Bible

From Filthy Rags To Robes Of Righteousness

From Filthy Rags To Robes Of Righteousness

You meet him who joyfully works righteousness, those who remember you in your ways. Behold, you were angry, and we sinned; in our sins we have been a long time, and shall we be saved? We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.

Isaiah 64:5–6

I will greatly rejoice in the LORD; my soul shall exult in my God, for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation; he has covered me with the robe of righteousness.

Isaiah 61:10a

Someone swindled us.

They appealed to our pride and sold us the idea of moralism, and told us that acting religious is expected of us. And we went along with it.

We’re tempted to strut as if we are wearing royal robes of spirituality and morality. But the truth is that we are really parading in filthy rags. That is the picture offered in Isaiah 64. Most biblical commentaries say that these “filthy rags” God is referring to are actually “menstruation cloths” associated with one of the most extreme forms of uncleanness under the Law of Moses. They were treated with the great disgust, disposed of immediately, and never reused. Sit with that for a second. All your best moments, your most selfless and spiritual acts—God calls them filthy rags.

“Justification is the opposite of condemnation.

There is a reason we do not boast in our morality and spirituality. If we have faith in Christ, we are not left draped in our own filthy rags but we get the robe of righteousness from Christ. Isaiah writes: “I will greatly rejoice in the LORD; my soul shall exult in my God, for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation; he has covered me with the robe of righteousness” (Isa. 61:10). From filthy rags to robes of righteousness. That’s beautiful! Jesus takes on our filthy rags, and he robes us in his righteousness. This is imputed righteousness. This is justification—the declaration of your righteous status before God.

Justification is the opposite of condemnation. When a person is condemned, they are declared to be wicked and sentenced to death. When a person is justified, they are declared to be righteous and set free to live. Condemnation doesn’t make a person wicked; it simply declares their state of wickedness. If you trust in Christ for your righteousness, then by faith you are declared righteous before God. His righteousness becomes your righteousness.

“There is no waxing and waning of your righteousness before God.

This is the wonderful doctrine of imputed righteousness. The righteousness of Christ is really given to us, credited to our account. It covers our sins like a spotless white robe of righteousness.

Imputation is an awesome liberating truth that can give us great assurance and confidence before God. You may be strong today and weak tomorrow. Life will always have its peaks and valleys. “Old sins” may re-emerge, or God may deliver you from them. You may progress or regress spiritually. But there is no waxing and waning of your righteousness before God. For you are clothed in the perfect righteousness of Christ to which you can never add and from which you can never subtract.


Grace All The Way

Grace All The Way

There is a damaging idea floating around that says, “God saved you, now what are you going to do for him?” This is a recipe for failure. If you come to the Christian life believing you can do anything for God in your own strength or repay him on any level, you fall back to the self-dependent spiritual death from which Jesus saved you.

Ephesians 2 frees us from this lie by showing that the Christian life is completely fueled by God’s grace. The chapter is filled with the high-octane gospel of grace for both our justification and also our sanctification. It begins with how believers were dead in their sins, then moves to how God loved us and rescued us from this death by his grace, bringing salvation to all in Christ, uniting Jews and Gentiles as one people in whom the Spirit of God dwells. The first half of the chapter focuses on God’s rescue operation, which delivered us from our sin and God’s wrath, and ends with the verse 10, which centers on how God’s deliverance means we are created anew for lives of righteousness. As Peter O’Brien notes, Paul has already described salvation as “a resurrection from the dead, a liberation from slavery, and a rescue from condemnation”; he moves now to the idea of a new creation.

Ephesians 2:4-5

Ephesians 2:4-5 proclaims Gods grace clearly: “God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace have you been saved.” Regeneration takes place when the spiritual dead come alive in Christ. Dead people do not cooperate with grace. Without regeneration, there is no possibility of faith. Paul got this from Jesus, who told Nicodemus: “Unless a man is born again first, he cannot possibly see or enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:3).

Ephesians 2:8-9

The theme of Ephesians 2:8-9 is clear: grace. This theme was already mentioned inEphesians 2:5, but as Tet-Lim Yee points out, what was then more of an “undercurrent” now becomes the main point. We are saved by grace, not anything we have done. The passage has often been used to support the idea that justification before God is by grace alone, and not anything we do. And for good reason: the verses strike with great emphasis the note of salvation as a complete “gift of God.” We have done nothing to bring it about that could lead us to boast. And yet it is nearly impossible not to boast in the radical love of God when we grasp this reality.

