“Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.”
The phrase “set your mind/heart” is used throughout Scripture to describe the orientation of one’s thoughts, will, morality and affections. It is a metaphor for fixing one’s life-attention on a thing (1 Sam. 9:20). A heart may be “set” to do God’s will or one’s own will or it may be “set” on things above or on things below (1 Chron. 22:19; 2 Chron. 11:16; 12:14; 19:3; Ezra 7:10; Col. 3:2; Mt. 16:23; Rom. 8:5; Phil. 3:19, etc.).
Whenever I hear this phrase “set your mind”, I always think of tuning a radio. Growing up a Cleveland Indians fan in the 1990’s meant hearing the voice of Tom Hamilton. It was imperative to find the exact frequency on the radio so that all the distortion would fade away until his voice was crystal clear.
When I got my own radio, I would flip back and forth between my FM music stations and AM 1100 for the Indians game with the push of a button. It was that easy. One click from Pearl Jam to MLB playoffs, from Eddie Veddar to Tom Hamilton. Would that tuning our hearts could be so easy!
God’s voice is only clear on one distinct frequency, the Scriptures. We are tasked with tuning out all the distortion of the world, the shiny distractions and the tempting lies, and finding that heavenly frequency of the Lord’s voice.
Our Shepherd calls us in His own distinctive tone, “The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers… My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow Me.” (Jn. 10:3-5, 27)
Later, the apostle John wrote, “They are from the world; therefore they speak from the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us...” (1 Jn. 4:5-6)
Competing frequencies fight for our attention. Many people tune into the heavenly station for only a few hours every week while allowing the world to win their attention the rest of the time. They flip back to God’s station on Sunday but as soon as the service ends, they tune out heaven’s song in favor of the seductive rhythms of the world. Worse, like Ezekiel’s audience, preaching of God’s word is to some “like one who sings lustful songs with a beautiful voice and plays well on an instrument, for they hear what you say, but they will not do it.” (Ezek. 33:32)
Your heart’s attention and mind’s focus are yours to give to whomever or whatever you will. Be careful to tune into the right frequency. The Lord warns us to “take care then how you hear… My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.” (Lk. 8:11-21, esp. vv.18, 21) Those who devote themselves to do God’s will are those who are spiritually “tuned-in” to God’s voice. And true listeners of the heavenly station hear evangelistically. That is, what they hear they also proclaim to others (Mt. 10:27; 1 Pet. 2:9; Phil. 2:15-16; 1 Jn. 1:1-3). So, today, do not harden your hearts but listen to the voice of Jesus! (Psa. 95:7-11; cf. Heb. 3:7-11, 15; 4:7; Deut. 4:36; Mt. 17:5)
"Unanswered Prayers" is a song co-written and recorded by American country music artist Garth Brooks which hit No. 1 on Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart in 1991. It goes like this:
Just the other night a hometown football game
My wife and I ran into my old high school flame
And as I introduced them the past came back to me
And I couldn't help but think of the way things used to be
She was the one that I'd wanted for all time
And each night I'd spend prayin' that God would make her mine
And if he'd only grant me this wish I wished back then
I'd never ask for anything again
Sometimes I thank God for unanswered prayers
Remember when you're talkin' to the man upstairs
That just because he doesn't answer doesn't mean he don't care
Some of God's greatest gifts are unanswered prayers
While I can appreciate the sentiment of this song, Garth is a better musician than he is a theologian. The apostle John teaches us that Christians have the assurance of answered prayer (1 Jn. 5:14-15; cf. Jas. 5:16b) although it comes with certain limitations (1 Jn.5:16-17). Jesus assures all children of God that their heavenly Father will answer their prayers (Mt. 7:7-11) if asked in His “name” or according to His will (Jn. 14:13-14; 15:16, etc.).
What looks to us like “unanswered prayer” may be God saying, “No” (2 Cor. 12:8-9) to teach us to lean upon His grace more dependently. It may be God saying, “Wait” (Psa. 40:1ff; Jas. 5:7) to teach us the value of faithful patience. Or He may be providing a different solution than the specific one we prayer for.
But there are some prayers God will not answer.
