Anticipating the Lord of History

It’s been several years since I posted anything in this space, and even longer since a regular posting has been in the offing. But today I was encouraged by the thought that, after receiving some feedback in the past few weeks, that these posts are occasionally helpful to folks interested in studying the scriptures and even other matters of a political or theological nature. So in light of that, I’m going to post below a sermon I preached this morning on Luke chapter 1. I hope its enjoyable and enlightening for anyone stumbling across it online.

PJ Wenzel

Welcome to the advent season!  Advent season – the celebration of the arrival of Jesus.

During this advent season, we’re going to be looking at several key figures in the birth narrative of our Lord, with the purpose of walking in their sandals a bit. To see that they were not only narrative furniture in the story of Jesus, but men and women whose lives furnish us with examples of how Jesus’ advent changed them, and how the Gospel transformed their lives and hearts.

Zechariah was one such man.  We’re going to walk through the first part of Luke 1 together, I’m going to read some of the story with you, and because it’s a longer passage, I’m going to make some contextual comments along the way, and then we’ll examine the story from a few different angles. 

So…Luke 1 beginning in verse 5, please follow along with me…

[5] In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah. And he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. [6] And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. [7] But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years.

Zechariah was a priest from the line of Aaron. Aaron was the brother of Moses, and in the Bible it is through Aaron’s line that the priesthood would be maintained. But not only is Zechariah from this tribe, so is his wife, Elizabeth. It was said in those days that a woman of excellent character was “fit to marry a priest.” But here we learn she is not only righteous in character but is also of the lineage of Aaron, and this would have been thought a double blessing for Zechariah.

Note also that these are older folks. Just like Abraham and Sarah, they are old and unable to have children. From Sarah to Hannah to Elizabeth, again and again in Scripture there is a theme that the Lord delights to show his power and grace in the barren womb. God being glorified in the midst of suffering is also a major Biblical theme, and in the stories of women like Elizabeth, the two themes are beautifully and powerfully woven together. Now, verse 8…

[8] Now while he was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, [9] according to the custom of the priesthood, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense.

By this time there were so many priests that the line of Aaron was divided up into 24 different divisions, and even those divisions were so populated that if you were chosen for the honor of offering prayers in the temple like this, it’s the only time you’d be able to do it in your lifetime. One and done. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity for Zachariah – so he is thinking that this is the apex of his ministry on earth.

[10] And the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense. [11] And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. [12] And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. [13] But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. [14] And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, [15] for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. [16] And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, [17] and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”

[18] And Zechariah said to the angel, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” [19] And the angel answered him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. [20] And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time.”

[21] And the people were waiting for Zechariah, and they were wondering at his delay in the temple. [22] And when he came out, he was unable to speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the temple. And he kept making signs to them and remained mute. [23] And when his time of service was ended, he went to his home.

Now it was expected that when Zachariah came out of the Temple, he was to stand in front of the people on the steps of the temple and offer to them a blessing. He was to bless them verbally before the Lord. So when he came out and couldn’t speak, he also couldn’t perform this blessing.  Finally we read…

[24] After these days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she kept herself hidden, saying, [25] “Thus the Lord has done for me in the days when he looked on me, to take away my reproach among people.”

This is the word of the lord. You may be seated. 

There are three different angles to this story we’ll examine:

  1. The first is the art of waiting on God’s timing
  2. The second is ultimate reality belongs to God
  3. The third is restoration for the glory of God

(waiting, reality, restoration)

The art of waiting on God’s timing

I’ve read in so many devotions and so many greeting cards now that the theme of “anticipation” has become a permanent part of my Christmas vocabulary. Growing up we even celebrated Christmas by doing an advent devotional as a family and putting ornaments on a “waiting tree.” 

To be perfectly candid, I didn’t really care for all the waiting and anticipation in the lead up to Christmas. As a kid it wasn’t the decorating and the devotional evenings that I anticipated, it was Christmas morning! Just in case my parents weren’t sure of my feelings, I’m sure I conveyed my righteous anticipation by asking a million questions about presents and refusing to sit still for any length of time.

Despite my mom’s noble efforts, it wasn’t until later that I began to appreciate the themes of “anticipation” and “waiting” and how they reflect the longing of Israel for their Messiah.

Here at the beginning of our advent season together is the perfect time to reflect on those themes, especially as we look at the lives of Zechariah and of Elizabeth. Focusing in a bit more on Zechariah this morning.  

Luke tells us a few important things about this couple: They were righteous, they were old, they were barren, and they were serving the Lord.

When you are young, there are certain dreams you have, which, being young, you assume will just fall into place as life goes on. There is a certain naiveté, ignorance, and maybe even a touch of arrogance about how we start out our lives as adults. But as time wears on, we begin to see that what we assumed about life, what we took for granted would just happen, doesn’t always fall into place the way we thought it might. Am I right?

Francis Schaeffer once said in the context of an essay on art, that for the Christian, our entire life is our greatest work of art, more than anything we ever do with our hands or produce with our minds.  I’m certain that many of you would agree with Samuel Rutherford that we owe a great deal to the file and the hammer of our Lord, but that process of refinement is painful. And perhaps no struggle is more personal and more painful for a married couple than the struggle of infertility.

Now it is not my purpose or intent to open fresh wounds this morning. But here at Veritas while we’ve praised God on many occasions for the great blessing of children in the church, we’ve also wanted to acknowledge and love on those in our church family here who haven’t yet been blessed with a child, or have walked a long and faith-testing road to parenthood. I can attest, with many others I’m certain, how encouraged and built up in the faith I have been by the godly example of the men and women of Veritas who have walked through the difficult seasons – not only of infertility, but of the loss of children. I praise God for your tenderhearted and steadfast example which brings glory to God.

So church we know a little about what these two people have gone through. But when we meet Zechariah and Elizabeth here they are older, and seemingly they have reached a point where giving birth to a child was a distant dream, one that has long since disappeared like a mirage in the desert of Judea.

