The Lord Has Become Like an Enemy

Most Christians don’t have a problem seeing God’s hand in the blessings of life. Give us a new job, a narrowly-avoided accident, or an energizing time with a friend and we’re eager to point to God as the giver.

It’s harder for us to see God bringing difficulty our way. How can we attribute bad circumstances to a good God?

The author of Lamentations did not have this modern problem. As he sits in the smoldering ruins of Jerusalem, he knows for a fact that God has done every bit of it.

So Much Devastation

The poet of Lamentations 2 looks around and sees his city destroyed. And though Babylon is directly responsible for the fires and the rubble, he knows this is God’s work.

God has “broken down” the defenses of the city (Lam 2:2) and “cut down” its might (Lam 2:3). He has “swallowed up all its palaces” and “laid in ruin its strongholds” (Lam 2:5).

Even the destruction of the temple can be traced back to the Lord. God “laid in ruin his meeting place” (Lam 2:6). He has “scorned his altar” and “disowned his sanctuary.” He delivered this holy building “into the hand of the enemy” and they “raised a clamor in the house of the Lord” (Lam 2:7).

Through this work, God was not removed. He was angry. In the first ten verses of this chapter alone, notice the words that describe God’s posture toward his people: anger, fury, burned, killed, without mercy.

At one point it must have seemed unthinkable for God to stand against his people like this. But now, “the Lord has become like an enemy” (Lam 2:5). The author does not take the easy road, writing that God allowed this or that tragedy. No, God “did not restrain his hand from destroying” (Lam 2:8).

This chapter contains some of the most vivid, forceful, specific language in the Bible about God’s judgment on Israel. If the prayer of Lamentations 1 could be summarized as Look at what has happened to us, then chapter 2 takes a harsh turn: Look what you have done to us!

Reasons for Judgment

We don’t have a detailed list of the sins of Israel in this short book. But chapter 2 offers a few details.

The prophets have failed the people. They have seen “false and deceptive visions.” They “have not exposed” the people’s iniquity, but have instead spoken “oracles that are false and misleading” (Lam 2:14).

In his response, God has not acted out of character or against his promise. “The Lord has done what he purposed; he has carried out his word which he commanded long ago” (Lam 2:17).

The Response to Judgment

This chapter is filled with weeping and lament. Here we have a profound example: We can mourn our circumstances to the Lord even when God is the one who brought about our mournful circumstances.

It is not wrong—in fact, it is deeply right—to cry out to the Lord in the midst of pain and tragedy that are the result of God’s judgment.

The repeated prayer in Lamentations 1 is a request for the Lord to see the poet. That is also the author’s main request in this chapter: “Look, O Lord, and see! With whom have you dealt thus?” (Lam 2:20)

But now the request to be noticed acknowledges God’s hand in the devastation. The end of this verse captures the layers of grief, surprise, and horror: “Should women eat the fruit of their womb, the children of their tender care? Should priest and prophet be killed in the sanctuary of the Lord?” (Lam 2:20)

While few of our hardships can be traced with certainty to our guilt, all suffering exists because of the fall of humanity into sin. This chapter helps us understand that crying out to God is good, even in the midst of judgment. How much more, therefore, is it good for us to lament when we are not necessarily directly to blame?

The Laments of Jesus

Because God is just, sin must be judged. And for every Christian, this is what Jesus accomplished. His sufferings were greater than those of the residents of fallen Jerusalem. His agony was deeper than we could imagine. In the unthinkable way that God became like an enemy to his people, God confronted Jesus as he was “made sin” in his final hours (2 Cor 5:21).

On the cross, our Lord lamented being forsaken by God (Matt 27:46). He could just as easily have cried, “With whom have you dealt thus?” (Lam 2:20)

Called to be Lamenting People

The white, western church is deeply uncomfortable with lament. Our calls to worship, our songs, our congregational prayers bear little resemblance to Lamentations. Though we often suffer, we have swallowed the lie that our lives and our words to God should be nothing but celebration.

