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The Beauty of God in Music

This past Christmas season, I wanted to do something different, maybe start a new tradition. Inspired by a night at the Atlanta Symphony, I did an Internet search for holiday concerts in the area. I didn’t want Celtic Woman. I didn’t want TranSiberian Orchestra. I wanted a small and intimate environment and music that was more classical, more sacred, not just popular. I came upon this group. I’d never heard of them, but I knew enough to know that this would be different and possibly very special. Sacred choral music sung by a professional chamber choir.

I need to back up though and tell you about this book I’ve been rereading and the impact it’s had on how I listen to music. It’s Delighting in the Trinity by Michael Reeves. If you haven’t read it, I urge you right now to stop reading and go order it. You won’t regret it. Reeves does something few theologians are able to do. He teaches doctrine in a way that engages your mind and moves your heart. Listen to how he describes the inner harmony and beauty of the Trinity:

“It is from the heavenly harmony of Father, Son and Spirit that this universal frame of the cosmos – and all created harmony – comes. To hear a tuneful harmony can be one of the most intoxicatingly beautiful experiences. And no wonder: as in heaven, so on earth. The Father, Son and Spirit have always been in delicious harmony, and thus they create a world where harmonies – distinct beings, persons or notes working in unity – are good, mirroring the very being of the triune God.”

Michael Reeves

I had never thought of music in this way, had never connected the dots between the essential nature of God and how that is reflected not just in our human relationships but in every aspect of creation, especially music. With these thoughts in the forefront of my mind, I went to this concert eagerly anticipating not just a beautiful performance, but a chance to reflect on the beauty of God.

As my husband and I sat silently in the wooden pews of an unfamiliar church surrounded by even more unfamiliar people, the music began and I struggled to keep from weeping. My emotions rose within me not only because of the words being sung but because of the purity and harmony produced by the voices. The effect was transcendent. I closed my eyes several times during the concert so I could just delight in how pleasing it all was, such sublime and wonderful unity from diversity.

Is this what David longed for and sought after in Psalm 27:4?

“One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his temple.”

Psalm 27:4

After the concert was over I felt like I had tasted the goodness and beauty of God, that I had somehow pulled back the curtain and peeked at holy joy. I pray that those who performed that night will realize the significance of their gifts and the beautiful God they point to. As a musician myself who uses her gifts and talents in worship most every Sunday, I pray that I won’t take this holy privilege of making music for granted.

Seminary Lessons: Read More Broadly

I start my seminary classes in a few weeks but I’ve already learned an important lesson from the books I’ve been assigned to read – read more broadly.

The truth is that each of us tends to glom on to certain individuals and their teachings. Some people have an outsized influence on our lives and on our coming to faith. It’s only natural that you’d hold tightly to their views and interpretations. You may have grown up in a solid Bible believing church and had little interaction with people from other denominations. Therefore, your view of certain doctrines is modeled and molded after your experience, maybe more than your own individual study of the Scripture. You don’t question it. Most of us don’t like conflict and so we stay where we are, not willing to have our own views challenged. As a result, our perspective on things is narrower than it should be.

My early Christian life went like this – as a new Christian, I was influenced and discipled by people who liked authors like J.I. Packer, Elisabeth Elliot, and John MacArthur. I read their books and was introduced to other authors like Jerry Bridges, R.C. Sproul, and John Piper. And it was there, with the writings of Piper, that I stopped and stayed awhile. A long while. It’s not like I didn’t read anything else, but in those early years of my Christian life, I devoured most anything John Piper wrote and listened to countless sermons, either on CD or on the Desiring God website. Did I agree with Piper on everything? No, but probably most things. He has been like a spiritual father to me. From him I learned the importance of the affections and how to fight sin. He introduced me to Jonathan Edwards and other “good old dead guys.” He made Calvinism come alive to me and always challenged me to go deeper in my understanding of the Bible.

