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The Beginning and the End: Enjoying the God-Centeredness of the Bible 29.5.2023 03:00

The Beginning and the End

Do you want to know an inside secret about sermons? You may have noticed it already. If you haven’t, you probably will from now on. Here’s the secret: Preachers often like to begin with an image, story, word, phrase, or Bible passage, and then return to it at the end of the sermon. Those bookends emphasize the preacher’s point, pushing it deeper into the hearts and minds of a congregation.

The biblical authors understood this. King David begins Psalm 103 with an exhortation to himself: “Bless the Lord, O my soul” (Psalm 103:1). He ends the psalm in exactly the same way: “Bless the Lord, O my soul!” (Psalm 103:22). This bracketing (the technical term is inclusion) underscores the point of the whole psalm. David urges his own soul to praise the Lord. Everything in between provides reasons for praising the Lord, as well as exhortations for all of heaven and earth to join in praise.

If the borders of a psalm may point toward its main emphasis, what about the beginning and end of the Bible as a whole? When we examine the bookends of Scripture, what do we find?

The End from the Beginning

Genesis 1:1 says, “In the beginning, God . . .” Before anything else existed — sunsets, seaweed, giraffes, algebra, lightning, tomatoes, laughter, supernovas, bubblegum, coffee — there was only the triune God, eternally happy within his triune self. Everything and everyone else came later.

At the other end of the canon, the close of Revelation describes an eternal future in which “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” (Revelation 21:3). Notice three truths about these bookends. First, God bestrides the Bible, vibrantly present at both the beginning and end. He’s the Alpha and Omega of the Scriptures, the first and the last. He never began to exist, nor will he ever cease to do so. He is absolute, unchanging reality. Of no one and nothing else is this true. Only God is present at both the beginning and end of the Bible.

Second, something important has changed from Genesis 1 to Revelation 21. At the very beginning of the Bible, God exists within the happy community of himself. At the very end of the Bible, he dwells with his people in a new creation. Where did those people and that place come from? God himself created and redeemed both the people and the place.

Third, it turns out that the story doesn’t end when the Bible does. It goes on and on and on, for eternity. The Bible’s penultimate verse is a cry from the heart: “Come, Lord Jesus!” (Revelation 22:20), which means that the Scriptures conclude on tiptoe, yearning toward a deeper, fuller, richer experience of the presence of Christ. God’s story is an eternal one. The cry of God’s people is always for more of God.

Story Beneath Every Story

The implication of all this is that the Bible is not ultimately our story but God’s. God himself is the main character — and also the author who dictates the action. The Bible tells primarily of God’s works, ways, and words.

Yes, there are lots of secondary characters and interesting subplots. We learn about the material creation, including the abundance and variety of plant and animal life that fills the world. We read fascinating accounts of Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, Nehemiah, Peter, Paul, and hundreds of others, who make big mistakes and accomplish great things. The Bible bursts with stories of human frailty, rebellion, intrigue, love, courage, and tragedy. But none of those stories is the main one. None of those characters is the hero.

The overarching story line of the Bible is the story of God — the only one present at both the beginning and the end. Everyone (and everything) else is there in the story as an invited guest, beyond their deserving. All the complexities of human existence, and the vast lifespans of galaxies, exist within the eternal story of God.

Overlooking the Lead Role

It may seem blindingly obvious to claim that the Bible is mainly the story of God, but how easy it is to miss. Years ago, a famous Bible scholar wrote an article called “The Neglected Factor in New Testament Theology.” In it, he argued that God himself was the neglected factor! God’s presence was so often assumed by those committed to studying the Scriptures with care and rigor that it was largely overlooked. Yes, this actually happens.

On a more everyday level, many of us could honestly admit that we commonly place ourselves at the center of the stories we inhabit. When we grant God a place (all too often we forget him entirely), it’s to notice how he fits in around our own story. We may be mystified or angry or sad that he hasn’t intervened more frequently. Or we may be genuinely grateful for what he’s done. But at the deepest level, we’ve flipped the script: God inhabits our stories, rather than the other way around. Maybe God-centeredness isn’t so obvious as we thought.

Our tendency to minimize and marginalize God is sometimes evident in our approach to the great Bible bookends of Genesis and Revelation. Both are battlegrounds for fights about how and when exactly God created, as well as the timetable of events for his return. These questions are not unimportant. But sadly, they’ve sometimes overshadowed God himself. Our fascination with how God has acted (or will act) has too often led to gross neglect of the central truth that he has acted at all — and what that says about him.

