Thinking Through Scripture

"but the word of the Lord remains forever"

Church Heretics: An Interesting Way Jesus Changed Paul

Paul can be pretty feisty when dealing with heretics. Honestly, Paul seems like a pretty feisty guy in general. But last night a thought occurred to me. Paul’s feisty personality can be an interesting example of the transformative power of Jesus. Here’s what I mean: Paul dealt with heretics a lot throughout his life, but somewhere in there a major shift took place. Paul dealt with heretics before he met Jesus and after he met Jesus. With Jesus comes a significant change in his thinking and actions toward those who pervert the faith.

Prior to Jesus, Paul describes himself as “a persecutor of the church” (Philippians 3:6). His zeal led him to the conclusion that those who “apostatized” and worshiped Jesus were dishonoring God, blaspheming, and needed to be violently pursued. A “zealot” was one whose religious convictions leads to violence and murder. They would kill for the faith. To be zealous often had violent consequences, and there is a long tradition of this in Judaism (see Phinehas who “was zealous for His God,” Numbers 25:6-13).

A fascinating account of this tradition of violent zeal is seen in Mattathias (1 Maccabees) when Greek officials attempt to force the Jews to blaspheme and offer pagan sacrifices. Mattathias was offered gold and silver and gifts for him and his sons if he would use his influence to help the Greeks Hellenize the Jews (1 Maccabees 2:17-18). Mattathias refused. To put it mildly. When the Greek officials threatened and tried to force the Jews to sacrifice, a willing Jewish man came forward. He was going to give in. Now read this next paragraph carefully:

“When Mattathias saw it, he burned with zeal and his heart was stirred. He gave vent to righteous anger; he ran and killed him upon the altar. At the same time he killed the king’s officer who was forcing them to sacrifice, and he tore down the altar. Thus he burned with zeal for the law, as Phinehas did against Zimri the son of Salu. Then Mattathias cried out in the city with a loud voice, ‘Let every one who is zealous for the law and supports the covenant come with me!’” (1 Maccabees 2:24-27).

Paul is one who would have followed Mattathias. He would have been right with Phinehas. Paul saw Christianity as a perversion that needed to be snuffed out. He would be blessed as a righteous hero, a zealous devotee of Yahweh. This is what Paul means when he writes, “as to zeal, a persecutor of the church” (Philippians 3:6). That’s why he was “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord” (Acts 9:1) and why he says, “being zealous for God…I persecuted this Way to the death , binding and putting both men and women in prison” (Acts 22:3-4). Paul laments, “I used to persecute the church of God beyond measure and tried to destroy it…being more extremely zealous for my ancestral traditions” (Galatians 1:13-14).

Paul loved God. This is one way he showed it.

But that all changed one fateful day. Paul’s zeal would be transformed. His whole life would be transformed by an encounter with the risen Lord. Jesus changed everything. We know the story. Paul had this experience with Jesus, he became a believer, and he took the faith to places no one had imagined.

But he still had to deal with those blasted heretics. Previously, he viewed “the Way” as a heretical movement. Now, in many ways, things are reversed. The persecutor has become the persecuted. Those who are dishonoring God are those who reject His Messiah. They are now the “blasphemers.” Paul now deals with idolatrous pagans who reject Yahweh, Jews in the synagogues who reject the Messiah, and false teachers within Christianity itself. Paul has to fight false teachers who sneak in and try to undermine his ministry. They try to distort his gospel. Paul is under constant attack, verbally and physically. Paul now deals with those who want to persecute him.

The transformative power of Jesus is seen in how Paul now responds to the “heretics.” Does his zeal lead him to violence and persecution? Does he tell his churches to arm themselves against their persecutors? Does he try to force conversions? Like Phinehas does he grab a spear? Like Mattathias does he prepare for battle? Not at all.

Paul is just as zealous as ever. Even more so. But his zeal has been transformed. He’s zealous enough to die rather than kill. After Jesus, he chooses to receive persecution rather than inflict it. After Jesus, he tries to save his enemies rather than harm them. To Paul, love has become a more powerful motivator than fear and death. He makes himself a slave to all (1 Corinthians 9:19). He encourages his churches to “Bless those who persecute you, bless and do not curse…Never pay back evil for evil to anyone…Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God…Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:14-21).

Paul is starting to sound a lot like Jesus. Now, don’t get me wrong. Paul is still a feisty guy. Read Galatians. He may call a curse upon those who change his gospel and harm his churches (Galatians 1:8-9). He may even make a few jaw dropping statements (read Galatians 5:12, yikes!). One of the oddest moments in his ministry was when God momentarily struck one of his opponents blind in a showdown of supernatural power (Acts 13:6-12). But his overall approach has been drastically transformed. Instead of violence, he calls for repentance. When it’s time for discipline, he calls for correction, or rebuke, or tragically even expulsion from the community (for the purpose of restoration to the community). But never persecution. Never violence. Never death.

Jesus changes things. Jesus changes people. He does so in many ways. This is just one way (of many) that Paul seems to have been transformed by Jesus. He’s the same guy. He still deals with heretics. But he seems to love at an impossibly new level. It is one thing to care so much that you’ll kill for your faith. It is something else entirely when you care so much you will sacrificially die for it. I hope Jesus makes that kind of change in every one of us.

Thinking about my 10 Years as a Full-Time Preacher

It was May 2008. That’s when I began preaching fulltime for the Morton Street church of Christ in Denison, TX. I had just graduated from Bear Valley in February. In those few months in-between, I worked building railroad switch points and I married the lovely Lauren Bookout. But now it’s May 2018. 10 years later. I’m now living in Monroe, LA, still married to the somehow even lovelier Lauren Bookout, father of Oliver and next monthish I’ll get to meet son #2, Levi. A bit has changed in my life over the last 10 years, but one thing has remained consistent: I can’t imagine doing anything other than preaching.

