Dear ICB family,
On Sunday on the basis of Joseph and Jesus I argued that even when the devil, our enemies, the world, or our own flesh intends us harm by doing evil to us, at the very same time, in the very same act, God intends that evil for good.
That's what Joseph explicitly says to his brothers: "You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good" (Gen. 50:20 NIV).
In other words, when Joseph's brothers sold him into slavery, their intentions and purposes were evil. In that very same act, God's intentions and purposes for Joseph were good.
We see the same dynamic in Acts 4:27–28. After Peter and John were released from prison, they gather with other believers and pray, and that prayer includes these two breathtaking sentences: "Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen."
That is, Herod, Pilate, the Gentiles, and the people of Israel intended nothing but evil when they put the innocent Son of God to death. God, however, intended that very same evil act for good, namely, to provide salvation for the world.
After the service on Sunday, someone asked me a very good question: It's clear that God intended evil acts for good in the cases of Joseph and Jesus. That's what the texts say. However, is it appropriate to apply these particular instances to us today and say that when we face evil, God intends those evil acts for good, too? Are there any cases when we should simply say that evil happened and God did not intend that evil to happen for good purposes?
That is an excellent question that I think deserves a lot more attention than what I gave it in the sermon on Sunday. Am I taking a leap by saying that since God intended the evil perpetrated against Joseph and Jesus for good, God also intends the evil that happens to us today for good?
I don't think I gave the dear brother who asked the question a very good answer, so I'd like to try to do better here.
In short, I do think we can say that in any and all evil perpetrated against us today, God intends those evil acts for ultimate good. And I'd like to give you some reasons why.
I want to preface all this by saying that I tread very lightly here. We're looking into some of the deepest mysteries of the universe. I chose to end the service with the doxology from Romans 11 on purpose to highlight that very fact. Yet, I do believe the Bible gives us some help in answering this question. In what follows I'll examine some of that evidence.
Second Corinthians 4:17 says, "For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison" (ESV).
In the context, the "troubles" Paul has in mind are things like being "afflicted in every way" (4:8), being "perplexed" (4:8), being "persecuted" (4:9), being "struck down" (4:9), carrying "in the body the death of Jesus" (4:10), "being given over to death for Jesus' sake" (4:11), and having "death… at work in us" (4:12).
It's clear that those afflicting, perplexing, persecuting, and striking Paul down, causing him to carry Jesus' death around in his own body and experiencing death at work in him, were doing so with evil intentions. They meant what they did for evil.
But then notice that in 4:17 Paul says that it's those kinds of afflictions that are "preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison." In other words, it's as if the afflictions have another intention or purpose in mind, namely, to prepare for us something that is so big and glorious we can't even begin to compare it with anything else. Such an intention is very much good!
Now, obviously the afflictions themselves do not have a will. They themselves are merely acts committed by other people. That means that they in and of themselves cannot intend anything good or evil. Only those committing the acts can have an intention one way or the other. So while the people carrying out the afflictions are clearly intending evil by what they do, we must ask the question, "Who or what is intending those afflictions for good?"
We could answer that by saying that there is some mysterious force in the universe at work that takes afflictions and intends those very evil afflictions for good. Or we could say that God himself intends evil afflictions for good. I'm inclined toward the second of those two options.
Does not James 1:2–4 follow this very same logic?
"Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing."
Again, James says that the testing of your faith (that is, "trials of various kinds") produces steadfastness. It is not hard to conclude that those bringing about the various trials that we encounter in our lives intend evil by doing so. Yet James' words almost sound like the trials have some sort of will in and of themselves and intend to produce such steadfastness. Of course, the trials themselves are not capable of possessing a will.
So, as was the case in 1 Corinthians 4, we're left asking who or what does in fact intend the trials of various kinds for the good end of producing steadfastness which leads a person to being perfect and complete, lacking in nothing? Certainly not the ones inflicting the trials. I conclude that our being perfect and complete is God's intention in the various trials we face. (I would argue the same dynamic is at work in 1 Peter 1:6–9.)
Lastly, I would point to Romans 8:28: "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose" (NIV).
Compare the NIV with the ESV:
"And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose" (ESV).
Which is it? Do all things "work together for good" (ESV), or is it that "in all things God works for the good" (NIV)?
The Greek grammar allows for either translation. We can understand the text to be saying that the things themselves work together for good, or we can understand the text to be saying that God is the one who actively works them together for good.
In the end, I think we arrive at the same conclusion, namely, that it is in fact God who actively and intentionally works all things together for good, including Joseph's being sold into slavery by his brothers, the death of Jesus, and any of the various trials that you face day in and day out.
