Wisdom & Revelation: Ephesians 1.15-23

Some time ago I found myself in a four-day-long meeting of ministry leaders in suburban Chicago. That’s not the cool downtown area; that’s the part that’s like suburban Dallas, Atlanta or Houston. You can sit in traffic in any of those places.

On about the third day, as I sat soaking in the dopamine  of the florescent lights, I received a texted picture from my wife and three-year-old daughter. They were on the beach, soaking in the sun, and without me!

What do I really want? I asked myself. How can I change things, so that next year I am with them, which is far better? 

That’s not a bad question to ask ourselves as we gather with our church families this Sunday. What do we want and expect from the Christian life? And, what do we want for each other? And, how are we praying for one another to that end? 

After greeting his Ephesian recipients, and offering praise to God for all the spiritual blessings we have in Christ, Paul gives thanksgiving for his Ephesian brothers and informs them of the content of his prayers for them.

Ephesians 1.15-23 is a good passage to guide us in our prayers for one another. Here’s a few takeaways to guide us toward that end:

Don’t cease to pray for one another (:15-16a). This is Paul’s offer of thanksgiving for them, and there’s tension here. Having really trusted in Christ ( … I’ve heard of your faith … your love toward all the saints), they now need Paul to intercede for them. Apparently, there’s more in the Christian life that they might not get; there’s a present struggle, an outcome that’s not yet decided. There’s tension here.

Pray that we would each know God, as He’s revealed in Jesus (:16b-18a). This is the content of Paul’s prayer. The core idea is found in verse 17, … making remembrance at the time of my prayers, so that God may give to you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him …

“Spirit” is the Holy Spirit, who has sealed them at the time of their faith in Christ. He already indwells them. What Paul is praying for is specific manifestations of characteristic qualities of the Spirit’s work to be known increasingly in the lives of the Ephesians. What are these?

“Wisdom,” for one. When used to describe an art, like carpentry, wisdom describes an unusual ability in practical skill. But, when describing the intellect, wisdom describes the ability to discern the true nature of things. Wisdom from the Spirit shows us what God is all about in our lives.

“Revelation,” for another. This word describes what is unveiled or disclosed having been previously hidden. Revelation operates in the knowledge of Him (:17) and helps believers discern the Spirit’s work, especially since the Ephesians have had the “eyes of their hearts enlightened” (:18).

It’s like Paul is saying to the Ephesians: “When you trusted Christ and were sealed by the Spirit you saw life in a totally new way. You saw into the nature of spiritual things. You knew the difference between right and wrong. You had a conscience before God. You began to learn God’s will. Now, I’m praying MORE of that discernment for you, so that you can know God better!

Are we praying this for one another? Are we praying that God will use the events of our lives to help us know Him better?

Pray that we would each know God’s hope, God’s riches and God’s power (:18b-23). This is Paul’s purpose for his prayer, the result of wisdom and revelation.

He wants them to know the hope of his calling. God’s calling took place in the past, and understanding this results in hope. He wants them to know the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints. This is Christ’s inheritance, earned at the cross, but not yet possessed by Jesus in the fullest sense. Understanding that we share in the possession earned by our big brother, Jesus, and have this in store for us likewise brings us security in our relationship with God.

And, Paul wants us to know … the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might (:19).

There’s four words for “power” here, translated “power” (potential power); “working” (power in operation); “might” (dominion); and, “great” (power that can be expressed).

This reminds me of the tiger I once saw at the Henry Doorley Zoo in Omaha. Standing two feet away from the great beast (on the other side of the glass, of course), I sensed the potential power of the great cat, who paced back and forth restlessly. I shuddered at the thought of his active power that might be displayed, if ever I stepped on the other side of the glass. I recognized his majesty of the domain that included everything in the area, exception the zookeeper, I suppose. And, I recognized the transitive nature of the power that could be expressed (thus, the glass).

Verses 20-23 give us three examples of God’s power in action. First, God raised Jesus from the dead (:20). This took Jesus from being dead to the right hand of the Father … far above all rule and authority and power and dominion … (:21) Second, God put all things under the feet of Christ. This is dueling language that describes the victor who has his enemy under his foot and is yet to make the fatal sword plunge. And, finally, God gave Jesus to the Church to be its head. In many ways, verse 22b introduces the rest of the letter. The power of God in the life of the believer is not the power to change circumstances, but the power for a changed life!

So, what should be our prayer for one another, in light of God’s spiritual blessing? 

Paul guides us here: Our prayer for one another should be that each would know God (personally … increasingly … intimately), as God has revealed Himself in Christ. 


Here’s a few questions to help us think more about the Wisdom and Revelation from God that we must desire for one another:

What is your impression of this passage? What about it is still unclear or requires more explanation? 

When you pray for another believer, how do you usually pray? Do you pray only the problems would be solved and circumstances addressed? Or, do you pray that your fellow believer might really know God, in the midst of circumstances? 

What do you think about the suggestion that the Ephesians (and, us!) only MIGHT receive this enabling form the Spirit? Is there potential power from God that we sometimes don’t receive? 

Where do you need to see the power of God in your life?  (We remember here that this is the power to know God in Christ and to see our lives change). 



Spiritual Blessing, in Christ: Ephesians 1.3-14

Some time ago I was asked to serve in the wedding of a dear friend. In the wedding, the bride’s father was asked to pray. While those in attendance stood, dressed uncomfortably and in the August heat of Texas, the bride’s father began in eternity past with the communal counsel of the Godhead, then moved to the election of Christ’s church before the foundation of the world, then entered created time through the redemptive work of Christ, then came to the birth of the bride, then her effectual calling by the Spirit, then the preaching of the Gospel, then her trust in Jesus and baptism in the Spirit, and finally, the groom.

