Devotional Podcast #26: “Is Jesus Enough for Us?”

July 14, 2018

Devotional Text: Mark 5:21-43

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Hi, this is Brent White. It’s Saturday, July 14, and after a long break, I’m back with you for Episode Number 26 in my series of podcasts. I apologize for the time away. I’m an itinerant United Methodist pastor, and I was recently appointed to a new church. So over the past two months I’ve had to pack up and leave one town and one church move to another town and church. But now that I’m getting settled in, I hope to bring you these podcast episodes with more regularity.

You’re listening to “The Waiting” by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, his hit song from 1981. I recorded this directly from the band’s long-playing vinyl record Hard Promises. The song is a happy song, in a way, because the singer sings it on the other side of a long and difficult wait. For the singer, the waiting is finally over—at last—because, you know, he’s finally found true love or whatever. But he wants you to know that waiting for true love was very difficult. In fact, “it’s the hardest part.” “Every day,” he says, “you see one more card”—you don’t see all the cards all at once; you just see one at a time, and you trust—you “take it on faith”—that you’re going to be holding all the right cards before the game is over.

And so it is for us Christians today, and so it was for Jairus in today’s scripture, which comes from Mark 5:21-43. I need to read it because, otherwise, you may not know what I’m talking about… [Read Mark 5:21-43.] 

Jairus is a synagogue ruler in Capernaum, the town that served as Jesus’ home base during his ministry years. That means, among other things, that Jairus is a powerful, wealthy, well-respected member of his community. He is sincerely religious, as we learn in v. 23, where Mark tells us that he “implored Jesus earnestly” to heal his terminally ill daughter. Read the rest of this entry »


What’s wrong with a “Jesus Plus” kind of faith?

July 7, 2018

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Last Sunday’s scripture, Mark 5:21-43, is often called a “Markan sandwich.” The top piece of bread is Jairus’s meeting Jesus on the shore to ask him to heal his daughter and Jesus’ accompanying him to his house, in vv. 21-24. This plot line gets interrupted by the hemorrhaging woman. Her story, in vv. 25-34, forms the middle part of the sandwich. Finally, the bottom piece of bread is the resumption and conclusion of Jairus’s story in vv. 35-43. This literary device is characteristic of Mark’s gospel: See Mark 2:1-12; 3:1-6; 3:20-35; 6:6b-31, among many other examples.

Mark tells his story in this way for two reasons: Not only because this is the way these events unfolded, but also because he wants the reader to see the interconnectedness of these two plot lines. As I said last Sunday, everyone, including the hemorrhaging woman, would expect Jesus to fulfill the request of a powerful, wealthy, credentialed, and respectable leader of the community: Jairus seems like a worthy candidate for a healing miracle of Jesus, whereas this ritually unclean poor woman does not.

Jairus is, as far as his fellow Jews are concerned, an unassailably “righteous” man. Mark doesn’t imply for a moment that he’s a hypocrite; he has no ulterior motive in coming to Jesus; his faith, such as it is, is sincere, as v. 23 makes clear: he “implored him earnestly.”

And yet, is Jairus really so different from the woman—social status notwithstanding?

At first, it seems like it. While they’re both desperate for Jesus to perform a healing miracle, the woman has nothing to lose: She’s lost everything already. She’s exhausted all her options. She has nothing in her favor. And even if Jesus heals her, what credit will she deserve? She doesn’t even have the courage to ask Jesus for help. She intends to steal a miracle from him.

Jairus isn’t like her. When he meets Jesus, he still has something working in his favor: time. In other words, he hasn’t lost everything yet because his daughter is still alive. So long as he gets Jesus to his daughter’s bedside before she dies, his labor will not have been in vain. How wise, how clever, how resourceful he will have been! “Well done, Jairus! Once again, you’ve saved the day—with Jesus’ help, of course. Still… apart from your quick wits, your good reputation, and your initiative, your daughter would have died! So, good job!”

I said in my previous post that Jairus’s faith is far from perfect, and we can see why: Until the messenger delivers the fateful news in v. 35, he isn’t trusting completely in Jesus or depending on him completely. He’s also trusting in his favorable circumstances: “As long as my daughter is still alive, it’s not too late! I still have reason for hope!” Jairus’s faith was not in Jesus Alone: it was in Jesus Plus these other things.

