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Every Woman Needs the Whole Bible 28.5.2020 03:00

Every Woman Needs the Whole Bible

In an age obsessed with the concepts and tools of self-help, Christian women reject the assumption that our Bible is just another tool. The Bible is anything but a self-help tool.

In one way, this mistake is understandable. The Bible is undoubtedly our help. And we certainly have to pick it up. We have to open it and read it. So, there is a self involved, and there is help involved. When we merge these realities, however, we might assume the Bible is only something we use to boost ourselves up in times of need. That thought is subtly prevalent, and sadly destructive.

To read the word of God is not to “work on ourselves.” There is help, but it is not the help we offer ourselves. It is the help of a holy God who is accomplishing his purposes in us.

My uncle is fond of saying that many Christians approach the word of God as if it is a cat they are dissecting. They want to label all the parts, standing over the word, analyzing and classifying it based on the comfort they think they need. In reality, we are the cat. The word is the knife that cuts — even between thoughts and intentions, soul and spirit, joint and marrow (Hebrews 4:12). The word of God is not a dead thing lying on the table, waiting for us and our insights to put it to use how we think we need to. It is living; it is active. It is far beyond our power to control.

Avoiding the Hard Parts

There’s a way to acknowledge God’s word, even grabbing little pieces of it for inspiration or encouragement, and yet not submit to its authority and power.

You can be careful to stay out of the dangerous bits, avoiding anything that confronts your assumptions. You might be afraid of the gnarly Old Testament stories. You might refuse to let the Bible’s clear teaching on men and women come near you. You might skip over an imprecatory psalm, or avoid the toughness of Jesus in certain passages. You might spend all your time reading the insights of people who feel safe, those you know have no intention of actually letting the knife of the word get near your heart. Or maybe you only look up a specific comfort for a specific time.

Many Bible apps and Bible studies lead us down this kind of special safety guided tour. “Look with me to the left and notice this pink rose that will comfort your anxiety.” “Let’s take this verse out of context and substitute your name in so we can see that God loves you exactly as you are.” “Please close your eyes with me for the thousands of years of sacrificing bulls and goats to atone for our sin.” “Oh don’t mind Achan and his family being swallowed up by the earth for disobedience.” In summary, refuse to look at anything that requires the death of your ideas of personal grandeur.

Defanging Scripture

The sinful heart of man loves to try to get the word of God into a place where we are not so threatened by it. Because, goodness knows, it is a threat! It threatens the old man in all of us. And the biggest threat it offers is to open our eyes to reality.

We want the Bible to serve us in a very limited capacity. Something that could fit into the glove box of our lives and encourage us when we feel we need encouragement. The word of God certainly does encourage us. But it undoes us first. It destroys and remakes us (Hosea 6:1). It doesn’t maul us to leave us as a carcass on the table of our quiet time, but it calls us back to life through dying to ourselves. Like the words of the prophet Ezekiel, the word puts flesh on our bones (Ezekiel 37:4–6). It breathes life into us. The Bible calls us to the purposes of God, equips us for those purposes, and then sends us out to do them.

Reading the Bible in its entirety is not for the gurus of self-help. And it is not only for the scholars with all their exegetical, theological, and historical lenses (and the safety equipment many of them accumulated in seminary). Reading the whole word of God is for ordinary people, for church members and teenagers. It is for the uneducated. It is for the exhausted, the faint of heart, the troubled, the fearful. Reading the whole word is for every human.

No More Defenses

The saddest part about our attempts to relegate Bible reading to a self-help tool or self-development effort is that we speak of the word of God as though it were a skin cream or energy bar. A little something we pull out to improve ourselves, and that we sometimes privately share with others to help them along. An insider tip. A little item we have at our disposal and like to apply as needed, in moderation, with caution. We will do anything to keep it small and controllable. We share encouraging verses with one another as though we were sharing coupons. “Here’s a little something you might enjoy if you need it.”

What might the world look like, though, if Christian women everywhere laid down all their defenses, took off all of their protective gear, and laid themselves open to the power of the word?

What Are God’s Purposes in a Recession? 27.5.2020 03:00

God has thousands of purposes in all that he does — including recessions. What does Scripture tell us about God’s designs in our financial uncertainty?

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The Majesty of God Mastered Him: John Calvin (1509–1564) 27.5.2020 03:00

The Majesty of God Mastered Him

In 1538, the Italian Cardinal Sadolet wrote to the leaders of Geneva trying to win them back to the Roman Catholic Church after they had turned to the Reformed teachings. John Calvin’s response to Sadolet uncovers the root of Calvin’s quarrel with Rome that would determine his whole life.

Here’s what Calvin wrote to the cardinal: “[Your] zeal for heavenly life [is] a zeal which keeps a man entirely devoted to himself, and does not, even by one expression, arouse him to sanctify the name of God” (John Calvin: Selections from His Writings, 89). The issue for Calvin was not, first, the well-known sticking points of the Reformation: justification, priestly abuses, transubstantiation, prayers to saints, and papal authority. All those would come in for discussion. But beneath all of them, the fundamental issue for Calvin, from the beginning to the end of his life, was the issue of the centrality and supremacy and majesty of the glory of God.

