Before the Tears Are Wiped Away

Aubry Smith

My brother Tripp died unexpectedly when I was in college. When I returned to school, still shell-shocked from his funeral, I was met with a barrage of friendly fire in the form of “Christian comfort.” One after another, friends offered snippets of hope: “God works all things for good,” “God is in control,” “His ways are higher than our ways.” These remarks were meant to give me hope and comfort; they were received as notices that my grief was making everyone uncomfortable and I needed to get back to normal soon. So I pushed my grief aside and pretended to move on.

In those dark days, I wish I had read Lamentations.

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Writing after the sacking of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, the author wails over all Israel has lost because of their disobedience to God. Lamentations doesn’t provide quick, easy answers for grief. Instead, the movement through despair is slow and laborious. Using language that anchors us deep in the nation’s suffering—words like “anguish,” “desolation” and “groaning”—the author forces us to gaze in detail at the grotesque suffering of his people. He tells us of a nation abandoned by its closest allies (1:2). He narrates horrific stories of mothers boiling their children to eat them (4:10). He voices the unending weeping for all that was lost.

It’s as if there is inward work that must be done in the author, in the people—perhaps in us—before any of us are allowed to look forward to life after the misery.

I often wish I had been given permission to mourn this way after Tripp’s death. I wish I had told a friend about sitting in the waiting room all night as his vitals crashed and then steadied, over and over. I wish I had explained to someone how I felt when his wife had to make the impossible decision to end life support when it became apparent he was brain-dead. I wish I had told them what I had lost and would never have again. Instead, compelled by the constant “hope” offered, I ignored the grief and pretended everything was fine. It wasn’t until three years later—when I began writing out my anguish and slowly working through every detail—that I was honest about the turmoil inside.

Lamentations abandons the appearance of superhuman emotional strength—which we often commend as godly strength—and opts for open mourning instead. It gives us permission to settle down into mourning, engage with suffering, and weep.

Although hope is delayed in Lamentations, grief is always directed toward God. The writer drags us through his muck and then calls out to God, “See, LORD, how distressed I am! I am in torment within, and in my heart I am disturbed, for I have been most rebellious” (1:20). He begs God to see his suffering, take part in this grief, and act in mercy (1:11, 20–22; 2:18–22).

And when we are finally ready for light to pierce the darkness, Lamentations offers these words: “Because of the LORD’S great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (3:22–23). The writer encourages the mourners to wait quietly for salvation, knowing that God will not cast off His disobedient people forever. We now know that this promise begins its fulfillment in the first coming of Christ and will be fully realized when He comes again.

Lamentations even points to Christ: “He pierced my heart with arrows from his quiver … He has filled me with bitter herbs and given me gall to drink” (3:13, 15). The savior, pierced in the side and given gall to drink, suffered for us on a cross. And it’s His suffering that enables us to look to a future where every tear is wiped away (Rev 21:4).

Biblical references are from the New International Version (NIV).

Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Faithlife Corporation. Originally published in print, Vol. 5 No. 3

Freedom

John D. Barry

Leviticus 14; John 8:31–59; Song of Solomon 7:1–4

“Even though I know it’s wrong, I sometimes think, ‘If I hadn’t accepted Christ, I would have so much more freedom.’ And then I venture down that road and realize just how terrible it is. It takes me to a very dark place.”

This deep, heart-wrenching statement by a friend made me realize there are countless people who probably feel this way about Jesus. And what if, unlike my friend, they hadn’t figured out the latter part of this statement? They were probably walking a road closer to legalism than the road Christ envisions for our lives. Or they could be so far from actually experiencing grace and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit that they have yet to see how incredible a life lived for Jesus can be.

Jesus promises freedom: “Then Jesus said to those Jews who had believed him, ‘If you continue in my word you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free’ ” (John 8:31–32). What we often gloss over in this passage, though, is that Jesus is speaking to believers. If you haven’t begun to fully trust in Jesus, the thought that He gives us freedom is difficult to understand. Someone could ask, “Isn’t He creating a system that forces us to live a certain way?” The answer is no: Jesus is setting up what will be a natural response to His grace.

The context of this verse also makes me wonder if someone who hasn’t yet truly sacrificed for Jesus, beyond just a simple tithe, would fathom what freedom with Him looks like. The Jews Jesus is addressing would have already been experiencing some sort of social ostracism for their belief in Him—they would have understood that sacrifice brings spiritual freedom.

This concept isn’t easy to grasp, but in the simplest terms possible, Jesus frees us from religious systems and gives us the Spirit to empower us to do His work. This Spirit guides us and asks us to make sacrifices for Him, but those sacrifices are minimal compared to the eternal life He gave us through the sacrifice of His life. These sacrifices don’t become a system with Christ, but something we strive to do because we want to. That’s the freedom of the Spirit.

Have you experienced freedom in Christ? How can you seek the Spirit’s presence so you can experience more freedom?

This article was originally posted in Connect the Testaments: A One-Year Daily Devotional with Bible Reading Plan.


