Like many others, this beloved Psalm bears the simple title, A Psalm of David. Most account it to be a Psalm of David’s maturity, but with vivid remembrance of his youth as a shepherd. Spurgeon wrote, “I like to recall the fact that this Psalm was written by David, probably when he was a king. He had been a shepherd, and he was not ashamed of his former occupation.”
“It has charmed more griefs to rest than all the philosophy of the world. It has remanded to their dungeon more felon thoughts, more black doubts, more thieving sorrows, than there are sands on the sea-shore. It has comforted the noble host of the poor. It has sung courage to the army of the disappointed. It has poured balm and consolation into the heart of the sick, of captives in dungeons, of widows in their pinching griefs, of orphans in their loneliness. Dying soldiers have died easier as it was read to them; ghastly hospitals have been illuminated; it has visited the prisoner, and broken his chains, and, like Peter’s angel, led him forth in imagination, and sung him back to his home again. It has made the dying Christian slave freer than his master, and consoled those whom, dying, he left behind mourning, not so much that he was gone, as because they were left behind, and could not go too.” (Beecher, cited in Spurgeon)
“Millions of people have memorized this psalm, even those who have learned few other Scripture portions. Ministers have used it to comfort people who are going through severe personal trials, suffering illness, or dying. For some, the words of this psalm have been the last they have ever uttered in life.” (Boice)
A. The LORD as Shepherd sustains.
1. (Psa 23:1) A declaration and its immediate result.
The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
a. The LORD is my shepherd: David thought about God, the God of Israel; as he thought about his relationship with God, he made the analogy of a Shepherd and his sheep. God was like a shepherd to David, and David was like a sheep to God.
i. In one sense, this was not unusual. There are other references to this analogy between the deity and his followers in ancient Middle Eastern cultures. “In all Eastern thought, and very definitely in Biblical literature, a king is a shepherd.” (Morgan)
ii. It is also a familiar idea throughout the Bible, that the LORD is a Shepherd to His people. The idea begins as early as the Book of Genesis, where Moses called the LORD the Shepherd, the Stone of Israel (Genesis 49:24).
– In Psalm 28:9 David invited the LORD to shepherd the people of Israel, and to bear them up forever. Psalm 80:1 also looks to the LORD as the Shepherd of Israel, who would lead Joseph like a flock.
– Ecclesiastes 12:11 speaks of the words of the wise, which are like well-driven nails, given by one Shepherd.
– Isaiah 40:11 tells us that the LORD will feed His flock like a shepherd; He will gather the lambs with His arm. Micah 7:14 invites the LORD to Shepherd Your people with Your staff…As in days of old.
– In John 10:11 and 10:14 Jesus clearly spoke of Himself as the good shepherd, who gives His life for the sheep and who can say, “I know My sheep, and am known by My own.” Hebrews 13:20 speaks of Jesus as that great Shepherd of the sheep, and 1 Peter 2:25 calls Jesus the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls and 1 Peter 5:4 calls Jesus the Chief Shepherd.
– The idea of Jesus as the Good Shepherd was precious to early Christians. One of the more common motifs in catacomb paintings is Jesus as a shepherd, with a lamb carried across His shoulders.
iii. It’s remarkable that the LORD would call Himself our shepherd. “In Israel, as in other ancient societies, a shepherd’s work was considered the lowest of all works. If a family needed a shepherd, it was always the youngest son, like David, who got this unpleasant assignment….Jehovah has chosen to be our shepherd, David says. The great God of the universe has stooped to take just such care of you and me.” (Boice)
iv. “Saith Rabbi Joseph Bar Hamna, there is not a more contemptible office than that of a shepherd…But God disdaineth not to feed his flock, to guide, to govern, to defend them, to handle and heal them, to tend and take care of them.” (Trapp)
v. David knew this metaphor in a unique way, having been a shepherd himself. “David uses the most comprehensive and intimate metaphor yet encountered in the Psalms, preferring usually the more distant ‘king’ or ‘deliverer’, or the impersonal ‘rock’, ‘shield’, etc.; whereas the shepherd lives with his flock and is everything to it: guide, physician and protector.” (Kidner)
b. The LORD is my shepherd: David knew this in a personal sense. He could say, “my shepherd.” It wasn’t just that the LORD was a shepherd for others in theoretical sense; He was a real, personal shepherd for David himself.
