Singleness & Spirituality

Singleness & Spirituality

In the 2018 blog posts, I intend to focus on family and relationship matters as they relate to the spiritual life. I plan to share insights by way of both book reviews and devotional thoughts from God’s word. As you seek God in this new year, I hope that you’ll follow along, that you’ll be blessed by the content, and that you’ll receive some direction about where to look further for spiritual wisdom in relational and family matters. Our vision here at West is for Jesus to fill every heart, head, and hand. I pray that these articles may be one way of leaning into that vision.

With Saint Valentine’s Day nearly upon us, love is in the air! I’ve been taking the same beautiful gal out on dates at this time for nearly 13 years now, so for me, the decision of “Who?” has been settled. Now, the decisions are narrowed to “Where?” “When?” and “How do we secure a babysitter before everyone else does?!” However, many of my friends are still asking that first “Who?” question, and they’re not just asking it for February 14th, but they’re asking it about their lifelong partner. “Who?”

Unique Challenges to the Single Life

I want to acknowledge the unique challenges of the single life today, at least the ones I am aware of. I add that disclaimer, because honestly, I don’t know what it’s like to be single today. I was single over fourteen years ago. Things have changed. Yet, some things are timeless for any single person of any era. Single people today wrestle with God about their marital status; some single people may be disappointed. You may feel like you missed your only chance to be happy, and you are still blaming yourself. Others wonder if they’ve waited too long. Impatience short-circuits the spiritual development needed to prepare you for what is next. The single person may find it difficult to find his or her place and voice in the church’s vision, mission, and goals. You may be dating someone right now, and you are looking for guidance. Finally, some of you are boiling angry that the thing that people notice most about you is your singleness, instead of the gazillion other wonderful things about you (Cue: SCREAM!!! Go ahead; let it out.).

In 2011, I performed a cultural assessment on the layers of the world’s voice and message to people, particularly in the areas of romance and singleness. The world has something to say to you, but it is the way of folly. The way of folly always leads to a grave of many kinds of spiritual death. The single, faithful Christian set on purity and pursuing God will receive ridicule from the world. Virginity today is mocked instead of treasured and protected. Unfortunately, single people who seek refuge in the church often encounter an even more perplexing, profound, and painful mockery. I have talked to single adults throughout my years and places of ministry who have experienced blindspots in the church when it comes to singles. For example, the church hurts singles when it carries the unspoken “rule” that marriage is the rite of passage into true adulthood.

Unique Joys in the Single Life

I also want to encourage the unique joys of the single life. It can be a season of unique friendship. The single life may provide a unique opportunity for adventure, education, career advancement, and spiritual maturity. It is a time for your skill in living to develop in areas such as finance, responsibilities, exercise, and trades and crafts that will benefit you and others. It most definitely presents a time of unique Christian ministry—particularly in connecting with and edifying children, tweens, and teens. Don’t worry; I’m going to catch myself here: Single adults also have a unique ministry to the church and its adult ministries. A faithful, single Christian adult is able to write, teach, and minister with a clarity, conviction, and boldness that sometimes escapes married people because the affections of our hearts are divided. Paul—a faithful, single Christian—called married people out on this, remember?

He wrote,

Now as a concession, not a command, I say this. I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another . . . I think that in view of the present distress it is good for a person to remain as he is. Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife. But if you do marry, you have not sinned, and if a betrothed woman marries, she has not sinned. Yet those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that. This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away. I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband. I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord (1 Corinthians 7:6–7, 26–35).

I have had the privilege to serve with an array of solid, single people throughout my pastoral ministry. They don’t simply acquire joy, but they spread their joy to those around them. They are often very self-less with their time, resources, and giftedness. The church is the body of Christ, and single people are significant members of the body—both historically and today.

Harmonizing with God’s Voice

Single friends, keep seeking God. Harmony is a wonderful sound to experience. God’s voice is clear, constant, reliable, and trustworthy. We must find his voice on the matters of the spiritual life. I’d like to share a number of harmonic voices that have helped me explore God’s wisdom on the single life. This list is by no means conclusive; in fact, I would love to hear from single people about what they’re reading these days on Christian spirituality and the single life. I hope that in the end you are able to find your voice and add it to the harmony. Here are a few resources that impacted my life in a way that matured my spirituality as a single person and a couple of newer ones that I recently encountered:

