How Righteous Love Offers Assurance (1 John 3:19-24)

Post Series on 1 John 3:11-24:

  1. Why Righteousness Attracts Persecution (1 John 3:11-15)
  2. Righteousness Looks Like Love (1 John 3:16-18)
  3. How Righteous Love Offers Assurance (1 John 3:19-24)

In 1 John 3:16-18, John is very direct about the fact that our righteousness expresses itself as love, and as a very particular kind of love. Righteousness-love is by nature sacrificial and generous, eager to meet the needs of fellow believers. If we do not express this kind of righteousness-love in deed and truth (and not just in talk), John writes, then the love of God does not abide in us.

But if righteousness-love is present in our lives, John had also written back in 1 John 3:14 that we should see that as evidence that “we have passed out of death into life.” This kind of love is not natural, and so the only way for it to be present in our lives is if it flows from God’s giving us eternal life. In some way, this love offers us assurance of our salvation.

Now, in 1 John 3:19-24, John picks up that topic again to look at it more closely. Specifically, John wants us to know the ways that righteous love does offer assurance, as well as the ways that righteous love does not offer assurance. Here is what John writes:

19By this we shall know that we are of the truth and reassure our heart before him; 20for whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything. 21Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God; 22and whatever we ask we receive from him because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him. 23And this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. 24Whoever keeps his commandments abides in God, and God in him. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit whom he has given us. (1 John 3:19-24 ESV)

How Righteous Love Offers Assurance

Verses 19 and 20 are notoriously difficult to interpret. Donald Burdick warns us that “There are at least ten different possible ways of understanding verses 19-20″ (The Letters of John the Apostle: An In-Depth Commentary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1985), 273), but John Stott has a helpful explanation to understand the kind of exegesis we need to do to understand what the Apostle John is doing here:

This passage is a locus vexatissimus. Its general sense is clear, but it is grammatically confused, and the variant readings betray the difficulty which even in the earliest days was found in interpreting them. (The Epistles of John: An Introduction and Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), 147.)

The general sense of this passage is actually fairly straightforward, even if we will have to work a bit at betting at why John uses the grammar that he does. So, let’s break this passage down by answering the three most difficult exegetical questions.

First, when John writes “By this we shall know that we are of the truth and reassure our heart before him,” the immediate question we should answer is whether “By this” refers backwards the previous context, or forwards to what John writes in v. 20 and following.

The best answer is that John is looking backwards since John doesn’t give anything that might be the “By this” after v. 19; instead, he continues to build on his topic by talking about the need for persuading our hearts before God. So, “By this” most likely refers to the way that Christians do not close their hearts from fellow believers who have needs, but instead love one another in work and in truth.

Second, what does “reassure” mean? The word choice of the ESV tilts our interpretation toward reading this as a word related to “assurance,” but the basic meaning of this word in Greek is “persuade,” which is a bit more vague. Still, the ESV is almost certainly correct to understand the word this way, since John contrasts this “persuasion/reassurance” with the alternate possibility that our hearts might condemn us in the next two verses.

Third, what does John mean in v. 20 when he says that “God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything”? Some (like Calvin) believe that this phrase refers to God’s strictness in judgment, pointing to Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 4:4: “For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me.”

But it’s probably better to understand this statement within the context of reassurance, since in the immediate context of verse 19, John was explaining how it is that we go about reassuring our hearts before God. Instead, John is probably discouraging us from riding the endless roller-coaster of basing our confidence on whether or not we feel that God is doing enough work in our lives. John wants to move us away from perpetual navel-gazing introspection by insisting that we simply don’t have God’s eternal perspective on the work he is doing in our lives to give us eternal life and to create genuine love for our brothers.

C. S. Lewis has a fantastic passage on our inability to judge progress in his book Mere Christianity:

Christian Miss Bates may have an unkinder tongue than unbelieving Dick Firkin. That, by itself, does not tell us whether Christianity works. The question is what Miss Bates’s tongue would be like if she were not a Christian and what Dick’s would be like if he became one. What you have a right to ask is whether that management, if allowed to take over, improves the concern.