Ephesians 2:10

We now move to Ephesians 2:10 with its focus on “good works.” It is tempting at first glance to think that verses 8-9 are about grace and verse 10 is about works. But this would be to miss something very important that we easily neglect: everything is grace. Or, as commentator Andrew Lincoln says, “It is grace all the way.” But what does that mean exactly?

Ephesians has focused on the work of God from the very beginning in 1:1. Now it all reaches a crescendo. Notice God at the center of Ephesians 2:10. The first word in the original Greek sentence is “his,” an unusual placement that puts the emphasis squarely on God. We are “his workmanship.” We “are created [by God] in Christ Jesus” for good works. These good works were those “that God prepared beforehand.” Clearly works are important to Paul, but his emphasis here is on God bringing them about within us.

Frank Thielman notes that this verse does three important things. First, it gives the reasonwhy Paul can say in verses 8-9 that salvation is a complete gift of God: because we are hisworkmanship, re-created in Jesus Christ. Second, it points forward to other places the new creation idea can be found in Ephesians (Eph. 2:14-154:24). Third, it completes the section of Ephesians 2:1-10 in a fitting way by using again the idea of “walking,” which contrasts with Ephesians 2:2 where Paul talks about how we used to “walk” in sin, following the “course of the world.” Now we “walk” in good works God has set before us.

God’s Workmanship

The word for “workmanship” here, poiēma, is used elsewhere in the New Testament only in Romans 1:20, though it connects to other words in the Bible used for the idea of “work” or “something created/made.” The word is related to the verb poieō, “I make,” and is often found in creation contexts in the Greek translation of the Old Testament (for example, see Ps. 92:4143:5), as Thielman points out. In Romans 1:20, God’s “eternal power and divine nature” are perceived in creation, in the “things that have been made” (poiēmasin, from poiēma). Both in that passage and also here the context is the creation of God.

The theme of the people of God being God’s workmanship runs throughout Scripture. In the beginning, of course, God took some dirt and made a man—a clear image of God as workman. But beyond this we see the idea in reference to God’s people Israel, as well the church in the NT:

Is not [the Lord] your father, who created you, who made you and established you?” (Deut 32:6; see also v. 15).

Thus says the Lord who made you, who formed you from the womb and will help you (Isa 44:2).

Thus says the Lord, your Redeemer, who formed you from the womb (Isa 44:24).

Upon you I have leaned from before my birth; you are he who took me from my mother’s womb (Psalm 71:6).

Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations (Jer 1:5).

And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ (Phil 1:6).

For it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure (Phil 2:13).

In Scripture we see both the idea of humans as creatures of God, as well as believers redeemed and re-created in Christ as his workmanship.

Ephesians 2:10 continues by saying that we have been created in Christ Jesus “for good works.” So we are saved for the purpose of walking in good works. Good works are never the ground or cause of our salvation. They can’t be. As O’Brien emphasizes, works are not the cause but the “goal of the new creation.” And God has already prepared them for us ahead of time.

How Do We Then Live?

We must always hold Ephesians 2:10 together with 2:8-9. The Bible paints a holistic picture of the believer as one whose lives in grace that continually bears fruit, which is used by God to bless others.

How do we then live? If our works are “prepared beforehand,” what do we do? Paul says we “walk in them.” We show up. We abide in the vine of Jesus (John 15:4). We walk by the Spirit (Gal. 5:16-25). We do our best not to muck it up. But we will; and when we do, grace picks us up again. It’s like the old Rich Mullins lyric: “If I stand, let me stand on the promise that you will see me through, and if I can’t, let me fall on the grace that first brought me to you.”

The idea that we can or should try to “repay” God for his grace cuts away the source of power that saved us in the first place—God’s grace. It’s exactly what Paul so vehemently rejected when he cried, “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” (Gal 3:3) It is God who saves, and God who sanctifies—all by grace.