Even a brief look at Genesis and Revelation (which is all we have space for here) shows that these two great books tell the story of God.

At the Center of the Beginning

In Genesis, all things are from and for God. He’s the originator of all, and he’s the first enjoyer of all. He creates by speaking everything into existence. That means all else is derivative and has its source in him. Even as he creates, he observes and appreciates what he makes. Over and over, he sees that his creation is good (Genesis 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25), even “very good” (1:31). We get the sense that he’s really enjoying this. All things are from him and for him.

Moreover, humankind, the pinnacle of this “very good” creation, exists to display his worth. God’s creation of men and women in his image, after his likeness (Genesis 1:26), suggests that their vocation is to image him forth to the rest of the world, serving as agents of his rule. His command to be “fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28) demonstrates that their display of his worth isn’t meant to be merely local but rather global. And God is doggedly persistent in his project of blessing all mankind and displaying his worth everywhere. He doesn’t allow the rebellion of Adam and Eve to derail his project but persists in working with humanity. After the catastrophic judgment of the flood, he starts over with Noah’s family. Following the proud self-assertion of the nations (Genesis 11), he calls Abram to serve as a conduit of divine blessing for “all the families of the earth” (Genesis 12:3).

Throughout Genesis, God is the sovereign planner, the persistent initiator, and the main actor. He’s the one who sends the flood, calls Abram, blesses Abram, renews his covenant promises to Isaac and Jacob, and sends Joseph ahead into Egypt to preserve his people (Genesis 45:7; 50:20). He writes the story and moves it forward at every step.

God is also the sweetest blessing, the ultimate treasure, of his people. After Adam and Eve’s rebellion, their greatest punishment is exile from God’s presence (Genesis 3:22–24). More precious even than the blessing of land and offspring is God’s promise to Abram “to be God to you and to your offspring after you” and his promise regarding Abram’s descendants that “I will be their God” (Genesis 17:7–8).

Genesis is a profoundly God-centered book. In it, all things are from, through, and to God.

At the Center of the End

The seven blessings scattered throughout Revelation (the first in 1:3 and the last in 22:14) show that the main purpose of this book is not to satisfy end-time curiosity or to solve apocalyptic puzzles, but to bring divine blessing to God’s suffering people. God means to give grace, as is evident in 1:4 (“Grace to you”) and 22:21 (“The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you all”).

Importantly, God’s blessing is not a gift that is separable from himself. Rather, the blessing of God is God. In the new creation, he will “dwell” with his people (Revelation 21:3), a promise that recalls his presence among Israel in the tabernacle. In fact, the description of the new Jerusalem as a perfect golden cube (Revelation 21:15–21) nods to the Most Holy Place in the temple, suggesting that in the new creation God’s people will enjoy his immediate presence, as only the high priest was permitted to do (and that only once a year).

In the new world, his people will see his face (Revelation 22:4), a staggering privilege not even Moses was permitted. The long and painful story of exile from God’s presence that began after Adam and Eve’s sin and banishment from the garden, and continued through Israel’s exile from the promised land, will finally end. God’s people will enjoy his perfect presence in the new creation and will never again be sent away.

Meanwhile, as God’s people await this promised future, Revelation steadies them by insisting that nothing happens by chance, but rather all things occur by God’s sovereign plan. The book is “The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place” (Revelation 1:1). That key word must expresses divine necessity. The book ends with the reminder that “the Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, has sent his angel to show his servants what must soon take place” (Revelation 22:6). It must take place because God has willed it. His sovereign control brings steady comfort and strength in the present.

Revelation is radically God-centered. The sovereign God ordains the ways of the world. The glorious, triune God is the aim and treasure of his people. His throne is set in the midst of worshiping angels and humans (Revelation 4–5).

Joys of a God-Centered World

The God-centeredness of the Bible’s bookends suggests that the whole Bible is, in fact, focused on God and meant to tell his story. And this is very good news for us. When we live for ourselves, life doesn’t go well. But when we live for him, we’re living along the grain of the universe, as he designed things to function. We therefore experience true, deep, lasting joy. When John the Baptist heard that Jesus was growing in prominence, he said, “This joy of mine is now complete” (John 3:29). John was happiest serving as the spotlight operator, shining his light on the one true star of the show.