We must, therefore, not be surprised if we find among the Christians some people who are still nasty. There is even, when you come to think it over, a reason why nasty people might be expected to turn to Christ in greater numbers than nice ones. That was what people objected to about Christ during His life on earth: He seemed to attract ‘such awful people’. (p. 210, 213)

Here, John is teaching us to look for the evidence of righteous-love in our lives without going overboard and too harshly critical of our inevitable failures. God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything about where we began, where we are in our progress, and where he is taking us over the course of eternity.

How Righteous Love Does Not Offer Assurance

Even though I disagree with Calvin’s interpretation that the phrase “God is greater than our heart” refers to God’s strictness in judgment, I nevertheless feel that Calvin’s direction with this passage is very important to clear up a ditch that we might fall into by putting too much emphasis on our ability to look for love as evidence that we have passed out of death into life. Calvin writes this important warning from the phrase in v. 21, “if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God”:

Here, however, arises a greater difficulty, which seems to leave no confidence in the whole world; for who can be found whose heart reproves him in nothing? To this I answer, that the godly are thus reproved, that they may at the same time be absolved. For it is indeed necessary that they should be seriously troubled inwardly for their sins, that terror may lead them to humility and to a hatred of themselves; but they presently flee to the sacrifice of Christ, where they have sure peace. (Commentaries on the First Epistle of John)

It is critical that we find our ultimate confidence in eternal life in the promises of Jesus, and not in anything within ourselves. Only in the sacrifice of Jesus do we have real, sure, lasting peace before God.

This is what John is telling us when he reminds us of God’s commandments in v. 23-24:

And this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. Whoever keeps his commandments abides in God, and God in him. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit whom he has given us.

The commandment is first to believe in the name of God’s Son Jesus Christ, and second to love one another, as Jesus commanded us. John is very clear about the fact that it is only after we believe in Jesus Christ that we are able to love one another. Here’s why: it is through faith in Christ that we receive eternal life (1 John 2:24-25), and it is only through eternal life that we find the ability to love one another (1 John 3:14).

Then, John couples the commandment with a promise that by keeping God’s commandments (believing in Jesus and loving one another), we abide in God and God in us by his Spirit.

True peace and assurance can come only as we receive and believe the promises that God makes in his word. Recognizing the spiritual fruit of righteousness-love in our lives is helpful, but we can’t always evaluate it correctly. So, instead of incessant self-evaluation, we do much better simply to believe in the promises of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Righteousness Looks Like Love (1 John 3:16-18)

Post Series on 1 John 3:11-24:

  1. Why Righteousness Attracts Persecution (1 John 3:11-15)
  2. Righteousness Looks Like Love (1 John 3:16-18)
  3. How Righteous Love Offers Assurance (1 John 3:19-24)

Yesterday as we looked at 1 John 3:11-15, we talked about why righteousness attracts persecution. Put simply, John explains that when we become children of God, a radical transformation happens: we pass out of death into life. That new life infused into our lives, then, creates a supernatural love for other Christian believers, “the brothers.”

The presence of this kind of love, then, offers us a kind of assurance of our salvation: “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death” (1 John 3:14). As John explained earlier in 1 John 2, love functions as a litmus test to evaluate the genuineness of our faith. If we love, we have confidence that we have passed from death to life; however, if we do not love, John writes that we remain (“abide”) in death.

This means that it is critical for us to evaluate our lives. Is love present in our lives, or not? What kind of love are we looking for, specifically? And how does love relate to righteousness?

Righteousness Looks Like Love

Remember that righteousness is the primary issue in this passage. In 1 John 3:4-10 (the immediate context of the passage we are exploring this week), John contrasts those who practice sinning with those who practice righteousness. It was the righteous deeds of Abel that enraged Cain, prompting Cain to murder his brother. But, beginning in verse 14, John seemingly switched subjects to speak of “loving the brothers.”

It is clear, then, that when John speaks of righteousness, he is talking about love. This shouldn’t surprise us, since Jesus taught us that to love God and to love other people were the two greatest commandments, both of which summarize the entire Old Testament law (Matt. 22:34-40). Then, Paul wrote that “Love is the fulfilling of the law” (Rom. 13:10) and that “the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Gal. 5:14). Perfect righteousness—the perfect keeping of the whole law—happens when we love one another.

