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“Go and report to John what you see and hear . . . that the poor have good news proclaimed to them!”

(Mt. 11:4-5)

 

What makes the poor poor? Surprisingly, it often has little to do with health, wealth, or station in life. There are many who have humble incomes, or who are sick in their bodies, or who live in obscurity, but who would never dream of calling themselves poor. In fact, despite their hard circumstances, they would tell you they feel quite rich.

That’s because real poverty–the kind Jesus has in mind–is spiritual. In particular, it is the poverty of hopelessness. No matter how much money we may have, or how many businesses or houses or lands or cars we may own, if we walk through this world without hope, we are paupers.

But to fully appreciate the good news that Jesus was speaking of, we need first to pause a moment and consider the bad.

Unless we enjoyed the special blessing of coming up in a Christian home, we enter this world and walk through it with no real hope. Yes, in many ways it’s a beautiful world, lavish with pleasures to receive and enjoy. And yes, for a season such goodness can stimulate worthy temporal hopes, whether of a good education, a happy family, a meaningful job, a solid income, etc.  Indeed, from time to time we cannot help but see the hand of a kind and loving Creator at work in such a world, bestowing both opportunity and blessing upon it.

Yet sooner or later we begin to realize that something is dreadfully wrong; that ours is also a mysteriously and maddeningly mixed world. For woven deep into the fabric of daily life are thick, dark strands of ignorance, confusion, fear, guilt, evil, injustice, suffering, and—hovering over them all—the all-consuming specter of death itself.

Just here is where we encounter our native spiritual poverty. For as we confront these enemies, we find we have no answers to the great questions they bring to our minds: Where did this world come from? Why are we even here? Is there any remedy for all this evil and suffering? What’s going to happen when I die? And in the end, what will become of the universe, life, and man?

Moreover, it’s not just these unanswerable questions that make us feel poor; it’s also our constant contact with the palpable realities of evil, suffering, and death themselves, together with our inability to defeat or even escape them in any permanent way. As these menacing opponents press in around us, we find we have not a penny’s worth of wisdom or power to push them back once and for all.

Here, then, is why the Gospel is such astonishingly good news: It equips us to confront and fight our enemies with confidence and joy, and to win!

How exactly does this work? It works because in the Gospel God gives us “exceedingly wonderful” truths, exceedingly wonderful promises, and through them both, exceedingly wonderful hope!

For consider: In the Gospel God reveals the origin of evil, suffering, and death, taking us back to the sin and fall of man, and to a curse that He himself wisely placed upon the whole creation, with the result that all things are now subject to decay and futility. But then He gives us a countervailing hope by taking us to Christ, and by showing us that on the cross He freely suffered the penalty of our sin, so that we, by simple faith , might enjoy forgiveness and eternal spiritual life in Him.

But that is only the beginning, for now the good news gets better and better as we encounter more and more of the hope it gives. Thus, through the study of Scripture we learn that God will never leave us or forsake us; that in every circumstance He is working all things for our good; that in this process He is gradually conforming us to the image of His Son; that at the moment of death our spirits, now perfected, will ascend into heaven, where we will see and rejoice in Him; that at the end of the age Christ will return to join our spirits with glorious new resurrection bodies; and that in those bodies we will forever worship and live with the Triune God in a fabulously beautiful new World to Come. In that day, He who bore the curse of death for us will lift the curse from all things, once and for all.

The Bible refers to these as LIVING hopes. In part, that means the more we ponder them, the more they grow; and the more they grow, the more they crowd out fear, sorrow, and pain, rendering the momentary light afflictions of this present life unworthy to be compared with the glories that will soon be revealed to us.

In short, whatever  our physical circumstances may be, we become spiritually rich as our inner treasure chest is increasingly filled with the pure gold of Gospel hope!

These truths, these promises, and these hopes are the good news Jesus proclaimed to the poor. And despite the vast material wealth of our modern world, the poor are still very much with us today. Let us remember that fact, no matter how rich or happy people may look; and let us remember to proclaim the good news to such folks at every opportunity. Let us tell them, “Yes, in the world we will meet the painful mysteries of evil, suffering, and death; but in Christ Jesus we will meet the exceedingly wonderful HOPE of final victory over them all!”