Along the way I’ve realized how much my own understanding of the Bible and my own teaching of it has been influenced by John Piper. That’s not all bad, but it is one dimensional and, if left unchecked, it could lead to a kind of laziness where I just trust what he says without question. If we only stay in our own comfortable backyard of theological knowledge, we never meet any new friends who can add so much depth to our own understanding.

This is why I’m excited about the books I’ve been assigned to read. I’m taking one New Testament class and one class on the story of Scripture. The authors I’ve been assigned to read are almost all new to me. No Piper. A lot of them use categories and vocabulary that I’m not familiar with. One of them surprised me by quoting and praising the insights of some female theologians and pastors I’d never heard of. I don’t believe Scripture permits women to be pastors, so I would have never taken the time to read their views. I’m learning that just because we don’t agree on secondary issues doesn’t mean I have to throw out their views entirely.

I know that as I get further and further into my degree program, and become exposed to even more diverse perspectives, my own theological convictions will be challenged and sharpened and broadened. I pray I will gain the wisdom that comes from many counselors, not just two or three favorites.

Reflection on Psalm 131

Distraction. Busyness. Restlessness. Discontent.

It seems these are the default settings of my soul. But Psalm 131 paints a different picture.

“O Lord, my heart is not lifted up; my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great or too marvelous for me.”

Psalm 131:1

Too often in this modern world where we can have access to an overabundance of information about people and places and events we would have never encountered a hundred years ago, we believe the lie that we should have access to it. That to be a responsible person, we have to be aware and be up to date on everything.

But David – who is the King, who should be ‘in the know’ about most if not all things – confesses here that there’s a limit to his knowledge. He humbly acknowledges both that he doesn’t know everything and that he is not going to strive to know everything. He’s learned the lesson of Deuteronomy 29:29 – “The secret things belong to the Lord…”

A striving after all knowledge is not only pointless, but it leads your heart in the wrong direction. David learned this at the end of his reign, when he requested a census of Israel. He wanted a measure of his might. We don’t know when he wrote this Psalm, but it may act as a kind of confession. There’s no way to be sure, but we do know that in David’s desire to account for his strength, he was only acting as his ancestors did, as Adam and Eve did when they distrusted God and sought a kind of knowledge that was forbidden. That selfish ambition is also echoed in Isaiah 14:13-14 by one of whom it was said: “You said in your heart, ‘I will ascend to heaven; above the stars of God I will set my throne on high; I will sit on the mount of assembly in the far reaches of the north; I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.'”

Ascend.

Above the stars.

On high.

The far reaches of the north.

Above the heights of the clouds.

David understands the perils of that ambition. Instead of seeking to ascend, instead of a frantic grasping for knowledge and significance, he paints a picture of humble diminishment.

“But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me.”

Psalm 131:2

Instead of stretching upward, David has instructed his soul to assume the posture of a weaned child with its mother. A weaned child. Think on that.

Those of us who’ve nursed babies may recall those days, especially the days before your child was weaned. Whenever you held them close to your chest, they knew by smell, by instinct, where their nourishment was coming from. Your baby would impatiently seek and reach until they latched on.

But soon enough your baby grows and her palate matures. She begins to eat solid food and graduates from her mother’s milk. When held close in her mother’s arms, her restive instinct to get nourishment is replaced by a feeling of comfort, contentment, security. She’s been weaned.

Which picture represents your soul? Striving, reaching, impatient? Or restful, trusting and content? One is a picture of restless craving and self-reliance where the other is of humility and dependence.

“O Israel, hope in the Lord from this time forth and forevermore.”

Psalm 131:3

Three verses. That’s all. The first two present contrasting pictures. The third, I propose, gives us a key to how we get from striving and straining to trusting and resting.

Hope.

From this time forth and forevermore, hope in the Lord.