The biographer Arnold Dallimore records a story about Charles Spurgeon, in whose day streetlights were gas-lit. Each had to be lit individually. One night, Spurgeon observed a line of streetlights being lit that went right up a hill, from its foot to the summit. He later described that moment:

I did not see the lamplighter. I do not know his name, nor his age, nor his residence; but I saw the lights which he had kindled, and these remained when he himself had gone his way. As I rode along I thought to myself, “How earnestly do I wish that my life may be spent in lighting one soul after another with the sacred flame of eternal life! I would myself be as much as possible unseen while at my work, and would vanish into eternal brilliance above when my work is done.” (Spurgeon, 162)

Let’s allow our joy to swell as we live within the one great story of the one true God.

Hope for the Fragile and Fragmented 29.5.2023 03:00

In a world filled with wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes and famines, a right understanding of the end times can bring stability to anxious minds.

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Assurance for the Unassured: Finding Hope in the Names of God 28.5.2023 03:00

Assurance for the Unassured

For a certain kind of Christian, assurance of salvation can feel as fickle as a winter sun. Here and there, the sky shines blue and bright, filling the soul with light. Far more often, however, the days are mostly cloudy, the sun shadowed with uncertainty. And then sometimes, the sky goes gray for weeks on end, and the heart walks heavily under the darkness of doubt.

From the outside, such Christians may seem to bear much spiritual fruit: friends may mark the grace in their lives, accountability partners may encourage them, pastors may find no reason to question their faith. But for those under the clouds, even healthy fruit can look pale and sick. So even as they read their Bible, pray, gather with God’s people, witness, and confess their sins, they usually find some reason to wonder if they really belong to Christ.

How does assurance sink into the heart and psyche of those prone to second-guess? The Holy Spirit has many ways of nourishing confidence in his people — not least by teaching us to recognize the fruit he bears. But for the overly scrupulous among us, for whom personal holiness always seems uncertain, the Spirit also does more: he lifts our eyes above the clouds to show us God’s unchanging character.

Among the divine qualities he uses to nurture our assurance, we may find one surprising: God’s infinite commitment to his glory.

For the Sake of His Name

At first, God’s commitment to his glory may seem to weaken, not strengthen, a doubting Christian’s assurance. If God does everything “to the praise of his glory” (Ephesians 1:14), for the fame of his name, what hope do we have — we who daily fall short of that glory, who often dishonor that name? We would need to find assurance elsewhere, it would seem.

Yet those who pay attention will find God’s zeal for his name running like a silver thread of hope through all the Scriptures. When Israel’s army fell before Ai, “What will you do for your great name?” was Joshua’s cry (Joshua 7:9). When the nation sinned by demanding a human king, Samuel assured the fearful, “The Lord will not forsake his people, for his great name’s sake” (1 Samuel 12:22). When, later, Israel teetered on the brink of exile, Jeremiah pleaded, “Do not spurn us, for your name’s sake” (Jeremiah 14:21). And when the nation languished in Babylon, Daniel grounded his bold prayers on “your name” (Daniel 9:19).

Again and again, the guilty people of God appeal not only to God’s mercy, but to his unflinching allegiance to his glory. Save us, restore us, keep us, defend us — and do it for the sake of your name! So what did they know about God’s name that we may not?

His People, Their God

First, they knew that God, in unspeakable mercy, had condescended to put his name upon his people (Numbers 6:27). By making a covenant with Israel — taking them as his people, pledging himself as their God — he wrapped up his glory with their good; he wove his fame together with their future.

The surrounding nations knew, as Daniel prayed, that “your city and your people are called by your name” (Daniel 9:19). And so, when God lifted up his people, he lifted up his name; when God helped his people, he hallowed his name. Through Israel’s welfare, he trumpeted his own worth, showing himself as the only living God in a world of lifeless idols.

No doubt, God’s name proved useless to those who presumed upon it, who chanted “The Lord! The Lord!” so they could keep sinning in safety (Jeremiah 7:8–15). When Israel’s unrepentant ran to God’s name for refuge, they found the door locked. But for the humble repentant, God’s name stood like the strongest tower (Proverbs 18:10). They might be sinful and unworthy in themselves, but God had given them his name — and for the sake of that name they found mercy, forgiveness, safety, and help.