Jesus, of course, wants Jairus—and, by extension, us—to have a Jesus Alone kind of faith, not a Jesus Plus kind of faith. He wants to bring Jairus to the same place in which the hemorrhaging woman finds herself: a place of complete dependence on Christ. And so Jesus (that is, God) “rigs” Jairus’s circumstances to make sure this happens! By taking time to heal the hemorrhaging woman, God knows that final thread of Jairus’s misplaced faith—in himself and his circumstances—will be broken: “Why trouble the Teacher any further? Your daughter is dead. There is no longer any hope, Jairus. Give up.”

To this Jesus says, “Do not fear, only believe.” In other words, Jesus says, only believe in me! I am the Lord of all circumstances. I’m the One who looks at the storm raging all around and says, “Peace! Be still!”

Easier said than done! I prefer to have a Jesus Plus faith rather than a Jesus Alone faith. I like being able to depend on myself, my circumstances, my vain belief that “things aren’t as bad as they seem.” In fact, what often passes for “Christian faith” for me is belief in my own power: the thought that I haven’t exhausted all my options; I haven’t worked all the angles; I haven’t called in all my favors—in which case my prayer isn’t that Jesus would save me—even if I mouth those pious words—so much as these favorable circumstances would save me, or these people who are well-disposed to me would save me. While Jesus often saves through circumstances and people—by all means!—I can easily forget that it is Jesus who does the saving; he is the One in whom I need to trust.

And isn’t that the hard part?

Not to worry, though: as I’ve learned from experience, Jesus will often test me until I remember that I have nothing and no one else to depend on except him. This is the “severe mercy” that Jesus shows to Jairus when he learns that his daughter has died. This is God’s discipline, and as painful as it often is, it is good for us!

The words of the author of Hebrews couldn’t be more fitting:

And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons?

“My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.”

It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.

I’ve heard no one put it better than C.S. Lewis on this subject. (He uses the word “punishment” for “discipline,” but same difference.)

I am beginning to find out that what people call the cruel doctrines are really the kindest ones in the long run. I used to think it was a “cruel” doctrine to say that troubles and sorrows were “punishments.” But I find in practice that when you are in trouble, the moment you regard it as a “punishment,” it becomes easier to bear. If you think of this world as a place intended simply for our happiness, you find it quite intolerable: think of it as a place of training and correction and it’s not so bad.[1]

Think of this world as a place of training and correction and it’s not so bad. This is classic English understatement, perhaps, but I can only say, Amen!

1. C.S. Lewis, “Money Trouble” in The C.S. Lewis Bible, NRSV (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 1123.


Sunday sermon follow-up on Mark 5:21-43 (Part 1)

July 6, 2018

Last Sunday, I preached on Jairus and the hemorrhaging woman in Mark 5:21-43. The following are some of my personal notes or observations that didn’t make it into my sermon. I’ll share more in a second post.

This episode likely takes place in Jesus’ adult hometown of Capernaum. (The pictures above show ruins of the ancient city of Capernaum, including the first-century synagogue of which both Jesus and Jairus would have been part.) If that’s the case, Jairus, a “ruler of the synagogue,” knew Jesus personally. He has also likely witnessed Jesus’ healing power, which is why he’s desperate for Jesus to save his daughter.

If we consider Jairus’s plea a prayer, we have much to appreciate: I’m reminded, for instance, of Charles Spurgeon’s commentary on Lamentations 2:19: “[W]e cannot pray too simply. Just hear how Jeremiah put it: ‘Pour out your heart like water before the Lord’s presence.’ How does water pour out? The quickest way it can—that’s all; it never thinks much about how it runs. That is the way the Lord loves to have our prayers pour out before him.”

Indeed, in a sermon earlier this year, I complained that we often make prayer more difficult than it should be. Every morning, each one of us likely has something that is weighing heavily on our minds. Maybe, like Jairus, it’s related to the health or welfare of our children. Maybe it’s related to our jobs, our spouse, our personal health, our school, or our relationships. Whatever it is, it’s something about which we’re tempted to be anxious.

If so, prayer should be easy. Start there… Start praying about that thing that you’re worried about. Be bold like Jairus to tell Jesus what you need! Pour your petition out like water before the Lord.

On the other hand, Jairus is hardly the model of perfect faith. Consider, by contrast, a petition by another man in Capernaum who needed Jesus to heal a sick loved one: the Roman centurion of Matthew 8:5-13 (and its parallel in Luke 7:1-10). The centurion believes two things: first, that he’s not worthy to have Jesus come under his roof (v. 8); and, second, that Jesus is so powerful he can merely say the word—from a distance, without touching his servant—and heal him. Consequently, Jesus says of him, “Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith.”

