The Ridiculous Entry into Jerusalem

ridiculous entryToday we begin Holy Week, the last week of Jesus’ pre-Resurrection ministry, by celebrating Palm Sunday and his Triumphant Entry into Jerusalem. Here is the standard account in Matthew:

Now when they drew near to Jerusalem and came to Bethphage, to the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village in front of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her. Untie them and bring them to me.  If anyone says anything to you, you shall say, ‘The Lord needs them,’ and he will send them at once.” This took place to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet, saying,

 “Say to the daughter of Zion,
‘Behold, your king is coming to you,
    humble, and mounted on a donkey,
    on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.’”

 The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them.  They brought the donkey and the colt and put on them their cloaks, and he sat on them. Most of the crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. And the crowds that went before him and that followed him were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” And when he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred up, saying, “Who is this?” And the crowds said, “This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee.” (Matt. 21:1-9)

To ears trained by a couple thousand years of church history to hear these Hosannas as those of glorious choirs, and the donkey as a dignified steed, we miss the glorious irony of this most ridiculous of all entries. John Calvin highlights how foolish the whole thing would have been:

This would have been a ridiculous display, if it had not been in accordance with the prediction of Zechariah, (9:9.) In order to lay claim to the honors of royalty, he enters Jerusalem, riding an ass. A magnificent display, truly! more especially when the ass was borrowed from some person, and when the want of a saddle and of accouterments compelled the disciples to throw their garments on it, which was mark of mean and disgraceful poverty. He is attended, I admit, by a large retinue; but of what sort of people? Of those who had hastily assembled from the neighboring villages. Sounds of loud and joyful welcome are heard; but from whom? From the very poorest, and from those who belong to the despised multitude. One might think, therefore, that he intentionally exposed himself to the ridicule of all.

And yet, this was necessary because:

…in consequence of the time of his death being at hand, he intended to show, by a solemn performance, what was the nature of his kingdom. So then, as his removal to heaven was at hand, he intended to commence his reign openly on earth….But as he had two things to do at the same time, — as he had to exhibit some proof of his kingdom, and to show that it does not resemble earthly kingdoms, and does not consist of the fading riches of this world, it was altogether necessary for him to take this method. (Harmony of the Gospels, Vol 2, Comment on Matthew 21:1)

This is the way the King came announcing his kingdom: in humility, poverty, absurdity, and weakness. And yet, because of this, we see all the more clearly that it “does not consist in the fading riches of this world.” The gold and the pomp we might have expected would have only obscured the true glory of our King.

So then, as we sing our hosannas today, and lift our palms to the King of glory, let us recall his humble, and, indeed, ridiculous entry into Jerusalem.

Soli Deo Gloria

And This is Why I Read Bavinck: Jesus–the Miracle of History

Jesus 3Yesterday I posted a killer Gospel quote by Calvin that basically sums up the glory of Christ in the Gospel and simultaneously explains why I read him so much. I ran across a passage in Bavinck over the weekend that similarly serves to point us to Christ, and hopeful whets your appetite to read him:

The coming of Christ is the turning point of the ages. Grouped around his person is a new cycle of miracles. He himself is the absolute miracle, descended from above, and yet the true and complete human. In him, in principle, the creation has been restored, again raised from its fall to its pristine glory. His miracles are the signs (semeia) of the presence of God, proof of the messianic era (Matt. 11:3-5; 12:28; Luke 13:16), a part of his messianic labor. In Christ there appears a divine power (dynamis) that is stronger than all the corrupting and destructive power of sin. This latter power he attacks, not only peripherally by healing diseases and performing all kinds of miracles, but centrally, by penetrating the core, breaking and overcoming them. His incarnation and satisfaction, his resurrection and ascension are God’s great deeds of redemption. They are in principle the restoration of the kingdom of glory. These facts of salvation are not only means of revelation by are the revelation of God himself. Miracle here becomes history, and history itself is a miracle. The person and work of Christ is the central revelation of God; all other revelation is grouped around this center.

–Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics Volume 1: Prolegomena, pg. 339

Soli Deo Gloria

How Can A Blogger Love?

The Triune God simply is love, and it is out of the love that he is that he condescends to save sinners through the obedience of the Son. Unsurprisingly, then, he commands his children who have been adopted and are being transformed into the image of the Son, to love one another (John 15:12).  But what does that love look like?

Paul offers us a punchy little summary at the center of  his extended meditation on love in the famous passage in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7:

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful;  it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth.  Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.love one another

I got to thinking about this last weekend at our staff retreat during our hour of meditation, and my mind took a strange turn. As I began to reflect on what this would look like concretely in my own life, I started wondering what it would look like specifically in the area of blogging.

