October 21, 2018
Unless we first understand God’s identity, we will never make sense of our own. So who is God? Psalm 8 proclaims that He is the Lord, the ruler of all things who created mankind in His image. Our inherent dignity, however, has been tarnished by sin. Contrasting God’s greatness with humanity’s frailty, Alistair Begg demonstrates the immense care for us that God expressed through the death of His Son, Jesus. It is this God alone who reaches out to us, answering the deepest questions of our souls.
Sermon Transcript: Print
I invite you to turn with me, and we’ll read together from 1 Corinthians and chapter 15. It’s the chapter—the great chapter—by Paul on the resurrection, and we just read a brief section as a cross-reference for our study this morning. First Corinthians 15 and from verse 20. Well, probably verse 19 makes verse 20 understandable:
“If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.
“But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For ‘God has put all things in subjection under his feet.’ But when it says, ‘all things are put in subjection,’ it is plain that he is excepted who put all things in subjection under him. When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all.”
Father, what we know not, teach us; what we have not, give us; what we are not, make us. For your Son’s sake. Amen.
Well, it’s no secret that Paul Simon is my favorite lyricist of the twentieth century and into twenty-one. And if you’ve been following the press, you know that he has just completed his Homeward Bound tour, which has brought him to the end of his touring career, at least by his own testimony, as he approaches his eightieth birthday. I, along with my wife, attended two of those concerts, at the one hand feeling tremendously exhilarated by it all, and then feeling a sense of sadness in the awareness of the fact that it would appear that many of the questions which framed his early lyrics remain questions as he comes to this end of a world tour. And the thoughtfulness of them, I think, register with each of us. For example, do you know this song that begins,
A pilgrim on a pilgrimage
Walked across the Brooklyn Bridge
His sneakers torn
In the hour when the homeless move their cardboard blankets
And the new day is born
Folded in his backpack pocket,
The questions that he copied from his heart
Who am I in this lonely world?
And where will I make my bed tonight [in this lonely world]
Well, a long way away from the Brooklyn Bridge to the Middle East, but the writer of this poem, this Eighth Psalm, knew also what it was to sleep out underneath the night sky and to look up into the heavens and to wonder and to ponder. And if we’re honest, each of us has occasion to do the selfsame thing. It may not be that we are open to the elements. It may be that we are cocooned safely in the environment that is most comfortable to us. But when a new day dawns, we know what it is to address our own personal concerns—in some cases, our secret and private fears, the longings of our hearts. And in the midst of it all, we have to go somewhere, we have to go to someone, in order to find solace in relationship to these things. We may be the ones driving in the car past the person with the cardboard blanket, but we would be naive—yes, we would be foolish—to suggest that only they know these deep-seated concerns.
And the great temptation of our age, of course, is to believe what is most on offer to us—namely, the idea that we will be able to secure sufficient answers to these things by looking inside of ourselves. And so we’re told that we have the capacity, if we would only just discover who and what we really are. But I don’t know if you would agree with me: when I discover what I really am and what I’m really like, it doesn’t actually fill me with joy and with expectation. It actually fills me more with disappointment and concern, and an increased sense of fearfulness. I know that Lennon-McCartney said that “we can work it out,” but we can’t, and so the better of the songs is “Help!” But the question is: Where are we looking for the help?
What are we supposed to do when we confront these questions—fundamental questions—that are here in the psalm? They’re essentially two: Who is God, and what am I? And how do the two things interact with one another, and does it really matter? Is the question “Who is God?” just a kind of big, philosophical question that bears no relevance at all to the needs and aspirations that are represented in our lives? Or is it, as the Bible suggests, that it is only in answering sufficiently the question “Who and what is God?” that we’re able then to make any sensible attempt at addressing ourselves?
Now, the psalmist frames this poem with the same statement; verse 1 is the same as verse 9. So we need be in no doubt that he is conveying the fact that God is “majestic … in all the earth.” If we ask the question “Who, then, is this God?” the first answer is that he is Lord. “Yes,” you say, “I see that in verse 1. He says it twice.” Oh yes, he does, but if you’re looking carefully, you will notice that the first word “Lord” is all capitalized and the second word “Lord” only has a capital L and then three lowercase letters. That is because they’re two different words. The first word is the word which is translated, or is described, as Yahweh, the unpronounceable name of God; the name that God took to himself, if you like, then put down in text. When Moses goes to God in the prospect of having to go to the Pharaoh and to say, “Let my people go,” and Moses says, “Well, who will I say sent me?” and God says, “Tell him: I Am That I Am.” In other words, “I am self-existent. I am God. I am the Lord. I am the covenant God of Abraham, Isaac, and of Jacob. I am your God, and I am the God of the people.” The second word “Lord” we might translate simply as “governor.” So in other words, he’s saying, “O covenant Lord, you are the governor of the whole affair. How majestic is your name in all the earth. Your name defines majesty.”
