Do you want a promise from God that you will be able to do anything that you set your mind to? Wouldn’t it be a great thing, even a humbling thing, to hear that Christ will promise to be the one to give you strength to parent, preach, fix that leaky faucet, or win that championship football game? This would take the focus off of ourselves and onto Jesus as He gets the credit for every good thing accomplished and every victory won! Enter Philippians 4:13. Many have claimed this verse as they set out to do something, and I have particularly seen this in the athletic community. One NBA star would write this verse on his shoes, and in my youth ministry, would see things like that all the time.
Like most of the verses that we have studied so far, the popular interpretation isn’t too far off the truth. Indeed, the only way that we are able to do anything is because God preserves us. I am not the one keeping my heart beating. I’m not the one who keeps my body going. Anything that I do is because God preserves me. David recognizes this in Psalm 139. In another Psalm, specifically 104:14, we see that God’s control of the Earth extends even to the growing of grass. I’m currently reading through a 700 page book going through all the Bible verses that talk about God’s sovereignty over all things. It is true that draining the game winning basket, catching that touchdown pass, preaching a good sermon, or training up good kids is all credit due to God.
But that is not typically how we use the verse. Because it is also true that when we miss that critical basket, the sermon doesn’t land, or the kids don’t turn out the way we expect, God is overseeing that, too. If we use this verse simply to say, “God is going to empower me to win here based on this verse,” when we don’t win, we can end up disappointed, or at worst, disillusioned with God (Eric J. Bargerhuff, The Most Misused Verses in the Bible, 109-110).
What if I told you that the promise God is actually making here is better than victory? What if the promise that is made here will still empower you, even, in fact especially, in defeat? It turns out that Paul has a secret about how to do that, and a lot of us, me included, often miss what that is.
It turns out that the secret that Paul has is contentment. True contentment is probably, from the world’s perspective, the weirdest of Christian virtues. The ability to be satisfied with whatever you have whenever you have it and even when you don’t have it, strikes against the core of everything that our culture preaches. We are a culture of more is more. Newer is better. Whole industries are built on discontentment. I have been recently introduced to the phenomenon of fast fashion. We will produce clothes that are designed to only last a season! That shirt you bought in the spring is totally out of date in just a few months. The tech world (where I live a lot of the time) is no different. Honestly, I think Apple does this better than anyone. We need to crank out a new iPhone every year that is only incrementally better than last year’s. We didn’t even know that we wanted a phone to do this, that, or the other thing. Tool manufacturers do the same things. The Pyramids were built with hand tools, yet Milwaukee finds a way to make us need the new stuff.
The list can go on with nearly every hobby, and if we are honest, we have all fallen into this trap even over good things.
Hopefully today, we are going to be looking at a verse that will give us the power to stay out of that trap, or at the very least, show us how to get out of it when we do. Today, we are looking at our two points: Everything that we have is a gift from God and Contentment is possible.
Everything that we have is a gift from God
Let’s begin by reminding ourselves, as always, of context.
Paul is writing this letter to the Philippian church from prison. He has a lot to say to them, which I found summed up in these words by one writer: “Paul desires to see them grow spiritually and serve God faithfully without any attachment to the world. He wants them to be unified, experiencing the joy that is found in Christ. In fact, the words joy and rejoice are used no less than 16 times in the book's four chapters” (Bargerhuff, The Most Misused Verses in the Bible, 111). That is a pretty wild letter to write from prison! Talking about joy and rejoicing when there is suffering going on seems confusing. I have a hard time writing about having joy when things aren’t joyful for me!
But it turns out that if we think that way, then we just don’t understand how joy and contentment work. Thankfully, Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, does. When we look at the context of the passage, in this case, just a few verses up, we find that Paul has found the secret to being content in all situations in life. This isn’t a case of Paul just led a more rugged life than we do and just doesn’t know what he is missing. Apparently Paul has abounded before. He’s been full and hungry. Needy and satisfied. One scholar put it like this: “Such contentment springs from complete readiness to accept whatever God gives. The apostle makes no distinction between the necessary and the superfluous, but simply gives thanks for everything. He can accept both abundance and want as a part of his life, and he gives thanks that he has received both as a gift, together with God's gracious forgiveness and quickening power. (Dictionary of New Testament Theology, 72).”
Did you catch that? He was saying that Paul accepts everything from God as a gift whether we view that thing in and of itself as a win or a loss. You air-balling the final basket in your highschool championship game, losing the match to the boos of the crowd is just as much a gift from God as is scoring the game winning shot to wild cheers. Now, there is no denying that certainly one feels like a gift and the other doesn’t, but both are from the same gracious God. Missing the shot can be a test from God to grow you in satisfaction with Him alone, but if we choose to turn that into an occasion for bitterness against God, then we make it a temptation to sin. Look at Job. He was a successful man in every single sense of the word, and in a couple of days lost literally everything: business, family, and personal health. What does he say in response? “Blessed be the name of the Lord.” He worships God—praises Him—in the midst of life’s deepest sorrows. That’s what contentment looks like. This doesn’t mean that Job didn’t grieve. He did. Tearing your clothes indicates intense grief, and in all of that the Bible says he didn’t sin, but he praised God in the midst of his grief because, in that moment, at least, he trusted that God was good and just.
Trust in God is the key concept here.
Contentment is possible.
