Advance the Indispensability of Jesus Together

The Surprising Dispensability of the Leader

The 2014 NCAA Football season for the Ohio State Buckeyes had as many twists and turns as your favorite roller coaster ride. On two occasions, injuries threatened to undo their successful run. As a fan of the Buckeyes, I remember watching the quarterback situation unfold, and after each injury thinking—“That guy is indispensable; the season’s over.” Each time, the next guy who stepped in proved me wrong.

In August, starting quarterback, Braxton Miller, was injured and out for the remainder of the season. Second-string quarterback, J. T. Barrett, replaced Miller, and he continued the Buckeyes success on the field. However, in November of that same season, Barrett was injured and would miss the remaining games, including any Bowl games or Championship attempt.

The weight of the season fell upon third-string, red shirt sophomore Cardale Jones. The first start of his college career took place in the Big Ten Championship against the Wisconsin Badgers. Jones led the Buckeyes to a 59–0 blowout victory. Next, he started in the Allstate Sugar Bowl against the number one ranked, the dreaded Alabama Crimson Tide. Jones led the Buckeyes to a Sugar Bowl victory, 42–35. Then, it was onto the National Championship Game against the Oregon Ducks. Jones’ success continued and delivered a 42–20 win against the Ducks and a 2014 National Championship to the Buckeyes.

Over the years, I’ve had similar, personal experiences when I’ve had the privilege to work with young, pastoral interns. I am convinced that most if not all of them will accomplish far more than I ever will for the kingdom if they continue to follow our Lord faithfully. They will soon catch up and surpass me in the things that once made me their superior (i.e., the one leading the internship). Be it education, tech savvy, experience, networking, or ability; I am confident (and hopeful) that they will go far beyond whatever reach I may have in my lifetime for the gospel.

Which means this: I am dispensable.

The Dispensable Steward of the Indispensable Promise

In our study of Genesis, we are finishing up the Abrahamic story. He’s a pivotal figure in the unfolding of the program of God—his calling, his faith, his experience. Yet, he dies. He dies while the promises of God are barely realized. We can’t help but feel that the Patriarch of the patriarchs drew his last breath before his time—even if he was 175 years old.

Concerning Abraham’s death, Allen Ross writes in his commentary on Genesis entitled Creation & Blessing,

The message in this part is straightforward: believers will die, and so they must ensure that the work begun in them by God will continue as God desires. It may be through their children, children in the faith, or by some other means; but no one may personalize the program so that no thought is given to the next generation . . . Even though faithful believers die, the program of God to bless the world continues . . . We’re part of something much bigger than ourselves . . . No one is indispensable in God’s program. Good people die (some when they’re young and some when they’re old), and others take up the task to continue God’s program.

So, the question begs, “If I am dispensable (and I am), then what indispensable thing can I hand off to the next generation?” What thing of lasting, eternal substance and weight can I pass on that will endure — come what may in the world?

Think back to Abraham’s journey of faith. The longer he walked in the light of God’s promise, the more singular and pure his faith and devotion became to that promise. The major turning point happens in chapter 22, when he has to offer up Isaac. The writer of Hebrews gives us divine commentary on the event:

By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac. He had received the promises, yet he was ready to offer up his only son. God had told him, “Through Isaac descendants will carry on your name,” and he reasoned that God could even raise him from the dead, and in a sense he received him back from there (11:17–19).

Whether it was his belief that God could raise Isaac from the dead, his actions to secure a burial site at the Cave of Machpelah in Canaan, or his efforts to select Isaac as his sole heir, all these things reveal that Abraham had finally captured what was truly indispensable — it was the promise. He realized that the promise was much bigger than him. Abraham may have been the initial partner in the bilateral agreement; he didn’t view himself as the sole owner and beneficiary of the blessings. The patriarch came to realize his role as the dispensable steward of the indispensable promise.

Now, don’t misunderstand. By saying that Abraham was dispensable, I’m not implying that he didn’t have worth as a person or that he wasn’t important to God — obviously he was and is. However, as the biblical story demonstrates, even he was replaceable. His own life and position was not superior to the program of God. Think of the links in a chain. Every link is important, and every link has to steward the weight that bears upon it for the whole chain to complete its purpose and job. Yet, we also recognize that a link in a chain can be replaced by the one who created it and gave it purpose.