I have never wanted to switch careers (probably because I don’t really have any other skills to fall back on and building railroads was pretty “eh”), and I’ve never dreaded getting up for work the next day. Preaching is awesome. This post is intended more for preachers, ministers, or anyone who may be interested in getting into that field.  Here are 10 things you should know about ministry in the church.

10. You can’t make the church grow: This is true and frustrating and true and heart-breaking and true and humbling and true. It’s just true. And you should know it from the get-go. There are two really important reasons why you should remember this. 1. If the church grows, awesome! You need to know it wasn’t you. 2. If the church doesn’t grow, that’s tough. You need to know it wasn’t you.

No one person can make the church grow. That’s not how the church works. When a church grows, there are generally several/numerous/many people involved in that process.  When a church dies and shrinks, there are several/numerous/many people involved in that process.  Besides, if Scripture is to be believed, humans can’t really make stuff grow anyway. I can plant a seed, I can put it in a sunny spot, I can make sure it’s well watered, I can work hard on providing a healthy atmosphere, but growth does not come from me: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth” (1 Cor. 3:6).

Remember God’s words to the discouraged Zerubbabel: “Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit” (Zechariah 4:6). You can control how hard you work. You can control if you are divisive or friendly. You can control how much you prepare, engage, visit, support, and care. You cannot control growth. You just work hard and let God do His thing.

9. You’ll never be perfect: There are many people who are scared away from full-time ministry because they don’t believe they are “good” enough. Not necessarily talented enough, but “good” enough. They believe they are too weak and sinful. Sure, some of these folks may be right, but I believe many have an unrealistic view of “the minister.” No minister is perfect. Every single minister struggles with sin. Every. Single. One.

Hypocrisy is not committing sin, while saying that people shouldn’t sin. Hypocrisy is excusing or overlooking your own sin, while condemning others for the same things. You will sin. You will do a poor job sometimes. But the church is not held up by the perfect preacher. The church is held up by the mercy and love of God for all Christians who struggle to do what is right and strive to be pleasing to Him. That’s the preacher as much as the elder and deacon and parent and widow and new Christian and long-time stalwart of the faith. Plus, Christians are usually better at forgiveness than the world. They at least know Jesus wants us to forgive. You’ll mess up, but people will encourage you through it.

8. I’m a way better minister when I work with others. There are things I love about ministry and there are things that I struggle with. Some folks love visiting hospitals and making phone calls and checking up on people. I guess this makes me sound awful and uncaring, but those are my struggles as a preacher. I love study and teaching and preaching. I love making spiritual connections and growing and trying to encourage growth in others. But I struggle walking into a hospital room. I don’t know what to say. I feel unhelpful and awkward and out of my comfort zone.

But you know what? Whether I’m comfortable or not, visiting is important. This is why I say, work with others. I’m a much better visitor when I go with an elder. Or a member. I go visiting every week with one of our elders. When I preached in Texas, I would do the same thing. I have visited with my wife, my sister-in-law, my friends and peers in the church, elders, former ministers, and new members. It’s an awesome help to me, but it’s also encouraging for them.

Visiting is just my personal illustration, but this applies to most any area of ministry. Work with others on sermon ideas. Bounce illustrations off of people. Ask for help visiting, teaching a class, or writing. You are part of a whole church, use the resources at your disposal.

7. Use sources wisely: Study on your own. Exegete the best you can. Read the Bible and read it again. Read whole books of the Bible at once. Study and be honest and trust yourself. BUT, you are not the only Christian. You are not the only thinker. Again, you are part of a whole church, use the resources at your disposal. Consult others on your conclusions. Read books written by wise Christians who have also studied. Further your education. Follow good blogs. Listen to sermons. Email preachers who don’t live near you. Get coffee with preachers who do live near you. Find sources and use them wisely.

Do not use bad sources. Your illustrations or preaching points better not be coming from some random meme, or article that popped up on your facebook page. Peer review is an important process. Multiple attestation, criterion of dissimilarity, criterion of embarrassment are not only helpful tools in ascertaining history, but also checking your sources. Do others agree with this source? Are my sources biased? Are there people who don’t agree with me, yet admit this source is accurate? Confirmation bias is both pleasurable and extremely dangerous. Think critically. Check yourself and your sources before you say (or post) anything publicly.

6. Grow: If you are supported to work with the church, you have an obligation, a moral responsibility to grow. You have time to study that others do not. And that’s an amazing opportunity. You have the benefit of time to practice Christian disciplines that others do not. If you do not have that time, then you are probably using your time poorly. Study things you have not studied before. Learn interesting things. Pray. Try to learn original languages. Challenge yourself. Set goals. Go to lectureships, get on iTunes/Youtube and listen to lectures. Pray. Practice things you are not good at. Get ideas from others, think about them, pray about them, use them. Memorize Scripture. Read scholarly books that are hard to understand at first. Learn early church history. Pray. Pray for hours. Fast. If you’ve never fasted, start. Meditate, if you don’t have time, change your schedule. If possible, further your education. Go to the BETTER Conference, go to Polishing the Pulpit, get involved in a church camp. Write more. Read more. Pray.

5. Godly elders are the best thing in the world: I could not imagine working with a congregation that does not have elders. I seriously just couldn’t imagine that burden. I certainly don’t want to imagine working with a congregation with bad, ungodly, or uncaring elders. So I won’t. Instead, I’ll talk about good elders. I have always been privileged to work with godly elders who trust me, support me, and are as active as I am. They are my shepherds. They defend the truth, they defend me, and they visit with me and for me. They know the sheep. They know the Shepherd. They encourage me, facilitate my growth, and give me suggestions based on their years of wisdom and experience. They are kind to my wife, love my son, and are good to my family. They don’t treat me as bosses or managers, but as fellow workers in the kingdom. Get to know your elders. Learn from these good men. Ask for advice. Be honest. And be fed as a sheep, just like the rest of the congregation.

