Home: The Elusive Search for Place, Belonging, Rest, & Origin

Home

Where Is Home?

For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God.
(Hebrews 11:10 ESV)

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines home in multiple ways:

  • one’s place of residence
  • the social unit formed by a family living together
  • a familiar or usual setting,” related to this is the idiom at home, which means “relaxed or comfortable, in harmony with the surroundings, or on familiar ground
  • a place of origin

What about you? How would you define home? The dictionary definitions may be narrowed even further to (1) a location, (2) a people, (3) rest and harmony, and (4) origin.

My personal experience, which I realize that everyone may not share, is that home can be elusive. Here is what I mean. As you get older, home changes . . . locations may change; the people who make up home may change; the familiar expectation of rest and harmony may change too. However, young people and children can also experience these changes to home. Sometimes the changes that come upon a home are a calling into a new adventure and opportunity for growth — for example, higher education, an opportunity to advance a career, serving God’s mission, building a new house, an adoption or foster care, etc. Yet, sometimes the changes that come upon a home are the result of unexpected tragedies or unplanned invasions into the dreams that you had — death of a loved one, a house that burned down, divorce, job loss, abuse of all kinds, disease that requires special care, etc. Maybe you haven’t been able to put words to the feeling before, but I bet in some way or fashion many of us have asked, “Where is home?”

Another element of elusiveness is added when you begin to follow Jesus as a Christian. Perhaps the old Southern Gospel song, “This World Is Not My Home” says it best,

This world is not my home, I’m just a passin’ through
My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue;
The angels beckon me from heaven’s open door
And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.

Chorus
O Lord, You know I have no friend like You,
If heaven’s not my home, then Lord what will I do?
The angels beckon me from heaven’s open door,
And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.

They’re all expecting me, and that’s one thing I know,
My Savior pardoned me and now I onward go;
I know He’ll take me thro’ tho’ I am and weak and poor,
And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.

I have a loving Savior up in glory-land,
I don’t expect to stop until I with Him stand,
He’s waiting now for me in heaven’s open door,
And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.

Just up in glory-land, we’ll live eternally,
The saints on every hand are shouting victory,
Their songs of sweetest praise drift back from heaven’s shore,
And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.

For the Christian, there is a search for a new location to call home; there is a search to belong to a family that isn’t bound by a loyalty made merely of earthly flesh and blood (c.f., Mark 3:31–35); there is a longing for true rest and perfect harmony. I would even say that there is an ancient longing of origin—when a person comes to know God as Creator, Father, and Savior, the idea of origin and returning to a place and people of origin takes on a new meaning. Consider these words from the writer of Hebrews:

These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city (Hebrews 11:13–16 ESV).

Abraham, for example, searched for this city— “For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God” (Hebrews 11:10 ESV). Was Canaan all that Abraham searched for? Was Sinai all that Moses and Israel searched for?

For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them. For they could not endure the order that was given, ‘If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned.’ Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, ‘I tremble with fear (Hebrews 12:18–21 ESV).

Even the earthly Jerusalem on Mt. Zion appears to have been only a pattern shaped after a better city of promise,

On the holy mount stands the city he founded; the LORD loves the gates of Zion more than all the dwelling places of Jacob. Glorious things of you are spoken, O city of God (Psalms 87:1–3 ESV).

But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel (Hebrews 12:18–24 ESV).

If you look closely, you’ll see in the previous verses that there is (1) a location—the heavenly Jerusalem, (2) a community—innumerable angels, the assembly of the firstborn, and the spirits of the righteous, (3) rest and harmony—festal gathering, made perfect, the mediator of a new covenant. We may even see a hint of origin and return here with the mention of “the city of the living God.” Perhaps, this new Jerusalem is something like Eden was meant to be.

