• Blog

    Thinking about the Love of God in Christ

    One of my favorite passages in Scripture is the so-called “Christ hymn” found in Phil 2:5-11. There, we learn how God’s love for each of us is incredibly deep. Christ, the text says, “emptied himself” (v.7). So much to say about this!

    The cross was the way in which God put his love on public display: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8). We know that, in this act of death on the cross, God was not watching from a distance. Rather, God was “in Christ,” reaching out us (2 Cor 5:19). Again, so much to say!

    But let’s keep it simple. Perhaps the point to ponder this morning is this: As creator of all, God loves each of us with a deep love. He loves you. He loves all. You won’t meet anyone today who isn’t loved by God. Treat them accordingly. The Christian ethic flows downstream from the cross. In other words, we ought to love others the way Christ loved us (Eph 4:32; 1 John 4:11).

    As someone recently noted, love is not something God does from time to time; love is who God is all the time. The church, then, ought to reflect this way of life. We ought to have the same “mindset that was also in Christ Jesus” (Phil 2:5). His mindset? A willingness to love all – even his enemies – at great cost to himself. This is what the church ought to look like. When we don’t look like this, we misrepresent our Lord and we look more like dragons than lambs.

    But the Lord is incredibly gracious, helping us to learn how to be lambs. Like Eustace, we have tendency to turn ourselves into fiery dragons. But, as C.S. Lewis so beautifully illustrated so many years ago, God knows how to turn dragons back into something beautiful again. And if we are willing, he’ll do it.

    Let’s pray for one another as we walk in the love of the crucified God. Amen.

  • Blog

    Alas, Discouragement

    Walking through a period of discouragement is like traversing a dark valley coated in tar. Wrapped in darkness, you’re unable to see where you’re going. Neither can you so much as lift a single foot without some serious sweat. The muck of the valley is tightfisted, a jealous demon of sorts; your feet, its helpless prisoner. Life, no doubt, is full of curveballs (to switch metaphors). But that is not the same as discouragement—an altogether different thing. You can hit curveballs, after all. Discouragement, on the other hand, often paralyzes you such that you can’t even swing the bat.

    To make matters worse, discouragement has a concomitant associate, namely, depression. Together, these two dragons are enemies of the soul—Twin Beasts of the Shadowlands, if you will.

    There’s a story in the Bible about a discouraged—nay, depressed—prophet named Elijah. Having just experienced a rather impressive display of God’s power, Elijah ran for the hills when he got word that his enemy, Jezebel, put a hit out on his head (1 Kings 19:1-3). When he got wind of her threats, the text says, “Then he was afraid, and he arose and ran for his life” (19:3).

    What’s interesting is that, in the chapter immediately before this episode, Elijah showed no fear at all. In fact, he was so confident that he could directly challenge a cohort of false prophets (450 of them, to be precise). There in that scene, Elijah orchestrated, as it were, a war of the gods—a contest between Baal and Yahweh. The challenge was to see which god could answer a prayer to send fire down from heaven upon an altar (18:22-24). Says Elijah: “You call upon the name of your god, and I will call upon the name of Yahweh, and the god who answers by fire, he is God” (v.24).

    And so it went. Both deities squared off in a battle that, as it turned out, ended up being no battle at all. The pagan god, Baal, turned out to be an imposter. Even after his prophets cried out to him for a miracle, Baal remained silent. Elijah, bold as ever, offered a mocking explanation as to why, perhaps, Baal wasn’t answering prayers that particular morning: “Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened” (18:27).

    But then there is Yahweh. He is no fraud, nor is he an obscure figment of the prophet’s imagination. He is God. When Elijah cried out to him, fire poured down from heaven (v.38). Consequently, the bystanders who witnessed this had nothing left to say, except for this confession: “Yahweh, he is God! Yahweh, he is God!” (v.39).

    Emboldened, Elijah takes it on himself to slaughter the pagan prophets—all of them (18:40). Whatever one makes of this act, one thing is evident: Elijah’s confidence was unflinching throughout this entire episode.

    But then, not a few verses later, Jezebel got word of what Elijah did and promptly sent the latter a message. “I’m going to kill you,” she boasted. It was at this point that Elijah’s confidence left him; he feared and “ran for his life” (19:3).