Reset your soul with hope. When we hope in the Lord, when we actively and continually place our trust in our God who names the stars and keeps count of the hairs on our head, when we day by day practice abiding and remaining in him, reminding ourselves of his complete care and faithful love, we too can direct our souls to this place of rest, to the very bosom of God.

A Middle Aged Woman Goes To Seminary

I lay in bed in the wee hours of the morning nervously pondering what I’d just done the day before. I had just finished my application to seminary, to go back to school after almost thirty years. In the past thirty years I’d identified myself as a professional clarinetist, a wife and a homeschooling mother. In the past five or six years, I’d been cleaning other people’s houses for a little extra income. Now, with one click, I was embarking on a new identity: seminary student. Would I be able to do this?

For sure, reading and studying the Bible hasn’t been foreign to me these past thirty years. A common thread running through all these years has been a growing and deepening desire to know and understand the Bible accompanied more recently by a passion to know how to teach it. I remember in the early 90s, as a new Christian at Northwestern University, going with my friend Jen to the bookstore at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. After graduating NU, she had become a student there. She was also my small group leader. I had admired and picked through the Christian books on her shelf but this experience was different. These were serious theology books. But instead of being intimidated I was excited. For some reason I was drawn to buy a book edited by John Piper and Wayne Grudem – Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. This was the beginning of a growing passion for theology. Over the next decade I picked my way through this book and along the way my own theological library grew. I devoured books by John Piper and discovered the Puritans. My yearly Christmas list became littered with requests for systematic theologies and commentaries.

About seven or eight years ago, I started teaching Bible study to the women at my church and slowly learned the importance of loving them as much as I love the Word. In 2020, I launched a podcast and embarked on writing my own Bible studies. But then a cancer diagnosis came in 2021. My life suddenly became smaller as I detoured into a cul-de-sac of cancer treatments – chemotherapy, surgery and radiation. It wasn’t possible for me to keep cleaning houses.

When I came to the end of cancer treatment a couple months ago, I wondered what was next for me. Would I go back to house cleaning? Despite the strenuous nature of the job, I did enjoy it, but there were also times, usually during the meditative, and often prayer filled, push and pull of vacuuming, when I’d be overcome by a particular yearning. A yearning to do more with the gifts God had given me. But what did that look like? Was this a call to ministry? I had no idea. I could only pause as I wiped the toothpaste off a mirror or scrubbed a stovetop and offer up those yearnings and those desires to the Lord, hoping and trusting that he would make my path clearer.

A few months ago I was talking with a new friend and found out she had gone to seminary. She’s a fifth grade teacher at a local Christian school. I was impressed and intrigued by her accomplishment and told her I had thought about going to seminary myself. She immediately encouraged me to pursue it. Really? Was this the right time? I decided to ask more questions that led to conversations with other women who’d gone to seminary. They too encouraged me to pursue this path. I then posed this question to my pastor: What would it look like for a layperson like myself to feel called to seminary or ministry? How was I to know where God was leading me? After hearing about my interests and past experience, he also encouraged me to research seminary options and degree programs. Was my path getting clearer?

Perhaps my growing and deepening interest in Bible study and theology over the past thirty years was leading me to this. I wasn’t sure if my ever increasing passion to help women understand their Bibles was a specific call to ministry, but if God was calling me to serve him more, didn’t it make sense to become better equipped? Wasn’t seminary the next probable step? As I researched various degree programs, visited a couple places, talked to more people, and even sat in on some real classes, my excitement only grew.

Fast forward to today. I am officially a seminary student at Reformed Theological Seminary pursuing a Master’s of Divinity. Last year at this time I had just started 16 rounds of chemotherapy for breast cancer. Now I find myself nearing the proverbial bend in the road that I’d been squinting and wondering at for years. I won’t be wiping toothpaste off mirrors anymore, at least not other people’s mirrors.

But I still worried about what I’d gotten myself into. After reading various syllabi and reading lists I would wake in the middle of the night, wondering whether I was capable of all this study, all this reading, of writing research papers. What about Greek and Hebrew?