By This We Know The Love

But when we talk about righteousness-love, it’s important that we are clear on our terms. There are so many different definitions of love in the world, and so it’s important to be crystal clear about what we are talking about. John, in fact, is very specific in 1 John 3:16-18:

16By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. 17But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? 18Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth. (1 John 3:16-18 ESV)

The ESV does a great job with the translation, but the translation smoothes out an important word “the” in this passage. Literally, verse 16 reads, “By this we know the love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.” The word “the” doesn’t make much sense in English, which is why I’m not aware of any English translation that includes the word “the” in v. 16.

But the word adds an incredibly important nuance in Greek, functioning almost as though it were the word “this”: “By this we know this love…” In other words, John is specifically limiting the word love to the kind of righteousness-love that he has been talking about so far. Donald Burdick writes this about the word “the”:

The presence of the article with agapen, “love,” serves to identify the specific love John has in mind—God’s active, sacrificial love manifested at the cross. (Donald Burdick, The Letters of John the Apostle: An In-Depth Commentary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1985), 267.)

We are not allowed to choose for ourselves the definition of this love; instead. John tells us exactly what this righteousness-love looks like: laying down our lives for fellow believers. If we want to practice this righteousness-love, then we must sacrifice of ourselves for the good of brothers and sisters in Christ.

And so John puts a test to us in very plain, practical terms: if we possess worldly goods and see fellow believers in needs, do we give up what we have to serve them, or not? If we close our hearts against our brothers and sisters in Christ’s, then how could we possibly claim to have God’s love in us?

John closes this passage with a plea: “Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.” Please, let’s stop talking about love and actually live according to what claim to believe. If we say that we are followers of Jesus Christ, who voluntarily gave up all the riches of heaven and laid down his life so that we might have life and inherit the kingdom, then we ought to live as he lived by sacrificially giving away the worldly goods we possess when we see fellow believers who need them.

By this we know that this righteousness-love of God dwells in our hearts, and that we have passed over from death to life. Tomorrow, we will look at the kind of assurance that this righteousness-love provides to us.

Why Righteousness Attracts Persecution (1 John 3:11-15)

Post Series on 1 John 3:11-24:

  1. Why Righteousness Attracts Persecution (1 John 3:11-15)
  2. Righteousness Looks Like Love (1 John 3:16-18)
  3. How Righteous Love Offers Assurance (1 John 3:19-24)

In the previous passage (1 John 2:28-3:10), John addressed the way in which Christians face setbacks in life with hope in the appearance of Jesus. Since we are God’s children now, and since we hope in the day when we shall be made like Jesus when he appears and when we see him as he is, then we purify ourselves as Jesus himself is pure (1 John 3:3). Then, John describes how Christians and no longer “practice sinning” since we have been born of God, and God’s seed in us makes it impossible to maintain a lifestyle of rebellion against God.

Instead, we now live to practice righteousness—and specifically, to love one another, a link that John makes explicit in 1 John 3:10: “By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother.” Practicing righteousness is the equivalent loving our brothers (that is, our fellow believers).

John continues on this topic of practicing righteousness now in 1 John 3:11-15, but he explains a surprising consequence of practicing righteousness: righteousness attracts persecution:

11For this is the message that you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. 12We should not be like Cain, who was of the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous. 13Do not be surprised, brothers, that the world hates you. 14We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death. 15Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him. (1 John 3:11-15)

Why Righteousness Attracts Persecution

With almost identical language to what John had written earlier in 1 John 1:5, John now reminds his readers that the message they have heard from the beginning is that we should love one another. In 1 John 1:5, John had been explaining the nature of God, but here, John is drawing our attention again to the commandment of God to love one another. John wrote about the commandment to love in 1 John 2:7-11, but he has a different point to bring out now.

Specifically, John wants to prepare us for the persecution that practicing righteousness will bring. It isn’t as though we have had no warning about persecution, or that persecution is something new. In fact, John points all the way back to the fourth chapter of the Bible, when Cain (the son of Adam and Eve) killed his brother Abel. Only one generation removed from perfection in the Garden of Eden and already a man is murdering his brother!