Stewarding the Indispensable

As Abraham’s faith matured, he understood his stewardship better and his actions aligned accordingly. Here are three ways his mature faith strengthened his stewardship of the promise:

  1. He sacrificially stewarded the promise. His faith in the promise of God led him to believe in the power of God to raise the dead.
  2. He securely stewarded the promise. His faith in the promise of God caused him to make decisions that aligned with the details of God’s promise, regarding its location in Canaan.
  3. He selectively stewarded the promise. His faith in the promise of God brought a singular focus on God’s selection of Isaac.

Today, we are charged with being the dispensable stewards of the indispensable promise of God in Jesus Christ. In what way has the story of Abraham challenged you to mature in your faith and stewardship of the gospel of Jesus Christ?

The power of God in the resurrection of Jesus Christ—I believe—provides us with incredible room and liberty to steward the gospel sacrificially. Having demonstrated that he can raise the dead, what sacrifice is there that should cause us hesitation or doubt? At the end of Paul’s famous chapter on the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15, he writes, “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” The reality of the resurrection frees us to sacrificially steward the gospel for the next generation. Here’s the list of sacrifices mentioned in the New Testament, enabled by the power of the resurrection:

  • The Sacrifice of Our Bodily Activities for the Benefit of Others and the Glory of God (Rom. 12:1).
  • The Sacrifice of Selfless Love (Eph. 5:2).
  • The Sacrifice of Pouring Out Your Life for the Community (Phil. 2:17).
  • The Sacrifice of Generosity with Money (Phil. 4:18).
  • The Sacrifice of Praise, Good Deeds, and Sharing/Fellowship (Heb. 13:15–16).
  • The Sacrifice of a Spiritual Life (1 Pet. 2:5 and following).

When Abraham purchased the field and burial plot in Machpelah, he sent a clear message—“I believe the promise, and I’m not turning back.” What decisions do you need to make in order to prepare and position the next generation to receive and pass on the gospel?

I think one of the most important ways we can securely steward the gospel to the next generation is by making clear decisions that allow young people to see the unique value and power of the gospel in our lives. When they look at your bank statement, do they see a clear commitment to the gospel? Do they see the clear priority of the gospel in your family calendar? When they watch your marriage, do they see mom and dad clearly yielding to the Spirit in their dying to sin and raising to a new and better way? Do they see grandma and grandpa’s clear decision not to ever retire from ministry and service, even though they’ve retired from their vocations?

In Abraham’s day, Isaac was God’s clear choice. He was selective—he did not choose Ishmael or the sons of Keturah. The program of blessing selectively continued through Isaac. Today, God’s selection to continue his program of blessing is Jesus Christ, his beloved Son. Therefore, I believe that we selectively steward the gospel by making Christ visible to a watching world. “Throw some paint on the Invisible Man”; through our words and deeds, let’s give shape to Jesus and the announcement of his good news. Convict the world of sin; convince them of God’s love; and call them to the truth.

We learn from the apostles’ example in the book of Acts that the best way to help people “see Jesus” is to get out where they are with our works and message. While this may imply “leaving the building” so to speak, it may also mean employing the building and its programs or ministries to meet people where they are in life. So, if you believe that God has selected to continue his program of blessing through Jesus Christ alone, what are you doing to help paint this picture for people? How are you stewarding God’s selection of Jesus?

Blessing Beyond Our Lifetime

If we steward the gospel of Jesus sacrificially, securely, and selectively, then we will pass on that which is indispensable to the next generation. We’ll build momentum that will last beyond our lifetime. We will effectively be the dispensable stewards of the indispensable promise. 

In the epic story of The Lord of the Rings there is only one truth, one promise that was indispensable — the ring of power had to be destroyed in the fire of Mount Doom. Before they destroyed the ring, everyone believed the fulfillment of the promise depended upon someone bearing the ring to the fire. After the fulfillment, everyone believed it to be the key event that ushered in an era of blessing.

Along the journey the team members who joined the fellowship to destroy the ring proved dispensable stewards of the indispensable promise. They sacrificed for it, secured it, and devoted to this promise with a singular aim. They advanced the cause together and experienced the blessings of the finished work together. By mature faith in the promise, they passed on blessing that would last far beyond their lifetime. Before us today is the opportunity to advance the indispensability of Jesus together. I pray that we’ll steward it well.