I’ve decided to start small, only registering for two classes, and one of those requires a lot less work than the other. Even though classes don’t start until the end of January, I’ve already ordered the required books. I was anxious to get ahead. But as I cracked these books open, I felt nervous to start. Would I understand them? Was I in over my head here? I’ve been pleasantly surprised so far. Some of what I’ve read has been over my head. But most of it hasn’t. Most of it has been fascinating and eye opening. I’m eager to learn more. To go deeper. To see how I can translate deeper theological truths to women who will never go to seminary.

As I opened the first book, a book on how Paul speaks of union with Christ, I was arrested by this verse quoted by the author – “Apart from me you can do nothing.” John 15:5

This is just what I needed to hear at the beginning of this new journey. Truly, apart from Christ, I can do nothing. However long it takes me to get this degree (five, six, seven years?) I’ll need to lean on him more and more. Going to seminary is not a mere intellectual exercise. I know it will be a humbling experience and that’s good! I am anticipating that the deeper I go, the greater discoveries I’ll find, discoveries about God and myself. I’m looking forward to being stretched and challenged in ways I’ve never been, and along the way I pray that the Lord will equip me for greater service to him and his church. As I approach this new bend in the road of my life, I don’t have to be afraid. As David says in Psalm 138: “The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me…”

I plan to write regularly about my seminary experience. I hope you’ll follow along.

Paraphrasing the Lord’s Prayer

I would never think that I could improve upon the words of the Lord or make Scripture better with my own ideas, but there is a benefit to paraphrasing passages you’ve been studying. After you’ve immersed yourself in the passage and seen the connections to the wider scope of Scripture, you can attempt to carefully put that passage in your own words.

Paraphrasing isn’t just finding synonyms for the words on the page and swapping them out. It’s about amplifying the meaning of the passage by incorporating truths from other passages. Good paraphrasing comes after you’ve dug deep, understood context and reflected on what the passage says about God and yourself.

I’ve been focusing on the Lord’s Prayer lately and here is my attempt at a paraphrase:

We call on you, Father, the One who is enthroned on high in heaven and yet near to our hearts and aware of our every need.

May your name be set apart and honored as holy, holy, holy.

Your kingdom is ultimate – let it grow and spread, displacing all earthly kingdoms and any false rule that has been allowed to breed in our own hearts.

May your will, your perfect purposes, prevail in all the earth and in my life.

Provide, our generous Father, for our daily needs as we look to you and lean on you.

Forgive us all our sins, known and hidden, and let us extend the same forgiveness and mercy to others who have wronged us.

Protect us from any evil thought or desire that would tempt us to stray and deliver us from Satan’s schemes.

Father of all, Lord in heaven, to you belongs all glory and honor and power forever for you are our eternal King.

Why We Struggle to Pray

I didn’t grow up a Southern Baptist, but have been a member of a Southern Baptist church for over 25 years. One thing I have learned about Southern Baptists is they like to count. Are other denominations like this? Probably, but from my experience as a Southern Baptist, serving in various capacities, numbers are taken seriously. Attendance is taken in worship and Sunday School classes. Numbers of decisions are always tallied as a result of Vacation Bible School and short term mission trips. And of course, every dollar is counted in the offering plate. My point is not to criticize this, to make it seem like we shouldn’t pay attention to how many people attend our churches and how much money is given. We should definitely do this. But I think there’s a temptation that can go unnoticed and a certain mindset can develop if we interpret these numbers in a certain way. Does an increase always equal greater success for the Kingdom of God? Does it always mean our methods are God-honoring? Does a decrease in numbers always equal less impact for Christ or a failure to be faithful? I’m sure many people have written on this same theme, but let me tie it to our prayer lives.