Let’s return to Paul. Many sources that I read pointed to the passage in 2 Corinthians 12. Paul is in the midst of a discussion about how much God has given to him in terms of spiritual insight and heavenly visions. When we get to verses 7-9, we find that Paul was given some sort of heavy hardship that even Paul found difficult to bear. He asked God three times that it would be taken away, and God’s answer was, “I have given you enough. My grace is sufficient.”
We can apply this lesson directly to what Paul is saying here in Philippians. One scholar put it this way: “This verse is about having the strength to be content when we are facing those moments in life when physical resources are minimal. This is about having faith in the God who provides – the God who is sovereignly in control over every circumstance in life, the God who sees and knows our needs and has promised to meet them in Christ!” (Bargerhuff, The Most Misused Verses in the Bible, 114). Do you see what he is saying there? Paul is telling us how to have contentment even when there is nothing, and the key to that is trust in God.
Trust God? That’s it? That’s the big secret? It sounds so familiar, that it is almost disappointing to hear that the key to contentment is trusting in God. We trust that God will work things out, and we look to Christ to give us the power to be content even when things aren’t going our way. So why are we so discontent so much of the time? If it truly is that easy and understandable that we trust that God is good and rely on His power as the key to being content, then why aren’t we?
I think the reason why is because we live in a world that tempts us with the possibility that contentment is just one more purchase away. One writer put it this way: “It's tempting to think, When I get a raise, I will be settled and secure, or As soon as I get married I'll find contentment at last. But these sorts of things are smoke screens for the believer in Christ.” (Bargerhuff, 115-6). Have you ever had those thoughts? What happened once you got them? We got discontent again! It’s like we have amnesia! I’ve done this while preparing this sermon! I’ve been trying to get some things fixed up around the house, and I’ve thought to myself, “Ok, as soon as I get this thing fixed, I can finally relax.” No sooner do I say this that I will see something else that needs attention. I think that the reason we aren’t content is not so much that we don’t trust God but because we think that we can eventually trust something else, and then we don’t have to trust God anymore! We are like the lottery players, buying just one more ticket, because this one has got to be the one! We’ve seen others win (even though if we follow their story through, everyone ends up worse, and more dissatisfied than before they played), so our turn is just around the corner. Yes, we will “trust” God until then, but really we are just biding our time until the real security comes along. And it’s a lie. It’s a false god. It will always leave you disappointed. It will give you just enough satisfaction for a little moment to hook you in and then leave right when you need it. I’ve talked to wealthy people, and it doesn’t provide lasting satisfaction. Does it make some aspects of life easier? Of course, but it doesn’t give you contentment.
Contentment can only happen in the present. There is no such thing on Earth as contentment in the future. If you find contentment feelings while thinking about something in the future, that’s worship. And unless that object is God, your sinful heart will never be satisfied.
But here is where we get the good news. To borrow one last time from Bargerhuff, “What a joy it would be to come to the place in our lives where we know that we could trust in Christ to provide and rest in his strength for any and ‘all things.’ To have that kind of spiritual strength would be amazing. Monumental. And according to what Paul says, absolutely possible” (114). Philippians 4:13 promises that by relying on Christ’s power to strengthen you, you can be content regardless of the situation in front of you.
So practically, how do we do that? When you find yourself dreaming of a future in which ______ difficulty is removed or _______ joy is achieved, bring your hopes, dreams, and fears to Christ. Tell Him what you are going through, ask His help on it, then rest in the promise that His grace is sufficient for you. Contentment isn’t sitting motionless, cross legged on a mountain with no desires. It’s actually more profound than that. It means that whatever you are going through, despite your desires, you find your satisfaction in God. It doesn’t come from your circumstances.
Now, if you are in a bad situation, you don’t have to stay in it in the name of contentment if you can remove yourself from it. If you are able to improve your circumstances, do it, but do so with the goal of God’s glory in mind. Paul was about to be unjustly whipped in Acts 22, and he used his status as a Roman citizen to avoid that. This wasn’t a sin. He didn’t, in the name of contentment, go through trouble he didn’t have to, and neither do you. If you are facing abuse in your marriage, that isn’t something that you have to take. In fact, to do so is allowing your spouse to sin. You can seek help. That’s ok. Even if by changing jobs you can provide better for your family, then do so, as long as there is no sin involved. If you want to be married, and you have the opportunity to marry as God would have you do, then do so!
Nevertheless, in all of this, do so with the realization that your ultimate hope doesn’t lie in achieving something in your life. Do so recognizing that you can be content in Christ even if God tells you, “No.” You will need to lean on Christ for this. You may need to tell yourself hourly that true contentment is found in God. Focus on the gospel that one day, like we discussed last week, all things will be made right. Rest in that future promise, and rely on Christ’s present strength. Ask Him. His grace is sufficient. One last quote: “The New Testament version of manna is grace. God will give you all the grace that you need today. But He’s not going to give you all the grace you need for tomorrow, because if you had manna for the next week, you would trust in your storehouse and forget about God.” (David Powlison). Keep close to God, have Him always in your mind, and you will discover that you already have all that you need.
Different people want different things in a disaster. There is one type of person who wants a plan. No matter how bad things are around me, nothing makes them feel better than a solid step 1, step 2 plan to get them where they want to go whether that is budgets or home repair. Some things, of course, are beyond one’s personal ability to fix, like, say the state of a nation. I know many have felt that way about America, particularly so in the last ten years. It gets really hard to watch the news because there is very little that any particular individual can do about the culture of a country. We all know that if there is going to be any sort of real, lasting change, God is going to have to be the one to make it happen. That’s where we find this verse in 2 Chronicles 7:14 that seems to give us the ultimate step 1, step 2 scenario! The planning people are satisfied!