Now Luke, our author, is a physician by trade, and a very meticulous author. And when he conveys a thing under the superintendence of the Holy Spirit, I believe we should take careful note.  He says that this couple was righteous. That they were following all the laws of the Lord.

As they waited. As they anticipated. As they dreamed, as they lived day in and day out – what did they do?  They obeyed.

Friends, this is the first thing our souls need to take away from this account: waiting on the Lord is active. It is not stultifying, it is not siloed, it is not paralyzed.

The Bible is replete with story after story of Godly men and women who waited for the Lord. David practically made it the theme of his life. As in Psalm 27:

Wait for the LORD;

                        be strong, and let your heart take courage;

                        wait for the LORD! Psalm 27:14

or in Psalm 25:

                        May integrity and uprightness preserve me,

                        for I wait for you. Psalm 25:21

Waiting is abiding. Abiding is obeying. Obeying is glorifying the Lord in our lives through word, heart, and deed.

If we want to know what it means to wait I can think of no better passage than John 15 where our Lord told us… “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” John 15:5

Notice that there is a “doing” here. Waiting on the Lord requires us to abide in His power while doing His work until He brings about His will for our lives in His own timing, by His own power for His own glory.

At this time in Israel’s history, there were thousands of people waiting for a savior. Para-military uprisings among the Jews were becoming more and more frequent, and the people longed for freedom as a nation once more.

This was a national anxiety felt in the hearts and realized in the daily lives of every Israelite.  Zechariah and Elizabeth were serving the Lord as they waited on Him, and as they prayed for a son and for freedom from Roman oppression.

Now…one of the tremendous marks of a life that waits upon the Lord is that of prayer. A life of waiting on Jesus is a life marked by prayer for the Father’s will to be done.

And in our passage today, we read that it was the angel Gabriel who visited Zechariah in the temple. Gabriel shows up at other points in redemptive history. In Daniel chapter 9 we read of how Daniel was praying to God on behalf of his people.  He was confessing the sins of Israel and appealing to God to rescue them from hands of their enemies and to restore them back to the land – because they were in exile in Babylon at this time. He ends his prayer like this:

Now therefore, O our God, listen to the prayer of your servant and to his pleas for mercy, and for your own sake, O Lord, make your face to shine upon your sanctuary, which is desolate. [18] O my God, incline your ear and hear. Open your eyes and see our desolations, and the city that is called by your name. For we do not present our pleas before you because of our righteousness, but because of your great mercy. [19] O Lord, hear; O Lord, forgive. O Lord, pay attention and act. Delay not, for your own sake, O my God, because your city and your people are called by your name.” Daniel 9:7–19

And after this Gabriel comes to him with a remarkable message. He says this:

“O Daniel, I have now come out to give you insight and understanding. [23] At the beginning of your pleas for mercy a word went out, and I have come to tell it to you, for you are greatly loved. Therefore consider the word and understand the vision.” Daniel 9:22b–23

I love this passage! As Daniel waits in exile he is praying, he is obeying the Lord, and the Lord wants him to know that he is “greatly loved.”  As you wait upon the Lord, as you pray to heaven for help in your distress, in your anxiety, in your pain, you, too, are greatly loved.

Waiting involved faithful and active obedience and prayer.

One of the most significant things about our passage today is that it exemplifies how God’s timing often brings us blessings that we could never have imagined. We pray for something over and over for years, but only later realize that in God’s mercy and timing, he withheld that gift in order for something more amazing.

While we may not understand – even in this lifetime – the full extent of what his timing means, we can realize that this is how he works in our waiting.  

Daniel was praying for the restoration of Israel and asking forgiveness for the sins of the people.  Gabriel gave Daniel the vision of 70 weeks – a vision even more amazing and of a higher magnitude than his mind could have asked for. A vision which anticipates not only the restoration of God’s people to their homeland, but how events would culminate in the arrival of a Prince. A prince who would be “cut off” in a sacrificial death for the sins of his people.

God delayed the birth of a son for Zechariah and Elizabeth because he had something special planned.

Daniel asked for a lot but got much more than he bargained for, and timing that he probably wasn’t expecting. So it was with Zechariah. And that is what we’ll see next…

The next thing we’ll consider is the nature of ultimate reality. Ultimate reality belongs to God.

As the priest on duty that day, Zechariah was to be offering prayers on behalf of the nation. So he is in the temple, in the outer area of the holy of holies – only the high priest went in the holy of holies and he did that only once a year – so he’s in this outer area praying. 

Gabriel arrives and tells Zechariah that his prayers have been heard. 

What prayers?

Our minds immediately go to the prayers he and Elizabeth must have prayed a thousand times over the years: prayers for a child.

But his prayers in the temple were more likely prayers for the salvation and redemption of Israel. As I mentioned before this is likely the most important day of Zechariah’s life until now, and he has been training for this, and would want to fulfill his priestly responsibility to the letter, and that meant offering prayers on behalf of the nation.

But the beautiful thing about the answer from the Lord is that it fulfills both the prayers of Zechariah and Elizabeth for a son, and the prayers of the nation for deliverance. In sending this couple a baby, God is sending the forerunner of the great Savior of Israel, and of the world!

John is to be the herald of heaven’s great King who would visit this world on a mission of salvation.

Only God can weave such amazing answers together. We read this and marvel at all God is doing in this story.  But was that the reaction of Zechariah?  No…

How does he react?

In verse 18 he questions Gabriel saying “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.”

From his words alone you cannot detect all of what is in this man’s heart. But apparently Gabriel knew enough to know that Zechariah had an unbelieving heart because he says “because you did not believe my words” (vs 20).

What seems strange about this reaction is that here is a man who had been praying for years and years for a son. Here is a man whose wife had longed for a child. How many conversations, how many knowing glances shared over the breakfast table? How many shared moments of pain and frustration?  And here – here is the answer to all his prayers. Decades worth of desires!  And he doesn’t believe. He sees the glory and power of the angel – there can be no doubt about the authenticity of this messenger’s identity. We read earlier, in fact, that Zechariah practically wet himself when the angel appeared! He knows this is a messenger from God!

