Review of Revelation

 

I must confess that Revelation has not always been my favorite book in Scripture. I can distinctly remember a time before I went to seminary in which I imagined that perhaps one of the things that pastors learned when they earned a Master’s of Divinity degree was how to understand (and then preach/blog about!) books such as this. And it seemed I wasn’t the only one who had mixed views on this last chapter of the Biblical narrative. Many different Christians I talked to who were otherwise well-versed in Scripture appeared to be unfamiliar and even uncomfortable with Revelation. On the other hand, there were Christians who appeared to devote an inordinate amount of their devotional and theological interest to this one book, and unlocking its “secrets.”

In subsequent years however I’ve fortunately had the chance to learn to appreciate and absorb the teachings of Revelation better. I’ve heard some great teaching on its contents from David Platt and my pastor at my home church in Alabama, Jay Wolf. Back when he was still pastor of the Church at Brooke Hills, Platt did an extensive teaching series on Revelation, with the verse-by-verse detail and expositional expertise that is his trademark. One of the biggest takeaway points I remember from the series was Platt’s emphasis that Revelation is a book meant to unite, rather than divide the church. This is certainly an important truth to keep in mind, because historically Christians have sometimes drawn theological and denominational “battle lines” around where they stood on the interpretation of certain portions of Revelation such as the Millennium or the extent to which the book’s prophecies referred to past, present, or future events. To this point, I’ll add two other observations from Jay Wolf, who like David Platt wished to emphasize how Revelation could bring the church together rather than provide fodder for argumentation or fruitless eschatological speculation. Jay has said that Revelation should “drive us to Christ, not to charts”, a quasi-humorous reference to the complicated nature of some of the teaching therein, which has led some theologians and scholars to try and approach it from a visual, or schematic standpoint. But the underlying message is a serious one, that the Body of Christ should use God’s Word to find common ground and mutual encouragement, whenever possible. Jay also is fond of giving his two-word summary of Revelation’s contents as follows: “Jesus wins.” Indeed, the ultimate victory of Christ is the salient point to be taken away from Revelation, and if we lose sight of that critical truth, much of our additional study of this unique book will lose its proper focus and emphasis.

 

There are many extensive and exhaustive commentaries and companions to Revelation that I could bring into my discussion for the remainder of this blog post. But sometimes, less can be more, and I want to highlight one relatively brief commentary that I have found particularly enjoyable and accessible, Richard Bauckham’s The Theology of the Book of Revelation.[1] I first used this commentary in seminary, and revisited it recently for my own personal study. Some of the insights I gained were so valuable for my understanding of Revelation that I wanted to share them here. I’ve always envisioned my blog not only as a reflection of my ministry experiences, and personal insights I’ve gleaned from ministry, the Scriptures, and trying to pursue the Christian walk, but also to be a place where I could pass on the wisdom of others. I will freely admit that while I did have the opportunity to study a great deal about Biblical interpretation and exegesis at seminary, Revelation is a book whose complexity calls for bringing in some outside aids. I believe Bauckham has produced a readable yet still intellectually rigorous introduction to the spiritual riches of the Book of Revelation, while containing his observations within a relatively compact volume of 164 pages. It is clear from his writing that he still takes Biblical authority seriously, and is not simply approaching his work from a detached, scholarly standpoint, but rather through a lens of faith. In addition, he structures his arguments thematically, rather than in an expositional, or verse-by-verse format. As a result, Bauckham’s work encourages the reader to see more of the “big picture” concentrating on the timeless and significant themes of Revelation rather than getting caught up in the details of trying to interpret each individual verse, symbol, or prophecy. I want to reflect on just a few highlights of his work that have been personally very beneficial for me as I seek to better understand this important Scriptural text. While this will of course in no way attempt to be an exhaustive or systematic trip through Revelation, my hope is that with some further study, the book will appear a little less mystifying and will fit better into the context of the rest of Scripture. Perhaps most importantly, you’ll see that Revelation is full of practical wisdom and applicability to Christians in 2016.

As Bauckham reveals early in his book, one of the reasons that people have historically struggled to properly understand Revelation, is because they have misunderstood its genre. Revelation is often referred to as a “prophetic” or “apocalyptic” text, while other people may be most familiar with its first three chapters, which feature seven letters to different churches in Asia Minor. Revelation in fact represents a unique blend of three different types of Biblical literature—prophetic, apocalyptic, and letter. These genres are at times distinctive within the overall book but often are also intertwined together. A brief explanation of each genre’s place within Revelation may be helpful. It is a prophetic book not only because God is revealing His Word and teachings directly to the author John, but also in the way that Revelation builds extensively on tropes and traditions drawn from the Old Testament tradition, including many of the prophetic books. In addition it is addressing a specific historic situation, namely that of churches in the Asian provinces of the Roman Empire towards the end of the first century AD. Many people automatically associate the adjective “prophetic” with a foretelling of future events, and while Revelation does contain some of this type of prophecy in the broad sense, we should be careful of trying to define too specifically the types of events that may occur based on our reading or interpretation of the text. As Bauckham writes, “Revelation has suffered from interpretation which takes its images too literally. Even the most sophisticated interpreters all too easily slip into treating the images as codes which need only to be decoded to yield literal predictions. But this fails to take the images seriously as images. John depicts the future in images in order to be able to do more and less than a literal prediction could. Less, because Revelation does not offer a literal outline of the course of future events…but more, because what it does provide is insight into the nature of God’s purpose for the future.” (p.93). Revelation can be termed apocalyptic literature in that in offers us insight from a transcendent, Divine perspective, a God’s-eye view of history and events. The author, John, has a heavenly, other-worldly experience from which he draws the information and imagery that is then revealed to the reader. Finally, just as we see in other parts of the New Testament, most notably in the writings of Paul, Revelation contains letters. While chapters 1-3 include letters to seven historical churches in Asia Minor, the full impact of these teachings is designed of course to serve the benefit of the entire church. The seven churches are each struggling with different doctrinal and theological issues that in effect cover the spectrum of possible situations that Christians of that day might have faced, and still confront in the present. Just then as with the epistles of Paul, the letters in Revelation can both enable us to better understand the historical context of the problems faced by a church in a particular moment of history, and also serve as timeless sources of Scriptural instruction that remain relevant for believers today.

 

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As we think about Revelation as a whole, it’s also important to reflect briefly on its title. Sometimes mistakenly called “Revelations” the singularity of the book’s name is crucial, because its 22 chapters represent one unified message and narrative. Also, for all of the difficulty and controversy that has sometimes surrounded the proper interpretation and application of its contents, Revelation’s message was never intended to be “secret.” Revelation 22:10 clearly states this: “And he said to me, ‘Do not seal the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is at hand.” Often you will see commentaries, studies and guides for Revelation which promise to “unlock”, “decode”, or “unveil” its message. But the fact of the matter is that the book’s message is not meant to be hidden away, or kept secret from all but the select few with the knowledge to understand it. Yes, there are symbols and imagery that must be investigated and better understood, but their apparent inaccessibility to the uninitiated reader is much more a function of the gulf in time and space between our culture in the America of 2016 and the cultural situation of the 1st century AD in the Ancient Near East. It does not stem from the author of Revelation’s intent to deceive, mystify or somehow hide his message from anyone. Imagine a time traveler from centuries in the future suddenly arriving in our present day and perusing political cartoons in a local newspaper. They might be initially stumped by caricature depictions of Trump and Hilary Clinton, or the Republican elephant and the Democratic donkey. However any one of us would readily understand these symbols and their interpretive meaning, perhaps without even needing to read the captions of the cartoon. In a similar fashion, the initial contemporary audience of John’s teaching would have understood many of the images he used instinctively, so as Christians in 2016 we need to recognize that our lack of understanding of Revelation is not formulated on any attempt by the author to keep his meaning hidden, but a function of these cultural and historical differences, which can be bridged in large part through Scriptural study. Adding to this, Bauckham notes of the symbology in Revelation: “once we begin to appreciate their sources and their rich symbolic associations, we realize that they cannot be read either as literal descriptions or as encoded literal descriptions, but must be read for their theological meaning and their power to evoke response.” (p.20).Knowing then that Revelation is not meant to be in any way a “secret” teaching should reinforce our belief that is has a message designed to bring the church together, rather than split it into factions based on who can properly understand these teachings. Nonetheless, while Revelation conveys this message of unification, it also carries a message of judgment, which we will discuss in further detail a little later. Now sometimes the book is summarized as being solely designed to provide comfort to Christians who were beginning to suffer increasing persecution under the auspices of the Roman Empire. While it certainly does have this function, Revelation is also a book which challenges Christians who have become complacent and comfortable under imperial rule to the point where they are willing to compromise their beliefs in order to not challenge the status quo. Such aims of the author are not contradictory however but rather complementary in the sense that they further earmark Revelation as a prophetic text which will “comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.”

 

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If we were to summarize the overall message given to the seven churches in Revelation 1-3 it would be this: “be victorious!”, and “don’t compromise!” While each church faces specific theological challenges, the hope is that they will be faithful to God, rather than allowing either persecution or their own comfortable co-existence within the Roman system to cause them to damage or lose their witness as Bodies of Christ altogether. Then, in Revelation chapter 4, we get a glimpse into the Throne Room of Heaven, part of the otherworldly perspective that the unique apocalyptic focus of this book can offer. God’s sovereignty is here made manifest, and plainly acknowledged as it will be in the future all across the earth. The Throne Room scene also offers some interesting usage of Old Testament symbols which are now slightly re-envisioned. For example, the Divine Throne is surrounded by four living creatures, reminding us of the cherubim that flanked the Ark of the Covenant, and the heavenly creatures described in Ezekiel 1. Incidentally, these four living creatures, described as having the appearance of a lion, calf, man, and eagle have traditionally been used to symbolize the four Gospels: Mark, Luke, Matthew, and John, respectively. Again and again in Revelation, we see the appearance of Old Testament symbols which gain a new interpretive power in the context of their usage in this book. Thus the sealed scroll described in Revelation 5 and the sealed book which John is told to eat in Revelation 10 have their Old Testament counterparts in the scroll the prophet eats in Ezekiel 3.

Significantly too, the imagery in Revelation maintains an overall harmony and consistency with the Old Testament. So, just as throughout the Old Testament we never see the face of God directly, Revelation also resists in any way anthropomorphizing the person of God the Father—that is presenting Him in human form. Thus while images of judgment, thrones, and crowns might conjure up human ideas of monarchy, as Bauckham mentions, the goal of the author is actually to convey a totally opposite and other conception of God that is non-human: “John’s purpose is certainly not to compare the divine sovereignty in heaven with the absolute power of human rulers on earth. Quite the contrary: his purpose is to oppose the two…the imagery purges it of anthropomorphism and suggests the incompatibility of God’s sovereignty.” (p. 43.). Furthermore, Bauckham perceptively points out that how the insistence in Revelation on an otherworldly, transcendent God does not make Him any less close to humanity, but actually can serve to increase His immanence, and nearness to us: “Transcendence requires the absolute distinction between God and finite creatures, but not at all His distance from them. The transcendent God, precisely because He is not one finite being among others, is able to be incomparably present to all, closer to them than they are to themselves.” (p. 46). Revelation also reinvigorates another conception of God that goes all the way back to the beginning of the Biblical narrative in Genesis, that of God as Creator. Part of the great hope that the book offers us is the promise that God will not simply preserve the faithful in the face of persecution or amidst the tribulation of the End Times, but that He will actively recreate both heaven and earth, thus perfecting what, in the case of earth, had previously been marred by sin and the effects of the Fall. This is the great truth inherent in Revelation 21:1—“Now I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. Also there was no more sea.” The reference to the disappearance of the sea in 21:1 is highly significant as well. The ancient Israelites, not being a sea-faring people, tended to view the ocean as a place of mystery and fear. It was where legendary monsters dwelled, such as the Leviathan mentioned in Job. In the Genesis creation account, God’s spirit had brought order to the primeval chaos of the waters. These same waters had of course later flooded over the earth in judgment, save for Noah and his family in Genesis 6. So God’s final destruction of the sea in Revelation 21 signifies on multiple levels the ultimate Divine victory. The sea’s absence means there will no longer be anything hidden or unknown, and at the same time God is declaring that His Creation is now eternally secure against the threat of destruction.

 

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The immanence of the Divine presence is of course also distinctly communicated to the church and the faithful through the person of Christ. And make no mistake, Jesus is a very central figure in this book. In fact one of the hallmarks of the text is its high Christology, comparable to that found in the Gospel of John. And interestingly enough, despite this emphasis on Jesus’ clear identity as the Messiah and One who is equal to God, Revelation, as we have already alluded to, features a strong Jewish identity through its many references to Old Testament prophets and themes. As Bauckham explains: “the worship of Jesus was part of early Christian religious practice from a relatively early date and it developed within Jewish Christianity where consciousness of the connection between monotheism and worship was high. It cannot be attributed to Gentile Christian carelessness of the requirement of monotheistic worship. It must be regarded as a development internal to the tradition of Jewish monotheism, by which Jewish Christians implicitly included Jesus in the reality of the one God.” (p.61). Some religious scholars will try to argue that the worship of Christ was only added later as more Gentiles came into the church, but here Bauckham strongly contends that these largely Jewish Christian communities nonetheless understood and viewed Christ as equal to God. This is a good response to the argument made by Bart Ehrman and other liberal religious scholars that Jesus was only elevated to the status of God much later in history. As an interesting grammatical side-note on the topic of Revelation’s Christology, Bauckham notes how in the original Greek, the author John often uses a singular verb or a singular pronoun when referring to God and Christ together. This is perhaps a further clue to his view that they are co-equal and indeed One.

As for Christ’s role within the Book of Revelation, there are several images used in the text to convey different aspects of Christ’s power and purpose. In Revelation 1:17, Christ refers to Himself as “the first and the last.” This brief phrase is full of symbolic importance, demonstrating as it does how Christ was present both at the beginning of Creation as a member of the Trinity, and how His return will usher in the end of history. It can remind us also of the description of Christ as the Word provided in John 1:1—“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Then in Revelation 5, Christ appears as the Lamb. This is of course an image of sacrifice, reminding us of Jesus’ willing death for the sins of all humanity, and again reminiscent of earlier passages from the Gospels, namely John 1:29—“The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, ‘Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” We can think too of the sacrificial Passover Lamb of Exodus 12. Jesus is also viewed in Revelation as the fulfillment and culmination of the many Messianic prophecies found in the Old Testament. Thus in Revelation 22:16, Christ offers this self-description: “I am the Root and the Offspring of David, the Bright and Morning Star.” Among the many prophecies that this verse makes reference to is one found in Numbers 24:17. Jesus appears as the fearsome conquering Messiah in Revelation 19, whereas similar language can also be found in Isaiah 11. Christ’s role in Revelation is also that of a faithful witness. He is referred to in Revelation 1:5 and 3:14 as the “faithful and true witness.” His willingness to be sacrificed for the Truth of His witness is reflected by the similar faithfulness unto death demonstrated by His followers. The Greek word “martyr” literally means “witness” and while in Revelation the faithful witnesses of Christ do not necessarily always incur death as a result, it is clear from the narrative that they, and indeed all Christ followers should be prepared to be faithful even to death. The Two Witnesses described in Revelation 11 are thus symbolic of all those who follow in the model and footsteps of Christ, and are prepared to testify to the Truth of the Gospel, regardless of the penalties this might bring from the oppressive forces of the Empire and evil. The Two Witnesses are eventually put to death, and yet their Resurrection in Revelation 11:11 reflects of course the Resurrection of Christ, and is proof that the forces of oppression will never be able to permanently stop the spread of the Word of God.

 

Speaking of opposition to the God’s Word and work, Revelation is famed for the fearsome images it evokes of the enemies of God’s people. The three most significant are what Bauckham terms the “satanic trinity”, which includes the dragon/serpent, the sea-monster beast, and the earth-monster beast. The dragon appears in Revelation 12, as well as later in Revelation 20:2 as the creature confined by the angel into the bottomless pit. This dragon or serpent is equated in Revelation 12:9 and in 20:2 with Satan, and of course we can think back all the way to Genesis 3, and identify it equally with the serpent who tempts Adam and Eve to sin in the Garden of Eden. The connection with the Genesis narrative is further strengthened by the content of Revelation 12. Here, a woman gives birth to a son, and then is immediately pursued by the vengeful dragon. The woman flees into the wilderness to a place of sanctuary prepared for her by God, while the son is taken up to heaven. This victory of the woman and her offspring even in the face of persecution from the dragon, who literally represents evil incarnate, confirms the prophecy found back in Genesis 3:15. There, God pronounces this curse upon the serpent: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her Seed. He shall bruise you head, and you shall bruise His heel.” The woman then can symbolize Eve, the first mother as well as later Mary, the Mother of Jesus, while the Son is Christ, whose sacrificial death will be the bruised heel, but who will permanently destroy the head of evil. The two beasts meanwhile, also have their Old Testament antecedents. The sea-beast a continuation of the concept of the Leviathan, a primeval sea monster, and the Behemoth, a gigantic land creature, are both mentioned in the Book of Job. In the Book of Revelation, these primeval monsters are transformed into symbols of imperial Roman power. The sea-monster represents the military might of Rome, while the earth-monster symbolizes the propaganda machine of the imperial cult. While it would appear in Revelation 13:7 that the beasts are able to overcome the faithful by slaying them, it is in fact the very death of these martyrs and witnesses to Christ that ensures their final victory. As Bauckham shares: “When the martyrs testify to the true God against the spurious divine claims of the beast and refuse to admit the lies of the beast even when they could evade death by doing so, they win the victory of truth over deceit. The beast’s lies cannot deceive them or even win their lip-service by coercion. He can kill them, but he cannot suppress their witness to the truth.” (p.91). Moreover, in this critical confrontation between good and evil, John wants his readers to know that everyone has a part to play. The decision as to whether someone will side with the Empire’s ostensibly invincible might and the worldly rewards it can offer, or stand for the power of God’s unquenchable truth and its heavenly inheritance is one that Christians today still must confront.

Then, in Revelation 17, another important symbolic enemy is introduced—the Great Harlot, also called Babylon. The city of Babylon and its associated empire was of course formerly one of the great enemies of the Jewish people, responsible for the destruction of the Southern Kingdom of Judah in 586 BC, and subsequently the site of a long period of exile for many Jews. It was now a symbol and essentially a code word for the current great Empire and enemy—Rome. The image of a harlot or whore not only conjures up unfaithfulness, and the worship of many different gods (thus a kind of religious “promiscuity”—the opposite of a strict monotheism), but also is a commercial image that reminds readers of the formidable economic clout of the Roman Empire. Interestingly, whereas Christians are called to defeat the two beasts, they are called to escape Babylon, as Revelation 18:4 attests: “And I heard another voice form heaven saying, ‘Come out of her, my people, lest you share in her sins, and lest you receive of her plagues.” Just as the beasts are defeated by the faithfulness of Christian witnesses unto death, we eventually witness the fall of Babylon in Revelation 18 as a judgment and Divine censure from God.