Above all else and before any discussion of what we should do, we must understand deeply in our bones who we are: the workmanship of God. You are his project. So you are invited to be who you are. Your life is not your own; it was bought with a price. Live with the gratitude, humility, joy, and peace that come from knowing it does not all depend on you. You are loved and accepted in Christ, so you don’t have to focus on what you do or don’t do for God. Now you can focus on what Jesus has done for you, and that will cause you to love God more. Then you can’t help but walk in grace, realizing how costly God’s grace was.

You Are God’s Child

You Are God’s Child

“You are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.” 1 Corinthians 3:23

Because you are of Christ and Christ is of God, God accepts, owns, and affirms you.

If you have put your hope in Christ, God will never let you go even when you think he may be unimpressed with you. Martin Luther is helpful in explaining why this is so. He gave us a helpful phrase: simul justus et peccatore, which means “simultaneously just and sinful.” This is a realistic identity. According to your sinful desires and actions, you are a sinner deserving judgment. However, because of God’s mercy and his actions at the cross, you are justified. God’s grace changes our identity.

If you’ve seen Fight Club, you’ll remember the scene with Tyler Durden’s powerful diatribe against the false identities we assume: “You are not your job. You’re not how much money you have in the bank. You’re not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet. You’re not your . . . khakis.”

“When we trust him, the vicious cycle of identity maintenance stops.”

In light of this passage and Luther, we can add more. You are not your impurity. You are not your binge eating. You are not your STD. You are not your divorce. You are not your parents’ divorce. You are not your sexual sins. You are not your pattern of messed-up relationships. You are not whatever your abusive father called you. You are not an adulterer.

You are God’s child whom God sees as pure and perfect because of what Jesus has done. If your faith is in Christ, God doesn’t see us how we are and act; God actually sees us how Jesus was: perfect. Isaiah tells us that our righteousness is like “filthy rags,” but it is Jesus’ robe of righteousness draped over us that God sees.

Our God is the one before whom we can put aside the disguise, trusting that when he sees us for who we really are, he won’t run away screaming, nor smite us in anger. When we trust him, the vicious cycle of identity maintenance stops and we can step onto the firm ground of acceptance, through Jesus Christ, who has made us his own.

Jesus Loses No One

Jesus Loses No One

“All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.JOHN 6:37–40

It’s easy for many of us to fall into thinking of God as angry and disappointed toward us, or at best, as passive and indifferent. Some may think that they’ve failed him so many times that he’s probably given up on them to focus on the godly, “effective” people. But Jesus’ words tell a vastly different story.

Through Jesus, God is actively reaching into our chaos, pain, and confusion to grasp us and rescue us from sin, evil, and ourselves. Jesus has initiated the relationship with us: “I have come down from heaven to do God’s will.” And when God grasps us, we are secure, not driven away, forgotten, or lost.

For those who trust in Jesus, God is not aggressively against you (as in judgment) and God is not passively indifferent about you (as if you will be forgotten). Rather, he is actively, lovingly ensuring that you will have new life: “all who believe in the Son will have eternal life” and “I will raise you up on the last day.”

Jesus is assured that many would indeed come to him in faith. God does not turn any away who come to him, nor will he ever disown them. In a world of overwhelming complexities and insecurities, you can know at the very core of your being that God has decided to make you his and will not let anything get in the way. If you have put your trust in Christ, your future is not hanging in the balance; it is rock-solid. Your future is resurrection.

We are bent toward independence and unfaithfulness. If the security of our salvation depended on our ability to choose and hang on to Christ, then we would be caught on the treadmill of a self-centered scheme of works righteousness. Thankfully, Scripture teaches that it all depends on God to keep us secure:

  • “If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? . . . So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.” (Matt. 18:12–14)
  • “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.” (John 10:27–28)
  • “To him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.” (Jude 1:24–25)

Trust Jesus, and rest secure. Jesus loses no one.

God’s Relentless And Steadfast Love

God’s Relentless And Steadfast Love

“Save me in your steadfast love!” Psalm 31:16

The Bible is a story of God’s undeserved, gracious, and generous love. God is under no obligation to rescue us, but he chooses to do so and takes the initiative to bring it about. As the story of salvation develops throughout the Bible, this rescuing love of God is referred to in various terms, but the main one is the Hebrew word hesed. The entire history of God’s relationship with Israel and Jesus’ message can be summarized in terms of hesed.