I was mentioning last week my affection for Queen Elizabeth, and a further flight of fancy this week: I was imagining going to church with her. She goes to church at Crathie Cathedral in the north of Scotland in her summer residence there. And it is possible to go there and sit in the same congregation and get as close to her as you can. But I sat there and, as I was thinking this week, and I said, “How amazing would it be to sit, you know, like, right behind the Queen and hear the Queen, in a responsive reading, declaring Psalm 8:1?” “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” In other words, Her Majesty declares his majesty. That’s what’s happening here.
And you will notice that his name extends not only throughout the entire earth, verse 1, but his glory—that is, the manifestation of who and what he is—reaches even “above the heavens.” And his rule, his majestic glory, his position as God, is then declared not in a dramatic expression of power and of peculiar authority or of might but strikingly—and it ought to immediately strike us as quite surprising that he then says,
Out of the mouth of babies and infants,
you have established strength because of your foes,
to still the enemy and the avenger.
In other words, when opposed, he answers it with children singing. What kind of God answers the opposition to his majesty by saying, “Let’s have the children sing”?
That’s why we read from Matthew 21. You remember the account. Jesus comes into Jerusalem, and as he does so, he’s opposed. He’s on his way to the cross. The avenger is about to come at him. And the people come to him—the religious authorities—and they say, “Do you hear what these people are singing and saying?” Because some of the parents had taken their children, and they had put branches on the roadway, and they had celebrated the coming, and they were singing, again out of the Psalms, “Hosanna …! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” And the religious authorities said, “This is going to have to stop!” And what does Jesus do? He says to them, “Have you never read the Bible? Did you never read Psalm 8? This is exactly what the psalmist was talking about: ‘Out of the mouth of babies and infants you have established strength.’”
Now, does that mean simply, literally just babies, like through in the nursery? Well, it definitely means that. But—I don’t want to be unkind in any way—but we are just a bunch of overgrown babies. I mean, we grew, but the baby factor remains. In fact, you could argue psychologically that many of us are trying constantly to trample this down and for people not to know. And in fact, the discovery of our own identity is directly related to our ability to acknowledge, “I am tiny, I am frail, I am feeble”—in other words, to be prepared to challenge the contemporary perspective on humanity, which is “I am large, I am powerful, I am significant.” Well, if you were saying that this morning, I hope you have a spouse, because they could have told you what a lot of rubbish that is.
Now, what is the point? The point is a very straightforward point, and it is this: that when we acknowledge ourselves to be that, then we enter into a discovery of why God has made us—enter into, if you like, an identity that is far stronger than any of our attempts to establish and to define our own identity. And in an era of identity politics, surely this has something to say.
So he is, then, the Lord, he is the covenant God, and he is the Creator. And that’s why the heavens declare his glory. Verse 3: “When I look at your heavens,” they’re “the work of your fingers.” Of course, God doesn’t have fingers; therefore, it is a picture, it is a metaphor. And what it’s pointing out is that God is so immense that creating the universe—it wasn’t heavy work for him. You know, he didn’t have to put his shoulder to it. No, he sculpted the universe by the work of his fingers—magnificently, carefully. And the psalmist—the shepherd-boy psalmist, who has been familiar with the outdoors—says, “You know, when I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars which you’ve set in place—when I look up into the night sky,” he says, “I have to reach certain conclusions.”
Now, think about it: David did not know what we know about galaxies. David did not know—if you’d said to him, “What about the Milky Way?” he would have said, “The what?” If you’d said, “What about the Andromeda?” he would not have known. He did know that day followed evening. He would have been able to observe that there were certain formations and structures in the night sky that, over a period of time, were observable and so on. He didn’t know a fraction of what we know. And yet he knew enough to know, “When I look at this, I declare that you are the creator God.” And the further complexity of the universe which is known to us now because of our ability to probe into the universe ironically provides for many a basis for saying, “There can’t possibly be a great creator God who is majestic in all the earth,” when in actual fact, the very complexity points to the Creator. “Sun, moon, and stars in their courses above join with all nature in manifold witness.”