But there is another group of people who would rather have a powerful promise that someone will take care of their problem. These types of folks see the road in front of them, and honestly, a plan is a little overwhelming! They’re not so much into step 1, step 2, because they know that they are not powerful enough or confident enough to implement those things. They would rather have someone that they can lean against to do it for them, thus ensuring that it is going to be done correctly. For folks like this, Jeremiah 29:11 seems like the perfect place to land on, and indeed, many have made this verse a theme for their lives, claiming it on everything from business to highschool graduation cards.
Both of these passages are absolutely perfect for an “Oh, so close” kind of interpretation. People are tantalizingly close to correct in what these passages mean, but those promises were made to different people, and the way we tend to claim them puts our focus in the wrong place. It is true that God will work things out for our ultimate good, and in the end, the glory that awaits us will make all of our problems seem small (Romans 8), but if we think that Jeremiah 29:11 means that we will never go through any long-term struggle, we are simply wrong. And while it is true that prayers and repentance do bring blessing even to a whole nation, 2 Chronicles 7 isn’t a blueprint or formula to course correct a nation. There is actually a greater Kingdom coming that should be our greatest focus (Bargerhuff, Eric The Most Misused Verses in the Bible, 76).
Today we are going to look at two points today: God makes promises to specific people and God’s best is yet to come.
Here is where the context of the people is important to keep in mind. God is in the midst of relaying the covenant that He has made with Israel, in particular the covenant with David. The promise is still sure that the throne will last forever, BUT that doesn’t mean that they are able to do whatever they want to. When they stray from God’s commands they will experience hardship, but if they repent, the skies open back up, enemies are defeated, and the land is healed.
If we are going to understand the specific promises in these verses, we are going to have to remember some covenants, aka, the context of the people.
Let’s go ALLLLLL the way back to Genesis 12:1-3. In these verses, what we have here is a covenant with God (later ratified in chapters 15 and 17) between Himself and the nation of Israel. All of the descendants of Abraham, by virtue of being his descendants, are given the incredible promise of experiencing divine blessing, and having the opportunity of passing on that divine blessing. That promise was not made with other nations. The Egyptians couldn’t claim those promises. The Canaanites didn’t have this covenant. And by extension, nether do Americans. This promise of blessing and passing on a blessing was the exclusive gift and responsibility of the Israelites.
This position of blessing had some expectations on behavior, something that we see spelled out for us in what we know as the Torah, the Law, the first five books of the Old Testament. Here the expectations were laid out clearly and exhaustively, governing how one dressed, ate, washed, lived, worshiped and, well, governed! Such was the life of the Israelites, and anyone who wanted to enjoy the benefits of this covenant left all other gods behind, and worshiped the true God the same way that they did. Obviously, no one was ever perfect then, so it was by grace then just as much as it is now, but the Israelites were to be the shining example pointing the rest of the world to come and get to know their God who had done so much for them.
When they would sin, God would send hardships into their lands in the form of pestilence (2 Samuel 24:10-15), war (2 Samuel 12:10), and ultimately, exile to both Assyria and Babylon. The promise always was, even in exile, that if the people would repent, God would bring them back to the land of Israel, which He did. This is because God had a covenant with Israel that promised exactly that (Deuteronomy 30:11-20; Isaiah 44:28; Jeremiah 29:11).
So now the question remains: can we use these verses as a promise to us, American Christians? Both of these verses would have been verses to cling to for Israelites in exile, and would be consistent with other verses promising these things, but can we Americans use them?
Well, that depends on what you mean by that.
There is an ultimate sense in what God was promising Israel. He wasn’t just saying that they would be redeemed from physical slavery to live in the geopolitical location of Israel, but that they would be redeemed to be citizens of the Kingdom that is not of this World. That they would be redeemed from spiritual slavery! This is the component of the promise that we can claim as well! The covenants that God made were ultimately pointing to Jesus, so if you look at Jeremiah 29:11 and think that “plans for good” means redemption by Jesus Christ, then you claim that promise, people! That promise is for you!
However, if you are using this promise to mean that God is going to bless your new cookie business that you are starting on the side with record profits, then no you are not using that promise correctly. We need to look at the context. For this particular verse, we only have to go back literally one sentence to realize who God is making this promise to: captives in Babylon. When the 70 years are over, THEN God is going to bring them back as He promised He would thereby showing that God is not just out to smash Israel but actually has a future and hope for them that will ultimately be fulfilled in Christ and in His second coming. You can’t rip the promise out from its situation. As one pastor pointed out, even the original audience of that promise (the Isrealites heading into captivity), wouldn’t live long enough to see that promise fulfilled, as it would be 70 years from then! Most of them would have to declare this promise to their children and grandchildren who would actually see it fulfilled (Bargerhuff, Eric The Most Misused Verses in the Bible, 38).
The same goes with the Chronicles passage. The context is the dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem. This is a huge event, one that has been in the works since 2 Samuel 7. At the completion of the Temple, God reiterates the covenant terms that have been in place since Moses: obey and receive blessing, disobey and receive cursing, repent and receive blessing again.