Hesed is God’s steadfast love—the consistent, ever-faithful, relentless, constantly pursuing, lavish, extravagant, unrestrained, one-way love of God. It turns up regularly in the Old Testament, particularly in the Psalms, but it is not just an Old Testament concept. Rather, it points to the fullness of God’s love shown in giving up his Son Jesus Christ.

Through Jesus, God has and is actively reaching into our chaos, our sin, our pain, and our confusion and taking hold of us. God is active and initiates the relationship with us. And when we are grasped through his steadfast love (hesed), we are secure, not driven away or lost. Rather, we are being lifted out and brought to new life. We have been given life now, and we will be given eternal new life by Jesus at the end. As Jesus told us, “This is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:40).

Will God Be Faithful?

Will God Be Faithful?

Psalm 22 contains some of the most heart-wrenching cries to God recorded in all of the Psalms. God himself is on trial and David asks, “Will God remain faithful?”

This is the song of a believer who experiences great suffering and wonders where God is. It is a psalm that, in the midst of injustice, wonders if God himself will be faithful to his promise.

This is a psalm in three movements. The first movement is written with the dark, minor notes of pain, bewilderment, and betrayal. The second has bright chords of rejoicing and freedom. The third is composed of both the deep, sundering bass notes of God’s power and the high ring of celestial praise.

The song, to be sung on the Sabbath, was a reminder. Like most psalmic worship, David’s goal was to weekly remember God’s faithfulness to his covenant promises and to reassure the assembled congregation that God’s faithfulness is completely trustworthy. Let’s listen.

CONFLICT: IS GOD FAITHFUL?

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?

O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer,

and by night, but I find no rest.

Psalm 22:1–2

The first movement of Psalm 22 has God on trial. David asks the question, “Will he be faithful?” while at the same time arguing that he should. Verses 1–2 express the heart-cry of Jesus on the cross: “Why have you forsaken me?” David most likely composed this psalm while on the run from King Saul. He had been promised the throne of Israel and the protection of God, yet he had spent the last few years of his life on the run as a fugitive. It truly seemed like God had forsaken David and forgotten his promise. Because the trial went on longer and longer, and David cried out more and more, it seemed that God had stopped paying attention.

But I am a worm and not a man,

scorned by mankind and despised by the people.

All who see me mock me;

they make mouths at me; they wag their heads;

“He trusts in the LORD; let him deliver him;

let him rescue him, for he delights in him!”

Psalm 22:6–8

Yet this situation, David cries, is out of character for God. His holiness and glory have not been jeopardized, but are still upheld by Israel. So he cannot have lost his power. When Israel cried out to God, they were rescued and not put to shame. They trusted in God and he answered their cries. David’s question is, “Why, if you redeemed Israel out of Egypt and her slavery, have you forgotten me?” Over the next few verses, David compares his situation and character to that of Israel. In verses 6–8, he describes his reality: he is despised by his own people, while Israel was only despised by foreigners. The people mocking him realize the conflict—they mock him because they think God will not rescue him. Verse 8 ends with the question, “Has God abandoned David?”

Yet you are he who took me from the womb;

you made me trust you at my mother’s breasts.

On you was I cast from my birth,

and from my mother’s womb you have been my God.

Be not far from me,

for trouble is near,

and there is none to help.

Psalm 22:9–11

David’s frustration mounts in verses 9–11. If God is faithful to his promises to those who are obedient, David has more claim than anyone. He was God’s from birth, and since infancy he has been faithfully obedient to God. If there is anyone who has a right to call on God’s faithfulness, it is David. At this point, God seems without an excuse, and David’s question is simply, “What gives?” The psalm then relays David’s resignation in vivid imagery: poured out like water and starving to death, David has nothing left to hold out for. His enemies surround him like lions and dogs. The wealth he had before becoming an outcast is divided up among his enemies.

This movement concludes with a final, dying man’s cry to God to deliver. David has made his argument and can do no more. He must now wait for God’s answer. This movement should be the heart-cry of every believer when suffering. There is nothing wrong with the tension of asking “Will God be faithful?” Often this question drives believers to worship and anticipates the future action of God. It is part of worship. However, worshipers find hope when they remember the past actions of God.

RESOLUTION: GOD IS FAITHFUL

But you, O LORD, do not be far off!

O you my help, come quickly to my aid!

