Navigating Relationships in the Christian Life: Singleness and Marriage

Singleness

A lady wanted to marry four different men in her lifetime. She said each one would help her with the four things she needed most. First, she wanted to marry a banker. Second, a movie star. Next, a clergyman. And finally, a funeral director. When asked why, she answered, “One for the money, two for the show, three to get ready, and four to go!” (Chuck Swindoll, Growing Deep in the Christian Life).

Well, that’s certainly one way of looking at it! Last Sunday at West Lisbon, we began the last of four sermon series that have highlighted our core Biblical and Historical Principles: (1) The Worship of God, (2) The Gospel Mission, (3) The Spiritual Life, and (4) The Family. Last week, we sought to recover God’s vision for the family, which starts with recognizing God’s original intent and purpose in creating humanity. He created us to be his image-bearers, singing us into being (Gen.1:27), and he blessed humanity, giving them special power and privilege to fill the earth with the image of God and to carry our his purposes in history. This Sunday, May 15th, we’ll look at how strong singles strengthen the mission of the gospel (1 Cor. 7:25–35).

In light of the series and our current sermon topics, I decided to write to you about navigating relationships in the Christian life. It is my hope to employ my experience and the Bible to give direction to those who are single with no intention to marry right now, others who are single and actively seeking a potential spouse, and even those who are presently engaged to be married to another. At the end, I’ll also reference some further reading on the topic.

At the beginning of 2002, I was a new Christian, in the middle of college and undecided about my degree and career path, and engaged to be married. By the end of 2002, I was still growing in my Christian faith with a new burden to learn from the Bible what it meant to be a Christian man and servant-leader. I also switched colleges in order to study Bible and Theology. I was no longer engaged to be married. I wondered if I ever would get married, if God had called me to a life of singleness, and if I was capable of being a godly husband. In hindsight, I see so many things that I did wrong, but I did one thing that was very helpful to my spiritual growth—I took two years to read, study, pray, and develop relationships with other godly men with the aim of becoming one myself by God’s grace. There was nothing magical about two years, it just happened to be the period of time that God gave to me to figure some things out. There are six principles that I learned to navigate during that time that I want to share with you and which I hope are helpful to your walk with Christ: Mission, Love, Purity, Trust, Loyalty, and Community.

Navigating Mission

Did you know that you were created for a mission? Not just any mission, but God’s mission. Genesis 1:26–28 explains that God made humanity for the purposes of bearing his image and ruling as his representatives on the earth. Image-bearing refers primarily to the spiritual side of our identity. Remember, God is spirit (John 4:24), so the way in which we bear his image is spiritual. In Genesis 1:26 and 28, God also blessed humanity with dominion over the earth. Tony Evans describes this dominion as

ruling on God’s behalf in history so that history comes under God’s authority.

God sang you into existence (Gen. 1:27), and he created you for the ultimate mission. Life is all about this mission. It also implies that there is opposition. Why else would God’s rule and dominion need to be established so that the earth is filled with his image-bearers? Satan opposes God and his rule, and therefore, he opposes humans and their God-given mission. We are God’s representatives sent into enemy territory.

Reading in Genesis 3, we discover that Satan gained what appeared to be a key victory over our first parents. In the temptation, Adam and Eve failed to bear God’s image, and they failed to exercise their dominion over the creatures of the sea, air, and land by submitting themselves to the snake. Sin shattered the image-bearers; humans surrendered their dominion to the enemy. However, God resolved to continue his plan to fill the earth with his glory and dominion. Now, the mission is not so much about procreation as it is spiritual rebirth. Jesus said,

Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God (John 3:3; cf. Titus 3:3–7).

Notice how the rule of God is now tied together with the new birth by the Spirit. How do we participate in this mission of new birth leading to a recovery of God’s rule? We must proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ. His faithful death and resurrection regenerates the soul, restores the image-bearing mission of humanity, and makes way for the kingdom of God on the earth.

If you are single, have you methodically and intentionally thought through the implications of the gospel mission on your life? Is God finished utilizing your single years for his “gospel-schooling”? Remember,

For we are his poem, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them (Ephesians 2:10).

If you are considering marriage or are already married, how is God calling you as a couple to give your lives for the gospel mission? Humans were created for image-bearing and for God’s dominion. Jesus saves us to restore this mission. This is bedrock. This is why you exist. It’s why you’re here, and his grace has everything you need to live a life of significance—single or married.