What would it look like to blog with love? To approach writing and the entire range of social media practices that accompany it, as an aspect of my Christian discipleship submitted to the loving lordship of Jesus? To undertake blogging in dependence on the Spirit, so that when people look at me, they see glimpses of the love of Jesus?

As an exercise, I wrote some brief, meandering reflections on each phrase in those verses. Since I think I’m not the only one out there who ought to be struggling with that question, I offer them up here:

Patient and Kind- I imagine blogging with patience might include the practice of waiting to write and post. There are times when quick responses are possible, but slowing down to make sure the words we write are true, both in content and form, takes the patience of love–both of people and the cause of truth itself. Given its pairing in the text with kindness, I suspect it likely includes patience with others on the internet. Patience when their writing is mediocre. Patience when their theology needs some tuning up, but they’re clearly on a trajectory. Patience to remember that you were once such as these (and to someone you still are.)

Arrogant or Rude – I don’t have the space to go into the radical change eliminating arrogance and rudeness in our blogging habits would have. It is a common-place that internet culture, even certain wings of Christian blogging culture, is infected with coarseness and a total lack of respect for dialogue partners. The Christian looking to imitate Jesus, to love the way Jesus would, must put aside all false judgments of superiority that lead to the condescension and contempt polluting our posts, tweets, and comments.

Lack of Envy or Boasting – Blogging with love would exclude both envy and boasting.  Initially, that means some of us might write a lot less, given how much is written or posted as a response to the success of others.  Also, we’d be more likely to rejoice when a friend’s article goes viral instead of mourning our own that lies ignored in its respective corner of digital space; when we truly love the way Christ does, the good of our sister is our own good. There’d probably be a lot less humble-bragging as well, and a lot more encouragement of our brothers and sisters who labor alongside of us. What’s more, we’d trumpet our own successes a bit less, and be little more circumspect about re-tweeting all of our positive mentions, in an attempt to build our reputation and platform.

Doesn’t Insist on its Own Way – This one wasn’t as obvious at first. On a surface-level reading it would probably mean listening to my editors with greater humility. While that’s something I probably should do, it seems this has more to do with cutting out the self-serving way we approach our blogging. Our blogging will be less about our self, our name, our platform, our glory, and our self-interest. We don’t have to entirely neglect our own interests, of course, but our object will be to lift up Christ’s name and to forwards the interests, good, and welfare of others in our community. We will write for the common good of others and the church, not merely our own.

Not Irritable and Doesn’t Keep a Record of Wrongs- When we cease to place ourselves at the center of our hearts in our blogging, irritability and resentment will hopefully fade away as well. When I am at the center of my affections, every post I disagree with seems to have been written specifically to annoy me and cross my will. Because of my pride, I find myself writing or commenting out of irritation with a post, or an author, instead of a heart of love. Beyond that, much of the pointless internet drama happens because So & so is still grieved over the critical review Such & such gave his book, would settle down. Or that one time there was the week-long shenanigans over the tweet you swear everyone misinterpreted? Yeah, we’d finally let go of animosities we built up in that battle too.

Does not Rejoice in Wrongdoing, but Rejoices at the Truth - This one’s big. So often our rejoicing comes from the wrong reasons. We rejoice when we see an opponent put in their place, or a favored position trumpeted loudly. And, honestly, that’s not always bad–sometimes these positions ought to be trumpeted and these persons do need to be set in their places. But all too often, our concern isn’t about the truth being championed, but about our own vindication over against those with whom we disagree. Because of that, we don’t really mind that an argument was straw-manned, or someone was mildly slandered–but we should. Blogging that rejoices at the truth is one that takes delight in the truth being known, even when that means being proved wrong.

Bears all Things, Hopes all Things, Endures all Things – Finally, blogging with love means bearing, hoping, and enduring all things. It means bearing insults and misunderstandings, at times–not passively submitting, but steadfastly refusing to return evil for evil in the Spirit of our Savior. It means hoping the best of people, reading charitably, and receiving honest criticisms in the best possible light. Or, when the best possible light is still darkness, trusting that this same Spirit is at work in their heart and mind. It means enduring through the empty days, the lonely days, the quiet times when no one seems to read or care, except for your heavenly Father above, whose eye is ever watchful on the works of his children.

Of course there’s more to life than blogging, and more to love than the paltry reflections I’ve offered up here. Still, for those of us who desire our words to be more than a noisy cymbals or clanging gongs, they’re probably a decent place to start.