Deliver my soul from the sword,

my precious life from the power of the dog!

Save me from the mouth of the lion!

You have rescued me from the horns of the wild oxen!

Psalm 22:19–21

Just when it seems that God has truly gone silent, David’s tone changes: he begins to rejoice that God has answered him (verse 21). There is no comment whether or not David received the redemption for which he longed, but he expresses confidence that God will be faithful to his word. The deliverance in verses 19–21 form the foundation for David’s praise. Praise be to God for deliverance is not private act, but a communal one. This song, sung among the assembled people on Sabbath, recounts the actions of God in David’s life to the people of Israel. The song’s praise to God for his intervention reminds the nation of God’s acts on the whole nation’s behalf. Just as David was redeemed, so was Israel. Just as David has a reason to praise God, so does the congregation.

These nations will remember the actions of God.”

The conclusion to this movement is rather simple despite the terror of the previous movement. The afflicted can trust God for deliverance, and this deliverance should prompt obedience. Just as God was faithful to his promise, David promises faithfulness to his own promise. Worship is the beginning of obedience. The same spirit of thankfulness that prompts praise to God will also prompt obedience. Individual praise then encourages corporate remembrance of God’s action and further praise. But this chain of events is not limited to the people of God alone. The next movement concludes the psalm with a thunderous crescendo.

FUTURE: GOD’S FAITHFUL REIGN

All the ends of the earth shall remember

and turn to the LORD,

and all the families of the nations

shall worship before you.

For kingship belongs to the LORD,

and he rules over the nations.

All the prosperous of the earth eat and worship;

before him shall bow all who go down to the dust,

even the one who could not keep himself alive.

Posterity shall serve him;

it shall be told of the Lord to the coming generation;

they shall come and proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn,

that he has done it.

Psalm 22:27–31

The song concludes (verses 27–31) with a movement so profound it is hard to remember the suffering recounted in the first verses. David expands the worshiping people to include all the nations of the world. These nations will remember the actions of God—demonstrated in the lives of the people of Israel and her King—and turn to him in worship. God is truly King over the whole earth, and rightly deserves the worship of all people. Everyone—prosperous or otherwise—will serve him.

WE ARE WITNESSES

Just as a pebble tossed into a lake spreads ripples over the whole lake, a person who experiences God’s redemption and praises him sets off a reaction. The people of God take up the chorus and praise God along with the redeemed, for they, too, were redeemed. When all the people of God are doing this, they are a witness to God’s redemption and an example for the world.

Psalm 22 closes by mentioning the remembrance passed down from generation to generation. Parents who hand down the stories of God’s faithfulness raise children who trust their God.

In the same way, the people of God stand as a powerful witness to the world when worshiping him for his faithfulness and redemption. Just as Jesus suffered and felt the abandonment of God, yet experienced deliverance to the heights of glory, so Christians, when faced with suffering, praise God and trust him for deliverance.

Weak And Ungodly, But Loved

Weak And Ungodly, But Loved

“For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.”Romans 5:6

Romans 5:6 reminds us that the death of Christ was not for good people, but for people who were still sinners. “Weak” and “ungodly” are the two words in this verse that describe our situation. “Weak” refers to our moral frailty and the fact that we are powerless to deliver ourselves. “Ungodly” means “wicked” and shows that we are far from meriting God’s favor and kindness.

This is one of the reasons the gospel is offensive. We like to be seen as strong and virtuous, not like weak rebels who need to be rescued.

“At the right time” means that God knew what he was doing, and that Jesus’ self-sacrifice was planned. The atonement was no afterthought. The death of Jesus was the way God had always intended to deal with sin; he did it when he chose.

Jesus didn’t die for you after you proved to be good enough, strong enough, smart enough, or together enough. While you were still weak and ungodly, he sacrificed his life for yours. And that was the plan from the beginning.

What Jesus did was heroic, noble, strong, and virtuous. But it was also lots more: it was love. This is how God loves you: “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Hearing that never gets old.

How Grace Motivates

How Grace Motivates

Many leaders have it all wrong. Rather than trying to motivate the people they lead, they just need to stop demotivating them.

This is crucial for leaders to learn, or else they will hurt people, discourage them, and lead less effective teams. The truth is that demands, threats, and promises of reward don’t motivate people to work harder or better—in fact, they demotivate people.