Calvin goes on and says to Sadolet that what he should do — and what Calvin aims to do with all his life — is “set before [man], as the prime motive of his existence, zeal to illustrate the glory of God” (Selections, 89). This would be a fitting banner over all of John Calvin’s life and work — zeal to illustrate the glory of God. The essential meaning of Calvin’s life and preaching is that he recovered and embodied a passion for the absolute reality and majesty of God.

Captive to Glory

What happened to John Calvin to make him a man so mastered by the majesty of God? And what kind of ministry did this produce in his life?

He was born July 10, 1509, in Noyon, France, when Martin Luther was 25 years old and had just begun to teach the Bible in Wittenberg. When he was 14, his father sent him to study theology at the University of Paris, which at that time was untouched by the Reformation and steeped in Medieval theology. But five years later (when Calvin was 19), his father ran afoul of the church and told his son to leave theology and study law, which he did for the next three years at Orleans and Bourges.

His father died in May of 1531, when Calvin was 21. Calvin felt free then to turn from law to his first love, which had become the classics. He published his first book, a commentary on Seneca, in 1532, at the age of 23. But sometime during these years he was coming into contact with the message and the spirit of the Reformation, and by 1533 something dramatic had happened in his life.

Calvin recounts, seven years later, how his conversion came about. He describes how he had been struggling to live out the Catholic faith with zeal when

I at length perceived, as if light had broken in upon me, in what a sty of error I had wallowed, and how much pollution and impurity I had thereby contracted. Being exceedingly alarmed at the misery into which I had fallen . . . as in duty bound, [I] made it my first business to betake myself to thy way [O God], condemning my past life, not without groans and tears.

God, by a sudden conversion, subdued and brought my mind to a teachable frame. . . . Having thus received some taste and knowledge of true godliness, I was immediately inflamed with [an] intense desire to make progress. (Selections, 26)

What was the foundation of Calvin’s faith that yielded a life devoted utterly to displaying the glory and majesty of God? The answer seems to be that Calvin suddenly, as he says, saw and tasted in Scripture the majesty of God. And in that moment, both God and the word of God were so powerfully and unquestionably authenticated to his soul that he became the loving servant of God and his word the rest of his life. Henceforth he would be a man utterly devoted to displaying the majesty of God by the exposition of the word of God.

Compelled to Geneva

What form would that ministry take? Calvin knew what he wanted. He wanted the enjoyment of literary ease so he could promote the Reformed faith as a literary scholar. That is what he thought he was cut out for by nature. But God had radically different plans.

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In 1536, Calvin left France, taking his brother Antoine and sister Marie with him. He intended to go to Strasbourg and devote himself to a life of peaceful literary production. But one night, as Calvin stayed in Geneva, William Farel, the fiery leader of the Reformation in that city, found out he was there and sought him out. It was a meeting that changed the course of history, not just for Geneva, but for the world. Calvin tells us what happened in his preface to his commentary on Psalms:

Farel, who burned with an extraordinary zeal to advance the gospel, immediately learned that my heart was set upon devoting myself to private studies, for which I wished to keep myself free from other pursuits, and finding that he gained nothing by entreaties, he proceeded to utter an imprecation that God would curse my retirement, and the tranquillity of the studies which I sought, if I should withdraw and refuse to give assistance, when the necessity was so urgent. By this imprecation I was so stricken with terror, that I desisted from the journey which I had undertaken. (Selections, 28)

The course of his life was irrevocably changed. Not just geographically, but vocationally. Never again would Calvin work in what he called the “tranquillity of . . . studies.” From now on, every page of the 48 volumes of books and tracts and sermons and commentaries and letters that he wrote would be hammered out on the anvil of pastoral responsibility.

Unrelenting Exposition

Once in Geneva, what kind of ministry did his commitment to the majesty of God produce? Part of the answer is that it produced a ministry of incredible steadfastness — a ministry, to use Calvin’s own description of faithful ministers of the word, of “invincible constancy” (Sermons from Job, 245). But that is only half the answer. The constancy had a focus: the unrelenting exposition of the word of God.

Calvin had seen the majesty of God in the Scriptures. This persuaded him that the Scriptures were the very word of God. He said, “We owe to the Scripture the same reverence which we owe to God, because it has proceeded from Him alone, and has nothing of man mixed with it” (John Calvin: A Collection of Distinguished Essays, 162). His own experience had taught him that “the highest proof of Scripture derives in general from the fact that God in person speaks in it” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1.7.4). These truths led to an inevitable conclusion for Calvin. Since the Scriptures are the very voice of God, and since they are therefore self-authenticating in revealing the majesty of God, and since the majesty and glory of God are the reason for all existence, it follows that Calvin’s life would be marked by “invincible constancy” in the exposition of Scripture.