Jairus shares neither conviction. For him, there’s no question except that Jesus needs to heal his daughter in person. Mark’s readers expect this, too. We believe, like Jairus, that time is running out. The episode with the hemorrhaging woman, therefore, is a needless distraction that adds to the suspense. From the perspective of Jairus, the disciples, and Mark’s readers, Jesus the Great Physician is committing the equivalent of medical malpractice: Why spend so much time with this woman and her chronic illness? He can come back and heal her later! Jairus’s child, meanwhile, is dying!

Also, while Jairus falls at Jesus’ feet out of sincere respect for him (v. 23), he has no qualms about his personal “worthiness” to ask Jesus for a healing.

Consider, by contrast, Peter in Luke 5:1-11: Jesus enables him to have a miraculous catch of fish, so much so that his nets are bursting. Is Peter happy that he’s just had the largest catch of fish in his life? Hardly! He’s terrified! “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (v. 8). Why does Peter respond this way? Because he realizes he’s in the very presence of God, and that sinful people like him can’t easily survive unmediated encounters with God (cf. Genesis 32:30; Exodus 33:20; Isaiah 6:5).

So what’s Jairus’s problem? Either he doesn’t believe, like Peter, that (as he far as he knows) he’s dangerously close to God or, if he does believe it, that he’s an unworthy sinner. Far from saying, “Depart from me, Lord,” he says, in so many words, “Come closer to me, Lord—come to my house, do what I tell you.”

This is why I said on Sunday that it’s likely that Jairus feels entitled to a miracle. Feeling entitled to anything from the Lord is not a prescription for joy and contentment, to say the least! We will inevitably be disappointed. Christ doesn’t live for us, after all; we live for him and his glory. Paul makes this point beautifully well in Philippians 1:19-20:

[F]or I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death.

Paul is in prison as he writes these words. He doesn’t know whether he’ll be set free or executed. Yet he says, “I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance.” My deliverance… While it sounds at first like his “deliverance” is having his life spared and being set free from prison, Paul doesn’t mean it that way. He means that he will be delivered from the “shame” of dishonoring Christ in his suffering—even if that suffering leads to his death. In other words, inasmuch as Paul is concerned about himself at all, he wants to make sure that, no matter what happens to him, he glorifies Jesus Christ.

This indifference to our own welfare characterizes the Wesleyan Covenant Prayer, which we Methodists often pray:

I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed for thee or laid aside for thee,
exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
thou art mine, and I am thine.
So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven.
Amen.

This prayer makes me a liar. I don’t want to be “put to suffering,” “laid aside for thee,” or “brought low for thee.” I don’t want to be empty or “have nothing.” Do you? But if this is God’s will for us, and by doing so we can glorify Christ, why wouldn’t we?

One final thought (for now): One important difference between the hemorrhaging woman and Jairus is that the woman understands that she isn’t worthy to have Jesus to do anything for her. She’s a sinner who deserves God’s judgment, death, and hell. This is the first half of the gospel: All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23), and the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). But please note: the woman’s status before God changes. In v. 34, Jesus calls her “daughter”: In other words, because of her faith in Christ, she is now a child of God!

How does this happen?

On the cross a great exchange takes place: Christ takes upon himself all of our unrighteousness and suffers the penalty for it; in return, he gives us his righteousness. And this exchange becomes effective for us through faith. Apart from faith, we are unworthy. Through faith, however, Christ makes us worthy. Far from being sinners separated from God, we become beloved children of God, from whose love nothing can separate us (Romans 8:38-39).

A parent-child relationship is unlike any other: children are never presumptuous to ask their parents for what they want and to believe that they will receive it. Having become children of God through faith, we can do what the author of Hebrews tells us: We can “with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16).


Reflections on Micah 1:3-4: “Tread upon the high places”

July 4, 2018

From Micah 1:3-4:

For behold, the Lord is coming out of his place,
and will come down and tread upon the high places of the earth.
And the mountains will melt under him,
and the valleys will split open,
like wax before the fire,
like waters poured down a steep place.

This morning, I wrote the following in my ESV Journaling Bible, Interleaved Edition. 