Navigating Love

I once bought—hook, line, and sinker—into our culture’s description of love. Even Merriam-Webster is too simplistic when it comes to defining love,

a feeling of strong or constant affection for a person; attraction that includes sexual desire; the strong affection felt by people who have a romantic relationship; a person you love in a romantic way.

Notice the words . . . feeling . . . attraction . . . romantic. For sure, this is one side of love—companionship, affection, feeling, and romance—but our American concept of love ignores the key element of love—choice that leads to selfless action. Biblical love is the love that denies oneself for the benefit and interest of others. The love of God for us through the work of Christ is described in this way.

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus (Philippians 2:3–5).

Later, the apostle John writes,

By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers (1 John 3:16).

This kind of sacrificial love is demanded of husbands in Ephesians 5:25.

When we are born again, believing in Jesus Christ, God begins again to shape us into his image-bearers. The Holy Spirit indwells us, and his presence is accompanied by a fruitfulness, part of which is this kind of love. I learned years ago that the single life is a training ground for this kind of sacrificial love. There are tons of opportunities to learn and yield to the Holy Spirit, so that he may shape you into a person who chooses to love. There are parents, siblings, grandparents, cousins, nephews, nieces, co-workers, friends, fellow Christians, and others with whom you can share life together and develop this Christ-like love. If you’re single, has God finished using your single years to school you in sacrificial love? If you are engaged, are you ready to love in this way? Do you feel that your fiancé is also prepared to make the sacrifices necessary to thrive in your marriage and mission? If you’ve been married awhile, where are you struggling to choose to love? What is preventing you from laying down your life for your spouse?

Navigating Purity

When I was born again in 2001, God opened my eyes to the sexual sewage that I had been swimming in for years. I needed to change my mind about sexuality. Instead of assuming that I knew what was proper, I needed to humbly receive God’s clear teaching on the theme of purity in the spiritual life of one who has been born again and who was being restored in Christ to bear God’s image again. Psalm 119:9 has always stuck with me from those days, “How shall a young man keep his way pure?” asks the Psalmist. He answers, “By keeping it according to your word.” Therefore, God has something to say about purity, and since he is the designer of our sexuality, then it seems best to let him speak into this area of our lives.

As the sexual sewage of the world continues to accumulate more and more, God’s truth about purity continues to set us free. The real question is, do you want purity? Do you really want to be pure? Do you really want what the Holy Spirit wants for your life? Stop treating purity like it’s some line, as if you’re still pure so long as you don’t break some rule you’ve set up for yourself. Purity is a direction of the heart. You either want it, or you don’t. You either love what God loves, or you don’t. If you don’t, find in God the grace you need to repent, and allow the word of God to renew your mind. If you do, then you can trust that he will continue to direct the desires of your heart into paths of purity.

Delight yourself in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart. Commit your way to the LORD; trust in him, and he will act. He will bring forth your righteousness as the light, and your justice as the noonday (Psalms 37:3–6).

Don’t make purity a cloudy mystery. God has not left us to walk around aimlessly in some sexual fog. Be authentic and honest; let’s be real, and stop justifying immorality. God’s will on sexual purity is not confusing; it’s very clear. From the beginning, he designed sexuality to be experienced within the marriage covenant between a man and a woman. He has sanctified the marriage bed (Heb. 13:4; cf. 1 Cor. 7:3–5). He hasn’t changed his view. His design still works best for his glory and our enjoyment. Remember, the works of the sinful nature are obvious—they’re not mysterious—and they are trying to deceive, destroy, and to rob you of genuine sexuality, worship, relationships, and order (Gal. 5:19–21; cf. 1 Thess. 4:3–8).

Do you have a heading? Is the compass of your spiritual life pointed in the direction of purity? It is best to find this heading while you’re single. Establish a direction and a delight in purity before you enter into a relationship. Don’t enter a relationship unprepared. Be ready to lead toward purity. If you are already in a relationship in which you’ve lost purity, take the necessary steps to regain purity. If you’re dating or engaged and purity has been lost, get out of the relationship, or in the very least postpone any big plans. Sexual immorality clouds discernment and vision. Saying the “I-dos” won’t all of a sudden create a culture of purity in your relationship. Remember how urgent Jesus was about handling the temptations of the world, “Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the one by whom the temptation comes! And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire” (Matthew 18:7–9). If you are married and immorality has crept into your marriage, get help quick. Don’t try to bear the burden alone; let spiritually mature brothers and sisters walk alongside you so that you may begin to imagine a pathway into healing and perhaps even restoration.

