Archive for August, 2017

Resentment is deadlier than any physical illness

August 31, 2017

At last night’s Bible study, we talked about Galatians 4:13-14: “You know it was because of a bodily ailment that I preached the gospel to you at first, and though my condition was a trial to you, you did not scorn or despise me, but received me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus.”

We don’t know for sure what this “bodily ailment” was, although I, along with many scholars, believe that it’s the same affliction as Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” of 2 Corinthians 12:7-10. It likely caused Paul some kind of disfigurement, which I suspect, given his words in Galatians 4:15 and his humorous aside in 6:11, is related to his eyes—perhaps Graves’ disease. At least one student in class wondered if God’s blinding him at the time of his conversion didn’t leave his eyes permanently injured. Recall that Paul regains his sight only after “something like scales fell from his eyes” (Acts 9:18). Add to this condition the ancient superstition about the “evil eye,” and it’s easy to imagine that many people who saw Paul would have “scorned and despised” him. But not the Galatians.

But that’s pure speculation. My point is that Paul was only able to lead the Galatians to Christ and establish their churches because of a personal setback he experienced: he was waylaid in their country by a serious illness. God used this setback as a blessing.

The God of the Bible often redeems setbacks.

The thorn in the flesh, for instance, “was given” (divine passive) in order to keep Paul humble. Whenever a divine passive shows up in scripture, we rightly assume the “giver” of the gift is God. Despite Paul’s pleading, Christ refused to remove Paul’s thorn: It was a blessing to him, however painful.

In fact, it was a blessing from God even though, at the same time, it was also a “messenger from Satan [sent] to harass me” (2 Cor 12:7). How can something be both a gift of God and a “messenger of Satan”?

Ask Job. In Job 1-2, God allows Satan to bring great harm to Job and his family, within limits. Satan is testing Job, who, Satan believes, won’t serve God for nothing: as soon as God removes his protective hedge, Job will renounce his faith.

Job, of course, passes the test, and like all successful trials (James 1:2-4), God uses the experience to strengthen Job’s faith. The book climaxes with Job repenting “in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6). To paraphrase Genesis 50:20, “What Satan intended for evil, God intended for good.” For us believers in Christ, this will always be God’s intentions for trials that come our way.

I told the class that many years ago, pastor John Piper wrote a controversial blog post about his own experience with cancer. He urged readers with the disease not to “waste” it, by which he meant that God has a purpose for allowing us to get cancer—just as he had a purpose for allowing Paul to get his “thorn in the flesh”—and our own attitude can risk frustrating this purpose. (I defended Piper’s blog post back in 2014 and would gladly do so again today.)

One of Piper’s detractors, T.C. Moore, wrote the following about Piper’s post:

If God is sovereign in the way New Calvinists like Piper conceptualize divine sovereignty (as absolute, unilateral control and coercion over every molecule in the universe), then cancer simply cannot be merely “permitted” by God (as Piper points out), but has to be “designed” by God as a gift for human beings. That’s the good and necessary consequences of Piper’s theology no matter who likes it or hates it. Sorry, that’s just the way it is folks!

While I don’t “conceptualize divine sovereignty” as “absolute coercion” (that’s a loaded word!) of every molecule in the universe, orthodox Christian theology teaches that God sustains every molecule in the universe into existence at every moment; he designed the physical laws that govern them; and he superintends their behavior such that, if he wants them to affect us in certain ways, they will. Otherwise God will ensure they won’t, either by letting nature run its course or intervening to cause a different outcome. Either way, the outcome reflects God’s will.

As for Piper’s distinction between what is “designed” versus “permitted,” I agree with that as well (as I argued in my earlier post). What’s the alternative? God “permits” some bad thing that he doesn’t have the power to prevent? Then he’s no longer permitting it; he’s a helpless bystander. In which case, he’s no longer the God of the Bible, to say the least. There is no “mere” permission apart from God’s purposes. And if God keeps the promises in his Word, then we can trust those purposes are both good and for his glory.

Moore went on to accuse Piper of doing a “complete 180” in a later blog post when he says he hates cancer, and that it is “regularly an accomplice in the life-robbing work of our ‘final enemy,’ death (1 Corinthians 15:26).”

But Piper has done no such thing! “What Satan intended for evil, God intended for good.” God always has the power to redeem evil, and he promises his children he will. I’ve given several examples above. But I’ve left out the greatest example: If God has the power to transform the worst evil that the world has ever seen—his Son’s death on the cross—into the greatest good the world has ever seen, then he can certainly redeem any lesser form of evil that comes our way! It’s not hard for God to do this! And his Word promises he will! Why do we doubt him?