    Elijah, despondent as ever, retreated to the wilderness. Finding some shade, the text says he prayed to his God, saying, “It is enough; now, O Yahweh, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers” (v.4). In other words, Elijah viewed himself to be nothing more than a massive failure.

    His prophetic calling, his uncompromising faith, indeed, his entire identity—everything, in that moment, was called into question. For Elijah, all the memories of victory had been exiled into the Abyss of The Forgotten. Now, Elijah wanted to die. Nothing mattered anymore. His soul, his confidence, his courage were all emptied the moment he heard Jezebel, that other dragon, roar as she swore to the gods. And, sadly, Elijah took it all to heart. Like a dagger, that roar knifed its way through his heart, paralyzing the prophet. The terror of darkness would quickly settle way down deep into his bones—alas, discouragement.

    Understandably exhausted, Elijah collapsed into a deep sleep. An angel, according to the text, brought food and water to him—necessary sustenance for a stay in the desert. After another nap, the “angel of the Lord” came for a second time, encouraging him to “arise and eat, for the journey is too great for you” (19:7). The food and rest both served him well, refreshing his anxious, fear-filled body. But it wasn’t just his body that needed nourishment; his soul, too, was depleted. The deepest part of his soul required revitalization, rehabilitation, and care. Elijah, having forgotten the power and supremacy of Yahweh, needed a holy confrontation with his God. He needed a reminder of God’s godness. Fortunately, that’s exactly what he would get.

    The text says the prophet soon found a cave and “lodged in it” (v.9). One can imagine the solitude of that particular location. From the whistle of the wind as it passed over the cave’s opening to the eerie caws of the hooded crows flying nearby. These are the tunes of exile.

    But without any warning, those tunes were interrupted by a voice: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” This was the voice of his God, the “word of Yahweh” himself (v.9).

    By asking Elijah a simple question, Yahweh invited Elijah to open up. It was an invitation to transparency and introspection. Full transparency before God about his fears and wounds would prove to be therapeutic for his soul, a true sacred moment.

    And so, Elijah laments:

    “I have been very jealous for Yahweh, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I—even I only—am left, and they seek my life, to take it away”

    (1 Kings 19:10)

    One can almost hear the tone of his anger-laced, disheartening cry when he answers God’s question. Elijah complains above that he had been “all-in,” a fully-invested minister—indeed, “very jealous” for the one true God. But for what? Nothing. God’s own people have trashed God’s name, tore down the holy places, killing off one-by-one all of Elijah’s colleagues. To boot, Elijah feels alone in this business. And he believes that his own assassination is right around the corner. Feeling that his ministry has been a waste of time—he’s angry, he’s sad, he’s depressed. These are the reasons why he’s in the cave.

    What happens next is gold. Elijah is told to “Go out and stand on the mount before Yahweh” (v.11). And when he does, we read that,

    “…Yahweh passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before Yahweh, but Yahweh was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but Yahweh was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but Yahweh was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a low whisper” (vv.11-12).

    What is intriguing about this part of the story is that, after being told to take his place “before Yahweh,” Elijah learns a thing or two about how Yahweh will not reveal himself. Elijah, for instance, sees a “great and strong wind” ripping through the mountains, decimating the rocks into pieces. But Yahweh was not present in this chaotic upheaval.

    Then Elijah experiences an earthquake and then a fire. Yet, in neither of these tumultuous events was Yahweh revealing himself. One might well wonder if, in experiencing the frenzied commotions of the natural world—the hurricane-like winds, an earthquake, a burning fire—if Elijah was not able, in these moments, to catch a glimpse of the inside of his own frenzied soul.

    But it was after the commotion that a “low whisper” was heard. The King James renders this as “a still small voice.” The idea here with “still” (demamah) is to convey a sense of tranquility and peace to Elijah. The word also appears, for example, in Psalm 107 to speak of Yahweh’s ability to bring calm to a storm:

    “Then they cried out to the LORD in their trouble, and he brought them out of their distress. He stilled the storm to a whisper (demamah); the waves of the sea were hushed. They were glad when it grew calm, and he guided them to their desired haven.”

