Baptism Basics – Pondering Jesus (30/08/14)

Over the next few months or so, I shall be reflecting on the Gospel of Matthew and ‘pondering Jesus’ – thinking about who He is, and what that means for us. In so doing, I hope to delight more in my Saviour; and if I am able to help you (reader) to do so too, then even better!


In chapter 3 of the Gospel of Matthew (please access the full text here) we encounter a word which is foreign to our everyday parlance – ‘baptism’. The word (or forms of it) occurs 8 times in the 17 verses within the passage. In our modern context the concept of baptism seems mainly restricted to Christian circles. Or perhaps every once in a while we hear the expression ‘baptism of fire’. But what is ‘baptism’ about? The passage points us to some basics.

John the who?

In the beginning of the passage we meet the character John the Baptist, who is preaching a message of repentance in the wilderness of Judea (vv.1-2). Indeed, John’s ministry had been foretold of by the prophet Isaiah centuries earlier (v.3). In addition to his message of repentance — which means to change one’s mind or attitude — many were coming to him to be baptised in the river Jordan, ‘confessing their sins’ (v.6).

We see from these verses, therefore, two things as regards baptism:

  1. It involves some form of immersion in water. Indeed, the Greek baptizō means “to plunge, dip, immerse” (cf ESV Study Bible)
  2. It is connected with, or accompanied by, a repentance and turning away from sin. 

We must resist the urge, however, to infer from this that this immersion in water itself is somehow able to magically cleanse us completely from sin. “We must not expect that water to act as a charm: we must not suppose that all baptized persons, as a matter of course, receive the grace of God in the moment that they are baptised.” (JC Ryle) John the Baptist himself says to sinners, ‘Bear fruit in keeping with repentance’ (v.8). What this means then, is that even following baptism, one needed to bear fruits of good character and holiness; even after baptism the temptation to live a life of sin and licentiousness still remained. Baptism is therefore an outward sign of an inward resolution to change from a life of rebellion against God, to a life of trusting Him and yielding to His good and perfect will.

Jesus was baptised?

John the Baptist describes Jesus as follows:

I baptise you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me [viz. Jesus] is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire. (vv.11-12)

Strong words. Which is why it surprising both to the reader, and to John himself, that Jesus comes to the latter to be baptised by him:

Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptised by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus was baptised, immediately, he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” (vv.13-17)

Okay, so not only is Jesus going to baptise with the Holy Spirit and with fire, and all the cool stuff mentioned two paragraphs above (vv.11-12) – He is the Son of God! Indeed, this has been definitively displayed by the presence of the other two members of the Trinity at his baptism. I can just imagine what John was thinking as these wondrous events were unfolding before his eyes: “What have you just done, John?! You had no right to baptise the Son of God!”

And John would have been justified in so thinking. As was observed above, baptism is connected with a repentance and turning away from sin. Could it be then that Jesus, the perfect Son of God, was actually blemished and sinful, and needed to repent?

It is clear from various other passages that this cannot be the case (e.g. 2 Cor 5:21, Heb 4:15). Instead, the answer lies in Jesus’ reply to John the Baptist: “for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” In other words, Jesus chose to be baptised because it was right to do so. For one, in being baptised by John, Jesus endorses and connects himself with John’s ministry which had been foretold by the prophet Isaiah: a ministry to prepare the way of the Lord Jesus. More importantly, though, at the inauguration of his earthly ministry, Jesus chose to identify with the very people he came to save – sinners like you and me.

Jesus, the Son of God, came to die on the cross for the sins of the world — our sins. He came to take what was rightfully our judgment in our place. Our Saviour, who needed neither cleansing nor repentance, saw it fitting to identify with those who desperately needed both.

Jesus the Baptist

One final aspect of this passage needs to be considered. As mentioned above, John the Baptist says of Jesus:

He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.

It seems then that John isn’t the only one who will be doing the baptizing. Indeed, while John baptises with water, Jesus shall baptise with the Holy Spirit and fire. What does this all mean?

First, it shows that Jesus’ baptism is far superior to John’s. John’s baptism is not able to bring about a true change of heart, nor is it able to bring about true salvation. As was mentioned above, John’s baptism was an outward sign of an inward resolution to follow God. But as we are well aware, no amount of human resolve or effort can bring about a true change of heart. It is impossible to by sheer willpower alone constrain myself to be completely virtuous. Something more is needed.