But it is good to grieve over sin and its consequences. In this way we agree with God—our broken world needs redemption.

As we turn to God, let’s acknowledge him as the good, sovereign king who justly brings consequences for sin. When we feel that sorrow, and when our neighbors bend under that same weight, we can bring this anguish to God.

He will hear. He will see.


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The Winsome Christian

The word “winsome” is not in the Bible. Yet it’s worth pondering this old-fashioned concept as it relates to the witness of the modern-day church.

winsome life is attractive and inviting, exactly the sort of life every Christian should aim to lead.

Following the Friend of Sinners

Christians are called to take up their crosses and follow Jesus. So, by definition, a winsome Christian life is far from carefree or easy.

And yet, walking with Jesus should be attractive. If following him by faith is what we were created to do—if it is, in fact, the only way to true happiness—then taking those steps should resonate deep in our soul. And those looking on should sense and long for that same resonance.

Jesus himself was winsome. He was a friend of tax collectors and sinners when religious leaders of the day stood at a distance. Pharisees made their way to him covertly—they did not want to be seen talking to this rabbi, but they knew God was with him (John 3:1–2).

Though modern efforts to make Christianity attractive tend to downplay sin, Jesus’s winsomeness was not permissive in this same way. Jesus was more focused on bringing people into his kingdom than keeping them out. He was (and is) an inviting king.

Our lives will not be winsome in exactly the same way—Jesus pointed people to himself, after all, and we dare not point to ourselves. But as we walk closely with Jesus, our lives will share his inviting fragrance.

Ugly Christians

Sadly, many Christians today are anything but winsome. Instead, they are fearful, angry, and scolding. They delight in division. They have aligned their faith so thoroughly with a political party that they question the salvation of anyone who casts a dissenting vote.

In the minds of some, the appropriate response to a pluralistic culture is to view the church as a castle. Dig the moat, raise the drawbridge, and load the cannons. Every question is an attack, and the arrows are always flying.

It’s hard to imagine this always-suspicious, bared-teeth approach drawing many people to worship the Savior of the world.

Love with Integrity

The way of the world is to attract through power and possessions. A winsome Christian is attractive in an entirely different way.

She is generous and honest, joyful and compassionate. She is quick both to grant and to seek forgiveness. She is humble and hospitable, eager to listen. Her trust in the Lord is the strength of her spine, palpable and sure. Whether the waters of her life are smooth or stormy, she has a sure hope for the future.

She loves God with integrity, talking about him often. Her neighbors—not only the ones who agree with her—know she cares deeply and prays for them.

Winsomeness is Not the Goal

Winsomeness is not a set of activities but a posture. It comes naturally to those who seek Jesus by his Spirit.

If we focus on winsomeness, we will become performers, constantly wondering how we look to others. Diagnostic questions about winsomeness are best asked periodically, looking back over time, perhaps with a friend. A life that is not winsome points to other issues that should be unearthed.

Put differently, winsomeness is not the main goal, and we cannot even make it happen. Rather, winsomeness is the God-given fruit of faithfully seeking the Lord. When the fruit is missing, there is something wrong with the tree.

A Welcoming Heart

A winsome Christian pursues the Lord with thanksgiving, knowing that his welcoming heart will beat through all their interactions.

Now doesn’t that sound attractive?


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Look and See, O Lord!

In the midst of any prolonged suffering, we feel a natural desire for relief. We want the pain to go away, the grief to recede, the devastation to subside.

But there’s an earlier, more fundamental need we have as humans in mourning. We want to be seen.

Lamentations

The book of Lamentations in the Bible is filled with urgent cries of agony. Assumed by many to be written by Jeremiah (though never identified internally this way), Lamentations is a book of five laments about the destruction of Jerusalem. As an agent of God’s judgment on his people for their sin, the nation of Babylon conquered Jerusalem in 586 B.C. After destroying the temple and much of the city, the Babylonians led most of the residents away to captivity.