John Owen writes, “God in a covenant gives those holy properties of his nature unto his creature, as his hand or arm for him to lay hold upon, and by them to plead and argue with him” (Works, 6:471). The name of God is the hand of God reaching down to helpless sinners, bidding them to grab on and not let go.

The Lord, the Lord

Second, these saints knew something about God’s name that would have been too wonderful to believe if God himself had not revealed it: at the heart of God’s name is not only the glory of greatness, but the glory of grace.

When the Lord himself “proclaimed the name of the Lord” to Moses (Exodus 34:5), here is what he said:

The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty. (Exodus 34:6–7)

To be sure, God is zealous to display the glory of his greatness — his holiness, his power, his authority, his eternity. When he raised up Pharaoh, for example, “so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth” (Exodus 9:16), he wanted all nations to tremble before the plague-sending, tyrant-crushing, slave-freeing God of Israel. He is “the great, the mighty, and the awesome God” (Deuteronomy 10:17).

Yet, as God reveals to Moses, he is not content merely to show the glory of his greatness; he also exalts the glory of his grace — his kindness, his patience, his abounding love and faithfulness. Unlike so many gods of the nations, mercy, and not only might, sits on the throne of his glory. Well then might we say with Micah, “Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression” (Micah 7:18) — and who glorifies his name by showing grace?

But we can say even more. For in the fullness of time, God lifted up his name in a way wholly unexpected, altogether glorious: by lifting up his Son.

Assurance in Every Syllable

When God sent his Son into the world, he sent him with a name — with many names, in fact. And in his mercy, God was pleased to inscribe assurance in nearly every syllable.

Some of Jesus’s names do speak directly of his greatness, calling forth fearful awe. He is the Lord who commands creation, the King who rules the nations, the Judge who sifts men’s hearts, the Holy One who terrifies demons. But in line with the revelation of God’s name to Moses, so many of Jesus’s names testify to the glory of his grace.

For how will he get glory as Savior unless he saves the utterly lost to the uttermost? How will he get glory as servant unless he bends to wash our filthy feet? Or how will he get glory as redeemer unless he sets the captives free?

As Lamb of God, his glory rests on cleansing the worst sins with his most-worthy blood. As bridegroom, his glory shines in the forgiven splendor of his bride. And as the way, his glory leads lost sinners home.

Now, as heavenly advocate, he glories to bear our names in his scars. As head of the body, he gloriously nourishes and cherishes his members below. And as founder and perfecter, his glory redounds when he finishes the faith he begins.

We could go on, showing how the glory in the names propitiation, bread of life, light of the world, and more is a glory made for sinners’ good. This Jesus will not lose one jewel in his crown of names. He will not let his glory as mediator be diminished by one lost case, or his glory as shepherd be tarnished by one devoured sheep, or his glory as high priest be brought low by one needy, trusting sinner left without help.

Such names shine like so many suns in the sky above, each a burning assurance meant to chase away our clouds.

His Glorious Grace

Now, knowing that God saves sinners for his name’s sake may not resolve all our doubts. After lifting our eyes to such unclouded skies, we may lower them again upon a world of gray, wondering if God is saving us for his name’s sake. So how might this sight of God’s character help the hesitating soul?

First, simply fixing our gaze on God rather than self may do much to nurture spiritual health. If we often live in the cellar of the soul, trying to judge our spiritual fruit in the dim light of scrupulous introspection, long and regular looks at God may lift us into sun-lit skies, where for a few wonderful moments we forget ourselves, and then perhaps dare to believe that the light of this God can swallow any darkness, even ours.

Second, meditating on God’s grace-filled commitment to his name may remove the deep, subconscious suspicion that God’s glory and our salvation are somehow at odds. We may begin to feel, and not only say, that this shepherd would rejoice to carry us home upon his shoulders, that this father would run to see our silhouette on the horizon.

If you want a deeper sense of assurance, then, by all means keep killing your sin and pursuing the holiness “without which no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14). But also labor to travel often above the clouds, where you remember that God created this world not only “to the praise of his glory,” but “to the praise of his glorious grace” (Ephesians 1:6, 14). And therefore, all of God’s zeal for his glory, all of God’s love for his name, stands behind the sinner who casts his soul on Christ.

Not Dead Yet: Fighting Nine Fears of Old Age 28.5.2023 03:00

As we age, fears can multiply like wrinkles. But for every concern, we have a blood-bought promise far, far older than our fears.

