A Darker Day for Russian Jews

Vladimir Putin was supposed to be The Good Tsar—the Russian president who, his KGB past notwithstanding, was a friend of the Jews. In Putin’s Russia, we could be billionaires and presidential advisers. We could go to shul. We could come and go as we pleased.

My in-laws, Chief Rabbi Pinchas and Rebbetzin Dara Goldschmidt, were evidence of that. From 1993 until this year, my father-in-law was the chief rabbi of Moscow; my mother-in-law founded a Jewish school there.

Since the Soviet collapse, in 1991, synagogues, schools, youth groups, and Jewish-owned businesses in Moscow had flourished. In 2007, Putin famously donated a month’s salary to the glitzy Moscow Museum of Tolerance, and the FSB (formerly the KGB) offered its support to the museum by providing documents from its archives. In recent years, a Jew wearing a yarmulke would have felt more comfortable walking in Moscow than in Paris.

Perhaps most importantly, young Jews had been able to do what Jews in pretty much every generation before would have found unimaginable: They could move to Israel. 

The symbol of this freedom of movement was a pale, yellow building on a little street called Bolshoy Spasoglinishchevskiy Pereulok, just across the street from Moscow’s famous Choral Synagogue. Inside was the Jewish Agency for Israel. 

The Soviets didn’t allow the Jewish Agency—which has outposts all over the world and is tasked with helping Jews immigrate to Israel—to open in Russia until 1989, just two years before the communist regime collapsed. Its opening in the very center of Moscow was a sign of a great and long awaited moment in Russian society. 

The Jewish Agency quickly became something of a magnet for young Russian Jews who would come to learn Hebrew, attend cultural events, and interview for a variety of programs that enabled them to go to Israel for high school or college.

True, the echo of Russian antisemitism—including the massive ghetto known as the Pale of Settlement, the blood-soaked pogroms, Josef Stalin’s and then Leonid Brezhnev’s persecution of Jews—had not entirely receded. The unspoken rule at the Jewish Agency was that it was best to keep a low profile to avoid provoking the Kremlin. Emigration was not something the Jewish Agency talked about much. 

Still, every year, Israeli organizations would send emissaries to Jewish schools in Russia to stoke interest in the Promised Land. The four-hour flight from Moscow’s Sheremetyevo to Ben Gurion Airport was like a commuter flight for many Russian Jews; many sent their children there to study.  

The point was: everything seemed to have changed, and Russian Jews bought it. I remember vividly one evening in 2014, at an American-Jewish organization’s fundraiser on a yacht on the Moscow River. The city was brilliant. Stalin’s Seven Sisters, the skyscrapers that have come to define the Moscow skyline, loomed above. The dance floor played lively music. Gourmet kosher food was served on silver platters. The wine was free-flowing. The conversation was about summer plans: St. Tropez or Monaco? 

All this freedom made it possible—maybe—for some Jews to overlook the Kremlin’s anti-democratic ways: the attacks on the media, the end of political competition, the surveillance. They had never had it so good.

Now, that evening feels like a lifetime ago. Now, my in-laws are in Jerusalem, and the Jewish Agency is about to be closed, and when we call our friends still in Russia, the other end of the line is eerily, heavily quiet. 

Weeks after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, in February, my father-in-law found himself in an impossible position. He and my mother-in-law had been in Moscow since the late 1980s. Theirs had been a remarkable and rocky and complicated and, at moments, beautiful experience. And then he, like many religious leaders in Russia, got the word from the powers that be: You’d better support the war publicly.

As we watched videos of missiles flying over Kharkiv, sirens ringing over Kyiv, train stations teeming with refugees, my husband and I—in New York—called his parents. We begged them to leave, stammering, not sure what we should (or shouldn’t) say on the phone. “There’s always the train to Helsinki,” my father-in-law said dryly, careful never to utter an extra word. 

One day in March, they packed two suitcases and got on a plane. They only told us later, calling us from their Istanbul hotel room, exhausted, shaken. Soon after, they resettled in Israel.