 

Other imagery within Revelation is often associated with numbers. One of the most famous examples is of course 666, the Number of the Beast, from Revelation 13:18. Six is the number of man (who was created on the Sixth day, along with land-dwelling animals). It is one short of seven, the heavenly number of perfection. There is plenty of symbolic importance here without having to necessarily translate through numerological analysis the meaning of the number, which some Biblical scholars have assigned as a coded reference to Nero, Domitian or another hated Emperor of the Imperial Roman regime. Also, there is a series of different judgments, fearful in their content, and severity, which come in sevens. As we have mentioned, seven is the heavenly number, the number of fullness and completion. So in this case, we can know that the judgments described—the seven seals, seven trumpets, and seven bowls, all symbolize that God’s wrath has reached its climax and is being fulfilled upon those who have repeatedly refused to repent. Other numerical associations in Revelation include the number 12 and variations of it. Twelve of course symbolizes the Twelve Tribes of Israel, showing that connection between God’s original Covenant with Israel, and His final plan for the redemption of all humanity through the Messiah from Jewish lineage—Jesus. In the Heavenly Throne Room scene in Revelation 4, we see 24 elders gathered around the Divine Throne—a multiple of twelve. Later, in Revelation 7, the Messianic fulfilment of Christ’s work is symbolized by the sealed group of 144,000, meaning 12,000 from each of the Tribes. Finally, at the end of Revelation, we can read descriptions of the New Jerusalem, which will now be the Holy City not only for the Jews, but for the redeemed of all humanity. It contains 12 gates, while in its midst is a Tree of Life (a perfect redemption of that Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil which symbolized humanity’s sin and downfall in Genesis 3).

The ultimate mode of Divine triumph and the completion of God’s work in history will take place through the event of the Parousia, the Second Coming of Christ. Many Christians who’ve studied Revelation have tended to fixate their interest on this aspect of the book, and specifically on trying to ascertain the exact particulars of Christ’s Return and the events thereafter. But of course as we are reminded by Matthew 24:36, no one, not even the angels, knows the exact day or hour of Jesus’ Return. Thus, for Bauckham, our focus when considering the End Times and the exact chronology of events should be more directed towards who will triumph rather than how or when exactly that triumph will unfold. Revelation assures us of the final victory of the forces of righteousness with Christ at their head, as chapter 19 describes. In Revelation 20 we see that Satan is bound for 1000 years, and the nature of this Millennium, as well as the events which take place thereafter has been the source of much theological debate over the centuries amongst Christians. Bauckham sidesteps much of the discussion over Premillennialism, Postmillennialism, and Amillennialism, to instead direct attention to what he feels is the main message of the teaching: “the theological point of the millennium is solely to demonstrate the triumph of the martyrs: that those whom the beast has put to death are those who will truly live eschatologically, and that those who contested his  right to rule and suffered for it are those who will in the end rule as universally as he—and for much longer: a thousand years!” Taken as a spiritual symbol, the Millennium confirms then the triumph of the faithful of Christ, the very ones the Beast had sought to destroy. Yet, as Bauckham points out, attempts to translate the Millennium onto a literal timeframe end up causing more problems, and raising more questions than is necessary: “We then have to ask all the questions which interpreters of Revelation ask about the millennium but which John does not answer because they are irrelevant to the function he gives it in his symbolic universe…Whom do the saints rule? Do they rule from heaven or on earth? How is the eschatological life of resurrection compatible with an unrenewed earth?…The millennium becomes incomprehensible once we take the image literally…John expected the martyrs to be vindicated, but the millennium depicts the meaning, rather than predicting the manner of their vindication.” (p.108). Bauckham then falls in the Amillennialist camp, as did many of the early church fathers such as St. Augustine, and prominent leaders of the Reformation like Martin Luther and John Calvin. If you are interested in more detail about this particular theological stance, Wikipedia actually has a good summary page. But basically the Amillennialist position says that  the Millennium as described in Revelation 20 is not a literal 1000 year period, but rather symbolic in nature, and yet it still definitely affirms there will be a literal Return of Christ at some unknown date in the future. But since no Christian can claim to know with any degree of certainty the exact time of Christ’s Return, perhaps as a Church our focus should be more on the meaning of these Final Things, rather than the manner in which they will take place. Thus back to Jay Wolf’s wonderfully succinct summary of the essence of Revelation’s message: “Jesus wins!”

 

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This leads to the last chapter from Bauckham’s book I want to discuss—“Revelation for today.” It would be a great tragedy if Revelation were only seen as a book focused either on yet-to-occur events of the future, or was merely a historical relic which had bolstered the strength and resolve of early church leaders facing martyrdom at the hands of a ruthless imperial system. Revelation, like all books in the Biblical Canon, contains great relevance and applicability to the lives of believers today. The power of the book really lies in the wonderful diversity of images and messages it conveys. Near the outset of this blog post we discussed how Revelation presents a unique mixture of different Biblical genres: prophetic, apocalyptic, and letter. And in the mixture of these different genres, we receive messages that at times would seem to be almost in opposition to one another, and yet actually blend together neatly in the final analysis. God’s wrath is certainly on display in the book, through a series of fearful judgments, and yet perhaps nowhere else in Scripture is His love for His people more tenderly displayed than in Revelation 21:4, where we are told “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes, there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying”. Indeed, at the conclusion of Revelation, the God who has been hidden beforehand, working through symbols, and heavenly messengers, is now directly present in a way that was never before possible in the Biblical narrative. Revelation 21:3—“Behold the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people.” The glorious New Jerusalem that is described in Revelation 21 and 22 has no need for the sun or the Temple, because God’s magnificent presence illuminates everything and He is perfectly accessible to all who dwell in that blessed heaven. Revelation has also perhaps confused some readers with its seemingly contrasting themes of Christ’s imminent Return, and the apparent delay in the occurrence of many of the events described in the book. Certainly there is a sense of urgency and imminent expectation that runs throughout the book. John opens his narrative by referring in Revelation 1:1 to “things which must shortly take place.”, while Jesus’s last words in Revelation 22:20 are “Surely I am coming quickly.” And yet at the same time, the martyrs who in 6:10 cry out “How long, O Lord?” are told to wait a little longer, and there is a symbolic period of three-and-a-half years during which God stays His Hand concerning future judgments while the Two Witnesses continue to preach in Revelation 11. Yet we know too from elsewhere in Scripture that we must be careful in thinking that God is “delaying” when such calculations usually say more about our own human timeframe than any Divine chronology. 2 Peter 3:8-9 reminds us of this truth: “But beloved, do not forget this one thing, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.” These verses are a good indicator of what is at work in the Book of Revelation as well. God’s delay, if we can call it that, is based in part on a desire to give as many people as possible the opportunity to find repentance in Christ before some of these Final Judgements come to pass. Ultimately, for both the original audience of John’s writings, and Christians in 2016, the study of Revelation invites us to wrestle with hard questions—not about the detail of particular symbology or chronology, but overarching, universal questions such as will we compromise with our culture, or resist faithfully?? What if our material prosperity and even our lives are threatened in the process? And knowing that Jesus’ final victory is assured, why aren’t we living with more purpose, conviction, and confidence as Christ followers in the here and now?? What part will we play in helping to prepare the world around us for the Return of the King? All of these questions are just as fresh, relevant, and pressing for us in 2016 as they were for believers of the first century AD, and Revelation can serve as a wonderful guide for us to think about how we will respond in a manner that is Biblically faithful.

Revelation, in the final analysis, is not a complicated “code” to invite argument over theological detail, nor a consolation reserved for some far-off future, nor an incomprehensible jumble of apocalyptic detail to be fearfully avoided. Rather, as Bauckham eloquently attests, it is a call to action for all believers, then and now! “Revelation does not respond to the dominant ideology by promoting Christian withdrawal into a sectarian enclave…while consoling itself with millennial dreams…Revelation’s outlook is oriented to the coming of God’s Kingdom in the whole world and calls Christians to active participation in the coming of the kingdom. It its daring hope for the conversion of all the nations to the worship of the true God it develops the most universalistic features of the Biblical prophetic tradition.” Reading Revelation as a call to action will be a big step towards seeing it as a teaching that should unite the Church in Christ-honoring solidarity rather than divide it into competing theological factions. The consolation Revelation provided to early Christian martyrs and the hope it offers for the final events of history are then united to its clarion call for the Christian to live boldly in the present age.

[1] Richard Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).

Burying treasure

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Burying Treasure

As a child, two of my favorite novels, ones in fact which I still enjoy to this day, were Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island and J. Meade Faulkner’s Moonfleet. These classic Victorian-Era boys’ adventure stories both feature as a central plot element the search for a hidden treasure. And in both novels, for all of their light-hearted sense adventure, we also sense a darker strain, in narratives which recount the extent to which men will descend into cruel and ruthless behavior in the search of such treasure. Yet there is still something in such stories that intrigues and excites us as readers. I think in part it is the idea not merely of finding wealth, but wealth that it is hidden and inaccessible to others. Only those who are willing to go on a quest for adventure, to risk life and limb, and unravel clues from a treasure map, or a riddle-like poem, will be able to uncover the secret riches.

With this idea in mind, let’s turn our reflections to spiritual riches. These too are often hidden, not because God doesn’t want us to find them, or even because we don’t know where to look, but simply because we lack the diligence to search for and to value such blessings. The Bible in fact often uses a treasure metaphor to describe many spiritual concepts. In Matthew 13:44, Jesus famously shares this parable concerning the Kingdom of God: “The Kingdom of Heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and hid; and for joy over it he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.” Then in Proverbs 2:1-5, we find Solomon admonishing us to seek after Divine wisdom just as we would a buried treasure: “My son, if you receive my words, and treasure my commands within you, so that you incline your ear to wisdom, and apply your heart to understanding. Yes, if you cry out for discernment, and lift up your voice for understanding, if you seek her as silver, and search for her as for hidden treasures. Then you will understand the fear of the Lord, and find the knowledge of God.” Perhaps the greatest spiritual treasure of all is the wealth of instruction, guidance, and wisdom we can find contained within Scripture itself. The New American Standard translation of Psalm 119:11 says “Your Word I have treasured in my heart, that I might not sin against you.” Thus we can know clearly from its own testimony that Scripture is the source of all of the spiritual wealth we could ever seek. And yet so many people who would consider themselves to be faithful Christians do not make the time in their lives to prioritize the reading and study of God’s Word. I have certainly found myself in such seasons of life before too.

 

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Scripture memory

However many of us may indeed have a regular quiet time, and that is a wonderful way to get into God’s Word, and meditate on its truth, and application to our lives. But another aspect of really valuing the Bible and acknowledging its absolute centrality to our faith and practice as believers is to begin to memorize portions of Scripture. Now I must confess that for many years I have heard different teachers extol the virtues of Scripture memory, but it is only recently that I have been making a more concerted effort to consistently and faithfully pursue Scripture memory as part of my devotional life. And already the results have been so fulfilling that I wanted to share in this space a little more about the value of Scripture memory, as well as talk about some verses which I’ve learned recently, and their personal significance for me. I also want to address some of the objections that people may raise to Scripture memory, or obstacles they may face, and how these can be overcome.

 

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Scripture memory mentors

First though I want to mention three people in particular who helped inspire me to pursue the process of learning and storing away of God’s Word in my heart. Jay Wolf, longtime pastor at my home church back in Alabama, First Baptist Montgomery, has long been an advocate of Scripture memory. Growing up and hearing him preach, I was always impressed with how effortlessly he could utilize additional verses and cross references that connected to whatever passage he was preaching from. I could tell he didn’t need notes to recall many of these verses, but had obviously learned them by heart. It all goes to prove an old ministerial adage—it’s not so much about having a prepared message as being a prepared man! Jay also was frequently able to take just one or two verses he had learned and utilize them to give a mini-devotional, even in the midst of an otherwise-busy staff meeting. This further proves that Scripture memory for him was not just some mental or intellectual feat, but always served a practical purpose as well—to enhance his ability to easily share the truths of God’s Word with others. I’ve seen a similar devotion to learning God’s Word from Bobby Pruett, the director of Christian Challenge here at CU-Boulder. When I meet with him for mentoring, or in staff planning meetings, and when he addresses our students as a large group, Bobby is constantly drawing upon the rich stockpile of verses he has learned over the years. He’s done a great job too of encouraging our students to begin memorizing Scripture, and has given them a number of tools to aid in that endeavor. Bobby’s emphasis on the importance of Scripture memory can in part be traced back to Max Barnett, who for many years led the Baptist Student Union at the University of Oklahoma. Max discipled Bobby in ministry, as well as many others who went on to lead campus ministries around the country. I’ve had the privilege of attending several different retreats and conferences where Max was a featured speaker, and so I’ve heard him repeatedly extol the virtues of Scripture memory as one of the most crucial foundations for his own Christian growth, and a vital spiritual discipline to pass on to students in our ministries. In fact, Max believes so strongly in this pursuit that he recently self-published a short tract entitled The Value of Memorizing Scripture: treasuring the Word of God. With Jay, Bobby, and Max, despite their devotion to internalizing the truths of God’s Word, they have never taken a legalistic or performance-driven approach. They never criticize others for not learning Scripture, nor do they demonstrate their Scriptural knowledge in anything other than a very humble manner. These ministry leaders use their Biblical acumen in such a way as to make even the most neophyte of Christians feel comfortable, and this is so important. There are some ministries and churches where one’s intellectual gifting and knowledge of the Bible can take on a prideful tone, and such attitudes can be very damaging, undermining the very truths that have been so carefully learned and absorbed from the Word of God!

 

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Reasons for Scripture memory

Now while it might seem to be a self-apparent truth, I still think it’s important to examine some of the reasons for Scripture memory, and mention the many benefits that can result from intentionally pursuing such a spiritual path. Of course this list could be literally endless, so I’ll share just a few reasons that have been impressed on my heart, as well as some insights offered in the aforementioned Max Barnett tract, The Value of Memorizing Scripture. For me, one pretty basic reason that I wanted to pursue Scripture memory more intentionally is that several of the students who I mentor individually each week are also engaged in this spiritual discipline. And so for me to be able to best encourage my students who are memorizing Scripture, I want to be doing the same thing myself! It also is helpful for the process of mentoring. As I’ve shared in an earlier blog post, mentoring and offering one-on-one discipleship to students has been one of my favorite aspects of campus ministry. But fairly early on I realized that I would not always be able to follow a set “agenda” with each student. I needed to leave some space in our meetings for them to share about what was going on in their lives. Thus my preparation had to be flexible enough to accommodate whatever unexpected twists or turns the conversation might take when someone began to honestly open up about their spiritual struggles, growth, and questions. Having verses memorized can be a great aid in mentoring though because often a student will bring up a scenario or situation that is covered perfectly by a particular verse or passage.

Scripture memory has also been enhancing my quiet times. For a while now I’ve been reading all the way through books in the Bible, rather than moving around to different sections in a topical fashion, and this has been really helpful. But I’ve also found that by focusing on particular verses, I have that much more of an understanding and appreciation for the passages they are rooted in when I come across these in my quiet time. And sometimes one just one particularly rich verse may provide plenty of material for thought and reflection. I’ve heard people complain before that they don’t feel like they retain that much from their quiet times, and so Scripture memory can address this concern by allowing you to key in on certain verses that then hopefully will stay in the mind long after you might otherwise have forgotten what passage or book you read a few weeks ago for your devotional. Finally, I have been inspired and humbled by hearing and reading the testimonies of many brave men and women of God who served in the mission field in locations which could be considered “closed.” As we all know, there are sadly many places even in our world today where the Bible is not welcomed, and may even be officially prohibited. In such places, both for missions workers, but even moreso for native believers, they only have as much of God’s Word available as they have been able to store away in their hearts. And so out of respect for the challenges that our persecuted brothers and sisters in the faith are facing around the world, I never want to take for granted the privilege I have of an open Bible in a free society, where I can study and share the truths of Scripture as freely as I please! To memorize God’s Word is another way then of cherishing and valuing the gift of Scripture.

In his tract, The Value of Memorizing Scripture, Max Barnett actually provides a list of thirty different reasons for why this practice can be spiritually beneficial for you. I want to share just a few of the ones that really impacted me. Learning portions of Scripture by heart can of course help us to avoid sin, which is not a surprising conclusion, but Max develops this concept a little further, noting how “what dominates our minds will dominate us”, and then mentioning later that “verses we have well learned provide a great reservoir for meditation.” On this topic of Scriptural meditation, Max then perceptively adds: “Some cults especially promote the idea that meditation is emptying the mind. That is not meditation according to the Scriptures. Biblical meditation is thinking on the character, truths, and ways of God. You cannot meditate on what you do not know.” Well said!! Or to phrase it another way, if your mind is not being filled with the enriching truth of Scripture, there is a good risk that it is instead being filled with other sources of input, perhaps neutral in nature, but also perhaps harmful. We can memorize Scripture to give ourselves this opportunity though to meditate upon, in the words of Paul in Philippians 4:8—“whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report.” Max’s tract also mentions another side benefit of Scripture memory—it can help to keep us mentally sharp and strengthen our overall intellectual life. Far too many people associate any kind of memorization, study, or serious reading with “school work” and maybe even try to consciously avoid these practices once they graduate. But it would totally defeat the purpose of a hard-earned education to let oneself completely stagnate mentally post-graduation, and so even small exercises like Scripture memory can help prevent this. Finally Max discusses how the verses we memorize may have a specific and special memory attached to them. As I will share a bit later in this post, I have several verses which I’ve been motivated to learn based on the unique memories that are attached to them for me.