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What Risks Can Moms Take? Following Jesus with Small Children 27.5.2023 03:00

What Risks Can Moms Take?

For years, my husband and I each prayed for God’s timing and the right opportunity to move overseas to work among the unreached.

For many reasons, God did not open doors while we were single. And for many reasons, he did not open them in the first years of marriage either. The door finally opened when we had the most to lose, humanly speaking — a home, young children, unique educational opportunities for them, stability and favor in an interesting career, and a church family we loved and gladly gave ourselves to. That was when God called us to go.

My husband had visited the country once before, but I knew almost nothing of the place we were moving to except that the need was great and that the culture was both suspicious of foreigners and hostile to Christ. Some loved ones questioned our judgment, our value system, even our sanity. Do you have to go to such a risky place? Should you be doing this when you have a young family?

Some even sought me in private, appealing to my mother’s heart. Why make the kids suffer? Why are you throwing away so much? Indeed, why? We asked the same questions of ourselves and of God in prayer. Father, is this really what you are calling us to do? As we searched Scripture and wrestled in prayer, we sensed God asking us in return, Do you trust me? Am I worth what it will cost?

Will You Trust Me?

When I was in high school, my uncle took my brother and me backpacking in a beautiful alpine mountain range. On our way back, unbeknownst to us, we took a trail that required us to cross a ravine. The only way forward was across a fallen tree high above a river rushing with snowmelt. The trunk was narrow and its strength untested. If we fell in, especially with our heavy backpacks buckled to us, we could have showed up in the local obituaries. But we had little fear. We accepted the challenge and ambled across.

Motherhood has changed the way I think about that tree. I probably would not take the same risk today with young children who depend on me (much less ever lead them across it) — unless God himself promised to go with us.

Some gospel risks feel like this tree, suspended above real dangers and yet the only path between where we stand and where we think obedience lies. Every mother who has been reconciled to Christ and entrusted with “the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:18–19) feels at times the tension between fear and gospel obedience.

God, how can I move to that part of town, even if it’s for a church plant? How can I open the safety of my home to complete strangers? Don’t you know how difficult life will be if my husband takes on more ministry? What if my neighbor never speaks to me again after I share the gospel with her? Do you know how messy the foster-care system is? Why would we walk alongside that troubled family, and invite trouble into our home?

Even believing mothers can want to shield their families from all risk, but only a false gospel preaches that we can follow Jesus and avoid pain and loss in this world.

Mothering in the Trenches

Christ requires that his followers (yes, even mothers) deny themselves and take up their crosses (Matthew 16:24). Only those who fully trust his next words would dare to follow: “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25). Even if obedience results in immediate loss, do we trust its end will be life and gain, as he said?

The greatest question in the face of risk is not what we might lose but whom we will believe. And our trust has no better — no other — resting place than “our Father, our Redeemer from of old” (Isaiah 63:16). He is good and does good (Psalm 119:68). With him is wisdom, might, counsel, and understanding (Job 12:13). He holds the outcome of the dice and the whims of the king in his hands (Proverbs 16:33; 21:1).

And she who hopes in God will not be found cowering in the basement, shielding her children. She will be in armor out on the battlefield, asking in the face of danger, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?” (Romans 8:35). Whether she is in a tree-lined suburb, a concrete city, or some foreign country, she will teach her children not to run from the risks of serving Christ, but instead to pray, “When I am afraid, I put my trust in you” (Psalm 56:3).

Am I Worth Your Risks?

Before our move, I acknowledged with conviction God’s worth and, by extension, the worth of his gospel message and church. I trembled, but I confessed he was worth all we were about to risk.

Over a year in, as the real stresses of living in a foreign culture took their toll (and as I hoped to shut the chapter on the sickest year of our lives), I found myself nursing my family through even more rounds of severe illness. I found myself in the emergency room again, holding my smallest child, with no answers as to what was ailing her. Listening to the doctor try to explain to me that she might also have a problem with her kidneys, I lost sight of his worth.

In 2 Corinthians 11:23–27, Paul describes some of what he suffered as a servant of Christ: labors, imprisonments, bodily injury, deprivation of basic needs, and the dangers he faced from both people and nature. In Philippians 3:3–6, he further details what he lost for the sake of Christ: birthright, pedigree, identity, education, accomplishments, and the commendation of men. And he concludes, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ” (Philippians 3:8).