Since then, more Jews have emigrated from Russia to Israel than they have from Ukraine. According to Israel’s Aliyah and Absorption Ministry, in the first half of 2022, 11,906 people emigrated from Ukraine to Israel—and nearly 17,000 from Russia did the same. (It’s unclear exactly how many of these people were Jewish; that’s another matter.) While Ukrainian Jewish refugees have various asylum options, Russian Jews are ineligible for refugee status. Israel is the simplest option. For many, it’s the only one.

The reasons to emigrate are numerous: Some are protesting the war. Others worry about an economic meltdown. (There are predictions that Russian GDP will plummet by as much as 50 percent from its prewar levels.) Many are scared that, if they stay, they’ll become prisoners. Any Jew who can remember the U.S.S.R.—the widespread discrimination against the Jews; the Jews denied permission to immigrate to Israel, referred to as refuseniks; the antipathy for Israel and the support for Arab states—can understand that. The fear that this might be their last, best chance to get out.

American protestors demonstrating in May 1984 on behalf of Soviet Jews. (Barbara Alper via Getty Images)

The Israelis knew all this. So when the war broke out, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett was careful not to upset Putin. Bennett didn’t want any problems in Syria. (The Russians control Syrian air space, and the Israelis routinely send fighter jets over Syria to take out arms convoys heading to Hezbollah-controlled Lebanon.) He also didn’t want the 180,000 Russian Jews still in Russia to suffer at the hands of the Kremlin. 

But under Bennett’s successor, Yair Lapid, Israel has taken a harder line against the Russians. The Russians responded by shutting down the Jewish Agency. 

On July 15, the Russian Ministry of Justice requested a shutdown of the Jewish Agency in Russia. The official reason being that the Agency was a foreign agent collecting data on Russian citizens. But the real reason was to punish Israel. “Legal issues like these have been cleared up quietly and without making headlines in the past,” a senior Israeli official told the Economist. The eventual closure of the Jewish Agency is now a foregone conclusion. As my father-in-law recently noted, “There is a fear today that the Iron Curtain will close completely, and that one day it will become impossible to leave Russia at all.” The collateral damage will be Russian Jews—not the Roman Abramovich’s of the world but countless, often very poor students, parents and grandparents.

For two decades, the Russian president has cultivated an image of himself as the philosemite-in-chief. Say what you will about Vladimir Putin, he was supposedly the best Russian leader the Jews ever had. There was a reason for this: As long as you had the Jews in your corner, you couldn’t be a fascist. And being anti-fascist was central to the story that the Soviets, and now the Russians, tell about themselves. (Just ask anyone who’s spent Victory Day in Moscow.) It masked Russia’s own, darker, fascistic impulses—which we are now seeing play out in Ukraine.

But now the charade is up. Putin has revealed himself to be not so different from his predecessors, and the echo of Russian antisemitism is no longer an echo. 

In May, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov insisted that Hitler had “Jewish blood.” In June, television anchor Vladimir Solovyev took to Russia’s Channel 1, which is really a Kremlin media organ, to warn of Russian-speaking “traitors” who “have some relation to the Jewish people.” “You sold out our people long ago, when you decided to serve those who are reviving Nazi ideas in Europe,” Solovyev said. 

Just a few weeks later, the Jewish Agency was informed of its closure, and late last month, Russia’s leading Jewish intellectual dissidents—Yevgenia Albats, Dmitry Aleshkovsky, and Dmitry Bykov—were declared to be foreign agents.

All of this—the purge of the intellectuals, the state-sanctioned insinuations of Jewish treachery, and now the closing of the Jewish Agency—are in keeping with the old Soviet model. The only unanswered question is how much Russian Jews will suffer. 

It is also a reminder, in case one was needed, of why the Jewish state exists in the first place.