It can’t be a proximity problem. He is not isolated from the faith community or the outward reminders of his heritage. In fact, he is surrounded by the trappings of his faith. He has the priestly garments on. He’s inside the temple. He’s only steps away from the holy of holies! 

Why the unbelief?  How is it possible that he can doubt!?

(PAUSE)

Let me tell you what I think is going on here. 

Zechariah’s “worlds are colliding”, to quote George Costanza.

His perception of reality, his construction of what is possible, is bound up in the plans, desires, and perspectives of his heart.

What a message for us today. Awash in post-modernism, we hear and read again and again that truth is what you make it. Reality is defined by your own perspective.  So important is this worldview that technologists are in a rush to give us power to create our own AI worlds accessible by simply strapping on a headset.

But ultimate reality belongs to God. You cannot make your own truth. You cannot create your own reality.

Live in your fairy land all you want, eventually that bubble will burst on the rocks of God’s sovereign truth, either in this life or the next.

Zechariah wasn’t a post-modernist by any stretch of the imagination. Yet his reality, his expectations, and the norms which he has set as the lens through which he saw how life works, how God works, were being brought into contact with the plans of the Lord of life and history.

I’ve found that the nature of my own perspective, when not governed by faith based in the Word of God, reveals itself as extraordinarily brittle in times of testing. This is what Zechariah was learning. He had set limits on what God could do; laws by which he expected God to act. And the weight of God’s plans were snapping the feeble bridge of his expectations.

Look at Gabriel’s reaction, he says “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news.”  He proclaims this gospel, this good news, and hears the words from Zechariah and he’s like “Wait. Wait…what!?” 

Gabriel is trying to reconcile what he lives day in and day out with this man’s reaction, and it just…doesn’t compute.  “Do you know who I am – I see your knees knocking, so you must have an idea.  I mean…I just came from the heavenly throne room…”

There is some discontinuity between what Gabriel knows as true and what Zechariah is willing to believe is true.

Of course, to us, in hindsight, Zechariah’s unbelief looks nonsensical against the backdrop of God’s revealed plans. But…

…we have to ask ourselves…What happens when our prayers aren’t answered in a way we expected? What happens when (in his mercy) God withholds the answer for years? How do we react when circumstances in our lives unfold in unexpected ways?

Do we look for the hand of Providence in the details of life?  Or do we recoil in bitterness and unbelief? 

We may be surrounded by the trappings of faith, and in this season that’s even more the case, and yet have such a contracted and minimized view of the power of God that we look at our lives and say “no…its hopeless. I’m a mess and there’s nothing that can fix this.”  Are we allowing our own narrow view of life’s road to hem in our perspective on God’s capabilities?

Friends, God does not simply stitch together the mess of our lives in order to salvage some kind of decent ending to the narrative.  He is busy in the details.  He is superintending all of reality. Upholding the world by the word of his power, he supervises and intercedes for those who he “greatly loves.”

It’s a wonderful blessing – a good thing – to be surrounded by the people of God and to regularly find ourselves here in this building. But let’s not let our surroundings, our culture, and our doubts construct an artificial view of God. A small view of God. A proud view of God that’s based on our own plans and objectives, rather than faith in his providence, timing, and power.

God’s word calls us to deeper waters: trust in the Lord with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him and he will make straight your paths. (Prov 3:5)

Now let’s look past the reaction and to the heart of the message from Gabriel, and how it is “good news” – not only Zechariah, but the whole world.

Restoration for the glory of God

Remember how I said that after the priest would finish their prayers in the temple it was their job to go out and bless the people? Well, the Lord’s messenger puts the kibosh on that. It is as if God is saying “I will not have an unbelieving man speak to my people this day. Not today. Today is the beginning of a special new work.”

For years the people of Israel had been led by shepherds who Jesus would later describe as serpents and sons of Satan. But light is breaking through the darkness, and in a sign of things to come, every tongue will be stopped, and every eye will behold the majesty of Jesus.

Zechariah was a righteous man who stumbled into unbelief.

But this wasn’t to be the end for Zechariah. 

The message that Gabriel brought was “good news” – good news that went beyond the hopes and dreams of this righteous couple. Their son was born for a very specific mission.  Listen to the hints dropped by Gabriel.  Look again at verse 16…

And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, [17] and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared

That last line may be the most important. It echoes the words of the prophet Malachi, and indicates that their son John will prepare the people of Israel for someone – and that someone is their Messiah! 

Now as the story continues. Turn with me to verse 57 and we’ll read this together…

Luke 1:57–80

[57] Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. [58] And her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her. [59] And on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child. And they would have called him Zechariah after his father, [60] but his mother answered, “No; he shall be called John.” [61] And they said to her, “None of your relatives is called by this name.” [62] And they made signs to his father, inquiring what he wanted him to be called. [63] And he asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And they all wondered. [64] And immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he spoke, blessing God. [65] And fear came on all their neighbors. And all these things were talked about through all the hill country of Judea, [66] and all who heard them laid them up in their hearts, saying, “What then will this child be?” For the hand of the Lord was with him.

Zechariah was restored to speaking once again.

The long months which held him in mute frustration had also humbled him, and increased his faith, so that when the time came to declare before his friends and nearest relations what the will of the Lord would be for his son, his lips found themselves equal to the restored tenderness of his heart.

And in such a small village, this would have been a major event – especially given the circumstances surrounding John’s birth. Before the New Covenant, before Pentecost, God’s people did not have the gift of the Spirit permanently indwelling them. But this child had been filled by the Holy Spirit from before birth! He even leapt in Elizabeth’s womb when Mary came to visit.

Gabriel had said that all of this would happen according to God’s timing.

And I wonder how many moments in the intervening months Zechariah had pondered the timing of God in the events of his life and the life of his people.