So, is this something that we can claim here? Well, just like the Jer. 29:11 passage, it depends. If you are praying this believing that if we get enough people praying, eventually God has to return and heal the land, then, no, that’s not for us. The promise was made to Israel, not America. HOWEVER, this doesn’t mean that God won’t be merciful if Americans pray to Him. God is a merciful God, so absolutely we should pray for our country. Nevertheless, I think our focus should be in a different place than it usually is when we pray this prayer.
The thing I think we can take away from both of these passages as correctly understood that can still be deeply comforting to us. Both of these passages highlight the mercy, grace, and forgiving nature of God. Do we realize how deeply God owes us nothing? We lose our patience with people after a handful of unpleasant interactions. But God’s grace endures sin after sin after sin after sin after sin. We repent, and God forgives over and over again. This isn’t something that we treat lightly or abuse, but it is something that we should be in awe over. In Israel’s case, God kept forgiving. In the disciples’ case, Jesus kept being patient, and in my case, God keeps showing mercy and grace. We see over and over again God’s mercy being shown, and in that we can have comfort.
The best thing is that we can have that comfort whether times are good or bad. I think this is the main thing that I want to drive home to us today. The way that I see these verses often employed is the idea that once we have the thing we are claiming these promises for, then, and only then, we will be really happy. When it seems like God’s plan for you is to suffer (you know, like how basically every Christian in the New Testament experienced it), it feels like Jeremiah 29:11 is a tease. The same goes for 2 Chronicles 7:14. We don’t want to think that we cannot praise the Lord, or can’t have real hope when a culture’s politics are wrong. No matter what happens to this country, God’s plans are still going to move forward. God doesn’t need any nation.
Now, as it has been properly pointed out, this doesn’t mean that we don’t pray for our government or our culture. Indeed, quite the opposite, because 1 Timothy 2:1-4 tells us to pray for those who are in power in our governments (Bargerhuff, Eric The Most Misused Verses in the Bible, 76). It is true that when Christians are living like Christians it does affect a nation. And it is certainly a great thing for the gospel when governments allow it to spread easily. I very much enjoy getting to do this job legally, and I pray that I would be able to continue to do so for many years to come. But I do not have the promise of God that if I do that He is obligated to rescue my country from its own destruction.
The promise that I do have, however, is the country that I am going to is one of total peace, security, and rest before the King, Jesus. That is the place that I am going to regardless of what happens here. This doesn’t mean that I don’t care about what happens here, but it does mean that my experience of hope doesn’t rise or fall based on who is in office. I need to pray just as hard for my own repentance from sin no matter who is in office, or what sort of policies are being promulgated.
Indeed, as the context of Jeremiah 29:11 shows, God’s people shouldn’t expect to never suffer. The Israelites spent a good portion of their nation’s history in some sort of trouble. We are not owed any sort of easy way out of anything.
But we have been granted something even better. Israel was thrilled with the idea that they would be given a land, and who could blame them? But as I hinted at earlier, all of these promises have their eyes set a little further beyond the horizon. Beyond settled borders or a healthy crop yield and a righteous government stands a risen Messiah. We have prayed for healing of our land and healing of ourselves, and God sent His only Son. Jesus is able to reach so deeply into our hearts and heal so much more than we ever thought we could. One day, He promises to return and not just set up just laws or put the right people in office. He is actually going to be in office! More than that, death, disease, and decay will one day be no more! One day the Lord will return and establish a renewed creation better than Eden! There will be no need of court systems or even law enforcement. I mean, there is not going to be the need for the sun anymore because God Himself is going to provide the light for the world! We will get to dwell directly in God’s presence as we were always meant to be doing.
Is that enough of a good plan for you? That is a far bigger dream than any highschooler would dare to dream. Even if you got everything you think you would want by claiming those verses, it wouldn’t compare to what God is actually bringing you. Again, I am not saying that it is wrong to pray for a country that honors God. I am not saying that you can’t pray to God to prosper the plans that you have. It is good to pray. It is necessary to pray. But as you do so, never forget what God is already doing for you. It will actually give you a stouter heart to pray for the world as it stands now. Your heart won’t fail when you watch the anger stokers on TV or doomscroll through the Twitterverse. God isn’t failing because America is. God isn’t failing because you are. Indeed, God can triumph directly through those failures, and even when things seem to be going the absolute worst, God can bring it out to the best.
Of course, all of what I just said here is only true if you are in Christ. If you have not surrendered to Christ, been united to Him, then this is as good as it is ever going to get. This is as sure as life will ever be for you. Things will get much, much worse, so I plead with you to get right with God today if you haven’t already. Only then will you find the comfort that these verses can actually bring you.
Image by Lorenzo Cafaro
Have you ever noticed how many guarantees there are offered to you? People promise guaranteed satisfaction on so many sorts of products and services because people want to know that the money they spend or the effort they expend will be worth it. No one wants to pay a bunch of money only to have buyer’s remorse or work super hard on something that turns out to be a waste of time. Now if there is anything that parents want is a guarantee on, it is that their children are going to do all right in life. Parents put more effort, more of themselves, into their children than anything else in their lives (if they are doing it properly!), so they, of all people, want to know that what they are doing is the right thing. We’ve all heard the horror stories of parents who seemingly did everything right and yet the kids did not turn out the way their parents hoped. This puts us on the hunt for some sort of technique, some sort of verse, some sort of something that will help us sleep at night knowing that no matter how anything else turns out in life, at least the kids are going to be ok.