Now, of course, there are alternative views. And the cosmologist of the last few years who had all of the headlines and whose remains were recently interred in Westminster Abbey, Stephen Hawking, did not believe this. He’s far cleverer than me. In fact, most people are far cleverer than me. So if it was an issue of just intelligence, then, of course, this would never work. But since it’s about acknowledging that I’m tiny and that I’m frail and that I’m helpless, there’s a chance. In fact, there’s a chance for everybody who’s prepared to acknowledge that. The thing that will keep you out is your unwillingness to acknowledge that.
Hawking, this is what he says: if there is no God (and, of course, he believed that) and we have evolved by chance through millions of years (which he also believed), he said, then all that happens, either good or bad, must be viewed as simply the result of random, pitiless indifference. You can’t put that on the front of a T-shirt. You’re not going to go out—do not go out tomorrow morning, go back to your place of work, just says, “Random, Pitiless Indifference.” And then on the back it says, “Have a nice day!” Because it doesn’t work. The philosophy doesn’t work. There’s a reason why people would be deeply concerned about the things that plague them if our world is simply a random world—if you, as a person, are just a collection of molecules held in suspension; if you’re just a random collocation of atoms. How do you make sense of this?
Who is God? He’s Lord, he’s Creator, and thirdly, he’s the Creator who cares. Who cares. Now, this is distinctive to Christianity. If you probe religions today, you will find that people are constantly trying to reach up or build up or find a way up to a distant deity, whoever and whatever it is. The story of Christianity is that the creator of the universe has stepped down into time. And indeed, he has done so because he cares.
Look at the picture: “What is man that you[’re] mindful of him, … the son of man that you care for him?” Later, in one of his other psalms, he says, “As for man, his days are like grass,” which is true;
he flourishes like a flower of the field;
… the wind passes over it, and it[’s] gone,
and its place [remembers] it no more.
We’re right here. It’s autumn. You look out on your backyard, and it’s all starting to go. The psalmist says, “That’s how man goes. The place remembers it no more.” Now, he’s not being morbid. He’s not simply reflecting on his smallness in the place of a vast universe. He is reflecting on the fact that “although I am as I am”—and incidentally, when it says, “What is man”: what is mankind, what is a human being—“what is a human being that you care for them?”
And the whole story of the Bible is the story of God, who cares. That’s why we sang some of the hymns this morning. One of my favorite verses is
Fatherlike he tends and spares us;
Well our feeble frame he knows.
In his hand[s] he gently bears us,
[And] rescues us from all our foes.
You see, if we were able to take this morning and just run through, very superficially, the needs and cares and longings and difficulties and disappointments and so on that are represented even just in this second morning service, we’d fill up all of these screens three times, four times, five times. And everyone has a legitimate right to say, “Is there anyone who really knows? And is there anyone who really cares?” Well, not if you live in a world of random, pitiless indifference. I invite you to acknowledge your tininess, your helplessness, and find how big God is, how good God is, how God cares.
Since last Sunday, I have been in the company of those who have told me of some of the deepest sadnesses of their life. I will not take time to articulate them. And the real longing of the human heart is to ask: Does God care? Well, the God that we’re introduced to is not, as I’ve said to you so many times before, a God on a deck chair but a God on a cross.
Nicholas Wolterstorff—the professor at Yale who lost his son in a climbing accident when his son was, I think, twenty—in his little book Lament for a Son, at one point says, “If you want to know who I am, I am a man who lost his son.” And here’s the issue: God says, “If you want to know who I am, I am a man who lost his Son.” “How will he not, then, who freely gave him up for us all—will he not also, with him, freely give us all things”?
I may have told you before of my friend MacMillan, who died as a young man—a massive heart attack at fifty-four. And when he moved into his manse in the center of Glasgow from the Highlands, remember, he was putting his books, taking his books from a van up onto the second floor, up a long stairway and across a landing and up another flight of stairs. And his son, who was tiny at the time, asked his dad if he could help him. And so he gave him just a little cluster of papers, and perhaps some magazines that were all tied up with string, and he gave them to him to carry up the stairs. And he was going up and down and up and down. And as he came back in one time, he heard his boy crying. And when he went up onto the stair, he found that he was—he had there, like, a gigantic, big concordance, the E. J. Young Concordance of the Bible, which I find difficulty in carrying. And he was struggling with it. And MacMillan said his first thought was to say, “Oh, you stupid boy, why would you take on something like that?” And then he said, “Oh, but no,” he said, “because God would have every reason to look on me and say the same thing.” He said, “So I got down to where he was, and I picked up my boy, and I picked up his burden, and I carried them both safely to their destination.” That’s what God does. That’s what God does: pick you up, pick up your burden, carry you safely to the end.