Creation and Evolution: Introducing Genesis

Creation Genesis

Creation Evolution Ancient Hebrew Universe

Creation. Evolution. Ancient and Modern people have observe(d) the universe. Above, you’ll see the ancient Hebrew conception of the universe. The ancient Hebrews were also surrounded by various and diverse cultural and theological narratives about the origin of all things. In our day, there are also many opinions — some emphasize theology, some emphasize science, some trying to harmonize the two — regarding the origin of the universe. I hope that the notes and resources shared below assist you in gaining a better grasp at what is being said in the early chapters of Genesis.

 

Helpful Definitions for Creation and Evolution

Evolution

It is the gradual development of something, especially from a simple to a more complex form. Micro-evolution is evolutionary change within a species or small group of organisms, especially over a short period. Macro-evolution is major evolutionary transition from one type of organism to another occurring at the level of the species and higher taxa.

Natural Selection

The process whereby organisms better adapted to their environment tend to survive and produce more offspring is called natural selection. The theory of its action was first fully expounded by Charles Darwin and is now believed to be the main process that brings about evolution. If I understand it correctly, atheistic evolutionists would say that natural selection is the “mind” behind evolution. However, theistic evolutionists would believe that God is the “mind” behind the use of natural selection in the natural processes of evolution.

Creation

Creation is the bringing into existence of the universe, especially when regarded as an act of God ex nihilo (“out of nothing”).

Abiogenesis

It is the original evolution of life or living organisms from inorganic or inanimate substances. Spontaneous Generation was one hypothesis of abiogenesis. This is the supposed production of living organisms from nonliving matter, as inferred from the apparent appearance of life in some supposedly sterile environments. Dismissed in 18th century. Biopoiesis is a more recent articulation of abiogenesis, which is a process by which living organisms are thought to develop from nonliving matter, and the basis of a theory on the origin of life on Earth. According to this theory, conditions were such that, at one time in Earth’s history, life was created from nonliving material, probably in the sea, which contained the necessary chemicals. During this process, molecules slowly grouped, then regrouped, forming ever more efficient means for energy transformation and becoming capable of reproduction.

Epistemology

Epistemology is the study of how humans know things, or acquire knowledge. The Christian understand both science and revelation to be sources of human knowledge.

General Revelation

The universe is believed to be one way in which God has chosen to make himself and certain attributes known to all people.

Special Revelation

The Bible, the incarnation of Jesus Christ, miracles are special ways in which God has chosen to make himself known to people at various places and at various times. We learn many more specifics about God and his nature through special revelation.

Christian Views on Origins and Creation

Theistic Evolution

God created the universe and everything in it by means of natural processes. See BioLogos for detailed articles and videos explaining this view.

Gap Theory

Creation Evolution Gap Theory
from Blue Letter Bible Article “Nine Views of Creation”
God intends the reader of Scripture and Creation to understand an unspecified but implied “Gap” between Genesis 1:1 and Genesis 1:2. A variation of this theory is called the Restoration Theory. The Scofield Reference Bible study notes explain the Gap Theory, and Dr. Tony Evans articulates the Restoration Theory in his writings and sermons on Spiritual Warfare. Genesis 1:2 describes the earth as an unfurnished, unsightly, wasteland shrouded in darkness. Gap Theory proponents ascribe this to the fall of Satan and its effect upon the earth.

Day-Age Theory

The term “day” in Genesis 1 represents ages or eras of creation rather than literal 24-hour days.

Apparent-Age Theory

God created the universe and everything in it with apparent age. As the wine Jesus created from water in John 2 had apparent age, so then did the universe come into being with maturity.

Punctuated 24-Hour Theory

While the term “day” is a literal, 24-hour day, the Punctuated Theory teaches that there were unspecified “gaps” between each day of creation.

Scientific Creationism

Scientific Creationism aims to provide scientific support for the literal reading of the narrative of Genesis 1 and holds that the earth is young (e.g., approximately 10,000 or so years old). Henry Morris and the group Answers in Genesis are two of the leading proponents of this view.

24-Hour Interpretation

This view, like the one previously mentioned, holds to a straightforward reading of Genesis 1. “Day” means a literal 24-hour day. It does not differ significantly from the previous view. Perhaps, they should be combined. One variation that may occur is that Scientific Creationism may at times look at its particular interpretation of scientific data in order to arrive at the young earth, 24-hour view; whereas, the 24-hour interpretation tries to start with Scripture.

