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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.

Seek Joy—Where It Lives

There are times when the goals we set ourselves—like writing a blog post about one’s devotions every night—come second to the more important things in our lives. Things like spending time with the people we love, especially when they are facing struggles in their lives. It is easy to allow good goals to supercede the reasons and meaning for those goals. I want to write every day because it is good for me. I want to love my wife well much more than I want to write every night, though, and as such, I spent time with her instead of writing on my normal devotional topic, because she was having a bad day.1

This sort of decision is one that I have learned time and again is at the root of expressing Christ-like love to others, and especially in marriage. We, like Christ, are to die to ourselves and love others by setting aside what would be most immediately pleasurable for us and seeking instead the good of the other—at whatever cost to ourselves. This is not easy; indeed it can be painful and difficult at times to set aside one’s own desires for the good of others.2 But the reward—oh, the reward is far greater than the price we pay.

We see this in Christ’s work for us: he endured the cross, scorning its shame—but not simply because doing so was good on its own merits. Rather, the joy that he expected as the outcome of his doing so was the impetus behind his actions. Lest we think him acting selfishly, his joy is in our salvation and the Father’s glory. As C. S. Lewis points out,3 real joy is always found in seeking the good of others, rather than pursuing our own selfish ends. The joys we find in gratifying our own desires, rather than seeking to bless others, are shallow, pitiful things that fade quickly and are bitter in the end. The joy we find in seeking to put others first—above all, seeking to put God first—is lasting, profound, and sweet even in times of trial or pain.

So when tempted to do your own thing, don’t. Seek the joy God has set before you—the joy that comes in being sanctified, that comes in knowing God as he really is, that comes in finding the beauty and the value of others to be so much better than whatever selfish pursuit you might embrace instead. Die to yourself, lose the world, and gain everything. The alternative is to gain something temporarily, but lose everything in the end. Seek your joy where it is truly to be found: in loving God with all your heart and loving your neighbor—which is to say, that stranger on the side of the road, and also your spouse—as yourself.

  1. I am, instead, snatching out ten minutes just before bed to write this, much less reflective and with not a direct reference to Scripture (still less what I read today) to be found. 
  2. Jaimie, if and when you read this, take note: I am speaking of the troubles that face us all in dying to self. I enjoyed spending time with you tonight, and it was not burdensome to me. 
  3. Somewhere in some book I do not have close at hand at the moment. 

The Great and Humble God

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

He Saw Yahweh

In Genesis 18, Abraham has just finished following God’s instructions about circumcision. At 100 years old, he circumcised himself, along with his 13-year-old son and all his servants and the other members of his household, to obey this God who had called him from his homeland to a place where he would always be a sojourner, looking forward with hope to the homeland God had promised but which he himself would not inherit. (There is real obedience for you: embrace circumcision so that someone else will get the reward God promises…)

Then, sitting in the shade one hot afternoon, Abraham looks and sees Yahweh,1 standing there as a man he recognizes. At that point, this 100-year-old man (who, granted, lived to be 160 and therefore was probably like a man in his mid to late 50s physically) got up and ran to prepare a feast for his God. There are many interesting things in this passage, but most notable to me tonight was the way Yahweh came to Abraham and interacted with him throughout the passage. That is: he came as a man2 and ate with Abraham and spoke with him. Of course, he spoke prophetically about impossibilities that he was going to bring about; this condescension was not his ceasing to be God but his taking on a form so that Abraham could know him.

So here we have at once two concrete realities that continue to shape the reader’s expectations for what God will do in the future: the promise of a miraculous son born to bring about his promise, and Yahweh himself coming as a man to relate to his people.

Over the Waters

Coming after a series of prayerful Psalms, the 29th is a complete change in tone. Each of the Psalms preceding it are prayers for deliverance from evildoers and from Yahweh’s judgment on one’s own wickedness. Here, though, we have David calling on the heavenly host to ascribe to Yahweh all the glory he is due, and a crescendo of declarations of the power of Yahweh’s voice. This God of glory3 is over all, his voice thundering and shaking even the greatest things on this earth. He is worthy for the heavenly host to ascribe him glory and strength, to be worshipped in the splendor of holiness. He is enthroned in his temple; he sits as king forever.

And this is the God who walked with Abraham, who let Abraham challenge him and his judgments. The Judge of all the earth, whose powerful and majestic voice can cause an earthquake or strip the forest bare, has become one of us.

  1. This passage highlights one more reason why I prefer simply to use God’s self-revealed name: early on, Abraham calls him “lord,” but not “Lord,” which is simply confusing if you’re not paying close attention. 
  2. Apparently pre-incarnate Christ, semi- or pseudo-incarnate, which is curious, but not the point of the passage. 
  3. This relatively innocuous phrase, right in the middle of verse 3, has been one of the most important in my life. Five years ago, reading through the Psalms much as I am right now, the phrase leapt out at me, because I had no idea what it meant to describe Yahweh as the “God of glory.” A month later, my whole theological framework had been turned on its head, from the anthropocentric view that unfortunately characterizes too much evangelical theology, to a radically God-centered view that accords with the Scriptural picture of a God who is working all things for his own sake, and not because of us at all—though how greatly we benefit! 

The best summary I’ve seen from a white guy on the complexity of race relations:

I often feel like we are drowning in the sins of the past. Working at this is like swimming across of river of mud. Every inch of progress is hard-won, and the shore seems far away. When I taught US History, I emphasized that slavery was not only a sin, it was a systematic sin infecting an entire culture, and such sins have a lasting effect.

What does one do for the man who is on the losing end of this cycle? Perhaps he has come to the point in his life where he wants to get things straightened out. Perhaps he realizes that it isn’t all someone else’s fault, and that he needs to take responsibility. We give him the gospel, we try to help him shore up his education in some small way, we try to help him sort out his legal and debt problems, and we point him towards a job.

But when we are done, he still lives in a dying city with low employment and poor churches. He’s still single, often supporting (or not supporting) children. He carries with him a criminal record and a lifetime of learned habits which do him little good. And he’s not getting any younger.

That individual perspective must be remembered. It is true that the weakness of families in the African American community is a huge problem, but what good does it do to wag a finger in that man’s face and say, “You blacks need to be better husbands and fathers!”

—Tom Chantry in a comment (the original article is helpful, as well).