Many believe that they have found their answer in this verse. All you have to do is train up your kid! This means that any kid that wasn’t trained, or at least wasn’t trained properly, will turn out poorly. Now, I think we all know that life isn’t that simple, but we still have this verse here. We can’t just say, “Well, that is not how my life has turned out, so the Bible must be wrong.” That is a very dangerous way to do Bible interpretation. We can’t interpret the Bible through our own life experience, so what are we supposed to do with it? What is this verse really promising us, if anything? Well in order to understand this verse, we need to understand a little bit about how the Bible works, and specifically how Proverbs work.
In this sermon, we need to cover two important things: God Never Contradicts Himself and God calls us to train our children for His glory.
As always, whenever there is an important theological topic, theologians need to put a fancy name on it. Obviously, the idea that the Bible doesn’t contradict itself is really a foundational concept, so we’ve got a name for it! The term theologians use is called the analogy of faith. Let’s examine what is meant by the analogy of faith. All we are saying is that the Bible doesn’t contradict itself, so the Bible is the best guide and interpreter of the Bible. Is there one verse that could be interpreted a few different ways? Well, find another verse that addresses that topic clearly. Whatever is meant there in the clear passage is what it means in the unclear passage (R.C. Sproul, Truths We Confess, 27-29). To put it in a very simple way, keep the context of the whole Bible when you are interpreting any individual verse. Do you remember last week when we talked about the importance of context in a chapter of the Bible? We saw last week how the context of the whole chapter of Matthew 18 helped us interpret it correctly. This week, we are going to see how the entire Bible (more or less) helps us understand Proverbs 22:6.
Why is keeping the whole Bible in mind helpful? Well, we know that the Bible was written in its entirety by God Himself. This means that though there were several human writers, there was one Divine Author. What this means is God isn’t going to contradict Himself. We can contradict ourselves because we either don’t remember what we have said before, or we are simply inconsistent about what we believe. God doesn’t have any of those limitations.
This is an important thing to grasp in our minds because this is foundational to the rest of our interpretation of the Bible. This means that the best interpreter of the Bible is the Bible. We can best understand what the Bible is saying over here by what the Bible says in other places. By comparing different passages of Scripture together, we can determine what any one passage is referring to.
Let’s look at an example of this. We can see Ephesians telling us that God forgives us purely by His grace. We might walk away from that thinking, “Ok, then, it doesn’t matter what I do. I’m saved by grace, not my works, therefore, I will do no works.” But then James comes along and reminds us that there are still commands that we will obey if our faith is a living one. We are still saved by grace, but that salvation is made evident by the works that faith produces. The one doesn’t cancel the other but they complement one another. Now, we know that James isn’t preaching salvation by works because the entire rest of the Bible very clearly affirms salvation by grace alone. And indeed, once you read James closely, you will see that James isn’t saying that salvation is obtained by works but it is displayed by works.
This is why something like keeping the whole context of the whole Bible is so important. Yes, we need to know the immediate context, but to keep ourselves from getting into the exegetical weeds and becoming unbalanced on something, we need to see what the rest of Scripture has to say on the topic. If we try to “find balance” using our own intuition rather than the Bible itself, we always run the very high risk of going too far the other way.
So how does keeping the whole Bible in mind help us with Proverbs 22:6? When we start to look at the rest of the Bible, we can see that what is seemingly promised here, simply hasn’t worked out in the rest of the Bible. Ironically, we actually have the example of Solomon himself not following the right path when he is old. In fact, precisely when he got old, he married a bunch of other women and turned his heart away from God to false gods! He even attempted to kill the next guy in line to the throne as a result of that sin (1 Kings 11:40)! What happened? Was David just not a good dad? You could make that argument based on Absolom’s case, but the 1 Kings 11 passage makes explicit that David followed God wholeheartedly, so he has a decent chance as any to fulfill this verse of training his child appropriately.
We also see examples of terrible parents who produce good kids. Let’s look at 2 Kings 21:19-26. Amon was a miserable dad. The guy did basically nothing right, and yet Josiah comes from him and goes on to be one of the best kings since David, according to God Himself (2 Kings 22:25). We’ve seen parents produce two kids of completely opposite dispositions. Adam and Eve had both Cain and Abel. One was a worshiper and the other was a murderer. Jacob had his twelve sons where both Reuben and Joseph came from him (different mothers, though).
By seeing these other passages in the Bible, because we know that the Bible does not contradict itself, we are able to arrive at a proper understanding of the Scriptures. Obviously, based on the data that we have, we can conclude that Proverbs 22:6 isn’t an iron-clad promise, because it has obviously not been that for these other parents, in the Bible. Remember, we are not drawing on the data of our own lives but drawing on Biblical data to figure this out.
Even if we look into the Proverbs themselves, we will see that Proverbs has never promised fool-proof parenting. One scholar put it this way: “...yes, Proverbs has an optimistic air about parents and tradition, But that should not lead readers to regard the book as naive or idealistic. A closer reading of the book reveals its unapologetic realism” (O’Dowd, 709). In another place, he said, “The book does not solve the problem of contradictions in life. Instead it leaves this problem to the limits of human understanding, calling us away from pragmatism and despair to an ethics grounded in faith, providence, and hope” (707). This last sentence I think needs some unpacking for us.
Proverbs is showing us what our approach to life should be even in the face of hardships and a culture that says we are doing this wrongly. Proverbs isn’t trying to reveal every mystery or lay out what to do in every single situation we will encounter in life. If it even tried to, the book would be endless! It simply lays out what a wise approach to life would be in a variety of situations leaving it to a mind transformed by the Scriptures and the Holy Spirit to reason our way through it. Proverbs 26:4-5 is a great example of this where we are told to not answer the fool and to answer the fool. Different situations require different responses, and Proverbs is able to sustain that reality.