That was quite the prayer for those standing there. We were one blessed, but exhausted, wedding party that day! …

The Apostle Paul does something like that in Ephesians 1.3-14. Only here, we get to reflect, in a more contemplative way, on the basis for our blessing in Christ. Why should we praise God for every spiritual blessing in Christ? In this great, Trinitarian eulogy of redemption, Paul gives us three reasons:

The elective choice of the Father (:3-6). Blessed be the God and Father or our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places. 

“Blessed” means “deserving praise, appreciation, honor.” This is not a wish, but a declaration! God IS blessed, and He turns around and shares this blessing with us, in Christ!

We get a very important little phrase here. “In Christ” is used (with its variants) 39 times in Ephesians. Ever played tag, kids? You know how there’s a base that operates like a special place? You stand in the “sphere” (the place) of base, and you can’t be tagged. That’s what’s its like, “in Christ”. God has moved you into the sphere of Christ, if you’ve trusted in Jesus. Your struggles take place in the material world, but the source of our power is in the heavenly places where Christ is.

The redemptive work of the Son (:7-12). This is the second reason Paul gives for our praise of God for every spiritual blessing in Christ.

In verses 7-12 I’ve circled three words in my Bible. REDEMPTION means “to set free on the basis of a ransom paid to God by Christ.” This is what Jesus did on the cross. Jesus’ cross-work results in forgiveness of sin, because the Father accepts Jesus’ perfect sacrifice of Himself. The sacrifice takes places through the blood of Christ. In other words, the life. In the Bible, blood always indicates life. Pour it out, and you have death. All this is in accordance with God’s riches which He shares with us.

MYSTERY means “something in ages past, hidden in God, but now revealed.” This is what the work of Christ makes clear. It reveals what God was about all long, how rumors and prophecies of a redeemer told over long ages are true, and how God’s plan was set in motion by Christ. This included the bringing together of things in heaven and earth under the Lordship of Jesus through a new creation.

INHERITANCE … This tells of how believers enter into God’s plan. Our inheritance is by the purpose of God, because He wants to do it … To the praise of His glory!

The sealing of the Spirit (:13-14). The Spirit enters the life of the believer to demonstrate ownership by God. The picture is of a seal that functions like a signature. His seal, His ownership. We are His.

Notice what has happened here. The Father’s choice took place before the world began. The Son’s work took place in time, but before our birth. The Spirit’s sealing took place at the time we trusted in Jesus, … when you heard the word of truth and believed … . The Spirit assures us that we are “in Christ,” until Jesus comes for us.

Ephesians 1.3-14—really three messages in one, it seems to me—doesn’t strike me as a particularly difficult passage. But, there are things here that I find particularly difficult.

In my student days my group of friends knew a family who owned a lake house, and we’d sometimes retire to the country for a restful afternoon. Dr. Deibler, long-time professor of church history at Dallas Seminary, lived in the community. Long since with the Lord now, he must have been in his eighties then. One afternoon, we were lounging in the front room with Dr. Deibler in his recliner who was holding court. This all delighted him, so I threw him a question I knew he would enjoy.

“Dr. Deibler,” I said. “How does it work: God’s sovereignty and man’s free will?” His answer stayed with me and satisfies my mind to this day.

After letting the question sink in for a minute, Dr. Deibler lifted himself (with some effort) from the recliner and moved slowly toward the bedroom door. Before entering, he lifted his hand to trace the words on the doorframe above: “Whosoever shall enter …” Then, he passed through the door, closing it behind him.

We were left, wondering if, like Elijah, he’d passed from this life. Finally, after this dramatic pause, Dr. Deibler appeared again, reentered the room, turned around to trace on the very same doorframe the words, ” … But, for the grace of God …”

The picture stands in my mind as the most satisfying explanation I’ve yet heard of my responsibility in God’s plan of redemption. When I trusted Christ it looked for all the world like I was making a free and independent choice to follow Christ. And so I was, according to my new nature. But, when I entered the room of the sphere of Christ and turned around to survey God’s plan of redemption, it became apparent that God knew me all along. He has been at work for my redemption since before the foundation of the world and through His coordinated work as Father, as Son and as Spirit.

The reason we should praise God for every spiritual blessing in Christ is the elective choice of the Father, the redemptive work of the Son, and the sealing of the Spirit … to the praise of His glory!


Here’s a few questions to help you process this amazing passage:

What about Eph 1.3-14 do you find most amazing, even mind-blowing? 

How does it make you feel to know that God was about your redemption even before you were born? 

Are there parts about God’s plan of redemption that you still struggle with? Why do you think this is so? 

How does this passage help you feel secure “in Christ”? 




Grace & Peace: Ephesians 1.1-2

This week I read, with some interest, a description of the Voyager Space Program. Voyager 2, the second of the two spacecraft, was launched in 1977 to study Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, and finished its work in our solar system in 1989 with a close flyby of Neptune. At this writing, Voyager 2 studies the outer heliosphere of our system and will soon (some think …) enter deep interstellar space.

My interest, however, as a word-loving liberal arts type, lies with the Golden Record that Voyager 2 carries. Complete with symbolic directions for operation, the record contains pictures of earth, recordings of nature sounds from our planet, a 90-minute recording of music from earth (including Chuck Berry’s “Johnny Be Good!”) and, my favorite, greetings from earth in 55 languages. These are supposed to be comprehensive, revealing who we are and what we’re all about as Earthlings.

“Hello, from the children of earth,” the English greetings goes. (Seems like we might have done better, but it was the work of a committee.)