I say that it must be God who intends all things—even evil—ultimately for good because even if we go with the ESV's rendering of the verse ("all things work together for good"), if you don't conclude that it's God who is doing that, you're left having to credit the fact that all things work together for good to some cosmic force, as if the things in and of themselves have the ability to achieve their desired good end somehow apart from God.
I feel much more confident saying that, even if the ESV represents what Paul intended (and again, the grammar can go either way), ultimately it is God who brings about good in all things, even evil. And that is a blanket statement that applies equally to us today as it did to Joseph and Jesus.
So those are my reasons why I would say that I am justified applying these verses about Joseph and Jesus to us today. I do really think that, given enough time—perhaps in some cases not until eternity—we'll be able to look back at all the evil we faced and conclude that God intended that very evil for good.
I'll say that that does not mean God commits evil. Evil human beings commit evil. I'm simply saying that in some mysterious way, God intends even evil to accomplish good: like the salvation of God's people from a famine, or the salvation of the world from their sins, or an eternal weight of glory that is beyond all comparison, or our steadfastness which makes us perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.
I'll end where I ended on Sunday. I believe this is true. I believe this is amazingly comforting and hope-filled. My enemies, the world, my flesh, and Satan himself cannot throw anything at me that God does not intend for good.
However, that fact doesn't always feel very comforting, especially when the pain is still so sharp.
So let's not be quick to take these glorious truths and shove them down people's throats when they're hurting. Let's be patient. Let's weep with those who weep. Let's be quick to hear and slow to speak. Let us speak truth, but let's do it when it might be best received, and that might take some time. Perhaps a lot of time.
Be encouraged, dear brothers and sisters. God intends your good.
Grace and peace,
What is the purpose of clothing? People wear clothes for many different reasons: to cover one's shame, to identify with a certain tribe, to protect in the workplace, to attract, to repel, to disguise, to impress, to oppress and for many other reasons.
In the story of Joseph and his family there is a lot of detail about clothing. It all starts with Rebecca who instructed Jacob to wear the clothes of his older sibling to disguise himself as Esau so that he could steal the blessing from Isaac his father.
Rebekah took the best garments of Esau her older son, which were with her in the house, and put them on Jacob her younger son. Gen 27:15
There is a fair irony in the way that Jacob’s deception of his father is mirrored in Laban’s deception of Jacob. The trickster is tricked. One sibling is substituted for the other and receives a blessing while being disguised. Jacob deceived his father and Laban deceived Jacob.
But in the evening [Laban] took his daughter Leah and brought her to Jacob, and he went in to her. …And in the morning, behold, it was Leah! Gen 29:23-25
Then as if there had not been enough deception, camouflage and disguise as a consequence of siblings wearing clothing that was not theirs to wear, Jacob made an ornate robe for his favourite son Joseph and the atmosphere in the family chilled to a cold hatred. It was not the wisest of gifts and to wear it was not the wisest decision!
Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his sons, because he was the son of his old age. And he made him a robe of many colours. Gen 37:3
The hatred, which is fuelled by Joseph’s two dreams, festers and the brothers sell Joseph into slavery in Egypt. Reuben had been hoping to rescue the lad from the malicious grip of his other brothers, but they had already sold the 17-year-old favourite into exile in the land of the pyramids. Look at the numerous references to clothing in the next paragraph:
When Reuben returned to the pit and saw that Joseph was not in the pit, he tore his clothes and returned to his brothers and said, “The boy is gone, and I, where shall I go?” Then they took Joseph's robe and slaughtered a goat and dipped the robe in the blood. And they sent the robe of many colours and brought it to their father and said, “This we have found; please identify whether it is your son's robe or not.” And he identified it and said, “It is my son's robe. A fierce animal has devoured him. Joseph is without doubt torn to pieces.” Then Jacob tore his garments and put sackcloth on his loins and mourned for his son many days. Gen 37:29-34
Meanwhile, Joseph is sold to the captain of the guard in Egypt. This man prospers because the Lord is with Joseph but his wife has a different plan for this new slave in the family. Her attempt at seduction fails, but once again Joseph loses his coat! That lad leaves his clothes all over the place.
Joseph goes to jail and via the interpretation of dreams eventually comes before pharaoh and is appointed as a ruler over the whole land of Egypt. And what does Pharaoh do?
Pharaoh took his signet ring from his hand and put it on Joseph's hand, and clothed him in garments of fine linen and put a gold chain about his neck. Gen 41:42
Here we are, right back at the beginning, Joseph is wearing fine garments which identify him as the favourite, the one who rules, the special one! There must have been a sense of déjà vu as the robes of pharaoh were placed on Joseph's shoulders and again when Joseph's brothers came to buy grain and bowed down before him.
