Signs, Wisdom, and the Word of Christ pt. 1

Yes, yes, I know I still haven’t completed my series on “The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment”. but during Winter Break I wanted to write a short two part series called “Signs, Wisdom, and the Word of Christ”. I’m hoping to deal with a question that I’m sure many of us have wondered about, which is: if God is real, why doesn’t he do miracles so that it would be easier for us to have faith? This topic has been floating around in my head for awhile, and I’ve been meaning to write about it. The first post will be on the wisdom of God in making Christ his definitive sign for us. My second post will be on the Word of God as the means by which we encounter Christ. My aim is to affirm that Christ and the Scriptures which reveal him are sufficient to answer our doubts. My thoughts here are not by own, but are largely drawn from sermons that I’ve listened to.

If God is real why doesn’t he show himself in some great miracle so that it would be easier for us to believe?

Whenever I’ve pondered this question, I’ve always thought about the Sunday School story in which Elijah goes head to head against the false prophets of Baal . In that story, God shows up and proves that he is the true God in dramatic fashion– by calling down fire from heaven to consume Elijah’s offering. I always thought to myself, “Well, why doesn’t he do something like that today?” Imagine if every time someone asked you for concrete proof for your faith, you could pray and incinerate stuff with fire. It would be a pretty convincing evangelistic tool, huh? Or imagine if whenever I’m having doubts about God’s nearness to me or his goodness, or anything else. Same deal. I could just pray and fire would come down and light my house ablaze (in an un-burning bush kind of way, of course) to reassure me. Problem solved.

In my heart, I’ve always wished for this kind of dramatic, foolproof sign. My thought process works likes this: “if I could only some definitive and miraculous sign, then surely every doubt would be erased and I could live wholeheartedly for God. But because I only have the Gospel and the Bible I’m doomed to struggle with doubt my whole life”. Thankfully, a sermon by Ligon Duncan at last year’s T4G (and originally a similar sermon by Mohler which I can’t find) helped correct my understanding of the story of Elijah and affirm to my heart God’s wisdom in giving us the Gospel. I encourage you to listen to the whole sermon since there’s parts of the sermon– especially God’s severe but flat-out-crazy love for Elijah (It made me cry, haha)– that I won’t be able to touch on in this post. You can find the video here

Duncan’s sermon does not deal not with Elijah calling down fire and crushing the false prophets, the part of the story which I was accustomed to learning about in Sunday school, but rather with the aftermath of Elijah’s victory. I found out that I didn’t know the whole story.  In 1 Kings 19,  immediately after Elijah’s decisive victory over the false prophets, Jezebel issues a death warrant for Elijah. And what happens? Elijah is forced to shamefully flee for his life. One chapter after witnessing God call down fire from heaven, we find a distraught, despondent, and hopeless Elijah in chapter 19. In vs. 4 he even “asked the Lord that he might die, saying, “it is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers”

Why was Elijah so crushed? Well, it was because even though Elijah was a man of God, his thinking wasn’t too far off from my own. He was holier than me, certainly– he wanted with all his heart for Israel to repent and turn back, but the way he wanted it to happen was through a “spectacular demonstration” of God’s power. Elijah knew the seriousness of Israel’s sin and idolatry, and he knew it would take something major to turn their hearts back to God. And so he reasoned that if Israel saw a great and miraculous sign from God, then Israel would turn back. Then the people would repent from their sins. Then they would worship God in spirit and truth. And so, Elijah labored throughout his whole ministry to see something miraculous like this happen. Then it happens, his wish comes true and fire rains down from the sky, but Israel still remained unmoved. When the death warrant comes, Elijah realizes that everything he hoped for has come crashing down. And so, this man who lived his whole life for God’s glory was absolute crushed.

Duncan explains the Elijah’s sudden change in heart like this:

Because Elijah had yearned for one thing and one thing only, as far as we know, through the whole course of his existence as a prophet of the Lord—he wanted to see God glorified in Israel. He wanted Israel to turn back to God. It wanted repentance. He wanted conversion. He wanted to be the instrument of conversion and restoration in Israel so Israel glorified God. Then he gets a message saying he’s going to be dead this time tomorrow. He realizes: It’s not going to happen the way I dreamed. It’s not going to happen.

