saved us. He wants us to doubt both of those things.

A third category of lies the devil tells us are about other people. He gets us to believe the worst about others. He tries to get us to believe that they do what they do, or say what they say, simply because they are hateful, or spiteful, or trying to manipulate things. He wants us to think: “The only reason she could possibly have to say that is because she wanted to hurt me, specifically.”

If he can’t get us to believe that people are worse than they are, he goes the opposite way. He tries to convince us that some people are so much better than us that we should just give up. They have perfect lives, and ours is a mess. We are hopeless. Now, all this is made more difficult by the fact that sometimes people are mean and spiteful. And perhaps sometimes, some people really are doing pretty well, compared to us. However, human beings are complicated, and illogical sometimes, and if you find yourself thinking “this is the only reason they would do that,” you might be listening to a lie.

The way to fight lies, of course, is with the truth. The bedrock of truth is the Bible. It tells us the truth about God, about ourselves and about other people. The better we know the Bible, the more easily we will be able to recognize the lies of the devil.

In addition to lies, the devil does wield some sort of influence in the spiritual realm. Sometimes, this is hard to perceive, because even though we are spiritual beings, our own sin and our imperfect flesh get in the way of our spiritual understanding.

I hesitantly say that we usually notice this kind of spiritual opposition as negative feelings. For instance, sometimes, it might feel like we just have a strong aversion to going to church. Perhaps some of that is just “natural,” but it is possible that there are spiritual forces trying to cut us off from the encouragement we would receive from being with other believers, and worshipping together. Maybe at times we say something that is actually pretty hurtful, and afterwards we think, “what in the world made me say that?” Perhaps you were being influenced. Sometimes it feels like following Jesus is really quite difficult, and we wonder “why that should be? Shouldn’t life be easier once we line up with God’s will?” Maybe, although Jesus himself tells us we should expect trouble. Here, and elsewhere, the Bible says that there are spiritual forces that oppose us when we try to follow Jesus. It isn’t that we just happen to have a bad day when it is time to go to church. It’s not always a coincidence. It isn’t a coincidence that we always get sleepy when we try to pray, or that something always seems to get in the way of reading our Bibles. Sometimes, maybe more often than we think, we are being opposed by spiritual powers.

About half a dozen times in my life, I have encountered demonic powers in a way that was quite clear. Just for a little while, during those times, my eyes were opened, and I could see beyond any doubt that I was dealing with spiritual forces of evil. On the one hand, those were obviously unpleasant, sometimes even creepy, experiences. On the other hand, once those powers were revealed, they were defenseless against the power of Jesus, and of his name. I, and those with me, ordered those powers to leave in the name of Jesus. For some reason, it usually took about a half an hour until all sense of evil was gone, but in each case, the outcome was certain. In one particular case, the same demonic influence seemed to be shifting from person to person, and so kicking it out of one person did not stop the activity; instead, the same thing showed up again in a new person. I asked a friend to pray with me every day about that particular demonic influence, and he did so. The influence ceased within a week, and did not reappear in anyone after that.

Believe me, I know that what I just wrote sounds weird – it was weird. But it is also perfectly consistent with what the Bible tells us about the devil and his demons. This is why Peter tells us to be sober (and sober-minded), and to keep watch. We are still in the middle of a spiritual war. The victory is already assured, but the devil is still trying to pick off as many people as he can, in order to spite God, before the end.

Peter makes it clear, however, that in Jesus, we have the power to resist the devil, and that our future is assured through Jesus:

9 Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world. 10 And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. 11 To him be the dominion forever and ever. Amen.

(1 Peter 5:9-11, ESV)


Photo by Pixabay on

The key to balancing our understanding of God’s care for us is to remember to humble ourselves before God, recognizing that life is not about you or me. At the same time we are called to trust that he does, in fact, care for us. Humility means we do not demand that God serve us, and especially, we do not insist that he must answer our prayers only in the way we intend. We come to him humbly, in awe and wonder at the fact that he really does care for us, knowing that we do not deserve it, but trusting that he does care all the same. We come to him humbly, agreeing that we do need his help and love and grace. And we come to him in trust, relying on him to care for us, knowing for certain he does, because of Jesus.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

For some people, the player above may not work. If that happens to you, use the link below to either download, or open a player in a new page to listen.