It was easy, until not so long ago, to forget. It’s been decades since Jews had to be airlifted to safety en masse, to say nothing of death camps or pogroms or ghettos. It seemed that we were living in a more enlightened era—one in which one could always book a flight and wake up in Tel Aviv. An era in which Israel is a military and technological powerhouse. 

It was also easy to forget that, at its core, Israel was and is not simply a Jewish home but a Jewish haven. That the privilege of Jews in safer, more democratic climes—Jews who claim, like Soviet-Jewish apologists once did, that Israel doesn’t have anything to do with their lives, that the Jewish state doesn’t represent their values—is a privilege Russian Jews would be lucky to enjoy.


No One Like You – Everyone Like You

Many people struggle with the question: Why is there so much evil and suffering in the world? Just as perplexing is the opposite question: Why is there so much joy and wonder in the world? As the Bible teaches that all have sinned and stand under God’s judgment (Rom. 3:23), this second question is actually more difficult.

How great are you, Sovereign LORD! There is no one like you, and there is no God but you.2 Samuel 7:22

David had initially asked to build a temple for the Lord. God did not allow David to do this. Instead, that task would fall to David’s son. God also made some stunning promises in response to David’s request. He promised that David’s line would endure forever (2 Sam. 7:16), a promise that foreshadowed the coming Messiah, Jesus.

David’s initial response was to go to the tabernacle and sit (v. 18). Author and theologian Eugene Peterson observes, “This may be the most critical act that David ever does. …He takes himself out of the driver’s seat and deliberately places himself prayerfully before God the king.” David is filled with wonder and awe, “Who am I, Sovereign LORD, and what is my family, that you have brought me this far?” (v. 18). The humility and gratitude modeled here by David are appropriate responses for those who experience God’s grace.

David not only had been humbled by this experience, his view of God had also been enlarged. He boldly proclaims, “There is no one like you, and there is no God but you” (v. 22). God was powerful enough to redeem Israel from Egypt. He was powerful enough to keep the promise He made to David.

David’s prayer shows us where hope comes from. It comes not from a belief in our own competency or worth, but from trusting the promises of an all-powerful and all-knowing God. Based on God’s promises, David can boldly approach God in joyful worship (v. 27). Take a few moments and reflect on how you have seen God’s grace in your life.


The Sign of Jonah

The phrase “sign of Jonah” was used by Jesus as a typological metaphor for His future crucifixion, burial, and resurrection. Jesus answered with this expression when asked by the Pharisees for miraculous proof that He was indeed the Messiah. The Pharisees remained unconvinced of Jesus’ claims about Himself, despite His having just cured a demon-possessed man who was both blind and mute. Shortly after the Pharisees accused Jesus of driving out demons by the power of Satan, they said to Him, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from you.” He answered, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now something greater than Jonah is here” (Matthew 12:38–41).

To fully appreciate the answer that Jesus gave, we must go to the Old Testament book of Jonah. In its first chapter, we read that God commanded the prophet Jonah to go to the city of Nineveh and warn its people that He was going to destroy it for its wickedness. Jonah disobediently ran from the Lord and headed for the city of Tarshish by boat. The Lord then sent a severe storm that caused the crew of the ship to fear for their lives. Jonah was soon thrown overboard and swallowed by a great fish where he remained for “three days and three nights” (Jonah 1:15–17). After the three-day period, the Lord caused the great fish to vomit Jonah out onto dry land (Jonah 2:10).

It is this three days that Jesus was referring to when He spoke of the sign of Jonah. Jesus had already been producing miracles that were witnessed by many. Jesus had just performed a great sign in the Pharisees’ presence by healing a deaf man who was possessed of a demon. Rather than believe, they accused Jesus of doing this by the power of Satan. Jesus recognized their hardness of heart and refused to give them further proof of His identity. However, He did say that there would be one further sign forthcoming, His resurrection from the dead. This would be their final opportunity to be convinced.

