Thinking Through Scripture

"but the word of the Lord remains forever"

Month: January, 2018

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).

52 Reflections on the Gospel of John: #4 “You Follow Me”

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We just had our first snow this winter. I always love snow, but this year was particularly special. For Oliver, my 17 month old, it was his first snow and he had a blast. In one of our games, I shuffled my feet through the snow, making a path, and he ran/stumbled down the path towards me. I led the way, made the path, and he followed. That’s probably the simplest way that I’ve led Oliver. The much more difficult way is through my words, actions, and example. I’m supposed to be guiding him through life. I hope and pray (multiple times every day in fact) that he follows well and that I lead him well.

More than anywhere else, I want Oliver (and our 2nd son who should arrive shortly) to follow me to the One I’m following. I hope I lead well. But I know He leads well. As followers of Jesus, our life’s call is to stay on His path and lead others to Him.

When John the Baptist saw Jesus, he declared to two of his disciples, “Behold, the Lamb of God” (John 1:36).  The result was “The two disciples heard him speak, and they followed Jesus” (John 1:37). As a preacher, this is a short summary of my goal every week. That people hear what I say, and follow Jesus.

In this passage, when it says they “followed” Him, the picture is of them literally walking behind Jesus. In fact, Jesus “turned and saw them following” (John 1:37). But the word “follow” in the Gospel of John is theologically loaded. It’s not just the “Oliver walking through the snow” type of following. This is the “Oliver following my actions and example” type of following. They are walking behind Jesus, but so much more is meant.

Then, the next day, Jesus “found Philip. And Jesus said to him, ‘Follow Me’” (John 1:43). Again, this is so much more than walking behind Jesus. This is a call to leave everything and dedicate your life to someone. To be a “follower” is a dramatic display of discipleship and service. That’s how Jesus explains the concept in these three passages:

“Jesus spoke to them, saying, ‘I am the Light of the world. Whoever follows Me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).

“When [the shepherd] puts forth all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. A stranger they simply will not follow, but will flee from him, because they do not know the voice of strangers…My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me” (John 10:4-5, 27).

“If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him” (John 12:26).

Sadly, not all understand the true call of following Jesus. Remember when Jesus fed the 5,000? How did such a large crowd of followers form? “A large crowd followed Him, because they saw the signs which He was performing on those who were sick” (John 6:2). As the story continues, it becomes apparent that by “following” they were merely walking with Him (John 6:26). Not giving themselves over to dramatic discipleship. After actually listening to Him, “many of His disciples withdrew and were not walking with Him anymore” (John 6:66).

Peter turns out to be one of the saddest examples of this: “Simon Peter said to Him, ‘Lord, where are You going?’ Jesus answered, ‘Where I go, you cannot follow Me now; but you will follow later.’ Peter said to Him, ‘Lord, why can I not follow You right now? I will lay down my life for you’” (John 13:36-37). Peter thought he was ready to follow Jesus to death. If he were called to bravely die fighting for the kingdom, I bet he would have. But Jesus established a kingdom of nonviolence. To see Jesus willfully taken to be crucified was something Peter couldn’t handle. When an army showed up to arrest Jesus, Peter took out his sword, ready to die in the fight (John 18:10-11)! But when Jesus was arrested, Peter denied three times (John 18:17, 25-27).

One of the interesting features of Peter’s denials is where they took place. When Jesus was arrested, “Simon Peter was following Jesus, and so was another disciple…” (John 18:15). The other disciple goes into the courtyard, but Peter “was standing at the door outside” (John 18:16). He can only enter the courtyard when the “other disciple” brings him. But that’s as far as Peter gets. The other disciple follows all the way to the cross (John 19:26, 35), but Peter stops at the courtyard, and denies three times.

That’s interesting because there’s a comparison that takes place throughout the Gospel of John. We’ll talk more about it in a later post, but the comparison is between Peter and the famous “beloved disciple.” One is a picture of true genuine discipleship, the other is the loser/denier/failure. Peter is always the loser. Peter denies, loses the race to the tomb (John 20:6, “following” after the disciple), and is the one Jesus has a talk with after the resurrection.

After Peter denied Jesus three times, Jesus makes him declare his love three times (John 21:15-17). Then Jesus describes the manner in which Peter will lose his youthful freedom, and go to where he does not want, spreading his arms in a God-glorifying death (John 21:18). Peter will be a faithful martyr. Jesus concludes this discussion by challenging, “Follow me” (John 21:19).

Peter, feeling the pressure and wanting to place it elsewhere, “turning around saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following…so Peter seeing him said to Jesus, ‘Lord, what about this man?’” But Jesus doesn’t take the bait, replying, “If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow Me!” (John 21:22).