 

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Overcoming obstacles and objections

Now, I’m certainly familiar with the fact that there may be some obstacles in place for the typical Christian that would lead them to think that Scripture memory is something they are not capable of. I say I’m familiar with this because I have raised some of these objections myself in the past (haha). But I want to address a few of them, not only to maybe show how they can be overcome, but just in general to also encourage people who are thinking about starting to learn Scripture, but feel a slight bit daunted by the task in front of them. I’ve already discussed the question of legalism briefly, and shared how people such as Jay Wolf, Bobby Pruett, and Max Barnett, while steeped in Scriptural knowledge from years of verse memorization, have nonetheless never come across as legalistic in their teaching or encouragement of this spiritual practice. The key lies in the heart attitudes. If you are doing anything in the Christian life, from memorizing Scripture to going on a mission trip, to tithing, out a sense of pride, then you are at great risk of losing the very value and spiritual benefit you might gain from these actions. So as long as Scriptural memorization is approached with a humble spirit, there is no reason for anyone to view this practice as legalistic. And to further help in this regard, I personally do no set “quotas” for myself. At any given time I have several different verses that I’m working on, but these just happen to be the ones that I’ve come across in my quiet time, or that God has put on my heart. I don’t have a set goal or amount in mind, although if that system works for others (which I’ve heard that it can) then fine. I do try to review both my new and old verses on a relatively regular basis—that is several times a week. But not having a specific goal in terms of the number I’m going to learn in any given time frame helps it to feel like something more for my own spiritual nourishment, and less like an assignment or spiritual “discipline” that must be endured. In The Value of Memorizing Scripture, Max mentions the fear of some that learning specific verses here and there could lead to taking the meaning of the verse out of context. This is always a danger we must strive to avoid in Scriptural interpretation, and exegesis. However, Max makes a convincing argument that by learning a single verse we are much more likely to remember the contents and context of a particular passage or chapter in Scripture: “You do not have to take a verse out of context. In fact, the exact opposite can be true. You can recall the context and location by a single verse. A verse can be like the handle on a suitcase. You can pick up a large suitcase by a small handle. In many books of the Bible, you can recall the content of a chapter by a single verse.”

 

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Another objection may be that people feel like they just don’t have the time to engage in memory work, or don’t wish to always have to carry a Bible around with them for that purpose. But thanks to the modern technology that most of us have access to, Scripture memory is easier than ever to pursue. With the very popular, and free Bible App you can easily highlight and copy a verse or passage of Scripture and then quickly transfer and paste the comments to your phone’s memo section, or wherever else you’d like to store the information. Then, since most of us almost always have our phones with us, whenever you have a free minute or two during the day, you can use your device to review your verses. Of course if you don’t wish to use your phone, I know others who have made small index cards with the verse written on one side and the scripture reference on the other. These cards can then be transported in a verse pack which can easily fit into your pocket. You can keep not only the verses you’re learning, but also a list of the references for the other Scriptures that you’ve already memorized, in order to be able to review those periodically. I’ve found that with 5-10 minutes of review 3-4 times a week, you can both recall old verses and start to learn new ones. And if you’ve had a fairly regular quiet time over the years, you’ll be pleasantly surprised to find out that you already know a decent number of verses without even realizing it, while others will be generally familiar enough that you can learn them in their entirety relatively quickly. While as I mentioned previously, I try not to think in terms of goals or quotas, even if you had managed to just learn one new verse per month, think of the value of putting 12 Bible verses permanently into your heart by the end of the year!

Another question that may arise is what verses to memorize. Each person will probably find their own system or method that works here, but for me it helps if the verse I’m learning has some personal significance. This could mean that it was shared with me by a friend, or perhaps I came across it during my quiet time, or simply had always enjoyed the message and meaning of the verse. Some people have used topical systems, for example learning a series of verses under subjects such as prayer, evangelism, resisting temptation, etc. There is nothing wrong with this, but in my experience, and from talking with some other people engaged in Scripture memory, it’s usually easier to remember a verse that has some type of meaning to you, rather than having been assigned. Another practical tip is to try and learn all your verses from the same translation, preferably whatever you read already for your time of personal devotion. I use the New King James version. Finally, it can be good to have verse-learning partner, or partners. These could be people in your small group or Sunday school class, or a trusted friend or mentor. It can be a great spiritual devotion however to share a verse you’ve learned or are learning with another believer, and maybe even talk a little about the meaning and context in which the verse could be applied. This will also be good practice for the general application of Scripture memory. Learning Biblical references is never just an intellectual exercise, nor an act of private devotion. Rather it should always be done with an eye towards the opportunity to potentially share these truths with someone else, particularly in a situation where you might not have the time or ability to read directly from Scripture.

 

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Some favorite pieces of treasure

Now I want to share just a few verses that I’ve learned and why they are particularly significant for me. Some of you reading may even have memories and perspectives on these same verses, which I’d love to hear about! Numbers 6:22-26And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: “Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying, ‘This is the way you shall bless the children of Israel. Say to them: “The Lord bless you and keep you; The Lord make His face shine upon you, and be gracious to you; The Lord lift up His countenance upon you, and give you peace.” This beautiful blessing from Moses is sometimes used as a benediction by pastors, and so I had certainly heard it on occasion in church growing up. But its particular significance, and the motivation for learning it came more recently. It was August of 2014, and I had just moved out here to Boulder from Alabama to begin serving with Christian Challenge at the University of Colorado. Although I was very excited to begin this new ministry, it was a bittersweet time too because I was now living further away from my family than ever before, and knew that I would really miss them. I was flipping through my Bible one day, and noticed a little post-it note in Numbers 6. There my mother had copied out the prayer in verses 24-26, and had addressed it to me. I was brought to tears by this simple reminder of a mother’s faithful love, and so from now on I’ll never be able to see these beautiful verses without being reminded of my mom. I hope to be able to pass on this same blessing to someone special in my life one day. Another verse from Numbers that I memorized recently is Numbers 11:29Then Moses said to him, “Are you zealous for my sake? Oh, that all the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put His Spirit upon them!” The context here is that Moses has learned that two other men have been prophesying in the camp of the Hebrews. But rather than becoming angry or in any way feeling threatened by this news, Moses gladly embraces the fact that God might be working through others. Too often in ministry and in churches, we become territorial, wanting to jealousy guard our little circle of influence, as though we somehow had a monopoly on spiritual truth! We should follow Moses’ example here, and rejoice when God blesses other ministries, and at the same time trust the Lord to provide and help us keep those people whom He wishes our ministry to influence.

 

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1 Samuel 16:7 has long been one of my “life verses.” “But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look at his appearance or at his physical stature, because I have refused him. For the Lord does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” This was the verse I preached on the first time I ever spoke at my home church, First Baptist Montgomery, and a verse that carries a lot of significance for me as I think back on my spiritual journey up until this point. God’s reminder to Samuel to look to the interior, rather than exterior qualities of someone leads him to eventually anoint the young David as the future king. And certainly, one of my goals, from my first experiences in community ministry with the homeless, up until now and my work with college students, is to try and see the best in others, and help them to discover their God-given potential. John 14:1-4, 6Let not your heart be troubled; you believe in God, believe also in Me. In My Father’s house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also. And where I go you know, and the way you know.”… Jesus said to him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” This beautiful passage from my favorite Gospel, John, was a personal favorite of my grandmother’s. I can remember her quoting from it, and this same passage was later shared at her funeral. My grandmother was a remarkable person who demonstrated an active and vibrant faith, and also consistently encouraged and believed in me, long before I had the confidence or vision to know exactly what I planned to do with my life. These words from John offer great spiritual comfort, especially in the face of death, and they are doubly special because they can help me recall the memory of a dear friend who I still miss, and who had such a positive influence on my young life.

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Sometimes memory verses just have such a clear practical application that we can call them to mind any time certain situations arise. One such reference is 1 Corinthians 10:13“No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it.” Dealing with temptation is a universal Christian struggle, and so remembering this verse can help us to understand that no matter how strong our desire towards a particular temptation might be, God has faithfully provided for us a way to overcome these feelings, and sin never need be an inevitable occurrence. In Ephesians 2:8-9, Paul offers to us a succinct summary of the whole nature of our salvation experience. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.” In so many other world religions, human effort, through good deeds and acts of charity is how someone gains Divine favor. Christianity uniquely says that we can never do enough good works to please God, and thus our salvation is experienced solely through faith in the forgiving grace of God as expressed in the death of Jesus on the Cross. Hebrews 12:1-2 is a wonderfully inspiring passage—Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” These verses have added significance for me though because they represent the favorite Scriptural reference of one of the great spiritual mentors in my life, Pastor Jay Wolf from First Baptist Montgomery. Jay often concludes emails, notes, and text messages with a reference to Hebrews 12:1-2, and I also remember him sharing the personal significance of this passage to me when he performed my ordination service several years ago. Thus the energy of this Biblical exhortation and the example of one of my true role models in the ministry both combine to make Hebrews 12:1-2 an awe-inspiring section of Scripture for me! Sometimes, verses can be important because they seem to perfectly capture a situation or circumstance that we often find ourselves experiencing. In my particular ministry on a college campus, I am frequently engaging in some form of apologetics, as I respond to questions or skepticism regarding the truth and claims of the Gospel. Thus I love the message of 1 Peter 3:15—“But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear;” This verse reminds me not only to always be ready to defend my beliefs, but to also be careful to do so in a way which is not argumentative or prideful, but instead reflects a respectful humility in the model of an authentic Christ-follower.

 

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I want to close with a trio of verses from Psalm 119. This longest chapter in all of Scripture is devoted to praising the excellence of God’s Word. So there could hardly be a more fitting portion of the Bible to turn to for Scripture memory. Psalm 119:10-11 states: “With my whole heart I have sought You; Oh, let me not wander from Your commandments! Your word I have hidden in my heart, that I might not sin against You.” The Psalmist here gives us a great reason to memorize Scripture—so that we might not trespass against the Biblical guidelines that God has offered for our lives. Psalm 119:28My soul melts from heaviness; strengthen me according to Your word.” My attention was first drawn to this reference actually when I was reading a book about the city of Amsterdam. Psalm 119:28 was chosen as the inscription for one of the city’s memorials to its Jewish victims during the German occupation in World War Two. I thought about how fitting a choice this Scripture is though for any time of sorrow in our lives. Whatever disappointment, trial, struggle, or grief we are dealing with, we can know that even if our very soul seems like it will melt, strength and restoration lie just a page away in the treasury of God’s Word. Nothing else in the world can assuage our sorrows and uphold us in dark times like the Bible! Finally there is Psalm 119:105. “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” This oft-cited verse works on two different levels for me. The most basic understanding is to remind ourselves that Scripture can offer guidance like nothing else in a dark, sin-filled world where we can so easily go astray and lose ourselves. But the light imagery is also very reminiscent of the New Testament and Jesus’ description of Himself in John 8:12 as “the light of the world.” I pray that through continued Scripture memory I can reflect a little more of God’s light to others as I strive to internalize and then live out the beautiful truths He has so readily preserved for us in His Word. Each verse of the Bible I learn then is one more piece of buried treasure which none of the vicissitudes of this life can ever tarnish!

Secret Church 2016 highlights

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I recently had the opportunity to view a simulcast of David Platt’s 2016 “Secret Church” broadcast, shown at my local church—East Boulder Baptist. For many years I’d heard from friends about how powerful these times of intense Biblical teaching were, and so this year for the first time I was able to participate in one, along with several of our other Christian Challenge students and staff! For anyone who is not familiar with Secret Church, it is an annual time of teaching from David Platt, currently the president of the IMB, and formerly pastor of the Church at Brook Hills. First held back in 2006, the aim of Secret Church is to provide an intense 6-hour block of Biblical teaching and prayer, modeled on Platt’s missionary experiences in Asian house churches, where often he might only have a single evening to be able to impart to underground pastors doctrinal instruction and encouragement. Given the circumstances which inspired it, each Secret Church broadcast includes a period of prayer for the nations and particularly persecuted churches, along with the teaching.

This year’s Secret Church was titled “A Global Gospel in a world of religions”, and focused on the relationship between Christianity and the other major world religions. I was particularly excited about this topic, given that much of my work at CU with Christian Challenge involves reaching out to international students, the vast majority of whom are coming from a non-Christian background. Platt focused on three main world religions Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam, and also talked about Animism and Atheism, which, while they do not fall as neatly into the category of organized religions, are still very pervasive worldviews.

Platt’s talk began with a survey of the religious makeup of the world at present. This included some interesting projections for how religious demographics might change by 2050, based on extensive research from the Pew Forum. The projections estimate that Islam will have nearly equaled Christianity as the religion with the most adherents worldwide by 2050. This increase is due in part to the fact that Islamic adherents in general have higher birth rates, but in addition, these projections are also based on the sad estimate that approximately 106 million people are expected to leave Christianity over these next 34 years. In Europe in particular, the Christian population is predicted to continue to decline markedly. Interestingly, China is somewhat of an “x-factor” in these predictions however. If the rapid growth of Christianity in that nation continues, then by 2050, over 50% of the population might be Christian, a truly remarkable development for an avowedly atheistic state! Granted, hard data on the church in China can be difficult to obtain, but even if these estimates prove to be exaggerated, there is no denying that with its huge population, China could play a major role in determining the future of world Christendom. Platt emphasized that of course all of these projections are subject to change, with one of the main variable factors being a possible missional awakening in the worldwide church. On this note, Platt cited British writer and journalist Douglas Murray, who is himself an atheist, as noting that the growth of Islam in the Western World is partially attributable to the fact that “most branches of mainstream Christianity have lost the confidence to proselytize.”

Before going into a discussion of some of the specific religions and worldviews, Platt first gave a helpful summary of what the heart of the Gospel message, and thereby the distinctiveness of Christianity, entails. He used an acrostic for “GOSPEL” to help summarize the essential Christian message.

G—God’s character

O—Offense of sin

S—Sufficiency of Christ

P—Personal response

E—Eternal urgency

L—Life transformation

Platt then mentioned the critical importance of evangelism as the duty of every Christian in spreading the Gospel message with those around them. Then he highlighted personal conversion as a necessary and individual response to this message which would then extend to a lifelong commitment to follow Christ as Lord and Savior.

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Then Platt turned to an individual discussion of five main religions and worldviews. With each religion/worldview that he discussed, after laying out its basic characteristics and tenets, Platt then offered some practical suggestions for how Christians could engage people coming from these traditions in spiritual conversations. First he talked about Animism, which is less an organized religion than a worldview which sees the physical world as being interpenetrated with spiritual forces. Inanimate objects can carry spiritual significance as can natural events, and the practitioner seeks to manipulate and or appease these various spiritual forces through the use of magic, prayer, and superstition. There is also a focus on immediate benefit or gain as opposed to long-term, or eternal rewards. Now many people may assume that animism is limited to tribal peoples in remote villages in Africa or South America. But in fact, as Platt revealed, Animism can be encountered all over the world. Since it is more of a worldview than a strict set of religious tenets, it can be easily grafted onto another faith, including Christianity. Living in a city such as Boulder, I have encountered a fair amount of “spirituality” that might could be categorized as animistic in nature. For example, there are many people in the Boulder area who’ve embraced aspects of New Age religion including adherence to astrology, healing “crystals”, fad spiritual “diets”, and other practices that could be labeled as superstitions. To share the Gospel with Animists, Platt recommended that we warn about the deceptive power wrought by false spirits (ref. 1 John 4:1). He also suggested that we emphasize the singular spiritual power of Christ over nature, disease, sin, and death itself noting that the Gospel of Mark in particular is a good place to take Animists to show them some of the Scriptural stories illustrating Jesus’ power.

 

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Next, Platt looked at Hinduism, which has some 915 million followers worldwide. In North America, if continued patterns of migration persist, the Hindu population is expected to double by 2050. Hinduism is a very ancient religion which is difficult to quantify because of the vast diversity of beliefs and practices it encompasses, which can often differ widely by region. It includes a polytheistic worldview where some estimates hold that a staggering total of 330 million different deities are worshipped. Two central tenets include a belief in reincarnation (Samsara), the process by which each soul must pass through endless lifetimes before salvation is attained, and the idea of karma, that actions in an individual’s past lives determine their current condition, while present actions can influence future lives. Hindus seek salvation (Moksha) through a variety of paths, including through works (Dharma), knowledge (Jnana), devotion (Bhakti). Aids in these paths to salvation can include mantras, yoga, participation in religious festivals, and ritual bathing. But all paths involve an intense human effort which is of course opposed to the Christian concept of salvation apart from any human works or striving. Here in Boulder I certainly see evidence of an interest in aspects of Hindu spirituality, most notably through yoga, which is extremely popular around town. The Hindu greeting “Namaste” is also commonly used in social media. There are also a large number of international students at CU who are coming from Hindu religious backgrounds. In sharing the Gospel with Hindus, Platt recommends emphasizing the uniqueness and exclusivity of Christ (ref. John 14:6), since a polytheistic worldview might be tempted to view Jesus as simply one more god that can be added to the pantheon. He also mentioned highlighting the fact that Christianity offers the opportunity for someone to know God now (2 Corinthians 6:2), rather than only after an endless cycle of countless reincarnations, the possibility of which the Bible expressly refutes (Hebrews 9:27).

 

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Next in the study was Buddhism, whose teachings can be summed up with an explanation of the Four Noble Truths, from which follows the Eightfold Path. The Four Noble Truths include the affirmation that all of life is suffering (Dukkha), suffering is caused by selfish desire (Samudaya), the cure for this suffering is the cessation of desire (Nirodha), and the path to liberation from suffering (magga) has eight steps. These eight steps, called the Eightfold Path include right views, right intent, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration. The goal in all of this is to achieve final enlightenment (Nirvana). It can only be obtained through intense self-effort, using aids such as mantras and meditations. And while different schools of Buddhism vary on their belief in the possibility of supernatural aid, they are similar in their rejection of the concept of a personal, creator God. In Boulder, I’ve certainly seen a wide array of evidence to suggest that Buddhism is an “in vogue” religion. Many stores on Pearl Street sell small images of Buddha and Buddhist prayer flags, which can also be seen hung from houses and apartment buildings. There is a Buddhist university here–Naropa, along with a Zen Meditation Center, and the Boulder Shambhala Tibetan Buddhist cultural center. To witness to Buddhists, Christians should emphasize that salvation in Christ is not possible by any human works or effort, attainable only through faith and God’s grace alone (Ephesians 2:8-9). And while each of the virtues of the Eightfold Path can in some sense be correlated to Scriptural verses which encourage similar practices, really focusing on the nature of salvation as a gift will emphasize to the Buddhist that the aim of Christianity is not to merely pursue a life of good works. One of the most striking points that Platt made in comparison between the two faiths is the idea that while Buddhism’s goal is the ultimate elimination of desire, Christianity’s goal is the ultimate fulfillment of all of our desires in Christ (Philippians 4:19).

