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Published during: August 2013

Being Disciplined—Or Not

I am writing up reflections on my devotions every day for six weeks. This is one of those posts.

I spent way too much time working on a random little programming project tonight. It was fun, and it will be useful. But unfortunately, working on it meant that I didn’t even get to start my personal devotions until now, at just after 11:30 pm. That was, in a word, stupid. One might also use “undisciplined.” I like programming projects like this one,1 but I need time in the word of God. It is all too easy to let little hobby projects get in the way of what is truly essential. On which note: I’m going to read my Bible now. If, when I am done, I am still reasonably awake, I may return and add a bit to this post. Otherwise, I shall post it as is.

I think that will do it for tonight. One of the disciplines I have increasingly come to value in the last few years is sleep. Sleep, it turns out, is right up there with eating well and regular exercise when it comes to being able to continue being productive the rest of the time. My ability to serve God faithfully depends on many things—above all his grace, and then for my part my obedience and discipline in matters of holiness, faithfully pursuing him day by day, and so on. Yet those simple practical matters are just as important in some ways.

We are physical beings—a good thing! God made us so and called us good—and when we try to ignore that, we do ourselves and others no good. Yes, we bring our body into submission, because (like our souls) it still acts rebelliously at times. But we also ought to honor the natural cycles with which God endued our physicality. Take a Sabbath. Get to bed on time. Eat well. Exercise regularly. Honor God in your body, and not only in your mind, or you will not be able to honor him with your mind as well in the future.

So: I’m headed to bed.

  1. I wrote a little script that converts Markdown files to Kindle ebooks and drops them in a folder where they get sent to either my or Jaimie’s Kindle using an IFTTT recipe. That’s how I’m sending Jaimie most of my blog posts; she finds it much more enjoyable and easier to read that way. I’ll also be able to use the functionality I put in place with Step Stool a bit later on, so that it can run automatically under certain conditions and I won’t even have to do anything except tell it I want it to run when I regenerate the site, and Jaimie will automatically get new posts from me. Super cool. Also: time consuming, and there’s the rub. 

Be Teachable. Jesus is Coming Back.

I am writing up reflections on my devotions every day for six weeks. This is one of those posts.

Cease to hear instruction, my son,
and you will stray from the words of knowledge.
—Proverbs 19:27

This admonition from Proverbs 19 seems to me to be at the heart of many young people’s struggles with their parents, their teachers, and their churches. By “young,” I mean “under the age of 30,” so I’m in that list, too, as are most of my closest friends. This is a perennial struggle, and the reason every generation ends up relearning the same lessons its parents (or their parents; things tend to go in cycles) already learned. Simply put: young people (I include myself) are not particularly good at listening. It doesn’t matter how smart I am, how widely I read, or how well-educated I am; if I refuse to be instructed, I will wander away from truth.

I have, sadly, seen this born out in others’ lives, and it was a chastening experience. I have seen smart young people who love God walk deeper and deeper into folly simply because they will not be corrected. There are few things more dangerous to our spiritual health, and therefore few things more foolish, than refusing to listen to the counsel of those who have gone before you. Age does not always equal wisdom, and experience does not always make one right… but they do give one a much better shot, especially when coupled with diligent pursuit of God and holiness. Perhaps my cohort ought to take James’ admonition to heart: “let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger…”

Matthew 24, as one of the central prophetic texts in the New Testament regarding Jesus’ return, is of course hotly debated. Those debates, while interesting,1 can sometimes distract us from the point of the passage. Matthew spent a substantial part of his book on this section, and it comes at an interesting point in the narrative. Jesus’ increasingly public embrace of his role as the Messiah has culminated with his smashing condemnation of the spiritually blind religious leaders of his day (in chapter 23), and this prophetic section (chapters 24–25) is folloewd immediately by the plot to kill Jesus, the Passover, and the Passion narrative. So why the sudden pause on prophecy? It seems almost a detour, but if we assume Matthew was a competent author who knew what he was doing, he had a reason for turning to the only extended prophetic section in the book.