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download 1 Peter Part 32

1 Peter #32. 1 Peter 5:6-7

Last time we discussed humility. We noted that there is a connection between humility, and casting your anxieties on God, because in order to give our cares to Him, we must admit that we can’t handle them ourselves. This topic reminds me of the poorly worded church sign that said “Don’t let worry destroy you – our church can help!”

There are two possible errors when we consider the idea that God truly cares for us. The first is to believe that this is the main thing about God. We can begin to believe that God’s main purpose is to care for us; that this is what God is for. We start to think that this is what being a Christian is all about – having a God who will take care of our problems.

Making this error leads to all sorts of problems. The first, and biggest, is that we believe that life is all about us. People think that God is there to serve them, so naturally that means that they, and their needs, desires and problems, are the most important things about faith in God. Now, they probably wouldn’t actually put it that way so bluntly to themselves. But when people make this error, the way they pray, and pursue God, shows that they think God is primarily there to help and serve them (and, to be fair, other believers). This is really where the “prosperity gospel” comes from. One of the big dangers of it is that it is often so close to the truth, yet distorted in significant ways. If the main thing about God is that he exists to care for them, then what they really need is to find a way to get access to God’s caring and blessing. They might do this by reducing how much they sin. After all, (the thinking goes) sin gets in the way of God giving them what they need. Now, reducing sin is a good thing. I’m all for it. But the reason we try to sin less is because God is holy, because some things are right and some are wrong, not because it will help us get more stuff that we want.

People might try to get more of God’s blessing and care through prayer and worship – prayer and worship unlock God’s blessing (so many people would put it). Again, I think prayer and worship are good things. But we should do them because God is God, and deserves our worship, and much more besides. It is true that sometimes we are blessed through prayer and worship. However, doing such things mainly in order to get more blessings is a serious distortion of what the Bible teaches.

People who buy into this error go to church primarily in order to learn how to “release” more of God’s care and blessing into their lives. They give their tithe not because God is God, and owns everything, but rather, they give primarily in order to get greater blessing back.

Many churches and ministries that take this approach are very large and outwardly successful. This is because the whole idea appeals to human selfishness. Instead of dealing with the basic sin of self-centeredness, ministries actually appeal to it in order to get people to do religious things, and to grow the church. It’s easier to grow a ministry if you encourage and manipulate the sinful desires people have, rather than confronting them with the gospel.

When we look at our text today, we can see the main mistake. People who make this error keep “God cares for you,” but they ignore “humble yourself before God.”

The other major problem that comes out of thinking that God is mainly there to take care of us is that when he doesn’t take care of us the way we think he should, our faith is shaken. I have met many, many people who turned away from God, in essence, because they felt like God let them down. He didn’t care for them in the way they wanted to, or in a way that they could understand. It is a fragile and unstable foundation for faith.

I’ll be honest, I do not remotely understand how to reconcile these thoughts: 1) God cares for me. 2) God is all powerful. 3) God has not healed me from my constant, brutal pain. If I thought God’s primary job was taking care of me, I would be tempted to think he’s pretty bad at it, and I might want to abandon my faith. As it is, though I do believe God cares for me, I also believe that his ultimate purposes are bigger than just me, and that, because he is God, I should not expect to understand everything he does, or does not, do. I can trust him beyond what I can understand.

There is another error that people sometimes make about these verses. Some people find it very hard to believe that God actually does care for individuals, families and small groups. They understand that God is God, all right, but they can’t believe he has any true interest in dealing with eight billion separate people, nor yet the time to do it.

This error is also dangerous. It is a rejection of what the Bible actually says. As incredible as it seems, God actually cares what happens in the lives of individual people:

16 But I will call on God,
and the LORD will rescue me.
17 Morning, noon, and night
I cry out in my distress,
and the LORD hears my voice. (Psalms 55:16-17, NLT)
17 As for me, I am poor and needy,
but the Lord takes thought for me.
You are my help and my deliverer;
do not delay, O my God! (Psalms 40:17, ESV)
8 Your Father knows what you need before you ask him. (Matthew 6:8, ESV)
26 Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? 28 And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? 31 Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. (Matthew 6:26-32, ESV)

As you might imagine, there are many other such verses. According to the Bible, God really does care for each person in the world. The details of our lives, and our struggles, are important to Him.