i. “A sheep is an object of property, not a wild animal; its owner sets great store by it, and frequently it is bought with a great price. It is well to know, as certainly as David did, that we belong to the Lord. There is a noble tone of confidence about this sentence. There is no ‘if’ nor ‘but,’ nor even ‘I hope so;’ but he says, ‘The Lord is my shepherd.'” (Spurgeon)
ii. “The sweetest word of the whole is that monosyllable, ‘My.’ He does not say, ‘The Lord is the shepherd of the world at large, and leadeth forth the multitude as his flock,’ but ‘The Lord is my shepherd;’ if he be a Shepherd to no one else, he is a Shepherd to me; he cares for me, watches over me, and preserves me.” (Spurgeon)
iii. Overwhelmingly, the idea behind God’s role as shepherd is a loving care and concern. David found comfort and security in the thought that God cared for him like a shepherd cares for his sheep.
iv. David felt that he needed a shepherd. The heart of this Psalm doesn’t connect with the self-sufficient. But those who acutely sense their need – the poor in spirit Jesus described in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:2) – find great comfort in the idea that God can be a shepherd to them in a personal sense.
v. Spurgeon said that before a man can truly say, “the LORD is my shepherd” he must first feel himself to be a sheep by nature, “for he cannot know that God is his Shepherd unless he feels in himself that he has the nature of a sheep.” He must relate to a sheep in its foolishness, its dependency, and in the warped nature of its will.
vi. “A sheep, saith Aristotle, is a foolish and sluggish creature…aptest of anything to wander, though it feel no want, and unablest to return…a sheep can make no shift to save itself from tempests or inundation; there it stands and will perish, if not driven away by the shepherd.” (Trapp)
c. I shall not want: For David, the fact of God’s shepherd-like care was the end of dissatisfied need. He said, “I shall not want” both as a declaration and as a decision.
i. “I shall not want” means, “All my needs are supplied by the LORD, my shepherd.”
ii. “I shall not want” means, “I decide to not desire more than what the LORD, my shepherd gives.
He makes me to lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside the still waters.
a. He makes me to lie down: The LORD as a shepherd knew how to make David rest when he needed it, just as a literal shepherd would care for his sheep. The implication is that the sheep doesn’t always know what it needs and what is best for itself, and so needs the help from the shepherd.
i. “The loveliest image afforded by the natural world, is here represented to the imagination; that of a flock, feeding in verdant meadows, and reposing, in quietness, by the rivers of water, running gently through them.” (Horne)
b. To lie down in green pastures: The shepherd also knew the good places to make his sheep rest. He faithfully guides the sheep to green pastures.
i. Philip Keller (in A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23) writes that sheep do not lie down easily, and will not unless four conditions are met. Because they are timid they will not lie down if they are afraid. Because they are social animals they will not lie down if there is friction among the sheep. If flies or parasites trouble them they will not lie down. Finally, if sheep are anxious about food or hungry they will not lie down. Rest comes because the shepherd has dealt with fear, friction, flies, and famine.
c. He leads me beside the still waters: The shepherd knows when the sheep needs green pastures, and knows when the sheep needs the still waters. The images are rich with the sense of comfort, care, and rest.
He restores my soul; He leads me in the paths of righteousness For His name’s sake.
a. He restores my soul: The tender care of the shepherd described in the previous verse had its intended effect. David’s soul was restored by the figurative green pastures and still waters the shepherd brought him to.
i. Restores may picture the rescue of a lost one. “It may picture the straying sheep brought back, as in Isaiah 49:5, or perhaps Psalm 60:1 (Hebrew 60:3), which use the same verb, whose intransitive sense is often ‘repent’ or ‘be converted’ (eg. Hosea 14:1f.; Joel 2:12).” (Kidner)
ii. “In Hebrew the words ‘restores my soul’ can mean ‘brings me to repentance’ (or conversion).” (Boice)
iii. ” ‘He restoreth my soul.‘ He restores it to its original purity, that was now grown foul and black with sin; for also, what good were it to have ‘green‘ pastures and a black soul!” (Baker, cited in Spurgeon)
b. He leads me: The shepherd was a guide. The sheep didn’t need to know where the green pastures or still waters were; all he needed to know was where the shepherd was. The shepherd would guide the sheep to what he needed.