Oldies But Goodies

  1. The Bible — Well, duh Captain Obvious. I know, but seriously; consider all of the single writers and characters of the Bible (e.g., Jesus, Paul, Jeremiah). Still further, consider the characters whom we observe both as single and married (e.g., Joseph, David, Ruth, Naomi, etc.). Clearly, God employs people who are single to advance his purposes on the world stage. God made us, understands us, and cares for us. What kind of theology of the single life might you gain from studying God’s word from this perspective?
  2. He That Is Spiritual — I’ve read this book several times. I’ve gone back to it again and again when teaching on the spiritual life. It was written by Lewis Sperry Chafer in 1918. The book is an exposition on the (1) Natural Person, (2) Spiritual Person, (3) Carnal Person (the Christian who should be mature, but isn’t), and (4) Spiritual Infant (a new Christian). For Chafer, the key to the spiritual life is understanding the ministries of the Holy Spirit available to you in Christ alone. As a single person, this book helped establish me on a path of seeking the filling of the Spirit and of trusting in his works of grace in my life. It helped me put away some childish things and embrace the responsibility for my spiritual life.
  3. Basic Theology — It doesn’t have to be this particular theology for you, but every single person should work though a volume on basic Christian theology. What do you believe? It’s important for you to know, and it’s important for you to be able to share. I went through Charles Ryrie’s Basic Theology numerous times. I used it for teaching early on in my ministry.
  4. Wild at Heart — Aimee, my wife, reminded me the other day how important this book was to me when we first met. She’s right. Wild at Heart was written by John Eldridge. This book is for men, but ladies, I hope you can find something that is equivalent. There comes a point in every adult’s life where they have to face their past—things that were in our control and things that were not but affected us nonetheless. This book helped me confess, heal, and advance as a man who wanted to experience God.
  5. I Kissed Dating GoodbyeThere are actually some interesting, current developments going on with this 90s–2000s classic. For me in my own experience, it exposed the sexual and emotional sewage in which I had been swimming. It showed me the lies that I’d believed about love, trust, dating, happiness, purity, and more. It helped me discern what matters at 50. It caused me to be honest about the sickness in my heart. It challenged me in the area of genuine friendship. Joshua Harris had some wise things to say back in 1997 that are still relevant today; however, he may be presently fine-tuning his thoughts on IKDG. As a new Christian in 2001 wondering what on earth Christian spirituality in dating was supposed to look like, this book helped me.
  6. The Book of Romance — Harris’ book deconstructed my non-biblical worldview for dating, but Tommy Nelson’s book helped build something new in its place. Nelson looks at the biblical book of the Song of Songs, and paints a beautiful picture of what romance can be like for the person who loves God.
  7. Passion and Purity — Elisabeth Elliot’s book interwove the spiritual life and the romantic life by means of her own story. As a man, the book gave me insight into a woman’s perspective. A new edition was released in 2002. She’s real about our passions; she’s tenacious about purity. She understands that whatever estate we may find ourselves in, our lives must be brought under Christ’s control and lordship.

Newbies

  1. Just Do Something — Every Christian at some point has to have a frank conversation about “God’s will” for their lives. If you’re like me, you needed more than one conversation to clear the fog. John MacArthur has a sermon that I have listened to again and again for years. More recently, Kevin DeYoung authored this book. I love the subtitle: A Liberating Approach to Finding God’s Will OR How To Make a Decision Without Dreams, Visions, Fleeces, Impressions, Open Doors, Random Bible Verses, Casting Lots, Liver Shivers, Writing in the Sky, Etc.
  2. Gospel Fluency — In the Christian’s spiritual life either at the beginning or at a point of revival or re-commitment, he or she must encounter the reality that the gospel of Jesus Christ is EVERYTHING. When it is replaced by some counterfeit, the whole of Christianity crumbles. Jeff Vanderstelt places the gospel on the throne of the spiritual life.
  3. Exploring Christian Theology — If Ryrie is a little too old school for you, then try this three-volume set. Don’t worry; each volume isn’t too terribly long. The authors are professors whom I spent time with in seminary, and they have really put together a great beginner’s theology that also connects with the devotional life.
  4. Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy — And may I add, single guy. Bonhoeffer was engaged, and he has some other books on that particular topic. However, his engagement was cut short. Eric Metaxas’ biography shows how God was at work in Bonhoeffer’s life and how he redeemed the time during evil days.
  5. Your Money Map — This book by Howard Dayton is one in a long line of succession from Larry Burkett’s influence. As a single Christian, one of the most beneficial things I did was to complete a financial workbook that gave me a sense of what God has to say about money. Single or married, a person needs to know how to handle money, or it will handle you!
  6. Living Together — In a world where cohabitation is on the rise and viewed as a smart thing to do, this book offers biblical insight and wisdom on the matter, particularly for those who find themselves in a situation to give advice. It’s written by my former pastor, Jeff VanGoethem. All the research says the same thing—cohabitation lays a poor foundation for marriage as a sacred covenant and as a life-long commitment. Single adults need to wake up about this, and the church needs to know how to approach the trend with grace and truth.

There are many more books that could or should be included. but these are some with which I have become familiar. I hope that you’ll let me know what book or stories God has used in your life as a single person. Face the challenges with courage. Embrace the joys with great delight. Remember that Jesus loves you; he has not lost track of you in the crowd. May the church be blessed by your presence.