Would you rather shake your fist at heaven and say, “Why is this happening to me?” or approach the throne of our heavenly King and ask, “Why are you allowing this to happen to me now, Lord?”—What are you up to, God? What are you trying to teach me? How can I glorify you through this experience?

Inasmuch as I’ve suffered in life, with matters far less serious than cancer, even I know resentment is deadlier than any physical disease.

“Christ the bridegroom takes a wretched harlot and confers upon her all the riches that are His”

August 30, 2017

This past Sunday, to begin our celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation on October 31, I preached the first part of a new series on the Reformation’s five core convictions, often called the “Five Solas.” Part One was on Sola Fide, justification by faith alone. While I didn’t use the word “imputation,” I described it. But here’s a nice description of it from one of my favorite Christian thinkers (and pastors), Paul Zahl, from a 1991 article in First Things.

Moreover, the atonement has to be substitutionary, to use the classic language, or I fail to see how it can ensure the being forgiven. We need God’s substituting Himself into our frail, contingent world of judged living. We require a substitute, the deepest form of empathy, the “I’ll go in your place” quality of advocacy. The metaphor of God’s substitution is the only one of the familiar theories of atonement that provides for the full failed weight of human aspiration.

Moreover, substitutionary atonement has to be imputed. Imputation means the regarding as righteous of one who is not intrinsically righteous at all. It covers over the conflicted ambivalent character of human personality with a seamless robe, and gives us authentic security in the encounter with God.

Imputation is described tersely and truly by an English historian of the Reformation, Patrick Collinson: “[It is] a transaction somewhat like a marriage, in which Christ the bridegroom takes to himself an impoverished and wretched harlot and confers upon her all the riches that are His . . . . Therefore, the justified Christian man, in himself and of his own nature a sinner but not seen as a sinner by God, brings forth those good works which consist in the love of God and neighbor, not slavishly to win any reward but gladly, that service which is perfect freedom.” Imputation as an experienced principle is poignantly needful for a striving world.

Why this Methodist believes in meticulous providence (Part 3)

August 29, 2017

(If you haven’t read the previous two entries in this series, please do so: Part 1 and Part 2.)

In my previous post, I made it through three paragraphs of John Piper’s controversial blog post from 2007 on the collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis, not far from Piper’s church. Recall that Piper has just said that the “appointed” reading for his family devotional the night of the disaster (I assume he was using a devotional book or calendar of assigned readings) was Luke 13:1-9. As I said last time, I agree with Piper that this was “surely no coincidence.” This scripture ought to be a go-to passage when natural or man-made disasters occur.

But even believing that some mundane event is “surely no coincidence”—which most of us Christians believe at least occasionally—requires a degree of God’s control that we otherwise deny when we say that everything doesn’t happen for a reason, and that some events fall outside of God’s providential plans.

In the fourth paragraph, Piper writes:

Jesus implies that those who brought him this news thought he would say that those who died, deserved to die, and that those who didn’t die did not deserve to die. That is not what he said. He said, everyone deserves to die. And if you and I don’t repent, we too will perish. This is a stunning response. It only makes sense from a view of reality that is radically oriented on God.

Has Piper correctly interpreted Jesus’ words? Did Jesus imply that everyone deserves to die—and “perish” eternally?

Let me consult one liberal mainline commentary—Eugene Boring and Fred Craddock’s The People’s New Testament Commentary. Boring and the late Craddock were professors at Emory’s Candler School of Theology, the seminary I attended:

People, especially religious people, want a satisfying explanation for tragedy. Those killed were sacrificing at the temple in obedience to the biblical command. Were they perhaps actually hypocrites, so that Pilate’s outrageous slaughter was the just punishment for their sin? Jesus offers no explanation but eliminates the false idea that tragedy is God’s punishment for sin.[1]

This is deceptively close to being true: Among other things, Jesus is saying that tragedies aren’t necessarily God’s punishment for sin. I can buy that. But this passage can’t rule out all tragedies. In fact, the Old Testament is rife with tragedies that, we’re told, are God’s punishment for sin.

And what about the New Testament? The cross itself was the greatest tragedy: to say the least, it represents God’s punishment for sin—although the punishment wasn’t suffered by those who deserve it. Jesus warns that the destruction of the Temple and the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 will, in part, be punishment for sin. I’m sure that the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5 were tragic to their families, yet these too were punishment for sin. The death of church members in 1 Corinthians 11:29-30 for receiving the Lord’s Supper in an “unworthy manner” was punishment for sin. The Book of Revelation obviously reports many tragic events that have resulted or will result from sin—not only eschatological events, but also churches whose “lampstands” will be “removed from their places” on account of their sin.

