A Good Woman Is Hard to Find

Relevant Text: Est. 2:22-23
Full Text: Est. 2; Acts 25

Wife | How should a man choose a wife? In their latest book, The Meaning of Marriage, Tim and Kathy Keller argue that spiritual friendship should be the basis for marriage because, “It is easier to turn a friend into a romantic partner than to turn a romantic partner into a friend” [1]. With the same ring of friendship, philosopher Giuseppe Mazzini said, “Look to her not only for comfort, but for strength and inspiration and the doubling of your intellectual and moral powers” [2].

Cinderella | Esther is the Cinderella story of the Bible. An unknown and beautiful Jewish orphan girl rises to become the Queen of Persia. In the first chapter, King Xerxes divorces and deposes Queen Vashti because she refuses his invitation to dinner. In the second chapter, he selects Esther as queen in a beauty contest – hardly the method suggested by the Kellers. Yet, his courtship is not the point [3]; God’s sovereign salvation through her courageous strength is. After all, Esther is not just another pretty face; she is smart and bold and disciplined.

Audience | Shortly after Xerxes and Esther were married, Mordecai – her guardian and adoptive father – overheard two guards conspiring to assassinate the king. So Mordecai told Esther, who in turn reported it to the king, giving credit to Mordecai. And when the report was investigated and found to be true, the two officials were hanged on the gallows [4]. Esther was bold in going to Xerxes. After all, anyone who requested a meeting with the king could have been killed. Moreover, she knew what had happened to Vashti when she disrespected Xerxes. Yet, she went. Boldly and loyally, she went. And her husband was saved by her wisdom. Indeed, in marrying Esther, he doubled his intellectual and moral powers.

Prayer | Lord, The purpose of true womanhood is “to display the glory of Christ in its highest expression, namely, in his dying to make a rebellious people his everlasting and supremely happy bride” [5]. In Esther, we see a foreshadowing of Christ – for both put their lives on the line to save your people. Yet, although Esther was beautiful in appearance, Christ was not [6]. Therefore, let us be women who pursue and men who love the true picture of godly femininity – not mere external adornment, but rather “the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious” [7]. Amen.

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Footnotes

[1] Tim and Kathy Keller. The Meaning of Marriage. If you’re interested in watching the book launch event, where Bethany Jenkins (founder of The Park Forum) co-interviewed the Kellers, click here.

[2] Quoted in Bill Bennett, The Book of Man: Readings on the Path to Manhood. Chapter: “Man with Woman and Children.” Paragraph 7. Kindle edition, Location 7787. Review on Washington Times: here.

[3] Just because something is mentioned as having happened in the Bible does not mean that the Lord condones it. Very often Bible teachers will distinguish between readings in the Bible that are “descriptive” (that is, part of the history that contributes to the understanding of the story) and readings that are “normative” (that is, teachings that we should follow and do). So, for example, the fact that Solomon had hundreds of wives and concubines is descriptive but not normative (after all, the law required that a king should only take one wife – see Deut. 17:14-17). In the same way, Xerxes’ courtship is not mentioned for its normative factor because it’s narrative.

[4] Esther 2:22-23 ESV

[5] John Piper, The Ultimate Meaning of True Womanhood.” 9 October 2008. Sermon. (with several mini-portraits of strong and courageous women who glorified God with their lives).

[6] See Isaiah 53.

[7] See 1 Peter 3:1-6 (although this is directed to believing women who are married to unbelieving men, its truth is equally applicable to believing women who are married to believing men).

[FN] The title of this devotional is roughly taken from Prov. 31:10.


So I’m a Christian. Now What?

Relevant Text: Acts 24:25
Full Text: Est. 1; Acts 24

Self-Control | After his arrest and rescue, Paul had one chance to make his defense to Felix the governor [1]. What did he choose to say? He reasoned about righteousness and self-control and the coming judgment[2]. In other words, he spoke about the three tenses of salvation – “how to be justified or pronounced righteous by God [justification], how to overcome temptation and gain self-mastery [sanctification], and how to escape the awful final judgment of God [glorification]” [3]. It makes sense that he would talk about justification and glorification; they’re integral to the gospel [4]. But sanctification? Why spend time talking about self-control?

Character-Training | Most of our lives are spent in the long, arduous process of sanctification. We’re justified in a moment [5] and glorified in the twinkling of an eye [6], but we spend years working out our salvation [7]. Last year, N.T. Wright came to New York to talk about his book, After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters [8]. He said that we are called to be a royal priesthood [9] – “to reflect His wise order into the world and reflect the praises of the rest of creation back to Him.” How does that work? We grow in the fruit of the Spirit – “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” [10].