 In 2017, we were incredibly blessed to take a one month sabbatical in Europe. My wife Kari was struggling to believe this very thing: how can God really care for each one of the billions of people on earth? How can he even keep track of them all? Traveling often brings this up. When you travel, you realize how many people and places there are in the world. It seems impossible for God to keep track of everyone.

We had two surprising experiences in which God showed us once again that he is God. At one point, we went to Venice, Italy, where we stayed in a Methodist guest house. Breakfast was included with the cost of the stay, and one morning we ate next to a German family. I was excited to practice my German, so I spoke to them. The man asked me where I learned German, and I explained that I grew up in Papua New Guinea (PNG), and many of our friends there, including our neighbors, were Germans. To shorten the story, it turned out that he had worked, in Germany, with one of my former German neighbors for several years! The odds of bumping into someone who knows someone else from PNG are astronomically small anywhere in the world. The odds that it would be someone who knew my actual neighbor are infinitesimally small. You would be a fool to bet any amount of money on such a thing happening by random coincidence.  

Another “coincidence” began about a week later, when we were in southern Italy on a ferry boat. On the boat, we got to talking with a friendly couple from Australia, and we enjoyed our time with one another. We left them once we reached shore, and didn’t see them again. A week after that, we were in the Rome airport, to take our flight back to the U.S.. That particular airport is stunningly gigantic. We went through all sorts of lines, and rushed from one point to another, passing thousands of people, until we came to the international departures checkpoint. There were several hundred people in the line, which snaked back and forth over a huge area. We got settled into the line, and took a moment to catch our breath. We turned around, only to find the Australian couple immediately behind us. I wouldn’t know how to begin to calculate how unlikely this was. If I put this sort of coincidence in one of my books, people would call it bad writing; they would say that as the author, I am clearly manipulating the plot in an unbelievable way. Perhaps that is exactly what it was, with, of course, God being the author of our experiences, manipulating things so that we can catch a glimpse of him.

Speaking of writing, my own experience as an author has helped me to see how God can care for each individual person. Suppose I am writing a scene in which my main character (Jonah Borden) meets another key character in the story, named Peter. Jonah goes on a hike, and coming around a corner, he meets Peter. In the pages of my book, all this happens instantaneously. But in my life, as the author, I can write (speaking as Jonah) “I came to a fork in the trail, and took it. Around the next bend, I met a man.” Then, I can stop, and take two days to think about Peter, and his motivations and needs, and how he came to be there at that particular time, and everything else about Peter’s life, and how his life will affect Jonah’s life, and vice-versa. In the time-frame of the book, it all happens from one moment to the next. But I can step out of the pages of the book, into my own time-location and take all the time I want to work all this out. I am not bound by the time-frame of the people in the story.

If Jonah believed in me as the god of his world, he could pray, “O Author, please let me meet someone in the next five minutes who will help me with my troubles.” I could take as much time as I need to set up an answer for him, even though only five minutes (or less) elapsed for him, in my story. Or, alternatively, I could see that Jonah’s request doesn’t work with the story I am telling, and so I would not have him meet anyone, but that doesn’t mean I don’t care for him. In fact, he is my creation, and I am pretty fond of him, to be honest, but that doesn’t stop me from putting him into a lot of difficult situations.

In the same way, God is not bound by our time frame. He has all the time in the world to hear my prayer, and yours, and the prayers of believers in China, and India, and South America. He has all the time there is to arrange for us to meet someone significant at just the right time and place. He has much more time, in fact, than I do as an author. God is infinite, and we are not, and so he has, literally, more than enough time, and more than enough capacity, to care for not just eight billion people at once, but even trillions and trillions more.

The ultimate demonstration of God’s love for us is the death of Jesus Christ. God did not have to save us. Jesus did not have to die. He chose to die, and he did so because he loves us.