Why did Cain murder Abel? John gives two reasons. First, Cain was “of the evil one.” This phrase in 3:12 (ek tou ponerou) is almost identical to the phrase from 3:10, “of God” (ek tou theou), which is an abbreviated version of the phrase used in 3:9, “born of God” (ek tou theou gegennetai). The imagery John is using here cuts a strict division between the only two spiritual families that exist in the world. Either you are born of God, or you are born of the evil one. Cain was born of the evil one.

What would it mean to be born of the evil one? When Jesus accused some of the Jews of being the offspring of the devil, he explained the significance of this phrase: “You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44).

The second reason John gives as to why Cain would murder Abel is this: “Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous.” Somehow, when Cain contrasted his own evil deeds with his brother’s righteous deeds, he was provoked to murder his brother.

John then tells us that this was not a unique reaction, but the way that those born of the evil one still function: “Do not be surprised, brothers, that the world hates you.” To this day, those whose deeds are evil hate those whose deeds are righteous. Specifically, your righteous love toward fellow believers provokes enough hatred for someone to persecute and even to murder you!

But even if we recognize that righteousness does attract persecution, that still doesn’t explain why this would be the case. What is it about righteousness that provokes hatred from those whose deeds are evil?

Why Persecution Offers Assurance

John doesn’t give a direct explanation, but he gives us an important clue in v. 14-15: “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death. Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.”

When we come to salvation through faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ, something extraordinary happens. We actually pass “out of death into life.” It is this life, John explains, that creates in us a love for other Christians. Apart from this life, we cannot love the brothers, and we abide (remain/continue) in death. So, anyone who still hates another Christian does not have eternal life and continues in the footsteps of Cain and of the evil one.

John is teaching us here that persecution offers its own kind of assurance. When we experience persecution because our deeds are righteous, that is a sign of the change in our nature, and of the fact that we have passed from death to life.

But this raises two questions: (1) What kind of deeds are righteous deeds? and (2) In what ways do righteous deeds give us assurance, and what are the limits of that assurance?

We will look at those two questions over the next two days.

[Sermon] Gluttony and the Pleasures of Jesus

Here is a recording from my sermon yesterday titled “The Bread of Life” from John 6:22-59 on the topic of Gluttony. The recording is from Grace Chapel, but I also preached this sermon at Redeemer.

Download the Sermon

The Dwelling Place of God: A Survey of the Bible

Probably my favorite thing to teach about is how the story of the whole Bible works. I love how knowing the whole story makes all the individual stories make so much more sense.

So, I’ve prepared a short outline of the main story of the Bible for a small group discussion I’ll be involved in tonight, and I thought I’d share it here. Feel free to use it how you would like.

Download: The Dwelling Place of God: A Survey of the Bible

If you are curious about this document’s copyright:

Creative Commons License
The Dwelling Place of God: A Survey of the Bible is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Do You Believe in God’s Love Enough to Pray?

Post Series on Luke 18:1-8:

On Monday, we began to look at the parable of the persistent widow (sometimes called the parable of the unjust judge) in Luke 18:1-8. In the parable, Jesus tells about a widow who persistently (and even violently) pleads with an unjust judge (one who neither fears God nor respects man) for justice from her adversary. In all likelihood, her adversary is something like a collections agent, which is how the word for adversary is used in Matt. 5:25 and Luke 12:58. The widow probably does owe money, but the way the adversary pursues her is subverting, rather than establishing, real justice.

So the question we posed yesterday was this: How can we legitimately seek justice when we ourselves are guilty? It’s easy to demand that God bring justice down on the people who have hurt us, but we find ourselves in a quandary when we ask for justice if we begin to think through the ways that we have hurt other people, as well as the ways in which we have offended God.

And even if we don’t think through all the ways in which we have failed to live up to justice, the Bible tells us that there is one other adversary: the only other use of this word in the New Testament is reserved for Satan himself in 1 Pet. 5:8. Where we forget the injustices that we have committed, Satan is pleased to remind us of them as he accuses us before God.