How, then, can Boring and Craddock arrive at this inductive inference except by reading this passage in a vacuum? I admit their interpretation sounds nice to modern ears: The “nice” liberal god of mainline Protestantism rarely if ever punishes anyone for sin, so of course his hands are clean when disasters occur.

But at what cost does this “nice-ness” occur? We can infer the answer in their next paragraph:

There are no explanations for such tragedies, but they still point us to the reality that we live in a world in which we are not in control, and constitute a call to repentance. Jesus’ hearers are urged to avoid constructing an explanation for the evils of life and to see such calamities as reminders of the fragility of life; anyone, relatively good or evil could find himself or herself standing before the final Judge without any advance warning.[2]

I agree that tragedies remind us that life is fragile and they “point us to the reality that we live in a world in which we are not in control,” but does that imply that “there are no explanations for such tragedies”?

Have they thought it through? Have they never found comfort in the assurance that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him” (Romans 8:28)? Does “all” not mean all? If God allows something that he might otherwise prevent (assuming, as classic Christianity always has, that he has the power to do so), then it’s untrue to say that “there are no explanations for such tragedies” (beyond blind physical forces and ungoverned human will). There are explanations for all tragedies; it’s just that one of those explanations isn’t necessarily “because the ones who died were sinners, and the ones who survived weren’t.”

In fact, we’re all sinners (Romans 3:23), and the Bible warns us that the “wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23a). And not just physical death—spiritual death, eternal separation from God. Jesus came to save us from that consequence.

Isn’t this the plain meaning of Jesus’ twice repeated warning, “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish”? In other words, Jesus’ hearers were likely going to remain safe from tragedies such as the ones that befell the worshipers in the Temple when Pilate murdered them, or those victims of the tower’s collapse. For all we know, they would live to a ripe old age and die of natural causes. Does that mean that they were O.K. with God? No, Jesus warns them: None of you is O.K.! You all must repent or face judgment and hell.

Why? Because we’re all sinners who deserve death, judgment, and hell. Which is precisely what John Piper says.

1. Eugene Boring and Fred Craddock, The People’s New Testament Commentary (Louisville: WJK, 2009), 231.

2. Ibid.

The message of the Good Samaritan is not “try harder”

August 25, 2017

I started a new Bible study last Sunday morning at my church on the parables of Jesus. The first one we looked at was the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37. At one point, I asked the group what they thought the main difference was between the priest and the Levite, on the one hand, and the Samaritan on the other. They gave me the expected answer: “The Samaritan stopped and helped the injured victim.”

But is that true? Is that the main difference?

I don’t think so. The main difference is Jesus’ words in verse 33: “But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion.” He had compassion. As I told the class, Jesus was constantly teaching—see the Sermon on the Mount, for instance—that what counts is not our actions so much as our heart. Even good things we do—giving alms, praying, tithing, obeying the Law—can be corrupted by sin. And even seemingly small sins are worse because of the condition of our hearts: Lust, for example, is the spiritual equivalent of adultery. Anger is on the same spectrum as murder.

Therefore, the biggest difference between the Samaritan and the two clergymen was also the condition of the Samaritan’s heart. By all means, he stopped to help, and the help he offered was risky, costly, and self-sacrificial. But he did so because he had compassion. As I told the class, he could have done everything that he did, for example, to prove to himself or to others that he was a virtuous person—from a place of pride. In which case, his actions, as good and costly as they were, wouldn’t count in God’s eyes. You can’t fake compassion, after all. Either you have it or you don’t.

This interpretation helps me. Like many, if not most, preachers, I’ve often boiled down Jesus’ message in this parable to this: “Try harder!” How many “try harder” sermons have you heard on this parable? And since “trying harder,” like all my efforts at self-improvement, is doomed to fail in the long run, I just feel guilty. “Why am I such a failure as a Christian?”

But this parable reminds me that the problem is in my heart. A change there will require miraculous intervention. “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”

This got me thinking about another parable (or close enough to a parable), The Sheep and the Goats. The message there is often construed as “try harder” but it’s much worse: “Try harder or else burn in hell!” And again, I’ve heard those sermons before.

Before I go further, please don’t misunderstand what I’m saying. Good works must accompany genuine faith in Christ, but they will do so as evidence of that faith. They are, as Jesus says in Matthew 7:17, “good fruit.” The fruit itself doesn’t make a tree healthy; it is, rather, a sign of a healthy tree. The relationship of good works to saving faith is the same.

