Category Archives: Bible Bites [Exegesis]

This category includes all posts that are primarily about exegesis (biblical interpretation), except for posts already included in the Church Chat category.

“All Things Work Together for…” What?

In Romans 8:28 Paul famously assures us that “all things work together for good.” This is a much-quoted and much-misunderstood verse. Here it is in full:

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.

One way this verse is misunderstood is to turn it into an indefinite assurance that “everything that happens has a purpose”; things will work out well for everyone, eventually. But this promise is given only to “those who love God.” Those who do not love God have no such assurance.

But this still leaves a question: What is the “good” that will come to those who love God? Expanding on what I shared in my sermon opening today, I’d like to share three answers.

All Things Work Together for What?

First, there is the “prosperity gospel good.” Many professing Christians—perhaps even most in places as diverse as America and Africa—believe that if a Christian has enough faith God will eventually shower them with material blessings. For example, consider this:

God takes pleasure in blessing you, and it’s His will for you to be prosperous… It’s His plan for your life to have enough to take care of all your needs and be a blessing to others, too! To be able to take your family out for a nice meal, to live in a good home, to drive a great car, to go on a nice vacation, and to be able to bless others as you have been blessed… Believe God for a little extra to give, and a little extra to enjoy, and speak His promises of abundance over your life. As time passes, your faith will increase as well as your ability to receive abundance in your finances… Declare that He supplies all of your needs according to his riches in glory, expect His prosperity in your life, and thank Him before you see any change because you know it’s coming!

There is a lot of truth in those words, but also enough serious error that my employer, which sells Christian books, does not plan to order any more of this title for our shelves. I won’t unpack here all the problems with prosperity gospel thinking. Anyone who reads the New Testament carefully should see that for many of Jesus’ most faithful servants, faith in God meant “always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake” (2 Cor. 4:11), not nice vacations!

Seeing the errors of the prosperity “gospel,” many Christians look closer at the context of Romans 8 to see what “good” Paul had in mind. They note verse 29, which comes next:

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.

This leads to a second option: the “character-development good.” What good does God want us to enjoy? He wants us to “be conformed to the image of his Son.” What does that look like? Quite naturally, many readers think of moral qualities. What is Jesus like (WIJL)? What would Jesus do (WWJD)?

In this reading, God uses every circumstance of our lives to deepen our character. Suffering is his special way of filling us with more of his Spirit-fruit–love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Suffering teaches “those who belong to Christ Jesus” to “crucif[y] the flesh with its passions and desires” (Gal. 5:22-24). The end result is that, as we go through all the joys and especially all the sorrows of life, we look more and more like Jesus.

What earnest Christian would not rejoice at this news? This is indeed good! And, unlike the prosperity “gospel” interpretation above, it is also true, as many Bible passages prove.

But is this the “good” that Paul had in mind when he wrote Romans 8:28?

I don’t think so. A closer look at context suggests a third option, something we might call the “glorification good.” And I think it’s important to hear what Paul is saying.

Notice the final clause in verse 29. Why does God want to conform us to the image of his son? “In order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.” Elsewhere in the New Testament when “firstborn” language is used about Jesus, it consistently refers his exalted position–over angels, over creation, and especially over death (Col. 1:15, 18; Heb. 1:6; Rev. 1:5 and Luke 2:7 uses it to refer to Jesus’ natural birth order). That speaks of glory.

Similarly, in the one place where the same term is used to refer to Christians, we read of “the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven” (Heb. 12:23). That, too, suggests glory.

Back to Romans 8. Does our linguistic clue fit with Paul’s flow of thought? Consider verse 29, which comes next:

And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.

This verse brings Paul’s thoughts to a climax. In many modern translations it is the end of a paragraph, with the next paragraph transitioning to wide-angle reflection on all that has been said before (“What then shall we say to these things?”).  The “punch-line,” then, of Paul’s thought in this entire pericope (“puh-RICK-uh-pea,” fancy biblical studies language for “literary unit” or “section”) is the word “glorified.”

