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Reflections on 6 (7!) Weeks of Devotional Reflections

Starting in mid-July, I decided I was going to help focus my daily habit of Bible-reading by writing posts about what I learned every day, aiming to hit 6 weeks (though at this point it has actually been 7) with a considerable degree of consistency. My goal was to write every day, but of course I ended up missing that mark within the first week, and while I have still written several times a week throughout the whole process, it has been substantially less than daily—about half that, actually. While that didn’t exactly match my goal, I was never as concerned about the writing as about studying Scripture consistently and faithfully through the period, and in that I succeeded.

My Bible-reading habits have been inconsistent for years—not for lack of desire, but because, until this last month and a half, I have had a very hard time finding a good routine that I could maintain for any stretch of time. If I try to do my devotions in the morning, I usually find myself falling asleep, or very distracted. (There are a few things I can do well early in the morning, including writing; reading is generally not on that list, though.) Likewise, if I read right before bed, I tend to end up falling asleep while reading.

The approach I took these past seven weeks has thus been quite helpful. First, I picked late evening (but not bedtime) to do my devotional reading. This necessitated some adjustments to the rest of my schedule, and in particular I have had to figure out how to make sure I spend good time with Jaimie earlier in the evening, as late evenings were usually when we hung out before I started this. Second, planning to write after I did my reading usually helped me stay awake (computer screens will do that), and always helped me think about the passage I was reading more carefully. It is one thing to take notes on a passage and observe the facts and details and theological points being made. It is another thing entirely to reflect and to turn one’s exegesis to doxology. Because of the devotional nature of the posts I have written, though, I have found it much easier to direct my heart to worship in the devotional times, which in turn has further helped me sustain the time, because the point of devotions is not merely increasing knowledge but worshipping the living God.

I have yet to decide exactly what course I will take in the weeks ahead. I have so greatly enjoyed this that I expect I shall continue it (though I will of course have to change the descriptive editorial text at the top of the posts, since it will neither be perfectly daily nor only a 6-week practice). The habit of writing, as I have often mused, is a good one for me: I often think things through by writing about them. At the same time, I am very busy, and do not have the time necessary to write the kinds of posts I might like to—longer, more careful explorations of political, cultural, and theological topics. Rather than slumping back into another season of not writing simply because of that lack of time, continuing to write these short posts—posts that rarely take me more than half an hour, and sometimes much less—will be a helpful discipline going forward.

And of course—lest I forget—I also intend to keep up with it because it is simply fun.

Reflections on Knowing God, Chapters 3–4

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

One of my assignments for Christian Theology I at Southeastern is writing short devotional reflections on J. I. Packer’s Knowing God. On the days I read it, I am using this as my primary devotional material, so it will take the place of reflection on Scripture on those days.

Chapter 3: Knowing and Being Known

A few things were particularly moving to me in this chapter, so I shall quote them and then comment and the ways in which they moved me.

What makes life worthwhile is having a big enough objective, something which catches our imagination and lays hold of our allegiance; and this the Christian has in a way that no other person has. For what higher, more exalted, and more compelling goal can there be than to know God?

It can be easy for me to lose sight of the profundity of the Christian calling. I am called to know and be known by the living God who made the universe and upholds it by his power every moment. He is infinite, but invites me to know him. This is, in a word, marvelous—it makes me marvel. God, so great he can never be known completely, nonetheless wants me to know him truly. He has communicated himself to me: he speaks through his Word, which he himself inspired. He took on flesh that he might perfectly communicate deity to humanity—so that I might know him, and not be forever kept from my ultimate purpose for existence. It moves me to prayer: “Oh God, that I might know you, and delight in knowing you! There is nothing more glorious, nothing better!”

But knowing Jesus Christ still remains as definite a relation of personal discipleship as it was for the Twelve when he was on earth. The Jesus who walks through the gospel story walks with Christians now, and knowing him involves going with him, now as then.

I had never thought of this before. I have considered how the Holy Spirit teaches us, of course, and I have even pondered what it meant when Jesus told his disciples that it was better for him to leave, so that the Spirit would come and indwell them and us (John 16:7). It never really crossed my mind, though perhaps it should have, that Jesus is making us his disciples. That is, it occurs to me, precisely what the Great Commission teaches us, of course! I am called to go and make disciples—not disciples of myself, but disciples of Jesus Christ. Something about Packer’s putting it just that way reminds me that as I read the gospels, I must see myself as Jesus’ student, seeking to follow his ways. Yes, by all means think about the theological focus of each author; yes, by all means consider the implications of this statement or that; yes, by all means integrate the books of the New Testament into a systematic and Biblical theology—but always with the singular point of following Jesus Christ. That is the only reason to do those other things: to know the only true God and Jesus Christ whom he sent.