God will not answer prayers of doubt. “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.” (Jas. 1:5-8)
God will not answer prayers with impure motives. “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.” (Jas. 4:3)
God will not answer prayers of selfishness. “And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us.” (1 Jn. 5:14; cf. Mt. 6:9-10; 26:39; Isa. 37:16-20, etc.)
God will not answer prayers of a spiritual hypocrite. “Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered.” (1 Pet. 3:7; cf. Isa. 58)
Some prayers do go “unanswered” because prayer is conditional. Even the prayers of Cornelius, though he had not yet obeyed the gospel, were heard by God (Acts 10:1-2) because his heart was purely seeking God’s will (Mt. 7:7). Does God hear you?
Elijah was a mighty prophet of the LORD who arose during a time of crisis in the northern kingdom. He courageously opposed the wicked leadership of Ahab and Jezebel and played a vital role in a significant victory over Baal-worship at Mt. Carmel (1 Kgs. 17-18). He was a man of great faith but like all biblical heroes of faith (bar one) he was also flawed.
After facing some unexpected opposition from the queen, Elijah retreated from conflict and nearly cast aside his faith, looking to lay down his prophetic mantle prematurely (1 Kgs. 19:1-4). At Mt. Horeb, God gently reminded him he was only one servant among many (1 Kgs. 19:5-14). He continued to serve God (1 Kgs. 21; 2 Kgs. 1) but he displayed moments of definite reluctance (perhaps even disobedience?) (1 Kgs. 19:15-21; 2 Kgs. 2:1-10). Things were smooth when they happened the way he expected but when the going got rough he did not handle the disappointment well, let alone smooth the way ahead for others!
Elijah appeared “in person” in the NT, standing on the mount of transfiguration along with Moses and Jesus (Mt. 17:1-13). The significance of this meeting is much debated but the main point was to show that Jesus is far greater than both Moses and Elijah. Like Moses, Elijah explicitly prefigured Jesus. Like Jesus, he was a mighty prophet who embraced the Gentiles (Lk. 4:24-26). But there are implicit connections to Jesus as well. Angels ministered to them in the wilderness (1 Kgs. 19:5-8; Mt. 4:1-11); they opposed Baal(-Zebub) and dealt with the possessed (1 Kgs. 18:20-40;2 Kgs. 1:2-17; Mt. 12:22-28); they worked miracles of provision and healing (1 Kgs. 17:7-24; Mt. 14:13-21; 15:29-39); in the end, they both ascended into heaven (2 Kgs. 2:11; Acts 1:2). The portrait of Jesus in the NT is building on and perfecting the portrait of the great prophet Elijah in the OT.
However, for all the connections to Jesus in the gospels, Elijah is more closely associated with John the Baptist. Elijah’s preparatory role to pave the way to God’s victory over the powers of darkness (1 Kgs. 19:15-18; Mal. 4:1-6) is likened to John’s role as the forerunner to the LORD. John appears on the scene before Jesus dressed like Elijah (2 Kgs. 1:8; Mt. 3:4) warning of the coming kingdom of God. It was John, not Jesus (Mt. 16:13-16; 27:45-49), who was identified as the Elijah to come (Lk. 1:11-17; Mt. 11:1-9; 17:11-13). This led some to think that John the Baptist was literally the Elijah from the OT, which he flatly denied (Jn. 1:19-34). This confusion is understandable considering the circumstances of Elijah’s fate in 2 Kgs. 2:1-18. John was not Elijah in any literal sense but he was Elijah in the figurative sense; he performed Elijah’s task without actually being Elijah.
Elijah not only functions as a type of Jesus and John but also of us. He was “a man with a nature like ours” (Jas. 5:17). He was one of the people of God. And we, as people of God ourselves, can learn many lessons from studying his story.
We learn how God works with the “remnants” of His people (Rom. 11:1ff). Elijah went up against 450 prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel and he prevailed by faith in the power of the LORD. But he had sunken into a depressed state at the cave at Mt. Horeb believing he was all that was left of the faithful. There are times we may feel we are all that are left of the LORD’s army. But there will always be a faithful few scattered throughout the world engaged in the same conflict against the powers of darkness (1 Pet. 5:9-10). God’s people have always been in the minority. Think of Noah, Moses and Aaron, Caleb and Joshua, Daniel and his three friends in Babylon, the apostles and early Christians. Most of all, think of Jesus, who was truly alone on the cross but who won the victory for all who put their faith in Him!