The writer of Hebrews indicates that “passage” into the city that the Christian seeks actually requires a journey “outside the camp.” The way of Jesus is outside the gate, outside the camp. For the audience of the writer to the Hebrews, this meant choosing Christ by faith, which was a confession that he was better than Moses, better than the temple, better than the sacrifices, better than the High Priest, and offered a better home than Jerusalem. The road that leads to the city we seek is marked with suffering, reproach, and sacrifice.

So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come. Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God (Hebrews 13:12–16 ESV).

The final words of Scripture to us about this new city are found in Revelation 21:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away (Revelation 21:1–4 ESV).

Then came one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues and spoke to me, saying, “Come, I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb.” And he carried me away in the Spirit to a great, high mountain, and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, having the glory of God, its radiance like a most rare jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal. It had a great, high wall, with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and on the gates the names of the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel were inscribed— on the east three gates, on the north three gates, on the south three gates, and on the west three gates. And the wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb (Revelation 21:9–14 ESV).

Where is home? Home is “the city that is to come” (Heb. 13:14). It is an ancient city that God has been building for ages, and he invites us into this home. He built its gates out of his promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He built its foundation out of the apostles. Jesus Christ is its cornerstone. He’s still building it out of the supply of “living stones” in the church (1 Pet. 2:4). The location of this home is now heavenly, but there will one day be a move to earth, “For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come,” and “And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God.” There is a social, family unit forming, held together by our common faith and fellowship in Jesus Christ by the Spirit of God. You can feel the true rest and perfect harmony when John writes, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” Doesn’t dwelling with God in the new heaven and new earth also remind us of Genesis in the Garden of Eden?

So what? Home is a residence, a community to which you belong, rest and harmony, and a place of origin. For many people, home is elusive. The heart awakened by the gospel begins to reimagine what home is, and the two views of the earthly home and the heaven. Home begins to orient itself around God—his city, his people, his rest and harmony, and a return to his purpose for humanity.

I think that this gospel reorientation of home is practical in four ways.

Enemies of Home

First, it exposes sin, Satan, and death as the enemies of home. They destroy locations, divide families, make us restless and interrupt our harmony, and blind us toward God’s purpose in creating us.

Grace at Home

Second, the gospel reorientation of home allows us to have grace with our current home situation, empathizing with and understanding its imperfections and limitations and rejoicing in the glimpses it gives us of our future home.

Hope for Home

Third, we have a future hope in a dwelling, community, rest & harmony, that will fulfill God’s purpose for us and that will be free from the threats of sin, death, and Satan.

Church as Home

Lastly, I think that the closest place we can experience anything like that future home is in the church—a location of assembly, a community and family united in Christ by God’s Spirit made up of many fathers, mothers, brothers, and sisters, spiritual rest and peace in Christ, and a place of fellowship around God’s purposes for our lives. Let’s be the best home we can, with God’s help, at West Lisbon.

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).

What Is Revival?

Revival

Growing up in Scioto County, Ohio, I remember many little churches decorating the landscape. Every now and then, you would see on the outdoor church sign something like this: “Revival! Sunday through Friday! 7pm each night! Come on out and join us!” As a kid, teenager, and young adult, I attended many of these meetings. There was a very predictable format—a special and very dynamic speaker would be invited; the revival was scheduled; many times special musicians were also brought in, and the altar calls didn’t end until somebody made their way down the aisle.

I think that I was part of a real revival once in that Appalachian country. However, it wasn’t scheduled or coordinated. It also happened at multiple places, rather than at one local church. It wasn’t the result of a solitary, drawn out altar call. Now, don’t get me wrong, the Lord may very well use all of those things—and has before—but the revival I think that I was a part of didn’t fit that repeatable, copyable, scheduled pattern employed over and over again by churches in my hometown area.

Tim Keller spoke on A Biblical Theology of Revival (a.k.a. What Is Revival?) at the 2013 The Gospel Coalition Conference. It is definitely worth an hour of your time. If it doesn’t stir your heart into longing for revival, then maybe you should check your pulse! I’d like to summarize and share some of my own thoughts from Keller’s comments on biblical revival.