6 When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners. 7 Now, most people would not be willing to die for an upright person, though someone might perhaps be willing to die for a person who is especially good. 8 But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. 9 And since we have been made right in God’s sight by the blood of Christ, he will certainly save us from God’s condemnation. 10 For since our friendship with God was restored by the death of his Son while we were still his enemies, we will certainly be saved through the life of his Son. (Romans 5:6-10, NLT)

He has already proven his love for us, and if we ever doubt it, we can remember the cross, the torture and suffering, the incredible spiritual agony that he endured for you and me. Look at the cross, and see how much he cares for us.

We are called not just to know that God cares for us, but to actively cast our cares upon him. Peter obviously means that we should pray about the things that burden us. Paul says something similar:

6 Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. 7 Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:6-7, NLT)

 Unburden yourself to the Lord. Tell him, in plain language, in your own words, what is troubling you. But there is a second part of casting your cares on the Lord that we often forget. If we cast our cares upon God, that means we have to let go of them. The same word is used in Luke when the disciples threw their cloaks onto the donkey that Jesus rode. They couldn’t throw their cloaks onto the animal, and still wear them, or hold onto them at the same time. To cast your cares on God means to release them into his hands. If you tell God what concerns you, and then you continue to worry and think and imagine about it, you haven’t really cast your cares on him, have you? You’ve just given him a look at your worries, while you still hold them tight. He can’t carry your burden for you if you insist on carrying it yourself.

Now, I do know that this is easier said than done. But the first step toward really giving God your concerns is to recognize that once you have prayed, you must let go of them. I think that sometimes, worrying is our way of trying to control the uncontrollable. We can’t actually stop a loved one from getting into a car accident, but it almost feels like if we worry about it, we have some measure of control. To cast your cares on the Lord, you have to humble yourself to the point where you give up the idea of controlling what happens. You have to trust him.

I have a few practical suggestions about how to actually do that. In the first place, pray to God for the ability to trust him, and the capacity to give up control. Seriously, ask him to help you. As much as you can, give him your willingness to change. I think this is probably the best thing we can do.

Another thing that sometimes helps me is to set a timer for how long I will pray about something that really bothers me. When the timer is done, my time is up. It’s in God’s hands, no take-backs. At other times, I might write down my deep concerns, and, after praying, physically burn them in order to leave them with God. At other times, if I am walking and praying. I might pick up a rock, and use it to represent my anxieties. After praying, I will throw the rock away from me as far as I can.

As I mentioned a while ago, the key to balancing our understanding of God’s care for us is to remember both to humble ourselves before God, and also to trust that he does, in fact, care for us. The humility means we do not demand that God serve us, and especially, we do not insist that he must answer our prayers only in the way we intend. We come to him humbly, in awe and wonder at the fact that he really does care for us, knowing that we do not deserve it, but trusting that he does care all the same. We come to him humbly, agreeing that we do need his help and love and grace. And we come to him in trust, relying on him to care for us, knowing for certain he does, because of Jesus.


The Bible

Jesus explicitly taught his disciples to be humble. Humility is not the same as humiliation. Jesus, being who he was, understood that he was, in fact, the most amazing being in the universe. Yet, he did not insist that others recognize him as such, even though he knew it to be true. The essence of humility is trusting God to make all things right, in his own time.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

For some people, the player above may not work. If that happens to you, use the link below to either download, or open a player in a new page to listen.

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download 1 Peter Part 31

Humility is a challenging topic for me to teach about, because it’s so difficult to be humble when you are as amazing as me. (Sorry, I had to do that one – it was so obvious!) Actually, when I think of how bad I am at humility, I am humbled. (OK, I’ll quit now). All right, on a serious note, I do actually struggle with the whole topic of humility, because I struggle with the idea of injustice. It seems wrong to me – unjust – when people are not recognized for their amazing gifts, achievements, or personalities, while other people, less deserving, get credit when they don’t really deserve it. However, Jesus and his apostles are crystal clear about humility: Humility is part of the character of Jesus, and therefore it should be part of the character of every Christian. Paul explains this in many places, but perhaps nowhere better than in his letter to the Philippians:

3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. 5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

(Philippians 2:3-11, ESV)

Jesus himself explained the importance of humility to his disciples many times:

7 Now he told a parable to those who were invited, when he noticed how they chose the places of honor, saying to them, 8 “When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in a place of honor, lest someone more distinguished than you be invited by him, 9 and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘Give your place to this person,’ and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place. 10 But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at table with you. 11 For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