My question as we come together in our churches on Sunday is simply this: If we were to leave the briefest of messages for another church in the future and far away, and that message were to describe who we are and what we’re all about, what would that message be?

The Apostle Paul knew something of this challenge in opening his Epistle to the Ephesians. In this (I would argue), the most comprehensive of all his letters, he greets the Ephesians (and us, by association as God’s people), with three words:

Grace … and peace

This comprehensive greeting captures the entire letter. “Grace” … God’s unmerited favor, to you. This is, if any word is, the Gospel in one word. And, Paul extends it to the Ephesians, and us, to describe God’s work in bringing us back to relationship with Himself through the active obedience of His Son, Jesus.

“Peace” … the Shalom, the well-being of God. Yours now, because of God’s grace.

These words taken together describe God’s part (the active cause) and our part (the reactive condition) of our new status in Christ and our new relationship with God and each other. In these words we have a microcosm of what Paul will lay out in the following six chapters: “Live together as God’s people (peace!) in the manner you’ve been called by God (grace!). … walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called … (4.1).

So, maybe our comprehensive greeting to our future selves in our Christ-following children and grandchildren is simply this: GRACE and PEACE. Maybe, that’s your greeting this week to any fellow, Christ-following, believing friend you meet.

So, say it! Find somebody, and greet them with GRACE and PEACE. Then, read the rest of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, beginning with Paul’s blessing in verses 3-14 that includes his magisterial description of our new position in Christ.



The following questions will be helpful as you get starting thinking about Ephesians:

Reflect a bit on Paul’s three-word greeting. How does GRACE and PEACE describe the Gospel? 

Read Eph 1.1-2. Paul also describes himself, as the sender of the letter, and the Ephesians, as its recipients. How does he describe both himself and the Ephesians, as those who are able to share grace and peace? 

Thinking ahead a bit, why do you speculate that you are able to share grace and peace with everyone else who is “in Christ”? 

Thinking personally and practically, are you really able to say “grace and peace” to every other professing believer in your life? If your not, how would further comprehension of God’s grace and peace change your relationship with that person or those people? 

Meeting the LORD this New Year: Psalm 132

What are you looking forward to this New Year?

Our family does this thing every few years. Call it “family visioning”. We gather everyone together and list out what we consider our strengths, our growth areas, and dreams. Back in 2015—before we’d caught the slightest whiff of Northwoods life—we listed out our dreams: more functional kitchen … chickens … wood-burning stove (that was mine!) … becoming better fixer-uppers … and living on a ranch (one of the boys).

Uncanny. With the exception of the last item (please, no!), the LORD has blessed our desires. He didn’t have too, but here we are …

Psalm 132 is a great psalm for New Year’s, because it’s about looking back to someone with great desires whom God blessed. It’s also, then, about looking forward to the fullness of what God is doing.

One of the Psalms of Ascent (Psalms 122-134) which the Nation would sing as they’d go up to the Temple Mount to meet with the LORD, Psalm 132 looks back to 2 Samuel 7.  In that earlier passage David (after conquering his enemies and moving to Jerusalem) aspired to build a dwelling place (a meeting place) for the LORD, who at that time chose to localize His presence above the Ark of the Covenant, to which His people could come and meet with Him.

You remember the story. In that same passage, God stopped David, saying, You’re not to build the Temple for me, but your son will. But, further:

… your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever (2 Sam 7.16)

This, of course, looks to Jesus, who reigns presently, and is coming back to take His throne! But, for Israel, before the coming of Jesus, the goodness and rightness of Israel’s hope to meet with the LORD is brought about by David’s desire to build a dwelling place for the LORD and by the LORD’s promise of the Messiah to dwell with His people forever.

For us in our churches today, Psalm 132 gives us a clue what we ought to be looking forward to in the coming year.

This New Year we get to look forward to gathering with God’s people! The psalmist appeals to God to remember and honor how David wanted to make a special place to meet with the LORD (:1-5).

I will not enter my house or get into my bed … I will not give sleep to my eyes or slumber to my eyelids … until I find a place for the LORD (:3-5).

The psalmist, then, goes on to record Israel’s response in following David and, finally, a further appeal to God to accept the present king, whomever he might have been at the time:

For the sake of your servant David, do not turn away the face of your anointed one (:10).

I catch a little insecurity here, don’t you? Of course, God’s promise of remaining on the throne was conditioned on obedience for each of David’s kingly descendants. Those who did not seek the LORD (and, most didn’t) were removed.

This brings us to the reason we can look forward to gathering in our church’s this New Year. God will meet with His people, because of the active obedience of Christ! And, more, God meets with us, because He chooses to dwell in the midst of His people whom Paul calls the Body of Christ. Your church is a local chapter of this Body, and you can meet there with God’s people without insecurity, because of Jesus’ work.

Great as that is, there’s something else to which this psalm helps us look forward.

This New Year we, together, get to anticipate Christ’s return. The second half of the psalm records God’s response to David: God’s oath to David (:11-12), God’s choosing of Zion (Jerusalem), to which His Messiah will come (:13-16), and God’s securing of the throne for David in Messiah (:17-18).

For the Nation, as for us, this is yet future. Ah, but there’s so much to look forward to. Note the word pictures: clothing, indicating salvation and righteousness … a horn, a picture from the animal world, indicating dominance … a lamp, showing revelation from God … and then, the crown. Jesus, who reigns presently, will return to establish His reign!

There are three great holidays for Christians, you know. There’s Christmas, which we’ve just celebrated, when we celebrate Christ’s coming. There’s Easter, when we celebrate the finished work of Christ. And then, there’s the Return of Christ.