So today, we have three final questions to consider as we wrap up this study of Luke 18:1-8. First, how can we seek justice when we, like the widow, are guilty of violating God’s law? Second, what does it look like to pray for justice from our own adversaries? And third, what guarantees do we have that our prayers will make any difference whatsoever?

How to Gain Justice Apart From the Law

Jesus explains the meaning of his parable in Luke 18:6-8:

6And the Lord said, “Hear what the unrighteous judge says. 7And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? 8I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

Jesus is using “how much more” logic. In other words, if an unrighteous judge who doesn’t care at all about God or people will give justice to a widow, then how much more will God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Even when it seems as though God neither hears nor cares, Jesus promises that God will not delay long, but will give justice to his elect speedily.

There are two important aspects of Jesus’ explanation here. First, Jesus is making a promise about how God will act toward those who pray to him for justice. In a vague way, Jesus is promising the gospel: to those who ask for it, God will give justice—and ultimately, he will give justice at the final judgment, “when the Son of Man comes.” Second, Jesus insists that faith is at the heart of this issue: only those who believe that God will give them justice will continue to pray, day and night. These two principles are helpful, but clearly much more needs to be said.

What Jesus leaves ambiguous at this point, Paul clarifies in his letter to the Romans. There, he explains that righteousness (dikaiosune; Greek uses one word for both “righteousness and “justice”) has been established even for those who have not kept every part of the law:

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. (Rom. 3:21-22)

Why does faith in Jesus Christ establish righteousness (apart from the law) for those who believe? Two reasons: (1) Jesus Christ perfectly kept the law during his life, so that he has been counted perfectly righteous; and (2) Jesus Christ incurred upon himself the legal penalty for sin that we deserve, so that there is no part of the penalty left to fall upon us.

This is critical, because it means that we can safely ask God for justice without the fear of being swept away from our own injustices. Furthermore, it means that we can seek justice from our adversary Satan, who can no longer accuse us legitimately.

How to Gain Justice From Our Adversaries

This is where prayer comes in. Specifically, this is where we put into practice the fierce, persistent, nearly violent prayer of the widow in our own lives: we pray to receive the righteousness/justice of Jesus Christ, and we pray for God’s justice to fill the whole earth. John Calvin has a marvelous passage on the relationship of faith and prayer in his Institutes:

It is, therefore, by the benefit of prayer that we reach those riches which are laid up for us with the Heavenly Father. For there is a communion of men with God by which, having entered the heavenly sanctuary, they appeal to him in person concerning his promises in order to experience, where necessity so demands, that what they believed was not vain, although he had promised it in word alone. Therefore we see that to us nothing is promised to be expected from the Lord, which we are not also bidden to ask of him in prayers. So true is it that we dig up by prayer the treasures that were pointed out by the Lord’s gospel, and which our faith has gazed upon. (Institutes, 3.20.2)

Prayer is faith in action. We typically think of going out and doing something when we talk about putting our faith into practice, but Jesus gives us a different paradigm: the weak, needy, desperate prayer of a persecuted widow. It is by prayer, and only by prayer, that “we reach those riches which are laid up for us with the Heavenly Father.”

It’s not that our prayers have some kind of magical power behind them, as though the act of our praying were something powerful on our own. We receive God’s gospel promises through prayer because God has promised that he would give his gospel to those who asked for it, and for that reason alone.

Prayer, Justice, and Our Father’s Love

Finally we come to the absolute heart of the issue. Do you believe in God’s love enough to pray? If you believe that God loves you, and you believe that we receive all the blessings of God’s love through prayer, then why is it that we do not pray?

Because we do not have strong faith. This is the problem behind Jesus’ rhetorical question: “Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” If the injustices of this world genuinely bother you—hunger, disease, broken families, abused/neglected children, addiction, poverty, corruption, violence, and even your own injustice—then you stand in the exact position of the desperate, needy widow.

The question is not whether you share the widow’s neediness; the question is whether you share her persistence.