His life has been blessed with a baby boy – one who Jesus would later call the greatest man ever born of a woman (Luke 7). Now able to speak, we read that, full of the Holy Spirit, the first thing that Zechariah did was sing out with the following words:

Look at verse 68…

[67] And his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied, saying,

            [68] “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,

                        for he has visited and redeemed his people

            [69] and has raised up a horn of salvation for us

                        in the house of his servant David,

            [70] as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,

            [71] that we should be saved from our enemies

                        and from the hand of all who hate us;

            [72] to show the mercy promised to our fathers

                        and to remember his holy covenant,

            [73] the oath that he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us

            [74]     that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies,

            might serve him without fear,

            [75]     in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.

            [76] And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;

                        for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,

            [77] to give knowledge of salvation to his people

                        in the forgiveness of their sins,

            [78] because of the tender mercy of our God,

                        whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high

            [79] to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,

                        to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

Luke adds his own narrative note, so that we are prepared for what will come in the next part of this amazing story…

            [80] And the child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day of his public appearance to Israel.

Now, throughout church history we’ve called Zechariah’s song of praise and prophesy the Benedictus, which is simply the Latin translation for the first word he speaks: “blessed.”

Zechariah has been restored and his faith strengthened and he wants to give God glory. But more than that, God has filled him to deliver a message.  The good news that Gabriel announced 9 months prior was not simply that he and Elizabeth would have a son, but that God was sending his own Son, and that John’s role is to proclaim the coming of Israel’s Messiah! 

The day is almost at hand.  The wait is almost over. The promises made to David, Abraham, and the prophets of old would be kept.

Zechariah declares that God will be faithful to the promises he made to Abraham. Nations will be blessed. The seed of Abraham will continue in the adoption of people from every tribe, tongue, and nation into the family of God. And God will begin his work of re-creation and renewal by making men and women – his image bearers – into new creations in the model of his son Jesus Christ.

9 months prior in the temple Zechariah would have prayed for the salvation of Israel.

Here, inspired by the Spirit, he declares a salvation not linked to earthly political redemption or military conquest, but of spiritual redemption from sin. Verse 77 is key “to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins.” 

Zechariah says that without the light of life we are walking in the darkness and on the precipice of death’s door. He links light and life and peace directly with the forgiveness of sins and relational restoration with God.

For the people of Israel, certainly for Zechariah, the promises of God were coming into tighter focus, even as their own perspectives on God’s plans were widening.  

You might say that while the occupation of Rome was uppermost on the minds of Jews in his day, what Zechariah’s people really needed was a political solution of another magnitude. They had bigger problems. Diplomatic relations between themselves and the King of kings needed restoration. Zechariah says here that the solution was going to be provided in a “knowledge of salvation” by a “horn of salvation” – more specifically, in the strength of the unbreakable life of the embodied Word of knowledge: God’s own Son. (Acts 2:24 and John 1)

For those of us who have been in a season of waiting, a season where it seemed like our lives are in limbo, the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth offers not only comfort, but also a reorientation of our expectations, a reminder of who holds history in His hands, and an opportunity to repent.   

Zechariah was told that everything he had desired for both himself and his people was about to be fulfilled, and though he was found in unbelief, though his entire world was turned upside-down, God in His mercy restored Zechariah for His own glory.

Praise God that His plans for our lives do not stop at the door of our heart’s natural capacity to believe. Praise God that His mercy and providence does not wax and wane on the ebb tide of our emotions, and the short-sidedness of even our best-intentioned plans.

The beautiful thing that we see in the life of Zechariah is that he didn’t get everything he wanted the way he wanted in the time he wanted it. Praise God for that! Praise God for his withholding of the blessings we think we want now – even good things which we know are good things, God sometimes withholds in order to bring us into an even greater plan for our good and his Glory.

Let me mention to you a final word friends.

If you are finding yourself without hope in a season which is supposed to be all about hope, you’re in the right place. This is a message for you.

Anticipation is a theme running throughout the Christmas season, and this seasonal slogan finds its origin in Zechariah’s day (and before) when the people of Israel were anticipating a Messiah, a leader, a savior.

But God being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us did not rescue us from political oppression or social unrest. He rescued us from ourselves. He rescued us from His wrath. He rescued us from our sins so that we may be brought into his kingdom, into his family.  He did this in his own time. And it looked nothing like what was expected.

Friends we no longer have to wait for salvation. The wait is over.  The great message of Christmas is that salvation has arrived! The Sunrise from on high came to live amongst us. He made himself the lowest of low in order to raise up those who were sitting in darkness. As Isaiah says, “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” (Is. 9:2).

That light, that sunrise from on high, is Jesus. Jesus Christ, the son of God, came to rescue a fallen race – you and I no longer wait for salvation – we can receive that now.

I love the gospel of John. He begins his gospel by declaring that the Word of God, the light of the world has come to save men. This is what he says:

The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. [10] He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. [11] He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. [12] But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, [13] who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. John 1:9–13

Christmas is the celebration that our waiting is over, we can have full forgiveness of sins, by believing that Jesus is who he says he is. That celebration, which begins with our reconciliation to God through faith in Jesus, will be consummated when the great King returns in his time with glory and splendor.

It’s my prayer that you are encouraged by the story of Zechariah, and how God overcame his unbelief, to use him as an instrument of praise and glory. He desires to do the same thing in your life and mine.

Study Notes 12-15-13: John 15 Introduction

Chapter 15

Introduction to Chapter 15 (and notes through verse 5)

I continue to be amazed by John’s gospel and how the depth of the theology within its pages keeps me humble.  There are so many truths in each paragraph that a Christian could spend the rest of their lives reading and meditating upon the precepts found here and still not plumb the depths of their beauty.

This factor hits home when you consider stories like that of Corrie ten Boom who spent 11 months as a prisoner of the Nazi’s. In an interview with theological midget Pat Robertson, Corrie expressed God’s continual presence and strength during times of despair:

PAT ROBERTSON: She died there, and in that time God somehow kept you sweet and tender toward Him. How did you do it? How did you keep from being just terribly despairing? What kept you buoyed you up at this time?