The ESV translation provides the heading “Future Glory” for verses 18 through 30. This is fitting, for the word “glory” is important in the entire pericope. Working backwards, this is what we find:

The creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. (Rom. 8:21)

Notice here that the glory spoken of belongs to “the children of God.” Talk of “children” foreshadows the language of Jesus being “the firstborn among many brothers” that we found in verse 29.

The first sentence of this pericope also mentions our glory:

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. (Rom. 8:18)

And, in the verses that lead into this entire pericope, we find this:

The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. (Rom. 8:16-17)

Notice here the focus on our position—like Jesus—as “children of God.” Again, this closely matches the language of Jesus being “the firstborn among many brothers” that we found in verse 29.

In fact, the whole pericope from verses 18 through 30 function as an elaboration and proof of the claims in verses 16 and 17, and glory is at the heart of it all:

  • Verses 16 and 17: Paul claims that we who have the Spirit are Jesus’ brothers and will someday inherit the glory that he has inherited, provided we are willing to first suffer with Jesus.
  • Verses 18 to 30: Paul moves from “groaning” to “glory,” detailing the suffering we experience, assuring us of the Spirit’s help, and promising that our glorification is as good as done (“glorified”—past tense).

In this context, there can be little doubt: When Paul told his amanuensis to write “all things work together for good,” the “good” he had in mind was the future glorification of God’s children.

Why does this matter?

First, if you believe the “prosperity gospel good” interpretation of Romans 8:28, you will be sadly disappointed. Your faith is likely to be crushed beneath the persistent sufferings of this life. “When tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word,” you may “fall away” (Matt. 13:21). Or, equally bad, if you actually do enjoy prosperity here and now and pin your hopes on it, you will lose your life when you inevitably die. Make no mistake; the prosperity “gospel” is deadly.

But second, if you believe the “character-development good” interpretation of this passage, you are also in danger. As “all things” that bring suffering into your life “work together” and unrelentingly bear down upon your soul, you may grow weary of God’s refining fire. Being good may pale in comparison to being comfortable. I know it does for me sometimes.

Paul claimed that “if in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15:19). Taking up your cross and denying yourself is no fun. That’s why Paul said what he did. I don’t care how much you end up sharing Christ’s character, cross-bearing is a really, really bad deal for you unless you believe the incentive of eternal reward. In fact, it is such a bad deal that you probably won’t be able to psych yourself into keeping it for long.

Not even Jesus could bear his cross without focusing on “the joy that was set before him” (Heb. 12:2).  Thus Peter urges you, too, to “set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 1:13).

In short, you need to set your hope on being “glorified,” not merely on being “good.” 

When you read Romans 8, never stop at verse 28. But never stop at verse 29, either. It sounds super spiritual to focus on suffering to become like Jesus. And you will indeed need to suffer if you are going to become like Jesus. But don’t try to be more spiritual than Jesus. Just aim to be with him and like him—good, yes, but also glorified!

For, one day, the two will be perfectly one, with suffering no more.

I don’t know about you, but I’m about ready for some glory. And yes, in another “moment” or two (2 Cor. 4:17), it will come. There is indeed “Such a Thing as Glory”!

May you catch a glimpse of glory to come as you walk through the “all things” of this week. And share your thoughts, glorious or otherwise, in the comments below. Thanks for reading.


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Naked and Exposed Before the Living God (Sermon)

The word of God reveals our hearts, leaving us naked and exposed before God. When God’s word comes to us, we are forced to respond, and how we respond reveals what is in our hearts.

First, we respond by our actions, which reveal either faith or unbelief in God’s word. Second, on the Last Day we will be called to give a word of response to God’s word, a word about the condition of our own hearts. On that day—as already now—it will be pointless to make our word deviate from God’s word, for the thoughts and intentions of our hearts are open before God.

Thus God’s word exposes us,  leaving us defenseless. It demands faith, and it demands a word in response—a word that matches God’s word.