Since the industrial revolution, there’s been an increased fixation with productivity and efficiency. The bottom line in any activity or industry has become – “How much did you produce and how long did it take you to produce it?”  The goal has always been to produce more at a faster rate and with less cost and effort. We’ve so absorbed this way of doing things that we’ve uncritically adjusted our lives and our expectations according to the answers to these questions. We unquestioningly live according to this framework.

But prayer doesn’t work that way. And this is the reason I think that a lot of us struggle to pray consistently and confidently, myself included. Here are at least two reasons why.

Prayer Requires Faith in What We Can’t See

Productivity is all about what we can see and what we can measure, but Hebrews 11:1 gives us the definition of faith – “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Our faith and our prayers depend on a God we can’t see. We must admit that we will never be able to measure the effects of our work for the kingdom accurately, because we can’t see everything! As we serve God and lift up our requests to him, we must constantly and ultimately trust him with the results. If I support a missionary to an unreached people group and they serve for a short period of time without measurable results that we can see, will this discourage me in how I pray for them, or will it lead me to discontinue my support? Our your prayers for your pastor and your church guided solely by what you see? Our faith and our prayers should be fixed on God, who we can’t see, and the promises he has made that he will build his church. Numbers alone shouldn’t be the barometer of faithfulness and they shouldn’t be the sole guide of my prayers. Results aren’t always immediate and faith and prayer require a level of endurance and patience that just won’t fit into the productivity paradigm.

What about parenting? We’re tempted to think that if we put in the effort as parents we will get a godly child as a result. Put the coin in the vending machine, and out comes the candy, right? But when we don’t see fruit growing in our children’s lives, do we hit the panic button in prayer? Or is our faith and are our prayers guided by the character of God, who is faithful and good, who has come to seek and to save the lost, a God who loves generational faithfulness? Do we pray confidently, no matter what we see with our eyes, knowing that God is working in thousands of hidden ways we’ll never see? No wonder the psalmist exhorted us to be strong and courageous as we wait on the Lord! (Psalm 31:24)

The truth is that the life of faith involves many things we can’t see and we can’t measure! This requires us to have a prayer life undergirded by a  steely-eyed kind of faith and trust that is formed by who God is and what he has promised in his word.

Prayer is not Efficient

The dictionary says that efficiency has to do with functioning in the best possible way with the least amount of time and effort. But anyone who has dedicated themselves to prayer for any length of time knows that it requires a lot of time and effort and there are no shortcuts or hacks. Prayer is not efficient.

There have been many times when I’ve expended a lot of Spirit-led effort praying for someone or a certain situation. In those times I don’t want to be efficient. I want to linger as God reminds me of his promises and anchors me deeper in faith. It’s in those times that God gives me eyes to see things that can’t be measured and courage to wait as he works not as efficiently as I’d like but as faithfully as he has promised.

God doesn’t work according to the world’s principles of productivity and efficiency. But he does work! And prayer requires that we wait on our God and trust in his faithfulness, not merely in what our eyes can see. Our times in prayer may not produce immediate and measurable results but God does hear us. And prayer may not be the most efficient thing you do today, but we are promised that it is effective.

Since ancient times no one has heard,
    no ear has perceived,
no eye has seen any God besides you,
    who acts on behalf of those who wait for him.
Isaiah 64:4

Using a Dictionary to go Deeper

When I first started teaching Bible study, I used Jen Wilkin’s Women Studying the Word to teach basic Bible study skills. One resource she highly recommends and one I kept encouraging women to use was a dictionary. Not a Greek or Hebrew dictionary. Just a plain old English dictionary.

Most of us will never learn Greek or Hebrew, but if you’re using a good word for word translation like ESV or NASB, you can be confident in using an English dictionary to look up the meanings of the words the translators have carefully chosen. And doing this can lead to even deeper study and more penetrating application. Let me give you an example. Consider this verse from Ephesians:

“Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.”