CORRIE TEN BOOM: There are circumstances where you cannot do anything. It was only the Lord who has carried me through, and it’s good that I have experienced that. For I have always believed, now I know from experience, that Jesus’ light is stronger than the deepest darkness. And a child of God cannot go so deep; always deeper are the Everlasting Arms that carry you.

While Robertson, of course, asks what it was in Corrie that kept her sane and tender to the Lord, Corrie responds with good theology: it was not her but “only the Lord who carried me through.”

In the last year or so I was able to listen to the ‘Hiding Place’ again on audio book, and was struck by Corrie’s story.  During her time in prison, someone had smuggled in a copy of the book of John’s gospel, and it became a very precious resource for her during those dark times. Amazing how much this gospel account has impacted millions of lives over the last 200 years!

I mention that brief story because in the chapters that follow there is a lot of talk about abiding in Christ, and what it means to do so.  When I think about the story of Corrie ten Boom, I am inspired by our God’s faithfulness to those who abide in Him. No matter where we are, He is with us, and keeps us in His love.

John 15 is primarily a chapter dedicated to extolling to us the nature and virtues of our relationship with Jesus – especially the ongoing and intimate nature of that relationship. Jesus uses the word “abide” in this chapter seven times as part of a command to his disciples to stay in constant fellowship with Him once He leaves. This is only possible for those who are truly His disciples, as we shall see.

We have talked before about the nature of abiding. The Greek word for abide is “meno”, and as John MacArthur says, it “describes something that remains where it is, continues in a fixed state, or endures. In this context the word refers to maintaining an unbroken communion with Jesus Christ.”

15:1-2 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. 2 Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.

OT Background

The first few verses in chapter 15 are startling, and ought to be counted as a warning, and also a great encouragement…depending on where you sit.

First, Jesus gives us a description of the Christian life – it’s an organic, gardening type of allegory (although it is hard to say precisely that it is “allegory” as some commentators have noted) – and He fills in the roles for us so we know who the characters are in this allegory. First, Jesus likens Himself unto a vine.  Not simply a weed which grows up in your garden and gets trimmed or yanked out each spring, but a “true” vine which is the pride and joy of the garden.

The Father is the vinedresser.  The duties of the vinedresser are to trim and prune the branches and keep the entire garden healthy and growing. Then, we see the purpose of the vinedresser described as one who takes branches away which do not bear fruit in order that they won’t keep the rest of the branches from growing.  But also, we read that the vinedresser “prunes” those branches that do bear fruit.

I think that its important to understand the context of this similitude/allegory as far as it is possible to see what the minds of the disciples might have been thinking at the time of hearing Jesus’ words.  In the OT there were many references to Israel being the vine planted by God (Ridderbos cites Ps. 80:9-12, 15; Hos. 11:1; Ex. 15; 19:10; Jer. 2:21).  Now, Jesus seems to be saying that He is the true vine. In other words – that word “true” is setting himself in contrast to something in the past – the vine of Israel. He is the “true” Israel of God (which Paul likens unto the church in Gal. 6:16), the true Vine.

Jesus is identifying Himself as the true church, the true Son, the spiritual seed of Abraham – and this makes sense as we continue to read on and learn that the church is connected to Him as His branches.  The bride (the church) and the bridegroom (Christ) are one flesh (so to speak). We are one body – the body of Christ. Without Him, we can do nothing.

The more one thinks on this, the more one wonders in amazement at the superiority of Jesus of Nazareth. This man who came to be not only the vine, but the “true” vine that would connect us to vibrant life everlasting.

Ridderbos summarizes this way, “The main thing, however, is that Jesus, by calling himself the true vine and, in immediate association therewith, his Father the planter and keeper of the vineyard, applies to himself this redemptive-historical description of the people of God. He thus becomes the one who represents or embodies the people.”

The Intimate/Immanent Work of the Father and our Culture

Before I get too far into each of the activities of the Father as vinedresser/gardener, let me just comment also about the nature of the Father in this allegory. The Father, as vinedresser, is intimately involved in the growth of His church. The vine and its branches represent the church of the Lord Jesus Christ – and it is Jesus who is the center of the church.  The church is joined to Him as a bride and bridegroom are joined together in marriage.

The vinedresser does not sit back and let the church go for hundreds of years, the vinedresser does not take only a passing interest in the vine, rather the vinedresser is deeply concerned that the vine and its branches bear fruit. He is involved in the sanctification process. The Father’s hands are not off the wheel. He is not so aloof on His mighty throne that He has disengaged from the world and its issues – nor has He abandoned His church!

We are told in our post-Christian culture that the myth of God is something we have intellectually grown out of by now (or we ought to have grown out of they say), and in His place we have a sort of neo-rationalism, which I hate to call intellectualism because it pales in comparison to the intellect of yesteryear (due to its embrace of absurdity and contradiction in almost every avenue of life). I also hesitate to call this post-Christian age one of scientific revolution or enlightenment because today’s scientists have so desecrated the scientific method that even the validity of “sense-perception” is thrown out the window for pseudo-science, which, in the end, is just another kind of twisted man-centered faith – it is faith in man and his abilities over all else.

No, culture is neo-rationalism based on man’s abilities and man’s preferences and moving outward from there. It’s an odd time to live in.  Men are really confused about the purpose of life. The most successful people in the world’s eyes cheat, steal (think Bernie Madoff), lie (think just about every politician) and commit suicide (think Hollywood elite) on a regular basis.

It is almost harder now to make an overall judgment about the culture because the culture is so fragmented (partly because of how people are educated – or informed – and the internet age). But I think that its safe to say that we life in a time which can best be described by the author of the book of Judges:

In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes. (Judges 21:25, ESV)

We act as though we aren’t being watched – with no fear of God before our eyes. As if God has no influence or existence or say or involvement (pick your view).