Soli Deo Gloria 

There is a Reason Everyone Still Quotes Athanasius Around Christmas

athanasiusblackdwarfThere is a reason everyone still quotes Athanasius around Christmas:

For this purpose, then, the incorporeal and incorruptible and immaterial Word of God entered our world. In one sense, indeed, He was not far from it before, for no part of creation had ever been without Him Who, while ever abiding in union with the Father, yet fills all things that are. But now He entered the world in a new way, stooping to our level in His love and Self-revealing to us.

He saw the reasonable race, the race of men that, like Himself, expressed the Father’s Mind, wasting out of existence, and death reigning over all in corruption. He saw that corruption held us all the closer, because it was the penalty for the Transgression; He saw, too, how unthinkable it would be for the law to be repealed before it was fulfilled. He saw how unseemly it was that the very things of which He Himself was the Artificer should be disappearing. He saw how the surpassing wickedness of men was mounting up against them; He saw also their universal liability to death.

All this He saw and, pitying our race, moved with compassion for our limitation, unable to endure that death should have the mastery, rather than that His creatures should perish and the work of His Father for us men come to nought, He took to Himself a body, a human body even as our own. Nor did He will merely to become embodied or merely to appear; had that been so, He could have revealed His divine majesty in some other and better way.

No, He took our body, and not only so, but He took it directly from a spotless, stainless virgin, without the agency of human father—a pure body, untainted by intercourse with man. He, the Mighty One, the Artificer of all, Himself prepared this body in the virgin as a temple for Himself, and took it for His very own, as the instrument through which He was known and in which He dwelt. Thus, taking a body like our own, because all our bodies were liable to the corruption of death, He surrendered His body to death instead of all, and offered it to the Father.

This He did out of sheer love for us, so that in His death all might die, and the law of death thereby be abolished because, having fulfilled in His body that for which it was appointed, it was thereafter voided of its power for men. This He did that He might turn again to incorruption men who had turned back to corruption, and make them alive through death by the appropriation of His body and by the grace of His resurrection. Thus He would make death to disappear from them as utterly as straw from fire.

–Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word, ¶8

Soli Deo Gloria

To Celebrate Jesus’ Birth, Here are Some Fun New Words to Play With

coleWhen I found out that Graham Cole, author of one of my favorite pieces of atonement theology, wrote a biblical theology of the incarnation, The God Who Became Human: A Biblical Theology of the Incarnation, I bought it right away. (Then I waited to read it until Christmas to read it.) Now, you might not think a book like this is a big deal. I mean, surely there are tons of theology books on the incarnation right? And they all involve the Bible right? Yes, that’s true enough as far as it goes. But this is not just a study on key verses here and there in the NT, or an extensive dissection of the Chalcedonian definition with some biblical texts interspersed here and there. Instead, it’s a sweeping review through the story-line of the Bible in order to trace the theme of God-with-us, from Genesis to Revelation.

Through a close study of the storyline, key OT theophanies, prophetic texts, and a survey of the NT data, Cole aims to show that the incarnation doesn’t just burst on the scene unannounced, or merely within little, obscure, prophesied hints here and there, but as the fitting capstone to the OT revelation of an ‘embodied’ God. In order to do that, though, he has to introduce a couple of new terms that I think are worth a little discussion and could be helpful for those of us looking to expand our theological tool-kit.

In essence, I’m giving you a couple of new words to play with for Christmas.

Transcendence, Immanence, and “Concomitance”? Most of us might be familiar with the traditional terms “transcendence”, referring to God’s over-and-against relationship to creation. As Cole notes, the greatest metaphysical principle in the Bible is the Creator/creature distinction and this is what transcendence speaks to. God is not limited by, confined to, or identified with his creation–he transcends it. ‘Immanence’ on the other hand, speaks to God’s indwelling of creation. His nearness and working within creation to govern and bring it to fruition and perfection. As the two polar terms, traditionally they have covered the spectrum of God’s relation to creation.

Drawing on Process theologian Norman Pittenger (without the Process implications) Cole suggests we need a third, middle term, ‘concomitance’:

The idea of divine concomitance adds an important nuance in understanding the divine relation to creatures…Concomitance adds to these categories [transcendance & immanence] the notion of alongsideness or God with us. The notion of the divine alongsideness is important in both Old Testament an New. For example, Moses pleaded for the divine accompaniment in Exodus 33:15-15: ‘Then Moses said to him, “If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?”‘ And Jesus promised it to the eleven disciples in Matthew 28:18-20 in the famous Great Commission. (p. 33)

Of course, Cole says that we see this God-with-us concomitance most clearly in the incarnation. Here God comes to dwell with his people. He is not merely transcendent above them, or immanent to them in providence, but concomitant as an active presence alongside them.

