Gracious Father, this Scripture is so encouraging. I find great comfort today in remembering your tenacious commitment to change us—to make each of your children increasingly like Jesus. From beginning to end, salvation is of the Lord. Hallelujah! You began the good work of salvation in us, and you alone are sufficient to complete it.
I’d despair if this wasn’t the case, for the disparity between Jesus’ beauty and my brokenness is overwhelming at times. The thoughts I think; the things I feel; the choices I make, fall very short of the perfection that can only be found in Jesus. I could never be my own savior, and only a great Savior like Jesus is sufficient for someone like me.
As “the God of peace,” you are making me wholly holy—changing me through and through. You’re healing and freeing every part of my being—spirit, soul, and body—from the effects and affects of sin. You’re not anxious about the process. You’re at peace, even when I’m not. You don’t roll your eyes, furrow your brow, clear your throat, or show any signs of a nervous twitch when you think about me. O kind Father, you rest in your love toward me in Jesus.
Lord Jesus, I will be wholly blameless and shameless at your second coming, only because you took our blame and shame upon the cross. Even now, my life is safely hidden in you, and when you do return, I will appear with you in glory; for you are my life—my righteousness, holiness, and redemption (1 Cor. 1:31; Col. 3:4). I boast in you plus nothing, for I have nothing in myself in which to boast. My hope is built on nothing less, nothing more, and nothing other, than your blood and righteousness.
By faith, I actively trust in the righteousness I have passively received in you, Lord Jesus; and I gladly surrender to the ongoing ministry of the Holy Spirit—by whom I’m sealed, with whom I’m indwelt, and through whom I will be safely delivered into your presence. I long for the Day, finally, when I will be as loving and lovely as you are. So very I pray, with peace and joy, in your faithful and kind name.
The hand of the Lord was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and set me in the middle of a valley. . . . I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” I said, “Sovereign Lord, you alone know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! This is what the SovereignLord says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord.’“ Ezek. 37:1-6
Dear heavenly Father, I would do well to meditate on this portion of your Word once a month—no, make that at least once a week. For it “calls out” my unbelief, it confronts my complacency, it deconstructs every excuse I offer for giving up on difficult situations and people.
So many of our churches, marriages, and hearts have become piles of dry, breathless bones. Vibrant green has become ashen grey. The music hasn’t faded; it’s gone. Selflessness has been supplanted with spite; desire got overgrown with weeds of disconnect, distrust, despair, and now, despising.
But it’s not Ezekiel who asks about the possibility of renewal, redemption, and restoration; it’s you, Father. It’s you! “Can these bones live?” you ask. The question is rhetorical, for you are the God of resurrection! I’ll not presume on the process, but I’ll trust in your promises.
Father, for your glory alone, I ask you to breathe on the near and already bone dry marriages of a few dear friends; and on churches spread throughout our communities. Where there’s little love, joy and peace left, bring a fresh outpouring of affection from and for the great Spouse, Jesus.
What but the love of Jesus can transform stubborn hearts into supple hearts, can replace mean with mercy, can supplant self-protective willfulness with gospel willingness? Who but Jesus can transform cold antipathy into kindhearted intimacy? Those are my rhetorical questions, Father, for I know of no other hope for cold marriages, dead churches, or hard hearts but Jesus and his great love lavished on us in the gospel.
Indeed, Lord Jesus, you are the resurrection and life. Today as I pray for these marriages, churches, and friends, and for myself, I’m not going to be preoccupied with looking at dry bones but with you, a living Savior. Bring life, your life, to the places of death. Restore to all of us the joy of your salvation, the hope of your resurrection, and a passion for your glory above everything else, including our own happiness. So very Amen I pray, in the tender mercies and great power of your name.
Turn with me to Hebrews 3:12. I want to show you from Scripture how true and essential Bonhoeffer’s words are for us today at Bethlehem. The question to ask yourself as we read these verses is: How important is it to live with other Christians in such a way that I can give to them and receive from them the Word of God every day?
Take care, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we share in Christ, if only we hold our first confidence firm to the end.
Three observations from this tremendously important text:
Sin wages a constant battle to deceive and harden the hearts of professing Christians. If it succeeds, a person slips into unbelief and falls away from the living God.
The evidence and confirmation of whether we have any share in Christ is whether we hold our first confidence firm to the end. Hebrews sees two possibilities for professing Christians: either they hold fast their first confidence to the end and show that they have really become sharers in the life of Christ, or they become hardened by the deceitfulness of sin and fall away from God with a heart of unbelief and show that they did not have a share in Christ.
The means appointed by God to enable the saints to persevere to the end is daily exhortation from other saints. “Exhort one another every day as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.”
