Our Desires and Their Fulfillment in Christ

Part 2

Campus Outreach Christmas Conference | Atlanta

If you have your Bibles, we’re going to go to Hebrews 11 this morning. That verse was just read about not thirsting, hungering anymore when you come to Christ is true. Jesus said it. What I wanted to do is try to avoid a misunderstanding from last night, namely, that satisfaction in God means an easy life and the absence of pain, but it’s not the case. So let’s Hebrews 11:29–38.

Expressions of Faith

I remember the first time I taught through this the shock it was to watch the transition happen in the middle of Hebrews 11:35 from something everybody likes to think about when they think about faith to something nobody likes to think about when they think about faith. So let’s read it, and keep in mind all this is happening by faith, the positive and the negative:

By faith the people crossed the Red Sea as on dry land, but the Egyptians, when they attempted to do the same, were drowned. By faith the walls of Jericho fell down after they had been encircled for seven days. By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had given a friendly welcome to the spies.

And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received back their dead by resurrection.

Stop, because from here on out, it doesn’t sound so good anymore. But keep in mind, it’s still all by faith:

Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated — of whom the world was not worthy — wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.

Now, both unbelievers and believers can have misunderstandings of the Christian life. And the task of preaching has to do with this. I’m a pastor. I preach week in and week out in my church in Minneapolis. And the task of my life — and I believe yours, at another level of teaching and speaking — is to so describe the biblical vision of the Christian life and the meaning of faith and the meaning of satisfaction in God that unbelievers get a realistic assessment of what this thing called Christianity is about, and they can make judgments on the basis of reality and not misunderstanding. And also it’s so that believers have their misapprehensions corrected so that they can engage the Christian life and what it really is and not what it isn’t. That’s why this paragraph in Hebrews 11 is so helpful.

Through Faith, Miracles

What I want to do is give you, I think, five observations or points from this text that will take last night’s call for you to pursue the fulfillment of your desire in God and put reality on it so that you don’t walk out of here thinking that’s an easy thing or a comfortable thing. It’s not easy, and it isn’t comfortable. It may cost you your life. Here’s point number one: through faith, God can and does work miracles and acts of providence to bring practical earthly help and deliverance to his people. God can and does work miracles and acts of providence to give practical help to students and deliverance from their troubles. And that’s really plain. It’s all over the place in this text, isn’t it?

By miracles, I mean interruptions into the ordinary cause-effect way that the world works. And you see several here:

  • The dividing of the Red Sea to deliver the people (Hebrews 11:29)
  • The falling down of the walls of Jericho (Hebrews 11:30)
  • The shutting of the mouths of lions when Daniel was in the lions’ den (Hebrews 11:33)
  • The quenching of the fire when Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (Hebrees 11:34) — remember that old story, these three men that get thrown into the fire because Nebuchadnezzar didn’t like the fact that they wouldn’t bow down to him because they treasured God more than they did their lives, and so they get thrown into the furnace, with the result of nothing except that the king got converted because God quenched this fire and protected them
  • The resurrection of the widow’s son at Zarephath (Hebrews 11:35)

So, clearly, God can and does work miracles to rescue his people from trouble and from hard things. What do I mean by providence? I said he uses miracles and he uses acts of providence to do this. I mean God, like R.C. Sproul says, he has an invisible hand in all that happens in the world. And it’s apart from miracles, not by interrupting the normal cause-effect flow of history, but by guiding it and using it in a providential way that looks like he may not be there, but he’s there. That too is in this text, and that’s how he helps you day in and day out in ways that sometimes you can see, sometimes you can’t.

Providence and Acts of Power

For example, Rahab did not perish. There was a lot of human stuff going on there. It didn’t look like God got her out of this, but he did. Or think of David conquering kingdoms and establishing justice, or Elijah escaping the sword. How did he do that? Well, he ran away from Jezebel, and that was said to be by faith. Others put foreign armies to flight. God is at work secretly in how the arrows land. I remember the movie Henry V, which is one of my favorite films because of those great speeches Henry made. But when they fought on Agincourt they let loose those arrows, just shot at an arc, and the arrows rained down on the French. Who decides where they land? God decides where they land.