Now, I have to admit, I feel myself torn about the term. On the one hand, I don’t see anything wrong with it and it seems helpful enough. On the other hand, I’m having trouble distinguishing it too sharply from a heightening of divine immanence, which is what I’ve always taken to be the God-with-us term. Still, it might be a helpful one to have in your theological tool-kit when dealing with the doctrine of God and divine-human relations.

Anthropomorphism, Anthropopathism, Anthropopraxism - The next new terms of interest is ‘anthropopraxism’. A lot of Cole’s work is dealing with the issue of narrative portrayals of God in the OT. Theological students will know that ‘anthropomorphism’ is the classic term used to describe language about God in which human qualities or functions are attributed to God as a way of describing him. More specifically, it can be limited to speech attributing physical characteristics God’s “hands”, or “mouth”, or human functions like calling him “Father”.

The less-common, but related term used in theological speech is “anthropopathism” and it refers to language attributing human emotions like sadness, anger, joy, delight, and so forth, to God. Now, to be clear, the terms are not meant to downplay or deny their reality, but function to preserve their analogical character. As noted in the past, God has an emotional life, even if the Creator/creature distinction prevents us from simply analyzing our own experiences and reading them up onto God.

“Anthropopraxism” is Cole’s attempt to cover a third category of God-language in Scripture and that is the language of action (“praxis” = practice). God is often said to “walk” or  “see” or “hear”, or be engaged in some sort of activity which requires us to employ an analogy based on human activity. It’s for such occasions that Cole would have us use anthropopraxism. Of course, as with concomitance, Cole would have us see in Jesus Christ, the ultimate manifestation of our anthropomorphic, anthropopathic, and anthropopraxic God. In him, God takes on human life, with the full range of human limitations, emotions, and activities (excepting sin) in order to redeem us from sin. That’s the mystery of Christmas.

Unlike concomitance, I have no such reservations except that given it’s newness, people might not know what you’re talking about. But, you know, explaining terms is half the fun of theology anyways, right?

Soli Deo Gloria

12 Tips for Keeping It Clean In Your Dating Relationship

awkward dateSo, I work with college students. Sometimes they like to date each other. Being human, with normal, God-given (but fallen) physical desires they also want to do stuff together while they’re dating. You know–sexy stuff. Of course, most of them who’ve been around long enough have learned that the Bible says the sexy stuff is God’s good, beautiful, and pleasurable idea for knitting a man and a woman together in marriage. In the meantime then, I’ll have couples approach me wondering if there are ways that they can continue to build their relationships in holy, appropriate ways, and avoid temptation.

Now, I remind them that it’s not just about not breaking rules–it’s an issue of the heart. I remind them of the grace of the Gospel for any past or future failure, and that this is not the one, irrevocable sin.  I encourage them to look to Christ, develop their relationship with him, and all the good spiritual, foundational stuff. But then, well, I get “practical” and offer them a few (slightly humorous) tips that helped my wife and I during the (four!) years we were dating.

I can’t emphasize enough that these are not laws, but general guidelines that help you obey God’s laws for your good. These are not hard and fast unbreakable rules. They are wisdom, though. Some of them may seem childish or nit-picky. You might think read them, roll your eyes, and think “Really? Come on, I’m not an animal!” True, but you’re not an angel either, and following these can help you honor God in your dating relationship:

  1. Clothes are not optional. But seriously, stay fashionable–in your clothes.
  2. If no one’s home, you’re not home. This might narrow your hang-out options initially, but it forces you to be creative. I really can’t stress this one enough.
  3. Cars are fun when you’re driving. When stationary, you can get in an accident.
  4. Give someone you trust absolute authority to speak into your life and talk to you about this area whenever. Also, don’t lie to them.
  5. Consider the consequences on a regular basis.
  6. Pray at the beginning of your dates.
  7. “Napping” together is stupid. Falling asleep during a movie is one thing, but otherwise…nah.
  8. And God said, “Let there be light…”
  9. Private porn usage always makes a public appearance. Eventually, porn shapes the way you act with your boyfriend/girlfriend. Avoid it at all costs.
  10. Spas are fun group activities.
  11. God gave you legs for a reason. Run when you have to.
  12. Have this conversation often. Re-affirm and re-commit to biblical guidelines and standards for your relationship.

Above all of these, of course, is to constantly be chasing Christ. Tips and rules can help for a while, but it’s the deeper holiness comes through the Spirit of Holiness changing our affections from within through the grace of the Gospel.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Myth of ‘Magic Neutral Time’ (TGC)

BackSoon“The Myth of Magic Neutral Time” is the sort of goofy phrase you come up with in college ministry to make basic concepts of spiritual life stick for your students. Sometimes you can’t just come out and say stuff–it’s like you have to trick the truth into them.