There’s more to say, but for now, let’s conclude part one of Navigating Singleness and Marriage in the Christian Life. In the June Messenger, we’ll pick up part two and learn to navigate trust, loyalty, and community. Here are a number of books to pick up for further reading and help in navigating the waters of singleness and marriage:

This Momentary Marriage by John Piper (http://www.desiringgod.org/books/this-momentary-marriage)
The Meaning of Marriage by Timothy Keller (http://www.timothykeller.com/books/the-meaning-of-marriage)
Our Story . . . His Story by Rick Rood
I Kissed Dating Goodbye by Joshua Harris (btw, some Christians hate this book; but it helped me tremendously)
Boy Meets Girl by Joshua Harris
Not Even a Hint by Joshua Harris
Every Man’s Battle by Stephen Arterburn (http://www.everymanministries.com)
Every Woman’s Battle by Shannon Etheridge (http://familylifetoday.com/series/every-woman-s-battle/)
Passion and Purity by Elisabeth Elliot

I hope that part one has been encouraging to you and that these resources equip you for godliness and for experiencing God personally and in your relationships.

Is the Church a Fasting People?

Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting. And people came and said to him, “Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day (Mark 2:18–20 ESV).

Fasting. Just doesn’t sound all that fun does it? Not something you’re gonna invite your buddies into—“Hey guys, we’re going to do some fasting next week, want to join in?” Yeah right. I’ll take a rain check on that. Hand me my Big Mac, fries, and Coke! What is this fasting thing all about? Is it biblical? Should Christians do it? If so, how do we do it?

One of my favorite theological journals is the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (JETS). In the most recent volume, there is an article from Sigurd Grindheim, a professor of New Testament at Fjellhaug International University College in Oslo, Norway.  The article title is “Fasting That Is Pleasing to the Lord: A NT Theology of Fasting” [JETS, 58/4 (2015) 697–707]. Professor Grindheim addresses the passage above from Mark 2, and extends a challenge to traditional Christian thinking on the spiritual discipline of fasting.

His article seeks to discern whether the NT spiritual life calls for either exceptional or habitual fasting. The exceptional fasting approach is rare rather than routine, and attached to largely significant moments, decisions, or spiritual efforts in the will of God. The habitual fasting approach is routine rather than rare, and in so doing, prepares a person for those bigger moments needing discernment in the will of God. One may say that the exceptional approach is more impulsive, and the habitual approach is more preparatory. In saying this, I don’t mean anything necessary negative about one or the other. For one may say that being impulsive is negative because its reactionary, but another may say being habitual is negative because it is legalistic.

Professor Grindheim attempts to argue for a new kind of fasting, not merely for exceptional practice, but also at the level of motive. He describes Old Testament fasting as accompanying (1) prayer, (2) mourning, (3) humility, (4) repentance of sins, and (5) direction from the Lord (cf., 2 Sam. 12:16–23; Esth. 4:16; 1 Sam. 31:13; 1 Chron. 10:12; Ps. 35:13; 1 Kgs. 21:27–29; 1 Sam. 7:6; Jon. 3:5; Neh. 9:1; Judg. 20:26; Dan. 9:3). The only required fast of the OT accompanied the Day of Atonement (Lev. 23:27–32). Later on in the Judaism of Jesus’ day, the Jews are practicing the discipline more regularly as indicated by the very early Christian document called The Didache,

And let not your fastings be with the hypocrites, for they fast on the second and the fifth day of the week; but do ye keep your fast on the fourth and on the preparation (the sixth) day”(Didache 8:1 AFL-E).

Jesus himself references this regular practice of the Jews in his parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector in Luke 18:9–14.

Out of this regular practice flows the dismay of both the Pharisees and the disciples of John the Baptist when they approach Jesus in Mark chapter 2:18–20. In other words, they are asking Jesus why his disciples don’t fast twice a week like the rest of us? Most likely for both the Pharisees and the disciples of John the Baptist, they participated in regular fasting, which was motivated by eschatological and messianic hopes. So, their question to Jesus is not merely about religious practice but also an indirect inquiry about his identity. So as to say, “Have they stopped fasting because they believe you are the Messiah? Are you the Messiah?”

Grindheim writes,

Whereas the Old Testament (OT) devout were characterized by their longing for the presence of God, New Testament (NT) believers are characterized by their joy at his presence. OT believers were yearning to experience  God’s favor; NT believers rejoice that they always enjoy his favor through Jesus Christ (698).

He goes on to explain that Jesus would fulfill the Day of Atonement on his cross. Therefore, Jesus’ presence includes the complete forgiveness and removal of sin, so that his presence is marked by joy and exultation, not mourning or grief.