The carnal mind is unable to comprehend this doctrine of the perseverance of the saints and the certainty thereof, which God has most abundantly revealed in His Word, for the glory of His Name and the consolation of pious souls, and which He impresses upon the hearts of the believers. Satan abhors it, the world ridicules it, the ignorant and hypocritical abuse it, and the heretics oppose it. But the bride of Christ has always most tenderly loved and constantly defended it as an inestimable treasure; and God, against whom neither counsel nor strength can prevail, will dispose her so to continue to the end. Now to this one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, be honor and glory forever. Amen.

Reverently: As though you were coming to God himself, for in a sense you are, since in and through these words, and these alone, God is pleased to speak to his people (1 Thess. 2, John Calvin)

Prayerfully: Recognizing that we can do nothing—including understanding, enjoying, and rightly responding to Scripture—apart from him (John 15, Eph. 1)

Slowly: As though you were walking arm in arm with your beloved down a beautiful country lane, having a deep heart-to-heart talk; and stopping to linger over any word, phrase, verse, or thought to which the Spirit of your Beloved seems to be pointing (Luke 24)

Meditatively: Scanning the sky of your mind for the sudden appearance of biblical cross-references, memories, quotes, or images of everyday objects and events—anything that seems to illuminate the word, phrase, or verse you are reading (Psalm 1)

Expectantly: Waiting on spiritual tip-toe for new insights—or a holy rekindling of old insights—as though a storm were on the horizon, and you were watching for lightning and listening for thunder (1 Kings 18)

Believingly: Remembering that he is still teaching in the temple daily, that he has declared himself the Rewarder of all who diligently seek him, and that it is actually a mark of healthy faith to let him know, respectfully, that you are counting on it! (Luke 19, Hebrews 11)

Responsively: Praying, thanking, singing, dancing, kneeling, repenting, re-committing, delighting, calling, writing, going, or otherwise responding to the specific move of the Spirit in your heart as you read (Acts 2)

Joyfully: Choosing at all times—even in a seemingly dry Quiet Time—to celebrate the fact that he is eternally and immutably rejoicing over all who are in Christ; and cheerfully expressing confidence that if the promised blessing has not yet reached your heart, it surely will, in a time that Wisdom and Love have specially chosen for you (Zephaniah 3, Luke 15)

Wisely: Knowing that ours is a God who tests his people, to see if they will love him for who he is, and not simply for the good feelings he can give them; and that he is pleased to train them, sometimes with tough love, in this higher form of love for him (John 6)

Faithfully: Going out early every morning onto the broad plain of Scripture to gather up your meal of Manna, confident that it—and he—is waiting for you there (Exodus16)

The Lord is not delaying his promise in the way some people think about delays,

but is longsuffering toward you, not desiring that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.

(1 Peter 5:9)

 

Here is a thoughtful theological note from the editors of the NET Bible, one that not only sheds light on a difficult text, but also carries us deeper into the heart of God, teaching us to love all, be patient with all, and desire that all might be saved.

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This verse has been a battleground between Arminians and Calvinists. The former argue that God wants all people to be saved, but either through inability or restriction of his own sovereignty does not interfere with peoples’ wills. Some of the latter argue that the “any” here means “any of you” and that all the elect will repent before the return of Christ, because this is God’s will.

Both of these positions have problems. The “any” in this context means “any of you.” (This can be seen by the dependent participle which gives the reason why the Lord is patient “toward you.”) There are hints throughout this letter that the readership may be mixed, including both true believers and others who are “sitting on the fence” as it were. But to make the equation of this readership with the elect is unlikely. This would seem to require, in its historical context, that all of these readers would be saved. But not all who attend church know the Lord or will know the Lord. Simon the Magician, whom Peter had confronted in Acts 8, is a case in point. This is evident in contemporary churches when a pastor addresses the congregation as “brothers, sisters, saints, etc.,” yet concludes the message with an evangelistic appeal. When an apostle or pastor addresses a group as “Christian” he does not necessarily think that every individual in the congregation is truly a Christian.

Thus, the literary context seems to be against the Arminian view, while the historical context seems to be against (one representation of) the Calvinist view.

The answer to this conundrum is found in the term “wish” (a participle in Greek from the verb boulomai). It often represents a mere wish, or one’s desiderative will, rather than one’s resolve or purpose. Unless God’s will is viewed on the two planes of his desiderative and decretive will (what he desires and what he decrees), hopeless confusion will result. The scriptures amply illustrate both that God sometimes decrees things that he does not desire and desires things that he does not decree. It is not that his will can be thwarted, nor that he has limited his sovereignty. But the mystery of God’s dealings with humanity is best seen if this tension is preserved. Otherwise, either God will be perceived as good but impotent or as a sovereign taskmaster. Here the idea that God does not wish for any to perish speaks only of God’s desiderative will, without comment on his decretive will.