Instead, Scripture shows—and psychological and sociological research confirms—a surprising and counter-intuitive truth: grace motivates.

GRACE IS COMPELLING

God’s grace is overflowing and abundant.1 It is also powerful: grace motivates changed lives, as Paul writes: “The love of Christ compels us!” (2 Cor. 5:14).

The law threatens and demands, but does not motivate. This is not to discount the value of the law. The law of God is “perfect, true, and righteous altogether” (Ps. 19:7–9) and “holy, just, and good” (Rom. 7:12), but it does nothing to produce the life it requires. As Paul Zahl writes, “The Bible declares the law to be good and right (Ps. 119, 1 Tim. 1:8Rom. 3:31Rom. 7:12–16) but then with one great insight deprives the law of any lasting capacity to do us any good (Rom. 7:24–25).”

The law does not enable people to do what it demands. The Ten Commandments are the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth—but not the means with which to obey them. The Apostle Paul writes, “If a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law” (Gal. 3:21). The law cannot generate what it commands. Law does not deliver what it mandates—but grace does.

The Bible says this in a variety of ways:

  • Matthew 10:8: “You received without paying; give without pay.”
  • Romans 2:4: “God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance.”
  • Romans 6:14: “Sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.”
  • Titus 2:11–12: “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives.”

GRACE IS PRACTICAL

The shocking and life-giving truth that grace motivates is not just for the pulpit and counseling sessions. It has massive implications for leadership in all realms. Grace is practical.

In his TED Talk on “the surprising science of motivation,” business writer and speaker Daniel Pink shows how social science confirms this ironic reality. Research shows that traditional incentives, or “extrinsic motivators” (rewards and punishments, carrots and sticks) actually don’t work to motivate people. In fact, they decrease performance and results. What actually motivates people are “intrinsic motivators,” inward desires that drive our behavior. Pink singles out three primary intrinsic motivators that, if cultivated, lead to better performance and more personal satisfaction:

  • Autonomy: The urge to direct our lives.
  • Mastery: The desire to excel at something that matters.
  • Purpose: The yearning for our actions to serve something greater than ourselves.

So in leadership and business, rewards and punishments demotivate people. People are instead motivated by freedom, the desire for excellence, and the desire for their actions to have meaning.

What this means is the carrot and the stick produce the opposite of what they intend—the more you try to incentivize people, the poorer their performance becomes. Once people’s basic financial needs are met, motivation is driven most by a desire to connect to something larger than themselves, rather than the desire to get more material rewards.

Those who lead by grace set the tone for entire teams and organizations. Grace expressed as love, acceptance, and understanding increases performance in the workplace. Peter Bregman explains:

An organization performs best when the people in the organization know they can trust and depend on each other. Then they break out of silos. They take accountability for their own mistakes instead of blaming each other. They surface problems before they become major obstacles. But if people spend their energy hiding their feelings, that energy will leak out in negative and insidious ways, sabotaging your efforts and theirs.

A 2010 Gallup study analyzed 32,000 businesses and found that happier, more engaged employees significantly increased productivity and profitability for their organizations:

After talking with thousands of workers, Gallup identified 12 issues that best predict employee performance, and none included pay raises or bonuses. For many decades, researchers have known that such incentives don’t provide lasting motivation, said Michael Cole, who teaches leadership at Texas Christian University’s Neeley School. “The good feeling wears off, and everything resets,” he said. So what lasts? Cole said three things energize a workplace for the long run: When employees feel as if they have control over their work, are contributing to a larger purpose and have a chance to learn and grow.

GRACE IN REAL LIFE

For pastors and ministry leaders, the principle that grace motivates ought to permeate our lives, work, and leadership. This means when you want to see better performance from your staff, don’t threaten demotions or probation; instead, provide security, offer freedom for self-direction, and help them see the larger significance of their work. If you want your children to be more obedient (not just compliant), don’t give them threats, but talk about Jesus’ obedience on their behalf and dazzle them with grace. And when you want to see more faithfulness in your congregation, don’t just hammer them with the demands of the law; rather, tell them about Jesus’ faithfulness on our behalf, even and especially when we are faithless (2 Tim. 2:13). You will be amazed at the fruit the Holy Spirit produces when you focus on grace, rather than threats and incentives. Grace motivates.