Ephesians 4:31

If I put you on the spot and asked you to define malice could you do it? Sometimes we assume we know what words mean when we really don’t. As a result, we may read through the list of sins in this verse too quickly, thinking most of them don’t apply to us. Malice? Me? I don’t think so.

So let’s look it up in the dictionary. Malice is the desire to inflict injury, harm or suffering on another either because of a hostile impulse or out of deap seated meanness.

Now that we have a thorough definition of the word, we can go back and expand on what Paul is getting at. Paul is asking us here to put away any desire in our hearts to inflict harm or suffering on another person. Now, we may have no desire to physically harm someone else, but let’s ask some questions that may cut a little deeper.

If you’ve been going through a string of afflictions, do you secretly wish your “seems-to-have-it-all” neighbor would experience their fair share?

As your peruse through your social media and see young perfectly toned thighs and stomachs, do you scoff and wish that someday they’ll experience the frustration of a menopausal body that stubbornly hangs onto every ounce of fat?

What about those with whom we disagree on politics or the way our culture is developing? Do you harbor unseen hatred towards them, hoping they’ll receive judgment, instead of imitating our Lord who said, “Forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.”

Malice seems to come in many shapes and sizes. Using a simple tool like an English dictionary allows us to slow down and ask sharper questions. And that helps us make even better application as we study the Word.

Now I think I’ll go look up the word clamor.

Lay It To Your Heart

“…know therefore today, and lay it to your heart, that the Lord is God in heaven above and on the earth beneath; there is no other.”

Deuteronomy 4:39

My daughter moved from a fully furnished apartment to an unfurnished rental house with her two roommates. Being the poor college students that they are, they needed furniture. I drove over a couple weeks ago to help her put together a cheap storage unit from Target. Before leaving, she texted that I should bring a hammer. No furniture and no tools. Ok. When I got there I realized she had not read the instructions thoroughly and had been using a board to pound the wrong peg into the wrong hole. She ended up causing unnecessary damage to her furniture because she hadn’t been paying close enough attention. She thought she knew what to do, but she didn’t.

We also assume we know what to do in living the Christian life. We don’t think we need reminders. We think if we can make it through the whole Bible once in our lifetime it’ll be enough. Why go back and read it again? We might not understand everything, but we get the main point. But if there’s anything the book of Deuteronomy teaches us it’s that we need reminders! We need to remember who God is, who we are and how he’s told us to live. From putting tassels on their clothing to arranging their calendar around feasts and festivals, God was making a point – we are forgetful people!

But it’s more than just bringing facts about God back to our remembrance. Here in Deuteronomy 4:39, Moses says to know, but in addition he says this – lay it to your heart. Lay it to your heart. That’s a step further than looking at the tassel on your clothing and remembering the commandments. It’s more than making sure you attend the next feast or festival. And for us moderns, I’m assuming it’s more than just writing your favorite verse on a sticky note so you can look at it as you brush your teeth. No. It’s about the heart. Tim Challies says this about the heart – “The heart, then, is the place where God’s influence comes into contact with man’s will to be accepted or rejected, to be obeyed or disobeyed. This makes the heart the very moral center of a human being.

Laying something to your heart then means that you will take the truth you know in your head and present it to your will over and over, allowing that truth to transform your loves and guide your life.

Verse 39 in Deuteronomy 4 tells us to acknowledge that the Lord is God, there is no other, but if we go back in the text we’ll see God expounding on what this means. Take your time in reading the following passage. Focus on the uniqueness of the one true God, the greatness of his works, and his free electing love for his chosen ones.

Ask now about the former days, long before your time, from the day God created human beings on the earth; ask from one end of the heavens to the other. Has anything so great as this ever happened, or has anything like it ever been heard of?  Has any other people heard the voice of God speaking out of fire, as you have, and lived?  Has any god ever tried to take for himself one nation out of another nation, by testings, by signs and wonders, by war, by a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, or by great and awesome deeds, like all the things the Lord your God did for you in Egypt before your very eyes?