Jesus’ paralleling of the Pharisees with the people of Nineveh is telling. The people of Nineveh repented of their evil ways (Jonah 3:4–10) after hearing Jonah’s call for repentance, while the Pharisees continued in their unbelief despite being eyewitnesses to the miracles of Jesus. Jesus was telling the Pharisees that they were culpable for their unbelief, given the conversion of the people of Nineveh, sinners who had received far less evidence than the Pharisees themselves had witnessed.

But what are we to make of the phrase “three days and three nights”? Was Jesus saying that He would be dead for three full 24-hour periods before He would rise from the dead? It does not appear so. The phrase “three days and three nights” need not refer to a literal 72-hour period. Rather, according to the Hebrew reckoning of time, the days could refer to three days in part or in whole. Jesus was probably crucified on a Friday (Mark 15:42). According to the standard reckoning, Jesus died at about 3:00 PM (Matthew 27:46) on Friday (day 1). He remained dead for all of Saturday (day 2) and rose from the dead early on Sunday morning (day 3). Attempts to place Jesus’ death on Wednesday to accommodate a literal 72-hour period are probably unnecessary once we take into account the Hebrew method of reckoning of each day as beginning at sundown. So it seems that the expression “three days and three nights” was used as a figure of speech meant to signify any part of three days.

God would often use signs (or miracles) in the Bible to authenticate His chosen messenger. The Lord provided Moses with several miraculous signs in order to prove to others that he was appointed by God (Exodus 4:5–9; 7:8–10;19-20). God sent down fire on Elijah’s altar during Elijah’s contest with the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18:36–39). He performed this miracle to prove that the God of Israel was the one true God. Jesus Himself would perform many miracles (or “signs”) to demonstrate His power over nature (Matthew 4:23; Mark 6:30–44; Luke 8:22–24; John 6:16–24). The “sign of Jonah” would turn out to be Jesus’ greatest miracle of all. Jesus’ resurrection from the dead would be God’s chief sign that Jesus was Israel’s long-awaited Messiah (Acts 2:23–32) and establish Christ’s claims to deity (Romans 1:3–4).

When You Can’t Escape

Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish. So he paid the fare and went down into it, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord. Jonah 1:3

The course of disobedience is always a downward trajectory—that is, until God intervenes.

In Jonah’s haste to flee from the Lord’s command to preach a message of repentance to the Ninevites, he went “down to Joppa,” “down into” the ship, and “down to the land whose bars closed upon” him in the belly of the great fish (Jonah 2:6, emphasis added).

When Jonah was fast asleep below the ship’s deck, trying to flee from God, “the LORD hurled a great wind upon the sea … so that the ship threatened to break up” (1:4). Yet in the midst of a raging tempest and the feverish activity of sailors who were shouting, crying, praying, and hurling things into the water, Jonah slept on.

How could Jonah possibly have been so exhausted? Surely he was physically and spiritually worn out by his decision to run away from God. While disobedience may be exhilarating in the moment—while it may provide a momentary buzz—it is always exhausting in the end. It is hard to kick against the goads (Acts 26:14). There can hardly be found a more miserable or disconsolate sleep than that which follows our rebellion against a word from God and the ensuing desire to hide from anyone and everyone by retreating to the privacy of our bed.

Jonah wanted God to leave him alone. God, however, was too merciful to do so. So He sent a storm, and the storm sent the captain of the ship to find Jonah and rouse him. The captain used the same word God had previously spoken to call Jonah to preach: “Arise, call out to your god!” (Jonah 1:6, emphasis added; compare 1:2).

Here, then, is a picture of great reluctance—not only Jonah’s reluctance to do what he’s told but God’s reluctance to leave His servant in the dejection and misery of his sin. The three days Jonah would soon spend in the belly of the great fish further testify to this truth about God. Although Jonah’s rebellion merited punishment, God would soon rescue Jonah from perishing at sea and restore him in order that he would preach judgment and mercy to the people of Nineveh.