This was a heartbreaking, disastrous situation for all Israelites. The prayers recorded in the book of Lamentations were written by one of the people left behind, and they were used in Jewish worship services for decades afterward. These prayers are filled with loss and anguish, and they teach us as God’s people how to process grief in his presence.

Requests in Lamentations 1

lament is a genre of prayer found in the Bible which usually contains complaints, requests, and expressions of trust in the Lord. Not all of these ingredients are found in all laments, but most laments include at least two of these elements.

It’s not hard to find the complaints in the first chapter of Lamentations—they’re everywhere. This is easy to understand, as the city and temple have been leveled. All that the Jewish people knew and held dear was reduced to rubble.

The requests in this chapter are more scarce. In fact, before the last two verses, there is only one petition I see, and it appears three times.

“O Lord, behold my affliction”

In verse 9, the author writes, “O Lord, behold my affliction, for the enemy has triumphed!”

The Israelites have “sinned grievously” (verse 8) and Jerusalem has fallen in a public and embarrassing way (verses 8–9). There is no one to comfort her (verse 9). The Lord “has afflicted her for the multitude of her transgressions” (verse 5).

“Look, O Lord, and see”

In Lamentations 1:11, we read, “Look, O Lord, and see, for I am despised.”

The nations have entered unlawfully into the Lord’s sanctuary and have taken “precious things” (verse 10). The people are starving, groaning as they search for bread (verse 11).

“Look, O Lord, for I am in distress”

In verse 20, we read, “Look, O Lord, for I am in distress; my stomach churns; my heart is wrung within me, because I have been very rebellious.”

The Lord has “inflicted” sorrow in his “fierce anger” (verse 12). The author writes in detail of the painful physical judgment God has brought on his people (verses 13–15). There has been no one to give comfort (verses 16, 17).

A Desire to be Noticed

As painful as suffering can be, loneliness amplifies this hardship. Agony is more acute when it is held in private and not seen or acknowledged by others.

Here is the root of these requests. Before asking for relief or deliverance or restoration, the author of Lamentations wants to be seen by the Lord.

This is something we should be praying for ourselves and our suffering brothers and sisters in Christ: “Look, O Lord, and see!”

Jesus, Our Lamenter

The book of Lamentations is bleak territory. With some minor exceptions, it doesn’t feel hopeful. I’d wager no verses from Lamentations 1 appear on a Hallmark card.

And yet, when we understand how all of the Scriptures point to Jesus, there is much we can learn from this rich book.

The author of Lamentations understands the connections. God is holy and the people have rebelled. So God has brought the judgment for sin he promised. The people are lamenting because they are suffering the consequences of their sin.

This probably doesn’t sound like Jesus yet, but remember what he screamed on the cross. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt 27:46)

Jesus knew the pain of judgment for sin. He knew loneliness. He knew what it was like to look in vain for comfort. Piped through the right speakers, Jesus’s cry on the cross sounds a lot like “Look, O Lord, and see!”

If you are a child of God, Jesus has suffered and lamented for you. Jesus is evidence that God has looked and seen!

Do Unto Others

We can now lament—even more fully than the author of Lamentations—because we have a lamenting Savior. Christians have the comfort of the Holy Spirit because, for a time, Jesus was without comfort.

We know how vital it is to be seen and noticed, to have our pain recognized and named. Entering into the full suffering of humanity, Jesus knew the same, so we have a sympathetic advocate in heaven when we pray.

The application for us toward our friends and neighbors here is obvious. We must learn to notice and acknowledge the suffering of others. We can lament on their behalf, asking God to look and see and comfort.

When we encounter our neighbors’ grief, it may be raw and wild. We don’t need to offer advice or platitudes; often our presence is enough.

And a lament to God for our neighbors—with our neighbors—may point more persuasively to Jesus than a sermon could.

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Hearty Laughter as an Act of Faith

Sometime in my twenties, I realized that I have a big laugh. Like, really big—loud and sharp. If I think something is funny, there’s no chance I’m sneaking up on anyone.