What Proverbs is calling us to is an ethic that is “grounded in faith, providence, and hope” (707). I love this because I think it captures so well what we are trying to do here. When we live out this wisdom that God has left for us here, we do so in faith, in trust that God is leading us the right way. We do so trusting in God’s providence, His total care of all things. There is nothing in your life that is left to chance. I have spent so much of my life trying to make it regret-proof, overthinking so many decisions in my life because I just want it to be perfect. It is fine to plan and be careful, but where the arrogance comes is when I think that by doing so, I can fundamentally control my life so it is lived in the way I want. It isn’t my life, it is God’s. I think about a decision long enough to take God’s Word into account, the wisdom of other people, and go for it. If it turns out badly, well, God’s providence is going to work through it. In the end, I still have hope of what God is going to do in the future. Keeping these three things in mind I think is going to transform how we approach the Proverbs.
We see this powerfully illustrated in the book of Job. Job actually never gets the answer to why despite faithful living, he experienced all this trouble. The “only” answer he gets is the only answer we need: “God is God, and we are not.” We are living in His world, and no matter what our experience of it is, it is going to be worked out for His ultimate glory.
So after all of that, let’s dive into our verse (finally!) At first, it would seem that we have an iron-clad promise that as long as you raise your children correctly, they will turn out ok even when they are old, but as we have seen, the rest of the Bible would seem to indicate to us that this simply isn’t the case. This doesn’t mean we throw our hands up in despair saying, “Well, then, nothing works! Might as well give up!” We don’t have to do that.
So what is this verse saying to us, then? In one sense, in general, if you teach your children the things of God, they are likely to continue in those teachings. God’s wisdom is that we teach our children because they need it. This isn’t meant to be a promise so much as it is a prodding to teach your children.
This isn’t the only place in Scripture where this is taught. In Deuteronomy 6:7, we are told to teach our children diligently. Psalm 78:6-7 tells us to teach our coming generation about the works of the Lord with the implication that they will follow the teachings presented to them. Included also is Psalm 102:18, Deu 4:9, 11;19, Ex. 12:26-27, and Josh. 4:6, and that is just the Old Testament. Obviously, teaching one’s children is an important task for the people of God. This was a priority that God continues into the New Testament in Eph. 6:4, Col. 3, and Jesus’ own interaction with children, Matthew 19:14. Children are very important to God, so He has commands all the way through the Bible to train them up, and He has laid that responsibility squarely on the parent’s shoulders.
In short, children look to you to learn about God and His Word. Yes, things like church attendance is important. Sunday School is so helpful, which is why we are so grateful to those who serve in that capacity week after week. Bible videos, children’s books, and VBS are all helpful to you, but none of those things can replace you. There is no more of a powerful witness of Jesus’ ability to impact a life than a life lived in front of others. Parents, there is no one that your kids are watching more closely than you. So train them. Show them how it is done. But this doesn’t mean that God owes us children doing what we want them to.
We don’t train them for our own glory or their own glory. This is such a hard part about being a parent! It is so easy to train our children with the idea that if we do so properly they will make us look good. What makes that so easy to think is that it is kinda true! We look at well-behaved kids and assume that this is the parent’s good work. God will sometimes reward in that way, but He doesn’t have to. Other times I am motivated for my kids to be obedient because I want their lives to be easier and have the approval of strangers. Sometimes I am selfless enough to not care about what this means for me, but I am not sufficiently focused on God to get past what it means for my children. Sometimes God allows kids to take themselves through quite the convoluted path to ultimately them where He wants them to go. In those situations, we trust them to His care, continue to pray for them, and rest that God is indeed a good God who will work all things for our glory and His good.
So what is our takeaway? We recognize that while God gives us clear directions for what to do with our children, we must not think that this will be a magic formula to ensure our children turn out a certain way. This doesn’t mean we don’t train them (to do that is to be disobedient), but it does mean that we don’t train them with the idea that if we’ve done that, God owes us good kids. We train them for God’s glory, not ours, not theirs, and not anyone except God’s.
I don’t know of a single parent who doesn’t look back on their child-rearing without some level of regret. None of us have done this perfectly. Some of us actually did it very poorly. But Jesus can forgive bad parents. The gospel is for parental failure, too. If that is the case for you today, then you, to borrow a phrase from John Piper, you are going to have to rely on the same grace of God as the parent who did it perfectly. Repent of that sin, apologize to your children, if necessary, and go after Christ (recognizing that just because you have apologized, doesn’t mean that potentially decades of hurt magically go away). Maybe your wayward children turn back immediately because of that, maybe they don’t, but the point is to be reconciled to God. Live out the gospel in front of them as an adult, and maybe, just maybe, when they, too, are old, they will not depart from The Way as well. This is a life-long process, and commitment to God’s Word is the only path forward. One Scholar put it this way: “Like children, parents are prone to error. And so God puts children, parents, and others on notice that true wisdom is found only in the tradition of those who "fear the Lord" (Prov. 1:7). One cannot have wisdom (or society) without tradition, but not every tradition counts, and thus heating wisdom's call is a task that never ceases” (O’Dowd, 709). We all need to be walking along this path, and we will, only by God’s grace, be able to lead our children down it as well.
