Mel Lawrenz is Teaching Pastor at Elmbrook Church. His newest book is A Chronicle of Grief: Finding Life After Traumatic Loss (IVP).
One valid way of describing the gospel of Jesus Christ is that it is the promise of the restoration of dignity. God created humanity according to his image and his likeness, and thus invested humanity with incalculable worth. Because the human race has become twisted and corrupted by sin, barely reflecting Godlikeness, God chose to make redemption and restoration possible. This saving mission has many descriptions: reconciliation, justification, adoption, redemption, sanctification, glorification. The mission of Jesus was to seek and to save the lost. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit combine in this great saving feat, and human beings gain worthwhileness in the process. This is the gospel.
One of the most quoted verses of the New Testament is Romans 8:28: “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” It is the “all things” idea that catches our interest.
Almost everybody is trying to understand the mystery that life sometimes seems so good, and at other times so bad. “All things” are full of contradictions. The people we love the most are those who can hurt us the most. The natural world can be breathtakingly beautiful, and then turn into a hostile environment. You can go to Washington, D.C. and walk among the stately pillars and facades, the monuments to the fallen soldiers, the memorials to great leaders—and wonder how the government can be replete with so many weaknesses and engender such a low level of confidence in the populace.
Life is full of crosscurrents and contradictions. In almost every area of life we are left wondering: Is there some good that can emerge from all these contradictions? What can be salvaged from “all things”? So when Romans 8:28 says that “in all things” God works for the good of those who love him, we want to know how that works.
Just before Romans 8, the apostle Paul describes the inner spiritual battle within the self: “For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing” (7:19). No wonder life is full of conflict and contradictions. No wonder we want to believe that somehow, “in all things God works for the good.”
The very next sentence in Romans 8 describes how “all things” can somehow work out in the grand scheme of life. Here we find again the idea of humanity created in the image of God: “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters” (8:29, italics added).
Here is the big picture. God created a world and a special class of creatures known as human beings as a spectacular expression of God’s own glory, power, majesty, holiness, beauty, and love. But humanity became corrupted. Bent toward transgression; misguided by sin; blind to reality. Diminished, shattered, subject to every form of indignity. Men and women, gangs and governments, dictators and wife beaters and slave owners became the despoilers of dignity. And sometimes they construct whole bureaucracies of indignity or campaigns of murder.
God was not content to leave a broken world broken, and so a way of restoration was forged. This plan was “predestined,” which means to be arranged ahead of time. Paul’s point here is that the proclamation about Jesus’ mission and message was not a random innovation. No one spontaneously fabricated Jesus from Nazareth as savior figure.
The purpose of Jesus’ mission was to make a way for the restoration of human nature for anyone (“to be conformed to the image of his Son”). The “image of [God’s] Son” is not different from the creation principle of being created “in the image of God.” Humanity was created in the image of God; Jesus is the perfection of humanity, and thus the perfect picture of what this image is (see Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15).
This is the dignity of Jesus—a worth or value that exceeds simple human value. He suffered indignities at the hand of human authorities, but his true worth was never compromised.
As we begin our study today, note again that parables are usually stories drawn from everyday life. Jesus’ comparison of the kingdom of heaven to a mustard seed and leaven illustrates this fact (Matt. 13:31–33). Men typically worked in agriculture, and women performed domestic chores like the baking of bread in first-century Palestine. In telling parables related to these tasks, Jesus conveys His message in terms that are familiar to ordinary people.
Our studies in Matthew have thus far shown that the Messiah ushered in God’s kingdom in a manner that did not meet the expectations of His contemporaries. Instead of an immediate and final entry of God’s saving presence, there was an inauguration of the kingdom that is followed by a long period of growth before the final consummation. The mustard plant’s growth and the leaven’s permeation, both of which take time, illustrate this point.
For clarity’s sake, the niv describes the mustard seed in verse 32 as “the smallest of all your seeds” (emphasis added). Smaller seeds than those of the mustard plant exist, but Jesus is not making an absolute statement on the size of seeds. Mustard seeds are the smallest of those commonly used by His audience and are used in the parable to make His point easy to grasp. Like the seemingly insignificant mustard seed, God’s kingdom starts out small and all but hidden. In time, however, it becomes so large that no one can ignore it — just like the Palestinian mustard plants that can reach ten feet in height. Despite its humble beginning, the kingdom will grow to an immense size (Dan. 2:31–45).