Thus John’s baptism points towards the superior baptism of Jesus. While John baptises with water, Jesus baptises with the Holy Spirit, the very Spirit of God himself. This makes all the difference. God immerses us in His Spirit such that we are truly changed and empowered to live a life according to His will (cf Ezekiel 36:26-27). Furthermore, as the apostle Paul explains:

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. (Romans 6:3-4 ESV)

When you place your trust in Jesus, you are baptised into Him, into His death. This means that in this life now, we are dead to sin. Sin no longer has any hold on us. We are free to live, empowered by His Spirit! This also means that at the end of our earthly lives, we will be raised with Him – raised from the dead to have eternal life!

Secondly, it also shows that there will be judgment for those who choose not to trust in Jesus. The language of gathering in the wheat and burning up the chaff evokes notions of judgment. Those who choose to trust in Jesus are the wheat that He gathers into His barn; those who rebel against Him are the chaff that He will burn up with unquenchable fire.

This is a very sobering reminder that there can be no middle ground. The atheistic man and the apathetic man are both equally subject to God’s judgment on sin. Only by acknowledging that we cannot to do anything to earn our standing before God, and only by trusting in Jesus’ power to save through His death on the cross as our substitute, can we be saved from God’s judgment.

Conclusion

Three points to summarise, by way of conclusion:

  • Christian baptism is an outward expression of an inward resolution to follow Jesus.
  • While the immersion itself does not magically do anything, when we choose to trust in Jesus he gives us His Spirit and begins a process of heart change. We are subsequently empowered to live free from sin.
  • Choosing to trust in Jesus also means that we will be raised from the dead with Him (just as we were baptised into His death).
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Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:13-17 ESV)

We are told of the presence of all Three Persons of the blessed Trinity. God the Son, manifest in the flesh, is baptized; God the Spirit descends like a dove, and lights upon Him; God the Father speaks from heaven with a voice. In a word, we have the manifested presence of Father, Son and Holy Ghost. We may regard this as a public announcement that the work of Christ was the result of the eternal counsels of all the Three Persons of the blessed Trinity. It was the whole Trinity, which at the beginning of the creation said, “Let us make man;” it was the whole Trinity again, which at the beginning of the Gospel seemed to say, “Let us save man.”

– JC Ryle, Expository Thoughts on Matthew (1856), at 22-23

Wise men from the East – Pondering Jesus (19/07/14)

Over the next month or so, I shall be reflecting on the Gospel of Matthew and ‘pondering Jesus’ – thinking about who He is, and what that means for us. In so doing, I hope to delight more in my Saviour; and if I am able to help you (reader) to do so too, then even better!

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” […]

After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way. (Matthew 2:1-2, 9-12 ESV)

One of the most mysterious parts of the narrative of Jesus’ birth has to be the visit of the wise men. The record of their visit can only be found in Matthew’s gospel account (and not in the other three), adding to the mystery. Who were they? Some clues can be gathered from the text itself:

  • They were ‘wise men from the East’ (v1), thus were not likely to be Jews.
  • They were astrologers of some sort – they ‘saw his [Jesus’] star when it rose’ (v2), that being the sign they had been looking for. Furthermore, they followed the star until it ‘came to rest over the place where the child was’ (v9).
  • The footnote informs us that ‘wise men’ is magi in Greek. According to the ESV Study Bible, in earlier times, ‘wise men’ (Greek magi) referred to priests and experts in mysteries in Persia and Babylon, but by this time it applied to a wide range of people whose practices included astrology, dream interpretation, study of sacred writings, the pursuit of wisdom, and magic.

So, in short, these wise men could be easily be described as pagan* sorcerers!

Yet, why did they come? Simply put, they came to worship ‘he who has been born King of the Jews’ (v2). When they saw the child, ‘they fell down and worshipped him’ (v11). And they brought Jesus gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Indeed, when they saw that the star had guided them to their destination (i.e. the house where Jesus was), they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. They were so happy to be able to find and worship the King of the Jews.

The account of the wise men bears much reflection. Might it be too simplistic to say that God, in His grace, reveals His salvation to those who seem to be so far removed from him – even pagan sorcerers? Perhaps. We see nothing in the text to suggest that they recognised Jesus to be the son of God; indeed ‘it is doubtful that these quasi-pagan religious men understood Jesus’ divine nature’ (ESV Study Bible). Besides, it is also perhaps unhelpful to ask whether these wise men were “saved” (cf Rom 10:9f).