Since there are many descriptions and definitions out there on revival, it helps to begin with the same: Biblical revival is “the intensification of the ordinary operations of the Holy Spirit” (Keller). So, it is the Holy Spirit doing what he already does, but in a more intense way. What are these ordinary operations? There are 4 that Keller highlights: (1) conviction of sin (John 16:7–11), (2) conversion (Acts 16:14–15; Titus 3:3–7), (3) giving of assurance (Ephesians 1:13–14), and (4) sanctification (growth in holiness) (Romans 8:1–11). The Holy Spirit certainly does more than this in the Christian life, but these are the intensified Holy Spirit operations when there is revival.

When the Holy Spirit intensifies these operations of his, three things seem to happen. First, sleepy Christians wake up. Sleepy Christians are neither happy nor sad enough, Therefore, they do not experience high assurance of salvation (the Spirit bears witness to my spirit — Romans 8:16), nor do they experience deep repentance (godly grief produces repentance that leads to salvation — 2 Corinthians 7:10). The difference between a sleepy Christian and an awake Christian can be illustrated in the relationship of a father and a son. A father and a son share a legal relationship. It can be declared that the son is in fact the son of the father and vice versa. I can be officially documented on the birth certificate. Now, imagine when a father embraces his son. The son is not legally more a son, but he is certainly experiencing sonship in more than a legal way.

Second, the nominal Christians get converted. Nominal Christians are those who are baptized, church attending people, but during revival they will come and say, “I was never really a Christian.” These are surprising conversions: church leaders, spouses, long-time members, etc. During times of revival, the Holy Spirit goes through the church, and this is consistent with the pattern of Scripture. When God wants to do a fresh work—be it for judgment or for redemption—he starts with his people.

Third, hard or seemingly impossible to reach non-Christians are powerfully converted. Those dear ones out on the fringes that seem beyond the reach of the church and even God encounter the long arm of God, and the Holy Spirit generously and gloriously converts their souls by the gospel. When sleepy Christians wake up and nominal Christians are converted, the Holy Spirit beautifies the church, even to non-Christians.

Revival, brothers and sisters, is what we need, because it results in both adoration and attraction. An internal shift occurs in our posture toward God resulting in changed lives. If this is what you long for, then the best thing to do is to ask God for it in your own life. Pray for God to wake up, convert, and to reach out. Better still, start a prayer meeting with others to pray for revival. If we ask, seek, and knock, perhaps the Lord will kindly unlock an entry for us into such an experience (Col. 4:2–6).

Returning to my story, once I—a nominal Christian—was truly converted, I returned to the church of my youth to discover that a number of my peers had experienced the same thing. I would describe some of the older Christians around me at that time as having been awakened from slumber! In a very small, rural church, I became one of seven men, who felt a call into full-time gospel ministry. It was very unusual. To my knowledge, five of those seven are still serving in ministry in some capacity. We wouldn’t have probably described it as revival back in those days, because revival to us was predictable and scheduled. However, looking back and knowing what I know now about revival, I think that I experienced a small taste of it, and I long for it again.

2016 WLC Pastoral Intern: Seth Larson

Getting Started

Before I started my internship with Rex Howe, I believed that a pastor’s’ role in a church is to lead the congregation that God has placed him to lead. I still believe this, but I now realize that I thoroughly underplayed the role of a pastor in a church, but I will get back to that later.

I decided to enroll in this internship during the winter of 2015. I had been in close contact with my friend, Mitch Friestad, and he expressed that he enjoyed his time in the year previous with Rex as his intern. Once I told Rex about my ambitions to become his intern, he asked me what I wanted to get out of the internship. I had no idea. I think he could tell by my expressionless look that I was racking my brain to find an answer to a question that, to a normal person, should have required no thought . . . But I’m no normal person. Rex began listing off different things that we could go over as an internship. He mentioned things like biblical theology, pastoral ministries, missions, apologetics, and religious philosophy. My ears perked up when he said apologetics. I have always enjoyed the art of defending the Christian faith. There had been times when I was at work or I was at school, and someone would bring up their doubt or hatred of Christianity, and I was immediately happy, because that meant I had the opportunity to, “Give an answer to anyone who asks me for the reason for the hope that is in me” (1 Peter 3:15b). So, Christian Apologetics is where we decided to focus the internship.