Chapter 4: The Only True God

I find it interesting that Packer takes as the subject of his fourth chapter the prohibition on images. The more I chew on it, though, the more sense it makes. Chapter 3 points us to the necessity of knowing the God who knows us, and Chapters 5 and following trace out the doctrine of God in much more detail. Packer is right to follow the commandments, though, and emphasize that in knowing God we must be careful not to know the mere imaginings of human beings. Substituting our own ideas of what God is like, rather than submitting to his self-revelation, is the heights of arrogance—but we are all guilty of doing just that at times. May it be ever more rare in me!

As someone who loves the arts, I found Packer’s thoughts on the use of the arts in worship insightful and accurate. He comments:

Whatever we may think of religious art from a cultural standpoint, we should not look to pictures of God to show us his glory and move us to worship; for his glory is precisely what such pictures can never show us.

I think this is a good corrective not only to our use of visual arts, but to our reliance on certain musical movements to “feel” worshipful. Our Catholic and Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters may find themselves relying on images and incense, but I know it easy for me to rely instead on the bass coming in or the toms rumbling or the effect of all the instruments building up to a great crescendo and then cutting out to leave just the sound of congregational singing. To be sure, these are all fine things in their own right, but they can become a crutch and prevent me from making sure that I am in fact worshipping God, and not merely enjoying an emotional flow.

Finally, Packer’s relatively brief aside on Isaiah’s prompting (‘”To whom, then, will you compare God? What image will you compare him to?” The question does not expect an answer, only a chastened silence.’) provocative. Like God’s questions to Job, these questions remind me that I am but a man and he is God—infinitely above me, impossibly great and beyond comprehension, and worthy of all worship. Theological rigor is excellent and essential to real worship, but my knowledge of God will always ultimately end in humbled silence as it ultimately shows me the boundaries of that knowledge. There will always be more to know of God. Hallelujah!

Don’t Miss It Just Because It’s Familiar

If one turns away his ear from hearing the law,
even his prayer is an abomination.
—Proverbs 28:9

Whoever trusts in his own mind is a fool,
but he who walks in wisdom will be delivered
—Proverbs 28:26

Every time I hit the first of these two proverbs, it reminds me of the profound importance of submitting to the Word of God as our final standard. Combine it with the second, and a two-by-four to the head might be less clear. Tempting as it is at times to turn to our own wisdom, doing so is folly of the highest magnitude. The person who will not listen to God’s ways—the ways he has gone to great lengths to reveal to us—will not even be heard when he prays. This should lead Christians to shudder at the thought of willful disobedience to God’s word. Our own wisdom will lead us nowhere good. Wisdom is found only with God. This is a good encouragement to me to press on in this habit of daily devotional study.

I have been reading and rereading Philippians as Jaimie and I start working on memorizing it together this week. I find that reading books as a whole makes their meaning much clearer to me,1 and especially having a sense of the flow of the book is especially helpful for memorization. A number of points stood out to me as I worked through Philippians as a whole, instead of focusing on the few verses usually emphasized (whether by pastors or simply by my own interests and focuses in previous study).

First, Paul really delights to see the gospel advance. This is obvious, of course: he built his life around proclaiming the life, death, resurrection, and reign of Jesus the Jewish Messiah to the Gentiles. Still, nothing brings it home like his declaration that he is even happy to see the gospel proclaimed by others out of envy and rivalry (1:17)—just so long as the result is that “in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed…” (1:18) That is Paul’s final grounds for rejoicing. Likewise, Paul points out that his imprisonment has really served to advance the gospel, and therefore is a cause for joy. I’m not sure most of us—myself certainly included—would be equally happy under the circumstances. May I ever grow to be more like that!

Second, it is easy to simply skip over or fail to grasp the enormity of Paul’s Christ-hymn in chapter 2. We have heard it preached so often that it is easy to miss the depths in his exploration of how much Jesus humbled himself. The eternal second person of the Trinity, the divine Son, the everlasting Logos, put on mortal humanity and embraced mortality in the most agonizing, humiliating way possible. He was publicly shamed in death that he might put our shame to death.