Public-Living | This is not private. Wright continued, “Some people who write about virtue write about it as though it is a private thing, as though Christians do this in order to be a pure community … But it cannot be like that. If this is genuine humaneness we are talking about and if we are acquiring those habits of heart and mind and soul and strength, then this must flow out … We are part of that great thing called the human race and God loves it to bits and we are to reflect that love … [We are] to be rulers and priests and we are to do that through the character training, the faith, the hope, the love, the following of Jesus, which is our calling as Christians.”

Prayer | Lord, Paul spoke of sanctification because it is one of the essential parts of our lives as believers. We long to reflect your love in our lives through obedience according to the fruit of the Spirit. In our culture, therefore, help us “to collaborate without compromise and to critique without dualism” [11]. Make us a royal priesthood, as we pursue you through self-control. Amen.

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Footnotes

[1] Paul ended up having many more chances to speak with Felix, but – at the time of their initial conversation – he didn’t know that the governor would want to talk again.

[2] Acts 24:25 ESV

[3] John Stott, The Message of Acts. The Bible Speaks Today (Commentary Series). InterVarsity Press (1990), p 364.

[4] e.g., John 3:16 (Many consider this verse to be the quintessential gospel passage. Yet, note that, even though it covers justification – “whoever believes in him” – and glorification – “will not perish but have eternal life”, it does not mention sanctification).

[5] Yes, it may takes years for God to draw us to Him, but there is a single moment that we are justified and declared judicially righteous in His sight. See FN7.

[6] Yes, we may suffer for an extended period before we die, but we will be glorified “in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet” (see 1 Cor. 15:51-52 ESV).

[7] See, e.g., Phil. 2:12-13. Personally, my favorite verse that highlights the tension between justification and glorification is Hebrews 10:14, “For by a single offering, he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified” (ESV, emphasis mine). We have been made perfect already, but we are still being sanctified.

[8] N.T. Wright, After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters. HarperOne (2010). Video of lecture: here. If you’re like me, it’s been hard to develop a good theology for why we’re here. Wouldn’t it be better to go straight to glorification right after justification, to enjoy the fullness of the presence of the Lord right after we come to love and cherish Him? In this wonderful work by Wright, he offers a beautiful picture of the excellencies of sanctification in the Christian life. By way of my own analogy, I have come to see that preferring justification and glorification over sanctification is like rejoicing over a ballerina’s registering for classes and then seeing her world-class performance while forgetting all the hard work and tireless hours and broken bones and bloody toes that went into that performance. Our Lord is training us and sanctifying us through the beautiful process of training so that the dance we enjoy in heaven is all the more beautiful. For a review of this book by Publishers Weekly, see here.

[10] Gal. 5:22-23. In his book (and his talk), Wright also spends an extensive amount of time discussing how “the fruit of the Spirit” is a singular, not plural – arguing that these varieties of fruit grow together. In other words, you must be growing – to an extent – in all of them to be growing in any of them. Interestingly, he emphasizes that we must purpose to gain fruit and “self-control” is the hardest one to counterfeit: “If the ‘fruit’ were automatic, why would self-control be needed? Answer: it isn’t, so it is: it isn’t automatic, so it is needed. All the varieties of fruit Paul mentions here are comparatively easy to counterfeit, especially in young, healthy, happy people – except for self-control. If that isn’t there, it’s always worth asking whether the appearance of the other sorts of fruit is just that, an appearance, rather than a real sign of the Spirit’s work.” Chapter 6: “Three Virtues, Nine Varieties of Fruit, and One Body,” part three, paragraph 23 (Kindle, location 3341 of 5612).

[11] See FN8 (N.T. Wright’s talk).


No Plot Can Stand Against His Promises

Relevant Text: Acts 23:11
Full Text: Neh. 13; Acts 23

Obituaries | “The cause of death, of course, is always life,” writes Pete Hamill in his forward to The Obits: The New York Times Annual 2010. “We humans all die, a fact so unremarkable that in these tightly rendered portraits of the recently dead, the technical reason for death is almost always covered in a single sentence. What matters is the life, and how it was lived” [1].

Prophecy | Paul met a prophet named Agabus at the end of his last missionary journey. Agabus bound his own feet and hands with Paul’s belt and prophesied, “This is how the Jews at Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles” [2]. In response, Paul’s co-travelers were distraught, but Paul told them, “What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be imprisoned but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus” [3]. Indeed, when Paul arrived in Jerusalem, the Jewish leaders arrested him and conspired to kill him. But they failed. Several improbable events foiled their plan – Paul’s nephew overheard their plot, he had the courage to go to Paul’s Roman cell, Paul had the courage to tell his Roman guard, his Roman guard took his nephew’s intel seriously, the Tribune believed them and got “two hundred soldiers, with seventy horsemen and two hundred spearmen to go as far as Caesarea at the third hour of the night” [4] to take Paul to safety.