These “mountains” and “valleys,” and the ease with which God destroys them, ought to remind us of the importance of living our lives with the proper perspective: I’m, in general, a coward. I’m afraid of other people’s opinions of me, what people say about me, how they regard me. I’m afraid that I’m not being properly “recognized” or “appreciated” or “loved”—because I keep trying to satisfy my soul with “created things” rather than my Creator. I’m afraid for my physical health, because if I die before what I perceive to be “my time,” then I’m afraid I’ll miss out. (But miss out on what? My death will only mean greater life for me! I’ll have everything because I’ll have Christ! Isn’t he enough?) This verse, by contrast, reminds me that at Final Judgment, all of these “lesser things” that inspire fear will be exposed for what they truly are: IDOLS!

Dear Lord, please “tread upon” these “high places” now, before I face your judgment, so that I will be spared the pain that I otherwise deserve. Amen.


Sermon 07-01-18: “Jesus Makes Us Whole”

July 2, 2018

Yesterday, I preached my first sermon at my new appointment, Cannon United Methodist Church in Snellville, Georgia. (I’m an associate pastor there.) My scripture was Mark 5:21-43. If you haven’t seen me preach in a while, you may notice a somewhat looser, more conversational style. I attribute this change to the fact that, for the past few months, I’ve been preaching from an outline rather than a manuscript.

I made this change a few months ago after my previous church introduced a once-a-month Sunday evening service, for which I preached a different sermon from Sunday morning. (I developed a new appreciation for the Baptist pastors of my childhood who did this every week!) I simply didn’t have time to prepare a full manuscript for a second sermon on these Sundays. So I preached from an outline for the first time in my life. To my surprise as much as anyone else’s, these were some of the best sermons I’ve ever preached. As a result, I decided to do the same thing on Sunday morning.

One result of this change is that I put less pressure on myself to be clever, funny, or entertaining. I’m embarrassed to tell you, for instance, how much I used to sweat over creating an engaging introduction to my sermons each week! Now I just dive right in. In general, my sermons stick more closely to the scripture. And why not? I love the Bible. Why did I assume that my congregation wouldn’t love it, too? Especially if I could show them my heart for it—show them my passion for it? So that’s what I try to do now.

I’ve also changed the way I prepare sermons. For example, I now take notes longhand, as opposed to typing on my laptop. I find that “slowing down” in this way helps me think more clearly. (Have any of you tried this?) The people at Crossway, from whom I’ve purchased many products recently, would be delighted to know that I use both my ESV Journaling Bible, Interleaved Edition and their new ESV Scripture Journals (about $5 a pop on Amazon!) to do this.

Anyway, feel free to see the results of these changes in the video below. Scroll the video ahead to “-1:08:20” for the start of my sermon.


The best gift anyone has ever given me

June 27, 2018

Last week was an emotionally heavy week, for several reasons. I’ll talk about one of those reasons in today’s post.

I’m an itinerant United Methodist pastor, and this year it was my turn to move. I said goodbye to beloved brothers and sisters in Christ—and friends—to whom I’ve given much of life over these past five years. After I preached my farewell sermon, on Acts 20:17-27, the church presented the following video tribute as a parting gift to me. It’s the best gift anyone has ever given me!

In addition to heartfelt tributes from many of my parishioners, two of my heroes in the faith—genuine heroes—contributed to the video: N.T. Wright and Paul Zahl.

As longtime readers of the blog may guess, Wright, more than any living person, is responsible for what I’ve called my “evangelical re-conversion,” an experience that began around the time I started this blog in 2009 (even if it took another year or so to complete).

Wright, a retired bishop of Durham in the Church of England, is a world-renowned New Testament scholar—not to mention, for what it’s worth, the most famous. How many Bible scholars, after all, were able to match wits with Stephen Colbert on his old Comedy Central show, for instance?

But it was Wright’s massive book The Resurrection of the Son of God that turned my life around. Here was Wright, an evangelical who has spent his long career within the world of mainline, critical scholarship—a world in which I was immersed for three years in seminary—offering an energetic defense of the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, along with the scriptures that bear witness to it. His writing gave me a greater confidence in the authority of scripture at a time in my life when I needed it. He also helped me understand how seamlessly the gospel fits within the story of Israel and the Old Testament.

His writing affirmed for me classic doctrines of faith that were minimized or neglected in seminary—such as penal substitutionary atonement, Final Judgment and hell, a literal Second Coming, and the infallibility of scripture—if not without much nuance and qualification. Still, Wright’s qualifications never come from a place of skepticism about the reliability of scripture, only his effort to be more faithful to it. How can I not respect that?