4. Be picky, but remember no church is perfect: When I say be picky, I’m particularly talking about where you choose to do ministry. If there is even a hint that my wife will be mistreated, or burdened with unnecessary responsibilities, or does not want to go, we will not go. If I cannot spend quality time with my family and be a godly husband and father because I’m too busy with other church duties, there is no way my family will go there. Some churches are awesome. They understand that a minister must be a faithful servant of Jesus first, and that includes being a present, godly father and husband. Some churches are oblivious. Be very picky about where you work.

At the same time, remember that no church is perfect. That church that says they are interested in you is not perfect. No church will always do the right thing or always treat you perfectly well. No church is absolutely right on every single doctrinal question you can think up (and you probably aren’t either). No church is without sin. No church always makes the right move, does so quickly, and never suffers a setback. No elder is perfect, no preacher is perfect, no song leader is perfect.  People will say dumb stuff during prayers or while giving announcements. People will say rude things after sermons. People will sin. You have to be honest about what you are willing to work with. But you also have to love flawed people, recognize your own flaws, and strive to serve Jesus together. No church is perfect, but many are very good. There’s is no better work environment that a loving group of God’s flawed people. If you have that, you are blessed.

3. Let stuff go: Remember that “no church is perfect” point? Yea, you have to deal with that. Your ministry can’t halt every time your idea is rejected, someone is rude after a sermon, or someone gets mad at you. Not only let other people’s flaws go, let your own go. If you make a mistake, do better next time. I have 300ish other people out there listening to me every week. Every one of them has their own experiences and knowledge base. Everyone of them has their own lives, concerns, health struggles, fears, heart-breaks, disappointments, idiosyncrasies, etc. If you use a word in the pulpit and 98% of are fine with it, but 2% aren’t, you may hear about it. That’s fine. Let it go, choose a different word next time. You may accidentally neglect or forget an event in one person’s life because you are working with other people or other things. That’s not good. But do better next time.

You cannot have an ego. Sometimes people who know way less about the Bible and about ministry and about what’s going on in the church will criticize you. Their criticism may be right, or it may be unfounded, based on ignorance, or just flat dumb. That will happen if you are in ministry. That’s fine. Let it go. The vast vast majority of what you’ll hear will be kind, encouraging, and uplifting. You cannot be thinskinned. You cannot be overly sensitive. You cannot please everyone. But you can do your best. You can try, improve, let stuff go, and move on. In fact, there’s really nothing else you can do.

If you want to dwell on something, don’t choose the rare negativity or frustration. Dwell on the good, pure, exciting parts of ministry. Dwell on the funny stories. Dwell on the unique, encouraging experiences. Dwell on that recent baptism. Dwell on that young child being raised by godly parents. Dwell on that faithful lady whose funeral just passed, whose goal is being achieved, who is experiencing bliss after a life of struggles.  Dwell on that member who serves anytime you ask. Dwell on Jesus. If you focus on the right areas, you’ll remember how incredible a life of ministry can be.

2. You have to remember what really matters: that breakfast you advertised but no one showed up to may have been a bummer, but that’s not ultimately what really matters. When you had that guest speaker, and people prioritized other things on that Monday night, that’s discouraging, but it’s not what really matters. When you told the elders about your new plan to encourage visitation, and they say it’s unfeasible, that’s frustrating but not what really matters.

There are so many things. So many jobs. So many ideas. So many words spoken. There are so many distractions that can cause us to forget the main goal. Don’t let the peripheral disappointments distract you from the job at hand: The glorification of Jesus Christ through His people. Remember to preach and encourage and rebuke and exhort and do it all for the glory of Jesus. Remember the good and work for more.

1. Be a sincere servant of Jesus: This is what really matters. People care about this. This is the most important part of any ministry. I have grown as a Christian because of the ministry. I didn’t make “Pray” one of the top 10 (although it deserves it), because I have referenced it so much in the others, and I’ll reference it here again. Talk to God. Pray about the ministry and your own spiritual well-being. It’s essential to serving Jesus well. Spend time with your family. I also didn’t list that one, because it fits right here. Be a godly example. Prove yourself an example in word, conduct, love, faith, and purity. Love Jesus and let others know. Show them how to let discipleship to Jesus manifest itself in all you do. Study, pray, be kind, encourage, disciple, teach, be pure, deny yourself, be selfless, be sacrificial, love your enemies, turn the other cheek, do good to those who are cruel to you, pray without ceasing, in all things give thanks. That will cover up a lot of other flaws. People will love you even after a bad sermon if you get this one right. People will forgive you even after you messed up if you get this one right. Get this one right for yourself, for others, and for God. Seriously, that’s your primary ministry. That’s what matters.

One of My Favorite Laws: Making Your Marriage Happy

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One of my favorite laws from the Torah comes from a passage in Deuteronomy 24 concerning marriage. This passage (Deuteronomy 24:1-4) is well known as the backdrop for the confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees in Mark 10 and Matthew 19. But right after those first 4 verses is a law a lot of people forget about, but it’s a really cool one.

When a man is newly married, he shall not go out with the army or be liable for any other public duty. He shall be free at home one year to be happy with his wife whom he has taken (Deuteronomy 24:5).

This law is easily forgotten. It doesn’t ever really come up again or play a prominent role in any major Old Testament narrative. But I bet the young men and women of Israel remembered it.