In any case, this particular neologism struck me in a conversation with my friend Katie. We were discussing the frustrating phenomena of future college freshmen who plan on ‘taking a break’ from their faith to just go off and ‘have a little fun for a while.’ Now, this is idiotic for several reasons. But to see why, let’s first explain the myth of Neutral Time.

The Myth of Neutral Time - I always tell my students that they need to be aware of the myths, the stories, that they tell themselves about reality because the story you think you’re in determines the character you become. Neutral time is a particularly popular story. It goes something like this:

“I’ve been a good kid in high school. I’ve done my homework, been to Bible study, and didn’t screw around too much or anything. Now though, now I really want to go out and enjoy myself a bit. The ‘college experience’ is calling and I can’t be expected to go to college and not let loose a little bit. I mean, I really love Jesus and my faith will always be a big part of my life, but you know, I’ll just go off for a bit, maybe a semester or two, have my fun, and then be back around. You’ll see.”

There are number of assumptions underlying this story, but the main one seems to be that faith is this unchanging, timeless, perennial thing. Your walk with Jesus is something you can just leave alone for a while, and then, once you’ve done your own thing for a bit, you can just pick up again. No big deal. Calling ‘neutral time’ is like calling time-out so you can go the restroom or take a break in the middle of the game—when you come back the score, time, and possession is just like where you left of last.

You can read about the foolishness of this approach by clicking on The Gospel Coalition.

The Difference Between a Man and a Man-Boy

gastonOkay, more honestly, this is about one difference between a man and a man-boy because I’m not sure what the difference is, but this title reads better as it is. Also, I don’t like the typical man-boy bashing that goes on because it’s mostly guilt/shame-driven and unhelpful, so forgive me if I wander into it here. That’s not my intent. One more caveat: all of this probably applies to women just as equally, so trade in the corresponding female terms if you’re a lady it’s basically about maturity in general.

Still, I’ve been thinking about this in relation to men lately because I work with a lot of boys who are about to become men, men who have recently been boys, and those caught in the awkward middle. What’s more, I’m 27 and like most of my millennial peers, still feel like a boy sometimes, even though I’ve achieved most of the adult male markers (married, job, etc), and probably could have bought liquor at 15 without being carded.

All that said, it has been my, likely not very original,  observation that one of the defining characteristics of modern boyhood, is that, whatever it is,”if I don’t want to do it, I’m not gonna do it.” So if it’s hard, or the kind of hard that I don’t find amusing, I simply will not exert myself to meet the challenge. This, if I had to nail it down, is close to the heart of manboyhood.

Is homework boring? Won’t do it. Is getting to class hard? I’ll just sleep. Is having a real conversation with a friend awkward? Let’s just play a game instead and hope the problem will go away. Is struggling to establish a real relationship difficult? Well, porn is easy. Does it look like I might have to study a regular subject to get a regular, average job, instead of the magical one I thought I deserved since I was fifteen? Mmm, no.

Expand this out in any direction and you’ll recognize the phenomenon. What makes this worse is the general fascination with “motivation” that clouds any discussion about actually doing things in the modern period. Ever since the Enlightenment, or, more probably, the Romantic period, we have this idea that unless we “feel” like doing something it’s false and unauthentic to do it. You especially hear this in the church, when people talk about not wanting to do something like a ‘hypocrite’.

I was just talking to my guys about this a few nights ago in relation to the spiritual life. A couple of my guys were confessing their struggle with actually getting up for church on Sunday, or reading their Bibles regularly. At that point, knowing exactly where they were coming from, I just told them, “Guys, college is the time when you learn to do hard things that you don’t want to do because you just have to do them. If you don’t learn this skill, you will fail as a husband, as a father, and you will tank your career.” (To their credit, they basically know this, and a lot of them put me to shame in this area…I really do love these guys.)

The reality is, in marriage, there will be a lot of times when you don’t want to do something, but in order to love your wife, you have to do it anyways. Taking out the trash. Mowing the lawn. Cleaning up your crap. Doing devotions. Having difficult conversations at late hours. The same thing is true of work. No matter what career you choose, there will be meetings you can’t stand, paperwork you hate, dry drudgery that makes you question the meaning of your whole life, but you have too do it anyways. I am not a father, but I’ve seen my brother-in-law Shawn with his newborn: 3 a.m. diaper-change. ‘Nuff said.