We are going to be starting a new sermon series for the month of July that I’m calling “Oh, So Close!” There are a lot of verses that are misquoted, misapplied, and misunderstood today in our wider culture, so I thought that we would take a few weeks between Bible books to look at a few of them. The point of this series is not to condemn people who have misunderstood or misapplied the verses we will cover. This is part of the reason why I have titled the series the way that I have. Sometimes, these misapplications are very close, but not close enough. Some mistakes are worse than others. If you have misapplied the verse in Matthew 18 that says, “where two or three are gathered together, there I am in the midst of them” to a prayer meeting of a few people, you can still be saved. You are not applying that verse correctly, but you can still go to heaven. Other times, the misapplication of verses can set you up for a real problem in the Christian life. People can take Jeremiah 29:11 and think that based on that verse God only intends to bring good things into their lives as defined by them. When troubles come into their lives, they can think that God has abandoned them.
The real point of this series is I want to give you a helpful set of tools in your own interpretation of the Scriptures. If you can apply the things that we will see in the next few weeks, you will have a greater chance of interpreting the Bible for yourself with precision. It is not enough to be correct that a certain topic is taught in the Bible; you need to be precise as to what that verse specifically is saying about a given topic. To use the Matthew 18 passage again, it is true that God is with us, even when our numbers are small, but that is not the precise meaning of that passage. As we will explore when we get to that one, the truth that God gives to us in that verse is more profound and comforting than just a general blanket statement of God’s presence with us.
Whenever we are interpreting a verse of the Bible, we must keep at least three things in mind.
We must keep the context of the passage in mind.
What do I mean by that? I mean to say that you need to read, at the absolute bare minimum, the entire chapter that the verse is in if you actually want to understand it. If you just read a single verse without accounting for the rest of the chapter, you are almost certainly not going to get the correct idea to say nothing of the precise idea of the passage. I remember one humorous example of this was a flip calendar of “Inspiring Bible Verses for Your Day.” The person had flipped to a page that took its verse of the day from Matthew 4:9 which reads, “’And he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’” Can you see the problem here? Verse 9 is not Jesus talking to the disciples, it was Satan trying to tempt Jesus to disobey God! The caption under the photo said, “Less inspiring when you know who said it.” You can see how if you just read a verse in isolation and don’t read the whole chapter, you are bound to misinterpret the verse. Most of the verses that we are going to cover would be understood properly by reading the entire chapter that contains them (even better if you read the chapter before and the chapter afterward).
You will hear in real estate that the three most important things are location, location, location. In Biblical interpretation, as I believe RC Sproul said, it is context, context, context. As you grow in your knowledge of the Bible, you will actually see how the more context you have the better the deeper the knowledge you have of a verse. If you read the verses before and after, you might have something. The chapter will give you more. The chapters before and after give you even more. Soon, you’ll see that the entire book, its purpose, structure, audience, and cultural background all have something to say about that individual verse. Then the Testament it is in and how the whole rest of the Bible interact with that gives you the sense of how deep these verses can be. This isn’t to say you have to read the entire Bible every day in order to understand the verse from your Daily Bread devotional, but you do need to keep in mind the fact that the whole of God’s revelation has something to say about how we understand any verse.
We must keep the context of the people in mind
This is the second thing that we must keep in mind while studying the Scriptures. What do I mean by the context of the people? I mean to say that you have to understand the passage the way the original audience would have correctly understood it. In other words, the truth of a Bible verse can’t mean something different today than it did then. Let’s take a classic example of this from Romans 1:16 which reads, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” Tell me if you have heard this explanation before. People will preach this passage saying, “The Greek Word for power here is ‘dunamis,’ from which we get the word ‘dynamite.’ So when Paul is talking about the power of the gospel, we should think of the kind of power we would get from a stick of dynamite!” First of all, what does that really mean? Jesus is going to blow up my sin? Blast me to heaven? That’s very unclear. And it certainly isn’t what Paul had in mind. Paul didn’t know about dynamite, neither did anyone in his audience. The Holy Spirit is going to write in such a way that everyone, including the people sitting there, would understand. That word is talking about the power of dynamite to save someone. No it is talking about the power of God. Dynamite destroys things into chaotic pieces, God steps out into the chaos and speaks it into order. God doesn’t blow up your sin into pieces so small you can’t see them, He completely removes them because He has the dunamis, the ability, the power to do it because He is God. You see the difference? See how much clearer the Holy Spirit is than we are when we try to get clever?
We have to remember that the Bible was written in a certain time, with a certain language, with cultural expectations, assumptions, and metaphors. That doesn’t mean that the Bible doesn’t speak with authority in a world with Google and cell phones, but it does mean that we need to lose our cultural assumptions and learn theirs. Learning about inheritances, birthrights, and father-son relations gives the story of the Prodigal Son a massive impact. There are a number of places where Jesus said something that would have gotten a shocked gasp out of the people listening to Him that we miss. That’s not the Bible’s fault, that’s ours! That’s mine. We need to learn and explain what God is saying by learning how He said it.
We must keep the context of the prose (genre) in mind.
If you have heard of the other two, you might not have heard of this one, but it is equally important to remember. If I were to tell you that I am going to read you some history, you are going to assume that I am going to read you true facts about the past. If I tell you that I am going to read a novel to you, then you know that I am not reading you something that really happened. I am telling a story. If I tell you that I am reading history, when I am really reading Lord of the Rings, you are going to be very confused! That is the importance of genre. Knowing what kind of work I am reading is going inform you on what to expect.