The last is future. But when we gather with God’s people in our churches, we get to remind one another that God’s plan is really going somewhere: Jesus is really born! … He really died and was raised! … And, He’s really returning for us!

The Old Testament worshipper could celebrate David’s desire to meet with the LORD and then look forward to the fullness of David’s desire, yet to be fulfilled. We get more of the fullness, and together (with God’s people), we get to anticipate the completion of God’s plan for His people.

Let’s look forward this New Year to gathering with God’s people and together anticipating Christ’s return. 


How about you? What are you looking forward to in the new year? 

How does Psalm 132 change the kind of thing that you desire about 2018?

How does this Old Testament psalm about the Temple worship of the Nation of Israel help you make the connection to Christ? What is still difficult about making the connection to where we are in the Church today? 

Besides the truth that Jesus is coming back, what other truths do you encourage each other in when God’s people meet together in churches? 



Jesus, Light to All Peoples: Isaiah 9.1-7

I’ve been thinking about why Jesus came. And, as I’ve been pairing my favorite Advent passages with answers to this question, I’ve returned to the Hallelujah Chorus of the Old Testament:

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light/Those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone … For to us a child is born/ to us a son has been given/And the government shall be upon his shoulder/And his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace … (Is 9.2 … 6, ESV)

And, as such, Jesus came to be a light to all peoples!

In context, we find the passage at a time of great darkness for Israel. King Ahaz is on the throne of Judah (734 B.C.). The Israel/Syrian alliance approaches Judah from the northeast. Philistia and Moab press in from the southwest and southeast. God promises to deliver Judah and prompts Isaiah to urge Ahaz to ask God for a sign of this coming deliverance. Even though God is often stingy with His signs and this is special, Ahaz doesn’t want any part of God’s deliverance, but would rather appeal to Assyria.

The LORD responds with His sign anyway. Assyria will play its role in the discipline of both Israel and Judah (7.18), and Israel and Syria will not overcome (7.7-9), but the LORD will visit His people through the birth of a son; and, this to preserve the Nation of Israel and transform the nations.

The Sign of Immanuel is a far-reaching promise that gathers speed throughout the Book of Isaiah and the rest of the Old Testament, finally culminating in the birth of Christ.

All this took place to fulfill what the LORD has spoken by the prophet: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel (Matt 1.22-23; Is 7.14)

Isaiah 9, then, simply tells us about the Person and rule of Jesus. At His return Israel’s time of darkness is over (:1-2), the battle with darkness is over (:3), the oppression of darkness is over (:4-5), and God will be with His people in the Person of Immanuel (:6-7).

There’s a sense in which the Sign of Immanuel isn’t fulfilled yet. The full reality—when Jesus brings in peace and darkness has been transformed to light—awaits the return of Christ. Even so, those who have trusted Christ have moved from darkness to light:

For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shown in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Cor 4.6)

How about you? Where has Jesus met you in your darkness this year? The spiritual darkness of unbelief, the mental darkness of depression, the material darkness of broken things, the physical darkness of bodies that don’t work, the financial darkness of income not matching bills, the social darkness of relationships grown cold?

Then … Where in your life are you trusting Jesus, Light to all Peoples, to be light to you in your darkness in this coming year? 

Isaiah 9 describes Immanuel, Light to the Nation in darkness, fulfilled once at Jesus’ birth, completed at His return. And, even as this is God’s work among the nations, God’s solution to my darkness is to enter my world in the Person of Jesus and transform me, by faith, to share in His light. 

May God bless you each richly this Advent Season as you join me in thinking about why Jesus came!

Godly Compassion: Jonah 4.5-11

Do you know somebody who doesn’t know their right from their left? That is, do you know someone who is clueless about God? Then, what does your response to them say about your heart for God?

This week at Woodland we’ll leave Jonah behind, but not the lessons learned. In fact, we’ll see that Jonah (fish and all) is a fine entryway to Christmas.

Jonah 5.5-11, Episode 7 in the book, stands alone as a kind of epilogue. Not parallel to any other scene (as every other scene is), this post-climactic scene provides the account of how God schools Jonah to leave him with something about Himself to ponder. The result of God’s object lesson revealing Jonah’s double-standard is the vindication of God’s justice and the demonstration of God’s compassionate mercy.

Jonah puts God’s compassionate mercy to the test (:5). Following God’s decision not to destroy Nineveh, “Jonah went out of the city and sat to the east of the city …” (:5a). Jonah’s immediate departure from his most recent dealings with God harken back to his original flight from God (1.3). He’s back to his old ways, and it doesn’t seem to matter whether he goes west in a ship or east of the city to sit; Jonah has run from God.

In a device of his own making, Jonah constructs a makeshift booth, and enjoys its “shade,” a word used elsewhere in the Hebrew to describe God’s protection. Such an effort would have reminded Jewish readers of Israel’s wilderness wanderings.

What’s Jonah after? He’s awaiting the fate of the city, and this seems strange in light of God’s recent pardon of the Ninevites. There’s two possibilities. Either Jonah is waiting for Nineveh to fail in its obedience, so that God will judge the city, or Jonah is daring Yahweh to choose Nineveh over him. “Either them or me, God!” we might hear Jonah say. In either case, Jonah continues to believe that God’s mercy is compromising His justice, and he doesn’t like this aspect of God’s character one bit.

The LORD God provides an object lesson to vindicate His justice and show His compassionate mercy (:6-8). While Jonah begins to cook in the east wilderness, ” … the LORD God appointed a plant and made it come up over Jonah …” (:6). This is God’s mercy, and God has “appointed” the plant, just like He once appointed the fish. Both serve as props in the story to save Jonah, the first to save him physically, the second spiritually. (Literally, the text reads, ” … to save him from his evil”.)