So I love Wright and owe him a debt of gratitude. God used him to make me a more faithful follower of Jesus today—which is to say, a happier, more joy-filled person. And here he is, from his home near St. Andrews in Scotland, congratulating me on my new appointment!

My other hero of faith in the video is Paul Zahl, a retired Episcopal minister and theologian. For the past four years, the Very Rev. Dr. Zahl has been “living in my head” through his preaching, his writing, and (especially) his podcasts. More than anything, Zahl helped me fall in love with Jesus again. (As you hear in the video, this has been a theme of my recent preaching—not a coincidence.) He did so by enabling me to reconnect with a part of myself I lost too many years ago: that gawky 15-year-old who once wore the cover off his 1984 NIV Study Bible. “To find God,” Zahl said—paraphrasing Meister Eckhart—“you have to go back to where you lost him.” Or, put another way, to make sense of your life, you have to go back to that point in time—for me, around age 19 or 20—at which life stopped making sense. Truer words! And his reflections on those words in one of his podcasts—drawing on both Citizen Kane and the great Burton Cummings of the Guess Who—changed my life! Only Zahl could say, without irony, that if you want to understand what God’s love is like, “You need to listen to more Journey.” Indeed!

That these two men—who’ve helped shape me into the pastor and person that I am today—were part of this tribute moved me deeply!

And for good measure, because of my abiding and long-suffering affection for my alma mater, Georgia Tech, and my beloved Yellow Jackets, head basketball coach Josh Pastner offers his well-wishes.

(Special thanks to my friend and brother Matthew Chitwood for reaching out to all these people and putting this video together.)


“The Jesus I know…”: some ground rules for Christian disagreement, plus an invitation

June 16, 2018

In both political and ecclesial discourse these days, I have noticed this phrase popping up with increasing frequency: “The Jesus I know,” which is then followed by a controversial or at least disputed statement of what Jesus would or wouldn’t do, believe, or say in a particular circumstance.

I dislike this rhetorical tactic. For one thing, it feels like the speaker is claiming moral high ground over someone with whom he or she disagrees: “If you knew Jesus like know Jesus, then you would know that what I’m saying is true. Why don’t you know Jesus like that? What’s wrong with you? What’s wrong with your faith? And how can you disagree with Jesus and call yourself a Christian?”

If I disagree with the “Jesus that you know,” I hope you’ll appreciate why these words put me on the defensive. It’s hardly a constructive place to begin or continue a conversation. To say the least, it’s glib, and it fails to give me credit: Obviously, if I believed that Jesus “agreed” with you that a particular conviction that I possess is wrong, I would repent—at least I hope (I’m still a sinner, after all, or at least simul justus et peccator)! In which case, we wouldn’t be disagreeing at all.

So let’s agree, even when we otherwise disagree, that we do so in good faith, and that (if we are professing Christians) we both already know the same Jesus. Indeed, to do otherwise risks the sinful kind of judging that Jesus warns against.

More importantly, though: How do we know Jesus in the first place? Do we Christians not all have access to the same Jesus? Or do some Christians have superior access—based perhaps on their own “spiritual growth” or gifts? And if we believe that, are we not in danger of the same problems that Paul warns the Corinthians against in his first epistle, on account of which he wrote the most beautiful poem about love the world has ever seen (1 Corinthians 13)? “As for knowledge, it will pass away…”

Please don’t misunderstand: For months, as my own congregation can attest, I’ve been preaching about the need for us to “fall in love with Jesus” again, or to fall in love more deeply with him. And by all means, falling in love relates directly to our experience with Christ. The apostle Paul appeals to this experience, as opposed to mere intellectual knowledge, in Galatians 4:6: “And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!'” Moreover, given that we can “quench the Spirit” (1 Thess. 5:19), our lack of faithfulness—irrespective of deeply held theological convictions—can impede the work of the Spirit, not to mention the extent to which he enables the gospel to penetrate our hearts.

Nevertheless, while we can all know Jesus better, experientially, nothing we know of Jesus in this way will contradict what Jesus—through his Spirit—has revealed in his Word. As I’ve said before on this blog, I’m no “red-letter” Christian: the words of Christ aren’t more authoritative than the rest of the Bible. How can they be, when the One and same Spirit inspired everything else in scripture? Or when Paul’s most direct words about the Bible’s inspiration, 2 Timothy 3:16-17, were written before the gospels themselves, or certainly before they were part of something we now call the New Testament? I periodically explain to my congregation that when we stand for the reading of the gospel in worship, we don’t do so because the gospels—as opposed the the Old Testament, or the Psalms, or the epistles—are more inspired.