    (Ps 107:28-30)

    If you know the story of Elijah and his encounter with the “still small voice,” you know that this experience proved to be a catalyst of sorts for the prophet. He was able to pick up where he left off and resume his ministry. In his moment of desperation, he needed to know—actually, he needed to personally experience—the truth that Yahweh is the anti-dragon.

    Elijah learned something that day that we all need to learn: Whereas dragons can roar us into discouragement and depression, Yahweh can whisper us into his love and tranquil care. In other words, Elijah, that zealous and fierce prophet, experienced the gentleness of God. In his chaos, this was what he needed most. I suspect this is what every discouraged, downtrodden soul needs.

    Perhaps you need it.

    Perhaps you find yourself in a season of despair, a time when you’ve bought into the lies of the enemy, that enemy who “prowls around like a roaring lion” (1 Pt 5:8). His roar can be luridly shocking, completely debilitating, soul-paralyzing.

    As ghastly as the snarl of the enemy is, please be convinced of this: It is no match for the gentle whisper of Yahweh. The “still small voice” is life-giving; it is your sustenance in your wilderness. It is soul-calming.

    Here’s the thing. The soul is the “you” that makes you you. That’s why when your soul is wounded, the core of your being is wounded. Hence, that’s why your entire self feels paralyzed and unable to do anything. You’ve experienced the chaos and ravages of life, and it’s left you in shambles.

    What I’ve discovered (and, to be honest, I am still discovering this) is that, in order to find revitalization in times of my deep discouragement, I have to run to the Creator of my soul. Specifically, I have to immerse in his gentleness. As I wade through the mess of life, the roars are everywhere. I need them to be hushed. And my God is able to hush every one of them—all with a gentle whisper.

    Like Elijah, we’re often scared. Subsequently, we find ourselves tucked away in a lonely cave, tired, and completely exhausted. In these moments, let us always remember: God is gentle and compassionate; he understands us, and he loves us (Ps 103:6-14).

    Perhaps after a warm meal and a long nap, though, we might consider taking a deep breath and then rising up to “go out and stand on the mount before Yahweh” so that we, too, might hear his gentle, life-giving whisper.  

    Then, perhaps, we could learn how to sing that old Jewish psalm with fresh awareness of the divine goodness:

    Yahweh is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside quiet waters. He restores my soul.

    Yes, Lord. Restore us! Amen.

  • Blog

    Show Grace or Stand for Truth?

    I have been reading through the Gospels, carefully observing (the best I can) the way Jesus interacts with his friends, the crowds, and his enemies. If you study the ways of Jesus, you’ll notice that he never prioritizes grace over truth or truth over grace. Typically, his responses to the humble and lowly are tender and compassionate. In contrast to this, his responses to the arrogant and proud are baptized in anger (Jesus knows how to manufacture and wield whips in church!).

    A common theme, moreover, among the varied ways of Jesus is his commitment to both grace and truth. He never, so far as I can tell, grants one without assuming the other. It seems that he understands both to be two sides of the same coin such that, if you want the “coin,” you will by default have both sides. The “heads” side of the coin is always backed up by the “tails” side and vice versa. Should you show grace or stand for truth? The answer is “yes.” The “truth” side always assumes the reality of the “grace” side, and the “grace” side always assumes the reality of the “truth” side. One coin; two sides.

    Practically speaking, then:

    If you shower grace upon others at the expense of speaking truth to them (i.e., hiding sin, turning a blind eye to wickedness, etc), then you rob grace of its glorious power—namely, its ability to overcome the horrors of human depravity. How so? Well, by neglecting to address sin, you have kept it hidden and therefore provide no opportunity for grace to come into the equation. After all, “grace” assumes some transgression was committed. Likewise, if in the name of truth you willfully neglect to shower grace, then you actually end up perverting the truth of God’s love and mercy, which is: Christ-crucified-for-his-enemies. God speaks truth for the purpose of bringing us back to himself—so that he can lavish us with grace and so that we can run to the cross, where grace was demonstrated.