 

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

Heb. 11:1

 

It’s midnight in the mountains, and you’re sound asleep in your cabin. Suddenly you’re awakened by a strong desire to get up, go outside, and look at the sky. You do, and to your amazement it’s pitch black. All around you is inky darkness; you are adrift, dizzy, almost nauseated in a sea of nothingness. You rush back into the cabin, turn on the light, and anxiously wait for the dawn, wondering if you’ve gone mad.

The next night, the same thing happens. But fearful though you are, when the impulse to go outside comes upon you, you obey it. Once again the sky overhead is a sea of darkness. This time, however, something is different. This time you notice a single star, twinkling in the heights above. Though you are still afraid and shaken by the strangeness of the sky, the tiny star brings a measure of comfort, even joy. “Strange,” you say to yourself, “how such a small a thing can dominate such big a thing, and calm my fears in the process.” Fascinated, you stay outside for half an hour, gazing at that one little star.

In the weeks ahead, this scenario repeats itself, but with an important difference: Each time you go outside there are new stars. Eagerly you scan the heavens to find them. Appreciatively, you notice the slight variations in their size, shape, and color. Delightfully, you discover that with each new addition, constellations are taking shape before your eyes; that the various shapes in the heavens—objects, animals, men, women, events—seem to be speaking to one another, and to you as well; that they seem to be telling a great story, the gist of which is slowly—all too slowly—coming into focus in your mind.

And something else is happening. Each time you go outside, you realize the stars are now casting a heavenly light on earthly things; earthly things you thought you saw clearly beneath the light of the sun, but which now, beneath the light of the stars, are quietly, willingly, even joyfully disclosing to you new forms and features you had failed to see before. Indeed, it is now becoming a passion with you to see how the old world is touched and unveiled by this new light. Not that you no longer enjoy the daytime; to the contrary, now you look for it more expectantly than ever, eager to examine in the light of day what you previously beheld in the light of night. Nevertheless, something mysterious and something profoundly important is happening; for as much as you still love the day, it is the call of the night that has captured your imagination. Now your spirit hungers and thirsts to rise and go in search of new stars and new constellations, even as you pause over and again to see how the earth is reflecting and echoing the unfolding story of heaven.

Finally, it all becomes clear: There is a heavenly Someone, a divine Awakener whose loving purpose is to introduce you to a whole new world; indeed, his loving purpose is actually to change your very place of residence, spiritually speaking. Yes, day by day you still walk the earth beneath the light of the sun. But henceforth, because of the super-added light of the stars, you realize that from now on your true home is in the sky.

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Such, I think, is the message of Hebrews 11:1, a verse of Scripture that sets the stage for a roll call of the saints of old, men and women who obtained a glowing testimony from God because of their tenacious faith in unseen things that the invisible God was pleased to reveal to them. Indeed, whether we think of Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, David, Isaiah, John the Baptist, the Sons of Thunder, Peter, Paul, or any other saints of the times before our own, it is always the same story:

The Lord Himself came to them in the pitch darkness of their spiritual night. He placed a single star—a single truth, a single revelation, a single promise—in the sky of their mind. In so doing, He assured them of something devoutly to be hoped for; He convinced them of something altogether unseen by the eye of flesh, yet utterly real to the eye of faith. So day by day (and night by night) they steadily gazed, through the window of Scripture, upon that star. And as they did, more such stars began to appear, and constellations as well, until at last they found themselves dwelling beneath a mighty tapestry of divine revelation comprised of story, teaching, law, warning, promise, proverb, poetry, letter, faith, hope, and love; a vast tapestry of heavenly truth that overshadowed, bathed, and illuminated the things of earth, disclosing the ultimate meanings buried deep within them all. Finally, these saints realized that they were no longer at home in the earth, but at home in the sky; that from now on their pilgrim bodies were simply making their way to a world where their hearts and minds already lived; and that one day soon, the Lord himself, descending from above, would fully drape the great tapestry of heavenly light over a whole new earth, so that heaven, earth, sky, and light will all at last be one.