Even when the Holy Spirit testified to him that “imprisonments and afflictions” awaited him in every city, he declared, “I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24). In Christ, the apostle saw such a magnitude of worth that even his very life was worthless by comparison.

Your Next Risky Yes

We cannot dismiss Paul’s choices as less practical or easier just because he was an apostle (and a single man with no dependents). Paul’s valuation of Christ transcended his season of life and calling in life.

Holding my child in the hospital, I was looking only to things seen and had lost sight of Jesus, “the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2). I had to pray — and ask others to pray — that God would enlighten the eyes of my heart (Ephesians 1:18) so that I could endure “as seeing him who is invisible” (Hebrews 11:27).

How then do our risks weigh against the worth of Christ? They are but light, momentary afflictions preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison (2 Corinthians 4:17). They are pennies swallowed up by the unsearchable riches of Christ (Ephesians 3:8).

Fellow mom, though I may be oceans away, neither of us raises our family in the country of our citizenship. You also face many risks as you serve Christ. Do you trust him? Is he worthy? If so, what is a faithful, risky yes you can say to him today?

How Does Our Walking Please God? Colossians 1:9–12, Part 6 27.5.2023 03:00

How does one walk in a manner worthy of the Lord? Value him in your work, in your play, in your worship.

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The Joy of Jesus’s Return 26.5.2023 03:00

When Jesus returns, he will magnify the radiance of his glory by multiplying our own joy in that glory. We will happily marvel, and he will forever shine.

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Train Them Up in Jesus: The One-Verse Vision for Dads 25.5.2023 03:00

Train Them Up in Jesus

Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. (Ephesians 6:4)

Following the negative charge to fathers — “do not provoke your children to anger” — Paul captures a positive vision for Christian parenting with two key terms: “discipline and instruction” in the ESV. The Greek words beneath them have been the subject of much discussion and have led to a variety of translations. We might capture the meaning just as well, if not better, with training and counsel — which might help both our clarity of vision and practical application in parenting.

The first concept, “discipline” or “training” (paideia), is the broader and more comprehensive of the two. It likely speaks to the full educational process from infant to adult, and the years of intentionality, initiative, energy, and follow-through it takes to train a child for adulthood. That is, it is a long-term process, like training for the Olympics, but with far more at stake.

We might think of it as whole-life training — body and soul — not mere classroom instruction. “The term paideia,” comments S.M. Baugh, “has rich cultural associations in the Greek world for the training and education of youths in a wide range of subjects and disciplines” (Ephesians, 509–10). This kind of fatherly training, then, involves not only words, but example and imitation.

Training Toward Maturity

Such comprehensive life-training is what Moses received when he was “instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians,” making him, in time, “mighty in his words and deeds” (Acts 7:22). It’s what Paul received, for years, as he was brought up in Tarsus, “educated at the feet of Gamaliel” (Acts 22:3). Such whole-life training, as extended preparation for healthy adulthood, is our calling as Christian parents, training both the outer person and behaviors as well as pressing through to the heart to form and re-form the inner persons of our children.

As Jesus spoke about his disciples being trained during their time with him (Matthew 13:52; Luke 6:40), so we disciple our children toward Christian maturity. Maturity, after all, in any sphere of human life, typically does not come automatically, but through training (Hebrews 5:14). Discipling does something; it changes the disciple — and greatly so over time. And such training is often not easy but requires persisting in moments of discomfort, even pain, to endure on the path toward the reward set before us (Hebrews 12:11).

Work ethic, for instance, is not automatic; we must teach our children to work. Nor does holiness come naturally, but God’s grace in Christ trains us, and our children through us, “to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives” (Titus 2:12).

Well-Equipped to Train Well

We might be so quick to disclaim the proverbial nature of that famous childrearing verse that we neglect to pause and really ponder what training involves. “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6). There may be far more to training — both with the body, and with the more pliable soul — than modern parents tend to recognize.

And our God has made sure that we as parents are amply supplied and fully resourced for these extensive years of training our children: he gave us his Book. At the heart and center of parental training is not our own life experience and acquired wisdom (valuable as that is), but the Scriptures, “breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16–17).