I’m sure there are lots of people who wonder why it took me so long to figure this out. I guess self-knowledge can take time.

A Choice

Even though my default laugh sticks out like a giraffe in a chicken coop, I can rein it in. I can chortle in polite society.

When I realized how conspicuous my laughter made me, I had to make a choice. I could restrain myself, putting the brakes on my loud outbursts and moving closer to respectability. Or, I could throw back my head and howl.

I may be accused of spiritualizing here, but to me this was an act of faith.

Vulnerable

The word “vulnerable” comes to English from a Latin word that means “wound.” So when we are vulnerable, we are wound-able. And laughter jostles our normal armor out of place and exposes us.

When we laugh or show delight, we take a risk. By revealing what brings us pleasure we open ourselves to criticism and ridicule. Anyone who sees us rejoice in something they deem absurd or despicable can attack—if not publicly and openly, then in whispers or clicks on a keyboard. Laughter points a neon arrow at our joy, offering it up for public scrutiny. And boisterous laughter adds to the arrow a fire whistle and a fog horn.

An Act of Faith

A large part of my Christian repentance has been to stop focusing so much energy on people liking and praising me. And so, though I knew it may cause some to dismiss, mock, or avoid me, I embraced my laugh.

My laugh is one of the threads God used to knit me together, and I love to laugh. Laughter is part of the way I delight in the creative, beautiful, surprising, and strange ways God has made his world. (I mean, how can you stifle a laugh when you crack open a pomegranate?!)

The more I embrace my laughter and trust the Lord with the outcome, the more I learn to exercise my faith. There is no security in others’ opinions, no freedom in hoarding the worthless currency of back slaps from the respected. I trust that the love of God in Jesus is far, far better.

Any time we reveal emotion we take a chance. We give ammunition to those who may wish us harm. But we dare not turn stoic—God made us whole and he left out no ingredient.

So when we gather next, don’t be surprised to hear deep laughter coming from my direction. I won’t be trying to make a scene, but I won’t be holding back either.

There are wild, delightful things (and people!) in this world, and many times a chuckle just won’t do.

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My Favorite Benediction

In my younger days, I thought the benediction just marked the end of the worship service. Perhaps the musicians needed a cue to prepare for the postlude.

Now, the benediction is one of my favorite parts of Sunday morning. I desperately need the blessing of the Lord, and I hunger for it as the worship service winds down. I know some of what Jacob felt, when he would not let the angel go without a blessing (Gen 32:22–32).

Many pastors use the familiar passage from Numbers 6 (verses 24–26) to bless the people of God. My favorite benediction comes at the end of 1 Thessalonians.

Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it. (1 Thessalonians 5:23–24)

You may feel weary as you read this today, but by meditating on this blessing you may find just the encouragement you need.

For Sanctification

Paul begins by praying that God would sanctify his friends. If we’re paying attention to the context of this passage, this request is no surprise at all.

Paul has spent most of his letter encouraging the Thessalonians in their sanctification—that is, their growth and maturity as followers of Jesus. He has remarked how far they have come, and he has urged them to press on still more. (See 1 Thess 1:2–102:13–163:64:1–125:11.)

This prayer for God to sanctify his people is a delightful and fitting summary of the letter.

The God of Peace

If sanctification is an unsurprising topic, the title used for God may be less expected. We may not balk at opening the Bible and reading about “the God of peace,” but why does Paul use it here when praying about sanctification?

I usually connect peace with God to conversion and adoption. When my soul has a new orientation and master, I am no longer at war with my maker.

Yet, as any Christian knows, there are still “warring members” within us—territory within our minds and hearts that is not completely aligned with the Lord’s desires. As we are sanctified, our wills and loves change and therefore the objective peace we have becomes more fully realized throughout our person. We offer less resistance to what is best for us and we experience more peace with God.

It is therefore appropriate that “the God of peace” is the one who sanctifies us—he changes our rebellion into glad submission and eager friendship with our master.

Entirely Changed

As sanctification is progressive—that is, it happens slowly and not all at once—it makes sense that Paul would ask for God to sanctify his friends “completely.” The work has begun but is not yet finished.