These are Jesus’ final words in the Gospel of John. From the beginning of His ministry (John 1:37, 43) until the end, it’s about that call: “You follow Me!” I believe this call isn’t just to Peter. It’s to you and me and all who hear it. This call is to know and obey the voice of the Shepherd, to serve Him, and to go even “where you do not want to go” (John 20:18). Follow Him with a cross on your shoulders. Follow Him with arms outspread. Follow Him throughout your life. Follow Him to death.

52 Reflections on the Gospel of John: #3 “Come and See”

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“The Fourth Wall” is a dramatic convention in acting. Like the four walls in a bedroom, the stage itself is broken into four walls. The Fourth Wall is the one that separates the actors from the audience. This wall is supposed to serve a purpose similar to a one way mirror. The audience can see through the wall to what is on the other side, namely, the performance.  The actors, however, are not supposed to be able to see through the wall to the audience. To the actors the Fourth Wall is fixed and solid and there is nothing on the other side.

In several modern television shows, however, it has become common to “Break the Fourth Wall,” meaning, the actors address the audience directly as though they are part of the performance. Shows like The Office and Parks and Recreation do this regularly.  When Michael says something absurd, Jim glances over at the camera/audience. Sometimes, even during scenes, the camera will cut to a character sitting alone to talk to the audience, like an interview. In the early 90’s, Zack Morris had the ability to freeze time by saying, “Time Out.”  Then while everyone else was frozen, he would address the audience. This convention is called “Breaking the Fourth Wall” and it calls the audience to be involved in the production.

At this point you may be wondering what any of this has to do with the Gospel of John. Well, the Fourth Gospel seemingly breaks the fourth wall on numerous occasions. There are times where the characters are speaking to one another, but it’s obvious that they are actually, in a very real way, addressing the reader. For example, when Jesus says to Thomas, “Because you have seen Me, have you believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed” (John 20:29). Thomas believed because he had the privilege of seeing the resurrected Jesus. But it’s likely that those reading the Gospel of John did not have that same privilege. They must all come to belief without being able to see. When Jesus says, “Blessed are those who did not see, and yet believed,” you should imagine His head turning to face the camera, you should imagine Him looking directly at you, breaking the fourth wall to address the reader with these words.

The same thing can be seen with the call to “Follow Me” throughout the Gospel. These calls break the fourth wall, not only addressing the character, but the reader also.  John ends with Jesus telling Peter, “You follow Me!” (John 21:22). Upon finishing the Gospel, the reader should be struck by this final call. This is not meant only for Peter, but for all who have followed along to the end. For all who have read the signs and heard the testimonies. For all who now believe without having seen. All of us are addressed in this final call, “You follow Me!”

With this in mind, I want to reflect upon a phrase that is used several times throughout this Gospel: “Come and see” (John 1:39, 46; 4:29; 11:34). When John the Baptist told his disciples that Jesus was “the Lamb of God”, they turned from John to begin following Jesus. When they asked Jesus, “where are You staying?’ He said to them, ‘Come, and you will see” (John 1:38-39). Seeing is a very important symbol throughout the Gospel of John. This phrase serves as an invitation into the life of Jesus.

When Jesus saw Philip, He called him, saying, “Follow Me” (John 1:43). We’re not told how, but Philip immediately understands something of the identity of Jesus. In fact, from there he tells Nathanial, “We have found Him of whom Moses in the Law and also the Prophets wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph” (John 1:45). This is surely a remarkable claim, but Nathanial remains skeptical. The only thing he knows about Jesus is that He’s from Nazareth, a town of little importance that has never produced anything akin to greatness. So he responds, “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46).

The conversation could have ended right there. Nathanial could have remained unconvinced and comfortable in his skepticism. But Philip doesn’t let it. Philip comes back with an invitation to investigate, saying, “Come and see” (John 1:46). Perhaps this also is an instance of “Breaking the Fourth Wall.” Perhaps at this point, as Jesus is introduced to the reader, it is not only Nathanial who needs to come and see, but us also.  We are invited into the life of Jesus. We are invited to see for ourselves all the signs and testimonies about Jesus.

Nathanial does come and when he meets Jesus, he sees.  He is utterly blown away, proclaiming, “Rabbi, You are the Son of God; You are the King of Israel” (John 1:49). This statement is made because Jesus said, “I saw you under the fig tree” (John 1:49). When Jesus notes how easily Nathanial placed his faith in Him, He asks, “Because I said to you that I saw you under the fig tree, do you believe? You will see greater things than these” (John 1:50; note the similarities and differences with John 20:29). If you come you will see amazing things! (If you’re curious about verse 51, check out Genesis 28:12 and read this blog again in a few weeks when we cover John’s use of the Old Testament. It will hopefully illuminate this passage even more.)