Instantaneous Creation

Some early church writers such as Augustine and Origen believed that God created the universe virtually instantaneously, wondering something like, “Why would it take God a whole day to create the universe by the power of his word?” Therefore, the “day” in Genesis 1 was not literal for them, but different than many Christians today who look to “add” time to the “day,” instead they sought to “shrink” the day to an instant.

Framework Interpretation

Creation Evolution Framework
from Blue Letter Bible article “Nine Views of Creation”
This view also attempts to start with Scripture and work out toward explanation of origins and creation. It views the “days” of creation as providing a framework for understanding creations kingdoms and their respective kings. Therefore, it does not understand the intent of the original author as trying to give us a literal rendering of the origin of the universe, but rather than chronology, the aim of Genesis 1 is to give the theological ordering of the creation.

Historical Creationism

This interesting view, represented most recently by John H. Sailhamer, teaches that the creation of the universe is recorded in Genesis 1:1. The verses following detail God’s creation of Eden and his preparation of it for his people. Theologically, “Eden” continues to function throughout the story of the Bible as the place of blessing to which God is calling his people to return. It shares similarities with the Gap Theory. The “place of blessing” theme can be seen and realized in God’s call of Israel to the promised land and in God’s call of the church into the heavenly city, the new Jerusalem.

Temple Creation

John Walton’s works The Lost World of Genesis One and Genesis 1 As Ancient Cosmology are also theological renderings of Genesis 1. He claims that Genesis 1 describes God creating a temple for himself on the earth, which he calls the garden of Eden. This temple theme can be traced throughout Scripture — the tabernacle, the temple, the church, and finally a “return to Eden” in the new heaven and new earth.

Essential Considerations for the Christian

  1. Christians everywhere for all times have believed that the God of the Bible is the “great Cause” of the universe. The Apostles’ Creed says, “We believe in God the Father almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.” We must hold to God as Creator.
  2. Humanity is God’s special, most unique creation. A linguistic analysis of Genesis 1, such as the one performed by Robert Bergen in the book Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith?, reveals that the author’s clear intention is to cause the reader to focus on verses 24–31 as the central episode of the narrative. The rest of Scripture affirms the uniqueness of humanity among created things. Therefore, the Christian’s view of origins and creation—whatever it may be—must also affirm the unique place of humanity in God’s creation purposes. I believe this also carries significant ethical implications.
  3. The one man-sin-death theme is carefully woven through the entire biblical narrative. Whether Adam is the literal first man or is the divinely appointed federal head of humanity, the Christian must somehow maintain this theme in his or her view of origins and creation. Further and in my opinion, the most difficult harmonization between Christian theology and evolutionary theory is the role of death in each narrative. There seems to be no way to interpret death as a positive feature or experience in the biblical story. It is an enemy to be overcome by resurrection. Yet, in typical evolutionary theory, death is a vehicle of positive process and development. To some, it is something that helps creation develop and flourish; to others, it is in the very least necessary, even if unpleasant.
  4. The Bible is authoritative, and I believe in the inerrancy of Scripture, so long as such a view of inerrancy is informed with regard to literary genres and their required needs for interpretation. The church everywhere and for all times has always believed in the authority of the Scriptures. So, how does today’s Christian manage the authority of Scripture with the authority of Science? It is a delicate walk; yet I believe that there is a way to do it, even to find harmony between the two. I have to, because I believe the same God who revealed himself in the Bible is the same God who makes himself known in study of the universe. May we be humble and astounded by the greatness of our God in our pursuit and study of his world and his word.

The Epistle of James: Godly Living in an Ungodly World

Epistle of James

Epistle of James: Godly Living in an Ungodly World

On Sunday, we concluded our 5-month study of the Epistle of James. What a challenging message! We explored various themes for Godly Living in an Ungodly World. Here, I am providing the title to each sermon, and the basic outline that accompanied each sermon. I hope you are able to use this in your personal Bible study in James and perhaps as you have opportunities to lead others in the study of this book of the Bible.