However, at the very least we can see that God, in His mercy, and through His creation (the star), points lost people in the direction of His salvation. In other words:

For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they [all men] are without excuse. (Rom 1:20)

Indeed, we see many examples on this theme even today. I have friends for whom the Christian ideas of sacrificial, other-person-focused love resonates so strongly within them – yet they cannot accept that such sacrificial love for others found its paradigmatic expression in Jesus on the cross. I have friends who are amazed by the wonders of creation in their scientific research – but will refuse to look beyond the creation to the creator. These are friends who, like Herod in Matthew 2, decide instead to reject Jesus’ kingly rule.

Two points of application by way of conclusion.

  1. Praise God for His great mercy, in pointing us in His direction, through his creation (i.e. general revelation), and definitively saving us through His Son (i.e. special revelation).
  2. Let’s continue to pray that many who may be far from God now — “pagan sorcerers” of our day — will see and recognise Jesus, for He is ever looking to draw them into His fold.

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* For the sake of clarity, the word “pagan” here loosely refers to a follower of any of various religions that are based on the worship of nature or the Earth. The usage here is not intended to be pejorative. 

What’s in a Name? — Pondering Jesus (12/07/13)

Over the next month or so, I shall be reflecting on the Gospel of Matthew and ‘pondering Jesus’ – thinking about who He is, and what that means for us. In so doing, I hope to delight more in my Saviour; and if I am able to help you (reader) to do so too, then even better!

Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:

“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel”

(which means, God with us). When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus. (Matthew 1:18-25 ESV)

What’s in a name?

I often think of Jesus as the Son of God, the Messiah, and so on, when I consider Jesus’ identity. All of this is true. But when considering these “titles”, I often neglect the name Jesus itself. In our modern context, we don’t think much – if at all – about names. For example, I have many friends called “Victor”, but never have I consciously associated them with being victorious, regardless of how successful they are.

The name Jesus, however, bears closer scrutiny. It is Yeshua‘/Yehoshua‘ (Joshua) in Hebrew, meaning “Yahweh saves” (ESV Study Bible). And in the text above, we know the reason why he is so called: “for he will save his people from their sins.

God came down in human form in the person of Jesus. And why did he come? He came to rescue his people from their sin, which leads to death and destruction. This was his main purpose. This rescue mission was so central to his purpose that it was even encapsulated in his name!

Sin is a big deal – that’s why we needed rescuing. But it is such a wonder of mercy that God himself would come down to save us. And notice how certain this salvation is: ‘he will save his people’. When we think of Jesus today, or when we call out to Him in prayer, let us remember that He is the God who saves.

Owen, ‘How Life and Comfort Depend on Mortification’

As we walk with our God we desire greatly His strength, comfort, power and peace. The realisation of these, and thus the joy of our spiritual life, depends greatly upon the mortification of sin.

Owen acknowledges that there is no necessary tie between mortification and these things – ‘the use of means for the obtaining of peace is ours; the bestowing of it is God’s prerogative’. He also notes that mortification is not the ‘immediate means that God has instituted to give us life, vigour, courage and consolation’; that would be adoption (cf Rom 8:16).

However, he goes on to explain:

In our ordinary walking with God, and in the ordinary course of His dealing with us, the vigour and comfort of our spiritual lives depend much on our mortification. Mortification not only bears a cause-and-effect relationship to our joy, but it works effectually to bring it to pass. The vigour of our spiritual lives is not possible apart from mortification.

Mortification prevents sin from depriving us of health in our spiritual life. Every unmortified sin will certainly do two things:

  1. It will weaken the soul, and deprive it of its vigour. When David had, for a while, harboured an unmortified lust in his heart, it broke all his bones, and left him no spiritual strength; hence he complained that he was sick, weak, wounded, faint. ‘There is,’ he said, ‘no soundness in my flesh’ (Psa 38:3); ‘I am feeble and crushed’ (v8). Indeed, I cannot so much as ‘look up’ (Psa 40:12, AV). An unmortified lust will drink up the spirit, and all the vigour of the soul, and weaken it for all duties. For:
    • Sin untunes and unframes the heart itself, by entangling its affections. It diverts the heart from the spiritual frame that is required for vigorous communion with God. It lays hold on the affections, rendering its object beloved and desirable, so expelling the love of the Father (1 John 2:15; 3:17). The unmortified soul cannot say uprightly and truly that God is its portion, having something else that it loves. The soul and its affections, that should be full of God, cannot be full of Him, since it is entangled in worldly pursuits.
    • Sin fills the thoughts with its enticements. First it captures the thoughts and, if unmortified, it then seeks to make provision for and fulfil the lusts of the flesh.
    • Sin breaks out and actually hinders duty. The ambitious man must be studying, the worldling must be working or contriving, and the sensual, vain person providing vanity for himself, when they should be engaged in the worship of God. It would extend this discourse too much o set forth the breaches, ruin, weakness, and desolations that one unmortified lust will bring upon a soul.
  2. Sin will also darken the soul, and deprive it of its comfort and peace. Sin darkens the soul. It is a cloud, a thick cloud, that spreads itself over the face of the soul, and intercepts all the beams of God’s love and favour. It takes away all sense of the privilege of our adoption; and if the soul begins to gather up thoughts of consolation, sin quickly scatters them.

