Wisdom Is Vindicated by Her Children (Refiner’s Fire, Pt 35)

NOTE: This is part 35 of the “Refiner’s Fire” series, now available as a book from Amazon and other retailers. To read it on the blog, go to the Matthew series and scroll down for the “Refiner’s Fire” section at the bottom.

So now, after journeying through the history of Israel and the prophetic Scriptures, getting to know John the Baptist as a man and a prophet, and examining the reasons to take faith seriously in our own day—we are back where we started. Standing on a dusty Judean hillside under a hot desert sun, asking with John—Are you the One who is to come, or do we look for another?

We are back at the beginning, with our doubts and our questions. I hope this book has given us all permission to be honest about those and to face up to them, authentically and without pretense. John doubted. So, sometimes, do we.

After Jesus gave an answer to John’s disciples, he turned to the crowds and said:

But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and far more than a prophet. This is the one it is written about:

Look, I am sending My messenger ahead of You;
he will prepare Your way before You.

I assure you: Among those born of women no one greater than John the Baptist has appeared, but the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. (Matthew 11:9–11)

If John was inferior to you and me (who are now in the kingdom of heaven if we are followers of Jesus), it’s clearly not because of any personal strength on our part or any weakness on his. It’s instead a matter of positioning in history—of spiritual topography. John stood in a valley and looked up at mountain peaks hidden in clouds. We stand instead on the peaks, looking back at the valley, able to see it all from a higher vantage point. We are greater than John only in the sense of how staggeringly great is our position in the kingdom, as heirs and joint-heirs of the Son of God himself.

And so we’re able to take as “common knowledge” things John could never even have guessed at.

That Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of David and Isaiah’s Suffering Servant, and that he conquered through his death.

That the Messiah would not simply be a sign of Yahweh’s return to Israel but would actually be Yahweh-in-flesh, God incarnate come to his people.

That the enemy and oppressor to be defeated was not (in the final reckoning) the Roman Empire after all, but Death and Oppression themselves, as Jesus took up arms “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”

That Israel’s sins would be forgiven in the atoning death of Jesus, but so would the sins of the whole world—the individual sins of every person, every family, every generation that has kept people apart from God.

That Yahweh would return to his new temple in Jerusalem, but that temple would not be made of marble and wood and gold but of living stones, individual human beings in whose spirit God would dwell, linked together in a vast “house” built on the foundation of apostles and prophets and including both Jews and Gentiles in the plan of God.

And that the promises of freedom, prosperity, and peace in the promised land would extend out as well, becoming a promise of complete renewal for the entirety of earth and heaven as Christ came to “fill all in all” and the glory of God truly “filled the earth, as the waters cover the sea.” So Paul calls Abraham not the “heir of the promised land,” but “the heir of the world.” The promise of victory, life, fruitfulness, and blessing would extend into a promise of everlasting life in a marriage covenant with God, the great Bridegroom.

Jesus did subvert John’s expectations, and in fact the expectations of all Israel. But this subversion didn’t make him less than what John expected. It made him much, much more. John had always seen pieces of the gospel, but he had never seen the whole. And the whole would mean salvation for us all.

So what about us? Even standing on our mountain peak, with excellent guides like Paul, Luke, John, and Matthew to help point out the features of the land, we are vulnerable to doubt. The whole story has not come together yet. It turns out there is more to the road ahead; we have not yet reached the end. And our faith must be refined—purified and strengthened—if we are going to walk it to the finish line. Paul, who spoke so much about the mystery that had been revealed, also spoke about a mystery that is still hidden—and according to him, we are a part of that mystery. “So if you have been raised with the Messiah,” he tells us in Colossians 3:1–4,

seek what is above, where the Messiah is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on what is above, not on what is on the earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with the Messiah in God. When the Messiah, who is your life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory.

John the Beloved also spoke of a day when what is hidden will be revealed—specifically, when we will be revealed as we truly are, even as we see Jesus as he truly is.

Look at how great a love the Father has given us that we should be called God’s children. And we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it didn’t know Him. Dear friends, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet been revealed. We know that when He appears, we will be like Him because we will see Him as He is. (1 John 3:1–2)

The New Testament is clear: the Messiah has come, but he is still coming. We are children of God, but we are still hidden. We are heirs now, but we have not fully inherited. The kingdom is present, is now—and yet it is not yet.