Epistle of James: Sermon Series Titles and Outline

Introduction: Explore Godly Living in an Ungodly World (1:1) 
  • The Author: James, the brother of Jesus Christ
  • The Date & Place of Writing: Mid-forties A.D. from Palestine
  • The Setting in Life: The difficulties, persecution, economic oppression, and community disharmony of Palestinian and scattered Jewish Christians in the 1st century Roman world.
  • The Form & Content of the Letter: The letter appears to be an edition of James’ own sermons covering such themes as suffering, wisdom, regeneration, a primitive Christology and eschatology echoing the teachings and sayings of Jesus himself, poverty & wealth, the tongue, and the relationship of law, grace, faith, and works of charity. James’ use of “my brothers” or “brothers” is a notable feature and guide throughout the letter.
The Godly Person Endures Tests Joyfully for Maturity (1:2–4).
  • Don’t Divert, but Direct Your Thinking During Tests (1:2–3).
  • Don’t Divert, But Develop Your Endurance During Tests (1:4).
The Godly Person Stays on Track to Maturity by Praying for Wisdom in Testing (1:5–8).
  • Two Problems May Derail Maturing Faith in Testing (1:5a, 6b–8).
  • Two Solutions Will Keep You on Track to Maturing Faith in Testing (1:5b–6a).
The Godly Person Calculates Life by Eternal, Not Temporal, Wealth (1:9–11).
  • The Poor Christian Must Look for Godly Glory Because of Eternal Renewal (1:9, 11).
  • The Rich Person Must Look for Godly Dependance Because of the Eternal Reversal (1:10–11).
The Godly Person Perseveres to Eternal Life through Testing by the New Birth (1:12–18).
  • Persevere to Eternal Life (1:12).
  • Persevere Through Internal Temptation (1:13–15).
  • Persevere by the Internal Transformation of the New Birth (1:16–18).
The Godly Person Heeds Wisdom’s Warning about Anger by Hospitably Hosting the Gospel (1:19–21).
  • Heed Wisdom’s Warning about Anger (1:19).
  • Hunger for God’s Justice Instead of Anger (1:20).
  • Hospitably Host the Regenerating Word for Transformation (1:21).
The Godly Person Perseveres Beyond Hearing to Doing the Word (1:22–25).
  • Beware Deception about the Regenerating Word (1:22).
  • Blessing Belongs to Those Who Persevere Beyond Hearing to Doing (1:23–25).
The Godly Person Awakes to Regenerate Religion (1:26–27).
  • Wake Up from Dead Religion (1:26).
  • Wake Up to Living Religion (1:27).
The Godly Person Pulverizes Partiality Out of His/Her Faith – Part 1 (2:1–7).
  • Heal Community Poverty (2:1–7).
    • Let Jesus Level You (2:1).
    • Obey Your Calling As a Good Judge (2:2–4).
    • Share God’s Burden for the Poor (2:5).
    • Evaluate Whose Side You’re On (2:6–7).
The Godly Person Pulverizes Partiality Out of His/Her Faith – Part 2 (2:8–13).
  • Heal Spiritual Poverty (2:8–13).
    • Live Under the Royal Law of Liberty (2:8–12).
    • Love Mercy More Than Strict Justice (2:13).
The Godly Person Has a Regenerate Faith That Extends Life (2:14–17).
  • Into Eternity (2:14).
  • To Others (2:15–16).
  • By Works (2:17).
The Godly Person Proves His/Her Faith Profession by Corresponding Works (2:18–26).
  • Close the Gap between Faith and Works (2:18).
  • Complete Your Faith (2:19–25).
  • Capture the Correlation (2:26).
The Godly Person Steers the Tongue to Arrive at Maturity by Limiting and Harnessing It (3:1–5a).
  • Limit Tongues That Teach (3:1–2).
  • Harness the Tongue’s Teaching Influence (3:3–5a).
The Godly Person Sparks a Revival of Words (3:5b–12).
  • Trade Hell’s Spark for Heaven’s Spark (3:5b–6).
  • Trade Hell’s Tongue for Heaven’s Tongue (3:7–12).
  • Trade Hell’s Heart for Heaven’s Heart (cf. 1:18, 21; Mt. 15:7–20).
The Godly Person Harvests Harmony with Heaven’s Wisdom (3:13–18).
  • Evidence Your Leadership (3:13).
  • Evict the Party Spirit (3:14–16).
  • Exchange for Heaven’s Wisdom (3:17).
The Godly Person Weeps over His Words Today for a Better Harvest Tomorrow (4:1–10).
  • Weep over Your Desires for War in the Congregation (4:1–3).
  • Weep Like an Adulterer Discovered by a Jealous Spouse (4:4–5).
  • Weep to Find Grace for a Better Harvest (4:6–10).
The Godly Person Places His Words Under God’s Authority (4:11–17).
  • Place Your Social Words Under God’s Authority (4:11–12).
  • Place Your Vocational Words Under God’s Authority (4:13–17).
The Godly Person B.A.N.K.S. on God’s Justice for the Oppressed (5:1–6).
  • Beware the Miseries of Wealth Gained by Exploitation (5:1–3).
  • Attend to the Cries of the Oppressed (5:4).
  • Neglect Luxury, Not Justice (5:5).
  • Keep the Lord Jesus in View (5:6).
The Godly Person Energizes Endurance in the Church by Elevating Faith in Christ’s Return (5:7–12).
  • Christ’s Return Energizes Perseverance of the Saints (5:7–8).
  • Christ’s Return Energizes Community Harmony (5:9).
  • Christ’s Return Energizes Ancient Hope (5:10–11).
  • Christ’s Return Energizes Daily Truthfulness (5:12)
The Godly Person Cares for the Condition of the Congregation (5:13–20 & Conclusion).
  • Cry Out with the Sufferer (5:13a).
  • Cheer with the Cheerful (5:13b).
  • Confess with the Sick (5:13c–16b).
  • Consider the Powerful Prophet (5:16c–18).
  • Call the Wanderer Home (5:19–20).