Paul asks that God would keep their “whole spirit and soul and body” blameless. This phrase is Paul’s head-to-toe description of a person.

There are many dark corridors, locked closets, and dusty crawlspaces in the sprawling estate of our hearts. The remodeling of the Holy Spirit takes time and, often, suffering. But make no mistake—the goal is a gleaming, beautiful, renovated home.

Look to His Coming

The coming of the Lord is a pervasive theme in 1 Thessalonians, so it is no surprise we see it in this final benediction. Paul touches on this topic at least once in each chapter of the letter!

This is not just a quirk of Paul’s personality. The coming of the Lord should command our attention and be a great source of our hope. After all, that coming will usher in the time when we will be together with the Lord forever (1 Thess 4:17). All of the promises of God will come together to be fulfilled as we finally and eternally enjoy his unmediated presence.

So Paul prays that God would keep his friends blameless for that coming. He wants them to enjoy this most joyful occasion, and not to cower in fear when thinking of that day (1 Thess 5:4–6).

Hope in God

Paul ends this blessing by pointing back to God.

Paul writes that God is the one who calls them. He is the originator of their faith, bringing them out of darkness (1 Peter 2:9). And this same God who calls is faithful. He is sturdy and sure and unwavering. We do not have to guess whether he will continue to keep his promises—he will love his people perfectly, forever.

And finally, God will surely do it. That is, God will sanctify his people completely and he will keep his people blameless for the coming of Jesus. Paul has every confidence to trust in God this way, and his blessing urges us toward similar trust.

Blessing Indeed

Are you feeling stalled in your Christian growth? Frustrated by habitual sins and foolish decisions? Discouraged and in need of hope? Read this blessing, meditate on it, and pray it for you and for your friends.

Take comfort in the one who calls you, the one who is faithful, the one who himself will surely prepare you for heaven. This is blessing indeed.

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The Myth of the Always-Happy Christian

I had a friend once with a great smile. Her smile completely transformed her face, showing genuine joy in every feature.

She told me that her happiness was the occasion for many conversations about Jesus. People would observe her near-constant smile and ask her why she was so happy. And she would mention the joy the Lord brought to her life.

The idea of joy-as-Christian-testimony was powerful and pervasive, at least in my circles in the late 1990s. Jesus makes us happy, after all, and that happiness can point others to him.

I never heard much about other emotions, however. The implied message was that we don’t think sadness, grief, or even middle-of-the-road okayness are, well, okay. When Christians think the best or only way to bear testimony to the world is to be constantly smiling, sadness feels like failure. And that creates a culture in which we hide and suppress sadness and end up with little ability to process the harder, painful, very real emotions that come along with normal life under the sun.

Emotional Discipleship

Not all learning is academic, and not all discipleship is doctrinal. Growing as a disciple of Jesus means walking in his ways. This surely includes knowledge about God, salvation, the church, and the future. But Jesus was a full man, not just a teacher. We have not been redeemed and called by a systematic theology textbook.

I was recently listening to Mike Cosper interview Tish Harrison Warren on an episode of the Cultivated podcast. They were discussing Warren’s new book, Prayer in the Night, just released in January. It was a stimulating, thoughtful conversation. (Note: I have not yet read this book.)

In the course of the interview, Cosper talked about seeing some of his friends in ministry crushed by disappointment and sadness. These friends had been discipled in one way, but they lacked what he called “emotional discipleship.” They didn’t have a way to handle or process suffering, tragedy, or even their own sin.

That rang true. I have studied the Bible a lot and learned a good deal of theology. But I have not heard or thought much about growing in the way my emotional life glorifies God.

Recovering Lament

Part of growing in our emotional maturity will be learning to process grief and sorrow, sin and sadness. Toward this end, I’ve been learning about the Christian practice of lament. (One very helpful resource for me has been Mark Vroegop’s book Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy.)