Afterwards, a weeping Elijah goes and hides in a cave. He has no desire or strength to live. Then, an angel of the Lord comes and asks him to go out to the mount of the Lord where this happens:

And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. 12 And after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a low whisper.13 And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And behold, there came a voice to him and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

In these verses, we see all of the spectacular displays of God’s glory that Elijah wanted and which he thought would save Israel. A great and strong wind,an earthquake, a fire, but notice the Lord is not in any of them. God is teaching Elijah that though he is more than capable of these glorious miraculous displays of power, that is not the way he will answer the desire of Elijah’s heart to see true revival in Israel. When the Lord finally comes the text says it is not with great winds, earthquakes, or fire, but in the sound of a still small whisper.

And right there, the story seems to ends. God, after asking Elijah why he’s gone to hide in the cave, shelves him and replaces him with another prophet. Elijah ends his ministry and life as a crushed and despondent man, who wanted to see God’s glory revealed and Israel to turn back, but never got to see it. But, although Elijah’s career as a prophet was finished, his story was still not over. Did God forget about his servant Elijah? Of course not. Check out Kings 2:1-14. Elijah loved and longed for the spectacular, and how did God choose to bring his sorrowful servant home? In style, on chariots of fire!  More importantly, did God forget about the desire of Elijah’s heart? to see God’s glory revealed and to see sinners return to God?

Of course not. We see  Elijah show up again in Luke 9:28-30 at the Transfiguration:

28 Now about eight days after these sayings he took with him Peter and John and James and went up on the mountain to pray. 29 And as he was praying, the appearance of his face was altered, and his clothing became dazzling white. 30 And behold, two men were talking with him, Moses and Elijah, 31 who appeared in glory and spoke of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.

And man, it’s stories like these where I think to myself there’s no way men could have made this up. Because you see Elijah a man who always wanted to see God’s glory revealed. But, in his earthly wisdom, he wanted it come in fire, whirlwinds, and earthquakes. He thought that if people could see God’s glory through the spectacular, they would love and cherish him. But God, in his wisdom, knew better. He knew that signs and wonders would amaze people, but never bring them back to a true relationship with him. That’s why, in Matthew 12, when the Pharisees ask, “Teacher we wish to see a sign from you”, Jesus answers, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.

Fire from the sky might wow unbelievers, but it would never lead them to repent of their sins and to worship God. It might assure me temporarily of God’s existence and power, but it can tell me nothing about his goodness, love, and the fact that he will never leave me nor forsake me. Our problem runs deeper than Elijah and I thought. We need more than to see fire fall from heaven. We are infinitely separated from God in our sinfulness and we need a Savior to come and take our place. We need Jesus to be crucified, buried, and resurrected for us to be reconciled to God. That Gospel, and that gospel alone, can change the atheist’s heart and can assure the struggling believer that God is forever near.

And so, God chose to reveal his glory, not through raw strength and power, but through his Son; not in the spectacular, as he did when he called down fire from heaven, but, as it were, in a still small whisper. By allowing his son to born in a humble manger, live a humble life, and die a humble and lonely death. This is God’s glory, that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”

Do you see God’s wisdom in this? If we had it our way, we would have tried to save the world the same way Elijah wanted, with fire, earthquakes, and whirlwinds, but God has chosen to save us through the revelation of a single sign: the crucified Savior. As Paul puts it so eloquently, in 1 Corinthians 1:20-25:

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

As stated earlier, The aim of this post is to combat a dissatisfaction in the sufficiency of Christ for our doubts. I feel the temptation often to deal with my doubts with evidence outside of the Gospel. I often want a sign outside of the ultimate sign that God. Oh, may the Lord grant humility and spiritual sight to know that to gaze on Christ is all we need to sustain our faith!

Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high (Hebrews 1:1-3 ESV)

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The Tension of Faith

Years ago, a friend shared me with me the simple phrase: “Surely He is enough”. The phrase has stuck with me, and ever since I’ve unashamedly plagiarized it for my own use. The reason I love this phrase is because for me it encapsulates what I’ll call the tension of faith.

Faith is a tension.  It is a tension between believing God’s promises and struggling with the difficulties in life which seem to undermine the truth of those promises. Hebrews 11 famously captures it like this, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for; the conviction of things not seen.” This definition of faith is so familiar that we often mistake it for being effortless, but think about it. We are to be sure of things that we hope for? Convinced of things we can’t see? What about if our desires are withheld? What about when our plans fail? What about when I think about the future and feel utterly inadequate and lost? Faith doesn’t come easy when the rubber meets the road.