The Seven Spiritual Laws of the Harvest—Sow Peace to Harvest Peace

Harvest

These seven principles come from an article entitled “The Seven Laws of the Harvest” written by J. Hampton Keathley III. Find the full article at Bible.org.

  1. We Reap Only What We Sow.
  2. We Reap the Same in Kind As We Sow.
  3. We Reap in a Different Season Than We Sow.
  4. We Reap More Than We Sow.
  5. We Reap in Proportion to What We Sow.
  6. We Reap the Fullness of the Good Only If We Persevere, Because the Evil Comes to the Field on Its Own.
  7. We Cannot Change Last Year’s Harvest, But We Can Learn and Grow for This Year’s.

Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.

(James 3:13–18 ESV)

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.

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.

From Lament to Life: Remembering Jesus As a Fellow-Sufferer

Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah:

“A voice was heard in Ramah,
weeping and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.”

(Matthew 2:16–18)

While perusing the Facebook newsfeed one day this December, I noticed a link that a friend had posted from Crossway Publishers that described a dramatic poetry reading from Pastor John Piper called The Innkeeper. As I listened, I began to realize where the story was headed, and I discovered two reactions in my soul—first, I was surprised that I had never considered the powerful implications behind the text of Matthew 2:16–18, which is quoted for you above; and second, I was determined to take a deeper look at this text.

[Watch The Innkeeper by John Piper.]

Matthew 2:18 is the fourth Old Testament (OT) passage quoted in Matthew’s Gospel, which indicates that the writer establishes early on that he intends to interact heavily with the OT as he writes about the life, death, and resurrection of the Messiah. I tend to agree with Blomberg and Hagner on the reason for Matthew’s oft quoting of the Old Testament,

Again, in Matthew’s perspective Jesus is understood as summarizing the whole experience of Israel as well as bringing it to fulfillment.

For example, the previous paragraph quotes Hosea 11:1 in Matthew 2:15, “Out of Egypt I called my son.” Hosea is referring to Israel’s experience of the exodus out of Egypt. Like Israel, Jesus too would be called out of Egypt.

Moving to the primary text of this article, Matthew 2:16–18 paints a grim scene. As we recite Matthew’s telling of the Christmas story this year, we should not skip over this part. The passage can be divided into two parts: (1) The Wrath of Herod upon Bethlehem and (2) The Weeping of Rachel at Ramah.

The Wrath of Herod upon Bethlehem

Remember, Herod was not the the first to order the slaying of young Hebrews. Do you recall what happened in the days of Moses? Remember how Pharaoh ordered the Hebrew midwives to execute the male Hebrew children? The Hebrew midwives feared God (Ex. 1:17) and refused to obey the command of the king of Egypt. Although I am not certain, I wonder if the Hebrews in their oppression began to remember the promises of God to their fathers, believed that God may send a deliverer to them, and therefore, the midwives feared and obeyed God rather than Pharaoh because they were waiting for a deliverer? We do know that the people of Israel began crying out to God for help (Ex. 2:23–25). In the face of tragedy, God sovereignly raised up Moses in the midst of Egypt to deliver his people from bondage.