It is written that the saints will persevere to the end and be saved. Those who have become sharers in Christ by the new birth will hold their first confidence to the end and be saved. But one of the evidences that you are among that number is that when God reveals in his holy Word the means by which you will persevere, you take him very seriously, you thank him, and you pursue those means. This text makes it very clear that the means by which God intends to guard us for salvation (1 Peter 1:5) is Christian community. Eternal security is a community project. Not just prayer, not just worship, not just the sacraments, not just Bible reading, but daily exhortation from other believers is God’s appointed means to enable you to hold your first confidence firm to the end.
The Imperative of Meeting Together
One of the most important questions facing the leadership of this church is: What should we do to encourage and enable you to live together or meet together in smaller groups where you can obey this text and exhort each other with the promises and warnings and commands of Scripture? How can we make the priesthood of all believers a reality? How can we help you to form the kind of group life or community life that makes Hebrews 3:13 a fact and not a fairy tale? “Exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.”
Part of the answer for us at Bethlehem is given in Hebrews 10:23–25. Here the writer is concerned not only how to help people hold fast their faith but also how to help them become ablaze with love. Faith toward God and love toward men—how shall they be stirred up and preserved?
Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful; and let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging (same word as in 3:13) one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.
The closer we get to the second coming of Christ, the more we ought to meet together to encourage each other to hold fast our hope and to pour ourselves into acts of love. The text envisions not just haphazard meetings on the street but planned gatherings for the purpose of exhortation. Bonhoeffer said, “The physical presence of other Christians is a source of incomparable joy and strength to the believer.” Hebrews says: “Meet together!” “Meet together!” Meet in homes. Meet at work. Meet in restaurants. Don’t neglect meeting. How else can we exhort each other to hold fast to our confidence? How else can we stir each other up to love and good works? And when you meet, don’t throw it away with glib conversation: Consecrate it with the Word of God and prayer.
Do you see the warning in this text? “Don’t neglect to meet together, as is the habit of some.” Professing Christians are always in danger of forming the habit of not meeting with other Christians to encourage and be encouraged in faith and love. Have you fallen out of that habit? Are you a part of a regular gathering of Christians which is small enough so that you can give and receive personal exhortation from Scripture? Bonhoeffer was speaking biblical truth when he said, “A Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s Word to him. He needs him again and again when he becomes uncertain and discouraged.”
Three Relationships Every Believer Must Pursue
Let me try to put this ministry in a wider context. Over the past year the pastoral staff has worked through a philosophy of ministry that shapes what we do and how we plan. That philosophy says that there are three relationships of life which every maturing believer must pursue.
First, and most important, is your personal relationship with God, characterized by trust, devotion, worship, and obedience.
Second is your relationship with other believers in the body of Christ, characterized by mutual exhortation to strengthen each others’ faith and stir each other up to love.
Third, and flowing out from the first two, is your relationship to unbelievers and to Christ’s global purpose of redemption, characterized by witness in words of hope and deeds of love.
Now you can see the wider context of today’s message. Last Sunday provided the biblical foundation of priority number 1: going hard after the holy God. Today provides the biblical foundation for priority number 2: helping each other endure to the end as believers. Next Sunday, Lord willing, will provide the biblical foundation for priority 3: extending to unbelievers the joy of salvation.
A radical, all out God-centeredness will remain priority number 1 under our leadership at Bethlehem—I don’t think you would have it any other way. That’s why we stress worship and seek to guard this one hour in the week from the ever-present encroachments of the horizontal. All our relationships with each other and with the world will be deepened and empowered and purified if in this hour we focus our minds’ attention and our hearts’ affection on God himself. Even when I preach, as I am today, about the horizontal dimension of life in Christ, I try to do it in such a way that it is not chatty or familiar, but rather has behind it the authority of God, the aroma of his sovereignty, and the tremendous seriousness of heaven and hell.
Adapted from John Piper’s sermon on perseverance of the saints.
“And God spoke all these words, saying, ‘I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me.’” Exodus 20:1–3
This first and primary commandment is the foundation for all the commandments to follow. God reminds his people who he is and what he has done for them in Exodus 20:2, and then commands his people to put him first, above all else. God is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. And as our knowledge of God’s character increases, so does our desire to love and worship him above all else. Our knowledge of and intimacy with God is increased through familiarity with his word and time spent in conversation with him through prayer.
What characteristics of God’s nature are most difficult for you to grasp?
What characteristics of God’s nature are most exciting to you?
What things do you worship with your time, money, love, or attention above God? How might you worship God first with these things?
Does your small group put God first in its conversations, time, and practices?
Lord God, we thank you for revealing yourself to us in your word. Please send your Spirit to guide us as we seek to worship you rightly. Give us an unquenchable thirst to know you more intimately and deeply. Help us to see how we’ve loved other people or things above you. We pray that nothing would be more delightful to us than spending time with you. Help us to become a group that values knowing you above all and encourages others to know you better. You alone are worthy of our worship! We praise you and thank you for the guidelines you have given us in your word. Amen.