First, this future-telling cements Jesus’ role as prophet. Given the role that prophets played in Israel’s history and Matthew’s portrayal of Jesus as the fulfillment of each Jewish archetype (prophet, priest, and king), this makes sense. Moreover, the placement in the text makes sense here, as well: just as the prophets condemned religious blindness and empty ritual in their day and foretold God’s future works, here Jesus does exactly the same.

Second, this extended narrative provides a cap to Jesus’ teaching in the book. He has covered ethics (especially in the Sermon on the Mount), outlined a theology of the coming kingdom (mostly through parables), and now explains in greater detail what the coming of that kingdom will be like. From here on out, the book turns almost entirely to pure narrative, with no more extended teaching sections. Jesus, Matthew shows us, cared about the state of his followers after his death, resurrection, and ascension. He gave them (us) an idea of what to expect—not the nitty gritty details we all might like,2 but the big picture that we need. Jesus will come again, after his followers suffer trials and tribulations so fierce that many will be tempted to (and indeed many will) fall away. Believers must endure, and hold fast to their faith in him, and be ready. He will come when we could not predict, and he will come indeed.

A final thought: if our anticipation of Jesus’ return—with its attendant end to wickedness and suffering and sorrow—is great, how much more so is his?

Lord, haste the day.

  1. Complete futurism or partial preterism? Pre-, mid-, or post-tribulation return of Christ? Pre-, post-, or amillennialism? You get the idea. Fun discussions to be had. 
  2. Be honest: how many of you know that guy who is always talking about the End Times?

    And, for that matter, how many of you are that guy? 

A Bit More Boldness, Please

I am writing up reflections on my devotions every day for six weeks. This is one of those posts.

As Matthew comes to the close of his narrative, things start to heat up. Coming to chapter 23, Jesus engages with the Pharisees and scribes in terms we would be hard-pressed to describe as gentle or forbearing. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” he belts out over and over again, calling them on the floor for their folly.

This passage is challenging on a number of levels, but I think it most profoundly runs up against our culture of hyper-tolerance. It is hard for most of us nice Christian types to imagine ever speaking this way—to ever be so harsh or judgmental as to call anyone out like this, to be so blunt and so bold and so mean. To be sure, there are some unique circumstances in play here, circumstances in which we do not exactly find ourselves. We are never the son of God confronting those who have rejected his messianic ministry, never in perfect knowledge of the hearts of those with whom we interact, never completely sinless in our anger. It is right for our response to be tempered toward grace and charity in our interactions with others.

Even so, I wonder if perhaps we have not taken on something of the character of the milquetoast. It is an easy direction to slide, given the timbre of our public discourse these days. With few exceptions, and the rancorous quality of much political debate notwithstanding, it is increasingly rare for anyone (but especially Christians) to be bold in confronting sin without being immediately accused of being judgmental jerks.

I am all for grace, and seeking to understand one another’s positions well before we offer critique, and representing one another’s positions well when we do offer critique. I am sensitive to my own tendency to assign motive where I ought not, to my own inability to judge clearly and rightly, and to the ease with which I fall into pushiness. But I worry that if building a culture where this kind of stern rebuke is unacceptable (again, with those very few exceptions), we are doing great harm to ourselves. Without diminishing the call to grace, or making any less of precisely the qualifications I outlined above, I think the church needs to grow in boldness in confronting in our own midst both blatant hypocrisy and doctrines that keep people from coming to Christ.

One of these is easy: if there is a single exception to our unflagging devotion to tolerance, it is in our hatred of hypocrisy. The other, however, too often gets a free pass. People who hinder others from coming to Christ because of their additions to or subtractions from the gospel are dangerous and, after being confronted graciously and gently, should be confronted harshly and shown up to be the false teachers that they are. The aim is not to win; it is to preserve the people of God from being deceived. To do this well is hard; the “watchblogger” cohort—the “heresy hunters” who appoint themselves this task—are almost by definition not up to the challenge of discerning what response is appropriate in any situation.

When the people of God are at risk, however, we must learn to be bold. Jesus was. Paul was. Peter was. James was. Perhaps it is time we follow their example instead of bowing to the whims of culture.