God comes to us again and again in our disobedience, unwilling to let us wallow in our sin. Even if we put our fingers in our ears and pretend not to hear Him, and even if we flat-out refuse to obey, God pursues His wandering children. He loves us so much that He doesn’t want to leave us to our own devices. In our sin, we cannot outrun the mercy of God, the one who will never leave us or forsake us.


The Green Sickness

Shakespeare called it “the green sickness.” Bacon admitted “it has no holidays.” Horace declared that “tyrants never invented a greater torment.” Barrie said envy “is the most corroding of the vices.” Sheridan referred to it in his play The Critic when he wrote, “There is not a passion so strongly rooted in the human heart as this.” Philip Bailey, the eloquent English poet of yesteryear, vividly described it as “a coal [that] comes hissing hot from hell.”

And speaking of hell, no one has done a better job of portraying envy than Dante. In his Purgatory, you may recall, the envious sit like blind beggars by a wall. Their eyelids are sewed shut. The symbolism is apt, showing the reader that it is one of the blindest sins—partly because it is unreasonable, partly because the envious person is sewed up in himself. Swollen with poisonous thoughts. In a dark, constricting world of almost unendurable self-imposed anguish.

Envy in Scripture? Look at the facts. It sold Joseph into slavery, drove David into exile, threw Daniel in the den, and put Christ on trial. (If you question that, better check Matthew 27:18.) Paul tells us that it’s one of the prevailing traits of depravity (Romans 1:29) and a team member that plays in the same backfield with profanity, suspicion, and conceit (1 Timothy 6:4).

The answer? Contentment. Feeling comfortable and secure with where you are and who you are. Not having to “be better” or “go further” or “own more” or “prove to the world” or “reach the top” or . . .

Having some big struggles with envy? Eating your heart out because somebody’s a step or two ahead of you in the race and gaining momentum? Relax. You are you—not them! And you are responsible to do the best you can with what you’ve got for as long as you’re able.

Remember, the race isn’t over. And even when it is, a lot of things you got hot and bothered about during your lifetime won’t even show up in eternity. I don’t care how many trophies or awards or dollars or degrees may be earned or won on earth, you can’t take ’em with you. So it isn’t worth the sweat. Death always cures “the green sickness.”


Is COVID a Punishment

“Material things are so vulnerable to the humiliation of decay,”writes Marilynne Robinson in her novel Gilead. These are profoundly true words which hit home when we remember that our bodies are “material things.”Our bodies are always subject to the humbling effects of decay and destruction. These effects can happen slowly as we age or in a moment from a simple mistake. Car accidents, falling down, cancer, a tornado, any of these and more could ravage or even take away our lives. Life is so fragile.

As I write these words COVID-19 has swept across the globe. This pandemic is a visceral reminder that as humans we are all vulnerable to sickness and ultimately to death.

What is God doing about all of this? If we are so weak and vulnerable and God is all-powerful, why isn’t he stopping the virus and sparing lives? Wouldn’t God want to put an end to the pandemic if he was really good? COVID-19 raises these and many similarly heart-wrenching questions. There are no easy answers to these questions. Until Christ comes again, there are no complete answers. However, there are answers to questions about God’s character and purpose in the face of sickness, suffering and evil. One of the most thorough and ancient answers comes to us in the form of a story. The Bible tells us a tale about a man named Job, a man who experienced great personal loss, suffering, and sickness. Throughout the narrative he wrestles to understand why he suffers as he does. In the story Job is offered three different answers.

Answer 1: You’re a Sinner or God Isn’t Just

Job’s entire family, apart from his wife, died. His home and wealth were lost and his health was stripped away. After all this he was visited by friends. Their perspective on Job’s suffering was straightforward. God is just; he rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked. If Job is suffering, his friends conclude that God must be punishing Job for some unrighteousness. A large portion of the story of Job consists of his three friends putting forth variations of this argument to him. Job continually replied that he has not sinned and there is no reason for God to be punishing him with such awful suffering. Job’s assertions entail one of two things. Either Job is lying and has sinned but won’t admit it, or God is unjustly punishing Job. Job insists it can be neither of these things, yet he still does not know why he is suffering. Job and his friends are at something of a standstill over this question until another friend, a younger man, chimes in.