Every battle fought in the Bible is summarized with, “The horse is made ready for the day of battle, but the Lord gives the victory” (Proverbs 21:31), and it’s because the Lord guides swords. He guides arrows. He guides horses. He decides who trips and who stands, who gets the shield up in time and who doesn’t. This is the providence of God. And this text says that you are the beneficiary of that by faith. You get rescued over and over again. Things happen to you for God’s name and for your good that weren’t miraculous but were God. So that’s here, and that’s the first point. God uses miracles, and God uses the invisible hand of providence to rescue his people, to help his people.

Through Faith, Endurance

Now here’s the second point. God does not always use miracles and he does not always engage in acts of providence for the deliverance from suffering. But sometimes, by faith, God sustains his people through sufferings. Now Hebrews 11:35–38 make that crystal clear. Another way to say it would be having true faith is no guarantee of comfort and safety in this life. You can see this in two ways.

First, Hebrews 11:33 begins with, “Who by faith conquered kingdoms,” and then without any break at all, that grammar extends on into Hebrews 11:35–38, which says, “By faith, others were tortured. By faith, others experienced mockings and scourgings.” So you can see, faith is not absent in the midst of torture. Faith is not absent when the mockings and scourgings come, as though, “Where are you, God? I’m believing in you. Why are you letting me be scourged and whipped?” That’s not the way you should talk. It’s by faith you’re getting whipped, it says.

The other way to see it is at the end of the paragraph in Hebrews 11:39, which looks back on these sufferings of the saints and says, “All these (these suffering people), having gained approval through their faith, did not receive what is promised.” It had to wait. Just think of that. By faith, all these people who were sawn in two, killed by the sword, walking without clothes amid caves and rocks, scourged and mocked. These are people who have faith.

So don’t let anybody tell you that faith leads you surely into a life of ease and a life of comfort. These all have gained approval. Do you ever feel disapproved by God when things go bad? You might think, “Oh, I must have incurred his disapproval, otherwise things wouldn’t be going bad for me.” That’s a false conclusion. This text is so helpful. It’s so realistic. It’s so reassuring to saints who don’t need, added on to their burdens, the burden that God is necessarily disapproving of them at that moment. This text says exactly the opposite.

God’s Evil-Restraining Prerogative

Let’s be specific. Let’s get right into Hebrews 11:35, for example. It says, “Others were tortured.” Torture. Very few people in this room, maybe nobody, has ever been tortured. Some of you will be. What this text says is that God does not always change the hearts of a torturer so that he relents.

Now, you may say at this moment, “Well, wait a minute. I don’t think you should get God involved there necessarily, because torturers have free will and God may not like it that this person is being tortured, but he can’t do anything about it because men have free will. So they’re going to torture this person if they want to, and God can’t stop it because he can’t intrude upon their free will unless he take away their responsibility. And so God is looking on and he’s sad and grieving, but he can’t intervene.”

That’s bad theology. That’s unbiblical. And I’ll tell you very simply why. There are stories all over the Bible that show God intervening to restrain evil men to keep his people from being hurt. I’ll give you one example. In Genesis 20, there’s the story of Abraham with his wife Sarah that go down to Egypt to visit, and she’s so pretty he thinks they’ll kill him in order to have her in the king’s harem. Abimelech is the king, so Abraham lies, or tells a half-truth anyway, and says, “She’s my sister.” So they take her without killing him into the harem. That’s not a model way to be a husband. Abimelech wanted to sleep with her — you know, the next woman into his harem — to try her out. And he didn’t.

Why? He’s a pagan king. He has free will, right? According to that theology. Here’s what the text says. God comes to Abimelech in the morning and says:

It was I who kept you from sinning against me. Therefore I did not let you touch her.

No, if God can do that to a pagan king, Abimelech — “I kept you from sinning. I intruded. I went into your life. I stopped you. I cut that desire off. Ordinarily, you would sleep with a new woman in your harem. I didn’t let you do it” — then he can do the same thing to a jailer in the backroom of a Mozambique jail who’s about to lift his hand and whip a poor Christian. He can stop it. And this text says he doesn’t, even when the person has faith.