There is something very reminiscent of the whole plan of salvation in the Joseph story. Jesus shared the glory of the Father, laid aside that glory, emptied himself, became subject to death, then rose again, laid aside the death clothes, is once again clothed in glory and it is his prayer that we shall share in his glory (John 17:24). Is this not what was modelled when he washed the disciples feet? (John 13) Jesus got up from the table and laid aside his clothing (left his Father in heaven and laid aside his glory), wrapped a towel round his waist (adopted the role of a servant), washed the feet of his disciples (made them clean by an act of submission), then when he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments he resumed his place (he took up his renewed glory and ascended to the throne of God.
Joseph’s brothers stripped him, threw him into a cistern, sold him into slavery in Egypt, but towards the end of the story he says, “..it was not you who sent me here, but God. You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” (Gen 45:8 and 50:20) Jesus was sold, stripped, laid in a hewn tomb and although Herod, the Romans and his own people conspired together to murder him, they only achieved what God had originally intended (Acts 4:27-28), the salvation of many.
This theme of clothing, attempted disguise and camouflage, lost clothing, covering nakedness and re-clothing is one that starts in the garden of Eden and finishes in the holy city, the new Jerusalem. The divine question in Genesis 3:11 is, "Who told you you were naked?" Then in Genesis 3: 21 we read that, “..the Lord God then made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them.”
At the other end of the Bible, in Revelation 3:18, there is an invitation from the risen Lord Jesus to, “…buy from me white clothes to wear, so that you can cover your shameful nakedness!”
I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” Rev 7:9-10
I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. Rev 21:2
So then, dear brothers and sisters, “…let us put off the old self, which belongs to our former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of our minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” Eph 4:22-24
Because you have said, “We have made a covenant with death,
Dear ICB family,
Notice how this single, very long sentence is structured: "Because you have said…; therefore thus says the Lord God…."
So what did Israel say?
As Pastor Neil commented on Sunday, they said they'd taken out an insurance policy against death. They'd cut a deal to escape suffering and defeat. They'd decided to trust that nice-sounding lies could save them.
Because they said all that, therefore, God had something to say in reply. What did God say?
God said he had laid down a new foundation for his people, something (or someone) to be believed. The foundation that God laid is as straight as an arrow and as strong as bedrock. It's not the kind of foundation that will produce so many of the precariously leaning walls that you see all around Bishkek. Righteousness is the plumb line, which is a string with a weight at the end used to see if a wall is actually straight or not. When the wall built upon this foundation is measured against God's righteousness, both the foundation and the wall will be found standing perfectly vertical. All lies will be knocked down, and all other insurance policies will be annulled.
Now what about the "because" and the "therefore"? Remember, the whole sentence is structured, "Because you have said…; therefore thus says the Lord God…." What is the logical connection here between what Israel said and what God said in reply?
A consistent theme across the book of Isaiah is the image of God looking down upon his people and looking for someone, anyone, to guide his people (51:18), to intercede for them (59:16), to declare his truth (48:14), to answer him when he called (50:2), to help and to uphold (63:5), yet in each case, God is left wanting. There is not a soul capable of standing for true righteousness and bringing ultimate salvation to God's people.
So what does God do? "So my own arm brought me salvation, and my wrath upheld me" (63:6).
In other words, precisely because no human being can or will save God's people, God rolls up his sleeves and goes about the task of saving them himself.
That is what we have here in Isaiah 28. God's people had begun trusting in everything but God to save them and had become utterly corrupt, so what does God do? He says, "I am the one who has laid a foundation in Zion." In other words, it is because no one else can lay such a foundation that God, in effect, looks down on his people and says, "Well, looks like it's down to me," and he grabs his trowel and gets to work himself.
This is the God we serve. It is because no one else can save that God himself therefore saves us. It is because we are all idolaters and trust in everything else but him that God sent the "precious cornerstone," Jesus the Christ, the Son of the living God, into the world to be his people's foundation. And what a glorious foundation of justice and righteousness it is, perfectly straight, unimaginably strong! No other foundation can compare.
And who is invited to build their lives upon this sure foundation? "Whoever believes will not be in haste." When you build on any other foundation, you'll spend your life scurrying about and fretting that your house is going to collapse. Not true for those who, by faith, build here. They find rest.
So come. Stop trying to take out your own insurance policies, and admit that precisely because you've already done so God himself must be the one to save you or you're lost. And then allow yourself to be blown away by God's kindness, the kindness that sees all your alliances with Egypt and yet lays a stone in Zion for God's people's foundation anyway. Trust in him, and therein find your rest.