We can all agree with such thinking. We can all agree that the disciples had no reason to fast because Jesus was present with them—the bridegroom was there with them—

Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast.” But what does Jesus mean when he says, “The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day?

Professor Grindheim argues that this is a matter of debate among scholars,

Scholars debate whether this refers to the relatively short period between Jesus’ death and his resurrection, or whether it refers to the long period between Jesus’ death and his second coming (699).

He spends the next several paragraphs in his article choosing and defending the former interpretation over the latter; that is, the bridegroom’s “taking away” refers to the three days in the tomb, not to the time between Jesus’ ascension and second coming. He references texts such as John 16:20 about the disciples’ grief being transformed into joy. He also appeals to the many promises of Jesus to be with his disciples (eg., Matt. 28:18–20). He claims that the mediated presence of Jesus to the church through the Holy Spirit (John 14:23; Eph. 2:21–22) is also reason to believe that the church age is not a time of mourning for Jesus’ presence, but rather a time of rejoicing because we are indeed experiencing Jesus’ presence. He further and finally builds one final evidence of Christ’s presence with his church—the fellowship of suffering. Grindheim doesn’t see suffering as a sign of Jesus’ absence, but rather as a sign of his presence and intimate fellowship with his people as they suffer for their identification with Jesus (Rom. 8:17; Phi. 3:10; Col. 1:24; 1 Pet. 4:13); further still, such suffering is a cause for joy, not a cause for mourning.

From Grindheim’s perspective, when Jesus calls for “new wine to be put in new wineskins,” he is saying that the old mindset (i.e., anticipating Messiah and eschatological realities) and old practices (twice weekly routine fasting) are obsolete. Now, as I believe Grindheim would say, we have a new mindset (i.e., new wine = the Messiah has come) that requires new practices (i.e., new wineskins = a new kind of fasting).

He then spreads his discussion beyond the Mark passage into the rest of the New Testament and a little bit into the early church writings and practice of fasting. Regarding the early church, he only quotes The Didache 8:1 (see above), which he dates much later than the most recent scholarship would suggest, which would place it possibly in the 40’s. Therefore, the Christian practice of regular fasting on two days a week is very early. It’s early practice doesn’t necessarily make it correct, but it can’t be dismissed because it is late, as Grindheim seems to suggest. It is also demonstrable that a period of fasting accompanied the act of baptism (Did. 7:4).

He takes on several NT texts on fasting (Matt. 4:2; 6:16–18; Col. 2:20–23; Acts 9:9; 13:2–3; 14:23). Regarding the temptation of Jesus, he argues that the 40 day fast is not example for us to follow, but rather a unique undertaking by Jesus to prepare himself to be the second Adam and faithfully endure the temptations of the devil and continue his Messianic mission. In Matthew 6, Jesus is giving instruction about the practice of spiritual disciplines and the danger of hypocrisy. Grindheim is too strong when he writes, “Jesus’ point is not to instruct his disciples to fast, but to warn them against hypocrisy” (703). No, Jesus isn’t teaching them to fast; he assumes that they will fast, so much so that he commands them how to do it regularly without being hypocrites. Paul in Colossians is not directly dismissing fasting as a practice; rather he is dismissing wrong motives behind fasting as a practice—self-imposed piety has no value in opposing self-indulgence. Paul is clear in Romans and Galatians that what the law could not accomplish through the sinful flesh, God himself has accomplished through his Son and by the Spirit. The motive of fasting must be a desire for the control of the Spirit over the flesh, a desire for the word of Christ to dwell in us richly and to become our “food.” Paul’s own practice of fasting in Acts 9:9; 13:2–3; and 14:23 finally forces Grindheim to admit that there are some, exceptional occasions when fasting is legitimate and appropriate for the Christian and the church.

However, in the very next paragraph, Professor Grindheim goes on to say,

The baseline for Christian piety must therefore be that fasting is not an appropriate expression of Christian devotion to the Lord. NT differs from OT piety in that God has now come near in his Son and through his Holy Spirit. Even though believers long for the Second Coming of Christ and the visible manifestation of his rule (Matt. 6:10; 1 Cor. 16:22; Rev. 22:20), NT piety is characterized by intimacy, not distance. The predominant sentiment of believers living in the age of fulfillment is joy, not grief (Phi. 3:1; 4:4–7; 1 Thess. 5:16). They therefore have no occasion for fasting (705).