Jonah is “exceedingly glad because of the plant …” Jonah likes mercy when he receives it, but he wants everybody else to get what they deserve.

Then, God appointed a worm to show Jonah justice (:7). This worm “smote” (a military term) the plant, and God’s provision of mercy withered and died. The irony here, of course, is that God (for the purpose of argument and instruction) has done to Jonah the very thing Jonah wanted for the city. “Here’s the justice you want!” God might be heard to say.

God’s appointment of the east wind simply shows Jonah the condition of his own heart. The sun “smote” him (since God’s instructional mercy is removed), and Jonah is ready to die again. “My death is better than life!” Jonah complains. Jonah has turned inward, even as God looks outward.

God poses a question and leaves Jonah to ponder His compassionate mercy (:9-11). “Do you do well to be angry for the plant?” God asks Jonah. Notice, they’re no longer discussing the city. “Yes, I do well to be angry, angry enough to die!” Jonah responds. Notice, they’re now not even discussing the plant.

They’re actually discussing God’s character. Jonah is right in that God is being arbitrary in removing His mercy from him. What Jonah doesn’t get is that this is what he wants God to do in removing mercy for the city. Jonah has just experienced a small dose of what he’s demanding for the city, and he doesn’t like it one bit. What is in play here, really, is not God’s character even, but the condition of Jonah’s heart.

Then, Jonah is left to ponder God’s compassionate mercy (:10-11). You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow … And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?

The Torah warned Israel not to turn to the right or the left. These were those who received divine revelation. But, the Ninevites hadn’t even heard from God! Shouldn’t God have mercy on the clueless? And, when his compassionate mercy extends to all His creation? … And, much cattle. 

The approach to our final major lesson from Jonah yields a number of implications. First, Israel was indeed God’s covenant people, but not at the expense of God’s own glory. In time, God would use Assyria to judge His own people, Israel. And then, God would judge Assyria, as the Book of Nahum recounts. In the end, God shows mercy—to nations and to people. But, God is on no one’s side; He is holy to Himself, and on His own side. Jonah came to understand this; he just didn’t like it.

Second, God’s mission is broader than Jonah wanted to imagine. The Book of Jonah anticipates our New Covenant relationship with God in that it anticipates a time when all those united by faith in Christ will receive God’s mercy, despite nationality or ethnicity. Again, Jonah didn’t want to go there.

Finally, there is a narrowness in God’s mercy, even as there is a wideness. The Apostle Paul, in addressing both Jews and Gentiles in the Book of Romans asks, ” … did they [Jews] stumble in order that they might fall? By no means! Rather through trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles …” (Rm 11.11a). Jonah’s stubbornness, and the stubbornness of those like him, resulted in God’s character being revealed to the nations. “Hardness” for the physical sons of Abraham will continue, we’re promised, until all the spiritual Ninevites have come in (Rm 11.25).

Important to grasp is that God’s mercy, wide as creation though it be, is not universal. This salvation is found in Christ! And, it is Christ’s obedience that merits mercy rather than justice for all those who rest in His “shade”.

For those who are “in Christ” the message of Jonah challenges us to show the very compassionate mercy of God to those who don’t know Him. This will involve both God’s justice and mercy, seen in the work of Christ and representing the very character of our compassionate God.

My response to God’s merciful plan must involve representing the LORD God who justice and compassionate mercy is seen in the Gospel. 

Here’s a few aspects of Jonah’s final scene that can be talked about in a small group:

How is Jonah’s final attempt to get away from God just another example of man’s age-old attempt to operate apart from God? 

How does God’s lesson for Jonah instruct us regarding the way we, sometimes, want God to judge others while showing us mercy?

Who are those in your life who “don’t know their left hand from their right hand”? 

How does the Book of Jonah help you understand how you’re to interact with those you’ve identified above? 

Mercy: Jonah 4.1-4

This week at Woodland we reach the crisis-point of the Book of Jonah. And, we ask with Jonah: How can Gods mercy on sinners operate without compromising God’s justice?

Miraculous as the repentance of Nineveh’s king and people was, that wasn’t the high point of the book. We come to the high point in 4.1-4 where, just like earlier in the fish, Jonah will meet with God. Earlier, in the fish, Jonah was motivated to pray in response to God’s mercy on him—with the result that Jonah was finally ready to go to Nineveh to help God judge Israel’s enemies. In the parallel episode of 4.1-4, now outside the spared city of Nineveh, Jonah prays again, this time in response to God’s mercy on somebody else.

Jonah’s prayer finally reveals the reason Jonah has been running all along. There’s something in God’s character Jonah finds unacceptable: … for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster (:2b).

The reader now learns something that God knew all along. Apparently, Jonah has had long discourse with God, and God knows Jonah’s heart. Also known to every Jewish reader of Jonah is that Jonah’s description of God is very nearly a word-for-word description of God coming from the LORD Himself in Exodus 34.6-7. That scene follows the Golden Calf incident where Moses has interceded for Israel: Turn from your burning anger and relent from this disaster against your people, Moses has prayed to God (Exodus 32).

After God relented, Moses interceded for the people and prays once more, revealing his reason for confidence before God: Consider too that this nation is your people … For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people? Is it not in your going with us, so that we are distinct, I and your people, from every other people on the face of the earth (Exodus 33).

Jonah knows this scene. He understands this scene to mean that Yahweh is on his side, and this becomes the basis of his claim to righteousness against his enemies.