So I’m happy to say that, at the very least, the Sheep and the Goats, like the Good Samaritan, teaches that good works must accompany saving faith. But it says more than that. Notice verses 37-39: “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you,” etc. Those people identified as sheep were unaware that they were serving Jesus when they “did it unto the least.”

So the message of the parable can’t simply be, “Be like the sheep in this parable or else,” because the very act of trying to be like the sheep is self-defeating: the sheep, please notice, weren’t trying. Whatever loving service they offered, they did so unselfconsciously. They weren’t aware that they were serving the Lord.

Believe me, when I manage to “do it unto the least of these,” I’m often acutely aware that I’m doing it!

My point is, the “sheep” do what they do for the same reason the Good Samaritan does what he does: because they have compassion. The condition of their hearts motivates their actions.

Inasmuch as we fail to do good works, the problem lies in our hearts. Only God can change us there. Let’s pray that he will.

Sermon 08-06-17: “God Has Given Us This Life to Receive the Gospel”

August 22, 2017

This sermon is unusual for me because it’s about one verse, 1 Peter 4:6, which includes strange words about the gospel being “preached to those who are dead.” What does that mean? One thing it doesn’t mean, as I argue in this sermon, is that people get a second chance to hear and respond to the gospel even after they die. No, the time to receive God’s gift of salvation is now. 

Sermon Text: 1 Peter 4:6

My sermons are now being podcast! My podcast is available in iTunes, Google Play, and Stitcher.

In one of the two sermons I preached last Sunday morning, when I was talking about verse 1 and the connection between suffering and “ceasing from sin,” I said, “This is one of two difficult verses in this passage.” I didn’t have time to talk about the second difficult verse in last Sunday’s sermon. So I want to talk about that verse now, and next week we’ll look at verses 7 through 11.

Verse 6 says the following: “For this is why the gospel was preached to those who are dead, that though judged in the flesh the way people are, they might live in the spirit the way God does.” The gospel was preached to those who are dead. What does that mean?

Let me begin by taking about two things it doesn’t mean.

First, it doesn’t mean that Peter is talking about those who are spiritually dead. That has been one way of interpreting this verse over the years. While it’s true, of course, that apart from Christ, we are spiritually dead, Peter has just said, in the previous verse, that God is going to judge the “living and the dead.” He gives no indication that he’s switching gears and using the word “dead” in a figurative way. No, when he refers to “preaching to the dead,” he’s talking about people who are now physically dead. Read the rest of this entry »

Making sense of the Second Coming and Jesus’ words in Matthew 24

August 17, 2017

In preparing to preach on the Second Coming in last Sunday’s sermon (based on Peter’s warning in 1 Peter 4:7 that “the end of all things is at hand”), I read the most helpful book on the subject that I’ve ever read: Anthony Hoekema’s The Bible and the Future.

His book cleared up confusion on my part concerning the so-called Olivet Discourse, Jesus’ “little apocalypse,” delivered to his disciples on the Mount of Olives, in Matthew 24-25 and its parallels.

What was I confused about? Something that N.T. Wright advocates in his commentaries on the subject: everything that Jesus says in this passage (and elsewhere in the gospels), which has traditionally been understood as pertaining to his Second Coming, isn’t about the Second Coming at all. Rather, it’s about the Roman invasion of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70.

Now, before the “Wright Is Wrong” crowd start piling on, let me say this: Wright doesn’t for a moment deny the Second Coming. In fact, he affirms it loudly from the rest of the New Testament. He just doesn’t think that Jesus taught it prior to his resurrection. In one of his commentaries, he writes that the disciples couldn’t understand his predictions about his suffering, death, and resurrection. Why would Jesus further confuse them with words about his Second Coming?

So this makes Wright a “partial Preterist”: Jesus’ apocalyptic language has already been fulfilled.

While I see the appeal of this position, and it’s clear that much of what Jesus says pertains to the events of A.D. 70, I certainly don’t believe that this is all Jesus is talking about. In order to buy into the Preterism of Matthew 24, you have to interpret Jesus’ words in v. 30, “they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heavens” in a wildly figurative way: Wright says that when the Temple is destroyed, Christians will “see” Jesus and his glory in the sense of vindication: his warnings about Jerusalem, for example, in Matthew 23:37-38, and Israel’s failure to embrace his way of peace, will be fulfilled, and Christ will be glorified. Something like that…

So Jesus, in Wright’s view, “returns” in this figurative sort of way in A.D. 70, before he returns in a more literal way at the end of the age. In a sense, Wright teaches that there are two “returns” of Christ. And don’t most of us Christians—including Wright himself—fault our dispensationalist brothers and sisters for teaching that Christ returns twice—once for Christians and a second time after the Great Tribulation? Is Wright’s position really so different?