c.In the paths of righteousness: The leadership of the shepherd did not only comfort and restore the sheep; he also guides him into righteousness. God’s guidance of David had a moral aspect.
i. “They are thenceforth led in ‘the path of righteousness’; in the way of holy obedience. Obstructions are removed; they are strengthened, to walk and run in the paths of God’s commandments.” (Horne)
d. For His name’s sake: The shepherd guides the sheep with an overarching view to the credit and glory of the shepherd’s own name.
i. For His name’s sake: “To display the glory of his grace, and not on account of any merit in me. God’s motives of conduct towards the children of men are derived from the perfections and goodness of his own nature.” (Clarke)
2. (Psa 23:4) The gift of the Shepherd’s presence.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; For You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.
a. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death: This is the first dark note in this beautiful Psalm. Previously David wrote of green pastures and still waters and paths of righteousness. Yet when following the LORD as shepherd, one may still walk through the valley of the shadow of death.
i. David used this powerful phrase to speak of some kind of dark, fearful experience. It is an imprecise phrase, yet its poetry makes perfect sense.
– It is a valley, not a mountaintop or broad meadow. A valley suggests being hedged in and surrounded.
– It is a valley of the shadow of death, facing what seemed to David as the ultimate defeat and evil.
– It is a valley of the shadow of death; not facing the substance of death itself, but the shadow of death, casting its dark, fearful outline across David’s path.
ii. Notably, David recognized that under the shepherd’s leading he may walk through the valley of the shadow of death. It isn’t his destination or dwelling place. Like the Preacher in Ecclesiastes, David might say that all of life is lived under the shadow of death, and it is the conscious presence of the LORD as shepherd that makes it bearable.
iii. This line is especially suggestive when we read this Psalm with an eye towards Jesus, the Great Shepherd. We understand that a shadow is not tangible, but is cast by something that is. One can rightly say that we face only the shadow of death because Jesus took the full reality of death in our place.
b. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death: This line from the Psalm – and the Psalm as a whole – has proven itself precious to many a dying saint through the ages. They have been comforted, strengthened, and warmed by the thought that the LORD would shepherd them through the valley of the shadow of death.
i. Near death, the saint still calmly walks – he does not need to quicken his pace in alarm or panic. Near death, the saint does not walk in the valley, but through the valley.
ii. “Death in its substance has been removed, and only the shadow of it remains. Some one has said that when there is a shadow there must be light somewhere, and so there is. Death stands by the side of the highway in which we have to travel, and the light of heaven shining upon him throws a shadow across our path; let us then rejoice that there is a light beyond. Nobody is afraid of a shadow, for a shadow cannot stop a man’s pathway even for a moment. The shadow of a dog cannot bite; the shadow of a sword cannot kill; the shadow of death cannot destroy us.” (Spurgeon)
iii. “It has an inexpressibly delightful application to the dying; but it is for the living, too…The words are not in the future tense, and therefore are not reserved for a distant moment.” (Spurgeon)
c. I will fear no evil: Despite every dark association with the idea of the valley of the shadow of death, under the care of the LORD his shepherd, David could resolutely say this. Even in a fearful place, the presence of the shepherd banished the fear of evil.
i. We might say that the shepherd’s presence did not eliminate the presence of evil, but certainly the fear of evil.
d. For You are with me: This emphasizes that it is the presence of the shepherd that eliminated the fear of evil for His sheep. No matter his present environment, David could look to the fact of God’s shepherd-like presence and know, “You are with me” and “I will fear no evil.”
i. Significantly, it is at the dangerous moment pictured in the Psalm that the “He” of Psalm 23:1-3 changes to “You.” The LORD as Shepherd is now in the first person.
e. Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me: The rod and the staff were instruments used by a shepherd. The idea is of a sturdy walking stick, used to gently (as possible) guide the sheep and to protect from potential predators.
i. There is some debate among commentators as to if David had the idea of two separate instruments (the rod and the staff), or one instrument used two ways. The Hebrew word for rod (shaybet) here seems to simply mean “a stick” with a variety of applications. The Hebrew word for staff (mishaynaw) seems to speak of “a support” in the sense of a walking stick.