Finally, this brings us to John 4:29. After Jesus’ amazing interaction with the woman at the well, she goes to testify to others about Him, saying, “Come, see a man who told me all the things that I have done.” Many who heard her speak came to believe (John 4:39). Then they “came” to Jesus (John 4:40). After meeting Jesus for themselves they understood that Jesus “is indeed the Savior of the world” (John 4:41-42).

Repeatedly we find the words, “Come and see.” Whenever anyone actually does, they come to see Jesus as the King and the Savior (John 1:49; 4:42). Are you willing to come and see Jesus for yourself? John “Breaks the Fourth Wall” to invite you to come and read with an open heart to see who Jesus is. And since you can’t see Jesus in the flesh for yourself, take comfort in His words: “Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed” (John 20:29).

52 Reflections on the Gospel of John: #2. “His Testimony is True”

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We learned last week that the Gospel of John contains a collection of “signs” performed by Jesus. Their purpose was to produce belief in those who saw them, which would lead to eternal life.  That’s the purpose of the Gospel of John (John 20:30-31). But as you read John, it becomes apparent that recording “signs” was not John’s only method in producing belief. Consider this statement John makes about witnessing the crucifixion: “And he who has seen has testified, and his testimony is true; and he knows that he is telling the truth, so that you also may believe” (John 19:35).

The purpose of this testimony is “so that you also may believe” (John 19:35), which is the same stated purpose as the signs: “that you may believe” (John 20:30).  One of the ways John hopes to produce faith in the reader is by recording true testimonies about Jesus. He states several time that as an eye witness, “his testimony is true” (John 19:35; 21:24).

But John doesn’t limit it to his own testimonies. One of the ways that he reveals Jesus’ identity is by recording stories where the characters testify about Him. Starting all the way back with John the Baptist, he is introduced as “a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to testify about the Light, so that all might believe through him” (John 1:6-7). The first human character in the gospel is a “witness” who “testifies.” The word “witness” could be translated “testifier,” or the word “testify” could be translated “bear witness.” Whenever you see the words “testify” or “bear witness,” those are the same Greek word, and it’s used repeatedly in John. Notice also, that his testimony is “so that all might believe” (John 1:7). Just like the signs, testimony is intended to produce belief.

But what did John testify about Jesus? Just reading through the first chapter you find a ton of things John the Baptist testified about Jesus (John 1:15, 19, 32, 34). John testified that Jesus ranks higher than him, because of His preexistence (John 1:15, 30). He testified that he is unworthy to even untie the thong on Jesus’ sandal (John 1:27). He testified that Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29, 36). He testified that the Spirit descended upon Jesus at His baptism (John 1:32). He testified that Jesus is the Son of God (John 1:35). Not only that, but when his own disciples heard his testimony, they left to become followers of Jesus (John 1:37).

Long story short, John the Baptist is an excellent witness about Jesus. His testimony led to followers. But John was not the only one to do this. Andrew testifies to Peter, “We have found the Messiah” (John 1:41). Philip testifies to Nathanial, “We have found Him of whom Moses in the Law and also the Prophets wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of Joseph.” Nathanial then testifies saying, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; You are the king of Israel” (John 1:49). Each of these testimonies produces more followers!

Just start adding up all the things you have learned about Jesus in these testimonies: He was preexistent, He is greater even than John the Baptist, He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, the Holy Spirit came upon Him, He is the Son of God, He is the Messiah, The Law and Prophets write of Him, He is the King of Israel! I’d say you start getting a great look into the identity of Jesus by reading each of these testimonies!

As the Gospel continues, more characters meet Jesus and testify great things about Him!  Nicodemus says, “Rabbi, we know that you have come from God as a teacher…” (John 3:2). The woman at the well says to her fellow Samaritans, “Come, see a man who told me all the things that I have done; this is not the Christ, is it? (John 4:29).”  Then we find out “many of the Samaritans believed in Him because of the word of the woman who testified, ‘He told me all the things I have ever done’” (John 4:39).  Her testimony produced belief! In fact, once the Samaritans meet Jesus, they all testify, “we have heard for ourselves and know that this One is indeed the Savior of the world.” (John 4: 42).

This theme of people meeting Jesus and testifying great truths about Him is supposed to lead the reader to an understanding of who He really is. During a discussion about His relationship with the Father, Jesus states clearly that He is equal to God (John 5:18-30). But then He verifies it with his own list of witnesses: John the Baptist testified about Him, His works testify about Him, the Father testifies about Him, Scripture testifies about Him (John 5:31-47; cf. John 8:12-19).