By faith, they were tortured. So don’t use the argument, “Oh, the reason people get tortured and the reason people get hurt is because men have free will, and God doesn’t want it to happen, and he can’t stop it because he wouldn’t intrude upon their will.” Baloney. That’s not what the Bible teaches about God. He’s God. He can do the Abimelech thing anytime he wants, believer or unbeliever, without compromising anybody’s accountability. And therefore, that is not a legitimate conclusion.

The Sword Escaped, the Sword Inflicted

Here’s another example from the text of how people with faith are sustained through suffering. Hebrews 11:37 says, “They were stoned, they were sawn in two . . .” Now that’s almost too horrible to think about, right? You don’t want to linger on that one too long and let your imagination run. How did they do it? Did they start at the back or the front? What do you do? What do you cry out? Should you cry out at that moment? I mean, picture yourself, you’re going to die. They have set themselves to kill you, but they choose a way to kill you that’s as horrible as they can think of. Now, here you are, about to move into that, and you say, “I’m ready to die, but oh God, oh God, where are you?”

This text says, “By faith they were approved and were sawn in two.” God can and does deliver, and sometimes, often, he doesn’t. See it again in Hebrews 11:34–37. It says, “By faith they escaped the edge of the sword” (Hebrews 11:34), and, “By faith, they were killed with the sword” (Hebrews 11:37). There you have two swords. They escaped the edge of the sword by faith (Hebrews 1:34), and they were put to death, by faith, with the sword (Hebrews 11:37).

Do you remember where this happened in the New Testament? James, according to Acts 12, is killed by Herod with the sword, and everybody in Jerusalem likes that. So Herod says, “Okay, I’ll do that to Peter too.” He puts Peter in jail. The night before he’s going to kill him an angel comes and releases him. Peter disappears. He’s out of the city. So what happened to James? By faith, they escape the edge of the sword, and by faith, they are put to death by the edge of the sword.

What’s the summary of that point? God does not always work miracles or acts of providence. Faith isn’t about satisfying all your desires. Faith is about being so satisfied with Christ that you’re willing to lose everything but him. Now is that clear? Because I don’t want anybody leaving these talks and saying, “Oh, it’s all about my desire. I can do anything I want to make myself happy.” No, you can’t. You can only do what God wants to make you happy, and he may want you to be tortured so that you may have everlasting joy in his presence.

The Decisive Factor in Deliverance and Death

The third point is that having faith is not the ultimate determining factor in whether you suffer or whether you escape, God is. It’s God’s sovereign will, God’s wisdom, and God’s love. Now, to me, this is immensely comforting. I would hate the thought, if the Bible taught it, that on top of my suffering and my pain and my difficulties, I would have to add the thought that I’m under the disapproval of God and that I must be an unbeliever, because there are many people with that kind of theology. You wouldn’t be going around in goat’s skin clothing from cave to cave if you trusted God for a nice set of clothes.

Have you ever heard that theology? It’s all over the place in America. They say, “The problem with your suffering is you don’t trust God.” Well, I told my people, and I’ve told them often, I’ll never come to your hospital bed and say that to you — “You wouldn’t be here if you trusted God,” or, “You just trust God and you will get well,” or, “You wouldn’t be in this difficulty, in this scrape, in this sickness if you believed God.” That’s the opposite of what this text teaches.

So it is not faith which decides whether you suffer or whether you don’t. God decides. Faith is not about escaping suffering. Faith is about cherishing God so much you’re willing to suffer for his name’s sake and for the extension of your joy into the lives of those who don’t have it. It’s the only way the mission is going to be done on campuses and in the unreached peoples of the world.

The Common Feature of Escape and Endurance

Point number four is that the common feature of faith that escapes suffering and faith that endures suffering is that both involve believing God himself is better than what life can give now and what death can take later. I’ll say that again. The common feature in the thing called faith, that escapes and that endures, the common feature that makes these both faith, is the confidence and the sense of deep, profound contentment in God that says he’s better than what life offers and what death takes.