Regardless, as much as I respect Wright—and as much as I fear disagreeing with so fierce an intellect—his argument about Jesus’ “little apocalypse” sounds like wishful thinking. It sounds like he’s trying to solve an apologetic problem—namely, Is the Bible, or Jesus, wrong about the Second Coming?

Granted, his “solution” isn’t the worst I’ve heard. C.S. Lewis—speaking of Christian thinkers I admire—happily admits that Jesus was wrong. But that’s O.K., he says, because Jesus himself said, “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only” (Matthew 24:36).

So this is where Hoekema comes in: From his perspective, there is no problem. Not if we understand the way prophetic language works.

For example, I’ve struggled with two aspects of Jesus’ “little apocalypse.” First, if Jesus is talking about the end of the age and his Second Coming, why does his language focus so sharply on events in and around ancient Palestine?

On this point, Hoekema writes the following:

In this discourse Jesus seems to be describing events associated with his Second Coming in terms of the people of Israel and of life in Judea. These details, however, should not be interpreted with strict literalness. Herman Ridderbos has some helpful things to say about this:

… The prophet paints the future in the colors and with the lines that he borrows from the world known to him, i.e., from his own environment…. We see the prophets paint the future with the palette of their own experience and project the picture within their own geographical horizon. This appears in the Old Testament prophets in all kinds of ways. And in our opinion, this is also the explanation of Jesus’ description of the future. He follows the Old Testament most closely, and not only is the temporal perspective lacking at the end, but the geographical horizon within which the eschatological events take place is also restricted in some places to the country of Judaea or to the cities of Israel.

In other words, Hoekema writes,

Jesus was describing future events in terms which would be understandable to his hearers, in terms which had local ethnic and geographic color. We are not warranted, however, in applying these predictions only to the Jews, or in restricting their occurrence only to Palestine.[†]

My second problem with Jesus’ words about the Second Coming in Matthew 24 is how they blur so easily with his prediction about the fall of Jerusalem. Why does it seem so unclear, so confusing? But here, too, according to Hoekema, Jesus is following the pattern of Old Testament prophecies. He is employing “prophetic foreshortening.” I explained this idea in last Sunday’s sermon. I hope you find it helpful:

And on the Mount of Olives nearby, the disciples ask Jesus a two-fold question: “Tell us, when will these things be”—in other words, when will the Temple be destroyed—“and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” So the disciples have asked about the destruction of the Temple and the Second Coming. And in Jesus’ response that follows, he talks about both. And it’s often hard to tell when he’s talking about one event and not the other.

And that’s intentional: He’s saying that the Roman invasion of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple—which took place in the year 70—reflects, on a much smaller scale, what God will do on a global scale when Christ returns. So he’s using the destruction of the Temple to make a point about the end of the age and the Second Coming. There’s a near-term fulfillment of biblical prophecy, and a long-term fulfillment.

Old Testament prophets do this all the time. Let me give two quick examples: In Isaiah 7, King Ahaz, the king of Judah, the Southern Kingdom of Israel, is being threatened by the Northern Kingdom and Syria. And he’s worried about whether his kingdom will survive. So Isaiah gives him a sign to reassure him that God will save him and his kingdom: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name ‘Immanuel.’” And before that child is grown, in a short time, those two kings that seem so frightening right now will be dead and gone, yet the Southern Kingdom will survive. Now, we don’t know the identity of this virgin and child to whom Isaiah was referring, but he’s describing something that will happen soon—a “near-term” fulfillment; the ultimate, long-term fulfillment, of course, would happen hundreds of years later, which is described by Matthew in his Christmas narrative

Another example is the Book of Joel: He talks about God’s judgment against Israel in the form of a plague of locusts that will produce famine in the land. And he says that the people can repent and be saved. But then he pivots from this near-term judgment of God to God’s final judgment—and our hope for salvation in Christ. The two events blend together. He uses a small-scale event to make a point about a much larger-scale event.

And Jesus does the same thing when he relates the destruction of the Temple to his Second Coming. When you read Matthew 24, it seems like the Second Coming will happen at the same time as, or shortly after, the fall of Jerusalem in the year 70, but as one scholar says, it’s like looking at mountain peaks from a far distance: They look like they’re close together, but when you get up next to them, you see that they’re separated by many miles.