 

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Next we discussed the faith which is currently the fastest growing religion in North America, and is estimated to expand to represent 10% of the overall European population by 2050—Islam. Muslim beliefs are summed up by the idea of submitting to their God, Allah. The central tenets of the faith are contained in the so-called Five Pillars of Islam. These include the central confession of faith (Shahada)—“there is god but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet”, five daily times of prayer (Salat), the giving of alms to the poor (zakat), the special fast during the month of Ramadan (Sawm), and the once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca (Haji). Apart from the many political disturbances which have occurred in recent years between Muslims and non-Muslims, Platt pointed out that dialogue between Christians and Muslims is further complicated by several misconceptions that many Muslims have about Christianity. Because Islam strictly proclaims that the true meaning of the Koran can only be obtained by reading it in the original Arabic, they are suspicious that the meaning of the Bible has been corrupted through its many different translations. Also, because a true separation of Church and State is uncommon in many majority Muslim cultures, they tend to equate Western culture as being synonymous with “Christianity.” Thus they may view American movies and television as somehow representing Christian views simply because they were produced in a country that has a majority Christian population. Muslims frequently misunderstand the concept of the Trinity, and assume that Christians actually worship three different gods—God the Father, Mary the Mother, and Jesus the Son. And while it is true that Jesus is an honored figure within Islam, He is viewed simply as one more great prophet (while Muhammad is the last and greatest prophet), and not as the Son of God. In addition, Muslims do not believe that Jesus really died on the Cross. In witnessing to our Muslim friends we must therefore emphasize the Oneness of the Triune God, as well as the equality of all three Persons in the Trinity. Followers of Islam should also receive a clear Christology—that Jesus is both fully God and fully Man (Hebrews 4:14-16). Finally, in talking with Muslims we could do well to borrow from one of my favorite C.S Lewis quotes about the nature of Christ, as found in the classic apologetic text, Mere Christianity“ I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. … Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God. Also, just as with all of the other major religions, we can contrast the Muslim belief in salvation through works with the Christian conception of salvation by grace, through faith alone.

 

Finally, Platt looked at Atheism, which while not a religion as such, is continuing to gain ground as a widely prevalent worldview, especially in the West, and in a city like Boulder. The Pew Forum estimates that by 2050 the self-identified “non-religious” sector of the North American population will increase from 16 to 26% of the total population. Atheism can be hard to categorize but Platt helpfully offered three common “types” of Atheism that one may encounter. “Scientific Sam” is the atheist who is a pure materialist, denying the existence of anything spiritual that cannot be scientifically proved, and determining furthermore that scientific theories and discoveries can account for most of the mysteries in our life, providing a plausible and coherent worldview in which the “comfort” of religion or a belief in God is thus unnecessary. “Moral Mark” is the atheist who becomes fed up with the hypocrisy they see amongst adherents of organized religion, and thus decides that one could be just as moral and “good” of a person without following any religious tenets. Furthermore such individuals often go a step further and conclude that religion is not only unnecessary, but might even be actively harmful, keeping people intellectually and emotionally burdened with fear and superstition. Finally there is “Insignificant Isabelle”, an atheist who no longer feels the need for the “crutch” that religion provides. They have come to terms with their own insignificance in a vast and indifferent universe, and have accepted that death is the final and natural end of everything. They have even decided that being without a belief in God is liberating because they are now free to make the most of their lives in the here and now without being distracted by any promise of future reward or punishment. In talking with atheists, Platt urged Christians to pursue “humble dialogue” where we are willing to honestly listen to their objections to our faith. At the same time, we should strive to ask some pointed, and thought-provoking questions about their worldview and its logical implications.

Platt ended Secret Church 2016 with three conclusions: there is an eternal hell which awaits everyone who does not believe the Gospel of Jesus Christ, while an eternal heaven is the reward which awaits those who have accepted Christ, and finally—we are the means by which God has ordained that the Gospel might go to every person in the world!! (Romans 10:13-15). Then, he offered three exhortations: we must pray passionately (Matthew 9:37-38), give sacrificially (Matthew 6:19-21), and go confidently (Acts 20:24)—to people right around us, and people around the world. In doing so, we know there will be risk (Matthew 24:9-13), and yet we should be constantly looking towards our reward! (Hebrews 12:1-2). It was a blessing for me to be able to take part in Secret Church 2016. I feel that I not only gained a little better overall perspective on world religions, and clarified my understanding of some of the most salient features of these other world faiths, but most importantly was reminded throughout Platt’s teaching about the beautiful uniqueness of the Gospel. The University of Colorado campus, like many university campuses around the country is increasingly becoming a marketplace of competing worldviews, ranging from traditional religions, to eclectic “spirituality” and avowedly non-spiritual positions such as atheism. With people coming from all of these different backgrounds, my goal is to be able to listen to their stories and then confidently articulate the truth of the Gospel in response. I am reminded of a favorite passage from Colossians 4:5-6–“Walk in wisdom toward those who are outside, redeeming the time. Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned with salt, that you may know how you ought to answer each one.” How fortunate that I am living in a time and place where members of the nations, and representatives of so many different worldviews are accessible for building relationships with that can lead to spiritual conversations, and witnessing opportunities. I pray that I, along with other Christian Challenge students and staff will always take our responsibility as ambassadors for Christ seriously, and will rejoice in the chance God has given us to testify of the One Gospel that saves amidst a world of religions.

Resurrection Reveille

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I recently had the opportunity to enjoy spending Easter down in Colorado Springs with my sister, brother-in-law, and my parents, who were visiting in from Alabama. We went to church together and had some wonderful family time as we celebrated the miracle of Jesus’ resurrection. The day also brought back some warm, wonderful memories of Easters in years past. Unlike the chilly, snow-covered scene in Colorado Springs a few weeks ago, the Easters of my Alabama childhood were almost invariably sunny and mild. But I’ve entitled this post “Resurrection Reveille”, because, in my mind, Easter always brings up associations of early morning. Now admittedly my family didn’t usually go to sunrise services growing up, although I’ve always thought that would be a beautiful experience. Nonetheless, in order to get a seat in the full sanctuary at the 8:30am Easter Sunday service, we’d have to rise pretty early. My sister and I would hurriedly check out our Easter baskets, and then have a breakfast of hard-boiled eggs and Krispy Kreme doughnuts before getting dressed for the big worship service. Music also constitutes a big part of my Easter memories. I can remember singing the venerable old Charles Wesley hymn “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” almost every year, including this one. But for years, a tune had been stuck in my head, associated with a long-ago Easter from my childhood, but which I couldn’t exactly place. It would bug me around that time of the year as I tried to figure out what it could be, and then I would forget about for a while—until the next Easter possibly. But this year it kept going round in my head all Easter afternoon, and one of the blessings of the Internet age is that between Google and Ebay, no half-remembered memory from our childhoods need be permanently lost. So, following some searching for the fragment of lyrics that I remembered, I found the source of my long-lost tune. It was Keith Green’s 1977 “Easter Song.” Some time back in the late 80’s or early 90’s I would imagine, I’d heard it performed by an ensemble at First Baptist Montgomery, under the direction of our much-beloved former minister of music, Bill Roper, and it had lodged in my memory ever since.

 

Now, I confess I didn’t know much previously about the life and work of Keith Green, a pioneering figure in the Contemporary Christian music scene. He’s also one of the favorite artists of our Christian Challenge director, Bobby Pruett, and as I listened to “Easter Song” repeatedly, I was captivated by the lyrics. So often, Easter, like Christmas, is mostly about observance, remembering the work of God in the past. And certainly that is a worthwhile thing. Scripture exists in part to remind us of God’s faithfulness down through the generations, and Christianity, like its parent religion Judaism, celebrates a God of history, who has worked in prior generations in unique ways. And yet our God we know is still at work, and so our holy days of faith should not only be times of reflection, but opportunities for us to called into action as bearers of a living and vibrant message—never more so than on Easter! For any Christian, the Resurrection is the single defining event, the foundational truth, and linchpin which holds our faith together. This is certainly what Paul affirms in 1 Corinthians 15:14—“And if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is vain and your faith is also vain.” The words of Keith Green’s “Easter Song” thus focus not only on celebrating Jesus’ conquering of the grave, but the implications for our lives going forward. Hear the bells ringing, they’re singing/that you can be born again”. Then the song continues—“Hear the bells ringing they’re singing /that you can be healed right now. Hear the bells ringing, they’re singing/Christ, he will reveal it now/ The angels, they all surround us and they are ministering Jesus’ power, quickly now/reach out and receive it, for this could be your glorious hour.” We find an emphasis on immediacy—Green is singing urgently to the listener, letting them know that Christ’s Resurrection is not just a long-ago event to commemorate, but that in the spirit of 2 Corinthians 6:2 , now is the time of salvation and deliverance from sin through Christ!! The same power that raised Christ from the dead is available to anyone who will believe, as Romans 8:11 testifies. Green’s lyrics also charge those who already believe to take action, and spread the message of Easter: “The angel up on the tombstone said He has risen, just as He said/Quickly now, go tell his disciples that Jesus Christ is no longer dead.”

 

Reading a little more recently about the life of Keith Green, I found him to be a fascinating study. Although he died in a plane crash at the tragically young age of 28 back in 1982, and only released only five albums in his lifetime, Green’s legacy, both musical and personal continues to inspire many in the Christian music community to this day. I mentioned both his musical and personal legacy, for from what I can tell, Green really tried to make sure that his life, and business practices, as well as the message of his music, all aligned with the Gospel truth that had changed his life. He once stated—“I repent of ever having recorded one single song, and ever having performed one concert, if my music, and more importantly, my life has not provoked you into Godly jealousy or to sell out more completely to Jesus!” Pretty strong words—but from Green they weren’t just talk. The suburban Los Angeles home where he lived with his wife Melody and his growing family, also became a place of refuge for many in need—drug addicts, prostitutes, single pregnant women, and the homeless. Then, in 1979 he took what would be an almost-unheard of policy for a professional recording artist—he refused to any longer charge money for concerts or albums, instead simply telling people to pay whatever they could afford in accordance with God’s direction. Green was willing to not just sing about trusting God, but live this out in a very visible fashion. And as much as he could charm with sweet songs of praise, he also wasn’t afraid to convict and challenge a church which may have grown too comfortable and complacent. Once again, the message of Easter was at the center of what for Green, needed to be a springboard to Christian action. Lyrics from his song “Asleep in the light” include” “Can’t you see it’s such a sin? The world is sleeping in the dark that the church just can’t fight/’Cause it’s asleep in the light/How can you be so dead, when you’ve been so well fed/Jesus rose from the grave and you, you can’t even get out of bed/Jesus rose from the dead, come on, get out of your bed”

Keith Green’s music is infused with a sense of urgency that in part stems from his own story. He had an unusual mix of a Jewish and Christian Science heritage, and grew up as a musical prodigy. Coming of age in the height of the countercultural 60’s he investigated Eastern philosophies and experimented with drugs. But following a bad acid trip, he gave up drugs and became increasingly drawn towards Christianity, along with his new wife, Melody. Perhaps his best-known song, “Your love broke through” chronicles Green’s final discovery of God’s truth, which shattered through the illusions and confusion of his pre-Christian life: “Well I’ve been blind all these wasted years/And I thought I was so wise, but then you took me by surprise/Like waking up from the longest dream, how real it seemed/Until your love broke through/I’ve been lost in a fantasy, that blinded me/Until your love broke through” Perhaps it was a recognition of the time he had wasted as a youth that drove and motivated Keith Green as an adult to pursue Christ with a palpable passion and sense of urgency.

 

But what about us?? As we reflect on the message of Easter, should it be a time of calm reflection and joy?? Yes certainly. But it should also be a call to action! Earlier, I mentioned the time-honored 1739 Easter hymn “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” composed by Charles Wesley, brother of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. It includes the lines: “Soar we now where Christ has led, Alleluia!/Following our exalted Head, Alleluia!” Then in another favorite praise song of Easter, Bill Gaither’s 1974, “Because He lives”, we hear in the chorus– “Because He lives, I can face tomorrow, Because He lives all fear is gone.” Thus we find that in the songs of Easter we are indeed exhorted to not simply honor Christ’s rising from the dead, but to also go forth and live out that truth! Scripture reinforces this point in several instances too. Again and again, we see that following the message of Jesus’ Resurrection comes a clear call to spread the news. Matthew 28 opens with the story of the Empty Tomb, but then finishes in verses 18-20 with that seminal missions exhortation, The Great Commission. Luke concludes his Gospel in chapter 24, also with the story of Jesus’ Resurrection, before eventually adding his version of the Great Commission in Luke 24:46-48. Then in John 20:21-23, following the account of His Resurrection, Jesus sends out His disciples. Finally, note Acts 1:9-11. Here, immediately following what must have been an astonishing sight—watching the Ascension of Jesus into Heaven, the disciples are visited by two angels. “Now when He had spoken these things, while they watched, He was taken up, and a cloud received Him out of their sight. And while they looked steadfastly toward Heaven as He went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel, who also said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven.” We can sometimes find ourselves in the same position as those disciples—gaping in open-mouthed wonder at the glorious truth that a new life in Christ represents. But we must not stop there! The nature of the Resurrection is that it changes everything, and so we are called to go forth and spread this truth to the nations. Thus in all of the Gospels, the message of Christ’s Rebirth is followed by an urgent appeal to make this news known unto all humanity.

 

We’ve looked at examples of such passages in Matthew, Luke, John, and Acts already, but what about Mark?? I remember in seminary classes we would sometimes talk about “textual variants” found in Scripture. And often these were fairly minor it must be admitted, of interest perhaps to seminarians and theology professors, but having very little bearing on the actual interpretation of a book or passage. But one of the most famous is found at the end of the Book of Mark, and it can help to further underscore the central message of this post—that the Easter message is not only a commemoration of Christ’s glorious victory over death and sin, but also a clear call to action, for Christians to share this life-changing truth with others. Many Biblical scholars believe that Mark originally ended with verse 16:8—“And they went out quickly and fled from the tomb, for they trembled and were amazed. And they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” Now the “they” in question are Mary Magdalene, Mary, the mother of James, and another woman named Salome. They had come early on Sunday morning to bring spices that may finish anointing the body of Jesus. They find the tomb empty, and hearing from an angel that Jesus has risen, we come to verse 8. Out of fear and no doubt overwhelmed at the magnitude of this astounding news, the women at first do not share their story with anyone else, though the angel specifically instructs them in Mark 16:7 to go and spread the Resurrection news to the Disciples.

Mark 16:9-20 reveals that after a subsequent personal appearance from the Resurrected Savior, Mary Magdalene does indeed go and tell the disciples, and then Mark concludes his Gospel with his own version of the Great Commission and then the Ascension of Christ. But why did at least some versions of Mark originally end with verse 8?? It’s very likely this could be a literary device. When we read a chapter in a book, or watch an episode of a television series that ends abruptly with some aspect of the plot or story still unresolved, we call it a “cliffhanger.” And on being confronted with a cliffhanger, the natural thought in our minds is “what happens next?” or “how will the story end?” Well perhaps Mark is wanting to insert us, as the reader, into the story of Jesus by wondering what will happen now that Christ is risen?? Will we take up the responsibility to go and share with others, or will we remain fearful and silent?

This Easter, as I reflected on the many blessings that have accompanied my tenure of ministry here in Colorado, I was reminded afresh, through the music of Keith Green, the reading of Scripture, and that still, small voice in my own heart, that the story of Jesus’ Resurrection was never meant to only be a triumphant exclamation point, but also a blinking cursor on our life’s screen. During the season of Easter, we hear the glorious news shared with us afresh, that testimony of Jesus as written in Revelation 1:18—“I am He who lives, and was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore.” But how will the empty tomb change us? In the aforementioned Keith Green song “Your love broke through” there’s another wonderful line, full of the truth of the Easter message—“All my life I’ve been searching for that crazy missing part/and with one touch, you just rolled away/The stone that held my heart” Can it be said of us too, that are hearts are overflowing and ready to share the message of the good news of Easter with others? I know personally that I am always in need of a little extra “push” and some holy motivation to do my best with the calling I am privileged to have from God. So in my own life, I pray that Easter is not only a commemoration, but a wakeup call to share and live the message that has given my life meaning. And may the Resurrection be a moment of God’s Glorious Reveille for us all. Amen!

Matthew 22–The Greatest Commandment

This semester, in our weekly time of Scriptural teaching with Christian Challenge our theme has been “Great Expectations”. It’s based on three great mandates or commands that we find in Scripture. The first is the “Great Mandate” from Genesis 1: 26, where God gives man a sense of responsibility over the rest of Creation:  “Then God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness: let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” We talked with students about all that this teaching implies, ranging from one’s calling in life, to how you raise your family, how you manage stress, and many other areas of life. Then later this spring, we will look at the “Great Commission” from Matthew 28:16-20, and explore this seminal passage on missions and the need to evangelize and make disciples. This past week, I introduced our current study on the “Great Commandment”, from Matthew 22:37-40. Now it’s interesting that this passage is referred to as the “Great Commandment” since it actually contains two separate commandments. But they are so intertwined and inseparable in their application, that they actually comprise one unified teaching. In addition these two commands are so foundational, and so all-encompassing for our spiritual lives that, according to Jesus, the entirety of the Old Testament Law and teaching is contained within them!  To offer further context, here is the entire passage–Matthew 22:34-40. “But when the Pharisees heard that He had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. Then one of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, and saying, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?” Jesus said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”

 

So the idea here is that Jesus, the great teacher, has just been tested. The lawyer asks Christ a hard question—“what is the great commandment in the law?” And you just suspect that perhaps this lawyer’s motivation isn’t purely an intellectual curiosity. Because he’s also a Pharisee—the Jewish sect that was considered the experts on the religious law during their day, and they’d already had some run-ins with Jesus in the past over questions of interpretation of the religious law. In fact, earlier in this same chapter of Matthew 22, some Pharisees had tried to trip Jesus up by asking Him whether it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. Christ’s famous answer, in Matthew 22:21, however left them speechless—“Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” So Jesus exalts the power of God without offending the political sensibilities of Rome. Then, just before our passage in question, Jesus has a discussion with the Sadducees, a sect of Jewish religious leaders associated with the Temple, and who were known for their denial of belief in the Resurrection. Here, Christ quotes from the story of Moses and the Burning Bush in Exodus 3 to prove them mistaken. It seems that people just couldn’t resist trying to trap Jesus verbally. He was gaining fame as a wise teacher, with a large following, but there were those who apparently wanted nothing more than to see Him say the wrong thing, and so they looked constantly for an opportunity to catch Him in a compromising word or phrase.

 

 

 

Dr. Karl Barth (1886-1968), the eminent Swiss theologian, generally considered to be amongst the most brilliant and influential Protestant thinkers of the 20th century was once on a speaking tour. And after his talk, he held a question-and-answer session. There was someone in the audience who thought they would try and test the knowledge of the great Barth, and maybe even get him to reveal how liberal or conservative he was theologically. So they asked him if he believed that the serpent in the Book of Genesis actually, literally spoke to Adam and Eve. Apparently a trap was now cleverly laid. If Barth endorsed a literal view of the Genesis 3 story, then all of the progressive and liberal Christians could argue that he was a fundamentalist, who reads every Bible story literally. But on the other hand if Barth said the serpent didn’t really speak, and that it was only a figurative thing, then conservatives could accuse him of not holding to Biblical truth and Scriptural authority. Barth’s brilliant answer however, left no one able to trap, or label him. His response was simply this—What did the serpent say?” This answer works on two levels. First, Barth is calling attention to the fact that what’s most important is not a discussion on the actual manner of the serpent’s communication—but the message of about sin and temptation itself. Secondly, if we go back to Genesis 3:1 we find that these were the serpent’s initial words to Eve—“Has God indeed said, You shall not eat of every tree of the garden?” The serpent began by questioning, almost mocking the authority of God—and in the same way Barth was insinuating that this individual was attempting to undermine or even mock the power of Scripture by focusing on a question of secondary importance, and ignoring the clear spiritual lesson the text had to offer!!