We also learn about what it means to endure hardship “by faith.” The Hebrew writer references Elijah in a list of those who endured life’s difficulties by faith (Heb. 11:32-40). The Lord said that persecuted peacemakers are “blessed” because they are in the company of faithful prophets like Elijah (Mt. 5:9-12). We ought to “rejoice and be glad” when we are “persecuted for righteousness sake” “for [our] reward is great in heaven.” When we get backlash from the world for living out our convictions we are proving our spiritual DNA and are counted with the faithful.
We learn about the power of prayer. Paul says we are to “pray at all times” (Eph. 6:18). James says we are to pray when we’re in trouble, when we’re happy, and when we’re sick (Jas. 5:13-14). James points out Elijah as an example of the power of faithful prayer. He was a man just like us, with the same spiritual resources. “He prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit.” We should recognize that the power of prayer is available to all who are sincerely following the Lord (“righteous”) and not just to a special few. (cf. Jas. 5:16b-18)
One of the greatest lessons we learn from Elijah is to have a sense of perspective on one’s life of service to God. No one should think he is greater than anyone else in the kingdom (Rom. 12:3-8; 1 Cor. 3:1-9; Phil. 1:12-18). We are all only part of God’s plan and not the plan itself. Elijah needed some convincing of this at Mt. Horeb but John the Baptist humbly grasped this truth right away (Mt. 3:11-15; 11:11; Jn. 3:27-30). We must understand, while we all have an important place in the kingdom, that place is never ahead or above anyone else (Mt. 20:20-27).
Elijah is a powerful teacher for us both in his success and in his failure. God can work with imperfect people like us so long as we are humble and faithful to Him.
“I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live...”
God, the supreme Creator of all things, is sometimes accused by critics as having created evil. After all, doesn’t God Himself admit, “I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things” (Isa. 45:7 KJV)? In this passage, God is not saying He is the author of moral evil but rather that He has the power to bring calamity or disaster as a just judgment (Amos 3:6). What the King James Version renders as “evil” here is speaking of the distress and disaster which people experience as a consequence of their sin (Ex. 34:6-7).
Ok, so Isaiah 45:7 doesn’t teach that God created evil but what about the devil and sin in general? If God is the Creator of the universe, and evil exists in our universe, wouldn’t He at least be responsible for its existence? Let’s examine a few possibilities of God’s creation of which there can only be four:
- That God would create nothing (where there is no possibility for good or evil).
- That God would create an amoral universe (where there is no such thing as good or evil).
- That God would create a universe without freewill (where there is no possibility of evil).
- That God would create a universe with freewill (where there is possibility of good and evil).
The only universe in which love can exist is the fourth possibility, a universe with freewill. This is the universe God chose to create. This is the universe we find ourselves in, both longing to love and be loved by others.
Love is the supreme ethic and the deepest longing of every human heart. This possibility of love is one of the greatest gifts God has given to us. But if we erase freewill, we also erase the possibility of ever experiencing love. These two concepts depend on one another.
But while freewill opens the door to love it also opens the door to evil. The possibility of love makes us all extremely vulnerable to pain and loss. But those of us who have ever opened our hearts fully to God’s love will say it is well worth the temporary pain.
But to receive the eternal benefits of God’s love is a choice of our freewill. Eternal residence either near God in Heaven or away from Him in Hell is ultimately a choice God has left to us.
C.S. Lewis once famously stated, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. Those who knock it is opened.”
A father who takes his son to the doctor for a vaccination may appear to his child in the moment to be cruel. But the father’s decision that once perplexed and angered the child is clearly understood when he is safe from a disease ravaging his town years later. Time and trust are necessary components to making sense of the evil in our world. In time, those who choose to wait on the Lord will understand their pain and learn to even rejoice in it (2 Cor. 4:16-18). Thank God for His love and our freewill.
“Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness”
Writers use contrast by laying two things side by side to emphasize their differences to make a point. Biblical authors used contrast all the time; light and darkness (1 Jn. 1:5-10), hope and despair (Eph. 2:1-10), or Paul’s contrast in the book of Romans of faith and works (Rom. 4:4-17).