Mortification prunes all the graces of God, and makes room for them in our hearts to grow. The life and vigour of our spiritual life consists in the vigor and flourishing of the plants of grace in our hearts. Now, as you may see in a garden, let there be a precious herb planted, and let the ground be untilled, and the weeds grow about it, perhaps it will live still, but it will be a poor, withering and unuseful thing. You must look and search for it, and sometimes can scarce find it; and when you do, you can scarce know it, whether it is the plant you look for or not; and suppose it is, you can make no use of it at all. But let another of the same kind be set into he ground, naturally as barren and bad as the other, but let it be well weeded, and every thing that is noxious and hurtful removed from it, it flourishes and thrives; you may see it at first glance into the garden, and have it for your use when you please.

So it is with the graces of the Spirit that are planted in our hearts. If they abide in a heart where there is some neglect of mortification, and they are about to die (Rev 3:2), they are withering and decaying. The heart is like the sluggard’s field, so overgrown with weeds that you can scarce see the good corn. Such a man may search for faith, love, and zeal, and scarce be able to find any. If he does discover that these graces are there and alive, yet they are so weak and so clogged with lusts, they are of very little use; they remain, indeed, but are ready to die.

But now let the heart be cleansed by mortification, and the weeds of lust constantly and daily rooted up (as they spring daily, nature being their proper soil), there will be room for grace to thrive and flourish, the graces that God gives will act their part, and be ready for every use and purpose!

– John Owen, ‘How Life and Comfort Depend on Mortification’ (Ch 2 in his The Mortification of Sin, abridged by Richard Rushing)

Owen, ‘Why The Flesh Must be Mortified’

The main point thus far: Even while we claim the meritorious mortification of our sin through the work of the cross of Christ, and though the implantation of our new life in Christ is in opposition to and destructive of the expression of sin, sin remains, acts, and works in the best of believers while we are yet in this world. It must be our constant daily duty to mortify it.

Before proceeding, I cannot but note that even though there is in this generation a growing number of professors, a great noise of religion, religious duties in every corner, and preaching in abundance, there is little evidence of the fruit of true mortification. Perhaps we might find that ,judging by the principle of mortification, the number of true believers is not as multiplied as it appears from those who have made a mere profession. Some speak and profess a spirituality that far exceeds the former days, but their lives given evidence of a miserable unmortified heart. If vain spending of time, idleness, envy, strife, variance, emulations, wrath, pride, worldliness, selfishness (1 Cor 1), are the mark of Christians, we have them among us in abundance. May the good Lord send us a spirit of mortification to cure our distempers, or we will be in a sad condition!

There are two evils which certainly accompany every unmortified professor, the first, in himself, and the second, with respect to others.

First, in himself. The basic characteristic of an unmortified course is the digestion of sin without bitterness in the heart. He who is able to swallow and digest daily sins in his life without conviction in the heart is at the very brink of turning the grace of God into lasciviousness, and being hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.

Let a man pretend what he will, little concern over sin is a serious offence to the grace and mercy of God!

There is no greater evidence of a false and rotten heart in the world than to deal in such a trade. To claim the blood of Christ, which is given to cleanse us (1 John 1:7; Titus 2:14); the exaltation of Christ, which is to give us repentance (Acts 5:31); the doctrine of grace, which teaches us to deny all ungodliness (Titus 2:11-12); and then to allow sin, is a rebellion that in the outcome will break the bones. From this door have gone out from us most of the professors that have apostatized in the days in which we live. For a while most of them were under conviction, and they ‘escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ’ (2 Pet 2:20). But after having become acquainted with the doctrines of the gospel, they became weary of their spiritual duties. They had no true desire for these, and they allowed evil instead to lay hold of them, and speedily tumble them into perdition.