But that’s not how Jesus describes the Father here in verses one and two. He says that God is actively involved in our lives. His hands are on the vine and He is pruning and clearing out the dead branches. Not only is the Father close to us, but as J.C. Ryle states, we are meant to learn first, from the these verses, that the union between Christ and believers is very close.”  All of our vitality as believers flows from Christ, and without Him we are spiritually dead.  Speaking of believers in this context, Ryle says, “They are what they are, and feel what they feel, and do what they do because they draw out of Jesus as continual supply of grace, help, and ability.

What are the implications of this?  Many. But let’s first examine what is meant in verse two by “pruning” and “taking away.”

He “Takes Away”

In verse six Jesus repeats this warning in more vivid terminology, but the long and the short of it is that the Father, as vinedresser, takes away some of the branches that are not truly abiding in Christ, the branch. These branches that are taken away are false disciples. They are the tares amongst the wheat. They are the ones who profess Christ but have never been born again. They are the ones who use Christ as a self-help guru who fixes them up each Sunday morning – they glean whatever they can from the church’s teaching and employ these ideas along with whatever worldly wisdom they accrue in a sort of modern day self-help syncretism that runs rampant in our culture.

We’ll get more into this when we come to verse six, but needless to say, if you think that you can hide in the church and live a life of “pretending”, know that God sees all things and knows all things. His eyes pierce your mind and heart and He will clear you away from the vine once and for all come judgment day.

If you find yourself now identifying with this false branch, I urge you to stop trusting in your façade and bow before God in repentance.  He will revitalize your life and renew your mind and heart. He is the only one who can truly satisfy all of your hearts desires – trust that He wants to give you abundant life – do it now!

He Prunes

It is not in our sinful nature to receive pruning from God and say “thank you God, I really needed that!” Pruning hurts. It is painful.  But it is also good for us.  I liken pruning unto God’s disciplining us out of love.

The author of Hebrews talks about this:

Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. 4 In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. 5 And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons?

“My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,

nor be weary when reproved by him.

6 For the Lord disciplines the one he loves,

and chastises every son whom he receives.”

7 It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? 8 If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. 9 Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? 10 For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. 11 For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.

12 Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, 13 and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed. 14 Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. 15 See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled; 16 that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. 17 For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears. (Hebrews 12:3-17, ESV)

In this extended passage, I wanted us to notice that when we are pruned we have reason to rejoice. First, because God wants us to bear fruit.  The end goal is that we will walk more righteously and uprightly before Him and produce the fruit of a life that is completely conformed to the will of our Lord.

Secondly, let’s not forget that when we are pruned it reveals a beautiful truth: we are adopted! We have been added into the family of God – Paul describes this as being “grafted in” in Romans 11 using similar horticultural imagery. This is a blessing and privilege of the highest degree and when we are downcast we need to speak this truth to our souls.

Thirdly, God prunes us because He loves us. We just read that, “the Lord disciplines the one he loves.”  So when we are pruned/disciplined, we need to bask in the love of God. We need to thank Him for His mighty hands upon us and trust in His infinite wisdom. He is fashioning you into something beautiful for His kingdom – don’t forget that truth.  Cling to that truth and praise God through the pain knowing that at the end of your life you will be made ready for heaven.

This vibrant truth is captured in John Piper’s most recent poetic publication ‘The Calvinist’ which describes a man whose life is difficult but yet founded upon the truth of God’s sovereignty. These are the final graphs of the poem:

See him now asleep.
Watch the helpless reap,
But no credit take,
Just as when awake.
 
See him nearing death.
Listen to his breath,
Through the ebbing pain:
Final whisper: “Gain!”
 

God prunes all those He loves, and it is a strangely beautiful thing to know His sovereign hand is upon you making you all that He wants you to be for your joy and His pleasure and glory.

15:3 Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you.

One of the effects of the word of God is that it cleanses us mind and soul. I recently preached on Hebrews 10:1-18 and one of the main evidences that the author of that book points to for the inefficacy of the OT sacrifices is the lack of conscience cleansing.  Whereas the Holy Spirit, when He comes to abide in you, will certainly cleanse you from your sin, and give you a fresh start.

I love the story that R.C. Sproul tells about his daughter accepting Christ by virtue of an alter call.  He was attending a conference or sorts (I think in Cincinnati) and did not realize that his young daughter had made the trip there (possibly with Vesta, his wife) and was listening to another minister give an invitation after a message.  His daughter responded by coming forward and confessing Christ as her savior.  Dr. Sproul was really concerned that his daughter didn’t know what she was doing, and that she might be making a false confession that might make things more complicated and difficult later on once she understood the Bible more.  But when he got to talk with her afterwards, He asked her about the experience and why she did it and he immediately knew that her faith was genuine – one of the reasons why is due to the way she described how she felt.  She said “I feel clean daddy.”  That is what the Holy Spirit does my friends, He washes us by the power of regeneration – and that is primarily done through the preaching of His word.

Now when Jesus is saying that because of His word the disciples are “clean”, we ought to realize who is speaking – the Word of God incarnate! The statement amounts to a claim to deity, but also serves to remind us of the efficacy of His word. Jesus’ words have the power to cleanse us of our most vile sins.  One of the most beautiful passages that describes this is found in Paul’s letter to Titus:

But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, 5 he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, 6 whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7 so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. (Titus 3:4-7, ESV)

Lastly, the power of Christ’s word is evident here. His word is the dividing line of all truth – He is truth, He is the Word incarnate! So when He speaks He automatically will parse people into groups: either they aren’t going to believe or they are. Either they will run from the light or they will run into the light.

Ridderbos says, “the special care that the Father bestows on the vine as planter and vinedresser and his making it the ‘true’ fine does not consist of an assortment of secondary actions that support the mission of his Son, but in this mission itself, in the dividing and purifying power of Jesus’ word of authority, which is the word of God himself (and is therefore introduced into the metaphor as God’s own action). What makes Jesus the true vine is that, as the one sent by God, he gathers a community, a fellowship of life, in which his word exerts a redeeming, life-creating, continually purifying, and dividing effect.”

Which leads Ridderbos to state:

…’you are already clean,’ which does not mean they have already attained a degree of spiritual or moral perfection, but that he has so deeply bound them to himself by his word that in virtue of that fellowship they are able and ready to do his word and to bear fruit. 