A Prayer for Resting in God’s Commitment to Finish the Job
"And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ". Phil. 1:6
Gracious Father, today’s a great day to remember the glorious promise of this text—that “salvation is of the Lord”, from beginning to end. You began the “good work” of redemption in our lives; the one who’s carrying it on, (even when you’re not working according to our timetable and agenda—even when it seems like we’re going backwards); and, you’re the one who will complete our redemption, the Day Jesus returns to finish making all things new. When I really believe this, it makes me want to rest, dance, and work, all at the same time.
This is incredibly good news, as I ponder my story and the lives of other people you’ve placed in my life. I can’t be my own saviour, and neither can I be anyone else’s saviour. The pressure’s off! I never was a co-Redeemer, co-Spirit, or 4th member of the Trinity! What a great relief; but also what a critical truth to remember, as I pour out my heart to you.
Father, give me the same confidence for my friends and family, you gave Paul for the Philippians. You’re at work, even when I don’t see it. Sometimes irritation, worry, and fear loom larger in my life than patience, trust, and hope. When this happens, I’m pretty worthless as a friend.
Teach me how to wrestle in confident prayer for others; like Epaphras, who wrestled in prayer for the believers in Colossae(Col. 4:12). My tendency is to wrangle emotionally, rather than rest believingly. This leaves me worn out, and it simply frustrates others. They feel pressure from me to change, rather than encouragement in their journey. They can’t rest comfortably in my presence, feeling my lack of acceptance.
Keep me tender enough to engage in broken stories, but wise enough not to give in to the pulls I often feel. Help me not to get entangled in things that have nothing to do with me; but give me the tenacity to stay present and caring. Teach me how to wait on you, without falling into self-protective passivity or self-validating activity.
Father, I know that only the gospel is sufficient for the demands of loving well; so I abandon myself to you and your resources. Help me see others as you see them, Father, and help me to love them as Jesus loves me. So very Amen I pray, in Jesus’ compassionate and trustworthy name.
Oh! What enlightenment, what joys, what consolation, what delight of heart is experienced by that man who has learned to feed on Jesus, and on Jesus alone. Yet the realisation which we have of Christ’s preciousness is, in this life, imperfect at the best. As an old writer says, “‘Tis but a taste!” We have tasted “that the Lord is gracious,” but we do not yet know how good and gracious he is, although what we know of his sweetness makes us long for more. We have enjoyed the first-fruits of the Spirit, and they have set us hungering and thirsting for the fullness of the heavenly vintage. We groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption.
Here we are like Israel in the wilderness, who had but one cluster from Eshcol, there we shall be in the vineyard. Here we see the manna falling small, like coriander seed, but there shall we eat the bread of heaven and the old corn of the kingdom. We are but beginners now in spiritual education; for although we have learned the first letters of the alphabet, we cannot read words yet, much less can we put sentences together. But as one says, “He that has been in heaven but five minutes, knows more than the general assembly of divines on earth.” We have many ungratified desires at present, but soon every wish shall be satisfied, and all our powers shall find the sweetest employment in that eternal world of joy.
O Christian, antedate heaven for a few years. Within a very little time you shall be rid of all your trials and your troubles. Your eyes now suffused with tears shall weep no longer. You shall gaze in ineffable rapture upon the splendour of him who sits upon the throne. Nay, more, upon his throne shall you sit. The triumph of his glory shall be shared by you—his crown, his joy, his paradise, these shall be yours, and you shall be co-heir with him who is the heir of all things.
“Fire shall be kept burning on the altar continually; it shall not go out.”Leviticus 6:13
Keep the altar of private prayer burning. This is the very life of all piety. The sanctuary and family altars borrow their fires here, therefore let this burn well. Secret devotion is the very essence, evidence, and barometer of vital and experimental religion.
Burn here the fat of your sacrifices. Let your closet seasons be, if possible, regular, frequent, and undisturbed. Effectual prayer avails much. Have you nothing to pray for? Let us suggest the Church, the ministry, your own soul, your children, your relations, your neighbors, your country, and the cause of God and truth throughout the world. Let us examine ourselves on this important matter. Do we engage with lukewarmness in private devotion? Is the fire of devotion burning dimly in our hearts? Do the chariot wheels drag heavily? If so, let us be alarmed at this sign of decay. Let us go with weeping, and ask for the Spirit of grace and of supplications. Let us set apart special seasons for extraordinary prayer. For if this fire should be smothered beneath the ashes of a worldly conformity, it will dim the fire on the family altar, and lessen our influence both in the Church and in the world.
The text will also apply to the altar of the heart. This is a golden altar indeed. God loves to see the hearts of his people glowing towards himself. Let us give to God our hearts, all blazing with love, and seek his grace, that the fire may never be quenched; for it will not burn if the Lord does not keep it burning. Many foes will attempt to extinguish it; but if the unseen hand behind the wall pours the sacred oil there, it will blaze higher and higher. Let us use texts of Scripture as fuel for our heart’s fire, they are live coals; let us attend sermons, but above all, let us be much alone with Jesus.