Now, let me close this post not with a guilt-trip to shame you into praying more, but with the gospel. The way to learn to pray more is not through resolving all the more to pray, but in spending all the more time pondering the goodness and the love of God, who will not delay long to give justice to his elect. The more you stand needy, naked, and exposed before the radiant, consuming, furious love of your Heavenly Father who loves justice more than you do, the more you will cry out to him day and night naturally.

Knowing and delighting in God’s love in the gospel through prayer is the only way that the Son of Man will find faith on earth when he comes.

How to Seek Justice When You are Also Guilty

Post Series on Luke 18:1-8:

The parable that Jesus tells in Luke 18:1-8 is about prayer. Specifically, Jesus tells the parable about the persistent widow and the unrighteous judge to teach us that we “ought always to pray and not lose heart” (Luke 18:1).

But Jesus also tells the parable to teach us what we ought to pray for. Specifically, this parable teaches us how to pray for justice.

In fact, Jesus uses three forms of the Greek word for justice a total of six times in the parable, but not all are easy to see when we read the English translation. Here is Luke 18:1-8, with the words for justice bolded:

1And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart. 2He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected man. 3And there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Give me justice (lit: to procure justice) against my adversary‘ (lit: someone who acts on behalf of justice). 4For a while he refused, but afterward he said to himself, ‘Though I neither fear God nor respect man, 5yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.’” 6And the Lord said, “Hear what the unrighteous (lit: unjust) judge says. 7And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? 8I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

The root word for justice is dike, and so you can see the thread of “justice” through all of these words by looking for the letters “dik” in the three Greek words used in this passage.

The easiest word to look at in this passage is when Jesus calls the judge an “unrighteous” judge (v. 6), using the word adikia. In English, we have two words for “justice” and “righteousness,” where justice usually refers to institutions or the representatives of institutions (here, the judge is representing the government), and where righteousness refers to the conduct of a person (e.g., “Abraham was counted righteous”). Greek uses only one word to refer to both of those concepts. So, this man is an unrighteous/unjust judge, which is a summary of the description used twice in the parable, that he “neither feared God nor respected man” (v. 2, 4).

Second, the ESV (quoted here) does a good job of consistently translating the verb ekdikeo (v. 3, 5) and the noun ekdikesis (v. 7, 8) as “give justice,” making it easier for us to see the use of the word through this passage. The word refers to someone who either avenges a wrongdoing or who protects someone from another for the sake of justice.

The third use of the word justice is the most complicated. The “adversary” from whom the widow is seeking justice is called an antidikos (v. 3), but it’s really important to understand that, in Greek, the prefix anti does not usually mean “opposed to” as it does in English. Instead, anti refers to someone who acts in place of something else or on behalf of someone else. For example, the word antichristos (antichrist) written about in the New Testament is not describing someone who is opposed to Christ (although that is true), but rather someone who sets himself in place of Christ, usurping Christ’s lordship.

And here, the word for antidikos does not refer to someone who opposes justice, but probably (more likely) someone who is acting on behalf of justice. In all likelihood, this story is not about a widow who was minding her own business until someone started stalking her, but about a widow who is in some kind of trouble—probably financial trouble. Most likely, she owes a debt that she cannot pay, and now her “adversary” is hunting her down until she pays up. When she asks for justice, she is probably asking for some kind of settlement or payment plan that she can afford.

That’s exactly how Jesus uses the word in Matt. 5:25 and Luke 12:58: “As you go with your accuser (antidikou) before the magistrate, make an effort to settle with him on the way, lest he drag you to the judge, and the judge hand you over to the officer, and the officer put you in prison. I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the very last penny.”

Technically, then, this woman’s adversary is acting on behalf of justice, if we think of justice as the strict, unbending, inflexible rule of law. But, there is also a sense in which he has missed the larger aspirations of justice. This parable illustrates the exact reason that Javert in Les Miserables is so compelling: despite the fact that Russell Crowe is not a strong singer, we nevertheless know that the character he portrays has a point. Jean Valjean has broken the law, and he deserves to go back to prison. We don’t like the law because we intuitively sense that the law is actually subverting justice, but we understand that Valjean’s adversary Javert is nevertheless acting within the scope of the law.