15:4-5 Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.

Singular Impotence

I think the main thrust of this passage is that in our own human power there is not the ability to maintain a vibrant spiritual life.  Jesus is the source of our spiritual life.  Without Him, it doesn’t matter how many lies you’ve told yourself, you’re still going to wither away and die.

Therefore, if you think you can do the Christian life alone, you’re mistaken.  If you think you believing in Christ was a one time fire insurance policy, you’re likely going to be very disappointed. If you feel like church is merely an add on to your own personal relationship, and not vital for continuing in the faith, then you’re going to deteriorate under the weight of your own bacteria infested spiritual life.

Beware: we cannot do anything apart from Christ. All good things flow from the Lord God who reigns on high.  This is a reason why our root is now in heaven – so that His blessings can flow from God’s throne to our lives. The chief amongst those blessings is fellowship with God through His Son.

Crazy Busy

I also think that there is a lot that can be said for “abiding” – and we will look more at this in the time to follow as we study the rest of this chapter. But one of the things that I have noticed about my own life, and the lives of many others living in our advanced western culture today, is that abiding is something that isn’t natural to us. We are so “crazy busy” (as Kevin DeYoung’s book states) that we have lost the art of what it means to abide. We are so wrapped up in the things of this world – be it parenting (taxi cab drivers for our kids), technology (our phones!) and the internet (social media) or just wasted time watching TV – that we don’t have time to abide…or so we think.

The truth is much different.  We fritter away our time doing things that really don’t move the needle too much.  Now I’m not advocating against technology or even TV after a long day, but all of this has its place, and its place for the Christian is behind time with the Lord.  “Constant prayer” is not the same as taking time to quieting be unplugged with God. Not that these things can happen all the time, but it needs to happen more than it does in my life, and I’m sure in yours as well. Jesus isn’t asking us to abide, He’s assuming we will – in fact He’s commanding us to do so. It’s a prerequisite.

The Warning of this Truth

The next thing that we notice from this passage is that there is a warning, but also some very comforting truth as a result. The warning is, of course, that if you are not abiding in Christ there is cause to examine yourself and check to see if you are truly in the faith.  Paul mentions this in 2 Corinthians:

Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test! 6 I hope you will find out that we have not failed the test. 7 But we pray to God that you may not do wrong—not that we may appear to have met the test, but that you may do what is right, though we may seem to have failed. (2 Corinthians 13:5-7, ESV)

Those who love the Lord will surely know they are His. And if you fail to abide in Him, if you hate spending time in prayer and in the word or with His children, then there is good reason to check yourself – are you in the faith? Do you love what He loves?  Or do you love the world more than you love Him…

The Endurance of the Root

Now, the inverse of this rather difficult truth is that if you are abiding in Christ – in the root – then you can have no possible reason for despair!  I love what Ryle says on this occasion, “Believers has no cause to despair of their own salvation, and to think they will never reach heaven. Let them consider that they are not left to themselves and their own strength. Their root is Christ, and all that there is in the root is for the benefit of the branches. Because He lives, they shall live also.”  Contrast that with those who are not in Christ, and you have absolute and total peril. You have condemnation that is certain waiting for them at the end of their hollow lives. “Worldly people have no cause to wonder at the continuance and perseverance of believers. Weak as they are in themselves, their Root is in heaven, and never dies” Ryle says.

How great is the hope of the one whose trust is in the Root of Jesse! How firm is the foundation upon which we stand. Our hope is eternal, and our root is strong.

The Reason for this Structure

Everything that God does has a reason. There is a method behind all that the great Designer of the universe puts into motion.

We don’t have to wonder what that reason is for abiding in Christ – for He tells us: to bear much fruit.  When you think about fruit, what comes to mind?  Derek Stone calls fruit “God’s candy”! So that naturally comes to mind for me. Fruit is symbolic of all that is sweet and good from the land. It is the candy of all growing things. Who doesn’t like fruit!?

And we know from studying the Bible that there is spiritual fruit as well. Paul describes this in Galatians 5:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. 24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another. (Galatians 5:22-26, ESV)

Now this fruit only comes through the power of the Holy Spirit – Christ’s indwelling presence among His chosen people, His branches. Therefore it is submission to the Spirit, and constant abiding in Christ that produces this fruit.

Interesting that the end result of this is glory to God.  Like all things that God creates, He calls the fruit of the Spirit “good” – you remember how God looked out over creation in Genesis 1 and said “it is good”? He is similarly pleased with His new creations in Christ – with you.

Ridderbos agrees:

‘For apart from me you can do nothing’ that is, nothing that corresponds to the new life that he bestows and the new commandment that he gives. For without this reciprocal remaining in him and him in them they will fall back on themselves, either in total unfruitfulness or lapsing into the wild growth that is no longer shaped by his word, into activism or idealism that is neither derived from nor directed to him.

You are a new creation in Christ, and He is tilling the land of your soul so that you will bear much fruit in this new land. He is the Vine, and you are the branches. Praise God for His diligent sovereign work of tilling the soil of our souls in order to produce the fruit of the Spirit within us. 

Ferguson on Abiding in Christ

Great little post out today from Sinclair Ferguson on Abiding in Christ. Check it out:

What Does it Mean to Abide in Christ?
Posted: 01 Feb 2013 03:00 AM PST

The exhortation to “abide” has been frequently misunderstood, as though it were a special, mystical, and indefinable experience. But Jesus makes clear that it actually involves a number of concrete realities.

First, union with our Lord depends on His grace. Of course we are actively and personally united to Christ by faith (John 14:12). But faith itself is rooted in the activity of God. It is the Father who, as the divine Gardener, has grafted us into Christ. It is Christ, by His Word, who has cleansed us to fit us for union with Himself (15:3). All is sovereign, all is of grace.