Then, Yahweh does something unthinkable: He pardons Israel’s enemies at Nineveh!

This confirms what Jonah has suspected all along: YAHWEH IS ON NOBODY’S SIDE! I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy (Exodus 33).

Jonah has learned that God is not a domestic, regional deity. And, it’s enough to blow his world! In fact, Jonah wants to die, because he can’t see how God’s mercy doesn’t compromise God’s justice, and challenge who he perceives himself to be as one chosen by God.

God deals tenderly with Jonah, proving that He is compassionate and long-suffering. And the LORD said, “Do you do well to be angry?”

Sometimes we’re like-wise angry with God’s mercy. Like Jonah (or, maybe, like a jealous two-year-old who doesn’t want to share her mommy with other children), we want to keep our small god, who will vindicate us by judging those who oppose us.

Jonah couldn’t see how God’s mercy doesn’t compromise God’s justice, but we can see this. Where do we see this? How about the cross of Christ where God’s justice fell on Christ, and where all those who take refuge in Christ find mercy?

The cross of Christ is what Jonah couldn’t see, because of his place in God’s redemptive plan, but also because he didn’t want to see it by faith.

My response to God’s merciful plan MUST include reflection on the cross of Christ where both justice and mercy are displayed. 


Think about a few questions to apply this passage from Jonah:

Where do you most struggle with God’s mercy on other people? Has there been a time when you’ve seen God bless someone you didn’t consider deserving? 

How did the incidents you described above challenge your identity as one who belongs to God? 

How does the cross of Christ help you understand how God’s justice and mercy work together? 

What do you think of the idea that GOD ISN’T ON ANYBODY’S SIDE. He’s on His own side, and He “shows mercy on whom He shows mercy” (Exodus 34.7; Jonah 4.3).

How does reflection on the cross of Christ help you show mercy to others? 


Response: Jonah 3.3b-10

Greetings, friends! We’re moving through a favorite time of year for me. It’s that annual pathway between our Thanksgiving season and the beginning of Advent—our time of anticipation. Super that we can travel take this road together!

As we do, we’re pressing toward the end of Jonah. This week’s passage is about bad preaching, the power of God’s message—despite the poor messenger—and the scope of God’s merciful plan that includes both bad messengers and the worst of sinners. Within the mirror-image structure of Jonah Episode 5 (3.3b-10) is the parallel counterpart to Episode 2 (1.4-17). In both passages, Jonah is with Gentiles who appease God’s wrath—the Mariners by casting Jonah into the sea, the Ninevites through their changed hearts.

Having responded, at last, to God’s commission to preach in Nineveh, Jonah turns up in Nineveh. The response to God’s merciful plan (despite Jonah’s half-hearted effort) is repentance on the part of some of Israel’s most violent enemies.

Nineveh responds to God’s message (:3b-6). From the outset it’s made clear that God rules Nineveh. The Masoretic Text (the standard from which our English translations come) makes this clear with the little phrase “to God”: Now, Nineveh was a great city to God.” (This phrase is, unfortunately, left out for stylistic reasons in most of our translations.) This “great” city belonging to God is such that it requires (literal reading) a walk of three days to visit the place. Paralleling Jonah’s three days in the fish, we see that Jonah’s deathly experience now results in the glorious opportunity to preach God’s message for three days!

But, what does Jonah make of this? Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s journey (:4). Jonah only goes into the city one day. This is a one-and-done!  A half-hearted effort!

Then, there’s the message. Possibly, it’s the message God gave to him (see 3.2), but does Jonah get it? Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown! (:5). The verb in question can be translated actively “to overthrow,” as in “to destroy”. Or, it can be translated passively (and, it is passive in the original) as “to turn”. But, turn to what? Jonah seems to believe that he’s been given a message of pure and certain judgement. God, it seems, intends to communicate the real possibility of judgment, but also the certain extension of mercy to those who will turn to Him.

And, look what happens. Despite the imperfect messenger, Nineveh responds! And, as His message is delivered, God dismantles human power structures (:5) Repentance begins with the common people who fast and cover themselves with sacks: … from the greatest of them to the least of them. God is doing something amazing—not because of the messenger, but in spite of him and because of the message itself.

Then, the King of Nineveh hears the message from others, not Jonah. Jonah never got to the palace, it seems. The king removes his vestments and sits in ashes, just like Jonah won’t. In all of this, we’re getting a clearer picture for why Jonah has responded so poorly all along: Jonah misunderstands the extent of God’s rule and thus the scope of God’s compassionate mercy.

Nineveh repents of its evil ways (:7-9). Making official Nineveh’s response, the King issues a proclamation: Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands (:8b). Like the Mariners of Episode 2, the King calls on the One-True-God of Israel, but goes further in calling for ethical transformation. All this takes us back to the reason for God’s threatened judgment in the first place: … for their evil has come up before me (:2b).

The King goes further: Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish (:9) The King understands God better than Jonah. He recognizes God’s sovereignty in punishing sin, but also God’s freedom in issuing mercy.

God relents from His plan to judge Nineveh (:10). God relents from judgement. Important here is what satisfies God’s wrath. In Episode 2, it was Jonah being judged, cast into the sea. In this passage, it’s Nineveh’s citizens turning from evil. God most desires the sacrifice of a changed heart. Is Jonah’s heart changed?

God will judge sin, but God’s merciful plan for the nations includes mercy an compassion for those who will take refuge in Him. Is Jonah taking refuge in God?

And, just like that, this ends God’s dealings with Nineveh in the book, but not His dealings with Jonah. God is just as interested in the transformation of the messenger as He is the response of those to whom the message is given. 