Modern Christians generally avoid lament because it is uncomfortable and unfamiliar. Those within the church are more likely to try to find the bright side of a tragedy than to enter into mourning with a friend. We look for a deeper meanings, we assure the one who is suffering that things will get better, we ask, What is God teaching you through this?

As I learn more about lament, I see the need for Christians to embrace tension, to not be so obsessed with resolving the chord. (Vroegop calls lament “a minor key language for suffering,” which seems about right.) The goodness of God and the sadness of life can feel like giant waves colliding in the sea, and while we want quiet waters, smoothing over all turbulence as quickly as possible is not a healthy pursuit.

Yes, in the end—at the end of the age—all will be put right. But all is not right now, and it is okay to feel and confess that. Jesus did this very thing! The Psalms also are filled with lament, some of which were on Jesus’ lips in his final hours.

We may not always have answers, but we do have God. This is not an attempt to sneak in a silver lining. If we embrace the reality of God’s presence with his people—not as a magic elixir which eliminates all sorrow, but as a comfort and help and sign of love in the midst of sorrow—we may have a start on emotional discipleship.

Because we know the One who holds all things, and because we know he is loving and good, we have hope. And because we have hope, we can learn to grieve and to weep with those who weep.

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In Praise of Poetry

I’m a latecomer to poetry. I had to read and write my fair share in high school and college, but I put little effort into understanding and appreciating poetry. Any attempts to write on my part were too earnest by half and dripping with nostalgia.

Since college, though, I’ve changed, gradually. And over the past few years, I’ve returned to poetry with a delight that just wasn’t there in my younger days.

Let Me Count the Ways

I love the care with which poets must choose their words. There’s great satisfaction in finding a good word in the perfect setting. I enjoy the way skillful poets fit words together—to complement, enhance, or contrast individual meanings.

The sounds of poetry are as varied as the poets who conduct that orchestra. A good rhyme is wonderful, sure, but the pleasure of sound in poetry soars high above rhyme. I love to read poets who have a command of the language—they mix complementary sounds, they raise hints and echoes, they have studied how neighboring words and phrases can please or disturb a reader’s mind and mouth.

The rhythm of poetry is perhaps what I understood least in my younger days. If it wasn’t a well-known poetic form, we didn’t mention rhythm. But I’m now admiring the skill of poets who control my reading speed with word length and syllable distribution. Specific letters and sounds help regulate how quickly I digest a line or a stanza, and in this way a skilled poet can focus my attention on themes that require deeper meditation.

Books are so often better than movies because of the differences in images. What books describe and leave for the imagination, movies make explicit. Poetry often exceeds prose for the same reason. Poems are rich in imagery, but they evoke pictures and emotions that are far more pleasing than a description in prose. A skillful comparison or analogy—a basic currency in poetry—is deeply satisfying.

A Recommendation

I was delighted to learn of the work of Malcolm Guite last year. Guite is a Christian poet who is especially taken with the sonnet.

I used his Advent book of poetry to great advantage last December, and I plan to begin his Lenten book later this month. These books contain some of his original work, but they feature more prominently the work of other poets with short commentary. Guite’s love for language and poetry burst off the page, and I’ve learned much from his explanations.

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Resisting Revenge is a Whole-Church Effort

Most of the Bible is addressed to groups of people, not individuals. And while collective commands have clear implications for individuals, the corporate nature matters.

Many modern Christians have been breathing individualistic air for years, with far-reaching consequences. But we must remember the communal nature of the Bible if we are to live faithfully as God’s people.

A Community Standard

There’s a verse in Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonian church that highlights this point.

See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone. (1 Thessalonians 5:15)

The context, as always, is important—this verse falls in the middle of several commands Paul gives to this church. That a group is addressed is obvious, both in verse 15 itself as well as in the presence of “brothers” in verses 12 and 14 and “yourselves” in verse 13.

Note that the command here is not simply “don’t repay evil for evil.” Rather, “See that no one repays evil for evil.” Paul prohibits revenge for each person, but he also makes every individual responsible for the obedience of others. Each person is charged with maintaining the no-retaliation standard in the community.