Second, to others. Unmortified professors have an evil influence on others in two ways:

i. Others are hardened in their own sin by persuading themselves that they are in just as good a condition as the unmortified professor. They see their zeal for religion, but it is not accompanied with righteousness. They view their worldly and selfish lives. They see them talk spiritually but live vainly. They hear them mention communion with God, and yet they are in every way conformed to the world. They see them boast of forgiveness of sins, and yet never forgive others. Thus, as they see the stain of sin in the unmortified professor, they harden their own hearts in their unregeneracy.

ii. It deceives them to think that if they can just be as good as the unmortified professor it shall be well with them. In reality they might even go farther in ‘holiness’ than the unmortified professor, and yet still fall short of eternal life.

– John Owen, The Mortification of Sin (1656). (Abridged version by Richard Rushing (2004), at 10-12)

I wonder if these words of John Owen, written almost 400 years ago, are equally descriptive of the bride of Christ today?

Stott on the relationship between doxology and theology

It is of great importance to note from Romans 1-11 that theology (our belief about God) and doxology (our worship of God) should never be separated. On the one hand, there can be no doxology without theology. It is not possible to worship an unknown god. All true worship is a response to the self-revelation of God in Christ and Scripture, and arises from our reflection on who he is and what he has done. It was the tremendous truths of Romans 1-11 which provoked Paul’s outburst of praise. The worship of God is evoked, informed, and inspired by the vision of God. Worship without theology is bound to degenerate into idolatry. Hence the indispensable place of Scripture in both public worship and private devotion. It is the Word of God which calls forth the worship of God.

On the other hand, there should be no theology without doxology. There is something fundamentally flawed about a purely academic interest in God. God is not an appropriate object for cool, critical, detached, scientific observation and evaluation. No, the true knowledge of God will always lead us to worship, as it did Paul. Our place is on our faces before him in adoration.

– John Stott, commenting on Rom 11:33-36 in The Message of Romans (IVP, 1994) at 311-312 (emphasis mine).

A short post on C.S. Lewis

22nd November 2013 marked the 50th anniversary of C.S. Lewis’ death. Clive Staples Lewis, or ‘Jack’ as he was known to his close friends, was a stalwart of the Christian faith and one of my heroes. I owe much to him and his writings; in particular his Chronicles of Narnia which I read as a child, and his Mere Christianity which I read during a tumultuous period in my life. No doubt he is one of the first few people I’d like to meet when I get to heaven.

Much tribute has been made to him in the year that just passed. Amongst other things, he was honoured with a memorial in the Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey; he was the subject of the entire Desiring God National Conference 2013; and a number of books have been published this year in his honour (e.g. this one, and this free ebook). I shall not attempt to produce a tribute of my own here. This is largely because everything that can be said has already been said and by persons far more eloquent than I – I would simply not do Lewis justice.

I would just like to share one thing, if I may. C.S. Lewis’s description of faith in Jesus Christ has resonated deeply with me ever since I read it. In one of my favourite quotations from his entire corpus, he writes:

I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen. Not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.

Christianity is the only coherent worldview which explains everything in the world – history, science, the human condition… everything. It is not a blind faith; it is a thinking, rational one, as I have elsewhere described. And, dear reader, if you would earnestly consider the claims of Jesus, I assure you that everything will start to make sense.

To conclude this short post, I would highly recommend the following message preached by Julian Hardyman of Eden Baptist Church, on Lewis’s ‘ legacy, 50 years on. It is such a good introduction to the life and work of a man touched by the love of Christ, who in turn touched the lives of many.

Calvin on how the Imago Dei should influence our ethics

John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, III.4.6.696-7:

The great part of [men] are most unworthy if they be judged by their own merit. But here Scripture helps in the best way when it teaches that we are not to consider that men merit of themselves but to look upon the image of God in all men, to which we owe all honour and love. [You] say, ‘he is contemptible and worthless’; but the Lord shows him to be one to whom he has given the beauty of his image. Say that you owe nothing for any service of his; but God, as it were, has put him in his own place in order that you may recognise toward him the many and great benefits with which God has bound you to himself. Say that he does not deserve even your least effort for your sake; but the image of God, which recommends him to you, is worthy of your giving yourself and all your possessions. … You will say, ‘He has served something far different of me.’ Yet what has the Lord deserved? … remember not to consider men’s evil intention but … look upon the image of God in them, which … with its beauty and dignity allures us to love and embrace them.