(Luke 14:7-11, ESV)

Jesus’ own life was one huge example of humility. Being God, the Creator and Ruler of the universe, he humbly confined himself to the limits of human flesh. Even when he did that, he did not choose to be born in Rome, or Athens, which were the centers of power and culture in those days. He did not become the son of a king, emperor, or even just a noble family. Instead, he became the son of a poor family. Not only was he not born in a palace, he wasn’t even born in an ordinary house, but rather a stable. He grew up in Nazareth, which was a no-account town in a no-account region in a no-account country. When he spoke, it was with a Galilean accent, which sounded to the people of Jerusalem like a hillbilly/redneck way of talking. He washed the feet of his disciples as if he was a common servant. He was put on trial and mocked by people who should have fallen on their faces to worship him. The wood that was used to crucify him came from a tree that would not have existed if he hadn’t caused it to be. And even today his name is mocked. This is how it is supposed to be, for now, says Jesus:

25 But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. 26 It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, 28 even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

(Matthew 20:25-28, ESV)

Now, I do think sometimes we misunderstand humility. Perhaps we think it is similar to humiliation. We might imagine that to be humble means to have a low opinion of ourselves, or even hate ourselves. But if we look at Jesus as the greatest example of humility, I think we can see more clearly.

Jesus did not have a low opinion of himself. He did not think of himself as worthless, useless or pointless. If you took every human being who ever lived, and every great work of art, culture, literature or engineering that was ever made, and threw in all the gold and jewels and real estate in all of the history of the entire world, all of it together is not as valuable as the life of Jesus. And if Jesus is who the Bible says he is, he must have known that. He knew that he was the most amazing human being to ever walk on the surface of this planet. He knew that the entire planet was not equal in worth to a single drop of his own blood.

So Biblical humility does not mean self-hatred. It does not mean you pretend you are worthless when you know you are not. But Jesus, being who he was, knowing who he was, did not insist that everyone else acknowledge that. He had self-respect, but he did not demand that others treat him with the respect he deserved. In the verses from Matthew chapter 20 (above) he says: “I didn’t come to be served, but to serve, and to give my life as a ransom for many.”

When we are humble, we do not insist upon our own way, even when we could rightfully do so. We do not insist upon getting credit for something, even when we deserve that credit. When we are humble we patiently endure it when others treat us unjustly and unfairly, knowing that one way or another, God will eventually make all things right. We don’t have to defend ourselves, our abilities, our work, or our reputation, because God will do so in his time and in his way.

This leads us to another important aspect of humility. In order to truly be humble, we need to trust God. We need to trust that he will look out for our interests, for our credit, for our good and safety. If we think we are on our own, if it is up to us to look out for ourselves, we cannot be humble, because the world will run over us, and we won’t get what we need and deserve. But if we trust that God will look out for us, we can let go of the need to make sure we get “our rightful share” of everything in life.

On the other hand, in order to trust God, we need to be humble. Humility says, “I need God. I am not enough on my own. I need grace and forgiveness.”

I recently watched a TV show. The story was about a woman named Donna who was married to a violently abusive husband. She had an affair, and got pregnant from the affair. A teenage girl found out, and threatened to tell her husband, so Donna killed the girl. She allowed an innocent man to be convicted of the murder, and that man served twenty-years in prison for Donna’s crime, until she was found out.

When the police finally found out that Donna was the murderer, she blamed everyone but herself. She said it was her abusive husband’s fault. She said it was the girl’s fault for threatening to tell. It was the fault of the man she had an affair with. It was the police’s fault for not making her feel safe from her husband (though she never told anyone, until after he died, that he was abusive).

After serving a few years in prison herself, she developed terminal cancer. The sister of the girl who she murdered came to see Donna, to tell her that she forgave her. Donna’s response was “-—you, and -—forgiveness!” (“—” stands for a swearword). I think this portrays a very real kind of attitude. You see, in order to receive forgiveness, Donna would have to admit that the murder was indeed her fault. She would have to give up defending herself. She would have to put herself in a place of need that she could not fill herself. In short, she would have had to humble herself, and she refused to be humble.