The major lesson of Jonah 3.3b-10 can be stated this way: My response to God’s merciful plan must allow me to acknowledge that no one lies outside the reach of the Gospel. 

In his time, Jonah didn’t get this. We’ll see next week that God’s mercy on Israel’s worst enemies landed outside of Jonah’s redeemed imagination.

Sometimes, I don’t get this either. Maybe, it’s because I’m not confident that God works through His Message and not only through me. Maybe, it’s because I lack the imagination to see whom God is gathering to Himself in His merciful plan. 

The Book of Jonah helps me here. And, certainly, the better I come to learn God’s plan, the better I will know God Himself. 


As we prepare to finish up Jonah next week, let’s think together about some questions coming from Episode 5 (3.3b-10):

Why do you think Jonah did such a poor job of preaching? In your own words, how would you describe Jonah’s grudge against God? 

Again, in your words, why do you believe Jonah misunderstood the purpose of God’s mission for him and for Nineveh? 

In our cultural setting where are we most inclined to misunderstand God’s compassionate mission for those around us? 

Thanksgiving to Our God of Goodness: Psalm 65

This week we’ve come to Thanksgiving, my third favorite holiday. (My first would be a dead heat between Christmas and Easter!)

Thanksgiving is simple, not over-commercialized, and tied to the material world God has made. I like that … But, this year, as last, I enter the holiday week asking questions: What is the difference between simply giving thanks and giving thanks as one who has been with God? (Or, like a good Woodlander, I ask: How am I changed by faith in Christ as I think about Thanksgiving?)

Psalm 65 is a hymn of thanksgiving, likely sung in public worship. We don’t know for sure, but some scholars feel it might have been composed in the Southern Kingdom, in thanksgiving for deliverance from Sennacherib the Assyrian (around 712 B.C.). If correct, Isaiah 37.30 helps us understand its significance:

And this shall be the sign for you: this year you shall eat what grows of itself, and in the second year what springs from that. Then in the third year sow and reap, and plant vineyards, and eat their fruit.

Isaiah 37 looks forward to Sennacherib’s destruction and ties the harvest to God’s provision for His people. God is saying, Watch my work in My world, and my provision will be a sign for you. The connection between the two passages is not air-tight, but we find the same reasoning in Psalm 65.

Those who have been with God are changed (:1-4). The psalm starts in the Temple of the LORD, the meeting place for God with His people. “To you praise is silent, O God in Zion” (verse 1). Hard as this idea is to translate, it doubtless includes the idea that preparation for praise requires reflection and contemplation that takes place in silence. The result will be (verse 2) repayment of vows. Paying God monetary gifts and returning praise is appropriate.

Sins are removed (verse 3), as God atones for the iniquities of His people. These, His people, are then changed to enjoy God’s blessing (verses 4-5).

Blessed is the one you choose and bring near, to dwell in your courts! We shall be satisfied with the goodness of your house, the holiness of your temple (ESV).

What I like so much about this psalm is the way it moves from the spiritual to the material. When we have been with God (verses 1-4), we understand that God’s goodness is to be enjoyed spiritually, and materially too (verses 5-13). In the next two movements we see that those who have been changed by God now have the imaginations to recognize God’s work in His Creation.

Those who have been with God see God’s work in power (:5-8). By awesome deeds you answer us with righteousness, O God of our salvation, the hope of all the ends of the earth and the farthest seas … This might have included the destruction of a great, invading Assyrian army. It certainly includes God’s works in nature.

Those who have been with God recognized God’s work in creation. [He] established the mountains in strength being girded in might … [He] stills the roar of the sea, the roar of the waves. These are not random acts of nature, but natural phenomena that God controls—while not ruling out the laws of the nature that God oversees.

Those who have been with God will include people from the ends of the earth (:8). … Those who dwell at the ends of the earth are in awe at your signs. You make the going out of the morning and the evening to shout for joy. 

Is this true? Do all peoples everywhere recognize God and praise Him?

In Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings saga the old hobbit, Bilbo, writes some fantastic poetry that helps us here:

All that is gold does not glitter …  Not all who wander are lost … The old that is strong does not wither … Deep roots are not reached by the frost … From the ashes a fire shall be woken … A light from the shadows shall spring … Renewed shall be blade that was broken … The crownless again shall be king.

Tolkien crafts his imaginative world in a worldview that recognizes decline and fallenness. Not all is as it should be. Yet, Tolkien’s character have a glorious theology of the end.

In the same way, to say that God is praised to the ends of the earth is to have a view of the end that we recognize will be fulfilled by Christ at His Second Coming. In the meantime, we give thanks. And, as the changed by God recognize God’s work in Creation, we move from thunderstorms to raindrops.

Those who have been with God see God’s work in earthly goodness (:9-13). This includes the gentleness of Creation:

You visit the earth and water it; You greatly enrich it. The river of God is full of water; you provide their grain, for so you have prepared it …

Likewise, it includes the overflow of the harvest:

You water its furrows abundantly, settling its ridges, softening its with showers, and blessing its growth. You crown the year with your bounty; your wagon tracks overflow with abundance.

Note the theme of overflowing. Remind you of Thanksgiving? Note how the psalmist personifies nature itself: the stuff of God’s world must sing for joy! And, those who have been with God, who have been changed by God, they see God’s Creation differently!

This year as we sit down to our turkeys, let’s bear in mind a couple of things:

First, let’s recognize the difference between the imaginary and the imagination. The imaginary is the escapist world we make up to help ourselves feel good. Comic books, action-packed movies, gadgets, advertising—these belong to the imaginary.

