Consolation in the Beginning

Please join me in prayer:

O God, bless to us what we learn during this conference, that we may bring forth in our lives the fruits of Christian truth and love. Confirm us in our renewed resolve to love thee more and serve thee better; and may thy Spirit so move us that henceforth it may be the work of our lives to obey thee, the joy of our souls to please thee, and, at the last, the fulfillment of all our desires to dwell with thee in thy holy and everlasting kingdom; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

I’m honored and grateful to be here tonight to speak to you about the topic of everlasting consolation and good hope through grace. It is only fitting that we begin this first session by reading our theme verses for this year. Hear the word of the Lord from 2 Thessalonians 2:15-17:

Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle. Now our Lord Jesus Christ Himself, and God, even our Father, which hath loved us, and hath given us everlasting consolation and good hope through grace, comfort your hearts, and stablish you in every good word and work.

This past Sunday morning, the priest at St. James Anglican Church in Memphis, TN, led the congregation in a beautiful service of Holy Communion. Not only did Father Keith read the liturgy flawlessly, he also delivered a biblically sound sermon in which he reminded us to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, and mind, and our neighbor as ourselves. This sermon blessed everyone who heard it and equipped us to serve Christ better in our daily lives and to show compassion to each other. Throughout the service, Father Keith’s voice and his manner perfectly reflected the love, tenderness, peace, and joy of Christ.

I’m sure by now you’re all thinking, “That’s all very nice, but isn’t that just what you would expect of him? Isn’t he always a good priest?” Well, yes, as a matter of fact, he is an excellent priest and a faithful servant of God. But here is what was so remarkable about this past Sunday morning. Only nine days earlier, Father Keith had lost his father after a long battle with heart disease. This sorrow by itself might have been enough to keep him from concentrating on the service. Yet on the same morning that his father died, Father Keith’s sister, who had been hospitalized due to complications from cancer, broke her thighbone and required surgery to repair her leg. Her condition that morning was so serious that she was not told about her father’s death until much later.

With such grim news weighing on their minds and hearts, Father Keith and his wife traveled to Frostburg, Maryland, to attend his father’s funeral and to visit his sister in the hospital. They were away from home almost a week, returning to Memphis last Thursday. Then shortly before the Sunday service, Father Keith received the sad news that his sister’s condition had grown worse and she was near death.

That was the situation in which Father Keith found himself on Sunday morning. When making the announcements before the service, he warned us that he might become emotional during the service, and asked us to bear with him if he did. Yet throughout that morning of grief upon grief, travel weariness, concern for his beloved sister, and sorrow at the loss of his father, Father Keith served his flock admirably, like the good and faithful shepherd that he is.

I can only conclude that what we saw at St. James last Sunday was everlasting consolation and good hope in action. Only through the power of the Holy Spirit, the God-sent Comforter, was Father Keith able to continue in every good word and work, despite such devastating circumstances. There is always something beautiful and holy about witnessing sheer grace displayed in the face of human sorrow. It feels almost like being part of a miracle.

If you have already begun studying the devotional book in your parishes as we did last Saturday, then you know that the book is a topical study of St. Paul’s letters to the church at Thessalonica. The content of the book is based on a much shorter study that I wrote for Advent several years ago. As I began writing the book and searching prayerfully for a theme verse for us to use for this year, I read through both epistles multiple times, marking passages that I felt summarized St. Paul’s message to the church at Thessalonica. However, I kept coming back to this passage, and I eventually realized that the powerful message of everlasting consolation and good hope through grace is not just the heart of these two epistles but is the very heart of the Gospel.

The message of our theme passage is that the Triune God has lovingly lifted us out of our fallen state and accepted us into His family, the Church. He has restored us not only to life itself but also to meaning and purpose—more precisely, he has restored to us His purpose. He has brought us into the self-perpetuating charge of the Great Commission, which is to go into all the world and make disciples, who will then repeat the process of making disciples so that the Kingdom of God will spread throughout the earth. Our high calling is to fill this fallen world with His story and to reflect His glory. This is how He answers the prayer that Jesus gave us for God’s Kingdom to come and His will to be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Now, one thing is sure: this world will be filled with His glory. We know this from Numbers 14:21, where we read, “As truly as I live, all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the Lord,” and from Habakkuk 2:14, “For the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.” But how blessed we are that He has called us into His family and allowed us to share in this purpose! How blessed we are that He has given us everlasting consolation to comfort our hearts and establish us in every good word and work so that we might do His will! How blessed we were at St. James last Sunday to see our priest live out a radiant example of the consolation and hope that God the Father gives us through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Father Keith was able to press joyfully onward not by denying reality or by ignoring his pain but by clinging to a present reality than is greater than death and the grave.