The only way to be in good standing (“justified” or “righteous”) with God is through, what Paul calls, “faith in Jesus Christ” (Rom. 3:22). It is impossible for us to justify ourselves, especially with our poor track record. Paul outlines that all have sinned (Rom. 1-3) and are deserving of death (Rom. 6:23). But through the gospel our gracious God has opened up a way for sinners to come to Him and receive forgiveness through the atoning work of Jesus’ death on the cross (Rom. 3:21-26).
By trusting in and responding humbly and obediently to Jesus’ self-sacrifice (“faith”) we can stand before God justified. This, in a nutshell, is the good news. God is not treating us as we deserve but treating us according to His mercy and grace (Psa. 103:10). He can forgive us and maintain His just nature because Jesus paid for our sin when He died on the cross (Rom. 3:21-26).
Paul’s contrast between faith and works show how absurd it is to imagine that we could ever be justified apart from God’s grace.
In Romans 4:4, he says, “Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due.” That is, if we were to live in such a way that we deserved to be called “just” or “righteous” then the reward of eternal life would be a matter of debt rather than a matter of grace. If we “worked” for eternal life then God would be obligated to pay us.
Paul spent three chapters pointing out that no one, with the exception of Jesus, has ever lived a life deserving of such a reward (Rom. 3:19-20). Therefore, if any sinner is to be in good standing with God it will not be on the basis his “works”. He will not achieve good standing with God through a system of works but through a new system of grace, accessible only by faith.
Furthermore, if righteousness (“justification” or good standing with God) is rewarded on the basis of works which we have done, then grace has nothing to do with it (Rom. 4:16, 5). Works would rule out grace, the two being incompatible (Rom. 11:6). If God’s blessing is of grace, it cannot be of works. If it is of works, it cannot be of grace.
But does this mean we don’t do anything to receive God’s grace? What about baptism? Is it considered “work” in the context of Romans 4? If we are baptized to be saved from our sins are we attempting to be “justified by works”? Let’s find out.
The blessing of God (Rom. 4:9) is His forgiveness of our sin (Rom. 4:7-8) or, what Paul calls, being counted “righteous” by God (Rom. 4:3-6). In this context, we can use “blessing,” “forgiveness,” or being counted “righteous” interchangeably.
The person who is justified by works doesn’t need the blessing of God (forgiveness and righteousness) because he has already achieved good standing with God on the basis of his own conduct. This is what it means to be justified by works. Again, with the exception of Jesus, no one has ever done this!
Back to baptism. Were you baptized because you were already righteous and you were trying to maintain your personal righteousness apart from God’s grace? Absolutely not! You were baptized to obtain righteousness, forgiveness and life from God. You were baptized because you realized you were not righteous on your own, that you couldn’t be justified on the basis of your works and you needed God’s gift of grace (Acts 2:38).
Justification on the basis of works is justification based on innocence. One cannot be judged guilty if he has done no wrong. If you had a flawless record of conduct then you could stand before God pure and blameless. In fact, you could proudly say, “I deserve to be in heaven with God.”
But because salvation is based on God’s grace through our faith in what He has done for us, there is no room for our boasting! (Eph. 2:8-9) We don’t deserve God’s blessing but we enjoy it because He extended His grace and we responded faithfully to it.
Faith is the condition that must be met before being justified by God and baptism falls under the umbrella of faith. Baptism is a condition of receiving God’s blessing just as David’s confession of his sins was a condition of his forgiveness in Psalm 32:1-5. This is the very Scripture Paul used to prove the point that we are all justified by faith (Rom. 4:7-8). Baptism is an act of faith in the work of God not ourselves (Col. 2:11-12; Gal. 3:26-27).
Equally important to the physical act of immersion in water is the mindset of the one being baptized. It is absolutely essential that he understands that in his baptism he is appealing to God for a good conscience and for forgiveness (1 Pet. 3:21). The basis of that appeal is in the finished work of Christ, not our own work.
In baptism, a sinner is calling on the name of the Lord to wash away his sins by the blood of Christ (Acts 22:16). Baptism is an act of faith, trust, obedience and confession unto salvation (Rom. 10:9-10). God has made this act of submission (baptism) part of coming to Him in faith and receiving His blessing. We are made righteous not on the basis of our works but on the basis of our trust in God’s work for us. Therefore, “the just shall live by his faith”! (Hab. 2:4)