No, we stand for the reading of the gospels as a way of acknowledging the Spirit of Christ in our midst—the way we might stand for the president of the United States, were he to enter the room. We stand for Christ our King. It’s not that Christ isn’t present for the rest of the worship service, only that this is a fitting place, symbolically, to acknowledge his presence: just as, in the gospels, Jesus is present with his disciples as he is speaking.

From my perspective, then, when people appeal to the “Jesus I know,” it’s incumbent on them to justify their knowledge based on the Bible, the primary means by which any of us knows Jesus. Everything we know for sure about Jesus comes from the Bible.

If you disagree, consider this: Does anyone—even the saintliest or most mystical among us—know something about Jesus that contradicts what God has revealed about Jesus in the Bible? Not coincidentally, I believe, the holiest people I’ve known are also ones who know and love the Bible the best!

My point is, let’s please not short-circuit the Bible with an appeal to personal experience.

In a different context and for a different controversy, Paul wrote, “Does he who supplies” [present tense, i.e., in an ongoing way in the life of a believer] “the Spirit” [the means by which we experience Jesus Christ] “to you and works miracles among you do so by the works of the law, or by hearing with faith…? This “hearing” of which Paul speaks is the hearing—or, as is usually the case with us, the reading—of the gospel. For Paul this wouldn’t even mean simply the reading of the four literal gospels, even if they existed; Paul sees the gospel throughout the Bible, as evidenced by his words in v. 8—”And the Scripture… preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying…”—or 1 Corinthians 10:1-5, including v. 4: “For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ.” Also, when Paul preached to the Berean Jews in Acts 17, they “examin[ed] the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.” What “things”? Things related to Paul’s message about Christ and the gospel, which he proved by the Old Testament scriptures.

Brothers and sisters, I want you to know Jesus more. I want you to experience Jesus more. I want God our Father to supply you with more of the Holy Spirit, which makes our experience of Christ possible. But the primary way that he does this is through the Bible, God’s written Word. Read it. Meditate on it. Pray it. Pray over it. Hear the Lord speak to you through it. Be “consumed with longing” for it (Psalm 119:20); let it be your “delight” (119:24). Let us always live according to it (Luke 1:38). Aside from the gift of salvation through Christ, and his ongoing presence with us through the Spirit, it is our life’s greatest treasure.


The difference between living as a “son” and a “slave” in Galatians 4

June 9, 2018

In Galatians 4:1-7, which I covered in my sermon last week, Paul writes, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.” Paul here describes something objective that God has done to ensure that through faith in Christ we can have forgiveness of sins and a right relationship with God.

The objective character of what God has done for us on the cross cannot, in my opinion, be overemphasized. I have little patience, therefore, with subjective theories of atonement such as Abelard’s Moral Influence theory, which argues that the cross isn’t so much about what God has done for us—once for all, objectively, to take care of our problem with sin—as our response to it: “See how much God loves you that he was willing to suffer death for you? Doesn’t this melt your heart? If so, what are you going to do in response? Don’t you want to give your life to Jesus now?”

If that’s what the cross means, God help me!

Because I am—apart from the work of the Holy Spirit—a hopeless and helpless sinner. If my salvation depends even an iota on what I do in response to what God has done on the cross, I am lost! There are moments, even now, having been a Christian for a few decades, when I feel the weight of my sin, when I need reassurance. And in those moments my only recourse is to the cross: here is what God has done for me—objectively—to deal with my problem with sin. Sometimes I need to convince myself of this, intellectually.

I need to tell my soul something like this: “Brent, it’s true that you continue to sin, and you sometimes feel as if God won’t forgive you. But remember the cross. Remember the great exchange that took place. Remember that your sins were imputed to Christ, who paid the penalty for them in full. Every single one of them! There is no sin that you have ever committed or ever will commit that wasn’t ‘nailed to the cross’ (Colossians 2:14) with Christ. Also remember that his righteousness was imputed to you, meaning that you’re only able to have a right relationship with God because of the gift of Christ’s righteousness, not your own. Now, because of this double imputation, what’s true of Jesus is true of you: You, Brent, are God’s beloved son, with whom your Father is well-pleased.”

I can tell myself words such as these even when I’m not feeling it.