The Gospel in the Proverbs/Resurrection Twice

I am writing up reflections on my devotions every day for six weeks. This is one of those posts.

By steadfast love and faithfulness iniquity is atoned for,
and by the fear of Yahweh one turns away from evil.
—Proverbs 16:6

Reading through the Proverbs, one finds gem after gem. (Indeed, the whole book is a collection thereof. That’s the point, after all.) This one particularly caught my attention tonight, though: it is as pithy a statement of the gospel as one could wish. Simple, straightforward, easy to understand, and embedded with more canonical weight than you could shake a stick at. “Steadfast love and faithfulness” are the marks of God’s covenant love throughout the Old Testament; these keywords from Exodus 34 are perhaps those most cited by the authors of the Old Testament. By Yahweh’s character-defining work, the author1 says, comes salvation. Fearing him is how we turn away from evil. When the apostles preached the gospel in the New Testament, they may not have used exactly these words,2 but this was their message: God acted in accord with his character and his covenant promises to bring salvation. Repent!

This one is going in my to-memorize list. It will be a good reminder for me as I go through my own life, and hopefully a helpful way of reminding others who God is and what he has done as well.

Reading through Matthew and Genesis in parallel is often illuminating; I expect I shall find the same to be true of other books as I continue on this path. Coming to chapter 22 of each book, I found Jesus answering his Pharisee and Sadducee opponents in the temple, and God testing Abraham by instructing him to sacrifice Isaac. At first glance, the passages could not seem less related, apart from the overt covenant themes and pointers in the Genesis passage. However, a bit more time made one particular connection stand out to me.

When Jesus answers the Sadducees on the resurrection (after their contrived question about seven brothers having had one woman as their wife with no children), he rather pointedly tells them that the reason they are wrong is that they “know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God.” Given the relative paucity of reference to resurrection from the dead in the Old Testament, his accusation is an interesting one (though of course he backs it up moments later by pointing to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—the God of the living, not the dead). One of the many places the Sadducees should have seen that God will bring about resurrection is right in Genesis 22. As the author of Hebrews points out, Abraham went up that mountain in faith that the same God who had given him a son—in his old age, from his barren wife—could raise that same son from the dead if necessary to keep his promise.

The Sadducees should have seen it coming; all the pieces were there. But they knew neither God’s word, nor God himself. Given these were men who had spent their lives studying the Scriptures, this is a fearful warning to those of us who seek to know those same Scriptures.

God provided another way—not the child sacrifice so common in that day and age, but a substitute.3 Ultimately, he provided his own son, and raised him from the dead after sacrificing him on a mount. That which he did not ultimately require of Abraham, he gave himself. But Abraham’s faith was well-placed: God could have raised Isaac from the dead, and someday he will do just that. Someday he will raise us, too. But first of all, he raised his son. Hallelujah.

  1. Proverber? Proverbian? Proverbite? I’m taking suggestions in the comment thread. 
  2. This is one of the small curiosities that fascinates me about the authors of the New Testament and the divine superintendence of their work, and something I expect I’ll ask about when I get the chance: why is this central refrain of the Old Testament left unstated in the New? 
  3. Though the lamb Abraham promises Isaac never appears; it is a ram and not a lamb that takes Isaac’s place here. Curious… 

Doubt is Not a Christian Virtue

I am writing up reflections on my devotions every day for six weeks. This is one of those posts.

Reading through the Psalms is often an exercise in being confronted with how poorly I handle (and how poorly our culture in the American church at large handles) the trials we face. In Psalm 31, David is obviously depressed and also facing substantial external trials. There is no whitewashing the truth here in some attempt to buck-up-and-be-cheerful, no hiding behind a fake smile and pretending everything is okay. This has every bit of gritty, authentic ache in it that the most emo/hipster/authenticity-pursuing-cultural-stereotype-du-jour could ever want. David’s life at this particular juncture was, in a word, bad—and he made no bones about it.