After feeding the 5,000 the crowds testify: “This is truly the prophet who is to come into the world” (John 6:14). Peter proclaims, “We have believed and have come to know that You are the Holy One of God” (John 6:68). During disputes, some would say, “‘This certainly is the Prophet.’ Others were saying, ‘This is the Christ’” (John 7:40-41). Even Jesus testifies about Himself (John 8:18) in His famous “I Am” statements.  This list of testimonies is extensive and seems to culminate in the testimony of Thomas after the resurrection, in which he calls Jesus: “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28).

So, who is Jesus? If you look at the testimonies from all the eye witnesses you get to see Jesus in all His glory. I wish I could have been there myself. I wish I could have seen the signs and made the testimonies. But I am 2000 years removed from the incarnation. That’s why I love the Gospel of John. These testimonies are written down for the reader, to produce faith in the one who couldn’t see it for himself. That’s why we need the testimonies. That’s also why Jesus tells Thomas, “Because you have seen Me, have you believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed” (John 20:29).

That’s us. That’s a call to us. John is calling us to read the signs, to read the testimonies, and even though we cannot see for ourselves, believe! Those who do are blessed by God.  Those who do, inherit eternal life.

52 Reflections on the Gospel of John: #1. Signs, Belief, and Eternal Life

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I’m beginning a project. I’m going to do it publicly so that my pride can serve to keep me from failure. Once I get pride working for me, I can accomplish almost anything. So, here it is: Once a week this year I want to post something related to the Gospel of John. It may be one of the major themes throughout the Gospel, or just a thought on one particular character, or passage, or verse. But my hope is that at the end of this year, these 52 reflections will serve as a helpful introduction to some of the major ideas presented by John.

To start, let’s discuss John’s stated purpose: “Therefore, many other signs Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name” (John 20:30-31).

Don’t you just love that? When you’re reading and trying to figure out the occasion or purpose of a book in the Bible and you come across a verse like that? It does all your thinking for you. He doesn’t leave it ambiguous. John just comes right out and tells you why he wrote this book, why he included the signs that he did, and what his goal is for the reader. He lays his biases and motivations right out on the table.

That means John was written with an end goal already in mind. A person is supposed to be able to pick this book up, read it through, and at the end be able to attain eternal life. John does this by recording “signs.” We’ll talk a lot more about signs over the next 52 weeks, but always remember that John’s signs have a purpose. They are to bring about belief:

After miraculously turning water into wine, John records “This beginning of His signs Jesus did in Cana of Galilee, and manifested His glory, and His disciples believed in Him” (John 2:11). The first sign recorded produced belief in the disciples. A little later Jesus says, “Unless you people see signs and wonders, you simply will not believe” (John 4:48). Then, He heals a Nobleman’s son, “and he himself believed and his whole household. This is again the second sign that Jesus performed when He had come out of Judea into Galilee” (John 4:53-54). Notice that you are being invited to count the signs and see that when honestly observed they each result in belief.

There is a constant connection between the “signs” of Jesus and “belief” in His name. In fact, if you look up the word “signs” in the Gospel of John there is a pretty good chance you’ll find the word “belief” somewhere next to it in the context. How did Nicodemus come to know that Jesus came from God as a teacher? Because “no one can do the signs that You do unless God is with him” (John 3:2). Jesus convinced the crowds that He “is truly the Prophet who is to come into the world” because “the people saw the signs which He had performed (John 6:14). “Many of the crowd believed in Him; and they were saying, ‘When the Christ comes, He will not perform more signs than those which this man has, will He?” (John 7:31). But sadly they did not convince everybody, “Though He had performed so many signs before them, yet they were not believing in Him” (John 12:37). You can continue to see this connection throughout the entire Gospel (John 6:30; 11:45-48; 20:20-29).

The goal of the signs is to produce belief and the goal of belief is to produce life. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16).  That kind of sounds like John’s goal: “That believing, you may have life in His name” (John 20:30-31).

All of this (signs, belief, life, etc.) will be discussed in much more detail in the ensuing weeks. But I want to close with this thought: If John’s goal was to write a book that would cause people to have faith in Jesus and eternal life; do you think he reached it? Do you think he still can? This question shifted the way that I do personal evangelism.

I honestly believe that John is both a competent writer and inspired by God. If he thinks this book can bring someone to eternal life, then I bet he’s right. If John were the only book in the Bible, we should still be able to have eternal life. So, one of the ways that I like to study with people is just go through the Gospel of John. You don’t have to flip to 400 verses throughout the Bible. You don’t even need to leave the book. People can see everything in context and appreciate how seriously we take the words of Scripture.

John is structured in such a way that all the information you need about Jesus to receive eternal life is there. If interpreted properly, this book leaves nothing out that is essential to life. Rather than me coming up with my own way of telling the story of Jesus, I’ll let the inspired writer do it. I’ll just follow his lead. And at the end of the book I can be confident that there has been enough given “that you may believe.”

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.

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