Here’s the thing, none of this is hypocrisy; there’s nothing inauthentic about doing a bunch of stuff you have to do when you don’t feel like it; this is just being a grown-up man. A hypocrite goes around talking how much he loves something that he hates, just to look good. A hypocrite puts a fake smile on his face and says words he doesn’t really mean, because he knows that will gain him praise and acceptance. This is not being a man, but a cardboard cut-out of a man.

One of the biggest symptoms of this outlook is being stuck in the “motivation” trap. To be clear, having the right motivation for doing something is important, but that is not the same thing as “feeling” like doing something. For the longest time I would find myself praying “God give me the motivation to do X.” Then I’d sit around and wait to feel like doing or not doing whatever it is, and wonder why God hadn’t come through. I don’t know how many times I’ve talked to a student or a friend who’s said the same thing.

Thing is, it doesn’t work that way. Half the time, you just have to say, “God, I don’t feel like it, but I’m doing it anyways because I know it’s right. Please bless that”, and trust him to come through as you obey him. The example I always give has to do with marriage: it might be a date night with my wife but I’m tired and just want to stay home and watch TV to decompress after a long week. Making the decision to go through the trouble of getting ready, getting dressed, shaving (my neck–because neck beards are unacceptable), and getting in the car when I don’t really feel like it, surprisingly can lead towards actually feeling like it. The loving action stirs up my loving emotion so by the time we’re on the road, I’m actually excited for the night out with my wife.

A grown-up man (and as I noted before, a grown-up woman too) looks at Jesus going to the Cross, saying “Lord not my will but yours”, even though clearly he’d rather have not had nails the size of cigars shoved through his palms. He wasn’t doing what he wanted to do, but what he knew he had to do if he was going to fulfill his vocation, love his Bride, and bring many sons to glory. God wants to remake you into His image.

Since this is already kind of rambling, I’m reminded of a passage in chapter 8 of the Screwtape Letters where Screwtape warns Wormwood about the dangers of the ‘troughs’, the times when God seems absent to the Christian:

He will set them off with communications of His presence which, though faint, seem great to them, with emotional sweetness, and easy conquest over temptation. Sooner or later He withdraws, if not in fact, at least from their conscious experience, all those supports and incentives. He leaves the creature to stand up on its own legs– to carry out from the will alone duties which have lost all relish. It is during such trough periods, much more than during the peak periods, that it is growing into the sort of creature He wants it to be. Hence the prayers offered in the state of dryness are those which please Him best…He wants them to learn to walk and must therefore take away His hand; and if only the will to walk is really there He is pleased even with their stumbles. Do not be deceived, Wormwood. Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.

All that to say, quit waiting around to do things you know you have to do until “you feel like it”. Yes, pray for the Spirit to empower you, to remind you of the truth of the Gospel, to set a flame in your heart for the tasks he has called you to. And then get on it whether you “feel like it”, or not. Growing up, and growing in faith, involves learning to trust and obey God in the troughs, just like Jesus.

And of course, there’s grace in this. You’re going to jack it up–I know I have–I know I do! But that’s one of the lovely things about grace: it’s space to get back up and try again.

Why You Can’t Pit Jesus Against His Bible (@TGC)

Every so often, the champions and foes of “Red Letter” Christianity break out their arguments, sharpen them up, and take to the internet. Champions say we’ve ignored the words of Jesus—highlighted in some modern Bibles with red lettering—for far too long. They want us to take up the radical call to discipleship Jesus issued in the Sermon on the Mount. The foes say that even printing these words in red creates a false, canon-within-a-canon that distorts the Scriptures.

it_is_finishedOf course, there is a good sense in which we ought to give heightened priority to the words and deeds of Jesus. Unfortunately, some other self-described, “Red Letter” Christians do more than them priority. Instead, they contrast and even set in opposition the words of Jesus from the writings of Paul, or some other similarly ill-tempered and unprogressive disciple. While problematic, that approach is even less concerning than the tendency to pit Jesus against the Bible he grew up with: the Old Testament. Jesus’ words and character are contrasted with the Old Testament law, or the various commands of God scattered throughout the narrative sections of the Torah. So where Jesus and the Old Testament seem to conflict on violence, neighbor-love, sexuality, or some other hot topic, go with Jesus, they say. If you have to pick between red or black letters, go with red.

At the risk of kicking off another round of ‘robust dialogue’, here are three reasons why that approach doesn’t really work.

You can read the reasons over at The Gospel Coalition.

Abraham and the Sacrifice of Faith (The Story Notes #3)

My church is, across all departments, going through The Story, a chronological, abridged edition of the Bible that takes you through the story of Scripture from Genesis to the end of Acts in 31, novel-like chapters. It’s a fun project that’s challenging me to deal with narrative sections, teach large chunks at a clip, and point my kids to Christ throughout the whole redemptive-historical story-line of the text.