I know that’s only a story, but like all good stories, it connects us to something real about life. Most of us have not committed murder. Even so, we need forgiveness no less than the character of Donna in the story. But in order to be forgiven, we have to admit that we have a need for it, and we cannot meet that need ourselves. Humility means we must depend upon God – we can’t do it alone. We have to rely on him for something – we cannot rely on ourselves alone. We need forgiveness, but we don’t deserve forgiveness, and we are at the mercy of God’s willingness to give it to us. That is a place of humility, and many, many people refuse to be so humble.

We will spend next week on the phrase “casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.” But for now, I want to point out that to cast our anxieties upon God requires humility. We have to admit that we can’t handle it all. We have to give up trying ourselves to make life work, and trust God. That requires humility.

Peter urges us to be humble not only toward God, but also toward one another. A few weeks ago in one of our local house churches, someone shared some very personal struggles they were having. This person was allowing us to see that they didn’t have it all together, admitting that they had needs that they themselves could not fill. I was struck by two things. First, it required real humility to be so open and vulnerable with us. That person’s open sharing was a demonstration of humility in action. They were willing for us to see their personal struggles, willing to show that they did not have life all working well. Second, it struck me that this kind of humility requires great courage and strength. We tend to think of people who keep it all in as “strong, silent types.” But I realized, while the person was sharing, that I was seeing incredible bravery and incredible inner strength on display. I think it takes much more courage and inner fortitude to be openly humble like that than it does to keep silent.

So humility can be difficult. It requires vulnerability and trust. But Peter tells us that we will not have to humble ourselves forever. Right now, it is the attitude we should have. But what Jesus and his disciples taught, and what the Old Testament teaches also, is that when we humble ourselves, we are trusting ourselves into God’s hands. If we will trust him by being humble, he will make sure that in his own time, we are lifted up. That of course, is what Peter says in the text today: humble yourselves, and then God, in his time, will lift you up. That is the implication of what Paul writes in Philippians: Jesus humbled himself, and then God lifted him up and gave him honor, and he will receive even more honor when  he returns. Many Old Testament scriptures teach the same thing:

6 Though the LORD is great, he cares for the humble,
but he keeps his distance from the proud. (Psalms 138:6, NLT)
15 For thus says the One who is high and lifted up,
who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy:
“I dwell in the high and holy place,
and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit,
to revive the spirit of the lowly,
and to revive the heart of the contrite. (Isaiah 57:15, ESV)
34 He mocks those who mock,
but gives grace to the humble.( Proverbs 3:34, HCSB)

We need to trust that he will indeed “lift us up” when the time comes.

A few thoughts for application: As you have been reading this, is there some way in which the Holy Spirit is prompting you to be humble? Is he asking you to be vulnerable about something with other believers? Is he gently calling you to let go of getting your own way in something? Perhaps he wants you to hold your peace when someone less deserving gets credit for something.

On a different line of thought: how is the Lord calling you to humbly trust him right now? Do you need to let go of pride, or self-sufficiency?

Let the Spirit speak to you today!


Photo by kailash kumar on

In this text, Peter gives instructions to Christian leaders. In pointing out the kind of person a leader should be, he is actually pointing beyond all human leaders, to the Chief Shepherd, Jesus Christ, and the qualities we find in Him.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

For some people, the player above may not work. If that happens to you, use the link below to either download, or open a player in a new page to listen.

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download 1 Peter Part

Let’s remember who is writing this letter. It is Peter, whom all the gospels portray as the leader among the twelve apostles. The gospel of Mark was probably already written and known, as was possibly Matthew. Even before these were well known, certainly stories about Jesus were widely circulated, and many of them included Peter. He knew Jesus personally. He was one of only three who were chosen to see Jesus revealed in glory at the transfiguration. He was the only person besides Jesus Christ himself, who ever walked on water. After the day of Pentecost, it was Peter who preached the sermon that led to three-thousand people being saved. Several times he stood before the leaders of the nation of Israel, and proclaimed the truth of Jesus. He was imprisoned, beaten and persecuted for his trust in Jesus. Once, he was miraculously delivered from execution. God used him to heal many people; so much so that, at one period in Jerusalem, sick people would lay in the street in the hopes that Peter’s shadow would fall on them as he walked past.