ii. Kidner notes: “The rod (a cudgel worn at the belt) and staff (to walk with, and to round up the flock) were the shepherd’s weapon and implement: the former for defence (cf. 1 Samuel 17:35), and the latter for control – since discipline is security.”
iii. Maclaren writes: “The rod and the staff seem to be two names for one instrument, which was used both to beat off predatory animals and to direct the sheep.”
iv. This instrument (or instruments) of guidance was a comfort to David. It helped him – even in the valley of the shadow of death – to know that God guided him, even through correction. It is a great comfort to know that God will correct us when needed.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You anoint my head with oil; My cup runs over.
a. You prepare a table before me: Without departing from the previous picture of the valley of the shadow of death, David envisioned the provision and goodness given by the LORD as a host, inviting David to a rich table prepared for him.
i. “Here the second allegory begins. A magnificent banquet is provided by a most liberal and benevolent host; who has not only the bounty to feed me, but power to protect me; and, though surrounded by enemies, I sit down to this table with confidence, knowing that I shall feast in perfect security.” (Clarke)
ii. David gives a beautiful picture: table suggests bounty; prepare suggests foresight and care; before me suggests the personal connection.
b. In the presence of my enemies: This is a striking phrase. The goodness and care suggested by the prepared table is set right in the midst of the presence of my enemies. The host’s care and concern doesn’t eliminate the presence of my enemies, but enables the experience of God’s goodness and bounty even in their midst.
i. “This is the condition of God’s servant – always conflict, but always a spread table.” (Maclaren)
ii. “When a soldier is in the presence of his enemies, if he eats at all he snatches a hasty meal, and away he hastens to the fight. But observe: ‘Thou preparest a table,’ just as a servant does when she unfolds the damask cloth and displays the ornaments of the feast on an ordinary peaceful occasion. Nothing is hurried, there is no confusion, no disturbance, the enemy is at the door and yet God prepares a table, and the Christian sits down and eats as if everything were in perfect peace.” (Spurgeon)
c. You anoint my head with oil; my cup runs over: Despite the dangers about and the presence of enemies, David enjoyed the richness of his host’s goodness. He was refreshed by a head anointed with oil; his cup was over-filled.
i. “Beloved, I will ask you now a question. How would it be with you if God had filled your cup in proportion to your faith? How much would you have had in your cup?” (Spurgeon)
ii. “Those that have this happiness must carry their cup upright, and see that it overflows into their poor brethren’s emptier vessels.” (Trapp)
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me All the days of my life; And I will dwell in the house of the LORD Forever.
a. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: The host’s care brought the goodness and mercy of God to David, and he lived in the faithful expectation of it continuing all the days of his life.
i. “Mercy is the covenant-word rendered ‘steadfast love’ elsewhere…Together with goodness it suggests the steady kindness and support that one can count on in the family or between firm friends.” (Kidner)
ii. “We are well escorted, with a Shepherd in front and these twin angels behind!” (Meyer)
iii. “These twin guardian angels will always be with me at my back and my beck. Just as when great princes go abroad they must not go unattended, so it is with the believer.” (Spurgeon)
b.And I will dwell in the house of the LORDforever: The Psalm ends with the calmest assurance that he would enjoy the presence of the LORD forever – both in his days on this earth and beyond.
i. “In the Old Testament world, to eat and drink at someone’s table created a bond of mutual loyalty, and could be the culminated token of a covenant…So to be God’s guest is to be more than a acquaintance, invited for a day. It is to live with Him.” (Kidner)
ii. “While I am here I will be a child at home with my God; the whole world shall be his house to me; and when I ascend into the upper chamber I shall not change my company, nor even change the house; I shall only go to dwell in the upper storey of the house of the Lord for ever.” (Spurgeon)
The Christian’s Happiness – Romans 8:28-30 by Dr. Timothy Keller
“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified” (Romans 8:28-30)
Cheer Up Christian: Your bad things turn out for good, your good things can never be lost, and the best things are yet to come.
If you’re a Christian, you know that Christianity is supposed to be about joy. You probably also know that you’re supposed to experience joy in spite of circumstances. The Bible clearly teaches that joy is available that should make us happy no matter the circumstances.
There’s a joy that the deepest trouble can’t put out and, if properly nourished and nurtured, can even overwhelm the greatest grief.