My difficulty with Grindheim is that he struggles to see how joy and fasting can be in continuity and continuation into this new age—a new age to which I feel he attributes too much fulfillment, nearly eliminating some forms of Christian practice and piety. The dominant message of the NT writers is that the kingdom is both already and not yet here, which he finally does acknowledge at the end of his article,

The Christian fulfillment of fasting should therefore be to spread the joy of Christ’s presence and to demonstrate it in action by sharing with the needy (cf. Isa. 58:3–7). Nevertheless, while joy has replaced fasting as a habitual expression of Christian piety, fasting is not prohibited in the NT. Christian experience is still characterized by the tension between the already and the not yet, between the realized and future eschatology. Normal Christian experience will therefore still have room and need for other expressions than manifestations of joy (parentheses mine, 707).

It would be interesting to know whether or not Grindheim feels we should pray habitually or give offerings habitually, or only exceptionally? Proportionately, prayer is spoken of far more in the NT than fasting, and I think that guides us some in our practice of spiritual disciplines. No one disagrees that Mark 2:18–20 is transforming the way that we must think about and practice fasting. It must not become religious ritual that seeks the reward of other religious people, and it’s motive and practice must adjust to the realities of Christ’s work in death and resurrection. It must come—whether habitually or exceptionally—out of the joy and longing we have because of and for Christ. And there is no reason to be rigid in our practice of the discipline, but rather a practice rising from our love and liberty. Isaiah, the OT prophet understood these things,

“Why have we fasted, and you see it not? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?” Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure, and oppress all your workers. Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to hit with a wicked fist. Fasting like yours this day will not make your voice to be heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day for a person to oppress himself? Is it to bow down his head like a reed, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Will you call this a fast, and a day acceptable to the LORD?

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? (Isaiah 58:3–7).

So what about you? Have you ever fasted before? What is your motivation to fast? Do your motivations sync with the NT transformation of fasting in light of Jesus’ person and work? What are the exceptional times that you feel require a season of fasting? Do you think habitual fasting is appropriate sometimes? If so when, and how do you prevent it from becoming an empty ritual? May the joy of the Lord become your utmost hunger, and may the Lord renew your minds to discover his aim for you in Christ, using every detail of your life, until the kingdom fully and finally comes.

Lent and Repentance in the Spiritual Life

A Historical Look at the Season of Lent

On Wednesday, we entered the 40-day journey toward Easter weekend. This period has historically been referred to as Lent. Earle E. Cairns in Christianity through the Centuries writes about the origin of the Lenten season,

The emergence of a cycle of feasts in the church year may be noted in this era (100–313 A.D.). Easter, originating in the application of the Jewish Passover to the resurrection of Christ, seems to have been the earliest of the festivals. Not until after 350 was Christmas adopted in the West as a Christian festival and purged of its pagan elements. Lent, a forty-day period of penitence and restraint on bodily appetites preceding Easter, had been accepted earlier as a part of the churches’ cycle of worship before the adoption of Christmas (116, parentheses mine).

In Devotions for Lent from the Mosaic Study Bible (https://www.bible.com/reading-plans/105-devotions-for-lent-from-holy-bible-mosaic), the Introduction provides us with both the aim and the fit of Lent into the rhythm of the Christian annual calendar,

Lent is the season when Christians have historically prepared their hearts for Easter with reflection, repentance, and prayer. Lent begins with Ash Wednesday and proceeds for forty days, culminating in Good Friday and Holy Saturday. Since Sundays are weekly celebrations of the resurrection of Jesus, the six Sundays in Lent are not counted as part of the forty-day season. Many Christians choose to fast throughout the season of Lent, but the focus is not so much on depriving themselves of something as it is on devoting themselves to God and his purposes in the world.

Here is a look at the Christian calendar and Lent’s place in the mix:

2015–2016 Christian Calendar

Seasons Beginning Dates Purpose
Advent November 29, 2015 Focuses on the anticipation of God’s coming into the world, both in the incarnation and at Christ’s 2nd coming
Christmas December 25th, 2015 Concentrates on the birth of Christ
Epiphany January 6th, 2016 Centers itself in the light of God’s presence shining in the world
Lent February 10, 2016 Directs our attention toward human mortality, sin, and God’s gracious solution in Christ
Easter March 27, 2016 Celebrates resurrection life in Christ
Ascension May 5th, 2016 Turns attention to the benefits toward the believer because of Christ’s ascension to the Father
Pentecost May 15th, 2016 Helps us to remember and participate in the ongoing activity of the Holy Spirit in the world

There are times in the history of the church, particularly during the Middle Ages, that the seasons of the Christian calendar have served to restrain or even abuse real spiritual growth. A Young Calvinist blogger named Justin Smidstra notes,

Many of us may not have paid much attention to this, since the church year and the “liturgical seasons” do not play a very large role in the Reformed churches and many other Protestant churches as well. There are some historic and sound reasons for this. During the middle ages the observance of Lent became an excessive practice, which emphasized works righteousness, and came to be associated with all sorts of superstitious beliefs. The Reformers condemned these abuses and for this reason rejected most of the Lenten practices of their day, such as the mandatory forty day fast. We do not dispute their wisdom in this.