Laura and I are thankful for such a foundation as we prepare to spend the next several months back in the US. We will miss you all, and we are already looking forward to returning.
Grateful that God grabbed his trowel,
Isaiah 28:14-19; 1 Peter 2:4-10
What does it mean to say that God is a rock? It means that God is dependable, reliable, strong, unchangeable, unmovable. Why, then, would you build your life on or trust in anything else?
Israel turned to trusting in other alliances, either with death or with other nations, instead of trusting in God, as Isaiah makes clear in Isaiah 28.
Christ has become the foundation upon which we as little stones are being built together into a spiritual house for God, as Peter says in 1 Peter 2.
Two ways to respond when the enemy is at the gate: alcohol or military alliances or to the living stone in Zion.
Peter says that there are two ways to respond to Jesus: as a stumbling block or as the foundation upon which you build your life.
Questions for personal reflection and/or group discussion
photo by Laura Evans
On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food.
Isaiah 25:6 ESV
Dear ICB family,
Sitting down and eating with another person is a universally recognized sign of communion and fellowship. You don't eat with just anyone. You eat with your family and friends. You eat with those whom your close to. And if it happens that you eat with someone that you don't know well, by the time dessert is served, you'll for sure know them better than you did during the appetizer.
God invites his people to his house for dinner.
Now stop and think for a moment: God invites his people to his house for dinner. Why? Isn't it obvious? God desires deep communion with them. What better, more natural place to forge a closer relationship with someone than around a table? So God throws a banquet and offers you a seat.
Can you imagine it? God wants fellowship with you. He's not asking you to stand outside in the cold and watch others enjoying a meal through the window. He's flung the door wide open and is calling you to come and sit down.
Notice John's words in 1 John 1:3: "[T]hat which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ."
Did you catch that? John says that the Word of life that he saw and heard and touched is what he's proclaiming so that his readers can have fellowship with the disciples and with the one with whom they have fellowship, which is none other than the Father and his Son Jesus Christ.
The fellowship that the disciples enjoy with God is the fellowship you're invited into.
If God threw a banquet, of course people like John and Peter and Mary would have a seat. Of course they have fellowship with the Father and with his Son. But do you see what John does at the beginning of his first epistle? He says that he's sharing this good news with his readers so that they can enter into the very same fellowship—in other words, so that they, too, can have a seat at the table. The fellowship that they enjoy with God is the fellowship you're invited into.
And John makes it clear how it is we can get our seat: "[T]he blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin" (1 John 1:7), and, "[I]f anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous" (1 John 2:1).
So come. The blood of Jesus has made a way. Jesus himself stands as your advocate before the Father. The table's been prepared. Abraham, Sarah, Moses, Ruth, David, Jeremiah, Mary, Peter, James, John, and Paul—they all have their seats, of course. But John insists there's still room. So come. The Spirit and the bride are calling (Rev. 22:17).
Amazed to have a seat at God's table,
Isaiah 25:1-9; Matthew 8:5-13
The invitation to the feast in Isaiah 25 is for all people, including Roman centurions and including you.
The cross is framed by four meals: Mary's anointing Jesus' feet, the last supper, a meal in Emmaus after the resurrection, and a fish barbeque on a Galilean beach.
All these meals are looking forward to the marriage feast of the lamb in Rev. 19. You are invited.
Questions for personal reflection and/or group discussion
photo by Laura Evans
I will sit on the mount of assembly in the far reaches of the north.
Isaiah 14:13 ESV
Dear ICB family,
A person's will is his or her desire, wish, disposition, passion, choice, determination, or inclination. It's what a person wants. It's what a person has resolved to do. It's what a person is inclined to choose.
It's the direction a person has decided to go. It's the decision a person has made. It's the path down which a person has determined to walk.
The problem with humanity—one that goes all the way back to the Garden of Eden—is that we are obsessed with our own wills. We love our wills. We prize our wills. We think that what we have decided is the best idea that has ever been in the history of good ideas.
The problem with humanity is that we are obsessed with our own wills.
This is precisely where Adam and Eve went wrong. God had told them what his will was. Adam and Eve thought they had a better idea.
And what is the root of such a thought? It is pure, unmitigated pride. We think we know better. We think we can decide better. We think our value system is superior to God's. We think our desires define what is good and should be universally adopted. We think that what we are naturally disposed to is—due only to the fact that we want it—right.
In Isaiah 14 we are met with a stunning portrait of such pride: "I will ascend to heaven…. I will set my throne on high…. I will sit on the mount of assembly…. I will ascend above the heights of the clouds…. I will make myself like the Most High."