When Paul enjoins the Philippians to continue in their obedience, and to work out their salvation with fear and trembling, it is on this basis. His argument: Christ has done these things, and so God exalted him—now you obey, for you God is working in you, giving you both the will and the ability to obey him.

Third, I was struck again by how central the resurrection was to the way Paul thought about his life, and about the Christian life in general. Paul embraced suffering—great suffering—and counted everything this life offers and all his former credentials as nothing, as rubbish2. Why? So that he might know Christ and the power of his resurrection and share in his sufferings. We might understand why Paul would want to know Jesus and the power of his resurrection, but why would he want to share in his sufferings? He answers: “so that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” He staked his whole life on the belief that Jesus Christ rose from the dead, and offered the same to any who would pick up their cross and follow him.

That let Paul have the perspective that all this life has to offer is as nothing compared to the surpassing value of knowing Jesus. It enabled him to keep in mind that we are not citizens of this world, but of heaven—the heaven from which our Savior will come again and “transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body” (3:21).

Finally, a brief note that deserves considerable expansion. In 3:18–19, Paul describes those who walk as “enemies of the cross”—people who are ruled by their desires, who glory in their shame, who set their minds on earthly things. From Paul we might expect biting anger towards such bad examples. Instead, Paul writes that he tells the Philippians of these men and women with tears. No doubt Paul was angered at times by those who led others astray; we see that clear enough at other places in his letters. But here, he is moved to sorrow that there are some who would lead others astray and are so led astray themselves. All of us would do well to see our lives more characterized by this kind of sorrow.

  1. If I ever get around to writing the series on studying the Bible that I’ve been tossing around in my head for a while, I’ll expand on this idea at length
  2. The KJV’s “dung” is still probably the best non-vulgar English translation of this word. 

Jacob, Leah, Rachel—This Is A Mess

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

I have ten minutes tonight, so this is going to be a quick (and probably short) set of reflections. I got to Genesis 29 and 30 this evening, and read them together since the former flows neatly into the latter. The short version is: Jacob and his family are a mess, right from the start. If it wasn’t bad enough the way Jacob left his own family, it quickly becomes apparent that things with Laban won’t be any better—indeed, they’ll be worse.

Jacob falls in love with Rachel, makes a deal with her father than he can marry her if he works for seven years. Two thoughts: (1) that’s serious dedication; (2) I wonder how Rachel felt about the whole thing. Jacob finishes the seven years, Laban throws a party, and then Jacob and Rachel go to bed. Er, except that it’s Leah. One of my favorite lines in the Old Testament, here: “And in the morning, behold, it was Leah!” (Genesis 29:25). I’m married, and I’m really not quite sure how that worked.

Growing up, I was always under the impression that Jacob then had to work another 7 years before he got to have Rachel as his wife; as it turns out, he worked those 7 further years after having her as his wife. He had both Leah and Rachel as wives within a week of each other. To any guy that’s ever been tempted to think polygamy is a good idea, the rest of chapters 29–30 could be put here precisely to put that notion to rest. You know, with a bullet to the heart. What follows is a tale of sisters who clearly envy each other and see themselves in constant competition with one another, even using their maids as a way to get offspring for themselves.

Seriously: who does that? What woman says, “Here, go have sex with this other woman so that I can outdo my sister (with whom you are also sleeping) in our competition for having children?” Different culture, yes,1 but still: these people were a mess.

And that right there is one of the greatest comforts in Scripture to me. We have Abraham, the patriarch of the faith, followed by his son Isaac, who repeats his father’s mistakes and then gets outfoxed by his wife and son’s trickery. Then comes Jacob, who steals his brother’s blessing after tricking him out of his birthright, and the twelve sons who become the patriarchs of the twelve tribes of Israel come out of the backbiting and jealousy between the two women he married. This is the cast of characters through whom God is planning to bring blessing to all the nations of the world.

There is a magnificent, beautiful gem that gives a hint of what is coming buried in the middle of this. Throughout all the jealousy, giving of maids, and so on, only once does someone stop and simply praise God: Leah, when Judah is born (Genesis 29:35). And where does that promised blessing come from, ultimately? The line of Judah—not the firstborn son, but the kid in the middle, who is the only one about whom there is no complaining or wheedling for more, just a simple bit of praise offered to Yahweh.

God is working his plan. Jacob’s family makes it clear that he can work it just fine with people who are a mess. And in the midst of that mess, the Messianic hope just keeps growing. Praise Yahweh.