Certainly the Puritan in us shouts, “Lent is everyday. Easter is everyday. Incarnation is everyday. We do not need a seasonal calendar; rather we preach the full gospel to ourselves and others daily.”

So, what do we do with Lent and the rest of the seasons? To practice, or not to practice? I personally think there is a balance that can be found. The benefits of the Christian calendar are its organization, its simplicity, and its strict focus on the gospel of Jesus Christ. The dangers of the Christian calendar are those about which the early Reformers warn—developing a mindset that grace from God is somehow gained or missed depending on my faithfulness to the calendar or superstitious beliefs becoming attached to the practice. However, the former can be remedied by faithful teaching about saving grace coming to us through Christ’s faithful work alone. The latter problem of superstition has always been a problem the church has faced. As early as the days of the papyrus copies of the New Testament, we have evidence that Christians would copy for themselves a portion of the Gospels or Acts where healing, miracles, or great power was demonstrated by Jesus or the apostles. They would “roll it up” and keep it with them as an amulet, which they believed would keep them free from sickness, demons, and other dangers. The cure for superstition isn’t necessarily an avoidance of the Calendar, nor an avoidance of the Scriptures, but rather quality discipleship in the truths and doctrines of Scripture for the Christian life.

I have participated in Lent some years and not other years. There is no law or command in Scripture that demands such participation. In fact, Paul writes in Colossians 2:16–17, “Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.” That is to say, all festivals, special days, and spiritual disciplines with food and drink find their substance in Christ. He is the fulfillment of all these things, the end of them if you will. Therefore, the Puritans and Reformers have a point. However, I would say that Paul is not condemning the practice of festivals and the like, rather he is saying that we should not pass judgment on one another or from one church to another regarding these things. Brothers and sisters, we are free to gather and worship Christ in all the fullness of truth and love that we can muster by the Spirit’s help. Calendar or no calendar.

Lent Reminds Us to Practice Repentance and Repentance Is Good

Wherever you find yourself traditionally this Lenten season, I hope you will embrace a regular practice of repentance. It is good to question the appetites of the sinful flesh and to bring them under the control of the Spirit, be it through fasting, prayer and meditation on the Scriptures, silence, or solitude. Romans 6:11 teaches us, “So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” As you practice the “mortification of your sins” in Christ’s death, also remember the hope and life and power we have because Christ has risen from the dead. For we need not only confession and repentance, but resurrection power to break the chains of slavery that sin has had over us.

Allow me to point you to two places in Scripture that can guide you in the development of regular rhythms of repentance. Let me also call attention to this. It is very appropriate to seek both community repentance and personal repentance from God. For example, our nation needs the gift of repentance from God. The churches in our nation need the gift of repentance from God—both for past sins of commission and omission and for present sins. For this community-approach toward repentance, I turn to Daniel 9:1–23. I have broken down this passage on repentance into 7 parts:

  • The Provocation to Repentance (vv.1–2) — The word of God provokes repentance as it reveals truth and grace to us.
  • The Posture of Repentance (v. 3) — Genuine repentance seems to be marked by common postures: prayer, fasting, lament (sackcloth and ashes), pleas for mercy.
  • The Confession of Repentance (vv. 4–6) — The confession acknowledges God’s faithfulness and love while it also agrees with God about our sinful deeds and our unwillingness to listen to his word. Notice the community and personal aspects in Daniel’s use of the personal plural pronouns.
  • The Humility of Repentance (vv. 7–12) — Humility is honest. It lacks prideful attempts to justify. Daniel humbly admits his and the people’s need for the righteousness, mercy, and forgiveness that belong to the Lord and admits their ownership of the shame they have brought on themselves.
  • The Resistance to Repentance (vv. 13–15) — While this continues Daniel’s humility, it is specifically highlighting their resistance to “entreat the favor of the Lord.” There is a fight that must take place within repentance. We must fight against resistance and submission to it.
  • The Petition of Repentance (vv. 16–19) — Here Daniel finds what we must all find in the process of repentance—a petition based in the will of God for his own glory. Repentance happens when we truly desire God’s will above our own. In the New Testament, we call this dying to self and coming alive unto God. Notice how many times Daniel uses the pronoun “your.” In a quick look in my ESV Bible, I counted 16. He recognizes that God is both the source of the chastisement and the source of their healing.
  • The Answer to Repentance (vv. 20–23) — Remember, Daniel started praying because of a prophecy of Jeremiah that provoked him (v. 2). God answers Daniel’s repentance with further insight and revelation into his plan and will. Notice that Daniel’s prayer was heard from the very beginning (v. 23). The answer confirmed God’s love for him, and brought him further understanding.