He wrote tracts, he wrote the great Institutes, he wrote commentaries (on all the New Testament books except Revelation, plus the Pentateuch, Psalms, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Joshua), he gave biblical lectures (many of which were published as virtual commentaries), and he preached ten sermons every two weeks. But all of it was exposition of Scripture. In his last will and testament, he said, “I have endeavored, both in my sermons and also in my writings and commentaries, to preach the Word purely and chastely, and faithfully to interpret His sacred Scriptures” (Selections, 35).

This was the ministry unleashed by seeing the majesty of God in Scripture. The Scriptures were absolutely central because they were absolutely the word of God and had as their self-authenticating theme the majesty and glory of God. But out of all these labors of exposition, preaching was supreme.

God’s Voice in Every Verse

Calvin’s preaching was of one kind from beginning to end: he preached steadily through book after book of the Bible. He never wavered from this approach to preaching for almost 25 years of ministry in St. Peter’s church of Geneva — with the exception of a few high festivals and special occasions. “On Sunday he took always the New Testament, except for a few Psalms on Sunday afternoons. During the week . . . it was always the Old Testament.”

To give you some idea of the scope of Calvin’s pulpit, he began his series on the book of Acts on August 25, 1549, and ended it in March 1554. After Acts he went on to the Epistles to the Thessalonians (46 sermons), Corinthians (186 sermons), the Pastoral Epistles (86 sermons), Galatians (43 sermons), Ephesians (48 sermons) — until May 1558. Then there is a gap when he was ill. In the spring of 1559, he began the Harmony of the Gospels and was not finished when he died in May 1564. On the weekdays during that season he preached 159 sermons on Job, 200 on Deuteronomy, 353 on Isaiah, 123 on Genesis, and so on.

One of the clearest illustrations that this was a self-conscious choice on Calvin’s part was the fact that on Easter Day, 1538, after preaching, he left the pulpit of St. Peter’s, banished by the City Council. He returned in September 1541, over three years later, and picked up the exposition in the next verse.

Divine Majesty of the Word

Why this remarkable commitment to the centrality of sequential expository preaching? Three reasons are just as valid today as they were in the sixteenth century.

First, Calvin believed that the word of God was a lamp that had been taken away from the churches. He said in his own personal testimony, “Thy word, which ought to have shone on all thy people like a lamp, was taken away, or at least suppressed as to us.” Calvin reckoned that the continuous exposition of books of the Bible was the best way to overcome the “fearful abandonment of [God’s] Word” (Selections, 115).

Second, biographer T.H.L. Parker says that Calvin had a horror of those who preached their own ideas in the pulpit. He said, “When we enter the pulpit, it is not so that we may bring our own dreams and fancies with us” (Portrait of Calvin, 83). He believed that by expounding the Scriptures as a whole, he would be forced to deal with all that God wanted to say, not just what he might want to say.

Third, he believed with all his heart that the word of God was indeed the word of God, and that all of it was inspired and profitable and radiant with the light of the glory of God. In Sermon number 61 on Deuteronomy, he challenged pastors of his day and ours:

Let the pastors boldly dare all things by the word of God. . . . Let them constrain all the power, glory, and excellence of the world to give place to and to obey the divine majesty of this word. Let them enjoin everyone by it, from the highest to the lowest. Let them edify the body of Christ. Let them devastate Satan’s reign. Let them pasture the sheep, kill the wolves, instruct and exhort the rebellious. Let them bind and loose thunder and lightning, if necessary, but let them do all according to the word of God. (Sermons on the Epistle to the Ephesians, xii)

The key phrase here is “the divine majesty of this word.” This was always the root issue for Calvin. How might he best show forth for all of Geneva and all of Europe and all of history the majesty of God? He answered with a life of continuous expository preaching.

This is why preaching remains a central event in the life of the church five hundred years after Calvin. If God is the great, absolute, sovereign, mysterious, all-glorious God of majesty whom Calvin saw in Scripture, there will always be preaching, because the more this God is known and the more this God is central, the more we will feel that he must not just be analyzed and explained — he must be acclaimed and heralded and magnified with expository exultation.

Sell Yourself Short: The Rare Joy of Christian Humility 26.5.2020 03:00

Sell Yourself Short

We live in a day in which understatement is an endangered species. There is no shortage of embellishment and exaggeration. Public communication can feel like one grandiose soundbite after another. Parties, events, releases, contests, political rallies must be bigger and better than the last.

In our society of hype and hyperbole, pomp and posturing, we embellish our own online profiles, selecting our most flattering photo, highlighting our most impressive accomplishments, and filling our timeline with the confirming data, all carefully curated. We are enduring (not to overstate it) an epidemic of over-promising and under-performing. At least in the public eye, few seem to have the humility to speak, post, and report with the simple truth.

Sadly, we Christians often fall prey to this cultural pressure. This Sunday, this conference, this study, this book, this message must be more “epic” (talk about exaggeration) than the last. Such a penchant can be especially acute in church planting and other ministry startups, when our collective insecurities and immaturities conspire to make it feel like everything needs to sound better than it actually is, to make us seem stronger than we truly are, to give the impression we have momentum and staying power. Often, it’s all an elaborate and upbeat cover for feeling fragile, weak, and gnawingly uncertain.