Jewish Rabbinic tradition viewed it as the reason that King Asa “was diseased in his feet” before his death (1 Kings 15:23). For his building projects, Asa compelled all the men to work: “King Asa made a proclamation to all Judah, none was exempt, and they carried away the stones of Ramah and its timber… (1 Kings 15:22). This would be a violation of Deuteronomy 24:5 because newly married men were supposed to be exempt from mandatory public service. Whether that is really why Asa’s foot was diseased, I have no idea. But there are a few things I think we can know:

  1. God cares about happiness in marriage. God wants married couples to be happy with one another. The phrase “to be happy with his wife” could also be translated “to make happy his wife.” Husbands, I know you have important work to do. I know you have expectations put on you. But the Lord wants you to make your wife happy. Take that job more seriously than any other.

 

  1. God sees time together as an important part of happiness. The way God wants the husband and wife to be happy together is by spending time with each other. Free up your schedule. Take a break from your hobbies. Slow down at work. Time management is a difficult skill to learn. But when you examine how you spend your time, there is usually a pretty strong correlation to where you priorities are. You spend more time doing the things you prioritize. Prioritize quality time with your wife.

 

  1. God sees the home as more important than public affairs. I realize that this is only for one year, but I think the principle is that you first and foremost make sure your home is happy, then you can move on to other matters. This passage does not say, before you spend time with your wife, make sure you have done your military service or served your community. God wants us to make sure our homes are in order and places of peace and happiness before we go out and serve in other capacities. The home comes first.

This is an area in which I think we can all strive to improve: Prioritize your wife and home life, spend quality time together, and make sure your home is a happy place. Scaling back at work, giving up a few hobbies, throwing away your phone, whatever it requires, make sure you are willing to make the sacrifice for your wife and family. God bless and have happy lives and happy homes.

The Sacred Art of Apologizing

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“True love means never having to say you’re sorry.” Hopefully, you’ve heard or read something about the absurdity of that sentiment. True love actually means quite the opposite.  In order for any loving relationship to work, the phrase “I’m sorry” should probably be a fairly common part of it. In fact, that’s probably not enough. I’d say true love means having to say much more than “I’m sorry.”

There are times I’ve playfully given fake apologies. My wife can attest to this. If there were some minor infraction that she wasn’t reaaallly upset about, I may say something like, “You know, I owe you an apology.” And then leave it right there. Which is a way of saying, “I should apologize” buuuuut I’m not actually going to. It’s my clever little way to get around apologizing. And oddly, Lauren is never as amused as she should be.

But there are much more serious times when people try to get by with “fake apologies.” What I mean by a “fake apology” is something like this: “I’m sorry you got upset.” Think about that. In that statement there is no remorse for anything I have done. I’m sorry only for what You have done, namely, getting upset. Basically, that’s a way of saying, “I wish you were different.”

Or, consider an apology that sounds a bit like this, “Look, I’m sorry, but you were the one who…” Any apology that serves only as the introduction to a polemic about how I’m not really sorry and it’s your fault, probably shouldn’t ever be uttered. Save some time and just skip the customary apology and get right into the argument. That’s really all you’re wanting anyway. You want to argue and make your point, but still be able to say, “Hey, I apologized!”

Apologizing is an essential part of any relationship, but it must be done well. It must be done sincerely and it must lead to a change in behavior. The only way that happens is with a serious dose of humility. I’ve had to apologize several times in my life. As a minister I have made mistakes. As a husband I have made mistakes. As a friend, as a brother, as a son, I’ve made mistakes. There are times I’ve been thoughtless. Times when I focused on my own life or family or work or school and it never even occurred to me that I was hurting someone else. And I doubt I’m alone in this.

There are times I’ve needed to apologize. If you ever find yourself with that need, let me make a few suggestions.

First, do not defend yourself. Even if you do have legitimate excuses, do not make them. Keep them to yourself. Most of the time, people do not want to hear them. They want to hear remorse. This takes biting the tongue and swallowing your pride. But give them what they deserve; a simple and humble apology.

Second, be sincere about it. This one is harder because if you’re not really sorry, how do you just conjure up fake sincerity? Fake sincerity isn’t even a thing. So how do you do this? The key is to consider the other person’s feelings. Don’t make it about yourself. Don’t think about the fact that they’re upset at you. Don’t think about your excuses. Don’t think about their failures. Think about the fact that they are hurting and at the very least, you didn’t do more to help. Scenarios don’t exist where you couldn’t have possibly done anything better. And most of the time, we could have done a whole lot better. Focus on their pain and on what you could have done. And sincerely apologize.

Third, try to make an active change. Apologies always deal with things in the past. You are sorry for something that has already occurred. You cannot change what has already occurred. But you can make sure you are more aware, more conscientious, more helpful in the future. You can be kinder, more selfless, and more like Jesus. That’s a goal we can all always strive for. Since you can’t change the past, that’s really all you can do. But it’s essential.

Will this always repair the damage? Not always. And that’s a tragedy. But make sure you take it seriously and do all that you can. Don’t give up if healing takes time. Make sure that any hard feelings are not lingering because of you. “If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men” (Romans 12:18).

2018 Theme: Community of the Cross

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The cross was one of the most shameful and disgusting symbols of the ancient world. It was how the Romans would quell insurrections and it served as a powerful message: the Roman Empire is not to be trifled with. In 73 BC, if you were to walk the Appian Way, a highway leading from Rome to Capua, you would have encountered 6,000 bodies writhing in agony on wooden crosses.  This was the conclusion of the famous slave revolt lead by Spartacus.  And this is what happened when you took on Rome. This is the message Rome wanted you to hear. Bodies were often left on the cross until they completely deteriorated so that all who passed by would see, smell, and never forget this message. The cross was the symbol of the power and might of the Roman Empire. It was a vivid illustration of the power of death.