Well, in Matthew 22, a mind infinitely more brilliant than Karl Barth’s is tested by the Pharisees. Perhaps the lawyer is hoping that if Jesus singles out one individual commandment, He will inevitably get Himself in trouble by virtue of all the other commands He leaves out. After all there were something like 613 binding commandments for Jews in the Torah, so how in the world could anyone, even the great Jesus, possibly sum up in one law all of this teaching?? Well Jesus gives us two laws as it turns out, which are equal in their importance. These are two laws without which we could hardly understand the spirit of the Old Testament law, or the overall intent of Jesus’ own life and work. They are the Great Commandment.

 

It all starts with loving God. In Matthew 22:37, Jesus actually quotes from Deuteronomy 6:4-5. This is the famous passage which begins with what is known as the “Shema” a word taken from the Hebrew verb meaning “to hear.” And so fundamental is this phrase to the Jewish people that it still forms the centerpiece of the daily morning and evening prayers in Judaism. “Hear, O Israel; the Lord our God, the Lord is one! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.” So Jesus is wise enough to cite a foundational principle of Judaism, and one that the Pharisees could hardly have found fault with. We will see though a little later how Christ adds a very important teaching to this first great commandment and even elevates it to the same level. Bur first, let’s analyze this teaching more extensively. Because in addition to the Shema, which simply acknowledges the existence of the One God, Jesus cites the next verse in Deuteronomy, which tells us how to love God. It’s a threefold, or depending on which verse you look at, a fourfold process, mirroring the complexity and depth of God’s love for us. Among the best-known stories from ancient Greek mythology is the legend of the Sphinx. The Sphinx, we are told, was a terrible monster–she had the body of a lion, the wings of an eagle, the head of a woman, and a serpent-headed tail. And so the legend goes, this grotesque creature guarded the entrance to the city of Thebes, and would ask all passerby a riddle. If they could not answer successfully, they would be devoured. This was the Sphinx’s famous question–“Which creature has one voice and yet becomes four-footed and two-footed and three-footed?” The answer—as you may know, is a human being. As infants we crawl on all fours, then we walk on two legs for most of our lives, but then in old age we may require the help of a cane. By successfully answering the riddle, a man named Oedipus defeated the Sphinx and her power over the city. Now, why is the riddle so tricky?? Because we tend to think in limited terms–how can one creature be so multi-faceted, walking on three, two and then four legs?? But the fact is that as humans we are complex individuals and change over the course of our lifetimes.

God however is infinitely more complex, and yet He never changes! And thus we are called to love Him in a way that is commensurate with that complexity, and with the great, unchanging qualities of His character and nature. Let’s break down these individual parts of the command a little further. To love God with all your heart means to love Him with the entirety of your emotions. We know from Scripture that our God is all-loving, and all-benevolent. In fact, as 1 John 4:8 states so perfectly and succinctly, “God is love.” God wants our love of Him to be sincere—from the heart, with no faking, or dissimulation on our parts. There are many possible applications of this, but let me just offer one—from the economic realm. Because if we’re honest, one of the hardest ways for many of us to show our love and devotion to God runs through our wallets. We say we love the Lord, but are we willing to give money generously to support His church, ministries, missions, and other Kingdom causes?? And not just give the money, but do so with the right heart attitude. This is what Paul’s teaching in 2 Corinthians 9:7 is getting at: “Let each one give as he purposes in his heart, not grudgingly or of necessity; for God loves a cheerful giver.”

The second part of the command is to love God with all of your soul. This is the spiritual component of our love for the Lord. For as much as we want to personify the Lord as a male or female or anything else in our likeness, Jesus teaches us explicitly and definitively in John 4:24 about the nature of God: “God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.” Now seeing as we are obviously not purely spiritual beings, this would apparently pose a challenge, right? How are we able to love God in such a fashion? Well fortunately, we have an aid in the Third Person of the Trinity, which is the Holy Spirit. Jesus tells us in John 16:13—“When He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will you guide you into all truth.” Paul then later explains how the Holy Spirit helps us to be able to communicate with God through prayer. Romans 8:26—“Likewise the Spirit also helps in our weaknesses. For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.” Our spiritual love of God is a reflection of the fact that one of the Lord’s principle qualities is His aseity, or His self-existence. Now I’m using a technical theological term here to highlight the important distinction between aseity, and merely saying that God is eternal. Aseity means that God has always existed, and was not created from anything. Now something eternal can be created, such as our souls. But Psalm 90:2 tells us “Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever You had formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, You are God.” In J.L. Packer’s excellent book Concise Theology, the author says this—“In theology, endless mistakes result from supposing that the conditions, bounds, and limits of our own finite existence apply to God. The doctrine of His aseity stands as a bulwark against such mistakes.” So maybe part of loving God with all of your soul and spirit means that you try not to limit Him based on your own limitations.

 

The third part of the command in Deuteronomy tells us to love God with all of our might, or strength. This is also what Jesus tells us in Luke 10:27. This command reflects the omnipotence of God. He is indeed all powerful—and to be feared. There are many Scriptural metaphors that we can draw on to help us understand the amazing power of God—one of my favorites is found in Hebrews 12:29—“Our God is a consuming fire.” I like the fire image because of its duality. Fire can be very useful, life-giving and life-sustaining. Yet it can also wreak destruction. It can be a wonderful thing, and yet for those who would oppose God or persist in stubborn, sinful rebellion, it can be a terrible thing to face. As with all of these qualities of God, and the love on our part that corresponds to them, there are so many different possible points of application for our lives. But let me just touch on one here. I think that loving God with all of our strength, means of course giving Him 100% in all aspects of our life—and this really translates to the idea of Lordship. This is the concept that everything belongs to God, and we should not be “holding out” on the Lord in any area of our life. 1 Corinthians 6:19 and Paul reminds us—“Your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own.”

Then, finally, Matthew 22:37 also tells us to love God with all of our minds. Omniscience, or knowing everything, is one of God’s key attributes. And so we correspondingly can love God through our minds, and acknowledge Him in all our knowledge!! What does this look like practically?? I think it starts with recognizing the limitations of our own minds, and the proper perspective of our insignificance next to the surpassing wisdom of the Almighty. Proverbs 9:10 tells us that “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”, while in Proverbs 3:5 we are urged to “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding.” Thus, to know what you don’t know, and to honor how much more God knows is the first step towards loving God with all of our minds.

Now, the genius of Jesus’ response to the lawyer’s question in Matthew 22:37 is that not only does His answer demonstrate the multifaceted ways that we should love God, but contained within this verse also is a summation of the intent of the first four of the Ten Commandments. If you go to Exodus 20, here they are: “You shall have no other Gods before me, You shall not make for yourself any carved image…You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, and Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy” So as we can see, these first four commands all relate to how we should love God. But let’s go one step further here. Because it’s not just about us loving God. Not at all—because in fact, God loved us long, long before we ever loved Him. Scripture makes this clear—1 John 4:19—“We love because He first loved us.” So much richness is contained in that simple verse—including the fact that God demonstrated His love to us first by sending Jesus to save a fallen world, and the fact that our very capacity to love is God-given. And while it may be an obvious point, it bears making—how much greater, how infinitely superior is God’s love for us in comparison to our love for God!! After all, we love God in response to His goodness towards us, His sustenance provided for us, and all of the manifold ways in which He blesses us. But God, the Bible tells us, loved us at our absolute worst—at our very lowest point. Listen to Romans 5:6-8—“For when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

 

Now contained within this passage from Romans is really the essence of Divine Love, and it entails both worse news than we dare to accept, and better news than we can dare to believe. The bad news is of course the accurate depiction of our true state as human beings—we are sinners. Many people don’t want to believe they are sinful, and in fact deserving of going to hell. And as a result, they may not want to accept God’s love because they are so upset at the implications of us being sinners. Have you ever heard the phrase “don’t shoot the messenger”, meaning don’t blame the bearer of bad news?? Well I was doing a little research into its origins and found a very interesting early example of such an occurrence in the Lives by Plutarch. These were an early series of biographies written in the late 1st century AD by Plutarch, a Greco-Roman historian. One of the stories talks about an ancient Armenian King named Tigranes who was revolting against the Roman Empire. Tigranes was informed by a messenger that the avenging Roman general named Lucullus was on his way to meet the rebellion, and then according to Plutarch: “The first messenger, that gave notice of Lucullus’ coming was so far from pleasing Tigranes that, he had his head cut off for his pains; and no man dared to bring further information. Without any intelligence at all, Tigranes sat while war was already blazing around him, giving ear only to those who flattered him”

Many people are just like that King Tigranes when it comes to believing the news of their sinfulness. People want to flatter themselves that they are really “good” and as a result they’d rather believe this than confront the real problem, and then the cure for it. And they are angry that Christians would dare insinuate that they are sinners. Well, the cure itself is as hard to believe in a good way, as the sin nature is in a bad one. We cite John 3:16 so frequently, but in reality how many people have simply dismissed the good news of God’s love as too good to be true?? The beloved children’s book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, by British author Roald Dahl, led to a charming 1971 film adaptation starring Gene Wilder. Now the premise of the movie is that there is a famous, but reclusive candy maker named Willy Wonka, played by Wilder in the movie. Inside five of his signature “Wonka Bars”, he has randomly enclosed “golden tickets.” To the lucky children who win one, they will get a tour of his factory, and the chance to win a lifetime’s supply of chocolate! It a child’s dream, and this dream comes true for one poor boy named Charlie Bucket after he finds the last of the five golden tickets in a Wonka Bar. Charlie, along with his Grandpa Joe, then get to go on the long-awaited factory tour with the other four winners—all of whom turn out to be essentially spoiled brats. At the end of the tour in fact, only Charlie and his grandfather are left–all of the other children having run into various mishaps as a result of disobeying Wonka’s rules. But because Charlie has demonstrated his honesty and integrity, at the conclusion of the film, it is revealed that not only does he get the lifetime supply of chocolate—something already beyond his wildest dreams, but Wonka is now going to be make him the co-owner of the factory and heir to the entire business!! Charlie’s days of poverty and struggle are finally behind him, and for all of his family too. News that is simply too good to be true. Now I deliberately just used an illustration taken from a children’s fantasy, because for many people, the good news that the Gospel offers similarly falls in the category of a fairy tale. They may can believe vaguely in a God or life-force somewhere in the universe, but to believe that this God loves them personally, sent His Son to die for them, and offers eternal life—freely, and with no expectation of payback—this seems fantastical, and utterly inconceivable to many. So it can be a challenge for people to learn how to receive the Love of God, and this is where all of us as Christ followers must step forward in willingness to be witnesses and continually illustrate with our lives, the difference that having Jesus as Lord and Savior can make!!

But the Greatest Commandment has a second major dimension to it, and we now turn to that—loving others. Jesus wants the questioning lawyer, and all of us to see that our love for God and our love for our fellow men and women are two sides of the same coin, and in fact are inseparably related. Now here again, just as with the first commandment, Christ is drawing directly from the Old Testament law. Leviticus 19:18 tells us that “you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord”. And then furthermore, just as we saw with the fourfold commandment to love God, the injunction to love others is a succinct way of summing up the remaining six of the Ten Commandments. To honor your parents, to not murder, to not commit adultery, to not steal, to not bear false witness, and to not covet—these all relate to the way in which we should treat one another.

Now in case any of you are wondering—who exactly is my neighbor, well I will refer you to a passage in Luke 10. Here, another lawyer tests Jesus—what is it with these people! Anyways, the lawyer asks Christ this very question–“who is my neighbor?” and Jesus responds with the famous parable of the Good Samaritan. The message of that parable is clear—our neighbor is anyone who might be in need—which is to say, everyone. And the Samaritan not only interrupts his own journey to help the man who has fallen among thieves, but pays to ensure he will receive long term care at the inn. So Christ is telling us that to love our neighbors is not merely to express good thoughts or attitudes towards them, but to actively help them and even sacrifice of our own time and resources to do so. Yet nonetheless, the fact remains that it’s very difficult for many of us to really begin to see everyone around us as deserving of our love and compassion, and not just our friends or loved ones. In fact, there is a fascinating, yet somewhat disturbing social phenomenon that psychologists have observed, known as the “bystander effect.” It was most famously illustrated in March 1964, when a young woman named Kitty Genovese was assaulted and eventually murdered on a New York City street, during which time an estimated 38 people in the immediate vicinity witnessed the event but did not help or intervene in any way. Social psychologists have subsequently determined that the more people that are present, the less likely any one of them will step forward to help someone in need. The tendency is to defer, and to assume that someone else will take responsibility and get involved. But this is more than just a psychological observation—I think it gets at the very heart of our sin natures. All of us are flawed and broken by sin, and yet we are called by God to overcome our innate selfishness and hard-heartedness in order to seek and promote the welfare of others around us. And difficult as this may be at times—it’s not optional!! If we think we can love God, regardless of how we view and treat our fellow men and women, Scripture would tell us that we are gravely mistaken. 1 John 4:20-1 spells it out so plainly: “If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar, for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen? And this commandment we have from Him: that he who loves God must love his brother also.” So will we be “bystanders” in life, or will we live as people who continuously share God’s love with those around us?

Now there are many ways in which we can talk about how we can learn to better love those around us. But just as a starting point, I want to cite one of my favorite verses in all of Scripture—1 Samuel 16:7. It comes from the passage where the prophet Samuel is anointing the new king to become the successor to Saul. He is to be chosen from one of Jesse’s sons. Everyone naturally assumes it will be one of the older boys, but God makes it clear to Samuel that age, and external appearances have nothing to do with it. “But the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Do not look at his appearance or at the height of his stature, because I have refused him. For the Lord does not see as man sees: for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” This is key then–we must learn to see others as the Lord sees them, not as strangers, but as children of God, made in His image, and worthy of love, dignity, and respect!! As we learn to see with God’s eyes, I think we will find it easier to begin to love our neighbors as ourselves, and even follow the example of that Good Samaritan and of course Christ, in sacrificially loving others.

 

Well, in closing, let’s look at one last verse, Matthew 22:40. Here Jesus assures us that on these two commandments, to love God, and love others—“hang all the law and the prophets.” We can find a similar, all-inclusive injunction in Matthew 7:12—“Therefore, whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the law and the prophets.” It is important to remark that Christ gives us these two commands, not in the spirit of saying that the rest of the law is superfluous, or unimportant. After all, this is the man who says in Matthew 5:17-18—“Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled.” Thus Jesus has immense knowledge of and respect for the Law. And yet He is pleading with this lawyer, and with all of the Pharisees as lovers and observers of the law—and indeed with us today—to see that unless we have the end goal of loving God and loving others in mind, we will miss the significance, and the true importance of almost any teaching we can find in Scripture. Alfred North Whitehead, an English mathematician and philosopher of the mid-20th century once famously claimed that “all of Western philosophy is but a footnote to Plato.” This was Whitehead’s way of paying tribute to the influence of the classics, and to the work of the great ancient Greek philosopher in particular. Whitehead wasn’t denigrating or criticizing the work of all of the subsequent great thinkers in Western history, but simply saying that their work was in some way influenced by and building upon the earlier work of Plato. And so Jesus assures us that for all of the multitudinous and varied lessons that the Bible can teach us for how to live our lives—all of them draw from this mighty double foundation. We must love God and we must love others. So basic, and yet we will spend the rest of our lives exploring the depths of these truths. God is giving to all of this simple, and profound command, and we must endeavor to discover just what it require of each one of us, and let no passion, pursuit, or goal in our lives ever draw us away from these two most essential duties–which define what it means to be a Christ follower, and indeed what it means to be fully human!

Reflections from 2 Timothy: the hallmarks of a healthy ministry

For about a year now, I’ve really been striving during my quiet times in Scripture to read in order through books. In the past, I was fond of skipping around, turning to whatever passages the Lord seemed to be putting on my heart, or that spoke to the particular situation and mood I found myself in. And while such an approach is not always bad, it can lead to an overly subjective attitude towards the Bible, where, rather than being shaped by the timeless truths of the texts we encounter, we instead seek to find a passage that fits our preconceived plans or motives. Not to mention the simple fact that the Bible, like any other book is written in a particular order. Would it make sense to sit down with Dickens’ Great Expectations, and immediately skip to a chapter halfway through the novel?? So I think that Scripture rewards in a special way the reader who is willing to go a book sequentially, carefully absorbing the truths therein, and seeking to understand each verse, passage, chapter, and book in the context of both the surrounding portions of Scripture and the entire Biblical narrative.

 

With this in mind, I thought that for my latest blog post I would share some reflections from a book I recently read, 2 Timothy. The context for this letter is quite different than Paul’s first epistle to his younger disciple. Composed at least 4-5 years later than 1 Timothy, most Biblical scholars feel that 2 Timothy was in fact the last of Paul’s Biblical epistles to be written. At the time of its composition, Paul was most likely in prison. Yet despite his difficult personal circumstances, Paul manages to produce a letter full of encouragement and wise counsel, as he did earlier while writing Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon during a period of Roman imprisonment. Previously however, Paul was merely under house arrest, and could still receive visitors, but as he is writing 2 Timothy, the great apostle is most likely confined to a solitary Roman cell, and convinced that he will soon be executed (ref. 2 Timothy 4:6-8). Although there is plenty of great material to focus on from this epistle, I wish to look specifically at chapter 2. As I was reading in 2 Timothy, a quote from the commentary in my study Bible really captured my attention: “The second chapter of Second Timothy ought to be required daily reading for every pastor and full-time Christian worker. Paul lists the keys to…a reproducing ministry, an enduring ministry, a studying ministry, and a holy ministry.” These four hallmarks: reproducing, enduring, studying, and holy can be used as gauges in accessing the degree to which a ministry is successful and healthy based on the Pauline, and Biblical models.

 

 

So as I read 2 Timothy chapter two, I thought about my own work with Christian Challenge at CU-Boulder, a campus ministry whose joys and challenges have informed so much of what I’ve shared in this blog space. While our ministry still has a lot of growing to do, just as I have personally, I was interested to see, according to 2 Timothy, in what ways did our work, and my own personal walk with God line up to these four criteria. First, as Paul states in 2 Timothy 2:1-2, successful ministries are ones which reproduce other faithful Christ followers: You therefore, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus.  And the things that you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” What Paul is describing here is the work of discipleship. And I’m glad to say that discipleship is something that Christian Challenge takes very seriously, to the extent that one could even say it is deeply embedded within the “DNA” of our organization. At the beginning of January, many of our students and staff attended the 2016 Life Impact conference which was held at the beautiful Glen Eyrie retreat center in Colorado Springs. Life Impact is an annual collegiate ministry conference which gathers Baptist campus ministries from around the Western region of America. And it’s always held at Glen Eyrie, which is actually the site of the headquarters of the Navigators, an international Christian organization founded in 1933 by Dawson Trotman. The Navigators have a presence on many college campuses, but first and foremost their focus is on discipleship. On the front page of their website is this statement: We spread the Good News of Jesus Christ by establishing life-on-life mentoring—or discipling—relationships with people, equipping them to make an impact on those around them for God’s glory.”