Promise | What did the conspirators miss? They didn’t know that the Lord appeared to Paul in prison on the night before their ambush was supposed to take place and told him, Take courage, for as you have testified to the facts about me in Jerusalem, so you must testify also in Rome[5]. It was not time to write Paul’s obituary; God had plans for his life in Rome. Until he got there, Paul was untouchable. No plot can stand against the promises of God.

Prayer | Lord, When you said that Paul was going to Rome, that was that. Your will cannot be thwarted and your word does not return empty without accomplishing its purposes [6]. Therefore, although death is inevitable, we rejoice that Jesus conquered death in fulfillment of your promises. Thus, as we live today, root us in your sovereign ability to full all your promises. Amen.

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Footnotes

[1] Pete Hamill, Forward – The Obits: The New York Times Annual 2010 (11/1/11, Workman Publishing), p. xiii.  |  [2] Acts 21:11 ESV  |  [3] Acts 21:13 ESV  |  [4] Acts 23:23 ESV  |  [5] Acts 23:11 ESV  |  [6] See Job 42:2 and Isaiah 55:11.


The Collision of the Primary and Secondary Worlds

Relevant Text: Acts 20:22-24
Full Text: Neh. 10; Acts 20

Worlds | According to Tolkien, the “Primary World” is the world that we live in and the “Secondary World” is the world that we enter into when we read great stories [1]. In the Primary World, we want to be rational. When we’re inside the Secondary World, however, rationality flies out the window. The fantastic can become true.

Collision | In Jesus, however, the Primary and Secondary Worlds collided. The most fantastic story became true when the Lord Jesus willingly died on the cross for all humanity and then conquered death itself by rising from the grave. And Paul never got over it. Prompted by the Spirit, he preached the supernatural grace of God poured out on natural sinners. As he told the Ephesian elders, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me. But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God[2].

Longing | Our life in the Primary World is meaningful because the Secondary World is true [3]. On the surface, our culture worships naturalism – the belief that reality is confined to the material and observable. Yet, our hearts long for something more. This is why we love stories like Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings – for although our spiritual powers seem atrophied in the Primary World, we long for the Spirit’s supernatural powers of the Secondary World. And like Paul, we have Him in our hearts and in our midst, giving us the freedom and the discipline to testify to the gospel of the grace of God poured out on all the inhabitants of the Primary World who believe in Christ.

Prayer | Lord, Like children who read fairy-stories and ask with fullness of heart, “Is it true?”, we read the story of Jesus and ask, “Is it true?” The reality of the gospel seems almost too wonderful to believe because it reaches beyond our rational thinking. Therefore, open our imaginations and our eyes of faith to believe it so that we may have your Spirit within us. Amen.

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Footnotes

[1] JRR Tolkien, On Fairy Stories.  |  [2] Acts 20:22-24 ESV  |  [3] See 1 Cor. 15:19

What is the great tragedy of the Christian life?

Relevant Text: Neh. 9:17
Full Text: Neh. 9; Acts 19

Tragedy | The great tragedy of the Christian life is not our sin – for no matter what we have done, Jesus has dealt with it: “Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” [1]. The great tragedy is that the Evil One uses our guilt to make us feel small and insignificant. Rather than recognizing the awesome call upon our lives – to know God and enjoy Him forever [2] – we have a persistent sense of unworthiness. In other words, our biggest problem is not that we sin (that is to be expected!). Our biggest problem is that we don’t know how to deal with our sin so that we’re not coasting into spiritual mediocrity.

Hope | When Ezra read the Law, the people mourned because they had failed to obey God for a long time. Yet, Ezra said: “Do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength” [3]. Then they fasted and worshiped, as Ezra prayed for them. Yes, he confessed their sin: “Our fathers acted presumptuously and stiffened their neck and did not obey your commandments … and were not mindful of the wonders that you performed” [4]. But he also acknowledged that their sin was not the final word; God’s grace was: You are a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and did not forsake them. Even when they had made for themselves a golden calf … and had committed great blasphemies, you in your great mercies did not forsake them” [5]. They were great sinners; but the Lord their God was a great Savior.

Prayer | Lord, Your boundless grace is the basis of your covenantal love for us. Not only will you never forsake us because of our sin, you will forgive us with kindness and mercy again and again. Therefore, when the Evil One tries to exploit our sin through guilt, we can say to him: “Rejoice not over me, O my enemy; when I fall, I shall rise … I will bear the indignation of the Lord because I have sinned against him, until he pleads my cause and executes judgment for me. He will bring me out to the light; I shall look upon his vindication” [6]. Jesus is your vindication and, in him, we rejoice! Amen.

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Footnotes

[1] 1 Peter 3:18 ESV. See also 2 Cor. 5:21.  |  [2] Wikipedia, Westminster Shorter Catechism.  |  [3] Neh. 8:10 ESV  |  [4] Neh. 9:16-17 ESV  |  [5] Neh. 9:17-19 ESV  |  [6] Mic. 7:8-9 ESV


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