When Jesus prays to the Father in John 17:13, he prays for us—his followers. He says, I pray that “they may have the full measure of my joy within them.” One chapter before, he says to his disciples, “You will rejoice. and no one will take away your joy” (16:22). That’s pretty amazing! He’s talking to the twelve disciples, men who are going to be persecuted. They’re going to be robbed of everything they own, tortured, and put to death. Yet Jesus promises to give them a joy that will withstand all that. Nothing—not disease or persecution or alienation or loneliness or torture or even death—will be able to take it away.
I often wrestle with that concept. I have to ask myself, “Why do things affect me so much? Why is my joy not relentless?” Sometimes I wonder, “Do we have that kind of impervious joy?” I’m afraid not. I don’t think we understand the nature of this joy.
Romans 8 is all about living in a suffering world marked by brokenness. Paul talks about trouble and persecution and nakedness and poverty and how Christians are supposed to live in a world like that. In 8:28–30 he offers three principles for finding joy in suffering. Paul tells us that if we follow Christ, our bad things turn out for good, our good things cannot be lost, and our best things are yet to come. Those are the reasons for our joy.
Our bad things turn out for good
Verse 28 says: “For those loving him, God works together all things for good.”
There are three implications of this first principle.
First, this verse says that all things happen to Christians. That is, the Christian’s circumstances are no better than anybody else’s. It is extremely important for us to understand this if we’re going to experience relentless and impervious joy. Terrible things happen to people who love God. Many Christians explicitly teach—and most Christians implicitly believe—that if we love and serve God, then we will not have as many bad things happen to us. That’s not true! Horrible things can happen to us, and believing in and loving and serving God will not keep them from happening. All the same things that happen to everybody else will happen to people who love God.
“All things” means all things, in this text. In verse 35 Paul says, “What can separate us from the love of Christ? Can trouble, hardship, persecution, famine, poverty, danger, or sword?” Those are terrible things. Paul is saying all the same things that happen to everybody else will happen to us, even if we love God. It’s very important to realize that.
The second implication of this point is that when things work together in your life, it’s because of God. Notice Paul does not say, “Things work together for good.” Things never work together for good on their own. Rather, if anything good happens, it is because God is working it together. Earlier in Romans 8, Paul discusses how things fall apart because the world is burdened with evil and sin. Things are subject to decay. Everyone will eventually experience the decay of their bodies; that’s the nature of things. The little grains of sand on the beach used to be a mountain. Everything falls apart; things do not come together. This verse tells Christians to get rid of the saccharine, sentimental idea that things ought to go right, that things do go right, and that it’s normal for things to go right.
Modern, Western people believe that if things go wrong, we should sue, because things ought to go right. But Christians have to discard that idea completely. Christians have to recognize that if our health remains intact, it is simply because God is holding it up. If people love us, if someone is there to hug us or squeeze our hand, if someone loves us in spite of all our flaws—if someone loves us at all—it’s because God is bringing all things together. God is holding it up. Everything that goes well is a miracle of grace.
The third implication of this principle is the most basic: Although bad things happen, God works them for good. This verse does not promise that those who love God will have better circumstances. Nor does this verse say that bad things are actually good things. Rather, it acknowledges that these are bad things, but it promises that they’re working for good. That means God will work them to good effect in your life. The story of Jesus standing before the tomb of Lazarus is an endless source of insight for me. As he was about to raise Lazarus from the dead, Jesus was not smiling. He was angry. He was weeping. Why? Because death is a bad thing! Jesus wasn’t thinking, “They think that this is a tragedy, but no harm done! I’m about to raise him from the dead. This looks like a bad thing, but it’s not. It’s really a good thing! It’s a way for me to show my glory. It’s really exciting! I can’t wait!” He wasn’t thinking that. Jesus was weeping at the tomb, because the bad thing he’s about to work for good is bad. The story of Lazarus does not give you a saccharine view of suffering, saying bad things are really blessings in disguise or that every cloud has a silver lining. The Bible never says anything like that!
God will give bad things good effects in your life, but they’re still bad. Jesus Christ’s anger at the tomb of Lazarus proves that he hates death. He also hates loneliness, alienation, pain, and suffering. Jesus hates it all so much that he was willing to come into this world and experience it all himself, so that eventually he could destroy it without destroying us.
God will work all for good in the totality.