Second, union with Christ means being obedient to Him. Abiding involves our response to the teaching of Jesus: “If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you …” (John 15:7a). Paul echoes this idea in Colossians 3:16, where he writes, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly,” a statement closely related to his parallel exhortation in Ephesians 5:18: “be filled with the Spirit.”

In a nutshell, abiding in Christ means allowing His Word to fill our minds, direct our wills, and transform our affections. In other words, our relationship to Christ is intimately connected to what we do with our Bibles! Then, of course, as Christ’s Word dwells in us and the Spirit fills us, we will begin to pray in a way consistent with the will of God and discover the truth of our Lord’s often misapplied promise: “You will ask what you desire, and it shall be done for you” (John 15:7b).

Third, Christ underlines a further principle, “Abide in My love” (15:9), and states very clearly what this implies: the believer rests his or her life on the love of Christ (the love of the One who lays down His life for His friends, v. 13).

This love has been proved to us in the cross of Christ. We must never allow ourselves to drift from daily contemplation of the cross as the irrefutable demonstration of that love, or from dependence on the Spirit who sheds it abroad in our hearts (Rom. 5:5). Furthermore, remaining in Christ’s love comes to very concrete expression: simple obedience rendered to Him is the fruit and evidence of love for Him (John 15:10–14).

Finally, we are called, as part of the abiding process, to submit to the pruning knife of God in the providences by which He cuts away all disloyalty and sometimes all that is unimportant, in order that we might remain in Christ all the more wholeheartedly.

This post has been adapted from Sinclair Ferguson’s book, In Christ Alone.

Abiding in Christ: Its meaning, importance, and paradox

As Kate and I were talking this evening about some of the major concepts that our class has tackled over the past few months, the topic of abiding came to the forefront of our discussion, and she suggested that I post a separate sort of stand-alone article simply on this principle for easy access down the road.  Enjoy!

 Abiding in Christ

There are several places in the Gospel of John where the word “abiding” is used to describe a believer’s right actions in/on his Christian journey. I’ve posted a little about this when we studied 6:55-56 and most recently 8:31-32, and during our most recently lesson I mentioned John 14:21 where our Lord says, “Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.”

There are 120 different times that this word is used throughout scripture. Perhaps the most familiar of all is found in John 15:1-11 where Christ delivers the last of his “I AM sayings” and tell us that it is our abiding in Him that gives us our live and vitality. Here’s what that passage says:

I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. [2] Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. [3] Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. [4] Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. [5] I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. [6] If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. [7] If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. [8] By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. [9] As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. [10] If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. [11] These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.

Defining our Terms

Before we go much further, let’s ask what exactly this word “abide” means. The word “abide” is “meno” in the Greek and can mean to sojourn or tarry in a place, to be kept continually, to continue to be present, to endure, and when talking about it in relation to a state a condition of a person it can mean to “remain as one” and “not become different.”

To abide in Christ and have Him abide in us is normally meant that we are continually relying on Christ for our vitality.  The ESV Study notes say, “abide in me means to continue in a daily, personal relationship with Jesus, characterized by trust, prayer, obedience, and joy.”

Sinclair Ferguson says, “Abiding in Christ means allowing His Word to fill our minds, direct our wills, and transform our affections.”

The Paradox of Abiding

The more one studies abiding, and the kind of abiding Christians are called to do, the more one realizes (I think) that there are two sorts of abiding that occur in our walk with Christ.

The first kind of abiding is a synergistic work. That is to say, it is something we work with God in accomplishing. Abiding requires us reading the Word of God, and daily submitting our lives to His authority. It requires us being in prayer, and asking for God to work through our lives, and work on us – to conform us to the image of Christ. It’s a constant seeking of God’s face (1 Chron. 16:11). This idea is articulated in the Latin phrase “coram Deo” which R.C. Sproul defines in the following way: “This phrase literally refers to something that takes place in the presence of, or before the face of, God. To live coram Deo is to live one’s entire life in the presence of God, under the authority of God, to the glory of God.”

The second part of abiding, is the part that is monergistic, that is to say that it is God’s work and not ours. This kind of abiding is the kind that the Holy Spirit does in our lives after we are born again. Our abiding is done out of a motivation and love for Christ’s abiding in us and saving us.  His abiding in us causes us to want to abide in Him – to spend time in His word, to spend time in prayer. So in a sense we are always abiding in Him because He is in us. But in another sort of lower sense, there is a call here for us to “abide” in Christ – and that means seeking Him and resting in Him.

Because we are both “seeking” and “resting” at the same time, I call this “the paradox of abiding.” A paradox is defined as two things that seem on the surface to be naturally opposed or in contradiction to one another, but only through a closer look do we find that they are not opposed to each other, but are simply different ways of expressing a larger truth or relationship – in this case, our relationship with Christ and His work of sanctification within us. We rest in Him because we are secure in the promises He offers and we are secure in our salvation, but we seek Him and seek to abide in Him because we love Him and want to know Him more.

Here is how Jerry Bridges articulates this concept of abiding:

In John 15:4-5, Jesus made it clear that the divine source of life and power comes through abiding in him. How does one abide?

Most often we think of activities such as studying our Bible and praying as abiding in Christ…But these activities do not constitute abiding in Christ; rather, they belong in a subject we called communion with Christ. What then does it mean to abide in Christ? It is reliance on Him for His life and His power. By faith we renounce any confidence in our own wisdom, willpower, and moral strength and rely completely on him to supply the spiritual wisdom and power we need. This does not mean we sit back and just “turn it all over Him” to live His life through us; rather, we rely on him to enable us. So we can say that our salvation is by faith and our transformation is also by faith. But this does not mean that the object of our faith is the same in both cases…in salvation, we are passive except to believe. In transformation, we are active as we seek to pursue holiness in relying on the Holy Spirit to apply the power of Christ to our hearts and enable us to do his will.

And so abiding is both resting in Christ, and seeking the face of God in our daily walk. It is completely relying on the Lord for our every need, and staying in constant and continual touch with Him. It is diving into His Word, and leaning on the promises we find therein. It is faithfully walking the narrow path of a Christian soldier as we march toward our eternal home.