But what if we unsubscribed from the madness? What if we asked ourselves, in such a world as ours, How do I humble myself?

Think Less of Yourself?

Wise men want to be humble. And yet, ironically, the first lesson we learn in the pursuit of humility is that it’s not something we can just up and do. The first step in seeking humility is a humbling one. Humility begins with God’s initiative, not ours.

However, even though self-humbling is beyond our control, God does give us the dignity of participating in the process, and the opportunity to prepare our hearts to be humbled. Romans 12:3, which is one of the most important words in the Bible about humility, gives us a glimpse into the kind of heart that is ready to receive God’s humbling hand whenever it falls:

I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.

C.S. Lewis memorably observed that humility does not mean thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less. More than just guarding against swollen views of self, the apostle Paul would have us “think with sober judgment” — which I take to mean, among other things, don’t spend a great deal of time thinking about yourself at all.

Yet self-awareness is a mercy, even if Paul would caution us against self-focus. What might it mean, then, as a Christian, to think with sober judgment about self?

Observe the World’s Pattern

First, we will do well to remember what kind of world we live in: one swollen with inflated views of self. We cannot take our bearings from our surroundings and at the same time cultivate sober judgment of ourselves. In the verse before Romans 12:3, Paul says, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Romans 12:2).

From the beginning, from humanity’s very first sin, we have been overestimating ourselves. And as sin — the great, deadly, rebellious impulse in the heart of the creature to overestimate self in the face of God — as sin has taken root, and grown, and spread, and borne fruit in our world, one age after another (apart from revival) has sought to outdo the others in self-regard.

Maybe modern humans are no more swollen with self-regard than our ancestors, but we do have a bigger box of powerful digital tools for going into all the world and preaching ourselves. It’s in the air. And on our screens. If we look at the world around us for our balance, we will soar in self-exaltation, or soon crash in self-pity.

We need to get our bearings before the face of God, with hearts daily and weekly recalibrated by the rhythms of God-conscious worship and devotion. For most of us, the outworking of genuine humility before God also will include owning our proneness to overestimate ourselves. Humility may feel like underestimating self because our age is so bent on overestimating. The goal is not to underestimate ourselves, though, but to think with sober judgment, in a generation inebriated with self.

Choosing the Lowest Place

Jesus told a parable when he saw the evidence of such overestimation (pride) in wedding invitees. Rather than presuming to sit in “the place of honor,” he instructed them instead,

Go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, “Friend, move up higher.” Then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at table with you. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted. (Luke 14:10–11)

Christ would have his people think of themselves as ordinary, not special. As lowly, normal, one of the flock, not as a rabbi, teacher, instructor (Matthew 23:8–12). Not as a cut above the common man, but as happily ordinary, even gladly a servant. Even as a child (Matthew 18:3), as one who knows his smallness and dependence. Such people feel no need to pretend to be strong and self-sufficient; they are happily God-reliant and self-admittedly lowly, too modest to pretend otherwise.

Speak with Sober Judgment About Self

So, we reject the world’s pattern of self-exaltation and self-pity, but how will we discern what we really think about ourselves — and whether it is sober or swollen? It will come out of our mouths.

Consider the countless junctures in everyday life when how we think about ourselves comes out for all to hear and see. How do you introduce yourself to a new person? How do you “tell your story,” and what do you foreground? How polished a version of yourself do you put forward online? How often do your words slide into the humble-brag, not to mention your social-media posts? Do you presume and anticipate public acknowledgement and appreciation from others? Do you deliberately self-denigrate, hoping someone will swoop in and correct you? Do you presume the greater seat or happily head for the gallery?

Thinking with sober judgment may begin in our heads and hearts, but it comes out in our words. And our words in the world not only reveal our inner person, but also then shape our minds and hearts going forward.

Secure Enough to Be Small

It is humility, after all, that goes hand in hand with what we call “understatement.”

Understatement, as a figure of speech, has long had the technical title “tapinosis,” based on the Greek for humility (tapeinosis). It is humble to understate certain realities (especially our own abilities and accomplishments) and allow our hearers to experience the rare joy (almost inaccessible in modern life) of discovering something is more impressive than promised. And it’s humble to understate ourselves such that some listeners may never know the full force of it — because we are secure enough in Christ to have our qualities go unacknowledged.

When Christ is our security, we learn to be content with our lives being more dramatic in reality than in our telling of them, whether in conversations or online. Rather than making subtle, and sometimes shameless, efforts to have others think we’re more impressive than we really are, we’re happy to have them underestimate what otherwise might amaze.

Ultimately, it is the bigness and unsurpassed beauty of Christ, who is “the radiance of the glory of God” (Hebrews 1:3) and whose worth we cannot overstate, that frees us from exaggeration and inspires us to understate self.

As we’re increasingly impressed with him, we lose our need to be impressed with ourselves.