These sobering thoughts come from Hebrews 4:12-13:

For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account. (ESV)

This passage was the central text in a sermon I recently preached on the danger of secret sin. I am generally more of a teacher than a preacher, but this was preaching. It was definitely more of a message of warning than I have ever shared before. I felt God’s grace as I shared. You can download the sermon or listen to it here:

Here is a summary of what I shared:

  • God tested Israel in the wilderness, between Egypt and the Promised Land of rest, revealing what was in their hearts. (Ex. 17:1-7; Num. 13-14; Deut. 8:2; 31:20-21; etc.)
  • God spoke to Israel “today” in the Promised Land, testing whether they would believe and enter eternal rest. (Ps. 95)
  • God is also speaking to us “today” in the wilderness, between our initial salvation and our eternal rest, testing our hearts. (Heb. 3:5–4:13; etc.)
  • God’s knows every secret of our hearts. (Many Scriptures, including Lk 8:17.)
  • “Are You in the Dangerous Time In Between?” —Tim Challies.
  • What should you do if you have hidden sin? Confess it, own it, repent of it, forsake it, replace evil desires with good desires, rely on divine help, seek human help. (Plead for the gift of repentance, which will not always be possible: Heb 6:4-8; 12:17. “Six Signs of Genuine Repentance”—Bryce Klabunde.)
  • Faithful response to God’s word is a community effort. We must exhort each other and sometimes even act urgently to “remove the evil from our midst.” (Heb. 3:12-13; 12:15; Deut. 29:18; 13:1-18; 1 Cor. 5; etc.)
  • “The Damning Devastation of a Single Coddled Sin”—Tim Challies.
  • Final warning from Hebrews—from the passage that is set in literary parallel to the sermon’s main text (Heb. 4:11-13):

For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge his people.” It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. (Heb. 10:26-31 ESV)

  • Comfort: Your love for God is also “naked and exposed” before him, and he will not overlook it. (Heb. 6:9-12)

Here was the final exhortation we heard, summarizing God’s word to us:

Brothers and sisters! God has rescued you from Egypt! He is leading you to the Promised Land of eternal rest! But you are in danger of missing that rest! Today God is speaking to you! Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts!

God is speaking to you, and his word will reveal the secret thoughts and intentions of your heart! There is no hiding from God! You lie naked and helplessly exposed before him! “Nothing is hidden that will not be made manifest, nor is anything secret that will not be known and come to light.”

Confess your sin to God! Own it! Repent of it! Forsake it! Replace your evil desires with good desires! Rely on divine help to live a holy life! Seek the help of your brothers and sisters!

Do not let your brothers and sisters coddle secret sins! Urge them to repentance! Don’t play around with fire that could burn the whole community! Don’t ignore any bitter root that will spring up and defile many! Purge the evil from your midst!

Determine today that you will no longer coddle a single persistent, deliberate, knowing sin! It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God!

May the God who knows our hearts turn our hearts anew to him in faith and obedience each day.

And may we help each other, for faithfulness is a community effort! What do you have to share that will help the rest of us live with pure hearts before God? Share your thoughts in the comments below. Thank you!


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“Into the World, But Not of the World”

“In the world, but not of the world.” Perhaps you’ve heard this slogan. It’s one way we Christians describe our ambivalent position in this world.

This slogan has biblical roots, which can be unearthed in John 17, in the prayer Jesus prays for his disciples just before he returns to his Father. Here are the relevant lines:

I am no longer in the world, but they are in the worldthe world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. (John 17:11, 14, emphasis added)

There you have it: “In the world” but “not of the world.”

This slogan has proved useful, for it holds two truths in tension: First–in emphasis, though not order–we belong to a kingdom that is not of this world, the kingdom of Christ. Our true identity is found here, not in any earthly ties we possess. Second–though first in the slogan–we nevertheless still inhabit this world, and should not pretend otherwise by imagining we are already in heaven.

A closer look at Jesus’ prayer, however, might cause us to pause before we use this slogan again. For me, the closer look came this morning as I listened to my brother Steve Smucker expound from John in our sermon time.

I might have looked right past what I am about to show you, had I not been primed by some recent thinking I’ve been doing as I prepare for a presentation about “two-kingdom theology.”  Christians belong to God’s kingdom, yet live within the kingdom of Satan. I had been planning to frame some of my presentation of this reality by using the slogan above: “In the world… not of the world.”

Now I think I’ll need to adapt that frame a little. Here’s why–the lines from Jesus’ prayer that I noticed this morning:

They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth. (John 17:16-19, emphasis added)

First, Jesus repeats his assertion that his followers are not of the world. Within the context of John’s Gospel, this is an amazing claim, one that deserves a few comments before we get to what excited me this morning.