John D. Barry is the CEO and founder of Jesus’ Economy, a nonprofit dedicated to creating jobs and churches in the developing world. To empower the extreme poor, Jesus’ Economy also has an online fair trade shop. John is also the general editor of Faithlife Study Bible and the former editor-in-chief of Bible Study Magazine. Learn more about John’s work with Jesus’ Economy at www.jesuseconomy.org.

Shelf Life Book Review: Story of Stories

Abram Kielsmeier-Jones

Story of Stories: A Guided Tour from Genesis to Revelation
InterVarsity Press, 2013

Karen Lee-Thorp has a story to tell—“the vast story of God at work in the world” (9). As she tells the major stories of the Bible, in six main parts and 37 chapters, she emphasizes connections across biblical books and guides us through the arc of Scripture.

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Each section covers a major section of Scripture: “A Promise of Deliverance,” “The Rise and Fall of Israel” and “Exile and Return” cover the Old Testament books. “The Coming of the King,” “Messenger to the Nations” and “Letters to the Churches” deal with the New Testament books. Each chapter ends with questions for reflection or discussion. Lee-Thorp brings in historical detail that helps us better understand the Bible in its setting. In Romans, for instance, she sets righteousness in its biblical context, comparing it to having a “circumcised heart” (293). Explanations like this allow us to see the Bible as a cohesive whole.

New Bible readers will find Lee-Thorp’s book a welcome guide. Visual learners will appreciate the basic maps and the timeline of biblical history (one can easily match prophets with kings). As long as we bring our Bibles along for the journey, we’ll find Story of Stories a useful tool.

Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Faithlife Corporation. Originally published in print, Vol. 5 No. 5

Truth Beyond the Facts

Karen H. Jobes

Many years ago I taught an adult Sunday school class on Jesus’ miracle of turning water into wine. After class, an elderly woman questioned whether such a story might encourage unhealthy drinking. When I pointed out that Jesus Himself had made the wine, she replied, “Yes, but He shouldn’t have!” This incident highlights something that occurs when we read Scripture through the lens of our modern perceptions and values: We overlook the intended purpose of the story.

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The differences between the Fourth Gospel and the other three, the Synoptic Gospels, can challenge the way we interpret Scripture. Because of these differences, some believe John’s Gospel “is profoundly untrue” 1 in its historical reliability. Others view the dissonance differently. Early church father Clement of Alexandria (ca. AD 155–220) wrote, “But John, last of all, conscious that the outward facts had been set forth in the Gospels, was urged on by his disciples, and divinely moved by the Spirit, to compose a spiritual Gospel.” 2

Each of these perspectives weighs the relationship between truth and fact (albeit in very different ways). Although facts are necessary to the truth, truth extends far beyond mere historical data. Each Gospel writer gives us the story of Jesus while emphasizing a particular facet of that story. John does so with remarkable artistry. He doesn’t present us with a photograph or documentary of Jesus’ life, but with a verbal painting. He uses imagery and associations to communicate Jesus’ role as the Messiah. To better understand John’s approach, let’s consider the first of Jesus’ signs: the transformation of water into wine, found in John 2:1–11.

Beyond the Facts

In the story of the wedding at Cana, John presents Jesus’ actions not only as a miracle, but also as a sign that points to who He is. John uses imagery from ancient Jewish traditions to communicate Jesus’ messianic role. Throughout Scripture, two images in particular symbolize the extravagant joy of the messianic age: the wedding banquet (Isa 54:5; 61:10; Jer 33:10–11; Rev 19:6–9) and abundance of wine (Jer 31:12–14; Joel 3:18; Amos 9:13; Luke 22:18). These images are associated with God’s righting of all wrongs and with death being no more—and John applies the them to the work of Jesus

Set against the backdrop of the apocryphal book of 2 Baruch, the imagery of abundant wine preserves a part of Jewish tradition that John and his original readers likely knew: “The earth also shall yield its fruit ten thousand times, and on each grapevine there shall be a thousand branches, and each branch shall produce a thousand clusters, and each cluster will produce a thousand grapes, and each grape will produce a cor of wine” (29:5). (A cor measured about 120 gallons—close to the same amount Jesus produced at the wedding.) According to the Jewish tradition described in 2 Baruch, 120 gallons represents the yield of just one grape in the great abundance of the messianic age. By drawing on this symbolism, John reveals that Jesus brings the dawn of the age of deliverance for God’s people.

Meaningful Associations

Biblical writers make associations to communicate ideas, often by repeating words or phrases. By making these connections we can glean insights beyond the events of the story.

John uses this literary device in his account of the miracle at Cana. He begins by telling us that the miracle happens “on the third day” (John 2:1). We might easily interpret this as factual—John is merely telling us how much time has elapsed since the last event in the story. But read within the context of the Old Testament, we discover something else. A word search reveals that “on the third day” is a traditional phrase referring to deliverance (compare Hos 6:2; Esth 5:1; Matt 12:40). John uses this detail to mark the miracle as a story about deliverance and to point to Jesus as the deliverer.