It is this Peter who now wants to speak a word to church elders – that is, the leaders of local house churches. He could have said: “I command you, as the one God used to heal dozens of people.” He could have written: “As the only person besides Jesus to walk on water, I say…” There are many ways he could have reminded these leaders that they should listen to him. Instead, he writes: “As a fellow elder.” This section ends with Peter urging everyone to be humble, and he certainly put humility into practice here. Though he could have commanded them as an acknowledged leader, instead, he appeals to them as an equal.

I want to use this text to briefly talk about leadership in the early church. Peter appeals to the “elders.” He does not simply mean “the oldest people in the church.” By this time, the word “elder,” for Christians, meant a specific kind of church leader. A lot of elders were indeed older men. But there were also younger men like Timothy who were considered church elders. In other words, the term is more about leadership than it is about age.

There are other words used for the same kind of leader. The term “overseer” (sometimes translated “bishop”) seems to be interchangeable with the term “elder” in the New Testament. Finally, there is a third name given to this same type of church leader: “shepherd.” The Greek word for shepherd was later translated into a Latin word that is still commonly used in English today: pastor. In the New Testament, all three of these words are talking about church leaders who were responsible for directing the affairs of the church, and for teaching and preaching, and caring for the members. Not all of the elders were necessarily teachers and preachers, but virtually all of the teachers and preachers were supposed to be elders.

Here is a brief description of a church elder:

6 An elder must live a blameless life. He must be faithful to his wife, and his children must be believers who don’t have a reputation for being wild or rebellious. 7 A church leader is a manager of God’s household, so he must live a blameless life. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered; he must not be a heavy drinker, violent, or dishonest with money.
8 Rather, he must enjoy having guests in his home, and he must love what is good. He must live wisely and be just. He must live a devout and disciplined life. 9 He must have a strong belief in the trustworthy message he was taught; then he will be able to encourage others with wholesome teaching and show those who oppose it where they are wrong.

(Titus 1:6-9, NLT)

Here’s another passage. This time the Greek term used for “church leader” is “overseer,” but you can see it is talking about exactly the same thing:

1 This is a trustworthy saying: “If someone aspires to be a church leader, he desires an honorable position.” 2 So a church leader must be a man whose life is above reproach. He must be faithful to his wife. He must exercise self-control, live wisely, and have a good reputation. He must enjoy having guests in his home, and he must be able to teach. 3 He must not be a heavy drinker or be violent. He must be gentle, not quarrelsome, and not love money. 4 He must manage his own family well, having children who respect and obey him. 5 For if a man cannot manage his own household, how can he take care of God’s church?
6 A church leader must not be a new believer, because he might become proud, and the devil would cause him to fall. 7 Also, people outside the church must speak well of him so that he will not be disgraced and fall into the devil’s trap.

(1 Timothy 3:1-7, NLT)

With this passage, Peter adds his own instructions to elders. This is all relevant to elders, of course, but it is also relevant to all Christians. Peter is describing the kind of pastor/church leader you should seek out and value. You can use this text to hold pastors accountable, if you need to, including me, by the way.

First, we should shepherd God’s flock. A shepherd leads the flock to places where there is food, water, and safety. So, elders should lead churches to spiritual food and drink through God’s Word (the Bible), prayer and fellowship. In addition, as the verses I just quoted say, an elder needs to protect the church from bad teaching, from things that lead people astray. What this amounts to is good, sensible teaching of the Bible. Teaching elders should take their responsibilities very seriously:

1 Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.

(James 3:1, ESV)

Frankly, I have met many people who call themselves pastors or elders who do not take this nearly seriously enough. I suspect that there are many people who take it upon themselves to teach and preach, who really ought not to. When I read what Peter writes here, I am reminded of a conversation he had with Jesus after the resurrection:

15 When they had eaten breakfast, Jesus asked Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me more than these?”
“Yes, Lord,” he said to Him, “You know that I love You.”
“Feed My lambs,” He told him.
16 A second time He asked him, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me?”
“Yes, Lord,” he said to Him, “You know that I love You.”
“Shepherd My sheep,” He told him.
17 He asked him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me?”
Peter was grieved that He asked him the third time, “Do you love Me?” He said, “Lord, You know everything! You know that I love You.”
“Feed My sheep,” Jesus said.