Answer 2: God Is Disciplining You

Elihu was sitting silently as Job talked with his three friends. Elihu, out of respect as the younger man, had held his tongue as long as he could. Finally, full of anger, he spoke up. Elihu argued that Job and his three other friends were missing the point. They were debating whether or not God was justly punishing Job for sin when they should have understood that God was discipling Job so that he would grow in righteousness and holiness. Elihu said that God,

Opens the ears of men and terrifies them with warnings, that he may turn man aside from his deed and conceal pride from a man; he keeps back his soul from the pit, his life from perishing by the sword. Man is also rebuked with pain on his bed and with continual strife in his bones. (Job 33:16—19)

The difference between punishment and discipline is significant. A judge renders a punishment with impartial justice. A just punishment fits the crime, either bringing retribution or restitution for a wrong committed. In contrast, a parent disciplines. Discipline is meant to correct, guide, and teach. Its goal is ultimately greater than the retribution or restitution. The goal of discipline is the sanctification of the one being disciplined. As the author of Hebrews writes, “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it”(Heb. 12:11). Thus, discipline is consistent with and even required by goodness and love. Elihu’s answer is full of truth and it shows us that Job’s suffering as a righteous man does not contradict God’s goodness. However, it is not the final and ultimate answer that Job receives.

Answer 3: Trust God

Elihu’s answer paves the way for the next speaker: God himself. We read,

Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind and said: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Dress for action like a man; I will question you, and you make it known to me.”(Job 38:1—3)

This must have been terrifying. Rather than provide a further answer or clarification to the questions and issues Job raised, God asks Job a series of questions. Each question is designed to drive home God’s greatness and power as creator as well as his goodness and righteousness. After this barrage Job can only repent of his presumption to question God’s power and goodness (Job 42:1—6). He has learned what God wants each of us to do when we experience sickness, sin, and death. God wants us to trust him.

Behind the Curtain

At the very beginning of Job the reader gets a peek “behind the curtain,”a benefit that Job and his friends don’t have the benefit of. We get to see that all the evil, tragedy, and suffering that befalls Job happens because God has allowed Satan to do it. Job doesn’t know this. When we suffer, like Job, we do not know the reasons. This does not mean, however, that they don’t exist. The story of Job teaches us that God is sovereign over all; no suffering or evil event happens that he has not permitted. He has his purposes, for his glory. God wants us to trust him and trust that he is good even when we don’t understand why he allows the things he does. We are to trust that he can bring all things together for the good of those who love him (Rom. 8:28).

At the end of the book of Job we see a picture of the future glory that all Christians have to look forward to. Job’s fortunes were restored, in fact he was even more prosperous than before. This points us to the eternal hope that all Christians have. One day we will be resurrected, like our Savior Christ, to live with God forever in a new heavens and earth. Every sickness will be eradicated, every injustice righted, every tear wiped away, and death itself will be no more! Until the day that our faith becomes sight, God calls us to trust him, in every circumstance he allows us to go through.


Job Could Take It No Longer

Where does Job’s hope lie, and where does our own?

Pause for a moment to reflect back on one of your darkest times. Perhaps you tossed and turned for sleepless nights, futilely attempting to unravel the tangled web created by bad decisions. Perhaps you agonized over a bitter and angry child. Perhaps physical pain incessantly pierced and jabbed at you. Perhaps… Perhaps. No matter what our individual calamities, each one of us has been (or will someday be) there with Job, drained of strength and courage to face even the next hour. Where can we turn? Where can we place our hope? And how?