It’s natural to balk here. I have enough trouble obeying God myself. How can I be responsible for others?

We turn back to the passage for the answer. We are to respect our church leaders and “esteem them very highly in love” (verses 12–13). Giving proper love and encouragement to our elders is essential for the health of the church.

Additionally, we are to “be at peace” among ourselves (verse 13). And there is a summary of sorts at the end of verse 15: “always seek to do good to one another and to everyone.” If we are all seeking to do good for everyone, no one will be repaying evil for evil.

Becoming Like God

A church’s reputation and testimony can be damaged by one flagrant or unrepentant sinner. But the church acting together in love can say glorious things about God.

As a local church body obeys this no-revenge command, they become more and more like their patient, saving God. Quite simply, God does not repay evil for evil! Rather he is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Psalm 103:8). God’s patience and forbearance are such that we were reconciled to God while we were his enemies (Romans 5:10).

God is just, but his is a patient justice. He will repay, but he offers mercy. In fact, our forbearance with others must be based upon the certainty of God’s justice (see Romans 12:19).

In some ways, it’s in our (fallen) nature to seek revenge. When we are injured, we want to nurture the internal wound until just the right moment to visit an equal or greater injury in return.

But as we practice forgiveness and reconciliation, fueled by the forgiveness we’ve received in Christ, the church can offer (and point to) a balm the world desperately needs. That balm is the very presence of God.

For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him. (1 Thessalonians 5:9–10)

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A Contrast of Kings at Christmas

Secular Christmas scenes are full of snow, wreaths, lights, and cookies. The roaring fires and flannel pajamas that appear on so many cards paint the holiday as one of coziness and warmth.

While there’s nothing wrong with these seasonal elements, none of them capture the biblical reality. Christmas is the time to rejoice in the Incarnation, the birth of Jesus.

But even in the Bible, Jesus’s birth was not an occasion for universal joy. While there was great celebration, the Christmas narratives are also serious, dark, and cautionary.

Herod the King

The second chapter of Matthew’s Gospel offers a stark contrast. Right from the beginning, we read that in the days of Herod the king the wise men came looking for the king of the Jews. This contrast seems intentional, as Matthew refers to Herod as “king” a total of three times (Matt 2:139).

While the wise men traveled a great distance to worship this new king (Matt 2:2), they went to Herod only for information. The wise men rejoiced when approaching the house where Jesus was, and they brought extravagant gifts, falling down in worship. Since God warned them away, the wise men didn’t even speak to Herod again.

Herod was “troubled” by this talk of a new king (Matt 2:3). The Jewish religious leaders reported that prophesies pointed to Bethlehem as the birthplace of a “ruler” who would “shepherd” the people of Israel (Matt 2:6). This was not good news for Herod.

Jesus the Child

The contrast between Herod and Jesus is heightened by the difference in their ages. Herod was an adult; Jesus had just been born. In fact, Jesus is referred to as a “child” nine times in this chapter.

Given the difference in physical ability and political power between Jesus and Herod, it seems bizarre that Herod was threatened by this baby. But Herod was so enraged when the wise men did not report back to him that he ordered the death of all male children in and around Bethlehem under two years old.

We should pause here and note the violence and devastation that Herod caused. His fear and his lust for power proved to be a murderous cocktail. These deaths were unspeakably cruel, selfish, and senseless, and they must have left Bethlehem residents horrified and empty with grief.

While Herod took drastic, human steps to eliminate Jesus, Matthew’s text shows us the supernatural elements used to honor and protect Jesus. The star that the wise men followed (“his star” in Matt 2:2) appeared both before and after their visit to Jerusalem (Matt 2:9–10) and led them directly to Jesus. Additionally, God acted through dreams to warn the wise men (Matt 2:12) and to direct Joseph and his young family (Matt 2:131922).