In fact, this word antidikos is used one other time in the New Testament to refer to Satan: “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary (antidikos) the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Pet. 5:8). The Hebrew word “Satan” actually means “adversary,” and Satan is depicted (especially in the book of Job) as someone who brings accusations against God’s elect.

How to Seek Justice When You are Unrighteous

It’s this last use of the word justice that creates what my old preaching professor called “the tension in the text.” Here, Jesus is drawing our attention to something that should unsettle us. The tension here is this: if the woman represents us, then Jesus is portraying us as unjust people who are seeking justice. We are pursuing justice, but yet we are ourselves in the wrong. The question we ought to ask is this: What happens to us if we actually get justice?

In the Bible, justice is a big deal. If the operative word of the Old Testament is shalom (representing more than simply the absence of conflict, but the prosperity and flourishing of humankind), then the operative word in the New Testament is dikaios—that is, the fulfillment of the demands of dike, justice. When the righteousness/justice of God fills the whole earth to wipe away sin, death, and Satan forever, then God’s elect will live in perfect shalom with him for all eternity.

But what if we find ourselves standing on the wrong side of justice? What hope do we have if, at the end of time, our great Adversary Satan is able to accuse us of injustice that we ourselves have perpetrated, whether against other people or against God himself? Why should we not be swept away with the wicked? As we begin to ponder these questions, we begin to achieve the desperation that we talked about yesterday (the desperation that leads us to beat God down in our prayers) fairly quickly.

The short answer is that Jesus himself came to establish justice for us through living a perfect life that even Satan could not accuse, and through dying on the cross to take our penalty for all the accusations that Satan hurls against us. Through Jesus, God gives us a perfect righteousness so that we have nothing to fear on the last day.

The longer answer will be our topic for tomorrow’s post.

God Wants You to Beat Him Down with Prayer

Post Series on Luke 18:1-8:

  • God Wants You to Beat Him Down with Prayer
  • How to Seek Justice When You are Also Guilty
  • Do You Believe in God’s Love Enough to Pray?

In Luke 18, Jesus tells a parable about prayer. It is not clear whether Jesus told the parable to his disciples (to whom he had been speaking in the immediately preceding passage; Luke 17:22, but see Luke 17:20), or whether he was speaking to the crowds that followed him during his ministry (Luke 18:9).

Despite the fact that we do not know Jesus’ audience, Luke is explicit about the purpose of Jesus’ parable: “And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart” (Luke 18:1). Here is the entire parable:

1And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart. 2He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected man. 3And there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Give me justice against my adversary.’ 4For a while he refused, but afterward he said to himself, ‘Though I neither fear God nor respect man, 5yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.’” (Luke 18:1-5)

In this story, Jesus characterizes the judge as a man who “neither feared God nor respected man,” a characterization that the judge himself acknowledges in v. 4. The description here is of someone who lives entirely for his own purposes. He cares neither for God, nor for the people whom he has been appointed to judge. In v. 6 (which we will look at more closely tomorrow), Jesus calls the man an “unrighteous judge.”

Oddly, though, Jesus uses this unrighteous judge to represent God. The point isn’t that God is an unrighteous judge; rather, this is an example of Jesus’ “how much more” logic. In other words, if this unrighteous judge, who neither fears God nor respects man, acts to dispense justice, then how much more will the righteous Judge that we have in heaven act to procure justice for his people? Again, we will look much more closely tomorrow at what Jesus has to say about the justice that Jesus is mentioning in this parable. For now, however, let’s focus in on what Jesus is teaching us about prayer.

Jesus means for the widow in this story to represent us—not necessarily to represent us as we are, but to represent us as we ought to be. We are the widow who stands in desperate need of justice, with an adversary who is making our lives miserable. And, like the widow, our recourse is clear: prayer.

The widow, however, does not make it a point of reminding herself to pray once a week, perhaps while she is at work. She does not grumble and work up motivation to pray for justice on a semi-daily basis. She doesn’t grow bored with prayer, wishing that she could be doing something—anything!—else. She isn’t mumbling dead words that she memorized as a child but hasn’t given thought to since, and she isn’t trying to impress the judge with her vocabulary and intricate knowledge of the law.