Ministry Description and Experience

Studying 1 Peter 3:15, we discovered that there are two kinds of apologetics—a professional, academic kind and a pastoral, equipping the lay congregation kind. Because of these two distinct paths, we also decided to briefly dive into what it looks like to be a pastor of a church, on account that I would like to be a pastor some day. Through the course of the internship, we read 2 books. One titled, Apologetics for a New Generation by Sean McDowell, and The Reason for God by Timothy Keller. Both of these books were amazing. We also read most of the Gospel of John. We also watched a series of apologetics videos by Voddie Baucham such as how to use apologetics appropriately and expository apologetics. Towards the end of my internship, we did a project. I asked my peers what they thought was the number one spiritual question that their peers asked. We received a ton of great feedback. When the poll was finished, the most voted question was, “How can a good God allow pain and suffering?” As it turned out, Rex has a friend named Rick Rood (author of Our Story . . . His Story) who was very qualified to answer this question. I then spent a day finding eleven sub-questions[1] related to the main question of God, pain, and suffering. We made contact with Rick through Skype, a computer software that allows face-to-face video chatting, and asked him all of the sub-questions that I developed:

  1. Does God have control over my pain?
  2. If God allows these things to happen (pain and suffering), then does he love/care for me?
  3. Is there a bigger plan to my pain?
  4. Do other religions have an explanation as to why there is pain and suffering? If so, what are they?
  5. Does God understand/sympathize with our pain?
  6. Can God take away my pain or suffering? If so, why doesn’t God take away my pain/suffering?
  7. Does God find joy in my pain and suffering?
  8. Is my pain or suffering always the consequence of something that I have done?
  9. What part do I play in rededying my pain?
  10. How does the theme of pain and suffering develop in God’s story?
  11. How do I become a blessing to those who are in pain and suffering?

We recorded the conversation. I then did a two-week bible study at West Lisbon that involved showing the youth group the footage of the video conference between us and Rick via iMovie, and the second week I talked to the youth group about apologetics. Both of these went very well.

Internship Reflections

I remember at the end of the year thinking “I learned so much about apologetics, but I didn’t learn as much about how to be a pastor.” I didn’t have many one-on-one conversations about what it’s like to be in the pastoral ministry like we did with apologetics. Then I thought, maybe he was teaching me a little differently. Then I realized, I think that he was teaching me, just without talking. He led by example. He showed me how to be a leader by never being afraid to pause our internship to help anyone that came into the church that needed to talk to him. He taught me to be spontaneous by going to subway and reading John just because it was beautiful outside. He taught me to not be afraid to talk in front of people by having me do a bible study in front of my peers for two weeks. He showed me that to do what God calls me to do, I have to be willing to do the hard things, like when he truly showed me how much he preps for a Sunday sermon and how much work that entails. And finally, he showed me the imperativeness of mentoring others and sharing your knowledge with others. He did this by being gracious enough to allow me to study under him for a semester of school and gain some of the knowledge that he holds.

So now, when I think of all of the things that a pastor does, it isn’t a once every seven day gig. It is a nonstop job that only few have been given the gifts from God to carry out. My words can’t do a justice to what this internship has done for me, and I hope and pray that I am not the last to receive all that has been given to me in the last year. And above all, I thank God and Rex for all that I have learned since January.

Sincerely,

Seth Larson

2016 WLC Pastoral Intern

[1] Rick’s answers to these questions are available and can be printed or emailed. Please contact Pastor Rex to get a copy.

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

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.