We may have to venture outside Job chapters 13 and 14 to knit together those slender strands that constitute hope, especially in the midst of the unrelenting pain that chews away at every part of our lives. At this point in his terrible journey, Job contrasted human hope (quite unfavorably) to a chopped down tree. Even though the tree had been destroyed, it sprouted again when watered—not so, with those who sleep in death (14:7–12). With great courage, Job had previously declared that he was prepared to defend himself before God, knowing full well that no godless person could stand in His presence (13:15–16). But like most of our courageous statements, Job’s expectations faded almost as quickly as he spoke them. He was back in the gloom of his torment and suffering. For Job, the steady and irreversible disintegration of mountains and rock in the natural world were a fitting metaphor for the erosion of his hope (14:18–19).

Of course, that is not the end of Job’s story—or ours. We affirm with saints through the ages that our faithful God does restore our lives and comfort us in our pain (Psalm 71:20–21). We believe we will be carried through the deep waters and the ravaging fire (Isaiah 43:1–2). We hold fast to the hope that Jesus is the resurrection and the life (John 11:25–26). And we believe God has the power to do all He’s promised to do (Romans 4:20–24). This means that if we are in Christ Jesus, we have crossed over from death to life—even now! (John 5:24–25). Did you catch that? It’s a truth worth repeating, this time with the apostle Paul’s words, who tells us that right now, this very moment, we are seated in the heavenly realms with Jesus (Ephesians 2:6).

How do we respond? I confess I’m tempted to be a bit skeptical from time to time. You too? Thankfully, there is another path on which to set out at this point. Even from the crucible of our suffering and discouragement, we can take up the mantle of the psalmist. We have the privilege of declaring God’s goodness, of proclaiming the richness of God’s immeasurable and precious grace, and of being increasingly thankful (Psalm 71:14–18). Gratitude trumps grumpiness—every time, in all circumstances. The Apostle Paul affirmed that as well, saying, “Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:18).

Mary of Magdala

He appeared first to Mary Magdalene, from whom he had cast out seven demons. Mark 16:9

Mary of Magdala was the victim of a fearful evil. She was possessed not just by one demon, but by seven. These dreadful inmates caused much pain and pollution to the poor frame in which they had found a lodging. Hers was a hopeless, horrible case. She could not help herself, and no human power could set her free. But Jesus passed that way, and without being asked and probably while being resisted by the poor demoniac, He uttered the word of power, and Mary of Magdala became a trophy of the healing power of Jesus. All seven demons left her, left her never to return, forcibly ejected by the Lord of all.

What a blessed deliverance! What a happy change! From delirium to delight, from despair to peace, from hell to heaven! Immediately she became a constant follower of Jesus, listening to His every word, following His winding steps, sharing His busy life; and in all this she became His generous helper, first among that band of healed and grateful women who ministered to Him out of their means. When Jesus was lifted up in crucifixion, Mary remained the sharer of His shame: We find her first watching from a distance and then drawing near to the foot of the cross. She could not die on the cross with Jesus, but she stood as near to it as she could, and when His blessed body was taken down, she watched to see how and where it was laid.

She was the faithful and watchful believer, last at the sepulcher where Jesus slept, first at the grave where He arose. Her loyalty and love made her a favored beholder of her beloved Master, who deigned to call her by her name and to make her His messenger of good news to the trembling disciples and Peter. Grace found her useless and made her useful, cast out her demons and gave her to behold angels, delivered her from Satan and united her forever to the Lord Jesus. May we also be such miracles of grace!


If You Were the Only Christian

If I was the world’s only Christian, I might easily lose confidence in my faith. Can it really be true if I am the only one who believes it? Similarly, if I was the only kind of Christian—if all the world’s Christians were the same age as me or the same race or the same nationality—I might also lose confidence. Can it really be true if only one demographic affirms it while the great majority reject it? Can it be the true faith if it is the faith of just one kind of person?

But I need not fear, for the wonderful fact is that the Christian church is as diverse as the world itself. And this is a source of deep blessing and a reason for great confidence.