 

And as I’ve shared before, the motto of Christian Challenge is “changing the world through God-honoring relationships.” So we have a very similar focus in our ministry to that of the Navigators, and often during Life Impact, Navigators staff members will come and speak to our group. But the discipleship focus goes deeper than that even. Christian Challenge, the Baptist campus ministry at CU-Boulder, was started back in 1988 by our current director, Bobby Pruett. He came out to Colorado after having served for several years on staff at the B.C.M at the University of Oklahoma. While at OU, Bobby had been discipled by Max Barnett, who was the longtime BCM director there. Max had a vision of expanding campus ministries to other schools of the then-Big 8 conference. Earlier he had sent former students to the University of Nebraska, Iowa State University, and Kansas State University, to start ministries that proved fruitful and continue today. Bobby established his ministry in Colorado along the same principles—valuing discipleship as a key component to the growth and overall health of a campus ministry. And just as Bobby had been discipled by Max, one of his former students at OU, Derek Gregory, later came out to CU-Boulder to serve on staff with Christian Challenge, where he continues today as one of our associates. So in our ministry, we are very aware of the importance of committing teaching to other faithful individuals who can then pass those truths on down. Every member of our 12-person student leadership team, known as the “Losers” (from Matthew 16:25), is in a discipleship relationship with a staff member. And many of the other students in our ministry are also being discipled by either a staff member, or an older believer, possibly even another student. I’m personally working with 7 guys currently, and will probably be adding at least one more. I meet with these students weekly for a time of mentoring, and as I have shared in an earlier post, this is perhaps my single favorite aspect of working in college ministry—the chance to connect to students in a one-on-one setting. I can hear how God is at work in their lives, we can discuss Scripture and theology together, we can ponder big questions, and look ahead to goals. I also can try to, as much as possible, model for these students the spiritual qualities I am seeking to instill in them. Along these lines, I’m trying to find time with each of my students this semester to not just talk about evangelism, but directly engage in it by meeting up with a third friend who is not Christian, giving us the opportunity to share our faith in a Gospel-centered conversation. I’m also thinking about engaging in service with them, taking the work of our homeless outreach ministry “Compassion in the 303”, as a possible model. Mentoring, and discipling students is one of the most important activities I have the privilege to engage in as a campus minister, and in the spirit of Paul’s work with Timothy, I cherish the opportunity to advise and in turn learn from these young Christ-followers in our ministry!

 

In 2 Timothy 2:3-13, Paul highlights another quality for a successful ministry—endurance. To illustrate this spiritual trait, Paul uses both a military (2 Timothy 2:3-4) and an athletic analogy (2 Timothy 2:5). The emphasis in both instances however is on a ministry, and ministry leaders who will endure despite difficult circumstances, the cares of this fallen world. Paul then goes on in verse 8 to highlight the amazing truth that is at the center of our Christian belief: “Remember that Jesus Christ, of the seed of David, was raised from the dead according to my gospel” The reality of the Resurrection makes Jesus radically different from all other religious figures who’ve ever lived, and yet this is also the exact truth which becomes a stumbling block for so many who consider the claims of Christianity. Paul certainly experienced this firsthand while preaching in Athens, as Acts 17:32 reveals: “And when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked, while others said, ‘we will hear you again on this matter.” Certainly, living and working in the secular hotbed of Boulder has made me aware of the need to persevere and cultivate a ministry of endurance. It can be discouraging at times to be immersed in a local culture that seems to have no qualms about promoting widespread drug use, worships the idols of lifestyle (especially outdoor recreation), supports abortion and “free love”, while also being committed to a secular, and pluralistic worldview so that any religion making exclusive and universal truth claims, as does Christianity, is likely to be branded “intolerant.” And yet any challenges or difficulties I and our ministry may face in a liberal, post-Christian setting like Boulder still pale in comparison to the opposition faced by so many of our Christian brothers and sisters around the world today. In Boulder, and America, we face possible embarrassment or social alienation for our witness, whereas in all too many other parts of the world, imprisonment, familial estrangement, loss of employment, and even death are real possibilities for Christians who live out their faith publicly.. In his own life of course, the Apostle Paul faced similar threats, referencing his troubles in 2 Timothy 2:9-10 in words that nonetheless also speak confidently to his conviction that the Gospel is worth any amount of suffering that may be required to deliver its message: “I suffer trouble as an evildoer, even to the point of chains; but the word of God is not chained.  Therefore I endure all things for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory.” Paul further reminds us in 2 Timothy 2:13—“If we are faithless, He remains faithful; He cannot deny Himself” Thus the final word on endurance is clear—God’s faithfulness is not what is in question—it’s ours. Will we face any hardship or setback with equanimity, knowing that the Truth of our message will prevail, or will we get bogged down in temporary setbacks, or even worse, become burned out with world-weariness?? These are questions that are always on my mind, because even as a relatively young minister, I’m very aware of the challenge involved in staying the course, serving God for the long haul, and finishing strong. I want to model myself after Paul, a man who up until the end of his life continued to serve with unabated vigor, enthusiasm, and wisdom, thus allowing for a ministerial legacy that would long outlive him.

 

Verses 14-18 in 2 Timothy 2 talk about a studying ministry. Now I must confess, this aspect of ministerial work is the one that perhaps comes most naturally to me. I’ve always enjoyed school and academic pursuits—after all I was in school until the age of 31!! During the years of college, graduate school, and seminary, I could identify with the words of 2 Timothy 2:15, especially in its original King James version: “Study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” And yet in this same group of verses, we received some other recommendations which show that having a studying ministry is not just about acquiring intellectual knowledge. In verse 14, Paul cautions against “striving about words to no profit, to the ruin of the hearers.” Then in verse 16 he adds: “Shun profane and vain babblings, for they will increase to more ungodliness”, before concluding in verse 23 with an injunction to “avoid foolish and ignorant disputes, knowing that they generate strife.” Boulder, and the CU campus in particular are locales where what I might term as “intellectual jousting” is very much a preferred pastime. In other words being that this is a liberal, politically-active, and well-read university community, it is not very hard to find people who enjoy arguing for the sake of arguing. And while there is a part of me that enjoys such discussions too, I must weigh their efficacy in light of the overall goal of our ministry to make the name of Jesus known on the CU campus. In other words, how productive is it to engage in arguments and debates, even for the sake of the Gospel?? Has anyone ever really been argued or persuaded into the Kingdom of God?? I think Paul clearly answers those questions for us a little later in 2 Timothy 2. But suffice it to say that our time and the focus of our ministry is better served by sticking to the foundations of Biblical truth (v.15), and trying to persuade others to follow Jesus through our love, and the power of our personal experience, rather than expecting to wow them over with intellectual prowess.

 

 

As an interesting note to this, I was recently watching a video of Tim Keller, the pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, and a noted Christian apologist, who’s been labelled by Newsweek as “A C.S. Lewis for the 21st century.” In the clip, Keller was having a roundtable discussion with a group of young 20-somethings, all of whom self-identified as religious skeptics. One of these non-Christians candidly asked Keller if he would be willing to ever consider changing his mind about his religious beliefs. Would he be open to the possibility that Christianity isn’t true?? Keller gave a fascinating, two-part answer. He said his belief in Christianity had a rational/logical component to it, and then a side which was more experiential or “existential” as he phrased it. Keller conceded that the logical side of his belief could theoretically be weakened by effective or convincing counter-arguments. However the experiential part of his belief, wherein he had personally felt God’s presence in his life in a real and powerful way is not something that a purely intellectual argument, no matter how convincingly fashioned, could diminish! Keller’s answer reminded me of two things when it comes to intellectual preparation, study, and how we present our Gospel witness in the face of skepticism and logical opposition. First, a purely intellectual approach to faith will probably never be sufficient to either convince a non-believer or for ourselves to form a solid enough foundation for our spiritual claims. By definition, our religious beliefs must be accompanied with faith, a faith that is beyond the realm of logic, and without which, as Hebrews 11:6 reminds us, we can never please God. Secondly, if our Christian convictions do indeed rest upon much more than a merely logical foundation, we should not be afraid then of hearing a skeptic’s best arguments against Christianity. No matter how cleverly they are formed, such arguments can in no way undermine or efface the visceral truth of those moments when we have felt the presence of God, have heard the voice of the Holy Spirit speaking, and have communed in prayer with our Savior Christ. Thus we can afford to be gracious, and even concede the truth or validity of certain points and objections that a non-Christian might make without worrying that we are in danger of losing our faith, or being a bad witness.

 

 

Finally, in 2 Timothy 2:19-26, Paul outlines the importance of personal holiness. In verse 19, he warns Christians to flee from iniquity. Sinfulness can impact a ministry in many negative ways, and if the leadership of a ministry falls into sin, the ripple effect from the top-down can have devastating consequences. Elsewhere in his writings, in Romans 14, Paul cautions us to avoid doing anything which could cause our witness to be compromised, or possibly lead another into sin. Romans 14:13—“resolve this, not to put a stumbling block or a cause to fall in our brother’s way”. Romans 14:22—“Happy is he who does not condemn himself in what he approves.” Of course we all are vulnerable at any point to fall into sin, and so we all must be guarding ourselves. But when we do sin, Paul notes in 2 Timothy 2:21-22, that if we will repent and seek God’s forgiveness we can again be used by the Lord. Personal holiness also means that we are not so arrogant as to assume that we are personally responsible for converting and convincing others to follow Christ. Verse 24 highlights that a teaching gift should be accompanied by patience, to which in verse 25 Paul adds the quality of humility. He goes on to say of non-believers: “God perhaps will grant them repentance, so that they may know the truth” Thus Paul gives a clear answer to my earlier question—has anyone ever been argued or persuaded into the Kingdom of God?? Certainly not! For it is only through the power of God to change and convict hearts that conversions can take place.

 

It is my prayer that my work with Christian Challenge at the University of Colorado-Boulder will bear these four hallmarks of a successful ministry as outlined in 2 Timothy 2—that we will be a ministry that reproduces disicples, one which endures all hardships, one founded in study and yet not dependent solely on intellectual moorings, and ultimately, one in which both myself, our other staff, and our students value personal holiness. The results and fruits which will come forth we leave solely in the hands of God. He alone can discern hearts and motives, and His power to change lives is the reason that I am in Boulder serving, and the reason that Paul left a legacy of faithful instruction for us and his “true son in the faith” Timothy, all those centuries ago!!

Christmas symbols: truth behind the tension

 

Christmas is undoubtedly my favorite time of the year, and serving as a college minister, I often have the opportunity to introduce international students to how this wonderful holiday is celebrated in America. While many of them have some degree of familiarity with Christmas traditions and customs, nonetheless they are frequently struck by the unique mix of the sacred and the secular that the American Christmas represents. Outside a typical home in December, they may see a Nativity scene sharing space with Santa Claus and reindeer. At a Christmas party, the soundtrack will likely alternate between sacred classics like “Silent Night” and “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing”, and seasonal favorites like “White Christmas” and “Jingle Bells.” Now  over the years I’ve become somewhat of a student of the history of Christmas. I’ve accumulated a large number of books about how Christmas is celebrated in many different countries, as well as a diverse array of the literature of the season, and texts that talk about historical Christmas observations and traditions down through the centuries. I always enjoy asking my international students about how Christmas is observed in their home countries. Of course any discussion of Christmas lends itself very well to a discussion of the true significance of the season—the Birth of Christ!! As many of us are aware, people seem to be more open to hearing the Gospel message at Christmas than at almost any other time of the year.

 

The tension between the sacred and secular aspects of Christmas which I’ve already highlighted is sometimes thought of as a modern phenomenon, the result of the over-commercialization of the holiday. The now annual crush of shoppers on Black Friday seems to be the epitome of the disjointed, contemporary view of Christmas in America. But interestingly enough, this tension between the two sides of Christmas goes back much further than current-day America, all the way to the origins of the holiday. Taking a step back, it’s somewhat curious that Christmas is even the biggest of the Christian holidays. From a theological standpoint at least, the resurrection of Christ is the most significant event we could commemorate, and certainly the single occurrence which, more than any other, was responsible for launching forth the early church. And indeed for early believers it was in fact Easter, rather than Christmas which was the more important observance. And in predominantly Eastern Orthodox nations such as Greece and Russia, Easter arguably retains a greater importance and cultural significance than Christmas to this day. But Christmas came to assume its prominence throughout the Western half of Christendom at least, in part perhaps due to the fact that its celebration, and indeed the very date of December 25th involved the appropriation of preexisting pagan customs and holidays.

 

Throughout much of northern Europe, the ancient Germanic peoples celebrated a winter holiday known as Yule, a 12-day period of feasting and revelry. Meanwhile further south, the Romans also celebrated a significant holiday in December—the Saturnalia, a time of feasting and gift-giving in honor of the god Saturn. In addition, December 25 was the feast day of the Sol Invictus, the “Unconquered sun” an official sun-god cult promoted by the Emperors, as well as the birthday of Mithras, the chief deity honored by a mystery cult, Mithraism, especially popular with Roman soldiers. While there is continuing debate over precisely why December 25th was chosen to be the day on which Christ’s Nativity would be celebrated, a few general points seem clear enough. Jesus was most likely not born in the winter, if shepherds were out at that time watching their flocks, nor is it likely that a major Roman census would have taken place during the winter months. Also it seems likely the church at least took into account the prevalence of preexisting pagan winter celebrations such as Yule and Saturnalia when making their decision to set the date for Christmas. Regardless of precisely why the December 25th date was selected, from ancient times until our own, Christmas celebrations throughout Christendom have involved a mixture of sacred observances related to honoring Jesus’ birth, and folk customs with roots outside of Christianity.

 

This can naturally create a tension, in the midst of which we may fear that Jesus and His story are lost aside all of the other cultural accumulation associated with Christmas. It is certainly good that we remain vigilant about ensuring that Christ is at the center of our Christmas celebrations!! But the mere fact that Christmas has involved the appropriation of some non-Christian customs over the years is not inherently bad. In fact, there is Biblical precedent for it. No less a central Scriptural figure than Paul shows us the value of cultural appropriation and adoption. The fact that Paul is a Jew by birth, a Roman citizen, and also someone who is well-versed in Hellenistic culture serves him extremely well as an apostle of Jesus. Paul’s speech at the Areopagus in Acts 17 shows the extent to which he is able to understand, and relate to aspects of the Athenian culture while also remaining true to the Gospel. In 1 Corinthians 9:20-22, Paul writes–“and to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the law, as under the law, that I might win those who are under the law; to those who are without law, as without law (not being without law toward God, but under law toward Christ), that I might win those who are without law; to the weak I became as weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.”

 

Certainly living and doing ministry in Boulder, Colorado for a year and a half now has taught me something about the value of learning how to relate to and at times borrow from a different culture in order to find the best platform for advancing the Gospel. To put it in a nutshell, out in Boulder there are things that are valued culturally which I’ve learned how to appreciate and highlight those in the context of the ministry we have to college students. For example, Boulder is full of yoga studios and that sort of exercise is as common as jogging or playing tennis and golf might be back home. Adapting this reality to our Kingdom-advancing interests, our ministry found a Christian yoga teacher who offered to do some free introductory classes at one point for our students this fall. Another example of something which carries a high cultural value in Boulder are environmental concerns, which in Colorado aren’t just a fringe issue but rather a central area of political interest. Thus while I don’t think that it is by any means the central message of the Gospel, highlighting those areas of Scripture which address God’s concern for the stewardship of the natural world is something that is well received by an audience of CU students. From another angle, we have to be wise as a ministry in choosing how we stand against certain issues. The vast majority of CU students are in favor of gay marriage, and are happy with the state’s liberal drug laws, including many who would call themselves Christians. So while as a ministry we certainly don’t encourage the use of marijuana, and while we proudly stand in defense of traditional marriage, we have to be cautious in making these positions the “front door” of our ministry. We want students to know first and foremost who we stand for, in Jesus, rather than what we stand against.  Our goal is always to change people more into the likeness of Christ. But we have to encounter and engage people where they are first. And that I believe was part of what the early church was striving to do as they found ways to minister to thriving pagan cultures. They knew that the Gospel would transform people, and yet certain cultural distinctives practiced by a particular people group might persist. As long as these did not represent a direct contradiction of Christian truth, they could add to the richness and diversity of what became a truly international faith, yet one whose common ground in Christ remained palpable and unchanging. Christmas today as it is celebrated the world over is a beautiful mosaic—different foods, songs, customs, and practices—and yet everywhere there is unity in the joyful recognition of the Savior’s birth.

 

For those who are still concerned about these sacred/secular and pagan/Christian tensions which are part of the very fabric of the Christmas season, I would suggest that many of our most enduring Christmas symbols and cultural attachments are in fact very malleable from a Christian standpoint. In other words, even the “secular” aspects of the holiday are infused with an underlying Christian ethos that be readily made apparent if we look to highlight it!! For example, I have seen criticisms of one of the most popular of all Christmas movies, Frank Capra’s 1946 It’s a wonderful life, or the timeless Charles Dickens novella A Christmas Carol, since neither work makes much explicit reference to Christ or the specific details of the Christmas story in Scripture. And yet while it is true that in neither the film nor the book there is much explicit usage of Christian language or terminology, even the most cursory study of either work of art would reveal that both are suffused with Christian themes of redemption, sacrifice, and forgiveness. Furthermore I would allege that the enduring popularity of It’s a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Carol is in large part due to the fact that their content is in such seamless harmony with the celebration of Christ’s birth and all of the hope, goodness, and joy that He stands for.

 

I want to look now at three specific Christmas symbols—Santa Claus, the Christmas tree, and the candle, symbols which, while not inherently Christian, can nonetheless be easily understood as profoundly in keeping with the sacred nature of the celebration of Christ’s Nativity, and can even be re-envisioned as tools to help convey aspects of Christian teaching. Let’s start with Santa, who is often identified as a prime culprit in the battle over the center of Christmas. Over the years I’ve listened to and witnessed a great deal of hand-wringing about how the jolly old Claus has replaced Jesus at the center of the holiday. Some Christians even think it’s harmful for children to be taught to believe in Santa Claus as youngsters. Now without trivializing the fact that we do need to be careful to keep Christ in all aspects of our Christmas celebration, I think these discussions miss a central point—which is that there is nothing inherently anti-Christian about the figure of Santa. If anything it’s the opposite—the concept of Santa is infused with Christian values.