The parable of the leaven makes virtually the same point, albeit from a slightly different perspective (Matt. 13:33). A morsel of yeast is seemingly engulfed and consumed in the larger lump of dough; however, the leaven actually ends up permeating the flour, transforming the dough and making it rise. So too will the Gospel, with slow growth at first, penetrate and transform society. John Chrysostom comments, “The leaven, though it is buried, is not destroyed. Little by little it transmutes the whole lump into its own condition. This happens with the gospel” (Homilies on the Gospel of Saint Matthew, 46.2).
Coram deo: Living before the face of God
Matthew Henry reminds us that yeast “works silently and insensibly, yet strongly and irresistibly.” The kingdom of God works in a similar fashion. Though Christians often suffer and the darkness looks overwhelming, the kingdom is growing nonetheless. One day it will be fully manifest in all creation. Consider today how you have seen the presence of the Lord in your life and pray for His kingdom to come.
For further study:
The Bible in a year:
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The United States spans across roughly 3.5 million square miles from sea to shining sea. Its borders envelope deserts, forests, coastline, large cities, sprawling farmland, mountains, and small towns. It’s safe to say that a few destinations in America are rather unlike anyplace else on Earth. If an offbeat destination piques your interest, check out these unique towns.
Tucked in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains, the tiny village of Leavenworth, Washington, is straight out of a Bavarian fairytale. In the early 1960s, residents of the town transformed it from a dying, former lumber hub to the charming destination it is today. Visitors can indulge at one of the numerous wine and cider tasting rooms or take in a breath of fresh Pacific Northwest air by engaging in outdoor activities. During the winter, adventurous visitors and locals even go ice climbing and ascend frozen waterfalls in the mountains.
Thermopolis, Wyoming, is home to the world’s largest mineral hot springs. Hot Springs State Park boasts springs that reach up to 127 degrees Fahrenheit! For those looking to take a dip in more manageable temperatures, the park has a free public bathhouse, which remains at a balmy 104 degrees. The mineral water reportedly has therapeutic properties and was a popular gathering spot for dinosaurs, bison, and Native American tribes long before the park was established. The park is open year-round when weather permits, but be sure to visit the bathhouse outside of winter months. A visit to Thermopolis is often tacked on as a side trip to or from Yellowstone National Park.
Mackinac Island, Michigan
Imagine a town where instead of cars, people roll through the streets in horse-drawn carriages. That dream exists on Mackinac Island — a motor vehicle-free island in the heart of the Great Lakes. Stop by the Benjamin Blacksmith Shop, which has been mending everything from horseshoes to lawnmowers since the 1880s. They now offer blacksmithing demonstrations to the public. Be sure to get a taste of Mackinac Island’s renowned fudge before you go. Main Street alone has more than six fudge shops to choose from. Try one of these sweet treats from Murdick’s Fudge, the island’s first confectionery, which opened in 1887.
When driving through the sprawling hills of the Ozarks in southwest Missouri, there isn’t much to look at besides the occasional water tower or billboard. However, venturing a little further south will land you in Branson, a small town with a big personality. Originally founded as a country music entertainment destination, Branson is now home to more than 100 live shows. One long-standing act to see is a comedic routine by Yakov Smirnoff, who has been tickling funny bones since 1992 when he purchased his performance hall, Yakov’s Theater. Smirnoff, who escaped former Soviet Russia in the 1970s, found his calling poking fun at his life as an immigrant searching for the American dream.
Perhaps best-known for the Salem Witch Trials, the seaside town of Salem, Massachusetts, is home to all things spooky. Although the days of witchcraft accusations are in the distant past, the fascination with it still remains. During October, the typically small town swells up to host half a million Halloween enthusiasts who come to revel in its eerie history.
Wander the streets in awe of 17th-century buildings, which double as museums. The Witch House, formerly owned by Judge Johnathan Corwin (who spearheaded the trials), is the only remaining building in Salem with ties to that historical moment. You can also wander through Charter Street Cemetery, which has headstones dating as far back as 1673!
On the west coast of Hawaii’s Big Island is Kailua-Kona, a town with pristine, black-sand beaches made from pieces of dried lava. However, if you venture out further than the town’s sandy shores, you can find manta rays. The town is one of the only places where you can snorkel or scuba dive right alongside them!
To get a closer look at manta rays, visitors can reserve a night tour out to one of three well-known manta ray feeding spots. By shining a flashlight into the water, snorkelers and divers can catch a glimpse of the manta rays opening their cavernous mouths to gobble up plankton. Manta rays aren’t harmful to people, but be sure to avoid touching them to avoid harming their delicate skin coating.