Not that this is usually the case. Usually, I do feel a sense of assurance that I’m a child of God. See Romans 8:16. Where does this feeling of assurance come from? Paul tells us Galatians 4:6: “And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’”

There was a period of time—from what I’ve read, in the middle of the 20th century—when many preachers would talk about how Abba, the Aramaic word for father, was literally baby talk—the equivalent of “Daddy” or “Papa.” It’s a word for “father” that’s easy for an infant to say—among a child’s first words. But we preachers aren’t supposed to say this anymore: In fact, while it’s true very young children called their fathers “Abba,” so did grown children. It just means “Father,” no more, no less. Don’t make more of it than that, scholars tell us.

But not so fast… If Abba doesn’t suggest or imply something more than simply “Father,” why does Paul distinguish it from “Father” (Greek: patēr) at all? Of course Abba means more than “Father”! It suggests a greater intimacy with God—the same intimacy that Jesus himself had with his Father; indeed, Abba is the word Jesus used. J.B. Phillips put it nicely in his translation: “Father, dear Father.”

So we enjoy this same intimacy with the Father. And this intimacy ought to penetrate our emotions. This goes beyond a faith that resides only in our heads!

So Paul is giving us something in these verses, Galatians 4:4-7, to feed both head and heart. If we are authentically Christian, we should normally feel a sense of intimacy with our Father. But when our emotions fail, we have the objective certainty that God has done everything necessary—objectively—to bring us into a right relationship.

In my sermon on this text, I also made a point that I had never previously made about Paul’s contrast between living as a slave versus living as a son and heir. I received this insight from Tim Keller. He made his point by talking about the prodigal son: Keller said that it seems very humble on his part to ask his father to “treat me as one of your hired servants,” but it isn’t; it betrays a lack of faith in his father’s love and mercy.

To illustrate this point, he writes the following:

Alexander the Great had a general whose daughter was getting married. Alexander valued this soldier greatly and offered to pay for the wedding. When the general gave Alexander’s steward the bill, it was absolutely enormous. The steward came to Alexander and named the sum. To his surprise Alexander smiled and said, “Pay it! Don’t you see–by asking me for such an enormous sum he does me great honor. He shows that he believes I am both rich and generous.”

So, when our hearts convict us and we’re tempted to doubt that God loves or forgives us—or that he does so only grudgingly—the problem may be a lack of faith on our part, not excessive humility! So we need to repent.


“What do you mean, you sleeper?”

June 6, 2018

In previous blog posts, I have sung the praises of the prophet Jonah. In terms of the sheer numbers of converts who heeded his words, he’s likely the most successful prophet in the Old Testament. His offer to sacrifice himself to save unbelievers foreshadows Christ’s own sacrifice. And even his attempt to run away from God betrayed enormous faith in a God who is “gracious… and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster” (Jonah 4:2). (Recall that Jonah ran away because he didn’t want God to show mercy on the hated Ninevites, as he believed God would ultimately do—because that’s exactly the sort of God that God is!)

Alas, in today’s post I must offer mostly criticism (with compassion). After God “hurled a great wind upon the sea” (Jonah 1:4), whose resulting tempest threatens the lives of the ship’s crew, the Bible says, in v. 5, “Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried out to his god. And they hurled the cargo that was in the ship into the sea to lighten it for them. But Jonah had gone down into the inner part of the ship and had lain down and was fast asleep.”

This reminds us of another sleeper, in another boat, in the midst of another life-threatening storm—see Mark 4:35-41—yet how different are Jesus and Jonah! Jesus sleeps because of his confidence in his Father’s abiding care; Jonah because he’s depressed, he’s hopeless, and he’s given up on life.

Enter the captain, a pagan whose righteousness, in its own way, outshines Jonah’s: “What do you mean, you sleeper? Arise, call out to your god! Perhaps the god will give a thought to us, that we may not perish.”

Again, the captain doesn’t yet know Yahweh, the God of Israel. He doesn’t yet know that Jonah’s God is “the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land” (v. 9). But since Yahweh is the God in whom Jonah believes, why on earth isn’t Jonah praying to him? Why isn’t he asking God to rescue him and the ship’s passengers and crew from this storm? Does Jonah not believe that God will “give a thought” to them—the same God of whom David asked, “What is man that you are mindful of him?” (Psalm 8:4)

“What do you mean?” indeed! 

Jonah has a responsibility to pray—on his own behalf but also on behalf of people whose own gods are powerless. They need Jonah to save their lives and, more importantly, their souls. Ultimately, Jonah’s witness and example would accomplish exactly that. (See v. 16.) But in the meantime, how dare he sleep when he could be praying!