She simply pleads. Repeatedly. Desperately. Even violently. In fact, the only reason the unrighteous judge relents at all is that he is actually frightened that the woman might “beat me down by her continual coming” (v. 5). Literally, he is worried that she will strike him and give him a black eye.

So, what is Jesus teaching us from this parable? First, he is teaching us “that we ought always to pray and not lose heart.” If the audience of our prayers is a righteous judge, how much more should we continue to cry out to our God for justice than this widow whose chances of convincing the unrighteous judge were so slim? Our God cares about justice, so why should we ever stop praying to him for it?

Second, we need to learn to pray with violent desperation. God actually wants us to beat him down with prayer. Elsewhere, Jesus says that “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force” (Matt. 11:12). Jesus isn’t suggesting that we ought to launch crusades (as this verse has been misinterpreted in the past), but he is instead describing (in part) what our prayer lives ought to look like. If the kingdom of heaven (or justice in Luke 18) is worth having, then we ought to take it by force through our prayers.

Desperation is, however, not something that we can conjure up at will. Third, then, if we are going to pray with the fervency of this widow, then we need to understand our condition as keenly as she does. She does not stop coming to her judge because she feels the close, dogged pursuit of her adversary.

So how do we cultivate the kind of desperation that will drive us to pray like this widow? We will answer that question in tomorrow’s blog post.

Jesus is Greater Than…

In Matthew 12, Jesus states three times that “something greater than _____ is here.”

First, he says in Matthew 12:6 that

I tell you, something greater than the temple is here.

Second (and third), he says in Matthew 12:41-42 that

The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and something greater than Jonah is here. The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here.

So, Jesus is greater than the temple, Jonah, and Solomon.

He’s greater than the priesthood (the temple), the prophets (Jonah), and the kings (Solomon). Each of these Old Testament offices pointed to something greater than themselves, and the Greater-Than One is now here.

M’Cheyne Bible Reflection on Matthew 2 (January 2)

Genesis 2; Matthew 2; Ezra 2; Acts 2

As I noted yesterday in the reflection on Matthew 1, Matthew’s gospel is written specifically to explain to the Jews that Jesus is the Messiah. What makes Matthew 2 interesting, then, is its international focus.

First, Matthew tells us of “wise men from the east” (2:1) who had followed the great star all the way to Jerusalem in order to find the child whose birth the star announced. When they found Jesus, they worshiped him and gave him lavish gifts fit for a king.

But Israel’s king? Herod is unaware of the significance of the star, and has to consult the chief priests and scribes to determine where this child might be. Then, he sends the wise men on to find Jesus for him so that he could snuff out this new threat to his own power.

God preserves Jesus, though, by warning the wise men not to return to Herod, and then by telling Joseph to flee with Mary and Jesus to Egypt. This journey is the second international reference in Matthew 2. Just as God had brought Israel safely out from Egypt under Moses, so now God was bringing his Son Jesus safely out from Egypt now. During this time, Herod went on a rampage, murdering every little boy under two years old in an attempt to destroy Jesus.

This is where we find the third international reference, arising in a prophecy quoted from Jeremiah:

“A voice was heard in Ramah,
weeping and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.” (Matt. 2:18)

Originally, the prophet Jeremiah had spoken these words when Judah had been conquered by the Empire of Babylon in the 6th century BC. During the worst parts of this terrible time in Jewish history, the Babylonians burned down Jerusalem (including the temple), slaughtering men, women, and children, and carrying off some of the remaining survivors to exile in Babylon.

In Matthew 2, we see that Jesus is the hope of all nations, so that wise men from the east come to bring him gifts and to worship him. Then, we see that the nation of Egypt served as a place of refuge for Jesus to escape the wrath of Israel’s evil king, just as Joseph had gone to Egypt to escape his violent brothers. Finally, we see a memory of the wrath and destruction of Babylon, the sworn enemy of the people of God.

It is into this situation, with Babylon’s shadow still too close for safety, that Jesus enters the world. Jesus has come not primarily to be served with gifts and royal treatment, but to defeat Babylon forever on behalf of God’s people.