The Torch Race

Lampadedromia

I had the privilege to spend 3 weeks in Athens, Greece last summer as part of a team whose task was to digitize thousands of pages of ancient manuscripts at the National Library in Athens. I was also able to find some time to visit many of the ancient ruins in Athens. I am reminded today of one ancient contest that was popular throughout Greece. You’ll think of the Olympic torch that we continue to watch today in the summer Olympics. Our modern ceremonial (rather than competitive) adaptation, ironically enough, began in the 1936 Summer Games in Berlin under Adolf Hitler, who had a fascination with ancient empires and their activities. In ancient times, the torch carrying was actually a ceremony and a competition between the 10 Athenian tribes. Contestants would race with a torch in one hand and many times a shield in the other, from one sacred site to another, at night, as the main event of various festivals. A contestant  or team of contestants, in some cases, won the race by arriving first at the designated finish with the torch still aflame. If the flame were to ever extinguish, then the runner or team disqualified itself. Hence, this is why some of the runners carried a shield—to guard the flame from opposing forces that may extinguish it. By ancient accounts, it was a daring, race. I read in one place that it could be a distance up to two miles. In Greek, the race was called the λαμπαδηδρομία or the “Torch Race.” Lampa meaning torch and dromia from the word for a race circuit or course. So, to win the Torch Race, you had to run hard; you had to run smart; you had to run together; and you had to run to finish.

The Race of Life

One ancient author reflecting near the end of his life wrote, “I have struggled/fought the good/worthy struggle; I have finished the race course; I have guarded the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7). This particular writer saw himself as a servant to his particular God, and in the previous context, he wrote that his life was like a drink offering, being poured out in service. Seeing that only drops of life remained, he reflected on his struggle, his race, and his faith. He described his struggle or fight as good, excellent, or useful. Opposition is implied. According to the University of Penn, another fascinating feature of the Torch Race is that if those who had lost the flame of their torch could overtake a runner who still possessed his torch, the torch would have to be surrendered to the prevailing runner. For these runners, the struggle was real. It took great skill and fight to endure.
Author Irving Stone has spent a lifetime studying greatness, writing novelized biographies of such men as Michelangelo and Vincent van Gogh. Stone was once asked if he had found a thread that runs through the lives of these exceptional people. He said,
I write about people who sometime in their life. . . have a vision or dream of something that should be accomplished . . . and they go to work. They are beaten over the head, knocked down, vilified and for years they get nowhere. But every time they’re knocked down they stand up. You cannot destroy these people. And at the end of their lives they’ve accomplished some modest part of what they set out to do. (Crossroads, Issue No. 7, p. 18.)
The author next states that he had finished his race course. It’s interesting to me that he didn’t use any of the possible Greek words that mean “to win” or “to gain victory.” This author demonstrates knowledge of such vocabulary in his other writings, but here he chooses the verb “to finish.” Perhaps, he chooses this word to maintain the metaphor of pouring out his life in service. Winning doesn’t quite fit as well as finishing or completing.
Two men among several traveled 674 miles from Nenana to Nome, Alaska in the 1925 serum run known as the Great Race of Mercy. They aimed to deliver medicine to a large diphtheria epidemic. Leonhard Seppala and his lead dog Togo covered the most hazardous and longest stretch of 91 miles, and the Norwegian, Gunnar Kaasen, and his lead dog Balto arrived on Front Street in Nome on February 2 at 5:30 a.m., just five and a half days later. These teams were trying to finish their race in service to others.
Lastly, the author writes that he has guarded the faith. The Torch Race image of the runner using his shield to guard and protect the flame of his torch. Without a lit torch at the end, a runner could not complete the Torch Race. The faith for this particular author referred to the total body of belief that he held concerning the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The faith that he guarded was his most precious, most valuable possession.
He believed that his fight, his race, and his aflame faith would receive a crown from the one who had the true worth and authority to reward contestants. At the end of the Torch Race, the victor received a major award. I read one account where I believe the victor received one bull and 100 drachma ($2500).

Season of Accomplishment

In all seriousness, my hope is that this graduation season encourages you on to more and greater things. No doubt you have fought to get here, and I hope that the struggle has proved useful for the next arena. Many of you reading this have finished and completed several years of school and coursework, and as someone who has spent many years in school, that is always something worth celebrating! I hope too that you have guarded something in your finishing. Like this ancient author, I hope that you too have kept the integrity of your faith aflame. Regardless of your background, I think that we can all agree that there are precious things, like faith, integrity, honesty, hope, peace, and so on, that must accompany us to the finished line in order to make the finish line all that it is meant to be.
So, I pray now that you will endure the struggle ahead—looking for the meaning and the profit of the struggle, determine to finish your race, and figure out the most precious things in life and guard those things as you go. And as you pour out your life, may your reward be blessed.

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.