The second place in Scripture to which I direct you is the temptation of Jesus in the Gospels (Matthew 4:1–11; Mark 1:12–13; Luke 4:1–13; cf. Heb. 2:18; 4:15). Jesus’ forty days and forty nights of fasting and facing the Tempter is typically thought to be the foundation for the 40-day period of Lent. Consider the opportunities for repentance based upon Jesus’ faithfulness:

  • Opportunity #1: Is the Word of God Sufficient to Me (Mt. 4:1–4)?
  • Opportunity #2: Do I Fear God in Such a Way That Avoids Presumptuous Testing of God in My Decision Making (Mt. 4:5–7)?
  • Opportunity #3: Do I Worship God with Submissive Service to His Plan for My Life (Mt. 4:8–11)?

I hope that this has challenged you to feel the necessity of a regular rhythm and seeking of repentance. Repentance is a treasure and a gift from God. May this treasure be yours and mine today and in the days ahead.

In Christ,

Pastor Rex

Receive and Pass On the Resurrection Creed

West Lisbon Church Pastoral Insights and Blog Posts

In 1 Corinthians 15:3–5, we have what is perhaps the earliest, formal claim for the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ:

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. (1 Corinthians 15:3–5 ESV).

It is most likely that this creed is not originally Paul’s, but a creed that predates him and his writing of 1 Corinthians. Paul states that he received this. Galatians 1:11–12, 17 is relevant to Paul’s reception of the gospel of Jesus Christ too. We know that he received a special kind of instruction in the gospel from Jesus himself; however, it is also clear that eventually he did spend time with the apostles in Jerusalem (Galatians 1:18). Regardless, whether he received this creedal form from the Lord Jesus himself or from his only slightly later association with the Christian community, the gospel articulated in the creedal form of 1 Corinthians 15:3–5 is early. According to Darrell Bock’s landmark commentary on the Book of Acts, Paul’s conversion experience, which is recorded in Acts 9, most likely occurred sometime one to three years following the death of Jesus. The composition of 1 Corinthians dates back to 54 A.D. Therefore, if the letter itself dates to 54 and if the creed of 1 Corinthians 15:3–8 precedes Paul and his letter, then we are looking at an extremely early creed probably produced within the year of Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. This is not hard to imagine as it would have made sense for the early Christians to formalize an oral creed concerning the bodily resurrection of Christ and pass it around as they met in the temple and from house to house (Acts 5:42). I’ll concede that it could be that Paul received this as late as the mid-forties due to the record of his interaction with the apostles in Jerusalem. Nevertheless, the content in 1 Corinthians 15:3–5 is a very early creedal form of the gospel of Jesus Christ probably passed on orally at first and then eventually making it into the literature of the church.

A creed serves to summarize truth in a compact and memorable way so that they could be committed to memory and easily recited. They helped in a day when most people did not have a copy of the Scriptures and even if they did, they may not have been able to read it. A creed was accessible to everyone. The “pass it on” nature is emphasized by Paul when he speaks of receiving it and delivering it in verse 3. Also, repetition for memory’s sake is observed with the word “that” as well as “according to the Scriptures.”

Peter’s independent mention in verse 5 (i.e., Cephas is also known as Peter) is one feature that has been given attention by the commentators. It could have either a restorative nuance (cf. John 21:15–19) or possibly an emphatic nuance on his leadership among The Twelve (cf. Matt. 16:13–19; Acts 2:14–41). Peter is recognized as “a leader among the leaders” with regard to the apostles in the NT. It isn’t at all odd that the creed mentions him separately. Luke 24:34 also affirms what appears to be an independent appearance to Simon Peter.