Firstborn of the Dead?

Firstborn of the Dead?

At the beginning of the book of Revelation, John writes this greeting to the churches he’s addressing:

Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth. (Rev. 1:4–5)

The title “firstborn of the dead” for Jesus is of great theological importance, especially with Easter in the background. The Greek word for “firstborn” that John uses is prōtotokos, a word that literally refers to birth order—the first child born. This is a concept of great significance in the Old Testament, where the firstborn son inherited his father’s place as head of the family, receiving the father’s blessing and a double portion of the inheritance (Deut. 21:17).After the Passover in Egypt, God told his people that every firstborn child was set aside as his own (Ex. 13:2), and the nation of Israel as a whole was referred to as God’s “firstborn son” (Ex. 4:22).

Christians have a sure hope that one day, because we are in Christ, will reign with him as the firstborn of God, heirs of all things in heaven and on earth.

Because of the biblical significance attached to the concept, the word “firstborn” acquired a metaphorical sense and came to also refer to the special status of the firstborn as the preeminent son and heir. In the New Testament, Jesus is shown to be the “new Israel,” the culmination and fulfillment of God’s promise to bless all the nations through the offspring of Abraham (Gal. 3:7–8, 16). Jesus fulfills the intended role of Israel as God’s faithful firstborn son in his perfect life and sacrificial death, and he is vindicated by God in his glorious resurrection.

In referring to Jesus as the firstborn of the dead, John is drawing words and imagery from Psalm 89, which celebrates the kingship of David and his line with phrases like “the firstborn,” “the highest of the kings of the earth,” and the idea that the Messiah’s throne will be a “faithful witness in the sky.” John is portraying Jesus as the “exalted heir of David who represents his people.”2

Numerous other times in the New Testament Jesus is referred to as prōtotokos, firstborn:

For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. (Romans 8:29)

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. (Colossians 1:15)

He is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. (Colossians 1:18)

When he brings the firstborn into the world, he says, “Let all God’s angels worship him.” (Hebrews 1:6)

Two other passages convey the same idea with slightly different language:

“[The prophets and Moses said] that the Christ must suffer and that, by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles.” (Acts 26:23)

In fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. (1 Corinthians 15:20–23)

As “firstborn of the dead,” Jesus is both first in time and first in preeminence. As the first to be raised from the dead, Christ is the founder and initiator of the new era God is bringing about through Jesus’ victory over sin and death.3 Jesus’ resurrection from death opens the way for all who trust in him to follow him in a resurrection like his when he returns. This is important because it shows that our ultimate hope is not just for our souls to go to heaven, but for our physical bodies to be raised to new life like Jesus’ was. He is the firstborn of the resurrection.

In Revelation 1:5 we also see the metaphorical sense of the term, showing Jesus’ supremacy in authority and kingship after his resurrection. Biblical scholar G.K. Beale explains,

John views Jesus as the ideal Davidic king on an escalated eschatological level, whose death and resurrection have resulted in his eternal kingship and in the kingship of his beloved children . . . . “Firstborn” refers to the high, privileged position that Christ has as a result of the resurrection from the dead . . . . Christ has gained such a sovereign position over the cosmos, not in the sense that he is recognized as the first-created being of all creation or as the origin of creation, but in the sense that he is the inaugurator of the new creation by means of his resurrection.4

We can draw all this together to see that there are two central ideas in the title “firstborn of the dead” in Revelation 1:5. First, the allusion to Psalm 89 shows that Jesus fulfills all history as the messianic King descended from the line of David. Second, being the “firstborn of the dead” means that Jesus is both the first to rise and the first in supremacy. He is the first to rise from the dead and thus the first of the new creation. He is also the inaugurator of the new creation and sovereign over everything. He is the rightful heir to it all. Christians have a sure hope that one day we will follow Christ into the resurrection and new creation, and, because we are in Christ, will reign with him as the firstborn of God, heirs of all things in heaven and on earth.

 


1 Luke L. Keefer, Jr., “Firstborn,” in Baker Theological Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), 258.

2 C. John Collins, in the The ESV Study Bible, 1049.

3 Douglas J. Moo, The Letters to the Colossians and to Philemon, Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 129.

4 G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 191.