As John records it, one of Jesus’ central claims regarding his authority was that, unlike the Jewish religious leaders who were too often his opponents, he was not of this world:

“You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world.” (John 8:23)

When Jesus said “I am not of this world,” this was a negative way of saying what he really meant: He was actually of another world. And now in John 17, Jesus says the same thing of his disciples: They, too, belong to another world. They, too, are part of a kingdom that is higher and bears greater authority than anything their opponents can claim. What an amazing honor!

But that is not all. Notice the first half of what Jesus told his opponents: “You are from below; I am from above.” Notice the little word “from.” When Jesus said “I am not of this world,” he was not merely (merely!) saying “I belong to another world.” He was also saying “I come from another world.”

And now, in John 17, Jesus uses the same language about his disciples! What can this mean? Are his disciples–are we Christians today–not only of, but also from another world?

Back to the verses I noticed this morning:

They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth. (John 17:16-19, emphasis added)

Now notice the second line I have emphasized. Here Jesus makes an amazing pronouncement. Just as the Father sent him into the world, so he has sent his disciples into the world!

So, it is not merely that we find ourselves “in” the world, though that is true. And it is not merely that Jesus didn’t ask that we be taken out of this world, though that, too, is true (John 17:15). Rather, we have been intentionally sent into the world by Jesus.

Now we can return to our unanswered question: Yes, Jesus does indeed indicate that his disciples are from another world. We have been “sent into” this world, which suggests that we did not come from here, but from somewhere else.

No, I am not suggesting that Christians have experienced an eternal “pre-existence” like the Second Person of the Trinity did before he inhabited flesh as the earthly Jesus. Rather, I am saying that Christians are on mission in this world just as Jesus was. Just as Jesus was sent from beyond this world (from God) with a mission from God to fulfill, so we are sent from beyond this world (from God) with a mission from Jesus to fulfill.

So now I plan to rephrase the slogan for my presentation. It will be “Into the world, but not of the world.”

But is this safe? Is it safe for Christians to imagine they have a mission to intentionally go into the world? I can hear the all-to-understandable concern: “Your faith won’t survive if you go into the world. The world will change you more than you will change the world.” And I can see the common solution: An attempt to retreat into Christian enclaves. No, we are not in heaven—we mournfully acknowledge that we are still “in the world,” after all— but we attempt to create our own little self-made heavens until we can be lifted away to the real thing. (Now I’m convicting myself as I write.)

What is Jesus solution for our concern? It is right there, in the words we have already read twice. Here it is again, with fresh emphasis and some footnotes I’ll explain in a minute:

They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them[b] in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself,[c] that they also may be sanctified[d] in truth. (John 17:16-19, emphasis added)

Notice how Jesus intersperses his statements about mission with statements about sanctification. How will we be sanctified? By the truth, by God’s word. God’s word—especially his message to us spoken through the work and words of Jesus—will purify us as we are sent out into the world. His word will keep us from defilement as we are on mission in the world.

But to be “sanctified” is more than just to be made holy. Here the ESV footnotes help. They all communicate the same thing: to be sanctified is to be set apart for holy service to God. This is priestly language, and it is mission language. Just as the priests were consecrated for the purpose of holy service to God, so we are cleansed by God for the purpose of being sent out into the world on holy mission.

So God puts together what we so often see as in conflict: Our need to be holy and our interaction with the world. We say, “How dare I go into the world if I am to remain holy?” Meanwhile, God just might be saying this: “What use is it that my children are seeking to be holy if they are so slow to go into the world on the mission for which I consecrated them?”

So yes, we are certainly “not of the world.” Let us never forget this! We belong to another kingdom, and this must be clearly evident. Our slogan is definitely not “Into the world, and of the world,” and we must never act as if it is.

But we have also been sent from another kingdom, sent on mission, and this, too, must be clearly evident. So I think I’ll hang up the old slogan “In the world, but not of the world.” My new slogan is this: “Into the world, but not of the world.”


Do you have some out-of-this-world insights to share? Send them our way in the comments section below. And thanks for reading!


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