The cross was a huge hurdle to overcome in early Christian evangelism because it was the very symbol of failure, defeat, and death.  The cross meant you lost to Rome. It meant the world won. And this is the symbol that Christians adopted as their own.  Paul writes, “we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:23-24). The success of early Christian evangelism is one of the greatest evidences of the Spirit’s power to convict through the Christian message. The cross was not an easy message to accept.

But today when we think of the cross, we don’t usually view it with such difficulty. When we see a cross we don’t think of the greatness and fierceness of Rome.  We don’t think of the failure of Jesus. Rather, we are reminded of Jesus’ love and sacrifice.  We think of the grace of God. We think of a revolution that changed the world. The cross, which was Rome’s symbol of power, became their very undoing. Jesus hijacked the cross and changed its meaning entirely.

In 2018, at the Jackson Street church of Christ, we will focus on the cross of Jesus. But we will try to emphasize it in a way that is sometimes tragically neglected. Absolutely, the cross is our hope of salvation and forgiveness. On the cross, Jesus died for our sins. This is an essential, foundational Christian message. But the cross also came to be something else. The cross became the paradigm in which early Christian communities lived.  The cross became the symbol, not only of our forgiveness before God, but also for how we ought to treat one another.

Ephesians 4:32-5:2, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children; and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma.”

Ephesians 5:25, “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her.”

Philippians 2:3-11, “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for our own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”

1 John 3:16-18, “We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. But whoever has the world’s goods, and sees his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or with tongue, but in deed and truth.”

Galatians 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.”

These are just a sampling of the many passages where the death of Jesus is used as the example that we are to follow in the way we treat others. The cross is certainly the means by which we are forgiven.  But it is also the means by which we forgive others. The cross is how husbands ought to treat their wives. The cross is how to solve disputes in the Lord’s body. The cross is the way of unity between Jew and Gentile. The cross is how we show our love for each other.

The cross is the ultimate display of living out the Sermon on the Mount. It is the foundational Christian ethic. It is the most sincere presentation of self-sacrificial love that the world has ever seen. And that love is the foundation of our Christian community.  We want to grow as a community in 2018. We want to grow in our love. That only happens when we become a “Community of the Cross.”

2018 Book Recommendations

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It’s been a little while since I last posted. Finishing up and defending my thesis and the rest of my school work took priority the last few months. But I wanted to start back by wishing everyone a Happy New Year! I hope 2018 is the best one yet. Speaking of 2018, hopefully you are thinking about some goals or resolutions you would like to peruse. If reading is one of them, I have a few suggestions.

Of the books I read (or audiobooked while driving/doing the dishes/running) in 2017, I have selected a few of my favorites to pass along to you.  Obviously, a recommendation of a book in no way implies I agreed with everything in it (or even much in it) or that I approve of everything an author has ever said or done.  Rather, it means I enjoyed the read. I was challenged by it, learned something valuable from it, found it thought provoking or spiritually beneficial, etc. Hopefully you will too. So, here goes:

  1. The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross, New Creation by Dr. Richard B. Hays. Over the last few years I’ve come to realize that anything written by Richard Hays is going to be absolutely fantastic. His Moral Vision of the New Testament is no exception. It was not only my favorite read of 2017, but one of my favorite books ever, on any subject. Dr. Hays is one of my favorite interpreters of Scripture and his application of the New Testament witness to modern ethical issues is the best I have read. This book serves as an introduction to Christian ethics as they can be learned from the New Testament. After examining the ethical teachings of each of the New Testament writers (which itself is well worth the price of the book), Dr. Hays proposes a methodology for understanding the ethical teachings of the New Testament through 3 focal images: Community, Cross, and New Creation. These focal images are then used to discuss five major ethical issues the church is facing today: Violence in Defense of Justice, Divorce and Remarriage, Homosexuality, Anti-Judaism and Ethnic Conflict, and Abortion. Dr. Hays’ insight into the New Testament and the ethical dilemmas facing the church will be a blessing to any who reads this book.
  2. The Conversion of the Imagination: Paul as Interpreter of Israel’s Scriptures by Dr. Richard B. Hays. I’ll limit it to two Richard Hays books. But, honestly, this one is really best read in tandem with Dr. Hays’ Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul. And if you read that, you might as well check out Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels (And I’ll also recommend Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness, which I have not read yet, but am looking forward to soon). These books will transform the way you read the New Testament, in a very good way. The Conversion of the Imagination is a series of essays that investigate Paul’s method of referencing and exegeting the Hebrew Scriptures, and illustrating how heavily influenced he was by them.
  3. The Reason for God by Tim Keller. If you are interested in apologetics there are many good sources to choose from with a lot of great information. You can find books that are more in-depth and cover more arguments and counter arguments. But not many are as accessible and enjoyable to read as Keller’s The Reason for God. He offers a great foundation for the truth of the Christian religion and beneficial responses to many of the common reasons given for rejecting Christianity. He does this with solid reasoning and kindness. I’d highly recommend, especially as an introduction to apologetics.
  4. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin by Benjamin Franklin. This was a fun read filled with interesting history, humorous stories, and a great look into the personality of Benjamin Franklin. Some of my favorite themes that pops up several times are Franklin’s battle with pride and humility and his constant quest for knowledge. One time, during an outdoor sermon by the famed 18th century preacher George Whitefield, Franklin, in true enlightenment fashion, got an idea to test some claims he had heard many times before but often doubted. Claims like, Whitefield had preached to 25,000 in a field, or that ancient generals could audibly address an entire army. Surely it is impossible for one voice to be heard by a crowd that large! So, during the sermon, Franklin began to walk away, as far as he could while still hearing Whitefield’s voice. He writes, “I found his voice distinct till I came near Front-Street, when some noise in that street obscur’d it. Imagining then a semi-circle, of which my distance should be the radius, and that it were fill’d with auditors, to each of whom I allow’d two square feet, I computed that he might well be heard by more than thirty thousand.” I guess if Benjamin Franklin is doing all that during a George Whitefield sermon, I can’t be too offended when someone is daydreaming during mine.
  5. Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking by Malcolm Blackwell. For preachers or teachers who hunt for good illustrations and relevant studies, this book is full of them. Blink is primarily about the split-second decisions we all make every day. These types of decisions effect the way that we view the world and can have extremely powerful consequences in our lives, marriages, and attitudes toward others. Gladwell provides helpful insights into marketing, relationships, racism, the value of expertise, the value of height, and how to make good decisions. It is full of studies and stories from police shootings to the Coke vs Pepsi controversy and everything in-between. I’d also just tack on here at the end that you may also enjoy Gladwell’s David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants.