( John 21:15-17, HCSB)

So Peter, nearing the end of his own life, is passing on the same charge to the next generation of church leaders: “Shepherd the people! Feed them spiritually, care for them as a shepherd does for the sheep.”

The next piece I get from Peter’s words is that the flock belongs to God. I have never had “my own” church. I have only ever had the privilege of caring for parts of God’s flock. Sometimes we pastors, talking shop to one another, say things like, “In my church…” I don’t think that is so terrible, as long as we remember that it isn’t really our own church, not ever. We are only caretakers of Jesus’ church.

The next thing Peter says is that elders should serve willingly, not because they feel forced to. I knew a pastor who went to seminary during the Vietnam War, to escape the draft. He hated ministry, and wasn’t even sure he believed in God, but he felt he had to continue to be a pastor or he would be a hypocrite. What he couldn’t see was that he was a hypocrite anyway. He served under compulsion.

At one time I felt as if I was locked in to being a pastor, and I took this verse seriously: I quit. During the next three years God showed me that I really am supposed to be one of his under-shepherds, an elder in his church, and ever since then I have felt privileged to be called to this ministry.

Next, elders are not supposed to be in it for the money. That’s a good thing for me, because if I was in it for the money, I’ve been doing it very wrong! I’m not complaining, by the way, but I haven’t exactly built a ministry empire for myself, nor a cash-cow. However, we all know about church leaders who have built private empires and cash cows. I would not want to be them when they have to explain themselves to Jesus.

Elders are not to be domineering. Here, we see part of why Peter appeals to them only as a fellow elder, not as one of the great leaders of the church. He is putting his own words into practice. Though he could command them, he is leading in the same way he wants them to lead: humbly, with love, appealing to them, not trying to dominate or browbeat them. Above all, he is leading by example, and exhorting them to do the same.

Finally, elders are to look for honor and reward not in this life, but when Jesus returns. Being a pastor – at least the way Peter teaches us to – is not always a glorious thing. I have as much education as most attorneys, but generally, especially these days, pastors are respected less than lawyers, doctors and other professions. But our full reward is in Jesus, in the New Creation, not in the here and now. We can be patient, knowing that God sees our work, even when others don’t. Just as we are not supposed to be just in it for the money, nor are we supposed to be elders/pastors in order to build our own reputation.

Those who are not elders have responsibilities toward their leaders, as well. Peter says that the rest of the church should listen to the elders. This agrees with many other parts of the New Testament. Here are just two examples:

17 Obey your spiritual leaders, and do what they say. Their work is to watch over your souls, and they are accountable to God. Give them reason to do this with joy and not with sorrow. That would certainly not be for your benefit.

(Hebrews 13:17, NLT)
17 Elders who do their work well should be respected and paid well, especially those who work hard at both preaching and teaching. 18 For the Scripture says, “You must not muzzle an ox to keep it from eating as it treads out the grain.” And in another place, “Those who work deserve their pay!” (1 Timothy 5:17-18, NLT)

Now, as I have said, these things give us a good basis to evaluate whether a leader in the church is worthy of our trust and respect. That is good and helpful. But when we consider the characteristics of our leaders, we should also find in them things to imitate. The author of Hebrews writes:

7 Remember your leaders who taught you the word of God. Think of all the good that has come from their lives, and follow the example of their faith.

(Hebrews 13:7, NLT)

We may or may not have a leadership position in the church, but these instructions to elders are things we can all aspire to emulate. If I reflect any of these qualities at all, it is because I learned them not only from reading the Bible, but also from watching more mature believers whom I admire, and aspire to be like. The first such person in my life is my own father, and there were many others also, who showed me by their own lives what real Christians should be like. The goal is not only to imitate such people, but eventually to become the sort of person yourself that others can look at, and imitate.

And of course, the real life that they are reflecting (and that we want to reflect) is the life of Jesus Christ. Ultimately, our focus moves from helpful (though flawed) leaders to Jesus himself. We want our life to reflect and resemble His life, to show His love and grace to the world.