Yet David’s response differs from the one we (people in the church under the age of 30 or so) glorify—differs profoundly. We rightly note that believers struggle with doubt sometimes, and also rightly note that condemning people for such struggles is unhelpful, to say the least. On the other hand, we have wrongly enshrined doubt as a virtue, wrestling as one of the cardinal goods of the Christian faith. The person who does not struggle with doubts or constantly wrestle with some part of his faith or another we usually assume is simply inauthentic. Deep down, we know, he or she really is a doubter, too.

David, I think, would find this nonsensical at best. Again, this Psalm is not lacking in authenticity; his real anguish bleeds through the page even in an English translation of Hebrew words written three thousand years ago. Doubt, though, is nowhere to be found. More importantly (for David and other Psalmists express their doubts in other verses), David’s struggles are not themselves the point of the piece. Rather, David paints a vivid picture of his need but also offers pleas for God to move—pleas grounded on his confidence in Yahweh’s righteousness and steadfast love.

To be sure, there is a place for real wrestling and for grappling with the doubts that do often beset us. Likewise, we should not pretend that we are not struggling when we are; saccharine greetings from people who are actually aching are a blight on Christian community. The question is not whether we struggle, or even whether we admit our struggles. It is whether we glorify the doubt and the struggle, rather than recognize them as painful, necessary means to the end of deeper, truer faith. No one could accuse David of hiding his struggles, but no one could think that he thought doubting inherently virtuous. Quite the contrary: David’s faith is exemplary1 here.

In the past few years, there have been times when I have wrestled with God. There are areas in which I struggle to understand Scripture’s teaching and submit wisely to it. Yet these times of wrestling and struggling are not a cause for pride. They are a marker of the extent to which I still need to be sanctified, so that my mind and my emotions will be more thoroughly submitted to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. We must stop prizing doubt and start prizing faith in our risen Savior—not by pretending that we do not doubt, but by recognizing that doubts and struggles are valuable only insofar as they are used of the Spirit to move us back toward the Father.

  1. Exemplary not only in the sense of being the best of its kind, but model and worthy of emulation. 

The Lord’s Supper and Gospel Unity

I am writing up reflections on my devotions every day for six weeks. This is one of those posts.

On Sundays, I will be using this space as an opportunity to reflect publicly on the sermon presented.

My friend, elder, and professor Dr. Nathan Finn preached the sermon this morning at FBC Durham. His text, 1 Corinthians 11:17–34, is the only text in the New Testament to address specifically the Lord’s Supper outside the gospels—so it was fitting that it was the text for the day in which we partook of Communion together. As Nathan1 walked through these verses and expounded their meaning, he challenged us to evaluate our own congregation in light of the passage’s message, which he summarized:

The Lord’s supper is an ongoing reminder that within the church, the divisions in the world have been done away with.

His points were as follows:

  1. It is a shameful thing for a church to be divided by the priorities of the fallen world. (11:17–22)
    • Paul had been commending the Corinthians believers for some things they were doing well,2 but no more: the way the Corinthians believers acted when they came together to celebrate the Lord’s Supper was awful. They were divided.
      • Nathan suggested that Paul’s comment about the division being “necessary” was one of Paul’s typically sarcastic moves in the epistle—as I put it to Jaimie, one of Paul’s favorite rhetorical flourishes in the book is apparently to embrace the Corinthian position, only to turn around and hit them hard with the truth.
    • These divisions turned the Lord’s Supper—a proclamation of unity!—into an empty ritual.
    • He noted that the Corinthian response simply embodies a common pattern of the day: people were following the natural pattern of their culture, bringing their own food not to share (as in a potluck) but to eat themselves. As such the wealthy had much, along with leisure time, while the poor and working-class types had little to eat and little time. Even if unintentional, the result of following the world’s pattern was to cause a sharp demarkation between the rich and the not-so-rich… followed by a proclamation of unity! The visual hypocrisy is outrageous.
    • Nathan then challenged us: are there places where we unintentionally imitate the priorities and practices of the culture around us in a way that diminishes the unity we have in Christ?
  2. The Lord’s Supper was given to us a corporate proclamation of the gospel by the whole church. (11:23–26)
    • The Lord himself gave Paul these instructions, Paul records. An interesting tidbit, although not one that substantially affects the interpretation of the passage.
    • The church was not failing to practice the Lord’s Supper; it was simply going about it in a bad way. This, at least, is a good thing.
    • Nathan suggested that this suggestion tells us why we should practice the Lord’s Supper: doing so proclaims the Lord’s death. All of us, not just the preacher, are together preaching a visual sermon.
      • A sermon to the believer: a reminder of what Christ has accomplished for us and the shape of our hope.
      • A sermon to the unbeliever: an invitation to enter into faith in Jesus Christ.
    • We should celebrate the Lord’s Supper regularly and frequently3 because it is good news.
  3. We should celebrate the Lord’s Supper in such a way that it shapes our life together and accurately reflects the gospel it is meant to proclaim. (11:27–34)
    • Nathan began his treatment of this section by clearing up some misconceptions about the word “unworthy.” It is not a question of our sinfulness or merit in the time preceding our taking of the Supper: all of us are too sinful to ever merit partaking. Rather, Paul was warning against a very particular sin: taking of the Supper in such a way as to undermine the very meaning of the meal by creating division in the very symbol of Christian unity.
    • Nathan elaborated on his point about worthiness and sinfulness: we do not partake of the Supper because we might have been good enough, but because Christ took all our sins on himself. That is exactly what the Supper is about!
    • Finally, in verse 36 we are urged to self-examination (regardless of how one understands “discern the body”): what does the Supper mean for us individually and corporately?
      • Judgment came on the Corinthian believers because they magnified divisions instead of the unity of Christ. The purity of the church matters. God does not take sin lightly. But this warning should lead us not to despair but to the pursuit of love and good works!
    • Even if we are judged, when we are believers such judgment is not for condemnation but discipline. We should embrace it.

Finally, Nathan challenged the church to continually consider how we can more carefully “bend” on our own approaches to better serve the lost around us. In particular, he exhorted us to consider the ways our church might be unintentionally embracing typical patterns of social, economic, or ethnic divisions in the world around us, and to constantly fight to set those aside and demontrate the unity of Christ.

And then we proclaimed the death of Christ in taking the Lord’s Supper together, and it was good.

Those of you curious about my usual textual notes… they’ll be coming sometime later this week. Courtesy of a killer work week last week, I did not have a chance to get my translation done yet.

  1. He’s “Dr. Finn on campus” but “Nathan” at church; since this is a post about the church I’m referring to him as he prefers in that context. 
  2. Quite the qualified commendation, of course; see my paper here on 1 Corinthians 11:2–16. 
  3. Nathan makes no secret in personal conversation that he’d prefer to partake of Communion weekly, though it is not a hill to die on—a perfect summary of my own position as well. 

Thanksgiving Prayer, 2013-08-11

Thank you, oh God our Father, for the gift of your salvation, that in the life, death, and resurrection of your son you have united us once again with you. Where once we were dead, you have made us alive. Where once we were lost, you have found us. Where once we we under judgment, now we are given all the righteousness of Jesus Christ. Thank you that we have in him a high priest who is holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens—a high priest who offered himself as the sacrifice once and for all and who sits at your right hand, never dying and always interceding for us. Thank you!

Thank you for the gift of your indwelling Spirit, who opens our eyes to understand the truth of your word, who sanctifies us and makes us holy as you are holy. In him we are indwelt by very God of very God, joined with Christ our brother, sealed for the day of salvation. Thank you!

Thank you for this community of saints whom you have drawn together—people from every walk of life, from this nation and others, from every kind of broken background. We look forward eagerly to the day when we stand around your throne with men and women from every people on the earth, praising you, and we are grateful for the taste of that unity you have given us here and now. Thank you!

Thank you for life and light and all the good things you have given us. May we honor you in our giving, in our response to the preaching of your word, and in our partaking of the Lord’s supper together—a foretaste of that day when we all take of the feast around your throne. Amen.