You were shown these things so that you might know that the Lord is God; besides him there is no other.  From heaven he made you hear his voice to discipline you. On earth he showed you his great fire, and you heard his words from out of the fire.  Because he loved your ancestors and chose their descendants after them, he brought you out of Egypt by his Presence and his great strength,  to drive out before you nations greater and stronger than you and to bring you into their land to give it to you for your inheritance, as it is today.

Deuteronomy 4:32-38

We are constantly forgetting who God is and who we are. Like my daughter, we don’t read the instructions (his Word) thoroughly enough and then we wonder why things go wrong. We can’t just go through this life assuming we’ll remember who we are and what God has said. We can say we know, but over and over again in Deuteronomy, and other places in the Old Testament, we see that God knows us a lot better than we know ourselves. He knows we will forget. And he knows that what we know in our heads doesn’t always transfer to the heart, to the very center of our will. That’s why he tells us to lay it to our hearts. It isn’t enough to say you know who God is. According to James, even the demons know who God is. No, the truth of who God is must travel down to your heart so it might transform the very core of who you are.

God’s Delayed Yes

I imagine Zechariah and Elizabeth had plans. Most young married couples do. Part of their plans revolved around Zechariah’s service as a priest, but I’m sure, like most married couples, their plans also included having children, maybe lots of them. Luke tells us, in chapter 1 of his gospel, that they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly before him. This doesn’t mean they were perfect, but that they were faithful. Given this information about them, it’s a surprise to read the next thing about them.

They had no children.

Elizabeth was barren.

And they were advanced in years.

Imagine what those early years and then the middle years of their marriage had been like. Month after month, and then year after year, their desire for a family was denied. Did they hear the whispers of neighbors? Were they assaulted with questions from their relatives? As faithful Israelites, they knew the stories of God’s faithfulness. They knew how he had intervened for Sarah and Abraham, for Isaac and Rebekah, and for Hannah. Did they go through seasons of doubt? We don’t know. Perhaps Psalm 113 was a common refrain in their home:

The Lord is exalted over all the nations,
    his glory above the heavens.
 Who is like the Lord our God,
    the One who sits enthroned on high,
 who stoops down to look
    on the heavens and the earth?

 He raises the poor from the dust
    and lifts the needy from the ash heap;
 he seats them with princes,
    with the princes of his people.
 He settles the childless woman in her home
    as a happy mother of children.

Praise the Lord.

Those last words must have been harder and harder to hear and pray as the years went by. In those times, a woman’s inability to have a child resulted in a kind of social stigma. Did they stop praying? And when? As both their bodies started to show the telltale signs of age and infertility, especially Elizabeth, the request for a child must have faded to the background. Possible? Yes. Probable? Not without a miracle.

There’s no way for us to know what they went through during those long years of waiting and hoping, but perhaps they were just like us. Maybe their hearts asked the same questions. “Do you hear us God?” “Have we sinned in some way that is preventing this blessing from coming to us?” Surely they reached a point where they knew it wasn’t going to happen. Children were not going to be in their future.

Then one day, Zechariah was chosen by lot to enter the temple and burn incense. We’re told that Zechariah was of the division of Abijah. There were 24 divisions and each contained a large number of priests. This would be the only time in Zechariah’s life where he would get this specific opportunity to serve.

We know what happens next. The angel Gabriel, the same Gabriel who appeared to Daniel hundreds of years before, appears to Zechariah and says this:

“Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John…” Luke 1:13

Your prayer has been heard? Your prayer has been heard! Think about that for a moment. When do you think was the last time Zechariah had prayed that prayer, a prayer for a child? Years? Decades? We don’t know. But God did. God heard all the prayers they had both prayed. He heard them all and remembered. And at just the right time, he intervened and said, “Yes!” in the most spectacular and miraculous way. It was so spectacular and miraculous that Zechariah didn’t believe it and was made mute until John’s birth.