Are Only Special Christians Saints? Ephesians 1:1–2, Part 5 26.5.2020 03:00

Paul calls Christians “saints” dozens of times in his letters — far more than any other name. What does it mean?

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What Billions Say in Silence: The Deafening Sermons of the Stars 25.5.2020 03:00

What Billions Say in Silence

“When I look at the stars, I see someone else.” (Switchfoot)

When David looked up in the Near Eastern night sky 3,000 years ago, what he saw almost took his breath away. And in an attempt to express the wonder that flooded him as he contemplated his minuteness in view of such vastness, and God’s design in it all, he did something uniquely human: he transposed his awe into art.

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him? (Psalm 8:3–4)

The “heavens,” that mysterious realm of marvelous lights, have astonished mankind from our earliest days. When we look at the heavens today, our understanding of what we see, due to advances in science and technology, far exceeds David’s understanding. David only had a hint of how minute he was in relation to the heavens. Our fuel for awe is astronomically greater. We know more, but do we marvel more?

Silent Sermons of the Stars

The starlit sky is speaking. In Psalm 19, which C.S. Lewis considered “one of the greatest lyrics in the world” (Reflections on the Psalms), David again wrote,

The heavens declare the glory of God,
     and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours out speech,
     and night to night reveals knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words,
     whose voice is not heard.
Their voice goes out through all the earth,
     and their words to the end of the world. (Psalm 19:1–4)

If the heavens are the work of God’s “hands,” and if they are declaring the glory of God, what are these silent preachers telling us? To listen closely, I have leaned on David Blatner’s book, Spectrums: Our Mind-Boggling Universe from Infinitesimal to Infinity to help capture the wonder of what we too often take for granted.

All That We (Do Not) Know

When David surveyed the sky, part of what he saw belonged to our solar system (sun, moon, and a couple “stars” that were really planets), part belonged to our Milky Way galaxy, and part were distant stars and (probably) other faraway galaxies. David would have barely had a clue how massive and distant these heavenly bodies were.

To give us some perspective, Blatner writes, “if our solar system . . . were the size of a grain of salt, the Milky Way galaxy would be about the length of a football field.” That “milky” stripe we can see on a clear, dark night is a dense collection of stars in one of the Milky Way’s spiral arms — and it’s about 1,000 light-years thick! And what these starry arms (and we with them) are spiraling around is a supermassive black hole, called Sagittarius A, located about 27,000 light-years from us. Scientists estimate that our galaxy is about 100,000 light-years wide.

Looking at the sky with the naked eye, as David did, we can see a few thousand stars at most. But, “look through the telescope, do the math, and you’ll find there are somewhere between 200 and 400 billion stars in the Milky Way.” That’s a lot of stars! But our neighboring galaxy Andromeda appears to contain a trillion or more stars.

And that’s not even a chip on the tip of the cosmic iceberg. A recent estimate of the total number of galaxies in the universe is 150 to 200 billion, but the Hubble Telescope is indicating that the real number might be ten times that amount. And when it comes to the total number of stars, we really don’t know. One estimate is around 1 septillion (that’s a “1” followed by 24 zeros). And all this inhabits a universe that has an estimated radius of about 46 billion light-years.

All this information doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of what we as a species collectively now know. And scientists say that what we now know barely scratches the surface of what we don’t yet know.

What Are the Heavens Declaring?

So, if these heavens declare the glory of God, what are they declaring?

Having spent hours pouring over scientific expositions of the silent sermons of the starry hosts, I first want to put my hand over my mouth. I want to say with Job that far too often “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know” (Job 42:3). I fear trivializing what is ineffably profound.

These glory heralds don’t have three points and an application. They join all who in the presence of God cry “Glory!” (Psalm 29:9); they join all who in the presence of God cry, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come” (Revelation 4:8). And it seems to me that worshipful prayer is the only appropriate response.

Praying Through the Heavens

Lord God Almighty, when I look to your heavens, I join the choir in ascribing to you absolute glory. And I echo David in saying, “What is man, who occupies this pale blue dot, a dust mote in the vast heavens, that you are mindful of him? And who am I, a man so often consumed with the tiny microcosm of my own concerns, to speak of you who speaks this whole cosmos into being? Indeed, ‘there is none like you’” (Psalm 86:8).

When I look to your heavens, I hear them declare that there is none like you possessing such wisdom. For you, Lord, “by understanding . . . established the heavens” (Proverbs 3:19), “determin[ing] the number of the stars [and giving] to all of them their names” (Psalm 147:4), and conferring upon each one unique aspects of your glory (1 Corinthians 15:41). And they declare that your wisdom is infinitely greater than ours: “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:9). In view of such wisdom, I repent of all my foolish leaning on my own understanding (Proverbs 3:5).

When I look to your heavens, I hear them declare that there is none like you who possesses such power. For “by the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and by the breath of his mouth all their host” (Psalm 33:6). For it is you alone “who brings out [this] host by number, calling them all by name; by the greatness of [your] might and because [you are] strong in power, not one is missing” (Isaiah 40:26). Yes, “yours, O Lord, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the victory and the majesty, for all that is in the heavens and in the earth is yours. . . and you are exalted as head above all” (1 Chronicles 29:11). In view of such omnipotence, I repent of all my foolish trust in the strength of man (Psalm 118:8).