I find it a tremendous encouragement to know there are some Christians who have towering intellects, who have grappled deeply with the evidences for the faith, and who have come to believe and embrace it all. I find it an equal encouragement to know there are some who have very simple intellects, who have little ability to grapple with even the least evidences for the faith, but who, in their simplicity, believe and embrace it just the same.

It blesses me to know there are some whose faith is well-established and mature, who have endured many trials and weathered many storms. Yet through it all, their love for God and their confidence in his purposes has remained fixed and constant—strengthened, even, through long perseverance. It blesses me equally to know there are some whose faith is young and fresh, who have only just turned away from a life of rebellion to submit to Christ’s rule—people whose hair is practically still wet from the water of their baptism. Their faith is as yet untested, but every bit as true.

It moves me to know there are some who grew up in a Western context, who were immersed in its worldview, yet who found it all unsatisfying—so very unsatisfying that they could be content only by embracing Christ. It moves me equally to know there are some who grew up in a non-Western context, who were immersed in worldviews that were completely different, yet who found those every bit as unsatisfying. Whether from West or East, North or South, here or there, they turned to the same Savior and were bound together in the same family.

It inspires me to know there are some Christians who bowed the knee to King Jesus when they were old, when they were approaching their final years or final days. After a lifetime of running away, they finally ran toward the lover of their souls. It inspires me equally to know there are some Christians who bowed the knee to King Jesus when they were young—too young to understand very much, but still old enough to express their childlike faith by submitting their lives to the Lord.

It gives me confidence to know there are some Christians who are fantastically wealthy and some who are extremely poor, but that both have entrusted themselves to the same Savior. It warms my heart to know there are some Christians who have received the finest education this world can offer and some who have received no formal education at all, but that both are children of the same Father. It brings great joy to know there are some Christians whose skin is the deepest of all hues and some whose is the lightest, yet that all are members of the same family.

If I was the world’s only Christian, or the world’s only kind of Christian, I would have good reason to question my faith and to doubt its validity. But it’s beautifully and wonderfully true that our God is the God of all kinds of people and that he is building a kingdom of young and old, great and poor, black and white, wise and simple, famous and unknown. He is building a kingdom that transcends all distinctions and all boundaries so together—from a multitude of people in a multitude of places and in a multitude of voices, we can bring praise to the one name that is above all names.


Not So Fast

Have you ever heard Christians talk about building the kingdom? It is interesting, though, that the Bible never uses such language. The Bible talks about waiting for the kingdom, seeking it, inheriting it, and receiving it. The gospel is what God has done for us, not what we do for God.

Unless the LORD builds the house, the builders labor in vain. Psalm 127:1

David had reached the pinnacle of his career. Israel was united. David had a new capital city and peace from his enemies (v. 1), so his thoughts turned to what he could do for God. He told the prophet Nathan of his desire to build a temple (v. 2). Nathan immediately gave him a divine building permit without stopping to pray (v. 3). Sometimes what we want to do seems so natural and right that prayer does not seem necessary.

But God came to Nathan that evening with a message for David. He withdrew the building permit. He had not asked for a house. He certainly did not need a leader that he appointed to build him one (v. 7). God reminded David of how He had taken him from a shepherd boy to the kingship (v. 8). David had success because of God (v. 9). God made three significant promises to David. First, God would make David’s name great (v. 9). This is language from God’s covenant with Abraham (Gen. 12:1–3). God’s promise to Abraham would be fulfilled through David and his descendants.

Second, God would give David a dynasty. His offspring would rule after him and build a temple (2 Sam. 7:13). David’s dynasty would endure forever (v. 16). If a son of David sinned, he would be judged; but God would not ultimately reject David’s line. This last promise provided hope for a future Davidic king, the Messiah, a promise fulfilled in Jesus (Luke 1:31–33; Acts 2:30–36; Rom.1:3).

Do your plans sometimes get ahead of God’s will for you? Tonight, take your plans to God in prayer. Hold them with an open hand and be willing to follow God’s lead.


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