Years ago, a former pastor and theology professor named Ryan Bell made headlines by announcing that he was taking a year off from being a Christian; that he would live self-consciously as an atheist for one year—no prayer, no church, no Bible-reading. Well—surprise, surprise—one year later he was an atheist… with a book deal. I blogged about it at the time. But I appreciated Christian philosopher and apologist William Lane Craig’s words from his Reasonable Faith podcast:

This is madness spiritually speaking, to think that you can sincerely embark on disbelieving in God and living out consistently the consequences of atheism. What about all these people that God would have had him pray for during that year? What about the people in the church community of which he is supposed to be a member that he should have been serving and helping during that year? What this means is that he will not be exercising his spiritual gifts in the context of the local body of believers. So it will be impaired by the improper functioning of that body. This is spiritually disastrous.

Do you hear that? Dr. Craig’s concern, like the captain in Jonah’s story, is first for the welfare of the people with whom Bell is living. He owes them his prayers and the use of his spiritual gifts. His “living as an atheist” for a year doesn’t just affect him, after all; it affects his brothers and sisters in Christ—not to mention the people in his community who don’t yet know Christ.

Or doesn’t it? Do we really believe that things like prayer and spiritual gifts make a difference in our lives and the lives of others?

If so, perhaps the captain’s words apply to us: “What do you mean, you sleeper?”


My hope is in God’s promises, not that “things aren’t as bad as they appear”

June 4, 2018

I’ll blog more about this treasure: It’s called an “interleaved” journaling Bible—from Crossway.

In Psalm 119:41-2, the psalmist writes,

Remember your word to your servant,

in which you have made me hope.

This is my comfort in my affliction,

that your promise gives me life

Nine years ago, I experienced what I’ve called on this blog my “evangelical re-conversion.” During those days, weeks, or months, the Lord convicted me: for too many years, I had neglected God’s Word—even as I was attending seminary in large part to study it; even as I was (supposedly) preaching it every week. I had failed, repeatedly, to put myself under its authority—which is to say, God’s own authority. So I repented.

(I say “re-conversion” because my change of heart represented a return to a part of my identity that I had left behind around my sophomore year of college. Note that “sophomore” is derived from roots literally meaning “wise fool.” Truer words…)

I also repented of the harmful idea, which I learned in seminary, that somehow the Bible isn’t God’s Word at all, or is only God’s Word in a secondary sense. (This idea comes courtesy of Karl Barth, “a dreadful man”—C.S. Lewis.) The Bible, we were told, at best “bears witness to” God’s Word, who is Jesus. Indeed, I’m sure that a sentence like this one showed up in my commissioning papers before the Board of Ordained Ministry. (Sorry, guys!) In the past, I’ve dealt with this question-begging fallacy: there is literally nothing we know for sure about the “Word of God who is Jesus” apart from the Word of God that is written down, the Bible. Moreover, since the Holy Spirit, the very Spirit of Christ, inspired the writers of the Old and New Testaments to write what they wrote, I have little patience for pitting the “red-letter words” of Jesus in the gospels against the rest of scripture.

Regardless, this blog has in part been the fruit of this re-conversion. “Here I stand; I can do no other.”

Yay, me!

But then I encounter scripture such as the verses quoted above, and I’m humbled: My one and only source of comfort and hope when I’m “afflicted,” the psalmist says, is “your word” and “your promise”—which he elsewhere describes with synonyms such as “commandments,” “precepts,” “rules,” “testimonies,” and “statutes.” He is referring to all of scripture—the Bible itself. Psalm 119 is in fact a psalm of praise for God’s Word.

I’m humbled, I say, because I realize how unlike the psalmist I am! When I am “afflicted,” I don’t usually place my hope in the promises of God’s Word—for example, that in all things God is working for my good, that I shouldn’t despise the Lord’s discipline, and that what others, including Satan, mean for evil, God means for good. Instead, when I face trouble, my “hope” and “comfort” is this: after assessing the circumstances in which I find myself—after reviewing a list of possible outcomes as best as I can determine them—things aren’t as bad as they appear. After all, I can work this angle; I can talk to this person; that person owes me a favor.

Having consoled myself with my own power to make things work out all right, then I’ll ask God to console me.

Isn’t that hilarious? No wonder I get stressed out so easily! No wonder I often get angry!

What would happen, Brent, if you actually tried believing this Bible in which you take pride in believing?

I repent.