This is getting longer than I intended, so I’ll rapid fire some other recommendations that I enjoyed. I’ll classify them by genre:

Biographies: Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (Eric Metaxas) and Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President (Candice Millard). I am currently in the middle of Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery, also by Eric Metaxas, which has been excellent so far. I love the biography on Bonhoeffer. I read Destiny of the Republic because it was about the assassination of James Garfield, who was part of the American Restoration movement. There was not a ton about his spiritual life in the biography, but it was still very enlightening. And as I make my way through it, I’m growing in my appreciation of Wilberforce every day.

Apologetics: I did not read much on apologetics last year, but I did read Genome: Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters by Matt Ridley.  This is in no way intended to be an apologetic or Christian book, but it was an interesting scientific look at our makeup as humans. I just don’t see how you can study that without learning more about God. Also, The Problem of Pain by C.S. Lewis and Evil and the Justice of God by N.T. Wright, both of which provide excellent insight into one of life’s most difficult problems.

Biblical Exegesis and Interpretation:  The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion by N.T. Wright is pretty standard N.T. Wright. If you have read much Wright, you’ll know what to expect and you know it’ll be good. But he does present the crucifixion in a light that is often neglected in churches since the Reformation, and I think there is value in his perspective. Biblical Interpretation in the Early Church by Karlfried Froehlich will be really interesting if you are interested in ancient exegetical and interpretive practices.  It’s fairly technical and if you aren’t interested in the difference between allegoria and theoria you might not love it. The New Perspective on Paul by James D.G. Dunn is a helpful guide to some of the shifts taking place in Pauline studies over the last half century. It’s also a helpful guide to understanding Paul.

Old Testament Exegesis and Interpretation: Reclaiming the Imagination: The Exodus as Paradigmatic Narrative for Preaching is a collection of sermons and essays on the Exodus by many authors, edited by David Fleer and Dave Bland. Admittedly, along with the biography on William Wilberforce, I am still reading and have not finished. But I’ve enjoyed the essays and sermons so far and some of the ideas have already made their way into my teaching. John H. Walton’s The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate and Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible (which is basically a more in-depth study of the things summarized in The Lost World of Genesis One) both provide a unique perspective on the creation narrative and the way that ancient people thought. Particularly valuable is Walton’s discussion of creation as a temple narrative designed as God’s residence. Finally, I would strongly recommend to church members Sandra Richter’s The Epic of Eden: A Christian Entry into the Old Testament. This will organize your thoughts on the Old Testament and allow many of the odd stories to make a ton more sense.

Christian Allegory: I only have one in this genre but I finally got around to John Bunyan’s 1678 classic The Pilgrim’s Progress. I audiobooked this and enjoyed the story, but you’d really have to be dedicated to read the whole thing. It tells of an allegorical journey made by a man named “Christian” who meets characters of all kinds, whose names tells you all you need to know about them: Mr. Worldly Wiseman, Evangelist, Pliable, Obstinate, Hypocrisy, Charity, Prudence, Faithful, Talkative, Giant Despair, etc.  Each of these characters either helps or hinders Christian on his journey.

Final Recommendation: Lastly, I want to recommend The Domino Effect: Changing Your Life One Decision at a Time by Tim Lewis of the North MacArthur church of Christ. This short, easy-to-read guide to Biblical and godly decision making can change your life.  It will challenge you to think of the consequences of your actions and how you can best honor God with your life. This book, combined with a seminar by brother Lewis where I preach, was a great benefit and blessing to many in our church. I would encourage anyone to give it a read.

Talk to your Elders

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The church is designed by God to have spiritual resources for people wanting to grow in their faith. Every church I know uses some of those resources. They gather for worship, most teach Bible classes, some encourage friendships and provide opportunities for service.  Those are great opportunities for fellowship, learning, encouragement, and putting your faith into practice. But there are also so many other resources that the church can provide.  One that is often overlooked has been a tremendous benefit to my life and ministry: talking to your elders.

Who are elders?  One thing I find interesting about the lists given in 1 Timothy and Titus about the type of men elders ought to be is that every godly Christian person that I know is trying to be those things.  With the exception of the responsibilities as fathers and husbands (because some great Christian men are unmarried, and some great Christians are not men), everything on those lists is something every Christian should strive for.  What Christian doesn’t desire to be respectable and above reproach?  What Christian wants to be a quarrelsome lover of money or a violent drunk? These are things all Christians should aim for because they are part of the Christian life.

Elders are simply men who have been doing these things well for a long time.  They have proven to be trustworthy in their Christian walk.  They do the things Christians are to do in their homes, personal and public lives, and in the church. That’s why they are so great to talk to.