That’s enough on who God is. Just a word concerning, then, who or what are we? “What is man …?” Verse 5: “You[’ve] made him a little lower than the heavenly beings … [you’ve] crowned him with glory and honor.”
What does that mean? It’s a reference to creation. The psalmist is reflecting on Genesis 1, 2, and 3. He’s aware of the fact that God has made man in his image—that he has made him distinguishable from the animal world. He has given to man dominion over that world, and he has given to man—I’m talking mankind, now, humanity—he has given to us stewardship of the earth. So we have on the one hand dominion, and we have on the other hand stewardship. Why? Because we possess a dignity. What is the source of the dignity? It is that we have been made in the image of God—that he has made us in such a way that we might know him; he has made us for a relationship with himself. He has not made the animal world in that regard. God has made humanity for him, and God has made the rest of the created order for that humanity.
So here is our glory, and here is our honor. You’ve never met a person who wasn’t made in the image of God. There are no ordinary people. No ordinary people. There’s no one who’s like, “Oh well.” No! Made in the image of God. The person behind you on the bus: made in the image of God. And made to enjoy all the rest that God has given us. We’re talking about flowers. You think about flowers: How many flowers are there? I don’t know. Tons! We could have just had one flower. God could have just said, “Okay, we’ll do flowers: tulips.” You know? (Or as you say, “Too-lips.”) But those things, they go like that, you know? Like in about fifteen minutes. That would be no fun. You’d put them in a vase, you go through, make a coffee, you come back, they’re all just—they’re like this. That would be horrible. I mean, I don’t have anything against tulips, as it turns out, but I’m just saying: he didn’t do that. How about fruit? Fruit? He could have given us, like, kiwi. You know, what are you supposed to do with that stuff? I mean, it’s just like, everybody: kiwi. But no! Strawberries, bananas, pears, raspberries, gooseberries, everything!
Who did this? Who did this? Of course, if you’re an atheist, “Did” did this. Who did this? “Thanks be to nothing!” As you sit down and have your breakfast, do you ever say thanks for your food? To whom do you say thanks?
Who made the mountains? Who made the trees?
Who made the rivers that run to the seas?
And who put the moon in the starry sky?
Somebody bigger than you or I.
And he gave it to us!
All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful,
The Lord God made them all.
[He] gave us eyes to see them,
And lips that we might tell
How great is God Almighty,
Who has [done] all things well.
That’s our dignity.
But wait a minute. Things are not quite as they should be, are they? Why? Because of the fall of man. Because although God gave everything for the enjoyment of Adam and Eve, he gave them one thing that they mustn’t do—and they decided, with a little outside help, that that was the one thing that they really wanted to do. And the Evil One, who tempted them to that end, said, “The reason he doesn’t want you to do this is because he wants to deprive you of things,” when in actual fact, what he was doing was giving them an opportunity to declare that they trusted him entirely and that everything that he had given them to enjoy would be sufficient for them.
That dignity is to be matched, then, by our depravity. Now, depravity is a kind of scary word, and it’s often used to suggest something that isn’t true. It doesn’t mean that we are as bad as we could possibly be. It just means that there’s no area of our lives that are unaffected by sin. It affects our wills. It affects our minds, our emotions. It affects our behavior. Because you see, what the story of the Bible—answering the question, “What is man?”—is this: it is that man is both marked by a dignity as made in God’s image, and he is also dealing with depravity as being a sinner before God’s sight.
So, if you like a picture, then you travel in Scotland, and you see all those castles… Everybody in America always tells me they have their own castle, and there aren’t enough castles. Scotland’s not big enough for all of that. But anyway, you see those castles, and most—many of them—are in ruins. And when you look at them, you say, “Well, it’s not much of a place.” But yet if you pause for a moment and look, if you squeeze your eyes, you could actually imagine it in all of its pristine beauty, with the lights on and the music playing and the vegetation all under control. And so you look back, and you say, “You know, that is a ruin, but it is a glorious ruin—beautifully constructed, scarred with time.”
That’s the picture that we’re given of ourselves. Our dignity is without question, but it’s messed up. It messes everything up. That’s why time drives us crazy: because it’s running through our fingers. That’s why instead of looking after the world in which we’ve been made, instead of looking after the garden, we want to exploit it or pollute it. Instead of living in peace with our neighbors, we become jealous, envious, fearful, filled with misunderstandings. When we think about ourselves, most of us vacillate between two extremes: either a kind of narcissism on the one hand or self-condemnation on the other, finding it really, really hard to get ourselves sorted out. Why is this? Because we are a messed-up image of God.