The Bible works in the same way. The Bible has a ton of different genre’s in it, each with their own rules and ways of communicating. For example, Jesus often uses the story-telling teaching format of parables. Parables have been defined as an earthly story with one heavenly meaning. When Jesus told the Parable of the Prodigal Son, He wasn’t reciting history that literally happened, he was telling a memorable story so that we would get the one point of the God’s love for sinners. If you don’t know what the rules of a parable are (that these are fictional stories only meant to communicate a single point) then you can go in wild directions trying to interpret every last detail of the parable (do the pigs symbolize the Gentiles?) and miss the main meaning. One big place where we see genre as chief importance is in the first 11 chapters of Genesis, particularly the first 3. Are these chapters history, or are they poetry or parable? How you answer that question will determine how you interpret Genesis.
I’ve only mentioned a couple different genres, but there are so many more! In the Bible you have, history, poetry, epistle, wisdom literature, law, gospel, genealogy, and more!
To sum it all up
If all of this is a little overwhelming to you, just ask yourself the question, “What does the author intend here?” That will force you to intuitively ask those other questions above. You will read the whole of the author’s writings to get a sense of his style and purpose (context of the passage), you will ask whom he is writing to and why (context of the people), and, finally, you’ll ask how he is doing that (context of the prose). Really, just knowing that this is a question you need to ask will help keep you from some of those assumptions that lead to misinterpretation. These things were not written by Americans last week. This is literature from thousands of years ago with something still to say today. And I think that is quite amazing.
Let’s try it out
So, let’s try out these means of interpreting Scripture into probably the most misapplied sections of Scripture that I have personally seen, Matthew 18:20 “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” If you have been a Christian who has gone to prayer meetings, you have almost certainly heard this verse quoted, especially if the prayer meeting is only attended by a few people (which, sadly, they usually are). Now, I’ll begin by saying that it is correct to say that God is with you at that prayer meeting. That is true. There are lots of Bible passages that assure us that God is with us. Matthew 28:20 “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Hebrews 13:5 says, “I will never leave nor forsake you” itself a quote from Deuteronomy 31:6. The Bible cleary teaches us that God doesn’t abandon us and is always with us, but just because it says it in those places does not mean that this is the precise meaning of this passage here in Matthew 18. If we keep the context of the passage in mind, we will see that this is a passage reporting the teachings of Jesus with the genre of a sermon, authoritative prescriptions for how we are supposed to live. In the immediate few verses of 15-20, we will see the context of the people is outlining how the Church is supposed to confront sin in its midst. First, it needs to be dealt with one on one, and if that is unsuccessful, then you bring in a couple of other people in on this process. Anyone who has had to do that knows just how scary that is.
It gets even harder when you look at the rest of the context of the passage, the earlier part of the chapter. We find out at the beginning of chapter 18, verses 5-9 that sin is the worst thing in the world. In fact, it is said that you would be better off having been drowned in the sea with a 200 pound rock wrapped around your neck than cause other people to sin. Jesus goes even further and says that you would be better off cutting off your hands and plucking out your eyes than sinning. But then, Jesus tells the parable of the lost sheep in verses 10-14, showing that God shows mercy on the sinner and pursues them to bring them back. Far from just kicking the sinner out of the church like a disease to never interact with them again, we are called to pursue the sinner and call them to righteousness. But! We still have to deal with their sin, and if they won’t repent, we do in fact tell them that we think they are acting like non-believers and take away their invitation to the Lord’s Supper until they repent of their heinous sin. But until they repent, we don’t shun them, but we don’t pretend like there is nothing going on. We are concerned about their soul and will put in every effort we can to bring them to Jesus because that is the heart of our Lord as indicated in verses 10-14.
That all sounds really complicated, doesn’t it? Don’t you wish there was a promise from God that He would be with you in that specific process, guiding you? Well, that’s exactly what we find in verse 20. God promises to be with you in exactly that type of scenario that requires immense wisdom and balance. This is just like what a father does when he is with children who are scared of a storm. He reminds them, “I’m right here.” Now, did the kids really forget that he was there? No! He’s holding their hand! But to hear it from him again in that moment is a reminder not only that he is there, but it is a reminder of all the other times that he has been there. If he has been a good dad, that is a comfort to the kids. Dad is here, just like he was before. I was safe then, so I’m safe now.
God has been the perfect dad. He has always been there. It may not always have been easy or pleasant, but He has always brought you through everything and will do so again in this hard season. Yes, Church discipline is scary, trust me, but God is always holding your hand, and here He is pointing that out to you so you remember. So yes, God is there when you are in a lightly-attended prayer meeting, but oh, isn’t that promise precisely interpreted so much more comforting? There are other places to go to make us feel better about the small prayer meeting. But this passage is a precious promise to those who have to be faithful in very hard times. It’s not one we want to overuse or water down in our application of it. If you want a great passage on prayer, look at Luke 11:1-13. There Jesus promises to give good things to those who ask. The context is about prayer, and the promises are about prayer, and those are just as comforting. God will be more than with you in that prayer meeting. He will also hear and grant those requests that are good for your soul.
What is our takehome point today? God has given you precisely what He wants to give you in His word. Not a word is wasted or unnecessary. Find out exactly what God means, and I promise you, that you will find the comfort, instruction, and joy that God means for you to have from it.
Image by Abby Jessup