They have faithfully done what we are striving to do.  They take God and His Word seriously. They love the church. They are committed to the Lordship of Jesus.  The church has trusted them to gently lead God’s people as shepherds.  They are trying to emulate the Good Shepherd. What a tragedy for a sheep not to know its shepherd. Imagine a sheep trying to feed itself, defend itself, and lead itself without the guidance of a shepherd.  It probably won’t make it very long.

When you are having struggles in your walk with God, talk to your elders.  When you have questions about the Bible, talk to your elders.  When you have important life decisions, talk to your elders. When you are having battles in your home, talk to your elders. When personal sin is ravaging your soul, talk to your elders. They are there as a resource for you. Every eldership I have ever worshipped with has been a blessing in my life. It’s because I have gotten to know them. I’ve talked to them about important issues. I’ve seen the struggles they face when trying to do what is best for the church.  I’ve seen how much they care.

I hope you don’t respond by thinking, “psh, not my elders.” I know not all elders are what God wants them to be.  I know not all churches have elders. And that is truly tragic. But in my experience, most elders in the church, while imperfect, love God, have faithfully served him for many years, and have valuable experience and spiritual insight. They deserve the benefit of the doubt.  Don’t be afraid of them. Don’t expect the worst. They may surprise you with how shepherd-like they can be. They may become a great spiritual resource throughout your life.

But Seriously, Who is my Neighbor?

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Jesus was asked a lot of questions. One of the questions He was apparently asked on multiple occasions was, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke 10:25; 18:18). In Luke 10, the ensuing conversation led to a remarkable parable and a radical redefinition of the word “neighbor.” A definition that we still grapple with and struggle to accept today.

After a lawyer and Jesus have a conversation about how to inherit eternal life, they agree that the answer can be found in two Old Testament texts: Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18.  Basically, the answer is to love God with everything you have and to love your neighbor as yourself. The first commandment is simple enough. That second one though, the one about the neighbor, is a little harder to accept.

Like most things, loving your neighbor is easier said than done. That’s why Jesus tells the lawyer that he actually has to do it (Luke 10:28). Not liking the implication that needs to do it, perhaps he thinks that he already is, he tries to justify himself by asking another question: “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29).

If he gets the answer, “your fellow Israelite” then he’ll probably still feel justified. After all, that seems to be what Leviticus 19:17-18 has in mind. But Jesus is going to complicate matters by redefining the word “neighbor.” He’s going to make things a lot less comfortable.

Jesus answers with a story about a man who is beaten by robbers and left in a ditch to die. Two of his countrymen, fellow Israelites, religious Israelites, see him, and intentionally pass by on the other side of the road.  But one man, a Samaritan, not a fellow countryman, in fact someone hated by Jews (John 4:9) having different religious beliefs (John 4:20) and different ethnicity, sees him, feels compassion, and shows mercy. He cares for him, takes him to an inn, pays for his housing, and shows kindness that no one else did.

Then Jesus asks, “Which of the three do you think proved to be the neighbor to the man who fell into the robber’s hands?” (Luke 10:36). Rather than even mentioning the hated “Samaritan,” the lawyer simply responds, I imagine with a hanging head, “The one who showed mercy toward him” (Luke 10:37).

Isn’t that interesting? According to Jesus, in order to receive eternal life, you must love your neighbor.  And the “neighbor” is the one who “shows mercy.” To Jesus, your neighbor is not the guy next door, your fellow citizens, your political cohorts, those who share your race, or even people you agree with spiritually.  It’s the one who shows mercy. The one who is merciful in spite of all those other things being different.

What is most interesting about this conversation, however, is that Jesus concludes it by telling the lawyer again to go and do it! (Luke 10:37). Do what? Love the guy who is nice to me? That would be really easy. The lawyer initially wanted to restrict the “love command” to only his fellow Israelites. Jesus is not, here, restricting it even further to only those who show you mercy.

The final statement of “Go and do likewise,” is a command to go and be like the Samaritan.  Go and show mercy.  Don’t wait for a kind neighbor to help you, then love him in return. Rather, go be the neighbor! Initiate the love!

In Matthew 5:43-44 Jesus redefines Leviticus 19:18 to include even your enemies.  The Samaritans were enemies to the Jews in Jesus’ day.  That’s why this parable is so striking.  Who is your enemy? Who sees you as an enemy? Who would you rather walk past? Who is the hardest to love?  Perhaps that is who you most need to show mercy towards.  To be their Samaritan and neighbor. To love them as yourself.

Some Late Night Thoughts About Being a Father

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I preach every Sunday.  There are so many times that, after I’ve finished, some young mother apologizes to me about her toddler shouting/crying during the sermon. I always try to comfort her by saying that it didn’t bother me at all. And that really is the truth, because well, I just never hear it. Maybe I’m going deaf at a young age. Or, more likely, while those mothers are struggling to make sure their kids don’t ruin the service, I’m up in front struggling to make sure that I don’t ruin the service. I suppose I’m just focused on other things and a baby’s cry never even registers in my mind.

Except for one. There is one child that it seems no matter what I’m doing, I immediately recognize his voice.  Tonight, while I was preaching, I heard this little voice in the back of the auditorium shouting, “Da! Da! Da!”  I immediately recognized it. I hear it all day long. It was the voice of my 1 year old son, Oliver (the little guy pictured above). I had to struggle not to break into a smile and forget my train of thought.  I had to struggle not to say, “What’s up, buddy?” (my normal response when he calls for me).

In the middle of a sermon my mind is usually pretty focused.  But that one little voice can steal my attention in a moment. I like hearing it. I love when my son calls for me.  When I get home from the office, he crawls to the door shouting, “Da! Da!”  When he wakes up in the morning, I walk into his room to get him and he shouts, “Da!” Now that he’s started walking a few days ago, he’ll walk to me, fall in my arms, calling “Da!” It makes me feel special. Loved.