A word search in the Greek New Testament reveals that ”The Twelve” appears 36 times, almost always referring to “The Twelve” apostles. When referring to the apostles, this is a formal title. Even after Judas dies and is replaced by Matthias (Acts 1:26), “The Twelve” is still used in Acts 6:2 and Rev. 21:14. It is clear from context that Matthias meets the criteria employed to replace Judas,

Thus one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time the Lord Jesus associated with us, beginning from his baptism by John until the day he was taken up from us—one of these must become a witness of his resurrection together with us.” So they proposed two candidates: Joseph called Barsabbas (also called Justus) and Matthias (Acts 1:21–23 NET).

Paul’s use of “The Twelve” in the creed that he had received is not inaccurate. If anything, it suggests that perhaps the creed was created after Matthias was selected. It also is not inaccurate because “The Twelve” including Matthias were all eyewitnesses to the resurrected Christ.

I’ll concede that the mention of the apostles again in verse 7 seems to be redundant, but redundancy does not an error make. There are optional, reasonable explanations without assuming error. For example, the word “apostle” means “sent one” in its informal meaning. Some readers of Scripture may apply this to someone like Barnabas, who doesn’t appear to be a Jerusalem Elder, neither was he one of The Twelve, but he certainly was a “sent one” (cf. Acts 9:26–30; 11:19–26). Perhaps, the creed is simply being redundant or making reference to the multiple appearances to this group. Again, redundancy does not an error make.

The absence in verses 5–7 of any mention of the women to whom the risen Christ appeared is an interesting feature to the modern reader. Much ink has been spilled on this. Scholarly circles refer to the Gospel record of women being the first eyewitnesses to the empty tomb and to the resurrected Jesus as a “criteria of authenticity” because of the embarrassing nature of such witnesses in the first century world. Luke points this out in 24:11, “but these words [of the women] seemed to them [the apostles] an idle tale, and they did not believe them.” Women eyewitnesses were not considered trustworthy. If someone in the first century was seeking to invent a persuasive account of Jesus’ resurrection in Luke 24 or John 20, there is no way such a made up story would list women as the first eyewitnesses. No one would take the story seriously. However, that’s exactly what we have in the Gospels. The writers are telling it just as it happened—embracing the embarrassment. Further, these weren’t the only appearances. There were multiple appearances as the creed records. The Gospel accounts are confirmed by the criteria of embarrassment, and the creed’s authenticity is confirmed by its emphasis on those who would have been considered the major eyewitnesses at that time.

One critic of the statement in verse 6 about the appearance to “more than five hundred brothers at one time” states,

We do not have five hundred separate, notarized accounts. What we have is one person, Paul, who says that five hundred anonymous people saw Jesus, giving no further details about their identities or the circumstances of the seeing. By itself, this is not strong evidence, just as it would not be strong evidence if I gave you a piece of paper that said, “One thousand people saw me do a miracle.”

To me, this represents the deep stubbornness of unbelief. Here’s why. We do have the account of Luke which states that the resurrected Jesus appeared for forty days following his suffering. This is plenty of time for the creed’s proposition to have been realistically accomplished. No, you do not have the written accounts of 500 people, but you have the written accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, and really all of the NT authors are writing from the belief of a resurrected Christ, because there is no Christianity without a bodily, resurrected Christ. One wonders how many eyewitness accounts would be necessary in order to be convincing evidence . . .  would more records than we already have really persuade? If I was given a piece of paper that said 1000 people saw so-and-so perform a miracle, I would simply ask for the names of some of these people. This is exactly the type of inquiry Paul invites the Corinthians into when he mentions that most of these 500 are still living. This isn’t that hard, especially if the creed, as is likely, dates back to the 30’s A.D.

To suggest that the resurrected Jesus was to the early church merely a mythical figure, a figment of their own imaginations and hopes, couldn’t be more foreign to the records we have. It is a misrepresentation of the earliest records of the believers of Jesus Christ. They really believed him to have physically and historically resurrected. Had he not and if they still continued to desire to follow him after his death, it makes much more sense that they would have continued to proclaim him as returning at some point in the future as the redeemer of Israel from Roman oppression. But they are devastated by his death as the disciples on the road to Emmaus detail in Luke 24. They are returning home after the Passover pilgrimage. Everything is over for them until Christ appears to them—bodily resurrected. A person can continue to choose not to believe in the resurrection of Christ, but it is a bit disrespectful to suggest that what Paul, The Twelve, and the early Christians were really trying to say was that they wanted Jesus to be alive so badly that they imagined visions of such a reality. However, the clearer explanation and intention of these early Christians is that he really did raise from the dead, making multiple appearances for 40 days.