The wrath of Herod fueled by his wounded pride brought great tragedy upon the town of Bethlehem. Apparently, it took place nearly two years after Jesus was born. As indicated in 2:16, Herod had calculated the number of years based upon the previous information he had received from the magi, and in calculating the number, he determined to execute a raw expression of his rage. Every male child two years of age and under in Bethlehem and the surrounding region was mowed down to the grave by Herod’s soldiers. Can you imagine being a parent in Bethlehem at that time? No warning. No refuge. The life of your child taken away—and perhaps your own—because you were the town that made room for the Deliverer. A tender population of your town wiped out because you sovereignly became associated with the Son of God. Bethlehem was not a booming metropolis. Estimates during the reign of Herod suggest that approximately one thousand people populated the town, from which we may gather that possibly “twenty boys would be born in two years, and several of those would have died in infancy” (from R. T. France, “Herod and the Children of Bethlehem”). However, even though we are only talking about the slaying of a dozen or so young boys, the tremors of tragedy reach deep into the context of a small town. The whole town feels it, and whether directly or indirectly affected, such a thing became part of everyone’s story. The history books have no record of Herod’s attack upon the children of Bethlehem, but God did not forget and chose Matthew to remind us of the price Bethlehem paid for its association with the new born King.

The Weeping of Rachel at Ramah

While the life and experience of Jesus in Matthew seems to have some parallels with Moses’ day, Matthew 2:17 reveals to us that Matthew primarily has in mind the words of the prophet Jeremiah, which are then quoted in 2:18. Jeremiah 31:15 is the exact reference here. Remember, Jeremiah lived during the tragic days of the Babylonian captivity and the fall of Jerusalem. Besides a brief period of revival and reform under king Josiah, Jeremiah faithfully and painfully proclaimed the word of God to idolatrous Israel. However, Jeremiah 31 is a rare chapter filled primarily with hope of restoration following the captivity. In verse 15, the message of hope digresses for just a moment because the Lord hears the lament of Ramah, the weeping of Rachel as her children are led through the town into captivity. Ramah was a town located approximately 8km north of Jerusalem. Interestingly, Bethlehem was located about 7–8km south of Jerusalem and was located along the same road. Even so, Matthew’s parallel between Ramah and Bethlehem is more than geographical—it is social, emotional, and theological. Blomberg further highlights the appropriateness of Matthew’s connection between Ramah and Bethlehem—they were both towns familiar with sadness and suffering. There is also one more thing that draws these two towns together—Rachel. Rachel was thought to have died and been buried near Ramah (1 Samuel 10:2) while Jacob and his family were on their way to Bethlehem (Genesis 35.16–21). Therefore, these two towns have a connection in biblical history, both being marked by the weeping Rachel, the mother of all Israel. Returning to Jeremiah 31, Rachel was heard weeping over her children as they were taken away into captivity to Babylon. She struggles to be comforted even by God’s promise to restore her children. Thus, Matthew once again sees Rachel weeping for her children in 2:16–18 when he compares the pain of the Babylonian captivity to the ruthless slaughter at Bethlehem. This is a fitting comparison, for where else could he have gone but to the darkest period in Israel’s history to describe the pain and mourning of the families of Bethlehem?

From Lament to Life

Just as there was suffering in the midst of the grand promise given by God and proclaimed through the prophet Jeremiah, there was suffering in the midst of the fulfillment of that promise when the Son of God became incarnate. Consider the words of comfort given by the Lord through the prophet Jeremiah to the weeping Rachel:

The LORD says to her,
“Stop crying! Do not shed any more tears!
For your heartfelt repentance will be rewarded.
Your children will return from the land of the enemy.
I, the LORD, affirm it!
Indeed, there is hope for your posterity.
Your children will return to their own territory.
I, the LORD, affirm it!
I have indeed heard the people of Israel say mournfully,
‘We were like a calf untrained to the yoke.
You disciplined us and we learned from it.
Let us come back to you and we will do so,
for you are the LORD our God.
For after we turned away from you we repented.
After we came to our senses we beat our breasts in sorrow.
We are ashamed and humiliated
because of the disgraceful things we did previously.’
Indeed, the people of Israel are my dear children.
They are the children I take delight in.
For even though I must often rebuke them,
I still remember them with fondness.
So I am deeply moved with pity for them
and will surely have compassion on them.
I, the LORD, affirm it!