When I look to your heavens, I hear them declare your sheer immensity, since even “the highest heaven cannot contain you” (1 Kings 8:27). And they declare your incomparable creativity, since “the universe was created by [your] word, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible” (Hebrews 11:3). And they declare your supreme authority, since “all things were made through [you], and without [you] was not any thing made that was made” (John 1:3). And they declare your sovereignty (Psalm 115:3), your righteousness (Psalm 50:6), your faithfulness (Genesis 15:5–6), and your steadfast love (Psalm 136:9). In view of such glory, I repent of my foolish, selfish pride and bow my knee and confess with my tongue that Jesus Christ, the Word through whom the cosmos was created (John 1:3) and the Word made flesh (John 1:14), “is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:10–11).

More Valuable Than Galaxies

When David looked up at the heavens, he did not know what we now know: the unfathomable extent and scope of the universe. And when he asked, “What is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?” (Psalm 8:4), he did not know what we now know: the unfathomable extent and scope of God’s care for us in sending the incarnate Jesus “to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10).

The heavens will not tell us that Jesus came or why. Only Scripture’s special revelation tells us that. But the heavens do declare in a silent shout, literally around the whole world, glorious things about our Creator’s and Savior’s “eternal power and divine nature” (Romans 1:20).

All that is involved in creation and all that is involved in redemption is nothing less than fearful and wonderful. The deeper we look into these things, the more fearful and wonderful it all becomes. A child can take joy in the sun, the moon, the stars, and the empty tomb. And scholars will never plumb the full depths of such glorious things. But children and scholars alike can take comfort in this: the God who remembers the names of a sextillion stars, and knows all sextillion molecules in a drop of water, knows and remembers us.

God does not measure value or significance in size, but in his creative design. The cross reminds us that he is mindful of us in ways that galaxies will never know. Of how much more value are you than they?

How Much Joy Did the Curse Cost Me? 25.5.2020 03:00

Because of the fall, we are by nature dead to joy in God. Because of the cross, we can experience more joy in God than we ever could have had in Eden.

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The Maker of the Mountains Is with You 24.5.2020 03:00

The Maker of the Mountains Is with You

In days of darkness, God regularly delivers his comfort and strength to us through four simple words: “I am with you.”

I am with you. The promise comes to God’s fearful people across time and testaments: to Isaac in Beersheba (Genesis 26:24), Moses at the burning bush (Exodus 3:12), David in the valley (Psalm 23:4), the disciples as he commissions them (Matthew 28:20). The living God knows what we need most in our deepest distress: not answers, but the promise of his presence.

And yet, the power of this promise rises only as high as our knowledge of the one who gives it. The presence of a vague Benevolence is of little help when suffering steals toward us. And so, God not only promises his people that he is with them; he also reminds them of who he is.

When we walk through the valley of deep darkness, defenseless as a sheep, he calls himself Shepherd (Psalm 23:4). When we lie face down, overpowered by enemies too strong for us, he calls himself Redeemer (Isaiah 43:14). And when we feel small, vulnerable and afflicted in a dangerous world, he calls himself Creator: “Let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good” (1 Peter 4:19).

Our Faithful Creator

Small, vulnerable, and afflicted describes how many must have felt when they received the letter we know as 1 Peter. Already “grieved by various trials,” they did not know where suffering’s shadow would descend next (1 Peter 1:6; 4:12). They were the threefold target of a world that maligned them, a flesh that besieged them, and a devil that stalked them (1 Peter 4:4; 2:11; 5:8).

Into that fear, uncertainty, and pain, Peter speaks a promise. He has already assured them that they are “God’s people,” heirs of the pledge “I am with you” (1 Peter 2:10). Now, he lifts their eyes above their trials, above their enemies, even above all heaven and earth, to remind them that that God who calls them “My people” is also their “faithful Creator” (1 Peter 4:19).

“Know this, my brothers and sisters,” Peter says in effect, “The God who walks with you, who hems you in behind and before, is not only your Savior, Redeemer, and Lord, but also the Maker of the mountains, the Crafter of the skies.” And for those bought by the blood of Jesus, this Creator is not only mighty, but faithful — even to the smallest, most vulnerable, most afflicted among his people.

Sovereign over Creation

If we embrace God as our faithful Creator in our suffering, we will begin to find two unmoving rocks beneath our feet. First, God governs all creation from the highest to the lowest, from the farthest to the nearest — from the orbits of moons in unseen galaxies to the shadows of leaves in our front yard.

The suffering of Peter’s audience may have seemed frustratingly random. So too with our own suffering: cruel spouses and false “friends,” careening cars and spreading viruses may seem, by all appearances, ungoverned: arbitrary menaces in an arbitrary world. But here, Peter reminds us that behind every creature, animate and inanimate, stands a Creator — a Creator so involved in the details of his world that suffering reaches us only if he, in his wisdom and lovingkindness, deems “necessary” (1 Peter 1:6; 3:17).