On the one hand, we’ve beheld the faithfulness of God in the Gospel of his Son. At the cross, we see a God who fulfills all his promises, and whose character we can trust. We trust that because he gave us his precious Son, he will continue to fulfill all his promises, past, present and future, and work everything for our good…But on the other hand, we still must face the difficulties of life. And oftentimes, our circumstances, feelings, sin, inadequacies and failings make God’s and his promises seem far off. As Christians, we face a constant battle to believe God’s promises instead of being overwhelmed by the difficulties we see with our earthly sight.

Which is why I love “Surely He is Enough” and other phrases like it because they simultaneously capture both parts of the tension: the promise and the difficulty. What do I mean? When I say “Surely He is Enough” I am expressing two things. First, I am affirming the truth of the promise. I am boldly preaching to my heart that this is a certainty, “O my soul, he is enough!” But I am also asking for God’s help to trust his promise in the difficulty. I am desperately praying to God, “O Lord, be enough for me! Because right now, if I’m honest, I’m not sure if you are enough. And it certainly doesn’t feel like you are. Be enough!” 

Through the years, I’ve found many phrases in Scripture expressing this tension of hope and struggle. “Hosanna!” Lord save us! The Lord will save us. The grieved father who cries, “I believe; help my unbelief!” and the psalmist who pleads, “let me not be put to shame” and then a verse later declares, “Indeed none who wait for you shall be put to shame” (Mark 9:24, Ps 25:2-3). There are the many rhetorical questions in scripture which capture this tension as well, expressing pain and struggle in the question, but certainty and hope in the obvious answer. The psalmist in Psalm 77:1-10 who reasons himself out of his depression with this logic:

“Will the Lord spurn forever, and never again be favorable? Has his steadfast love forever ceased? Are his promises at an end for all time? Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has he in anger shut up his compassion? Then I said, ‘I will appeal to this, to the years of the right hand of the Most High'”

And who can forget, Paul’s barrage of questions to the persecuted believers in Romans 8 which end in his breathtaking conclusion that nothing can separate us from the love of Christ?

“What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect?…who is to condemn?…who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?”

I love these phrases and questions because they they capture so well what it means to live by faith amidst difficulty. They don’t ignore the difficulty, the struggle, the bewilderment, but rather deal with those issues honestly. They tell us that during trials we are to do two things. First, we are to preach to our hearts out of confidence in God’s promises. We are to argue and reason with ourselves and to take ourselves in hand when we find ourselves slipping in to depression, anxiety, and unbelief. Second, we are to pray in desperation to God in those areas where our confidence is wavering. That is the simple solution to living by faith in hardship.

Do you see how practical and comforting this is for every season of the soul? At times, when we are walking strong in the faith we’ll be able to take the tension expressed earlier in Psalm 25 (“let me not be put to shame; indeed none wait on you shall be put to shame”) and say with confidence, as Paul did, “It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not at all be ashamed (Phil 1:20). In those seasons, let us continue to depend on the Lord through prayer, thanking him for our faith, and preaching to our souls all the day long the mercies of God. Other times, we’ll say “Hosanna” and the distance between “Lord, save us!” and the “Lord will save us” will feel so far that all we’ll want to do is break down and cry.

But even in those times when our faith seems to sink out of our sight, we still have tremendous strength. Why? Because our faith rests in God, and not in ourselves! Jesus’ words are profoundly true: “For truly I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.” When I am struggling in my faith, I can still preach to myself. Why? Because, even though everything seems all wrong and I feel all wrong, God’s promises are indisputably eternally incontrovertibly true and nothing in the world can change that. And even if I preach to myself and I find my heart full of unbelief, I can still pray. Why? Because my prayer is heard by omnipotent, all knowing, and infinitely loving God. It doesn’t matter how unbelieving I am so long as I fall into his hands. He can change my heart and uphold my faith.  Remember Peter when he looked at the wind and the waves and started to sink? At that point, he was seriously doubting whether Christ could make him walk on water. But what did he do? He cried out “Lord save me” and “Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him” (Matt 14:30).

So no matter what you and I go through as Christians, no matter how small our faith feels, let us embrace this tension of faith. Let us preach to ourselves the truth of God’s promises, and let us pray when we find our hearts are unbelieving. When we do that, we can be confident that our faithful God will guide and keep us. There will be times when this seems to be doing no good at all, but let us remember that our faith only dies when we give up. When we stop trying to preach to our despondent hearts the glory of Christ, when we stop praying for our unbelief,  that’s when we’ve lost.

Let us live in the tension of faith. Surely He is enough!