He’s better, so that I won’t be in idolatry to the things other than God while I live, and I won’t cling to them when I have to die. To live is Christ and to die is gain. It’s all right here again. Now, we can see this. One of the clearest illustrations is in Hebrews 11:35, which says, “By faith . . . women received back their dead by resurrection.”

So here you have this widow whose little boy was raised from the dead, for example, in the Old Testament. Then others were tortured, not accepting release as they could have. And why didn’t they? It was in order that they might obtain a better resurrection (Hebrews 11:35). Better than what? Well, the resurrection referred to earlier in Hebrews 11:35. Women received back their dead by resurrection, and others refused to escape so that they could get a better resurrection.

Well, how is it better? The little boy came back to life to die again, and so did Lazarus. He was raised to die, raised to suffer and die. These folks, they don’t want that. They want the resurrection. They want to be raised so that, like Jesus said, they will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father (Matthew 13:43). That’s the resurrection they want. They don’t want to come back to this veil of tears, this conveyor belt of corpses called history. They want all of Christ they can have now in heaven and that great resurrection day when they have a new body where there will be no more crying, no more pain, no more suffering, for the former things have passed away. That’s what they want more than they want anything else.

In other words, faith is utterly in love with all that God will be for us beyond the grave. Now, most of you are 18 to 22, or somewhere in that vicinity. And there are some older ones here. And you probably don’t spend a lot of time thinking about death. Well, you should spend some time thinking about it because in a room like this it’s very certain that a good number of you will die before January 2, 2002, and there’s no guarantee anybody in this room will be alive. Some of you are going to die, and you’ll eventually all die if Christ doesn’t come back first.

Attentive to Our Mortality

There isn’t anything bigger than that. That’s bigger than all your classes. That’s bigger than all your video games. That’s bigger than all your dating relationships. That’s bigger than any thrill or rush you might get from any particular high on drugs or sex or alcohol or parties or friends or new toys, whatever. This is big. And if it’s big, you should give some big attention to it. And when you give big attention to it, if I have been used by God to accomplish anything, I hope that what will happen is you will say, “I must be sure that beyond the grave I will have God. I will have Christ on my side and as my treasure as the satisfaction that’s greater than everything I’ve left behind on this campus.”

Faith loves God more than life. Faith loves God more than family. Faith loves God more than success or a house or the first million. Faith says, “Whether God handles me tenderly or whether he gives me over to torture, I will trust him.”

Do you remember Job? He said, “Though he slay me, yet I will trust in him” (Job 13:15). That’s the way faith talks. Faith says, “God is my reward” (Hebrews 11:6). It says, “God is the builder of the city I long for” (Hebrews 11:10). It says, “God is the treasure beyond the riches of Egypt” (Hebrews 11:26). It says, “God is the possession that surpasses all others and abides forever” (Hebrews 10:34). This is what faith is.

Suffering, Freely Chosen

Last night when I said, “Let’s all pursue with all our might every day to maximize our satisfaction in God,” I have in mind a very hard life, freely chosen for a thousand of you, a third, or a fourth of you. That’s what I’m after. I want a fourth of you to choose it. You’re going to get it. Those who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, Paul says (2 Timothy 3:12). It’s not maybe. The only way you can escape persecution in life is to be disobedient. But I want a thousand who embrace it.

You will say, “Yes, I’ll go to a place where the likelihood is so high that it will be difficult. There will be malaria, the children’s lives will be jeopardized, the marriage will be harder, not easier, because of the stress of opposition, and there will be violence and mob action and unjust arrests. I embrace it because Paul embraced it and Jesus embraced it.” He did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped but emptied himself, taking the form of the servant, being born in the likeness of men. He humbled himself and became obedient unto the cross (Philippians 2:6–8). Why? It was for you. And then he calls you, “He who would be my disciple must take his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24).