There’s no saccharine view in the Christian faith. The promise is not that if you love God, good things will happen in your life. The promise is not that if you love God, the bad things really aren’t bad; they’re really good things. The promise is that God will take the bad things, and he’ll work them for good in the totality.
Keep in mind that verse 28 says all things work together for good. That doesn’t mean that when something bad happens, we can decide to give God a week to show us how the situation is going to turn out for good. In fact, don’t wait a month. Don’t wait a year. Don’t wait a decade. The promise isn’t for a month or a year or a decade.
The promise is not that we will see how every bad patch in our lives works out for our good. The promise is that God will make sure that all the bad circumstances will work together for your life in its totality.
The best summary of this lesson that anybody has ever come up with is John Newton’s. He said: “Everything is necessary that he [God] sends; nothing can be necessary that he withholds.” What John Newton and Paul are saying is that if God has withheld good things—things that you think are good—they would only be good in the short run. In the long run, they would be terrible. They would be good in the partial but not in the whole. On the other hand, God will only bring bad things into your life—things God knows are bad—in order to cure you of things that can destroy you in the long run. The premise is, the things that really hurt—foolishness, pride, selfishness, hardness of heart, and the belief that you don’t need God—are the only things that can hurt you in the long run. In the short run selfishness and self-deception feel great, but in the long run they will destroy you.
Your joy will be impervious if you hold onto these three principles. Bad things will happen to you. We shouldn’t be shocked or surprised when bad things happen. One of the main reasons a lot of Christians are continually overthrown is not simply because bad things happen to them. At least half of their discouragement and despondency is due to their surprise at the bad things that happen to them. Do you see the distinction?
Fifty percent of the reason we get so despondent is that we’re shocked. We say, “This isn’t how it’s supposed to be.” We may say life should be better, but that’s not what the promise is. Or we say we love God, therefore, surely we will have more good circumstances. That’s not the promise either. Until you understand what the promise is, you’re going to be continually shocked and even overthrown.
Our good things can never be lost
The second principle in this passage is that the good things we have cannot be lost. If you’ve been a Christian for any period of time, you know that Romans 8:28 is a very famous verse. People use it all the time.
It’s what I call a “blessing box” verse. A blessing box is a collection of verses you rip out of context and recite without concern for what came before and after the verse. It feels good, so you use it. For example, people use Romans 8:28 to assure themselves that when bad things happen, then surely good things will happen.
You might think, “I didn’t get into the grad school I wanted to get into, but that’s because there’s a better grad school for me somewhere.” Or, “I didn’t marry the girl or guy I wanted to marry, but that means there’s a better one for me somewhere.” That’s not the promise.
There’s a little word between verses 28 and 29 that indicates the verses go together. The little word is for. “All things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to his purpose, for those he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed into the likeness of his Son.”
God does not promise you better life circumstances if you love him. He promises you a better life. Grad school and marriage are circumstances. We’re talking about a joy that goes beyond circumstances. How dare we interpret verse 28 as a joy that is dependent on those things! Here is an important principle: Jesus Christ did not suffer so that you would not suffer. He suffered so that when you suffer, you’ll become like him.The gospel does not promise you better life circumstances; it promises you a better life.
Romans 8:29 tells us the goal toward which all our circumstances are moving us. Paul uses the word predestined. He’s not introducing the word to confuse you—he doesn’t intend to explain the doctrine of predestination or address the issues that arise when that word is mentioned. He uses this word to comfort us. Something that is predestined is fixed. What Paul means is that if you love God, you can count on a promise that is absolutely fixed, no matter what. That’s all he’s trying to get across.
Comforted by Christ, by absolute promise.
What is it that is predestined? That we will be conformed to the image of Christ. The Greek word here is morpha, from which we get the word metamorphosis. Paul is saying that God promises to “metamorphosize” us. He promises to change our very inner essence into the very inner essence of Jesus Christ.
To be a Christian is to become passionately in love with the character of Jesus. You read about him in the Bible and are amazed by the truth and love you find in his life. You see wisdom and utter conviction. You see incredible courage, brightness, and radiance.
The good that God is moving you toward through everything that happens in your life—whether externally good or bad—is your transformation into Christ’s nature. If you love God, everything that happens in your life will mold you, sculpt you, polish you, and shape you into the image of his Son. He is making you like him. He’ll give you Christ’s incredible compassion and courage. God is working everything that happens in your life toward that magnificent goal. It’s predestined. It’s guaranteed.