Just as God says to the seas, “Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stayed” (Job 38:11), so too he says to our suffering. No slander cuts, no tumor grows, no arrow flies, and no plague spreads a millimeter farther than the Almighty decrees. To each, God says, “Thus far shall you come, and no farther” — and creation is bound to obey.

Suffering can thwart our Creator’s sovereign rule as soon as the sun flies from its course, or the seasons refuse to arrive, or the molecules stop hearing the word of him who upholds the universe (Hebrews 1:3).

Sovereign over Us

God’s sovereignty as Creator extends not only over the creation around us, however, but also over us. Our souls, which often feel so fragile, are in the arms of Omnipotence. And no suffering can reach into those arms to snatch the people God protects.

“By God’s power,” Peter writes, “[you] are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Peter 1:5). In all afflictions, fears, sorrows, and uncertainties, the power of God is garrisoned about our souls, guarding and keeping us — not from the suffering itself, but from anything in the suffering that would ultimately destroy us. He is our Creator twice over — once by birth, twice by new birth (1 Peter 1:3, 23) — and he will not forsake the work of his hands.

Such is the power that undergirds the promise at the end of Peter’s letter: “After you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you” (1 Peter 5:10). After we have suffered through the “little while” of this life, our Creator will bend down to the dust once again and put his breath back in to the children of man. Then paralyzed legs will walk again, blind eyes will see again, scarred skin will feel again. Then the pieces of every broken heart will be put back together; then will every wound, seen and unseen, be bound up for eternity.

Our Creator has every ability — indeed, every intention — to make all things new, and to place us in a world where suffering has no home.

Servants with Scarred Hands

When you meet the kind of Christians who trust God as their faithful Creator, you will know it. Such saints have a mark they cannot hide. Not only do they walk through suffering with an abiding peace in Jesus; they also walk through suffering with an eye toward others: “Let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good.”

Having entrusted their fragile souls to the safekeeping of a faithful Creator, they have found the courage to pick up the shattered pieces of their lives, hand them to Jesus, and trust that he is still able to take what is broken and use it to nourish multitudes. They may speak comfort with a tremble in their voice, or reach out to another with scarred hands, or serve with wounds that cannot been seen and cannot be fully healed in this life. But they still speak, still reach, still serve, bringing the treasure of God to others in a jar of clay.

Why? Because the Creator of the stars keeps them as the apple of his eye. Because the Architect of the earth counts their every hair. Because the Maker of the mountains holds their souls in the hollow of his hand. And with him they are safe.

Can the Pandemic Be an Answered Prayer? 23.5.2020 03:00

Can the Pandemic Be an Answered Prayer?

My husband, Kent, was installed as pastor of our church in April of 2012. From the moment that Kent received the call, we started praying for opportunities to love our church neighbors. Located five blocks from a progressive, well-heeled (for now) research university and down the block from the LGBTQ community center, we met roadblocks every step of the way. We tried barbecues and block parties. Nobody came.

After eight years in this neighborhood, only two neighborhood contacts remain: National Neighbor Night Out (first Tuesday in August), where Kent and other men from our church serve as grill masters, and Reformation Day (October 31), when our church distributes treats and tracts and opens the church for respite to hundreds of weary goblins, princesses, and their parents. Even at these all-neighbor events, however, we were feeling the cool breeze.

In August, neighbors would ask if our church was LGBTQ affirming, and if not, why we were here. In October, parents would clutch the hands of their costumed-children and cross the street, directing them not to take anything from our hand or even receive our smiles. Finally, a small case of vandalism last year discouraged many of us when someone took permanent marker to a yard sign. The original sign — “Please Curb your Dog” — was defaced to “Please Curb your God.”

With sadness, as the culture lurched aggressively toward identity politics, we realized that instead of representing good news for all, our little church had become a symbol of suspicious intent.

Surprising Answer to Prayer

We continued to pray that the Lord would give our church a reason to be in this neighborhood, and that our neighbors would receive our desire to do them good. Then God answered our prayers by sending COVID-19, and with it, shelter-in laws and severe restrictions against assembling in groups for any reason.

How could COVID-19 be an answer to our prayer for opportunities to love our neighbors?

I know that this might ring wrong in our ears. After all, God is not the author or cause of sin. How could a global pandemic, a novel-virus killing machine plaguing six out of seven continents, be considered an answer to prayer? And why would anyone thank God for months of shelter-in orders, an aggressive government intervention whose deleterious economic and social harm will be felt for generations?

Let me explain.

The Next Supper

COVID-19 has profoundly (and some say permanently) changed the food chain across the globe. Here in North Carolina, this hit us like a brick in March. Big chain stores were rationing basic items, and people were in a panic. Farmers had food, but much of it was wasted because the restaurant business was shut down and the food was packaged and distributed only to restaurants.