In this passage, in no uncertain terms, a lowly created being is asserting his will. He is declaring that what he has decided will come to pass, and he is declaring that he himself is capable of making that happen. He is kicking God off his throne and sitting down in his place as the one true sovereign over the future.
In that sense, then, the "I will" statements in Isaiah 14 are not all that different from James 4:13: "Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit."
Yet again we find finite creatures talking as if they could command their own destinies. Yet again mere created beings are taking God's place by claiming authority over what does not pertain to them. And pride is the root problem in both instances.
Do you love your will, or do you love God's will?
What remedy does God's word hold out to such pride? Isaiah reminds the devil and all those who follow in his steps that he will one day be brought down, humiliated, and sentenced to death (14:15–21).
James reminds his readers that "you do you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, 'If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.' As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil" (3:14–16).
Do you love your will, or do you love God's will? How I long to be able to pray "Father, your will be done" and mean it! How I long to truly desire his will no matter what that is, no matter how hard his will might prove to be, no matter how much it conflicts with my own natural desires!
How I long to be given a new will and God-given desires and Spirit-wrought wishes and holy dispositions and sanctified passions and heavenly inclinations! Oh that I could say with Jesus, "My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work" (John 4:34).
And may that be true of you, too.
Grace and peace,
Isaiah 14; Luke 10:17-24
Evil is real in the world, and it was the pride of Satan that first introduced this evil into God's creation.
However, Jesus has conquered the evil one, and one day every knee will bow before him. So get up!
Questions for personal reflection and/or group discussion
photo by Laura Evans
[Jesus] for the joy that was set before him endured the cross.
Hebrews 12:2 ESV
Dear ICB family,
Every once in a while a pair of biblical texts are held up side by side, and in the space of a moment their peculiar juxtaposition causes words you've read a hundred times to jump off the page and surge with new meaning. That happened for me this past Sunday when Pastor Neil read John 17:24 in the context of Hebrews 12:2.
Hebrews 12:2 says that Jesus "for the joy that was set before him endured the cross." It was the Father's promise of eternal joy that sustained Jesus in the very darkest hours of his life and of human history.
Then Pastor Neil, asking the question, "What exactly was Jesus looking forward to?", read John 17:24. There Jesus prays, "Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world."
Does the thought that one day I will get to see Jesus in all his glory fill me with anywhere near the kind of joy that it afforded Jesus?
Part of the Son's joy was the knowledge that one day his blood-bought people would be able to see his glory with unveiled faces, as it truly is, in all its splendor, and that thought was so overwhelmingly powerful in his mind that it was enough to convince him to march up Calvary's hill with his face set like flint, willingly stretch out his arms, and die the most horrible death ever conceived by any civilization in the history of mankind.
And here's the question that pierced me through: Does the thought that one day I will get to see Jesus in all his glory fill me with anywhere near the kind of joy that it afforded Jesus? Does what I find joyful match what Jesus found so joyful that it carried him through the crucifixion? Would such joy sustain me in the face of unbearable loss, unimaginable sacrifice, even death?
It is meant to.
I can bow my head in obedience to whatever my Lord may ask of me, just like Jesus bowed his head in obedience to what his Father had asked of him, because of the unshakable confidence that there is "joy unspeakable and full of glory" on the other side (as the old hymn I used to sing at church as a little boy has it; see 1 Peter 1:8).
Do whatever you must to rivet your mind on that truth and hold onto it with all your might. There are a thousand lesser joys that surround you moment by moment in this life. Most of them are good things in and of themselves. But they won't sustain you when you're getting your back whipped, a ring of thorns pressed into your forehead, and your hands driven through with nails. They won't hold out much hope when you get that most dreaded phone call or the oncology report or news on par with the kind that Job received that day in Uz.
I can bow my head in obedience to whatever my Lord may ask of me because of the unshakable confidence that there is joy on the other side.
You're going to need something that brings you even more joy than sunsets, a child's laughter, or your spouse's touch in moments like those. And when Jesus looked around at what he could set his gaze on, he chose to look into the future and, based on the promises of God, set his sights on the reality that one day his people would get to see him in all his glory. With that hope burning within him, he allowed every last ounce of his dignity to be stripped away and every last human comfort to be denied him. The joy of that hope got him through.
And it's meant to get you through. All the way to the very end in fact. Such a joy is big enough. It's already been tested and has proven its worth. And it's offered to you. If only you would be able to count the hope of one day looking on the risen and glorified Christ with your own eyes as more joyful and longed for than any other joy you could ever imagine.
Grace, peace, and joy to you,