Another phrase John uses in this passage might seem like a minor detail. Jesus acknowledges His mother by addressing her as “woman” when she tells Him that the host has run out of wine (John 2:4). Jesus addresses Mary this way only one other time in John’s Gospel—in John 19:26, when He is dying on the cross and pouring out His blood, the wine of the new covenant (see Mark 14:23–24). By including Jesus’ address to Mary in both of these accounts, John invites us to anticipate the significance of the cross through the changing of water into wine. Jesus’ first miracle of deliverance foreshadows the greater act of deliverance that will follow.

Finding the Right Depth

The richness of John’s verbal artistry has led many interpreters to conclude that his Gospel is shallow enough for a baby to wade in and deep enough for an elephant to swim in. When I read John after completing an organic chemistry course in college, I was struck by Jesus’ ability as Creator to add carbon atoms to H2O. But the emphasis of John’s Gospel goes far beyond physical or historical facts. When we read the story in light of the Old Testament and Jewish tradition of the first century, it reveals Jesus ushering in the long-awaited messianic age. Jesus’ miracle points to the significance of the cross, where the bridegroom pours out the wine that seals the new covenant and delivers God’s people from sin and death.

Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Faithlife Corporation. Originally published in print, Vol. 5 No. 2


1. Maurice Casey, quoted by Craig Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of John’s Gospel (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2001), 17.

2. Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, VI.xiv.7.

What Walking on Water Really Means

Michael S. Heiser

Tales of tempests battering ships inspire respect for the sea. En route to Capernaum, Jesus’ disciples watched these stories become reality as the roaring wind transformed the waters around them. As they fought against the waves and wind, they witnessed a miracle: “They saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat” (John 6:19).

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Appearing in three of the four Gospels, this event inspires Sunday school lessons and has become ingrained in our portrait of Jesus’ life. As spectacular and unforgettable as the event is to us, however, a Jewish audience would have seen in it a profound theological meaning against the backdrop of the Old Testament.

An Old Testament Symbol
In the Old Testament the unpredictable sea is a common symbol of cosmic disorder—conditions contrary to God’s design for an ordered world. This symbol for cosmic anarchy is also personified as a sea monster, known as Leviathan or Rahab. The image of chaos as an untamed monster in a churning, erratic sea was common throughout the ancient world. People accustomed to land would naturally view the vast, raging ocean as uncontrollable and potentially deadly, filled with terrifying unknown creatures.

Religions across the ancient Mediterranean often depicted their important deities destroying or subduing the sea dragon, thereby calming the sea and restoring order. In the Old Testament it is Yahweh, the God of Israel, who conquers the forces of chaos and imposes order in the cosmos (Job 26:12–13; Psa 89:5–14). This imagery is applied even to the exodus from Egypt (Psa 74:12–17), where God split the sea to deliver His people, thereby conquering the forces of evil that sought their demise.

Final Victory
God’s ultimate victory at the end of the age is also depicted as God dominating the forces of the sea: “In that day the Lord with his hard and great and strong sword will punish Leviathan the twisting serpent, Leviathan the crooked serpent, and he will slay the dragon that is in the sea” (Isa 27:1). This is why the description of the final paradise of the new heaven and new earth contains the phrase, “the sea was no more” (Rev 20:3).

The prophet Daniel’s vision of the end of days and the kingdom of God includes four beasts that emerge out of a storm-tossed sea (Dan 7:1–8). These beasts are not aquatic creatures by nature. They come from the sea because they represent chaos. God’s heavenly court sentences the beasts to death (Dan 7:9–12), after which the “son of man” arrives immediately to receive the kingdom of God (Dan 7:13–14). All of this imagery informs John’s account of Jesus walking on the sea during the storm.

Jesus Christ, Lord over the Sea
John identifies Jesus as the Son of Man to whom the Father has given the authority to execute judgment (John 5:27; compare Matt 26:57–68). John also asserts repeatedly that Jesus is God incarnate. In John’s Gospel, Jesus invokes the divine name (“I AM”) seven times in reference to Himself (e.g., John 6:35; 15:1). He declares oneness with the Father (John 10:30), and He proclaims that the Father is in Him and He is in the Father (John 10:37–38).

For John, a Jew familiar with the Old Testament, the image of Jesus walking on the sea was a dramatic portrayal that Jesus is Yahweh—the one who subdues the forces of chaos and imposes His will on the waters and everything the waters represent. The kingdom of the Son of Man had begun, and all forces opposing God’s ordained order would now be defeated. Like Jesus’ disciples, we can find comfort in knowing that the one who treads upon the volatile sea can subdue whatever chaos threatens to overwhelm us.

Quickbits
The three accounts of Jesus walking on water are found in John 6:16–21, Matthew 14:22–33 and Mark 6:45–52—the Gospels authored by Jewish writers. Luke doesn’t include this detail, likely because he was a Gentile writing to a Gentile friend, Theophilus (Luke 1:1–4).

Biblical references are from the English Standard Version (ESV).

Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Faithlife Corporation. Originally published in print, Vol. 5 No. 2