That said, it seemed worth it to start posting my notes for these talks on a regular basis. It might happen every week, or not, depending on how helpful I think it is, or time constraints. My one request is that you remember these are pretty rough notes and I’m teaching my students, not a broader audience.

abraham and isaacText: Genesis 22 (Also, 12, 15)

One of the most terrifying and significant stories in western world, is God’s testing of Abraham with the sacrifice of Isaac. Soren Kierkegaard wrote a whole book about it, meditating on the ethical issues involved in obeying the command of God to sacrifice your child. What does faith look like in that situation? What horror must Abraham have felt as he thought of killing his own child. What a terrible ‘test’ that must have been.

Now, the word ‘test’ can mean test, or trial, or tempt. So, God is putting Abraham through a trial. It’s a trial of faith. A trial of sacrifice. God wants to teach Abraham, and us, something in this test. I’ll just say that Abraham was shocked by the test as well, but probably not for the same reasons as Kierkegaard was.

Sacrifice in the Ancient Near East - See, Abraham grew up in a world of child sacrifice. A lot of the neighboring gods had demanded them. Chemosh and Molech were two that famously consumed child after child after child. Abraham had probably grown up with neighbors who had offered up their children to the flames. We have archeaological digs with pits full of the bones of little children. What’s more he’d only been following this new God, for a while now. He still didn’t know much of his character. He knew he was surprising and powerful, but how different was he from the other gods? The Bible hadn’t been written yet, so he didn’t know that this God actually hated child-sacrifice. As horrifying as it sounds, with the pagan background that he had, I don’t feel that Abraham was shocked because of the kind of request it was.

What’s more, he knew he was a sinner. More than a couple of times, he had been a coward and tried to pimp out his wife. He had been an idolater for so long that he understood the principle involved in atoning for his life with the life of his firstborn son. If I had to guess, though he loved his son as any normal father would, perhaps even more because of how long he had to wait, the request wouldn’t have horrified him for the same reasons it horrifies us.

No, you see, I think the weird thing for Abraham, the thing that would have been running through his mind during those days of walking towards Moriah, would have been the promises. What would this mean for God’s promises?

The Call - Go to the beginning of Genesis chapter 12:1-3. See, after all that had come before, after creation, the fall of Adam and Eve there was a lot of history. Things went from bad to worse. Sin filled the earth and God caused a flood and only left few survivors to start over with. From there, humanity grew again, spread over the earth, and God began to set in motion a plan to fulfill his promise to Eve that one day he would save everything. He decided to start this plan by picking Abram, an idolater who had a wife who couldn’t conceive children.

The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. “I will make you into a great nation,  and I will bless you;I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you,and whoever curses you I will curse and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”

He told him to leave his family, and strike off and that one day, he would bless him in such a way that his blessing would bless the whole world. He would make his name great. So, Abraham struck out in faith and, yes, went on a good many adventures. One thing to note here is that God chose Abraham explicitly, not just for his own sake, but so that through him, somehow God would bless the wider world around him. God always blesses us to be a blessing to others. His particular choice of Abraham was always part of a global plan to bless all.

The Covenant - Now, beyond that first promise, came a second promise. As we said, Abraham was childless and so he expected that his servant would one day inherit all that he had been blessed with by God. At one point God comes to him and tells him he will bless him even more, but Abraham’s skeptical. “What can you give me since I don’t have a child?’

God at this point makes another great promise to him in Genesis 15:

4 Then the word of the Lord came to him: “This man will not be your heir, but a son who is your own flesh and blood will be your heir.” 5 He took him outside and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”

6 Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.

So here, he promises not only that he’d bless him, but he’d give him progeny, so many descendants that we wouldn’t even be able to count them. Abraham believes him, and the text says that it’s counted to him as righteousness.

Then, he goes through this weird ceremony where God has him cut up a bunch of animals, line them up in two lines with a corridor between the halves. Usually this was a covenant ceremony where both parties would walk through the animals and basically agree, “If I bail on this covenant, let me be cut in half like these animals.” Here’s the thing, God puts Abraham to sleep and then shows him a vision of himself going between the animals alone. God basically takes a death-curse on himself–if He doesn’t fulfill the covenant, then he accepts a curse. (Gen. 15:8-21) He tells Abraham to have the sign of the covenant be circumcision, yes, but basically he just promises “If I don’t make this happen, let me be cut in half.”