This training doubtless includes what we might more narrowly call discipline (Hebrews 12:3–11), even as we note well the difference between discipline toward a goal and punishment as an end (1 Corinthians 11:32; 2 Corinthians 6:9; 1 Timothy 1:20; 2 Timothy 2:25; Revelation 3:19). Yet the whole process of parental training is comprehensive and constructive, not only responsive; and holistic, not only intellectual.

Specific Verbal Training

The second concept, then, translated “instruction” — or perhaps “counsel” (nouthesia) — is more specific, and included under the broader category of training.

With this second term, the accent is verbal, and less hands-on — specifically about the role of our words as parents. Now we move beyond visionary teaching and demonstration to corrective speech, but still as a means to the child’s long-term good, not as an end. This is how we often use the word counsel today, though not without the sense of “admonishing” or “warning.” And parental counsel typically endures beyond the years of immediate training. Parenting doesn’t end when our children move out of the house. Parental training, at that point, may be essentially complete, but parental counsel, we hope, will long endure.

Such counsel in the New Testament covers a range of circumstances, whether the more positive counsel that Old Testament examples provide for Christians today (“they were written down for our instruction, 1 Corinthians 10:11), or the more negative warnings we extend to “a person who stirs up division” (Titus 3:10). On the whole, we do well to remember the kind of father’s heart — slow to chide and swift to bless — from which such warnings and admonitions issue.

Consider, then, at least five realities that will accompany godly counsel.

Friends of Fatherly Counsel

The first friends of fatherly counsel are our tears. On the beach at Miletus, when Paul bids farewell to the Ephesian elders, he reminds them that “for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears” (Acts 20:31). His apostolic counsel came with tears, not vindictiveness. He did not speak critically, from an angry or distant heart, but in love he spoke his words of correction for their good.

Second, and related, is a good heart. He says to the Romans that he’s confident that they are “able to instruct one another,” because “you, my brothers, . . . are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge” (Romans 15:14). Fullness of both knowledge and goodness coexists in a heart that offers such counsel. It is from such a good heart that our children need our counsel and warnings.

Third, fatherly love. When Paul spoke hard words, as he did to the Corinthians, he did so not “to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children.” The reason he gives is his fatherly heart for them: “For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers” (1 Corinthians 4:14–15). General counsel and admonitions may have their place; but our children have special need of corrective words that flow from a father’s peculiar love.

Fourth, teaching and wisdom. Twice Colossians speaks of “warning everyone” and “admonishing one another” (that is, Christian counsel) that is both paired with teaching and accompanied with “all wisdom”:

Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. . . . Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. (Colossians 1:28; 3:16)

As parents, we might also observe here the goal of our parenting (Christian maturity), the essential means of our calling (the word of Christ), and the correlation with singing (joy made audible) and thankfulness. Singing, thankful fathers make for good counselors, who both correct and give hope.

Finally, brotherly warning. In 2 Thessalonians 3:15, Paul contrasts the disregard one might have for an enemy with the kind of warning counsel of a brother. And in 1 Thessalonians 5:12–14, this warning counsel is again the kind of speech characteristic of a congregation’s loving fathers — that is, its pastor-elders (verse 12) — and is deserving of the church’s esteem (verse 13). Such warning keeps company with encouraging, helping, and patience (verse 14).

Making Fathering Christian

In Paul’s one-verse vision of parenting, he finishes with one final phrase that is no throwaway. In our efforts at fatherly training and counsel, we dare not ignore it. In fact, this last note is the most important one of all. All our years of training, and all our hard and precious words of counsel, will be for naught in view of eternity without the finishing touch: “of the Lord.”

Christian parenting aims far higher than competent, seemingly healthy adults. Christian parenting aims, in everything, to teach our children Christ. We want them to “learn Christ.” Which fits with the way Paul warns the church in Ephesians 4:20–21: “That is not the way you learned Christ! — assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus.”

In Christ, we want all our parenting covered by the banner of teaching them Christ. As Charles Hodge comments on Ephesians 6:4, “This whole process of education is to be religious, and not only religious but Christian” (Ephesians, 204). Our parental training is training in Christ. And our parental counsel, however encouraging or corrective, is counsel in Christ. In him, and through him, and for him is all Christian parenting.

As we nourish our children in the training and counsel of our Lord, we make knowing and enjoying him the final focus of our efforts. As we do, we get to be instruments in his hands, and mouthpieces of his words, in his cause for the deep and eternally enduring joy of our children.

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