    Here’s the deal: The truth is that God is gracious, and God’s grace shines when sin is exposed by the truth. If, in your own life, you neglect one in favor of the other, you end up destroying the reality of both. If you faithfully cling to both grace and truth, however, then you just might see true transformation—a beautiful display of what it means for you (and, perhaps, your enemy) to be fully human.

    It can be a fearful thing to let “grace” and “truth” mingle. It’s full of risk, requiring a strength that can only be found at places like Gethsemane, Golgotha, and (to be sure) the Garden Tomb. But if you are courageous enough to let “grace” and “truth” dance together like God intended, then you may very well be surprised to discover the joy and peace for which you were made. And that can only be found in the Messiah who embodies for the entire world both grace and truth so beautifully.

    There is so much more I could say about this, and I am by no means wanting to turn the complexity of this issue into a set of sermonic platitudes. To the contrary, I want to turn our attention neither to churchy platitudes nor rote propositions but rather back to a person—namely, to the Son of God himself, through whom both grace and truth danced beautifully and boldly:

    “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14)

    Amen.

  • Blog

    Off-The-Cuff Musings on Faith, Hope, Love, and Tacos

    My Bible reading this morning took me to 1 Thessalonians, and I was struck by a few things Paul had to say. When he writes to the Thessalonian church, Paul begins by extolling them for their Christian virtues – that is, for their way of faith, hope, and love.

    He says,

    “We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers, remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.” – 1 Thess. 1:2-3 (ESV)

    I think what he says here is super instructive for many Christians. In much of modern evangelicalism, for example, there is an unfortunate tendency to separate “faith” from “works.” For us evangelicals, we have an allergy of sorts toward “works” out of fear that we will become “legalists.” Instead, through the years, many evangelicals have been taught to understand “faith” as mere “intellectual assent.” Similarly, our common practice has been to equate “conversion” with something along the lines of an “emotional experience.”

    To be sure, “faith” includes intellectual assent, and “coming to faith” is an experience that can be emotional. And while I’m at it, let me be clear: I’m a committed Protestant. Heck, I’m worse than that – I’m a Baptist (we still do altar calls at my church, by the way, and we don’t have plans to change this important part of our worship service). But, at the end of the day, the Christian faith cannot be reduced down to intellectual assent or to emotional flutterings in the belly (the latter of which could be due to having eaten a bad taco).

    Instead, the Christian faith is about, well, faith(fulness) that is oriented toward the Triune God and toward our neighbors (Mark 12:28-31). If you call yourself a Christian but live contrary to the ways of Christ (even though you may very well have intellectually assented to, or had an emotional experience about the fact of, Christ’s Lordship), then that’s a problem.

    Apparently, though, the Thessalonian Christians did not have this problem. They weren’t evangelicals; they were Christians.

    According to Paul, after all, their faith worked. Their faith was faithful to the ways of Christ. Similarly, their love was such that it labored and toiled for the benefit of others. Their hope, likewise, was “steadfast,” says Paul. Their hope was more than a mere dreamy wish; it could stand fast under less-than-optimal circumstances.

    I highly doubt the Thessalonians were perfect and sinless. Rather, I believe they were Christians – a people so immersed in the ways of their Lord that, despite being sinful, they constantly focused their work of faith, their labor of love, and their steadfast hope on “our Lord Jesus Christ” (v.3). And that’s the crux of the matter. For the Thessalonians, their efforts and work were not exercises in legalism; rather, they were the marks of devotion.

    Let us have faith(fulness). Amen.

  • Blog

    Tyndale Conference 2019

    I am looking forward to the 2019 Tyndale Fellowship Conference in Cambridge, England. I will be presenting a paper in the Biblical Theology Study Group. The Study Group’s theme this year is “A Biblical Theology Perspective on Salvation.” Here are the details from the website:

    Soteriology is an exceptionally important aspect of Christian theology and figures prominently in the field of Systematic Theology. There has been much less discussion of soteriology from the perspective of Biblical Theology. In light of this, the 2019 Biblical Theology study group provides an opportunity to explore this important topic from a variety of different perspectives.

    I will be delivering a paper entitled “Scripture and Soteriology: Exploring Paul’s use of the Old Testament and the Salvation of the Gentiles in Romans 9-11.” Should be fun!