 

First of all—our idea of Santa, and the name itself comes from St. Nicholas (Santa Claus being derived from the Dutch name for Saint Nicholas —Sinterklaas). Nicholas was not merely a historic legend, however but an important figure in the early church. He was the bishop of Myra, in Asia Minor, and a participant in the critical First Council of Nicea, where he spoke vigorously against the heresy of Arianism. He became a widely-beloved saint who was especially noted for his generosity and concern towards children. Our modern American Santa Claus was born out of the legacy of this generous European saint who’d been venerated for centuries. The central idea of Santa Claus is that generosity is at its most purest and heartfelt form when it is anonymous. Our parents provide gifts for us, but rather than take credit for them, they are attributed to Santa Claus. Thus, on a subconscious level, before they even fully realize it, children learn the lesson taught by Jesus in Matthew 6:1-4 about the spirit in which we should give to others: “Take heed that you do not do your charitable deeds before men, to be seen by them. Otherwise you have no reward from your Father in heaven. Therefore, when you do a charitable deed, do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory from men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But when you do a charitable deed, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,  that your charitable deed may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will Himself reward you openly.” The example of anonymous giving and donating freely without the expectation of any thanks or payment in return that Santa Claus illustrates is a wonderful means of instructing children about Christian giving. Ultimately the illustration takes us to the greatest of all gifts; Christ’s offer of Salvation to us—something which can never be repaid or even fully comprehended on our parts—but simply accepted in the best spirit of gratitude and grace that we can muster.

 

One of my favorite essays on the subject of Santa Claus comes from American writer Booth Tarkington. In “Christmas this year”, Tarkington recounts the story of having purchased a religious painting by the Italian Renaissance artist Bastiano Mainardi at a discounted rate during the Great Depression. He became fascinated with discovering the identity of one of the saints depicted in the work—eventually discovering it was Saint Nicholas. He is St. Nicholas of Bari and his four loaves of bread signify his giving, his generosity. In time, as the legend grew and changed, the most jocund and hearty of all symbolic figures emerged from this acutely sad and grieving one. St. Nicholas of Bari became “Old Saint Nick”, “Kris-kringle” (a most twisted alliterative) and Santa Claus.

He, the troubled and unhappy, now comes laughing down the chimney, fat and merry, to be the jovial inspiration of our jolliest season of the year. We say that time changed him, made this metamorphosis; but it was we—”we-the-people”—who did it. Time only let us forget that St. Nicholas was a sorrowful man.

 Mainardi put a date on the painting. It is clear and neat upon a step of the Virgin’s throne—1507. In the long march of mankind, the four hundred and thirty-eight years that have elapsed since the Tuscan painter finished his picture is but a breath. St. Nicholas as we know him now, our jolly, shouting friend, a frolic for the children, may become the saddest of all the saints again, someday. What made us brighten him into Santa Claus was our knowledge that the world was growing kinder than it was in 1507.

St. Nicholas of Bari knew only a cruel world. Christmas of this year needs the transfigured image of him—the jolly one who is merry because the world is wise—and kind.”

As ubiquitous as Santa during this season is the Christmas tree. An estimated 79% of all American homes—essentially four out of every five, display a tree at Christmas. The modern practice of decorating a tree and bringing it indoors for Christmas probably began in Germany centuries ago. There is a story told, perhaps apocryphal but still charming, that no less a personage than Martin Luther began this tradition for his countrymen. He was by chance walking in the woods one snowy Christmas Eve. And there he found the snow-flecked trees all around him so beautiful that he was moved to cut down a small evergreen and bring it back to display for his family, decked out with candles in celebration of the Birth of the Christ child. In fact Luther was renewing a much older Teutonic tradition. For pagan Germans had once displayed evergreens during their mid-winter celebrations, known as Jul. And then gradually from the time of the Reformation onwards, the displaying of Christmas Trees in German homes became popular, and eventually through Queen Victoria and her German husband Prince Albert in the 19th century, the custom spread into the English-speaking world. Going back in history however we find that not only Germanic peoples, but cultures as diverse as the Chinese, Egyptians, and Hebrews all made use of evergreen trees, wreaths and garlands in their seasonal celebrations. Thus the Christmas tree is not just a festive means of decoration. It’s usage goes much deeper than that I believe. For since antiquity, people have had an instinctual reaction towards that which remains green even in the season when all other vegetation dies. The Christmas tree then, passed down through history, is a testament to that sense of eternity which is in our midst as Christians when we celebrate the birth of Christ. In a world where everything seems to be so fleeting, where death and decay seem to have the last word, it is one way that we remind ourselves of the truth that we too may be partakers of something greater, and more lasting. The Christmas tree can serve also serve as a beautiful reminder of what Psalm 1 teaches, that as Christians, we are to be like a tree, well-rooted in the soil of a godly, and Christ-centered lifestyle. “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stands in the path of sinners, nor sits in the seat of the scornful. But his delight is in the law of the Lord, and in His law he meditates day and night. He shall be like a tree, planted by the rivers of water, that brings forth its fruit in its season, whose leaf also shall not wither, and whatever he does shall prosper.”

 

To me, one of the simplest and yet most profound of all Christmas decorations is the lighted candle we place in each of our windows at home. While many different countries use candles in their Christmas celebrations, the tradition of doing so in America seems to have been brought over by the Irish, who lighted them at Christmas time to remember deceased relatives as well as to alert passing priests that theirs was a “safe” house where Mass could be celebrated during the years of persecution suffered under English rule. But as with the Christmas trees’ connection to Germany, the candle in the window taps into a spiritual symbolism which goes back much further than the historical/cultural perspectives of one country. English writer Rumer Godden’s excellent essay “The History of Christmas” opens with some reflections upon the significance of light imagery in the Judaeo-Christian tradition: “Among early Christians there was a custom of saying a blessing when the household lamps were lit: ‘Praise God who sends us the light of heaven.’ The Jewish Sabbath observance begins with the ritual lighting of candles by the woman of the house, a reminder that light was one of the first acts of creation. The Sabbath ends with the father saying a prayer, his hands spread towards a lighted candle, towards the light as if longing for it.” Having a lighted candle in our windows at Christmas time does much more than simply make our houses appear festive and inviting to passing cars and pedestrians. The candle framed by a dark window is as succinct and eloquent an illustration of the Christian ideal as any sermon can provide. John’s Gospel makes it clear that Jesus came to be light amidst the darkness of a sinful world. John 1:4-5, 9“In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it…That was the true Light which gives light to every man coming into the world.” Furthermore, the missional command given by Jesus to His followers in Matthew 5:14-16 is also perfectly illustrated by the candle in the darkness: “You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”

 

Santa Claus, a Christmas tree, and a candle in the window. These common Christmas symbols, while not directly Biblical, are nonetheless clearly adaptable for Christian purposes because they can so easily serve to illustrate some of the great theological truths of this special season. The observance of Christmas down through the centuries has included a great deal of cultural elements that are not directly related to the Biblical story of Christ’s birth. But these different customs and practices can nonetheless often be used to drive home the same ultimate message. Regardless of some of the nuances of how Christmas is celebrated, this timeless winter festival is about a message of hope—a Savior coming into a dark world to bring light, joy, and redemption. Using a creative array of means to bring across this message is part of what makes the Christmas season so rich in its diversity and color. There are so many different ways to celebrate Christmas, and still honor Jesus in doing so! As we celebrate this Christmas, let’s keep Christ at the center, so that however we observe it—in the foods we eat, the decorations we enjoy, the music we listen to, the books we read, the movies we watch, and all of our cherished family traditions—the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 10:31 are kept in mind:  “Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” Amen, and Merry Christmas!!

Pursuing Purpose

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In the aftermath of the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, the twitter hash tag “Pray for Paris” quickly became a familiar site across social media platforms. While prayer is a natural response for many in the wake of such a tragedy, there are of course many secular individuals who viewed the Paris attacks as proof of the words famously uttered by the prominent atheist scientist Richard Dawkins: “religion poisons everything.”  French cartoonist Joan Sfar, who works for the satirical magazine Charlie Hedbo, (and whose offices had suffered a terrorist attack in January 2015), had this response to the world’s sympathetic prayers: “Friends from the whole world, thank you for #prayforparis, but we don’t need more religion. Our faith goes to music! Kisses! Life! Champagne and Joy! #Parissaboutlife.” Now without getting into a detailed rebuttal of this rather shallow affirmation of humanistic thinking, I will say that I can nonetheless understand the point of view of a non-religious person who is disgusted by acts of violence which are justified under a faith-based rubric. Many such secular humanists have as their de-facto anthem the 1971 John Lennon hit “Imagine.” Here are some of the lyrics: Imagine there’s no heaven, it’s easy if you try/No hell below us, above us only sky/Imagine all the people, living for today…Imagine there’s no countries, it isn’t hard to do/Nothing to kill or die for, and no religion too/Imagine all the people living life in peace…You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one/I hope someday you’ll join us/And the world will be as one.” Without even entering into the theological realm, history alone would suggest that it is simplistic and patently false to imagine that eliminating religion would solve most of the world’s problems. Some of the greatest mass murderers in history, including Stalin, Mao Tse Tung, and Pol Pot, were all atheists, and promoted a vigorously atheistic state and worldview.

Like everyone, I was shocked and sickened by the recent terrorist attacks on Paris. The “City of Light”, a symbol of Western culture, was subjected over the course of a single horrifying evening to a series of savage assaults. The fact that some of the attackers chanted “God is Great” while carrying out their murderous rampage provided a chilling reminder of what Jesus prophesied in John 16:2-3. As with many sayings of our Lord, these verses, I believe, refer not only to a historical persecution of Christians in the time of the early church (including the murders perpetrated by Saul), but also foretell the specter of violence born from religious fanaticism down through the ages. “They will put you out of the synagogues; yes, the time is coming that whoever kills you will think that he offers God service. And these things they will do to you because they have not known the Father nor Me.” While the victims of the Paris attacks may have been chosen at random, the reality is that in 2015, Christians around the world are being subjected to violence and hatred, and the inevitable question arises, how do we as Christ-followers, as people who model our lives on the Prince of Peace respond amidst a world that seems to be in love with the perpetuation of violence and brutality. It can be easy to become either consumed by anger and thoughts of vengeance or to retreat into a resigned and pious world-weariness where we no longer care or seek to even engage the problems around us.

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However I do think as Christians, our response to both religious fanaticism and religious indifference should be less about what we repudiate and don’t believe in and more about what we do profess. Along these lines, we have been talking with our students in Christian Challenge during the last several weeks about creating life purpose statements. These are designed to be concise summaries of what each individual feels is their God-given purpose and mission in life. We hope to challenge our students to start thinking even now, as undergraduates, about living intentionally for the Kingdom of God and to begin the process of discerning how they may be able to use their unique gifts and talents to make a difference in our world as Christ-followers. As I prepared a message to encourage our students to develop their life purpose statements, I thought it only fitting that I should compose my own. So here it is:  My life purpose is to love God with all my heart, soul, and mind—striving for emotional, spiritual, mental and physical health—while always remaining rooted in the Grace of the Gospel. I will also seek to love my neighbor as myself—a pursuit that will be rooted in a desire to foster God-honoring relationships. I pray that my love of God and others will be manifested through words, attitudes and actions, and that it will provide an encouragement for others to also follow Jesus.”

 

Personally, in crafting mine statement, I was inspired by Matthew 22:37-40. Jesus is asked to tell what is the greatest of all commandments, and in His response He offers what is effectively the perfect summary/commentary on the entirety of the Old Testament, and all of the rich wisdom and truth that is contained within its law. Jesus said: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” I was also inspired by Luke 12:51, a very rich verse which gives us insight into Christ’s “hidden years” between the time of his coming of age in the Temple until the beginning of His public ministry decades later. “And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men.” Thus I wanted my life purpose statement to reflect this striving to find a holy balance, where spiritual and physical wholeness complement one another, just as our love and devotion to God extends into complementary love and devotion displayed for our fellow humanity. Now, as we told our students repeatedly, a life purpose statement could very well change over time because it is meant to reflect not only timeless truths but also the particular season of life in which God is working through us. Thus we wouldn’t necessarily expect the life purpose statement of a college student to be the same as that of a middle-aged person, or a freshman in high school.

 

Jesus Sends Out the Disciples Matthew 10:1-10

The phrase “God-honoring relationships” in my statement is drawn from the motto of our campus ministry, Christian Challenge: Changing the world through God-honoring relationships.” I wanted this to reflect my current calling to serve as a missionary to college students here in Boulder. The last part of the statement represents my attempt to be mindful of the missional implications of my life and work. After all, other religions may talk in their own fashion about loving God and loving people, but Christianity is distinctive as a faith that has always possessed a strong proselytizing impulse. Some people may be reluctant to embrace this reality, and prefer to keep their faith a private matter, but it is a historical fact that from its inception, Christianity has spread through evangelism and the preaching of the Gospel. At its core, Christianity teaches about a universal world Savior who has come on behalf of all humanity and so there is no possible way we can be faithful Christians if we do not each seek to the best of our ability to share with others the teachings and truth of Jesus. I realize that in the face of the overwhelming suffering and rampant evil that seems to hold the world in its grip, it might seem rather hubristic or alternatively naïve to proclaim a life purpose or mission statement. Much of my life is beyond my control, and I certainly don’t profess to know what plans God has for me in the future. But at the same time I serve a God who already proven Himself to be strongest from the point the world considered a symbol of abject weakness—the Cross. Audacious it may be, but in light of recent events, I can think of nothing better for students of a Christian ministry who soon will be launched out into a needy and hurting world than to proclaim the beautiful diversity of their plans and purposes—all united under the guiding principal of service to the One True God, and the proclamation of the Life, Work, Death, and Resurrection of the only Hope for our time and all times—Jesus!

Entering into “Godspace”

 

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This semester with our student leadership team in Christian Challenge, we’ve been reading a book as a group entitled Godspace, by Doug Pollock. The author has a background working with Athletes in Action, and over the years he has found that effective evangelism often comes not from using a particular formulaic approach, but rather seeking to find a natural segue that can direct a conversation towards spiritual topics. In fact, the subtitle of the book is “Where spiritual conversations happen naturally.” Pollock uses the term “Godspace” to describe those moments in a discussion when a non-believer might feel it is safe and appropriate to open up about what they really feel towards God and questions of faith: “cynics, skeptics, scoffers, and spiritually curious people alike can raise their questions, share their doubts, voice their concerns…the “unworthy” feel safe enough to bring their real selves out into the light…spiritual curiosity is aroused, and the message of Christianity becomes plausible.” Sounds great, right?? But how do we get to that point—especially when dealing with someone who would appear to be fairly closed-off spiritually, or who displays a wary caution any time that a Christian attempts to witness to them?? That is one of the very questions we are exploring with our students, because quite frequently, given the secular climate that pervades the University of Colorado campus, the typical CU student is indeed a little reluctant to open up about spiritual matters. But Pollock offers several creative approaches for addressing this obstacle. Serving others, listening well, and asking pointed “wondering” questions can all be effective ways of directing a conversation towards spiritual topics without it becoming so obvious that the other person might shy away. The author also talks about the value of offering what he terms “spiritual appetizers”—which are brief, compact stories of our spiritual experiences rather than a full-fledged testimony. Pollock says that if we are ever hesitant to bring in our own spiritual experience, or perhaps share a Scriptural reference, another easy way to break the ice is to simply ask for permission. When faced with this polite approach, most people will acquiesce and allow you to share. But by not bringing in a lengthy testimony, we ensure that the non-Christian doesn’t become bored, or tune us out. Pollock’s book has been a great one for our students and staff to share together, and it has challenged each of us to think about ways in which we can be more proactive in participating in conversational evangelism.

I personally have been convicted while reading Godspace to reevaluate the way in which I’m spending my time each week engaged in campus ministry. Now as I’ve shared in this blog before, one of my favorite activities as a campus minister is mentoring students. I really value the opportunity to meet one-on-one and encourage them in their spiritual growth. I have seven students that I’m mentoring on a weekly this semester, and yet I want to balance that part of my schedule with some more intentional time spent around non-Christian students. So this fall, I’ve been striving to set up three appointments per week that would offer opportunities to engage in the type of conversational evangelism that Pollock’s book talks about. In doing so, I’ve found inspiration not only from the book Godspace, but from one of my favorite Scriptural passages related to evangelism, and the spirit in which we should approach conversations of faith: Colossians 4:2-6.

 

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            I want to take a few minutes to explore this passage in a little depth, to discover more about how Paul advises us to approach spiritual conversations, and exchanges where we might have an opportunity to share some of our faith story. His first piece of advice: pray! Colossians 4:2—“Continue earnestly in prayer, being vigilant in it with thanksgiving.” It is often said that prayer is the foundation of any successful ministry, and it’s also true that there are few situations in life where we wouldn’t benefit from approaching with a more prayerful spirit. So often I have found that when I get into situations where I hope to be able to talk to others about Jesus, the conversation may end taking an unexpected turn. As much as I am someone who loves to be prepared for every eventuality, the fact is that we cannot always anticipate what will happen when we try to enter into those “Godspace” moments in a conversation. In fact, if we as Christians believe that only through the power of the Holy Spirit can another heart truly be changed or convicted, then we should expect the unexpected. For after all, the Holy Spirit is not at our beck and call, and as Jesus attests in John 3:8—“The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” This then is why prayer is so important. Before we try to share our faith we must ask God to direct the conversation, because no amount of preparation, formulas, or even Scripture memory on our parts will be sufficient if His Spirit is not working. This semester, I have done my best to cultivate such a spirit of prayerfulness in myself, especially prior to meetings with students who I know are either non-believers, or seem to be only nominally Christian. I ask God to give me the right words to say, but perhaps more importantly, to give me a good listening spirit. I think of a line from a well-known Christian prayer that has often been attributed to St. Francis of Assisi over the years: “O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek…to be understood as to understand”

 

Having begun in a prayerful spirit, Paul then in Colossians 4:3, elaborates on the theme that God and His Holy Spirit alone are responsible for making people’s hearts receptive to the message we want to share: “meanwhile praying also for us, that God would open to us a door for the word, to speak the mystery of Christ.” Frequently we enter into a spiritual conversation or evangelism opportunity so full of what we want to say. But our agendas, carefully crafted as they may be, and even though they could be full of Scriptural wisdom, are not necessarily always going to be well-received. The Lord must give us some point of entry to be received by that other person, and I’m finding out that this “door” can take many different shapes and forms. The head of our ministry here in Boulder, Bobby Pruett, has a phrase that I really like—and he apparently first heard it from a mentor of his, Harold Bullock, the pastor of Hope Church in Ft. Worth, Texas. “The bridge of relationship must be strong enough to bear the weight of Gospel truth.” And that’s certainly one form that the “door” God opens to the Gospel can take. If we have built up a strong enough relationship with someone, then they will usually give us a fair hearing, and be willing to listen to a message that may even be at odds with their accepted worldview. But sometimes I talk with students that I’ve only just met, and so there hasn’t been time yet to build up that relationship. And since I work frequently with internationals, some of whom may only be at CU for a single semester, I don’t always have the luxury of time to work on establishing such a long-term relationship. So what are some other shapes that the door could take? Well in Godspace, Pollock talks about the importance of asking wondering questions and offering “spiritual appetizers” as I have already mentioned. Asking a pointed question, or presenting a brief spiritual experience to someone else could then allow for a more detailed sharing of the Gospel. Pollock also mentions how acts of service can be the “backdoor” into someone’s heart, demonstrating our love for them, and giving us some credibility that we can then expend in terms of a spiritual discussion. Our students with Christian Challenge recently tried to put this principle of service-based evangelism into practice. They came up with an innovative idea around Halloween to engage in “reverse trick-or-treating.” In groups of three, they went into some dorms on campus where we knew residents, and then began going door to door, offering to take out residents’ trash in exchange for some Halloween candy. They didn’t pass out any literature, or even specifically try to make an identification with Christian Challenge. Instead, when asked why they were doing this, our students simply identified as Christ-followers, and then shared briefly about what Jesus meant to them, if the other person seemed receptive.