I emphasize this because I don’t want us to get discouraged and think, “The Second Coming is never going to happen! It would have happened a long time ago!” I don’t want us to lose confidence in God’s Word.

What are your thoughts? What questions or concerns have you had about the doctrine of the Second Coming?

Anthony Hoekema, The Bible and the Future (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1979), 149.

Why this Methodist believes in meticulous providence (Part 2)

August 15, 2017

Hillary Clinton and Bill Shillady

(To read Part 1 of this series, click here.]

Last week, CNN interviewed Hillary Clinton’s pastor, the Rev. Bill Shillady, a United Methodist, on the eve of the publication of his new devotional book. The interviewer asked him if his faith was challenged by the election results. He said the following:

It wasn’t a challenge to my faith in terms of believing or not believing in God. I’m a bit of a process theologian, which means that, as life goes along, I believe in an all-loving God who may not always be in control, rather than an all-powerful God who is not loving. But I was definitely depressed for a few months after the election.

Frankly, if that were the choice we Christians face—between a God who is all-powerful but not all loving or all-loving but not not all-powerful—then we’d all have good reason to be depressed! If it were true that our all-loving God “may not always be in control,” then how can we possibly trust or depend on him? After all, God makes many promises to his children in scripture. How do we know that he has the power to fulfill them?

Fortunately, the Rev. Shillady has offered us a false choice: to say the least, God can be all-loving and all-powerful and also allow Donald Trump to be president! And that would be equally true if Clinton had won.

What’s tragic, however, is that so many Methodist laypeople, Secretary Clinton included, are being taught otherwise!

Still, Shillady’s words are a timely reminder of why we need a firm grasp on God’s providence.

So let’s go back to the controversial 2007 post from pastor John Piper, which he wrote after the 35W bridge collapsed and killed 35 people and injured 145. Was Piper right or wrong?

Piper begins by saying that on the night the bridge collapsed, the appointed scripture for his family devotion time was Luke 13:1-5. He writes, “It was not my choice. This is surely no coincidence.” I assume Piper means that the reading came by way of a pre-determined calendar of scripture readings or a devotional book.

If so, Jesus’ words in that passage couldn’t be more timely. Jesus and his disciples have just received breaking news: Pontius Pilate massacred Galilean worshipers in the Temple in Jerusalem. It’s likely that the messengers who delivered the news expected Jesus to endorse a widely held theological interpretation of tragedies such as this one: God was punishing its victims for their particular sins. Instead, Jesus says the following:

Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.

Notice that Jesus’ other example of recent tragedy—a tower falling on people—couldn’t be more closely related to the 35W bridge disaster. So I agree with Piper: The fact that this scripture was the appointed text on this particular evening is surely no coincidence… Unless of course meticulous providence doesn’t exist, in which case coincidences abound.

Because even my saying that this was “no coincidence” requires a lot of providential string-pulling: For example, months or years earlier, God, foreseeing the 35W bridge tragedy, inspired someone—a devotional writer or publisher—to choose Luke 13:1-5 as the reading for this particular day, after which God made sure that this devotional book got into the hands of John Piper and his family, and they were reading from it the night of the tragedy.

Pastor and author Tim Keller makes a similar point about the establishment of his church, Redeemer Presbyterian, in Manhattan:

Redeemer exists to a great degree because my wife, Kathy, and I were set to New York City to start this as a new church. Why were we sent? It was because we joined a Presbyterian denomination that encouraged church planting and that sent us out. But why did we join a Presbyterian denomination? We joined it because in the very last semester of my last year at seminary, I had two courses under a particular professor who convinced me to adopt the doctrines and beliefs of Presbyterianism. But why was that professor at the seminary at that time? He was there only because, after a long period of waiting, he was finally able to get his visa as a citizen of Great Britain to come and teach in the United States.

This professor had been hired by my U.S. seminary but had been having a great deal of trouble getting a visa. For various reasons at the time the process was very clogged and there was an enormous backlog of applications.

What was it that broke through all the red tape so he could get his visa and come in time to teach me that last semester? I was told that his visa process was facilitated because one of the students at our seminary at the time was able to give the school administration an unusually high-level form of help. The student was the son of the sitting president of the United States at the time. Why was his father president? It was because the former president, Richard Nixon, had to resign as a result of the Watergate scandal. But why did the Watergate scandal even occur? I understand that it was because a night watchman noticed an unlatched door.