One of the most astounding things in Romans 8:30 is this: “And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.”
Glorified is in the past tense. Shouldn’t Paul say, “The ones he foreknew he predestined, and justified, and will glorify”? Because the apostle is so absolutely certain that you are bound—that God is going to make you as beautiful as Jesus and give you all these incredible things—he writes of the glorification as an accomplished fact. He talks about it in the past tense because it’s as good as done. God is not going to let anything in life get between you and that goal.
You are predestined to be conformed to the image of God’s Son.
In Romans 8:29 Paul calls Christ “the firstborn among many brothers.” That means we are all sons of God. We are all adopted into the family. When Paul alludes to adoption, he’s talking about a practice that was common in the Roman world, but one that’s quite different from the way we think of adoption. In the Roman world, most people who were adopted were adults. When a wealthy man had no heir and didn’t want his estate to be broken up when he died, he would adopt an adult male, usually someone who worked for him whom he trusted. By adopting that adult male, he made him his son. The minute the legal procedure took place, their relationship was changed from formal to intimate, from temporary and conditional to permanent and unconditional. All the debts the man owed before his adoption were wiped out, and he suddenly became rich.
Being completely conformed to the likeness of God’s Son is something that we look forward to in the future, although the transformation is happening now gradually. Being adopted among many brothers is something that we have now. The minute you become a Christian, you have intimacy of relationship. You have an unconditional relationship. You become wealthy, because everything that Jesus Christ has accomplished is transferred to you. You become beautiful and spiritually rich in him.
Some people are put off by Paul’s language of adoption because it’s gender insensitive. They argue, “Wouldn’t it be better to say that we become sons and daughters of God?” It would, but that misses the whole point. Some time ago, a woman helped me understand this. She was raised in a non-Western family from a very traditional culture. There was only one son in the family, and it was understood in her culture that he would receive most of the family’s provisions and honor. In essence, they said, “He’s the son; you’re just a girl.” That’s just the way it was.
One day she was studying a passage on adoption in Paul’s writings. She suddenly realized that the apostle was making a revolutionary claim. Paul lived in a traditional culture just like she did. He was living in a place where daughters were second-class citizens. When Paul said—out of his own traditional culture—that we are all sons in Christ, he was saying that there are no second-class citizens in God’s family. When you give your life to Christ and become a Christian, you receive all the benefits a son enjoys in a traditional culture. As a white male, I’ve never been excluded like that. As a result, I didn’t see the sweetness of this welcome. I didn’t recognize all the beauty of God’s subversive and revolutionary promise that raises us to the highest honor by adopting us as his sons.
Our adoption means we are loved like Christ is loved. We are honored like he is honored—every one of us—no matter what. Your circumstances cannot hinder or threaten that promise. In fact, your bad circumstances will only help you understand and even claim the beauty of that promise. The more you live out who you are in Christ, the more you become like him in actuality. Paul is not promising you better life circumstances; he is promising you a far better life. He’s promising you a life of greatness. He is promising you a life of joy. He’s promising you a life of humility.
He’s promising you a life of nobility. He’s promising you a life that goes on forever.
The best things are yet to come
That brings us to the third point. Why can you be joyful no matter what? Your bad things turn out for good, your good things can never be lost, and the best is yet to come. If you understand what is to come, you can handle anything here. What amazes me is that even Ivan Karamazov, the atheist character in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, understood how knowing what is to come helps a person endure present circumstances. He said:
I believe that suffering will be healed and made up for, that in the world’s finality, at the moment of eternal harmony, something so precious will come to pass that it will suffice for all hearts, for the comforting of all resentments, for the atonement of all the crimes of humanity, of all the blood that’s been shed, that it will make it not just possible to forgive, but to justify all that’s happened.
I don’t want you to think that this talk about glory and about heaven trivializes suffering. In fact, Ivan Karamazov said that this hope is the only worldview that takes our brokenness seriously.
Our souls are so great and our suffering is so deep that nothing but this promise can overwhelm it. Glory does not trivialize human brokenness. It’s the only thing that takes it seriously. What else could possibly deal with the hurts of our hearts? Your soul is too great for anything but this. Don’t you know a compliment when you hear it?