And when it comes to God himself, the God who made us for a relationship with him, what do we realize? That we are unfit for his presence, we’re actually insensitive to his Word, we’re unrighteous before his law, and what we like to do is set our own rules, create our own examination papers, and then grade them ourselves. And you never get less than a B, do you? It’s like trying to fill in your score card after a round of golf when you never really paid attention. Do you not find yourself saying, “Oh, yeah, I think it was—I think it was a four”? It wasn’t even close to a four!
Okay. Well, we must draw this to a close, but here’s the point. If you look at this, it says, “This is what you’ve done: you’ve given him dominion, he’s in control of everything, and you have put it in such a place that everything is under his feet. It’s all under his feet.” So you say to yourself, “Well, if it is all under my feet, there’s a dreadful mess related to this. It doesn’t really seem that this is in place.” You might look at this and say, “Somehow or another, we need a fresh start.” Or if you’re really perceptive, you might say, “Maybe what we need is a second Adam, ’cause the first Adam, he took us down a real bad path. If there was another Adam who would come…”
Now, for those of you who are paying attention, that’s why we read from 1 Corinthians 15. And that is exactly the point that Paul makes: “As in Adam all die, so … in Christ [will] all be made alive.” We are in Adam as a result of our rebellion and our sin, so by nature these things are true of us, so that the idea of this perfect world where the animals are all living nicely and none of the plants wither and the control of the universe is all taken care of—we look around and say, “No, it’s not yet. There’s got to be a missing piece here.” Well, yes, of course. Because this is ultimately fulfilled not in you and me as man but is ultimately fulfilled in the Lord Jesus Christ himself.
So, for example, when the writer to the Hebrews quotes from this passage, he says, “You know, here’s the situation.” And then he says, “But we don’t actually see this yet. But,” he says, “we see Jesus”; so that that which is promised in this psalm is actually provided in Jesus and is fulfilled in Jesus—that the hope of the Christian is not that we will finally somehow or another manage to eke out our sorry existence in a universe that is running down and into oblivion but that we will, in Christ, be awakened to a new day, to a new heaven and to a new earth, in which dwells righteousness. So instead of random, pitiless indifference, we have the prospect of being united with Jesus.
Our time is gone, but here’s a thought. You see, we’re not going to be able to go in on our own basis, enter through the door. Therefore, we’re going to have to go in on the strength of somebody else. Like going to the Masters: If you go in the dining room at Augusta, you have to have a green jacket. Well, I could never earn a green jacket. But if somebody gave me a loan of his jacket, then I could wear that and sit at the table. Jesus Christ was stripped naked so that those who believe in him might be clothed in his righteousness. Jesus Christ made himself “obedient unto death” in order that those who trust in him might know the reality of life in all of its fullness.
Father, thank you for the Bible. Thank you that you are the King, the Creator. But you’re not a Creator that is far away and removed from us. You’re a Creator who has come to us in the person of your Son. You are the one who cares—cares enough to give him up freely for us all, in order that as we trust in him rather than trusting in ourselves, in order that as we rest in him (rather than wrestling ourselves into some position of supposed goodness and usefulness; rather than trying to earn it all)—that we receive it as the gift that you have made it—then we might find ourselves bowing down before you, declaring your majesty, and living in the light of your grace. May it be so. For Jesus’ sake we ask it. Amen.
 Paul Simon, “Questions for the Angels” (2010).
 John Lennon and Paul McCartney, “We Can Work It Out” (1966).
 John Lennon and Paul McCartney, “Help!” (1965).
 Exodus 3:13–14 (paraphrased).
 Matthew 21:9 (ESV). See also Psalm 118:26.
 Matthew 21:15–16 (paraphrased).
 See Psalm 19:1.
 Thomas O. Chisholm, “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” (1923).
 Psalm 103:15–16 (ESV).
 Henry Francis Lyte, “Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven” (1834).
 Nicholas Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 6. Paraphrased.
 Romans 8:32 (paraphrased).
 Johnny Lange, Hy Heath, and Sonny Burke, “Somebody Bigger Than You and I” (1960). Lyrics lightly altered.
 Cecil Frances Alexander, “All Things Bright and Beautiful” (1848).
 Genesis 3:5 (paraphrased).
 Hebrews 2:8–9 (paraphrased).
 See 2 Peter 3:13.
 See Matthew 7:13; John 10:9.
 Philippians 2:8 (KJV).
Copyright © 2023, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.