Finally, notice the role of prophecy in this chapter. In his birth in Bethlehem (Matt 2:5–6), his exile to Egypt (Matt 2:17), and his settling in Nazareth (Matt 2:23), Jesus fulfilled what the prophets had spoken. On the other hand, the prophecy that Herod fulfilled was one of tears and lamentation (Matt 2:17–18).

Worship Christ, the Newborn King

Jesus was declared a king at his birth. And the contrast between Jesus and all other kings continued through his earthly life and beyond.

Because Jesus is the great, high king, he is a threat to all who hold power. God demands (and deserves) our undiluted worship, and this is a problem for anyone who craves any glory that belongs to God.

This is a warning to all in authority: Worship Jesus as the high king willingly while you can. One day every knee will bow, whether willingly or not (Phil 2:9–11). Your power is delegated power and should be used to help those around you to flourish.

And for everyone, this is a call to worship Jesus. He is no mere human king; he is the Lord of all. And as Lord, he shows himself to be vastly superior to Herod.

Though he is powerful and his authority is absolute, he is merciful and gentle. We have all grasped for power; we have all neglected and rejected proper worship. But king Jesus offers love and forgiveness for those who turn to him.

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How to Encourage Those Who Grieve

When a loved one dies, we feel more than just sadness. We know pain and despair and heartache in the center of our souls. Because we hurt, we can feel disoriented, asking the deepest questions of our lives.

We can understand, therefore, why Paul needed to write part of his first letter to the Thessalonians. These Christians were grieving and confused, wondering what had become of their friends and family members who had died.

In 1 Thess 4:13–18, Paul answered their questions and addressed their fears. In doing so, he has shown us just how much comfort comes from thinking rightly about the future.

Grief is Good

When Paul addressed his brothers in 1 Thess 4:13, he spoke about their grief.

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. (1 Thess 4:13)

Those outside of the church grieve, but they have no hope anchoring their grief. Paul wanted his friends to grieve with hope, and he gave specific grounds for that hope in the following verses.

Paul was no Stoic; he did not prohibit mourning. But our mourning should be done—like everything else in our lives—as Christians. We should not deny the natural emotion of grief, but our grief should be informed by the truth of God’s word.

Those Who Have Died Have Not Missed Out

From what Paul wrote in 1 Thess 4:15–17, it seems the Thessalonians were concerned that their loved ones might not experience the full joy of the coming of the Lord. Paul reassured them.

For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord,that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. (1 Thess 4:15–17)

The dead in Christ will rise first. Then there will be a joyous reunion with loved ones (“caught up together,” verse 17) and with the Lord. Though we do not know the time nor all the specifics, there is great comfort in knowing what is to come.

For Those Who Believe in Jesus

It’s important to state this unpopular truth: Comfort in the coming of the Lord is reserved for those who believe in Jesus.

For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. (1 Thess 4:14)

Though Paul did not write the entire Christian gospel here, he stated its central truth (“Jesus died and rose again”). In the first century, Christians were chiefly set apart by this belief in the work of Jesus. Paul wanted these believers to know that God’s work for their loved ones was not over. He will bring them with him when he comes.

Genuine Hope

We’ve all heard hollow words of hope and empty promises of comfort surrounding death. At least he’s in a better place. You’ll feel better, just give it time.

Paul had no time for faint hope. He pointed to the best, most lasting comfort there is—the eternal presence of God. How sweet to know that “we will always be with the Lord” (1 Thess 4:17).

Without interruption or distraction, we will be with our loving, faithful, glorious Lord. Our sin made us unworthy of being near him, but Jesus has brought us close and will, on the last day, take us closer still.

Encourage One Another

Paul ended this short portion of his letter with a command. “Therefore encourage one another with these words” (1 Thess 4:18).

Far too often the coming of the Lord has been a source of controversy, division, and apprehension among Christians. Yet Paul sees this coming as a source of courage for the grieving.

We are often called as a church to love and comfort those who are mourning. And this passage tells us how we can pray for and speak to our grieving friends. We remind them of the gospel, we point to the future, and together we cling to the sure hope of eternal fellowship with the Lord.

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