Severe shelter-in policies discouraged people from leaving their homes at all, and all residents were encouraged to order their groceries from a delivery service. Most services had waiting lists and confusing rules. COVID-19 outbreaks in meat-packing plants made people seek a cleaner food source. This was (and is) a perfect storm. Food is a basic need, and people were (and are) panicked.

So, my 14-year-old daughter and I started working to deliver food for a farm-to-table CSA (community supported agriculture) program that we have been using for eight years. Families order curated boxes and then add meat and dairy products to those boxes as suits their needs for the week. To serve as delivery drivers, we received quick and intensive training. Delivering food in a pandemic is no small thing. Indeed, it’s holy work.

Churches in New Light

Providentially, the route that the company assigned to us is the neighborhood in which our church resides. On our first day on the job, Kent and our teenage son helped as well. It was all hands on deck for the Butterfields. That first day, it took us twelve hours to complete our deliveries.

Our neighbors received us with joy and thanks. And many of them knew us as the pastor and pastor’s wife from the church down the block. People were (and are) in a state of panic about COVID-19. And the people willing to bring them their food mean something to them. Our role as food deliverers has allowed us to be seen in a new light.

After a grueling first day, we realized that our church building could also serve the food distribution. Our church building, like others, had been unused and unopened for weeks by state demands. We offered the company the use of our church as a truck stop, and the use of our kitchen, bathrooms, and building as storage and respite for their drivers. My daughter and I learned how to clean and disinfect the building to the new COVID-19 code, and we put up signage (“This Facility Practices Social Distancing”), provided extra face masks, and opened the doors for business.

Gaining Ground

Now, on Tuesdays, our church is open, alive, and serving. Kent and our son stay at the church to help drivers with any needs, while my daughter and I deliver food to 35 (and counting) households. Neighbors who had once been suspicious are thanking us for our service. Many are asking for prayer.

After our deliveries are done, we often meet with concerned neighbors and try to connect people in need of food with the programs that serve food. Everyone we meet is in an existential crisis. And God so loves us that he appointed us to serve and share and proclaim the gospel in the thick of the crisis.

We come home with lists of people to pray for and serve in additional ways. In a global pandemic, where people are literally afraid to breathe, the proclamation of the gospel in word and deed gains new ground. One practical way that COVID-19 answered our prayers was that its devastation has provided a clear reason for our conservative and biblical church to be located in this progressive community. God never gets the address wrong.

Thanking God for Everything

COVID-19 also has sharpened my theological understanding of good and evil, providence and calamity, sin and repentance, belief in Christ and grace. As my brother Drew Poplin said during a virtual prayer meeting, only Christ’s own can thank God for his “sinless use of sin.” And if that’s true for sin, surely it’s also true for a pandemic. So I am committed to thanking God for his purposes in COVID-19.

God’s word shows us how this kind of prayer works. The apostle Paul says, “Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:18). And, “Be filled with the Spirit, . . . giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 5:18–20). And, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6–7).

Giving thanks to God for everything, including COVID-19, humbles us — deeply. It reminds us that God’s providence is perfect and our point of view flawed. Because God is good, just, and wise, all the time and in every circumstance, then COVID-19, for the Christian, must be for our good and for God’s glory.

National and Personal Idols

Giving thanks to God for COVID-19 also positions us to begin to see the world from his point of view. The pandemic destroys our idols of prosperity, breaks down the false confidence of all men, and makes us all feel unsafe in our own strength — and feeling unsafe is sensible. As John Calvin writes in his commentary on Hosea 1:5, “There is no reason why we should feel safe when God declares himself opposed to and angry with us.”

The idols that God is destroying are both national and personal. God is pointing his finger at all of our hearts. If taking away our prosperity is how God will shake us up from our national and personal sins, are we all in?

Have you considered the ramifications that this June will be the first in decades without a public gay pride march? Why is this big news? First, sexual identity depends on an affirming audience who can sway others to its side, using an ideology of personal freedom and victimhood. A virtual platform draws only the faithful, denying them the oxygen that this particular fire needs.

Second, without an audience, sexual identity cannot be normalized. Here is the heart question for us. Are you praising God for this disruption? Or is it your preference to complain about gay pride (and other sins) from the air-conditioned comfort of your home, in the midst of an economy that benefits from all kinds of sin?

What Will Overcome

Giving thanks to God for COVID-19 highlights our union with Christ. It shows how union with Christ depends on the person and work of Jesus Christ in our lives and not on an affirming audience of mere men. It draws us deep into God’s means of grace, and makes us lament over the Lord’s Days that have come and gone without public worship.

Lastly, Christians publicly giving thanks to God for all things, including COVID-19, gives glory to God and gives encouragement to a world suffocating from panic and frenzy, while putting its hope and trust in itself. John writes, “Everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world — our faith” (1 John 5:4). COVID-19 will not overcome the world. Christ will. And we will in him.

Different and Precious Names for Jesus: Ephesians 1:1–2, Part 4 23.5.2020 03:00

Paul uses a variety of names to describe Jesus, and they are all meaningful. What can we learn from each?

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