Whatever we are going through today, we are still in the middle of the story. We have not yet reached the point when we can see the whole thing clearly. And until the day of full appearing, when Jesus is fully revealed and we are revealed along with him, there will always be things that don’t seem to make sense.

The question is always: Whom will we choose to trust?

It’s good to remember all that has happened so far—the story that begins in Genesis and continues into Jesus’s day, and then on into ours.

It’s good because our story might be much like John the Baptist’s. What was true for him may be true for us. If we are offended or disappointed in our faith, our disappointment may point not to a God who is less than what we thought, but to a God is far more. We find ourselves called not to hide from our disappointment, but to own it—and then to choose, rather than drowning in it, to lift up our eyes and see something bigger happening all around us. We are called to look not to our own interests but to the greater story of the kingdom of God.

In the end, truth is not just something we know. Truth is something we live out. Wisdom is vindicated by her children.

Despite his doubts, it was ultimately vindicated in John. His life of sacrifice was not a waste. His bold declaration that Jesus was “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world,” that he was God’s “beloved Son,” and that he would baptize his people with the Holy Spirit and fire were all utterly true—more than John knew, in fact. John’s work and message were vindicated in Jesus, who died—and then rose again and ascended “on the clouds” to heaven, where he was seated at the right hand of God just as Daniel saw in his Son of Man vision. John’s faith and life were and are vindicated in the “holy ones,” God’s saints on earth, who have received the kingdom and who do the work, day by day, of filling the earth with that kingdom through the power of God’s Holy Spirit.

And John will be vindicated in you and in me, if we stay the course—if we do not fall away, and if we are willing to allow the refiner’s fire to do its work.

After all, the only way forward is through. When the refiner’s fire comes, there are only two choices: fall away, or press on. Ultimately, the wisdom of our choice will be seen in its fruit. And in the meantime, the fire will do its work of burning away much that was never of God to begin with, even while it purifies and strengthens that which remains.

John was certainly not the only follower of Jesus to experience the refiner’s fire, although he was the first. Shortly before he died, Jesus said to Simon Peter: “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.”

Reading between the lines of Peter’s story, it seems as though his sifting, like John’s refining, came through the clash between his expectations and Jesus’s actions in reality. Peter even seemed to have made peace with the idea of things going south in their ministry; he declared that he was willing to die with Jesus. When the soldiers arrived to arrest Jesus in Gethsemane, Peter put his money where his mouth was—he picked up a sword and went in swinging, one man against several hundred Roman soldiers and temple guards. Apparently they were caught off guard by Peter’s courage, because he got the first blow in: he cut off a man’s ear. But then Jesus stopped him, stooped down and picked up the severed ear, and miraculously reattached it to the man’s head. Then he allowed himself to be arrested and taken away. From that point on, Peter’s courage and faith alike began to unravel, until only a few hours later, standing in the temple court, he denied even knowing Jesus.

It was truly a crisis moment for Peter. One that went all the way to the place most of us fear reaching—the place of being so shaken in our convictions and afraid of the consequences that we are willing to deny Jesus. But for Peter, the moment of refining—hot as it was—ultimately purified and did not destroy him. As Jesus said, he did “turn again.” And he strengthened his brothers, even becoming a rock of strength for the church of all ages.

“From the days of John the Baptist until now,” Jesus told the crowds, “the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John, and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. He who has ears to hear, let him hear” (Matthew 11:12–15, ESV).

The same charge goes out to us. If our faith is suffering violence, if circumstances are taking our convictions by force, Jesus’s question is here to meet us at the brink: are we willing to accept that the story may be different than what we initially believed? Do we have ears to hear what God may be saying—can we cling to Jesus in personal trust without absolute certainty about every part of the story that surrounds us?

If we are doing battle with the spirit of the “Little Horn,” whose words are arrogant and blasphemous and deceitful, let us take courage. The kingdom has been given to us—to you and to me, if we are in Jesus. And we will “possess it forever, yes, forever and ever.”

To be continued …


This is Part 193 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.


Photo by Bruno Nascimento on Unsplash




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