 

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Having looked at how we should prepare for spiritual conversations through prayer, and then having acknowledged that God alone can provide the right opportunities for us to share, Paul then focuses in verses 4-6 on what the content of our message should actually be. In verse 4 Paul asks “that I may make it manifest, as I ought to speak.” To make manifest means to clearly demonstrate, exhibit, and bring out. Working on a college campus in particular, I sometimes find myself tending towards over-intellectualizing the Gospel message when in reality it’s quite simple. I love talking about theology with some of the guys I mentor, and getting into in-depth Scriptural study, all of which is great in its place, especially as a means for challenging those who are already believers to grow deeper in their faith. But in talking with someone who’s not yet a Christian, we don’t want to make accepting Christ seem like a purely intellectual proposition. I think here, wishing to be “manifest” and clear, Paul is perhaps also cautioning us against using language that would come across as excessively “Christian”. In other words, while we may think that everyone knows and understands terms such as “sanctification”, “repentance”, “justification” or even “accepting Jesus as your personal savior”, this is increasingly not the case, especially in a society where the number of people who are “Biblically illiterate” and thus completely unfamiliar with most Scriptural terminology and concepts, continues to grow. Finally, to be manifest means to be brief, as much as possible. Employing a food analogy to stress the importance of brevity in spiritual dialogue, Doug Pollock notes in Godspace: “Most Christians I know admit that when someone shows the tiniest interest in their faith, they don’t offer snacks in response, but a full-blown smorgasbord. Small inquiries get super-sized answers. All the not-yet-Christians wanted was a snack, but they got the full meal-deal instead.”  So as we talk with others about our faith, we need to use clear, concise language that will facilitate the working of the Power of God through us, rather than confuse or obscure our message. In verse 5 then, Paul speaks to the urgency that should underlie our evangelistic efforts: “Walk in wisdom toward those who are outside, redeeming the time.” He expresses very similar sentiments in Ephesians 5:15-16: “See then that you walk circumspectly, not as fools but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil.” I think too of another verse, this one from Jesus in John 9:4. Baylor University’s Truett Seminary, where I received my Master’s of Divinity degree, actually chose this verse, out of all others to emblazon on the main tower of the seminary complex. It’s a good reminder that, for all of our discussion about how to talk about our faith with others, the most important thing is that we do it! Time is indeed fleeting, and we simply never know how much is left for us, or the person we may be engaging with. We can always be fine-tuning our evangelistic approach, but there can be no excuse for inactivity.

 

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In Colossians 4:6, Paul summarizes for us the balance we should seek to achieve in evangelism: “Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned with salt, that you may know how you ought to answer each one.” In our spiritual conversations, we are poised between seeking to understand others, and being empathetic to where they are coming from, and yet also desiring to stand firm and unflinching upon the bedrock of Biblical truth, even when it may be unpleasant or unpopular for someone else to hear. The reference to salt of course calls to mind the words of Jesus to His followers in Matthew 5:13—“You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt loses its flavor, how shall it be seasoned? It is then good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men.” Salt is representative of our fidelity to the Truth of Christ, while grace reflects not only our desire to understand others, but also the wonderful gift of salvation that Christ can impart to them. Knowing how to answer each person is ultimately a matter of finding a balance between grace and truth, and this is something that the Holy Spirit can enable us to do. I am excited to strive to find those moments of “Godspace” amidst my daily conversations, and meetings with students, and as I continue to be taught by God in this process, I hope to learn much more I can share. Thanks for reading!!

Discovering and Declaring the Power of God

 

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Psalm 71:17-18, has been the theme verses for this semester with Christian Challenge. It’s amazing to think how many different truths, themes, and points of application we’ve been able to draw out of these two verses so far! It’s a testament to the power of God’s Word to shape and inform us, and to how much depth and richness can reside in just a small portion of Scripture. In my last post, I discussed how these verses spoke to us about worship. But they also speak to us about the Power of God, particularly the second half of Psalm 71:18–“Now also when I am old and gray headed, O God, do not forsake me, until I declare your strength to this generation, your power to everyone who is to come.”  But what does the Power of God look like for us today?? How is it demonstrated?? How does God’s use and conception of power contrast with the worldly understanding of power?? And perhaps most significantly—how is this power available to us as believers, and how exactly do we go about fulfilling this role that the verse highlights, to declare His power to our generation, and those who are to come?? Well, just as I mentioned when I wrote about worship a few weeks back, we never want to take for granted our understanding of any theological concepts—especially foundational ones. So if we talk about the Power of God, we need to understand what exactly that phrase entails.

Now first of all—the mere fact that we talk about God being powerful is actually not all that remarkable. Why?? Well almost every other religion throughout history has talked about their god or gods being powerful. No doubt those pagan peoples that surrounded the ancient Israelite—whether it was the Canaanites, the Egyptians, the Phoenicians, or the Philistines…all had supposedly powerful deities that they worshipped. Later, in the New Testament setting, the early church confronted a Greco-Roman culture that celebrated a whole pantheon of gods—all of whom had superhero-type powers and abilities. Nowadays if you talk to a Hindu—they will tell you about the many powerful gods they worship, or Muslims can speak of the great power of Allah. So power alone is not that remarkable an attribute for God. But it is what flows forth, or follows out of that power, that makes the Christian God remarkable and unique!! First—LOVE. 1 John 4:8 says simply—“He who does not love does not know God, for God is love.” Interesting too, how that verse introduces the concept that our actions and behavior might have some bearing on our understanding of the power of God. Our God’s power also is connected to His great HOLINESS. Listen to the command He gives the children of Israel in Leviticus 19:2—“You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” There again, we have the idea that the power of God should have a corresponding effect on our actions, and the lives we choose to live. To sum up some of these characteristics of the power of God, we can quote from that venerable old hymn–“Holy, Holy, Holy”, which says that God is “Perfect in power, in love, and purity.”

 

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But the fact of the matter is, sometimes we don’t take the power of God and its implications, seriously. A lot of people in this secular day and age think it’s a little bit of a joke, or strange at the very least, to hear Christians talking about a powerful God—who is active and involved in our lives. Now for some of us, the only conception we have of God’s power is something that is big, and huge, and overwhelming. And make no mistake, our God is awesomely, supremely powerful. There are plenty of Scriptural examples of this mighty, this big God at work. One of my personal favorites comes from Job 38. Here God asks Job a series of unanswerable questions, which also reveal His surpassing greatness and power. Verse 4: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” Then verse 8: “Or who shut in the sea with doors, when it burst forth and issued from the womb.” Listen to Job 38:31-32–“Can you bind the cluster of the Pleiades, or loose the belt of Orion?” This is a reference to certain stars, to constellations in the night sky. Then in Job 38:34-35—God further questions—“Can you lift up your voice to the clouds, that an abundance of water may cover you? Can you send out lightnings, that they may go, and say to you, here we are?” So all these verses in Job illustrate what a big God we worship—a God literally holds the furthest reaches of the universe in His hands!! But what perhaps we don’t expect sometimes is how God is the master not only of the very large, but the very small too. He is equally present in the mightiest events, and in the small, subtle details. A great example of this comes from 1 Kings 19:11-12. Here, the Lord is speaking to the prophet Elijah: “Then He said, ‘Go out, and stand on the mountain before the Lord.” And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore into the mountains and broke the rock in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake, and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice.” God is present in that delicate, whispering voice that can speak to each of us, just as much as He is present in the mighty power of nature. It’s amazing, that balance between that which is bigger than we can comprehend, and that which is even closer than we dare imagine.

 

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As some of you may know, I have a history background, and one period I’ve always enjoyed reading about, perhaps because I was born near the tail-end of it is the Cold War. One of the central activities of that long, ideological struggle between America and the Soviet Union was espionage. And a principal weapon in these intelligence wars were specially designed spy planes. And perhaps the most awesome of those, in fact, one of the most remarkable aircraft in history was the SR-71 Blackbird. It was in service between 1966 and 1998, and so high-caliber and so expensive an aircraft to produce that only 32 were built. None of them were ever lost to enemy action—it was a virtually invincible plane. Its operational ceiling and speed put it out of the range of basically any type of surface to air missile, and most often it wasn’t even detected on radar. The Blackbird could fly up at 80,000 plus feet, so high that its crewmen wore spacesuits. It could fly at speeds in excess of Mach 3—that’s over 2200 miles per hour—and could fly from London to New York in under 2 hours. But despite all of this raw power, the Blackbird also had instruments capable of the most delicate precision. So while flying at 80,000 plus feet, at over 2,000 miles an hour, its cameras could still accurately photograph a car’s license plate. That is some amazing engineering–to create a plane that could virtually fly to the border of outer space, and yet still so closely monitor events back on earth! But it’s an illustration of the infinitely greater power of God, which not only encompasses the most staggering and highest things we can imagine, but also encompasses the near, the intimate, the personal. Our God’s power means that He is both transcendent and imminent. 

And how is this power of God demonstrated? Well, as we have already alluded to, one of the qualities or characteristics of God that is inextricably bound up with His power is His love. God’s love for us is overwhelming, and it is expressed throughout Scripture in such tender terms. A favorite example of mine is found in Hosea 11:1-4—here the love of the Lord for Israel is expressed with touching language that recalls a father’s love for His children. “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son…I taught Ephraim to walk, taking them by their arms…I drew them with gentle cords, with bands of love.” Then, reflect on the words of Christ in John 10:17-18. Here Jesus shows us how God’s unconditional love is demonstrated through the power of sacrifice. “Therefore my Father loves Me, because I lay down My life that I may take it again. No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of Myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again.” Then in John 15:13, Christ declares “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends.” What is fascinating here is the extent to which the power of God is revealed in His love for us—most explicitly illustrated in the sacrificial death of Jesus. This is power being defined and expressed however in a very different way from how the world usually understands it. The world says to be powerful means to always win, to vanquish your foe, to exercise authority over others—but God can be powerful when He is seemingly weakest. Jesus could give up His life, to gain infinite power, and a lasting victory over sin and death!

 

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Sometimes, a person can become much more powerful through sacrifice than if they had fought and striven for power. A great example of this comes of course from the first Star Wars movie. In a climactic scene, the great Jedi Master Obi-Wan-Kenobi is preparing for a final confrontation with the evil embodiment of the Dark Side, Darth Vader. And we’re expecting this big, knock-down drag-out, light saber duel. It starts out that way, but then Obi-Wan famously sheathes his saber, and allows Vader to kill him. But before doing so, he utters these words: “You can’t win Darth. If you strike me down now, I will become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.” George Lucas grew up a Methodist, and so obviously he knew and was influenced on some level by Christian theology to pen such lines. He even once said of the Star Wars concept: “I wanted it to be a traditional moral study, to have some sort of palpable precepts in it that children could understand…There is always a lesson to be learned” Certainly, regarding Lucas’ borrowing of distinctively Christian themes of redemptive love and sacrifice, we could say along with Ecclesiastes 1:9–“That which has been is what will be, that which is done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.” These Christ-centered themes continue to be replayed and re imagined across time and different cultures precisely because they are so compelling in their truth, and they challenge our understanding of the displays of power we so frequently see in the world around us.  For God’s power, in contrast to the world’s, can be displayed even in a seeming moment of weakness and defeat. And it is a power that is demonstrated in His sacrificial love for humanity, which carried Christ to the Cross.

 

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            God’s love extends from His power, as does His holiness, and purity. Now holiness is a very important aspect of God’s character and nature, and it is emphasized throughout Scripture. We’ve already mentioned from Leviticus 19:2 how the holy nature of God is reflected in the specific commands He has for the Jewish people throughout the Old Testament. God’s holiness also means that access to Him was restricted for the Jews. Not even that greatest prophet Moses, was allowed to see God’s Face directly. You can read the story from Exodus 33 about how Moses made a request to see the glory of God. And the Lord responded in Exodus 33:20—“You cannot see my face; for no man shall see Me, and live.” Moses therefore hid in the cleft of a rock, and effectively witnessed the backside of God’s glory as it trailed past him. Another example of how serious this question of God’s Holiness was taken, is reflected in the design of Solomon’s Temple. God’s presence was contained within the sacred Ark of the Covenant, located in the very inner sanctum of the Temple, called the Holy of Holies. And here, once a year, the high priest alone would enter, on Yom Kippur, the solemn Day of Atonement, to offer sacrifices for the sins of all the people during that past year. The Holy of Holies was protected by a special veil, signifying that it was a space set apart, sacred, and restricted. In 1 Kings 8, Solomon is dedicating the Great Temple in Jerusalem, and the Holiness of God which resides there is palpable. “It came to pass, when the priests came out of the holy place, that the cloud filled the house of the Lord, so that the priests could not continue ministering because of the cloud; for the glory of the Lord filled the house of the Lord.”

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So it would seem that the great holiness of God would always put some distance between ourselves and Him. And while this is true to an extent, what is amazing is how through Christ, we have the opportunity to enjoy full access to the Father. In John 14:7-9 Jesus tells His disciples “If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also; and from now on you know Him and have seen Him…He who has seen Me has seen the Father.” Later in John, Christ reveals to His followers how not only have they seen God in Him, but that, far from being distant acquaintances of God, we can become His children, and indeed His friends. Listen to John 15:14-15—“You are My friends if you do whatever I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for a servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I heard from My Father I have made known to you.” There you have it—through Jesus we have been given full access to the Father, and all knowledge of God has been communicated to us by Jesus. Nothing is hidden or unreachable. The final proof of God’s accessibility to us however comes just after the death of Jesus on the Cross. Matthew 27:51 reports that upon the death of our Lord, “Behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.” So you see, the Holy of Holies was no longer cut off from the people. The veil is torn from the top down—an action that no human hand could perform!! Jesus’ death ensures that there is full access to the Father—not just for the priests, or even just for God’s chosen people—but for everyone, for you and me! We can have confidence in God and His power because of this full access to Him. God, despite His immense power, grants us full access to Himself—through the redemptive work of Christ. Think about that for a moment. The Lord and Master of this entire universe is ready and willing to talk to you…or me at any time!! That is truly a God of majesty and power—whose control and provision over this whole world does not preclude Him from also taking an interest in the comparatively trivial details of our own individual lives.

 

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Now, for the best news of all—God’s Power is not just residing in heaven or in the person of Christ—it is available to us, and in fact, it lives in us! Do you realize that? How is this possible—through the power of the Holy Spirit! In Luke 17:21, Jesus tells us “The Kingdom of God is within you.” And the way that we know that the power of the presence of God can dwell right within us, closer than our next breath, is through the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. In John chapter 14, Jesus describes the work and role of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers. He describes the Spirit as our helper, and the Spirit of Truth: “I will pray the Father and He will give you another Helper, that He may abide with you forever—the Spirit of Truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees Him nor knows Him; but you know Him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.” The Holy Spirit is also a Spirit of Power, as the Book of Acts reveals. In Acts 1:8, Jesus promises His followers the coming of the Holy Spirit: “But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” Then in Acts 2, we read of the Spirit’s coming, on the Day of Pentecost, and it is indeed a powerful moment—as described in Acts 2:2—“And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting.” Do you realize the significance of the fact that the Holy Spirit is living in us? This is the same Spirit that descended upon Jesus when He was baptized in the River Jordan, taking the form of a white dove. This is the same Spirit which flowed through Jesus as performed miracles throughout Judea and Israel. This is the very same Spirit that raised Christ from the dead—and it is available and living in us!!

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But we can so easily forget this! I’m reminded of a central motif from one of my favorite movies of all-time, the immortal Wizard of Oz–Dorothy’s ruby red slippers. Remember at the beginning of the movie, how the Wicked Witch of the West wants Dorothy to relinquish them, but the Good Witch of the North warns her to keep the shoes always, as protection against any evil power?? Recall later that when the Wicked Witch forcibly tries to remove Dorothy’s shoes, she receives an electric shock for her pains. Finally, at the film’s conclusion, Dorothy learns that she’s always had the power to return to her beloved Kansas home, simply by clicking her magical heels together three times. What a compelling idea—she spends virtually the whole movie trying to find a way to return to Kansas, only to discover she was given the power to do that all along!! I refer you to this image because, as Christians we are sometimes like Dorothy. We forget, and don’t realize that in Christ, we have the power to live an abundant life, and defeat death.

 

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            How would our lives be different if we lived every day in conscious awareness of the power of God that is not only all around us, but dwelling within us too? In 2 Timothy 1:7, Paul says “God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.” So we should let our lives be a witness, and a testament to others of this power of God that dwells within us. And as we have already highlighted—from God’s power extends His love, His holiness and His closeness to us—the access to His person that He offers all people. And these three things: love, holiness, and closeness to God—we can share with others. We can meet the world as servants, demonstrating even that sacrificial love of Christ—totally confounding and countering what the world defines as being powerful. We can demonstrate personal holiness, so that those around us see how our lives are different and do not conform to the changing winds of cultural accommodation. And the closeness of God we can show by trusting Him, and encouraging others to do the same with our witness. And if we find this task daunting—never fear, because we have the Power of God living in us always, through the Holy Spirit! So let’s show those around us what the power of God looks like in our lives, and what it can look like in their lives as well. Then along with the Psalmist we can proclaim the Glory and Majesty of our God to this generation, and all who are to come. The Spirit is ready to work in each of our lives—will you be obedient to its prompting, and both trust in and live as a witness to Divine power? It is my prayer that we will all do that—Amen!