(Jeremiah 31:16–20)

The proclamation of hope and restoration is accompanied by the future repentance and turning of Rachel’s children back to the Lord. God sent them into exile due to their idolatry and rebellion against him. But what are we to make of Bethlehem? Why the slaughter? We know why Judah was taken away into Babylon. But why this tragedy upon Bethlehem? Ultimately, I don’t know. Evil happenings in our world escape the reaches of human reason much of the time. Yet, I do know that they do not escape the reach of my all-knowing God, and I do take comfort in him because of this.

I feel that there is also one other possible explanation (perhaps among many) that may speak to us about this tragedy in Bethlehem that accompanied the glory of the Lord’s birth. Bethlehem sovereignly became associated with the Messiah. Which causes us to ask, what does it mean to be sovereignly associated with the Messiah? What a wonderful thought for meditation this Christmas season. Listen to what Dale Allison writes,

Jesus is literally sympathetic; that is, he suffers along with others. His identity as God’s beloved Son (3:17; 11:25–30; 17:5) does not render him immune from agony or despair. He is, on the contrary, especially subject to misfortune and pain: in Matthew’s story, Jesus suffers far more than anyone else. The savior is the innocent victim writ large. Now for those who believe in him, there is surely something reassuring in this. One recalls Heb. 4:14–15 and 5:8, where Jesus learns through suffering and so can sympathize with human weakness. Suffering shared is more easily endured. And as in Hebrews, so in Matthew: the principle has become christological. It is not just that one does not suffer alone, but precisely that one suffers in the company of Jesus, God’s Son. This must mean that the divinity does not remain aloof from suffering, for God knows the Son (11:27) and the Son knows suffering. If the Son is a person of sorrows, acquainted with grief, his Father must likewise be beset by grief and sorrow. This does not, to be sure, do anything to unravel the mystery of iniquity. It does, however, put God on the side of the hapless Rachel weeping for her children, and on the side of the disciples tossed grievously to and fro by persecution. And perhaps that thought matters far more than any rational apologetic.

Matthew knew very well what it meant to be sovereignly associated with Messiah—it meant he would take a journey from lament into life. You see when Jesus called Matthew to follow him (see Matthew 9), he would have been best described as a publican thug, barred from the temple and the synagogue because of his sins and treason against his own people. However, there is good reason to think that at some point, Matthew developed a heart for God (how else did he know so much of the Old Testament?!). Yet, the religious scene of his day did not allow him to seek God. Then, Jesus comes along and says to him, “Follow me.” Matthew perhaps did not know what was in store for him at that point, but as he followed Jesus, he surely came to realize that to be associated with Jesus meant a life associated with Jesus’ suffering but also with his glory.

I suppose now that Rachel may still be weeping for her children to return to the Messiah. However, perhaps there is also hope stirring in her soul because from afar she saw the birth of a new covenant, she saw Messiah conquer the enemies of her soul, and now she awaits repentance and revival as God promised to her.

What is it to be associated with the Messiah this Christmas? Is it not to believe in him and be saved—the glory of salvation? And is it not to willingly suffer with him and for him in a dark and unbelieving world? Is it not as Paul said, “It has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake” (Philippians 1:29)? At the close of The Innkeeper poem referred to above, the Lord Jesus responds to Jacob’s tears of sorrow and faithfulness with the following,

I am the boy

That Herod wanted to destroy.

You gave my parents room to give

Me life, and then God let me live,

And took your wife. Ask me not why

The one should live, another die.

God’s ways are high, and you will know

In time. But I have come to show

You what the Lord prepared the night

You made a place for heaven’s light.

In two weeks they will crucify

My flesh. But mark this, Jacob, I

Will rise in three days from the dead,

And place my foot upon the head

Of him who has the power of death,

And I will raise with life and breath

Your wife and Ben and Joseph too

And give them, Jacob, back to you

With everything the world can store,

And you will reign for evermore.”

This is the gift of candle three:
A Christ with tears in tragedy

And life for all eternity.

May the love of Christ cause you to rejoice in hope, endure in suffering, and persist in prayer this Christmas and beyond as you follow Jesus to the cross and into glory.