What if the security guard had not noticed the door? What if he had simply looked in a different direction. In that case – nothing else in that long string of ‘coincidences’ would have ever occurred. And there would be no Redeemer Presbyterian Church in the city. Do you think all that happened by accident? I don’t. If that did not all happen by accident, nothing happens by accident.

I like to say to people at Redeemer: If you are glad for this church, then even Watergate happened for you.

Very seldom do we glimpse even a millionth of the ways that God is working all things together for good for those who love God. But he is.[†]

Even Watergate happened for you. 

Do we believe that God has the power to work in the world like this? Do we believe that God loves us enough to work in the world like this?

If not, then let’s stop thanking God for happy coincidences. They are nothing more than the outworking of blind physical forces and ungoverned human will.

And you might say, “Yes, but I believe God’s providence applies to good things that happen in the world! Every good thing happens for a reason, just not the bad things!”

With a moment’s reflection, however, I think you’ll see that you can’t have one without the other. God will often have to work through pain, suffering, sin, and evil—as he did in the events of Watergate—to arrive at those events that are good for us and our world—for example, the founding of Redeemer. Besides, as Job wisely said, “Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” We can know that Job was espousing good theology, by the way, because the very next sentence tells us, “In all this Job did not sin with his lips.”

Years ago, during a wilderness period in my spiritual life, I was a skeptic on the doctrine of providence. When I heard someone thank God for something that I considered trivial, I often thought, without saying out loud, “If you’re going to thank God for something that goes your way, are you prepared to blame God when things don’t go your way?”

Although I would never put it like that today, my logic was sound: If God is in control, he’s in control all the way. It cannot be the case that we live in a world in which some things “just happen,” as I’ve heard more than a few pastors say, while other things reflect God’s providence. Why? Because the things that “just happen” affect everything else in the world. There’s a ripple effect—or as Keller puts it, a “butterfly effect”—of unimaginable consequences from even one small, seemingly insignificant event. Not to mention that all along that causal chain, God’s people are praying, and the God to whom they’re praying has promised to answer our prayers and grant our petitions.

Years ago, I argued with a friend in ministry about whether “God cares who wins the Super Bowl.” I was emphatic: Of course God cares! How could he not? He’s got players, coaches, team owners, front-office personnel, stadium vendors, and fans of both teams, all of whom God loves and all of whom care passionately about who wins and loses. For many, their livelihoods depend on or are deeply affected by the game’s outcome. Moreover, many of them are Christians who are praying to a God who tells them in his Word that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him.” All means all, including the snap of every ball in every play!

Why would a Christian believe that God doesn’t care about who wins the Super Bowl? Do we believe that God has “more important” things to care about—global terrorism, hunger, nuclear proliferation, racism, etc.? In which case, we think, God is “too big” to care about something small and insignificant like a football game. In believing this, however, we’re really saying that God is too small to care: He’s merely a bigger, more perfect version of ourselves: like us, he has a limited amount of time and attention to give to things and people in the world. Every moment he spends redeeming a heartbreaking loss for an Atlanta Falcons player (or fan) is one less moment he has to spend on North Korea’s nuclear program.

Is my logic wrong here? Is the underlying assumption not a faulty belief that we’re competing for God’s attention alongside billions of other people or things in the universe?

Anyway, I didn’t make it more than three paragraphs into Piper’s essay, and I’ve written over 1,700 words. I’ll write more soon!

Tim Keller, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering (New York: Dutton, 2013), 265-6.

Sermon 07-30-17: “The Rest of Your Time on Earth”

August 10, 2017

The first question-and-answer of the Westminster Shorter Catechism tells us that the chief end of man is “to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” The apostle Peter would surely agree. As he puts it in today’s scripture, we are to “live for the will of God.” Yet don’t we often push God to the periphery of our lives? I pray that this sermon inspires us to put God back at the center.

Sermon Text: 1 Peter 4:1-6

My sermons are now being podcast! My podcast is available in iTunes, Google Play, and Stitcher.

My family and I returned late Wednesday night from our vacation in Washington, D.C., and New York City. We rented basement apartments through Airbnb in both cities. Our place in Washington had private parking in an alley driveway. So we parked the car once, and took the subway or “Ubered” wherever we needed to go.

But New York City was different. We rented a place in Brooklyn, and, like everyone else there, we had to park on the street. Can I tell you that the only thing I dreaded about the trip—the thing that filled me with the most fear about going to New York—was driving in the city and parking. Lisa read that 40 percent of traffic in Brooklyn is people driving around looking for parking. Having now experienced it firsthand, I believe it! And you know, I just wanted to blend in with everybody else, but you can’t blend in with a Georgia license plate on back of your car! They see that and think you’re an idiot who doesn’t know how to drive!