From what people are always quick to tell me, this doesn’t last long. Kids grow up quickly.  They find other hobbies and other interests. They make friends, move out, go to college, get married, all in the blink of an eye. But my nightly prayer with Oliver always contains the line, “Please help Oliver to always know that we love him very much and for us to always have a close relationship.”

I pray every night for our relationship to be strong and loving and last a lifetime. I never want him to drift away or get bored of me. (By the way, right now, I hear him giggling in the other room with his mama while he’s supposed to be going to sleep, it’s cracking me up). Simply, I love that kid.  I will always make time for him and I hope he grows up making time for me.

That said, as children of God, we have a Father also. There’s a heart breaking passage in Hosea 11 about God’s child, Israel, drifting from Him as he grew older. “When Israel was a youth I loved him, And out of Egypt I called My son…They kept sacrificing to the Baals And burning incense to idols. Yet it is I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them in My arms; But they did not know that I healed them” (Hosea 11:1-3).

I never want to put God through that. I don’t even want to imagine the child I love so much, that I taught to walk, that I took in my arms, growing to neglect me and trade me away for other things.

God longs to hear from us.  He longs to hear our voices. He recognizes the cries of His children.  He wants us to make time for Him.  What a tragedy it would be for us to grow and drift away from Him. To focus more on our hobbies, careers, and retirements, than we do our Father.

Today, make time for God. Call out to Him as your Father. Tell Him how much you appreciate Him.  Spend sincere time in prayer. Communicate openly with Him. Build your relationship.  I want mine and Oliver’s relationship to grow stronger with the passing of time, not drift farther apart. God desires the same thing with us. Make time for your Father.

A Fig Tree, a Temple, and God’s Purpose

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Remember when Jesus cursed the fig tree in Mark 11?  That was weird, wasn’t it? You know what was particularly weird about it? Jesus cursed it because “He found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs” (Mark 11:13).  Why in the world is Jesus cursing the tree for not having figs, when it wasn’t even the season for figs? Well, I think if we pay really close attention to what is happening in the surrounding context, we may get ourselves an answer.  And it might not be so weird after all.

Jesus had just entered Jerusalem and He immediately entered the temple and looked around.  Since it was late and He wasn’t staying in Jerusalem (but a small suburb called Bethany) He left the temple to retire for the night.  It’s on the next day while He is making His way back to the temple that He sees the fig tree with no figs.  He curses the fig tree for being out of season by saying, “‘May no one ever eat fruit from you again!’ And His disciples were listening” (Mark 11:14).

Whenever you read a seemingly insignificant little detail like “and His disciples were listening” it probably isn’t insignificant, and it probably means you should be listening too.  You should probably begin searching for a deeper meaning in the story than what appears on the surface.

After this incident with the fig tree, Jesus returns to the temple.  This time, He doesn’t just look around, but He creates a huge disturbance. “He entered the temple and began to drive out those who were buying and selling in the temple, and overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who were selling doves; and He would not permit anyone to carry merchandise through the temple” (Mark 11:15-16).

Jesus makes it impossible to conduct business at the temple. He stops the things that were essential for the temple to fulfill its purpose. People need to purchase animals in order to sacrifice animals. Many traveled from afar and rather than risk losing their animals along the journey, they would arrive at the temple to purchase an acceptable animal, then the priests would offer it. That way they are still offering up their best to God, but if they didn’t own a proper animal or couldn’t travel with one, they could purchase one.

The sin is not that people purchased animals at the temple, but that God’s “‘House shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’ But you have made it a robber’s den” (Mark 11:17).  Notice two things.  First, it is supposed to be a house of prayer “for all the nations” (Mark 11:17; Isaiah 56:7).  The temple was not opened to all the nations.  It was for Jews only.  Secondly, it was made into a “robber’s den.” This might imply that there was cheating and dishonesty taking place in the selling of animals.  Or it might imply that the House of God which was for “all the nations,” became a place for people who hated all the other nations. The word “robber” could also be translated as “insurrectionist.”

The temple should be a place of worship for all the nations, but instead it is full of dishonest people who hate the other nations and, like insurrectionists, want to overthrow them. This is one of the very reasons that Jesus’ claim to be the Messiah was repudiated.  Rather than overthrowing the Romans, He was crucified by them!

The major point is that the temple is not fulfilling its intended purpose.  When Jesus looked around the temple, He didn’t see a place of prayer for all the nations. He saw a den of robbers. Because of that, the temple was producing no fruit.  There was once a time when God’s temple was fruitful, but that season had passed.

Are you starting to see the connection between the temple and the fig tree? The fig tree produced no fruit, its season had passed, and it was cursed by Jesus. The temple produced no fruit, its season had passed, and it was condemned by Jesus.

The evening after the disturbance in the temple, Jesus and His disciples were leaving again for Bethany.  As they walked they passed that same fig tree. Peter looked at it and said, “Rabbi, look, the fig tree which You cursed has withered” (Mark 11:21).

After Jesus cursed the fig tree it withered and never produced again.  Years after Jesus cleansed the temple, it was destroyed and never produced again.  The temple scene is sandwiched between these two discussions about the fig tree.  They represent one another.

The fig tree is an illustration. It illustrates what happens when one fails to produce. Those listening must ask, what am I producing? Unlike the fig tree and the temple, our season has not passed.  We are in it right now.  It is our responsibility to be the temple of God, a place for all the nations.  We are challenged with producing fruit for the kingdom. We have a purpose as Christians, to live as the body of Christ, taking His message and ministry to the world. Are you fulfilling your purpose in Christ?

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