  1. Given that Sarah uses the same tactic to try to bring about God’s promises with Abraham, it was obviously a thing that was done. It still doesn’t process to me. 

Reflections on Knowing God, Chapters 1–2

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

One of my assignments for Christian Theology I at Southeastern is writing short devotional reflections on J. I. Packer’s Knowing God. On the days I read it, I am using this as my primary devotional material, so it will take the place of reflection on Scripture on those days.

Chapter 1: The Study of God

I find myself both challenged and encouraged here. I am encouraged, for it has long been my conviction that the knowledge of God is the most practical thing in the world. Seeking to know him more truly is both the most important task in my life and the most effective in bringing change in my life. I am challenged, though, because as Packer rightly points out, “If we pursue theological knowledge for its own sake, it is bound to go bad on us.”

Even as a seminary student only a few semesters in, I have seen the ease with which I could slip into approaching Scripture merely academically, and I know that for many, seminary degrees are a time of spiritual dryness. Packer’s exhortation helps me remember how to avoid that kind of spiritual deadness: we must “… turn each truth that we learn about God into matter for meditation before God, leading to prayer and praise to God.” In other words, I have come full circle: it is God who is the center of this enterprise, not me. That means that it is God, and not me, for whom I must conduct my studies—I must orient them on glorifying him, not on self-improvement or bettering others’ opinions of me. Turning my studies and reflections that way, not only apprehending intellectually but meditating so that these truths seep deep down into my affections and my ways of living, will keep me humble, and will lead me closer to God. As it should be.

Chapter 2: The People Who Know Their God

Packer writes, “If we really knew God, this”—that no worldly troubles matter, because of the joy of knowing God—”is what we would be saying, and if we are not saying it, that is a sign we need to face ourselves more sharply with the difference between knowing God and merely knowing about him.” This is a concern that presses deeply on me. I have seen friends grow in knowledge about while diminishing in knowledge of God, a fate I wish very much to avoid. More importantly, I have experienced the same in seasons of my own life, an experience I very much wish to avoid repeating. To grow in knowledge of theology without coming to know God more thoroughly is simply to end up arrogant, distant from God, a thorn in the side of other believers. Just as bad, it is to end up dry, dusty, and academic instead of full of the “gaiety, goodness, and unfetteredness of spirit” that Packer calls us to.

I have known many who knew less theology than me, but loved God more truly. I heartily believe that they would have loved God yet more truly had they known more of him, but I also believe that God desires their love more than their knowledge (even if he does desire both)—which is to say, he desires my loving him even more than he desires my knowing about him. It occurs to me that this is inherent in Jesus’ shocking comment that only those who come as little children will enter the kingdom: children do not come full of knowledge, but they do come full of love. I may grow in knowledge; indeed I must if I am to fully love God with the mind he has given me. Yet I must make sure that I am loving God with my mind, not loving myself.

Packer, quite rightly I think, points to prayer as both barometer and means of accomplishing this state of knowing God as well as knowing of him. If my knowledge is not leading me to prayer (and praise), I am missing the point somehow. I have seen this born out often in my devotions. When I am really grasping the passage, I want to pray and worship. When I am merely going through the motions, or only picking up the information academically, I am not so moved. Thus, my heart’s response toward prayer, or lack thereof, is a weather vane for how I am responding to the increased knowledge. At the same time, the discipline of prayer helps me turn away from mere academic apprehension of facts to the sovereign God those facts describe, and whom I ought to be worshiping, so it is also a way of avoiding that particular failure.

The Passion

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

Tonight’s post is going to sound familiar—a great deal like last night’s in many ways, because the topics are similar. Today I come to the Passion itself: Matthew 27. Here, Jesus stands before Pilate, is whipped and mocked and spit on again, and ultimately is crucified.

That word has too little force for us, I think. We Christians are too accustomed to the word “cross,” to used to the idea of Jesus being “crucified.” We have become inured to the horrifying nature of the image of a man dying in agony because he has had his body nailed to some pieces of wood. The pain was excruciating. Paul points out in Philippians that Jesus was humbled not just to death, but even to death on a cross. And for all that we come back to this idea in sermons from time to time, I think we still are too little aware of how great Jesus’ sufferings were on our behalf.