The life I’m commending to you when I say pursue your fullest satisfaction in him is a hard life. Broad is the way that leads to destruction and many there will find it. Narrow and hard is the way that leads to life, and few there be that find it (Matthew 7:13–14). But I would dare for a thousand. Now, God give it to a thousand of you who would say, “Yes, I’ll choose the hard thing to do on my campus. I’ll choose the hard relationship to stay in to care for this person nobody else likes to be around. When I graduate, instead of the million dollars, I’ll choose the million people who’ve never heard the gospel, and there’s no church in their midst, and there’s no radio, and there’s no literature. I have everything, 911 and refrigeration and electricity and indoor plumbing and vehicles that get me where I want to go in the cold (well, some of you have to walk), and I will choose that and not the million dollars.”

That’s what this text is trying to do. Read the book of Hebrews. I know the book of Hebrews is full of mumbo jumbo. Melchizedek. Who knows about Melchizedek? And it says things about the priesthood and the sacrifices. Look, don’t let that stop you from reading this glorious, inspired book of God because it’s all about radically laying your life down for superior rewards. That’s what this book is all about. If you have to, just start at chapter 10 and you’ll see it. Read Hebrews 10–13. It’s in every chapter to the end of that book about how embracing the hard thing is to get the great thing.

God’s Gift to the World

Here is the last point, number five. Those who love God more than life and suffer willingly, awaiting something better than earth can offer, are God’s gift to the world. Those who love God so much, who cherish God so much, who count God to be their treasure above all the treasures that the earth can offer, are God’s gift to the world when they suffer.

Now, where am I getting that from this text? I’m getting it from Hebrews 11:37–38, which go like this:

They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated (so there’s no promise of preppy blouses and cool slacks or anything like that) — of whom the world was not worthy — wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.

Now what does that mean when it says “people of whom the world was not worthy”? Oh, brothers and sisters, at 18, you know this: things are often not what they seem. Oh, learn that if you don’t know that already. Things are not what they seem. Would you look at people who are being driven from one cave to the other in rags and say, “Those are the people of whom the world is not worthy”?

But what does it mean? Think about that phrase “people of whom the world is not worthy”. Do you want to be one of those? I want to be one of those. Here’s what that means. When the world is not worthy of them, it must mean they’re a gift to the world that the world doesn’t deserve to get. That’s just another way of saying the world is not worthy of them. Well, they must then be, in God’s mind, a gift to the world, and the world doesn’t deserve the gift.

Do you see the upside-down vision of the world that the Bible (Hebrews) has at this point? Those who are willing to so love Christ and so delight in him and so be satisfied with him that they let goods and kindred go this mortal life also, the body they may kill, God’s truth abideth still, and whether they have clothes or not, and whether they have jobs or not, and whether they have esteem or not, doesn’t matter to them if they could be used in the cause of love to move from our desire to their desire, which is where we’re on our way now. Those people are a gift to the world, and sometimes it’s the poorest people, the ugliest people, the people that look utterly rejected.

I was talking with a young woman from Brazil on Saturday. A couple of them came over to our house for lunch. She goes to University of Illinois Chicago, and she has friends in the art institute where they train artists in Chicago. And she said her friend put a little notice up and then a guy came over. It was for a Bible study. And the guy looked at it and he said, “Who in the world put that up in a place like this?” And she said, “I did.” And he said, “You’re a Christian and you’re studying here at this institution?” And he never talked to her again.

She is a gift to that institution, despised and rejected, just like Jesus. And nobody was a greater gift to the world than Jesus. He was despised, rejected, hated, scorned, stripped, shamed, mocked. At those moments, all the world would say, “Rotten garbage on Golgotha. That’s all it is.” The stone which the builders rejected has what? Become the chief cornerstone.

So put the two messages together now. Last night and this morning are my two messages on our desire. Yes, I don’t retract anything I said last night. Devote your whole life to maximizing your pleasure in God, which now I hope is clearer what that’s going to look like. It’s going to mean that you discover it’s more blessed to give than to receive, and there will be more satisfaction in God if you lay your life down to extend that desire and that pleasure to others rather than if you keep it for yourself, which brings us right now to the brink of moving tonight into their desire.