But you know what? We did O.K. And we learned how the system worked.

Because here’s the thing: Even if you’re not going anywhere by car in New York City—even if you’re going to take the subway everywhere—you can’t leave your car parked for very long in any one place. Why? Because at least once—usually twice—a week, a street sweeper cleans alternate sides of each street, and you can’t be parked on one side of the street when that side is scheduled to be cleaned. The times are posted on signs. So for example, on Monday morning, “our” side of the street was being cleaned from 8:30 to 10:00 and then again on Thursday morning. Well, we were leaving on Wednesday, so we knew if we could only find a new space on Monday morning, we’d be golden.

So early Monday morning we had to move our car. So Lisa and I got up early—Lisa accompanied me for moral support—to move our car and try to find an empty space somewhere else.

And guess what? We failed. We found no empty spaces anywhere near home—except on the side of the street that was being cleaned, of course, which didn’t help. Read the rest of this entry »

To be made in God’s image says far more about God than it says about us

August 10, 2017

I wrote a shorter version of the following for our church’s weekly email blast.

In my sermon a couple of weeks ago, I referred to Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, whose text was engraved on the wall of the Lincoln Memorial, alongside the Gettysburg Address. When my family was in Washington a few weeks ago, we read aloud the text of both speeches.

As great as these speeches are, however, what impressed me most was the statue itself. For me, this image of Lincoln communicates strength, wisdom, steadiness, and faith. This memorial inspired me to spend at least 20 minutes thinking about Lincoln and the principles for which he stood.

You know what I didn’t think about? The marble out of which the sculpture was made, the biographical details of the sculptor who created it, or how difficult it must have been to do so. No, I thought about the man in whose image the sculpture was made.

Does this give us a sense, then, of what Genesis 1:27 means when it says that we are made in God’s image? Our reason for existing is to reflect the glory of God, rather than our own glory. When people encounter us, they ought to learn something about who God is, and who Jesus is. We ought to inspire others to praise the One in whose image we’re made.

Do we?

To say the least, to be made in God’s image is intended to say far more about who God is than who we are. It’s funny: I think I’ve gotten that exactly backwards for most of my life!

With characteristic eloquence, pastor John Piper puts it like this:

So our existence is about showing God’s existence or, specifically, it’s about showing God’s glory. Which I think means God’s manifold perfections—the radiance, the display, the streaming out of his many-colored, beautiful perfections. We want to think and live and act and speak in such a way that we draw attention to the manifold perfections of God. And I think the way we do that best is by being totally satisfied in the those perfections ourselves. They mean more to us than money and more to us than fame and more to us than sex or anything else that might compete for our affections. And when people see us valuing God that much and his glory being that satisfying, they see that he is our treasure. Show me more! I think that’s what it means to glorify God by being in his image.[†]

John Piper, “Question 4” in The New City Catechism Devotional (Wheaton: Crossway, 2017), 30.

Sermon 07-16-17: “The Gospel, Noah’s Ark, and Christ’s Victorious Reign”

August 8, 2017

Today’s sermon deals mostly with what many scholars consider the most difficult verse in the New Testament, 1 Peter 3:19, which says that sometime after his death, Christ “went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison.” This verse has been used as a proof-text for a part of the Apostles’ Creed that we United Methodists no longer say: “[Christ] descended into hell.” But is that what it means? This sermon will help us figure it out.

Sermon Text: 1 Peter 3:18-22

My sermons are now being podcast! My podcast is available in iTunes, Google Play, and Stitcher.

I personally have never shopped at IKEA, nor have I ever put any of their furniture together. My wife, Lisa, has, and she’s a champ at it. But I know from its reputation, that their instructions can be notoriously difficult: They’ve inspired memes and satirical articles. One Buzzfeed article was entitled, “Why Building Ikea Furniture Is Probably Satan’s Favorite Hobby.” Two years ago, when IKEA announced that they were assisting Syrian refugees by donating ready-to-assemble shelters, one Onion writer said, “Haven’t these people been through enough without the added struggle of assembling IKEA products?”

But we all know the frustration of trying to assemble something at home—I’m thinking of baby cribs, for instance—only to find that when we get through assembling it, there are these mysterious parts left over. And we don’t know where or how they fit in, and the prospect of taking it apart and reassembling it makes us want to use words that we wouldn’t want our pastor to hear—and you wouldn’t want your pastor to say. Read the rest of this entry »