By contrast, the imagination is the actual world of possibility we can’t see, except by faith. I think Paul had this in mind in Romans 12.2:

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind … 

Beings transformed to see everything in Creation as evidence of God’s goodness is a work of God through the redeemed imagination.

Second, let’s recognize that Thanksgiving looks back to a fruitful harvest and forward to a time of abundance at Christ’s return. There’s coming a day when every meal will be a Thanksgiving dinner. Those who have been with God by faith can see this!

So, if you’ve trusted in Christ, and so have been with God—be changed this Thanksgiving. See God in His works, and give thanks!


Here’s a few questions to keep you talking about Psalm 65 this Thanksgiving:

The Psalmist takes us from God’s spiritual work (verses 1-4) to God’s work in His material world (verses 5-13). Those who have been with God recognize God’s work in both. Why is this thought so important for us as modern people? 

Have you ever thought about your Thanksgiving turkey being a picture of the abundance God’s people will know at the return of Christ? How does this connection put a different spin on your Thanksgiving celebration? 

What are you thankful for in this past year? What are you thankful for that you will experience at Christ’s return? 

Have a blessed Thanksgiving!

Reversal: Jonah 2.1-10

Have you ever heard a testimony that just didn’t sound right? Maybe, something like: “My life was a mess, but then I wised up and trusted God, and so now I’ve pulled it together …” Crassly put, but I bet you’ve heard something of the kind.

This week in Jonah 2, we find the prophet in the belly of the fish. Jonah’s initial response to God’s commission to preach to Nineveh was flight (1.1-4a). This response resulted in the prophet being out to sea, plunging toward death and destruction and in the company of Gentile Mariners. The continuing result of Jonah’s disobedience was Jonah’s apprehension by God (tossed from the ship and swallowed by the fish) and reverent fear of the One-True-God on the part of the Gentile mariners (1.4b-17).

Now, in the belly of the fish (a place of both death and reversal) Jonah prays to God. In his psalm of declarative praise, Jonah reverses his preference for death over obedience (:1-6). Jonah responds to God, recognizing God’s attentiveness: I called out to the LORD, out of my distress, and he answered me (:1). How ironic. The Mariners had been praying to God when Jonah wasn’t. The ship chosen by Jonah had taken him to death and chaos, indicated by the sea; the fish chosen by God will carry Jonah to life, indicated by dry land. God had attended Jonah, but how odd Jonah would take credit for doing the calling.

Jonah responds to God, recognizing God’s mercy in judgment (:3). For you cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me; all your waves and your billows passed over me. “You did this to me!” Jonah seems to be saying. Oh, how extreme Your judgement. How severe Your mercy.

Jonah responds to God, recognizing God’s deliverance (:4-6). Then I said, “I am driven away from your sight; yet I shall again look upon your holy temple.” Jonah is quoting himself here. Prayers offered “toward the temple” reflect the language of exiles. Jonah will attempt to come to God once more, even as he passes into death: The waters closed in over me to take my life; the deep surrounded me … Language here reflects Ancient Near Eastern cosmology. He’s sinking, so he understands, to the foot of the mountains that hold the earth; he’s wrapped in the reeds of the River of Death. He’s going DOWN … DOWN … DOWN, even as he’s traveled since first rejecting God.

Then, we come to the crucial colon of the psalm: … yet you brought my life up from the pit, O LORD my God (:6b). In recognizing Israel’s God as his God, Jonah experiences reversal. He begins to move UP.

In the second half of the psalm, Jonah resolves to re-enter God’s merciful plan (:7-10). When my life was fainting away, I remembered the LORD, and my prayer came to you in your holy temple (:7). Fantastic! But, where is Jonah’s emphasis?

Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their hope of steadfast love, but I  with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you … (:8-9) True again, but something isn’t right here! There’s no repentance. There’s too much self-piety … too much self-resolve … too much passion for calling out other sinners … not enough brokenness.

… what I have vowed I will pay. Salvation belongs to the LORD (:9) And so it does, but in resolving to do what he hadn’t done before, the reader gets the feeling that the story is not done yet. And, it isn’t. God responds to Jonah (:10). And the fish, carrying Jonah to dry land where he will continue his lessons in God’s merciful plan, vomits Jonah on the shore.

Stepping back a bit from the story, we as readers recognize that Jonah thinks that God is all about getting him to go somewhere to do a job. We can see that God is really about the business of peeling back the layers of self-piety and bringing holiness to Jonah, even while He accomplishes His mission for the nations.

Jonah doesn’t get that, yet. And, sometimes, we don’t get it either.

My response to God in His merciful plan might involve misplaced self-reliance. 

Likely, this comes in our place of greatest struggle—probably the place where we feel we must work the hardest. Possibly, it’s here where we most desire to make a good showing of conforming to God.

That just could be the place where God wants us to know the greatest brokenness. Then, we might (like verse :6b, where Jonah got it right!) say with Jonah: … you brought my life up from the pit, O LORD my God!


Have another look at Jonah 2.1-10 and think through the following questions:

There’s laugh-out-loud irony in this passage, and it’s hard not to smile at Jonah’s poor example of following God. What about Jonah’s thinking in this passage do you find most puzzling?

Where in my life am I straining to please God? Where am I lashing out at injustice, or something that isn’t right in my life? 

Could it be that these two questions together could lead us to the hidden places in our lives where we’re simply trying to conform to God without actually being broken in His presence? 

Where have I known real brokenness over my sin? How is that different than simply trying harder to please God or resolving to do what’s right in God’s presence? 

Jonah’s career contrasts sharply with the ministry of the Lord Jesus. Where do you catch a bit of foreshadowing of Jesus’ ministry in this passage? How is Jonah both like and unlike Christ?