From there, it’s years and years of waiting. Abraham tries to take things into his own hands and has a kid with a servant girl. God says, ‘no, that’s not the one. Sara will give you a child.’ And guess what? She does. After years, I mean, decades of waiting, God fulfills his promise to Abraham and gives him a son, Isaac, a name which means laughter because the thought of having a kid that late in life had caused them to laugh at the idea when God told them. Then God laughed them.

At that point Abraham had to be thinking “This, this is how it’s going to happen! Isaac! I get it now!” But then, Genesis 22.

What now? This, this is what I think was provoking confusion in Abraham’s heart. God had come through before. Why was he threatening his promise now? How is he going to bless the earth through his line if his line is dead?

Have you ever been in a place like that? In one of those situations where you’re looking up at God and thinking, “What the heck? How is this going to work? What are you doing? This isn’t what you said? You’re killing your promise and it makes no sense. Why would you ask me to give this up? Why would you take this from me? What purpose could this serve?”

So What Did Abraham Learn? Tests are about learning. Trials are about showing. So what did Abraham learn? What was this test about?

Read rest of Gen. 22

How Much Do I Love Him? Realize, to us this is horrifying, but here, God is asking him, ‘Will you sacrifice as much for me as your pagan neighbors will for their pagan gods?’ If you were worshipping those things, you would. Will you do that for me? What do you love more? What holds your heart? Because if he’s not willing to sacrifice it, then God is not as important. One thing he wants us to ask ourselves, what is most important?

Faith Rests in God’s Promises and Past Actions Now, in light of all of this, what was Abraham’s response? He said, “Here I am, Lord.” When Adam hid at the Lord’s call, Abraham answered with a faithful response. But how? How was he able to make that choice? Well, it seems to me that the text says in  Romans and Hebrews tell us that “Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead.”. So while God’s promises were what was confusing about the situation, they were also what allowed him to be obedient.

See, it seems that Abraham reasoned, ‘Well, if God promised, and he’s come through on his promises in the past, despite the fact that there was no way life could come from our dead bodies, he’ll make life come from the dead again.’ Abraham trusted in God’s character and God’s promises despite his confusion at God’s request. God proved himself in the past, so he trusted him for the future.

He Rewards Faith? The next thing we see is that God rewards faith. Gen 22: 16 “I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore…through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.

You have to realize that at some point, God will probably test you. There will be something that you will be challenged to give up. Some way that you’ll be asked to follow God that will test whether you love that thing more than him. What this text shows us is, not that God won’t ever take it, but that you can trust him when he does. He’s looking to bless you in the sacrifice.

Either to replace it with something better, to prepare you for something greater, or to take something that will destroy you.

Ultimately Our Sacrifice Isn’t The One that Counts: What else does Abraham see? That God is the one who provides his own sacrifice. See, there are all kinds of linguistic issues here, but there is a deep pun going on “Abraham saw the place of sacrifice (v. 4); God will provide (see) a lamb (v.8); Abraham saw a ram (v.13); Yahweh provides (lit. “sees,” v. 14a); and Yahweh appears (“makes himself seen,” v. 14b).”[1] What’s more, the land of Moriah (land of vision) is also linguistically linked to the word.

The long and the short of it is that God shows himself to Abraham as the one who provides his own sacrifice. “You’re not the one making the big sacrifice for me, I’m the one who provides it for you.” Now, this should have been obvious given that so far, God has just been promising, promising, promising and so here, once again, God takes the responsibility.

The Great Sacrifice Now, there is a big difference here for us than there was with Abraham. Abraham was able to see God’s promises and had received his blessing and had his word, yes. But, what he didn’t have that we do is the surer promises of having seen Christ. See, we know in a way that Abraham could only dimly, that God had already made the great sacrifice.

But, of course, with Christian eyes and ears we can’t help but see that this is pointing ahead to something truer, something deeper: “For God so loved the World that he have his only-begotten Son.” Abraham points ahead to the great sacrifice when God provides the ram, the true Lamb who takes away sin. Only this time, it is God’s own Son of promise, the Only Son of God who goes under the Knife for sin. This is what we see, that Abraham could not.

And the crazy thing is, in doing so, this is how the promise to Abraham was eventually fulfilled. Paul tells us that God’s promises to Abraham were fulfilled, not only in physical nation of Israel that expanded to fill and make a great nation, but ultimately in his descendant, Jesus Christ, the one through whom all the families of the earth are blessed, and through whom he has descendants of all nations that outnumber the stars of the sky.

I could draw out the implications of this text for pages here, but at the end of the day:We can trust, we can give, we can sacrifice because the Son trusted, gave, and sacrificed himself for us.

Soli Deo Gloria