I am grateful that the Spirit let me see again, just a little, the horror of that moment. The God-man, the Savior-King who came to redeem the world from its sin, hangs there on a few pieces of wood from some trees he created, both upholding the universe by the word of his power and dying in agony, each breath impossibly hard. In a heartbeat he could have said, “Enough; I will not do this thing!” but the immeasurable depths of the riches of God’s kindness and mercy held him there. Not the Father abusing the Son, as some (fools) would have it, but the Son full-willing taking all upon himself as they and the Spirit in perfect unity did what man never could, so that the mercy and the justice of the Triune Godhead would be on display, side by side, forever. Impossible, glorious mystery.

And then the impossible words: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This, Jesus the eternal Son of God suffered on my behalf: not only the physical agonies of the cross, but somehow—in a great mystery—somehow he suffered the agony of relational separation from the Father and the Spirit that we all deserve and have borne in tiniest part, that we might never taste it in full. Somehow he suffered the wrath of the Godhead that we all deserve, so that we might never taste it at all. Impossible, glorious mystery.

He took our thorns—the thorns that grew from the ground that God cursed for Adam’s sake—on his brow. He took the lash on his back. He took the nails in his hands and his side. He took the mockery from Roman soldiers and passersby and wicked thieves hung beside him to die in ignominy. He took it all, that Father and Son and Spirit might pass over our sins and still be good—that when the Son comes again in power and judgment, we his people will stand clothed in his own righteousness. Impossible, glorious mystery!

So praise him: the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the Mighty One of Israel, the Lion, the Lamb, the one from whom the scepter will never depart, the Holy One, the great I Am, in every way a man and very God of very God, Redeemer, God with us, judge and judged, prophesied prophet, sacrifice and priest, servant-king—Yahweh! Yahweh, merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.


Then they spit in his face…

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

The combination of Matthew 26 and Psalm 36 is like a double punch to the gut—in the best way possible. Reading through Matthew 26, I was struck over and over again by the force of what is going on: Jesus, knowing exactly what was about to transpire, went willingly forward. Every step of the way, he knew what was coming next.

He knew that the religious authorities who should have seen him for who he was would plot to kill him. He knew, when a woman came and poured expensive ointment on him, that it was a preparation for his death. He knew when Judas went to the priests to sell Jesus’ life for a few pieces of silver. He knew exactly what the Passover had always been pointing to, and he knew what he meant—even if his disciples did not—when he spoke the words of institution of the Lord’s Supper. H knew that all his disciples would fall away, and the boldest and most devoted of them all would publicly deny him. He knew the enormity of the price he was about to pay, and in agonized prayer pleaded with the Father that if there were any other way, it be made available. He knew when Judas returned what his “friend” was about. He knew the hearts of the men who came out at night for fear of the crowds. He knew the hearts of the men who condemned him for “blasphemy” because he was indeed the Son of God, and they would not worship him.

They would not worship him. Instead, as verse 67 tells us, “they spit in his face and struck him. And some slapped him…” They spit in the face of the Messiah, struck very God of very God, slapped the final Passover lamb. Peter denied the one who came to save him.

This is us. This is you and me when left to our own devices, when trapped in our sins. We refuse to worship God. We spit in his face. We mock him. We deny him. Jesus knew this. He knew us. And, in loving obedience to the Father, and in love for us—when we were the worst of rebels, traitors, wicked fools in open revolt—he went knowingly, and willingly, to his death.

Psalm 36 opens with a picture of “the wicked”: the sort of person who “plots trouble while on his bed” and “sets himself in a way that is not good” and “does not reject evil” (v. 4). Then David turns and glories in Yahweh—his steadfast love, his faithfulness, his righteousness, his judgments, his sheltering, his abundance, his delights, his life, his light. The psalm is a perfect complement to Matthew 26: they both point to the wretched sinfulness of man and the glorious loving kindness of God.

I cried as I pondered these verses tonight (and I near tears again now): my God—against whom I sin over and over again, against whom we all had propped ourselves up as little dictators and tyrants over our own lives—the God who made all things and who is righteous and just and holy—my God died in my stead. I can stand before him now because he is righteous, and in his righteousness he counts my debt paid because Jesus Christ, the blameless Lamb of God took away the sins of the world. He knew then every wicked deed of my life, knew the weight he would bear for me, for you, for all of our hatred and racism and murder and adultery and gossip and gluttony and every last unkind word we speak to our spouses. And he went willingly to that cross, that the Father might be glorifed and that you and I might be saved.

Hallelujah. Hallelujah!