But sadly, this message has not always been plainly taught. I grew up in a church where my pastors emphasized the delights we would have in heaven in the sweet by and by, but their teaching did not fully equip us for the task of joyfully building God’s kingdom in the often bitter here and now.  It is most certainly a consolation that our loved ones who have died in Jesus are safe in Him. It is also a consolation that we will see them again when we pass from this life. And it is certainly a consolation that Jesus will return someday to make all things new.

But we must not spend so much of our time dwelling on a future day that we ignore our kingdom duties now. Having the sure and certain hope that “the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God” (1 Thessalonians 4:16) in the Great Day of Resurrection is only a portion of the great blessing our Lord has given us in salvation. That good hope is accompanied by everlasting consolation, or more specifically, by the comforting presence of the Holy Spirit, who enables us to pursue our responsibilities in fulfilling the Great Commission, even while our bodies are crumbling, and even while our hearts are breaking. For “though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day” (2 Corinthians 4:16).

This weekend, we will explore the connections between our theme passage and other passages in both the Old and New Testaments that shed light on everlasting consolation and good hope through grace. In so doing, we will have a better understanding of how St. Paul’s message to the church at Thessalonica fits into the larger setting of the history of redemption, which he calls “the traditions” that have been taught by God’s messengers and canonized as Scripture.

Let’s begin our look of the history of redemption with the sixth day of creation. Genesis 1 provides a brief overview of creation, in which the creation of mankind is summarized in verses 26 through 29. The previous creative acts that resulted in the sun, moon, and stars; in oceans filled with fish; in forests filled with trees and all manner of plants; and finally, in the variety of animals which sprang forth from the earth—all of those wonderful creatures had been made in preparation for the pinnacle of creation, when God created Adam out of the dust of the ground, making Him in His own image. For every form of fish, fowl, and furry creature, God created them male and female. Yet when it came to creating Adam and Eve, His method was so radically different that it would do well for us to explore it in depth.

We read in Genesis 2:7 that Adam was created first:

And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.

Then God planted a beautiful garden for Adam and gave him instructions about the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The Lord then declared that “it is not good that the man should be alone” (Genesis 2:18). He began showing Adam all of the animals and allowing him to name them to demonstrate the dominion that he had been given over them. And as Adam surveyed every member of the animal kingdom, one thing became very clear to him. While each type of animal came to Adam as a set of a male and a female, not one of these fine creatures was an appropriate companion for him. Not even man’s “best friend.” Adam had been given the immense task of tending the garden of Eden for the glory of God, yet there was no helper suitable for him.

Adam was alone. More specifically, Adam was unique, having no counterpart in all the world. So the Lord God provided Adam with the companionship of a woman.

In much the same way as a deep sleep would later fall on Abram when God cut a covenant with him, God caused a deep sleep to fall on Adam. He took one of Adam’s own ribs and formed the first woman. She was not formed from the dust of the ground; instead, she was formed as bone of Adam’s bone and flesh of Adam’s flesh. Though they were separate people, Eve was integrally and intimately connected to Adam through the mystery of creation. Then through the mystery of marriage, the two became one again.

And then God gave them a commandment that was related to their being made in His image. He delegated to them authority over His creation. They were to serve as God’s vice-regents.

And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moves upon the earth. (Genesis 1:28)
Note that His pronouncement to Adam was almost word-for-word the same as the intra-Trinitarian purpose that he expressed in Genesis 1:26.

Furthermore, Adam and Eve were to function together to accomplish the purpose of God. Neither of them was to have a personal agenda that was in competition with the other or with God. Together they were to seek the will of God and to accomplish and delight in His purpose. They were to enjoy unbroken communion with each other and together with their Creator, who walked with them “in the cool of the day” (Genesis 3:8). They were given meaningful work to do, and they were to act as God’s agents because they were made in His image.

This describes the blissful life we would have enjoyed if sin had not been introduced into this world.

Although the whole universe bears the mark of its Creator, only mankind was made expressly in His likeness, and only into mankind did God breathe His life. We don’t have time to consider all that it means to be made in God’s image, but there is one characteristic that will help us understand the tragedy of what Adam and Eve lost for us all. Among the three Persons of the Godhead, there is absolutely no conflict; there is only perfect harmony and singularity of purpose. The Son came to earth to fulfill His Father’s will, and the Holy Spirit was sent to guide us into all truth, that truth being the Word of God. That is why we may confidently reject the word of anyone who says that the Spirit is doing a new thing, when that “new thing” has nothing to do with the Father’s revealed will, does not follow the example of the Living Word, and blatantly contradicts the written Word. God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit are three separate Persons but they are singular in their goals. Similarly, Adam and Eve enjoyed that harmony between each other and communion with God every moment of their lives until Eve listened to the serpent and Adam failed to intervene.