We all pray lots of prayers, but some of them have been offered over and over again, for many years. After a while, if we don’t see the answer we’re looking for, we may think the answer is “No.” We may even stop praying.

We equate delay with NO.

But remember that God isn’t bound by time like we are. Our perspective on our prayers is limited because we’re finite. We’re not able to see the whole expanse of time from beginning to end. We don’t have the capability to determine how all things, including all our prayers, work together for God’s wise and always good purposes.

But even when we’ve stopped praying for something, or someone, because it seems from our limited perspective that it’s just not going to happen, God remembers.

God hasn’t forgotten.

The name Zechariah means, “the Lord has remembered”. For Zechariah and Elizabeth their sorrow exploded into joy. But this joy wasn’t meant just for them! The barrenness Elizabeth experienced was a theme God had been using among his people. Just like Sarah, and Rebekah and Hannah, it wasn’t a symbol of the absence of God, but a sign that God was about to do something big. I like how the Zondervan NIV Study Bible explains it: “God’s reversal for one family signifies that he is present to save and deliver his entire people.” The miraculous birth of John proved that the Lord had remembered Zechariah and Elizabeth’s many prayers and had indeed remembered his people!

In our own prayer lives, let’s be encouraged in the delays. God hears our prayers. He remembers each one and is wisely and lovingly working in response to them. The delays don’t always mean no.

Much More

One study tip that yields great results is to look for repeated words and phrases. Many times the authors of Scripture, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, repeat things for emphasis. But you won’t notice these repeated words or phrases unless you slow down in your Bible reading and read the passage over and over. Then when you find these repeated words and phrases you can stop and meditate, maybe even ask questions about why these words and phrases would be repeated. Let me share how this recently worked with me.

In the mornings before I get out of bed I usually review passages I’ve memorized and recently it was time to review Romans 5. One benefit of memorizing Scripture is it aids in using these study tips I just mentioned. And if you have a chapter of Scripture or maybe a whole Psalm in what I call ‘the back pocket of your mind’, it allows you to at any time and in any place slow down and pay greater attention to what’s in the text.

Much More

The phrase “much more” occurs four times in Romans 5. The first two appear in verses 9 and 10:

“Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.”

Paul’s style in his epistles is to use logical arguments. Here in verses 9 and 10 he is using an argument to give his readers assurance of their justification, solid confidence that the God they have placed their faith in for salvation will be completely for them until the end. Both of these verses are making a similar argument: since X, much more Y. John Piper says this is “heart-assuring logic” and adds: “If logic was ever set on fire, surely it is in these two verses.” The heart-assuring logic of Romans 5:9-10 is this: If God has done the hardest thing, you can be sure he will do everything else that’s necessary. God did the hardest thing by sending his Son to die while we were his enemies. If he did that, bringing us justification and reconciliation, surely, when he comes to judge the world in wrath at the end of the age, he will save us from that wrath into eternal life with Christ.

The second time these words are repeated is in verses 15-17:

“But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. And the free gift is not like the result of that one man’s sin. for the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification. For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.”

Again in this passage, Paul is using similar logic: If X, much more Y. This time he’s comparing the consequences of Adam’s transgression with the results of Christ’s sacrificial death. It’s a given that because of Adam’s sin, people died and death reigned. But do you see here an increase in emphasis to the logical argument? Forgive the use of the words, but I can only think of the word ‘super-size’ to describe it. Here he is saying that there isn’t a one-to-one correspondence between the results of Adam’s sin and the results of Christ’s sacrificial death. It’s not one to one, it’s one to a million! Maybe we could call it the super-sized logic of gospel assurance! Yes, death reigned through the one man Adam, but much more will those who receive the abundance of grace reign in life through Jesus Christ.

The first passage was about giving assurance, but the second passage super sizes our assurance, causing us to wonder at our merciful and gracious God and how great our salvation really is.