The serpent’s well-crafted words caused Eve to believe that if she continued to pursue the purpose that God had given her and if she continued to obey His commandment, she would never be able to live up to her own potential. In Genesis 3:5, we read that the serpent told Adam and Eve that they would be as gods. Forgetting that she already bore the image of God and that her life and every blessing in it had been God’s gift to her, Eve developed a three-point thesis to justify her disobedience:

  1. the tree was good for food,
  2. it was pleasant to the eyes, and
  3. it was a tree to be desired to make one wise

And in eating the forbidden fruit, Adam and Eve put themselves at cross-purposes with God. In the place of perfect communion and shared purpose they introduced conflict—between each other and between themselves and God. Spiritual warfare was now a painful reality. That is the real tragedy of the Fall. That is the nature of mankind’s ruin. Our only hope is to live in the presence of God and to share in His purpose, yet our rebellion disqualifies us from either of those blessings, apart from grace. Isaiah 48:18 says, “If only you had paid attention to my commands, your peace would have been like a river, your well-being like the waves of the sea.”

But as we read in Genesis 3:15, part of God’s gracious promise is that He would send a Man, the better Adam, who would end all conflict by crushing the head of the serpent. How gracious it is for Christ to have given us everlasting consolation and good hope when He reconciles us to Himself!

Two events from the life of Jesus—one at the beginning of His ministry and the other at the end of it—show exactly how He is that better Adam, the serpent slayer who has come to fulfil God’s promises and restore mankind to Communion with Him. The first event is His temptation in the wilderness. Just as the serpent had offered Eve something that was already hers—to be like God—Satan offered Jesus what He already had: authority over the whole world. But unlike Eve, Jesus was not fooled, nor did He turn aside from the purpose for which He was sent.

The second event is the prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, in which the Second Person of the Trinity was in perfect harmony with the Father and the Spirit when he asked God three times to take away the cup of suffering, if at all possible, but concluded by saying, “Nevertheless not my will but thine be done” (Luke 22:42). In His human nature, Jesus would certainly have preferred not to suffer, but His divine nature would not deviate from the perfect will of God. As the Second Adam, He has put right what had gone terribly wrong, and He did so by submitting to His Father’s will.

You and I as fallen creatures can be restored to the image of God only through the work of the sinless Christ. That restoration occurs within the framework of the Church, which in Scripture is called both the Bride of Christ and the Body of Christ.  When His image is completely and perfectly restored in His people at the end of this age, we will be able to worship and obey Him perfectly and serve Him without any impediment.

But in the meantime, each Christian home and parish is to serve as an outpost of the restored communion that will one day be perfected, and each Christian life is to reflect the image of God in exercising stewardship over the gifts He has given us. We are to teach our children that their purpose in life is found in these words from the Westminster Catechism: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” We are to delight in His will, for in it we find life.

But for the moment, let’s return to the original Garden to see the aftermath of Adam and Eve’s rebellion:

And they heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day: and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God amongst the trees of the garden.  Then the Lord God called unto Adam, and said to him, Where art thou? (Genesis 3:8-9)

Notice that God’s established pattern did not change. He knew quite well the whereabouts of Adam and Eve. He knew quite well what they had done. But He remained the same, even though they had disobeyed His will and brought destruction upon themselves.

God’s question is both accusatory and gracious. It is accusatory in that Adam’s answer should have been, “I am in self-imposed exile because of my sin. I am outside Your will, and I am cowering as one who deserves the judgment of death that you said would come upon me.” Where was Adam? He was separated from the God who made him and loved him, and it was his own fault.

But the question is also gracious, simply because it was asked at all. God could have easily destroyed Adam and Eve without saying a word. Yet it is His property always to have mercy, as the Prayer of Humble Access states.

The question that called Adam to repentance and restoration also calls to us throughout time as perhaps the most gracious words ever spoken. What greater consolation and hope will we find than that God would seek out those who had purposely disobeyed Him, those who had doubted His goodness, those whose ingratitude brought conflict and death down upon all of creation! Yes, that call put them into judgment, but at the same time, it was intended to restore them.

As Matthew Henry observes:

This enquiry after Adam may be looked upon as a gracious pursuit, in kindness to him, and in order to his recovery. If God had not called to him, to reclaim him, his condition would have been as desperate as that of fallen angels; this lost sheep would have wandered endlessly, if the good Shepherd had not sought after him, to bring him back, and, in order to that, reminded him where he was, where he should not be, and where he could not be either happy or easy.

And this call continues to restore sinners. God’s tender call is at the center of everlasting consolation and good hope through grace. He lets us know unmistakably that as His children we are chosen for better things, redeemed with a price, and beloved by the Eternal King. May He always find us attentive to His call and faithful in pursuing His purpose.

Let us pray: Heavenly Father, give us grace to cease all selfish conflicts in our lives, to pursue Your holy purpose, and to rest in Your serene and loving presence.

 

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