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Why Is It Better That Christ Went Away (John 16:7)? 21.5.2019 18:02

Why Is It Better That Christ Went Away (John 16:7)?

It’s better for us that Jesus is gone. He said so when he left. But why is Christ’s physical absence from us better for us than his physical presence?

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The Plague of Lazy Pastors: Real Ministry Requires Hard Work 21.5.2019 17:02

The Plague of Lazy Pastors

The apostle Paul thought and spoke of Christian ministry as labor. He abhorred laziness in the pastorate.

Paul did not see the office of pastor as a nice fit for guys with soft hands who prefer an indoor job. Pastoral work, and good teaching in particular, is hard labor — labor that is not only cursed and opposed, but specifically targeted by Satan, who loves to focus his attack on opposing lieutenants. If he can cut off the supply lines and defenses, he will soon overwhelm and defeat the ground troops.

Good pastors, Paul makes plain, must be laborers (1 Timothy 5:18), hard workers, in particular in their labor of preaching and teaching (1 Timothy 4:13–16; 5:17). Such is the ministry of pastor-elders in the local church: to teach and exercise authority (1 Timothy 2:12). To labor in, and lead through, teaching the words of the risen Christ in the inspired writings of the apostles. “We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work” (1 Thessalonians 5:12–13).

Christ calls pastors to labor in their feeding of the flock through sound teaching. And diligent word-work — both in preparation and presentation — is not easy work, not when it is done well.

Honor Men Who Work Hard

“Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching” (1 Timothy 5:17). Not merely “especially those who preach and teach,” as it is often paraphrased, but “especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.”

Doubtless some pastors will labor more in preaching and teaching than others. All pastors are to be skilled teachers (1 Timothy 3:2; 2 Timothy 2:24; Titus 1:9), but inevitably some will have abilities and proclivities to preach and teach more than others. But it’s not gifting that Paul highlights, but “labor” that he says is especially deserving of appreciation.

The labor of preaching and teaching is the central labor of pastoral ministry, and while churches should stand ready to provide financial support for all good pastors, we should have a special concern — the especially — for those who bear the burden, and do the hard work, of the central pastoral labor: preaching and teaching.

A pastor who doesn’t emotionally sweat and strain over his words is a pastor falling short of his calling. God means for pastors to be workers at their teaching. “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). Good teaching doesn’t just spill over. It requires diligence and vigilance. “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching” (1 Timothy 4:16).

Teaching with a Tether

Part of what makes pastoring hard work is that we teach with a tether. We don’t just sit down with a blank piece of paper, or show up to address an attentive church, and speak off the top of our heads. Unashamed workers “rightly handle the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). Week after week, day after day, the words we breathe out to feed the church are not our own thoughts on the matter.

Christians have a Book. And good pastors are happily tethered to this Book — which is the most powerful, proven, life-changing Book in the history of the world. Good pastors are unavoidably Book-men.

Being men of the Book demands head-work and sustained mental effort. We study. Many of us learn and reference the original languages of Hebrew and Greek. Before making applications, we first wrestle with what the text means and does not mean. And being men of the Book requires heart-work. Before turning to tell others what the Book says, we first put ourselves under its teaching, for repentance and faith.

Most Solemn Charge

Then, when we craft words in writing, or say words in speaking, we inevitably put ourselves out there for criticism — with preaching being even more taxing than writing because you can’t edit what you say in public. Survey after survey reports modern man fears public speaking more than anything else, including death. Add to that the weight of speaking, in the context of worship, on behalf of God. There is no more solemn charge in all the Bible than this:

I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. (2 Timothy 4:1–2)

Christian preachers may make every effort to “hide behind the cross,” but we cannot long hide behind the pulpit. Preaching exposes a man. In time, even when he tries to hide, a preacher inevitably reveals his own heart and life, borne witness in what he’s willing, and unwilling, to address. And in addition to what happens in the moments before our hearers, we anticipate the final day, when “we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (James 3:1).

Heart Behind Hard Work

So, good pastors are not lazy. They are hard workers — even in the face of a modern society freshly primed to criticize a leaders’ workism and encourage what amounts to laziness. Outward hard work, however, can come from a sinful inward disposition. All of us, pastors included, can work hard for the wrong reasons. For selfish ambition. For mere kudos and applause. From deep emotional insecurity. What, then, are the right reasons for hard work in pastoral ministry?

First and foremost, we work not for God’s acceptance but from his full embrace in Christ. We first own, in our own souls the Christian gospel, not another. We aim to labor from fullness of soul, not from emptiness. Such is the heart of the Protestant work ethic, noticeably distinct from the prevailing medieval ethic, which came before it and challenged it at every turn.

The first word to every pastor, as to every Christian, is not, Work, but, He worked. It is finished. Look to the labors of Christ. Look how he rose early to meditate and pray, how he navigated intrusive crowds, and had patience with maturing disciples, and untiringly did the works of his Father, and fielded inconvenient pleas from the sick and disabled and disadvantaged.

Free to Work Hard

The Reformation recovery of such ultimate rest for the soul produced a different kind of people — and a different kind of pastor. Not a lazy and apathetic people. But the kind of people with new energy and freedom, new vision and hope, fresh initiatives, fresh freedom from self, and new desires to expend self for the good of others. The kind of people who have the Spirit of God at work in and through them.

Those who best know the grace of God in Christ — and pastors should know him well, if not best — are the freest people on the planet to give themselves to work hard. The gospel has liberated us with Christ’s full righteousness in our place and Christ’s own Spirit now dwelling in us. In him, we have been freed from self-protection to pour out our energy and give our time and skill and creativity to blessing others, rather than serving self. Good pastors lead with and model, as examples to the church, a new ethic for all those who are in Christ (Ephesians 4:28) — inwardly first, and then unavoidably outward.

With such a heart, then, we receive the mantle of preaching and teaching not mainly as a privilege but as a call to self-sacrifice. Not mainly as an honor, but as a summons to gladly bear a burden for others. Not mainly as comfort, but as a calling to hard work.

Work for More Joy

As we labor in preaching and teaching, as we work hard at good words, whether written or spoken, we learn the lesson that a hard day’s work makes for a happier evening than a day of laziness and distraction. And for a happier soul. Which makes us a better vessel for the joy of the church.

When we do not eat the bread of anxious toil but enjoy the soul-sustaining food of Christ himself, we see hard work as an opportunity, not a burden. Hard work is more satisfying than laziness, both in the moment (if we have eyes to see) and, without a doubt, on the other side of our labors. “Christians will work hard,” writes John Piper, “but they will work more for the joy of all the good their work can bring to others than they will out of fear at what men will think if they fail.”

You will not find the happiest people in the world lying on couches. Pastors, let’s show that world that one of the most reliable places to find them is in pulpits.

Philippians 3:11–14: When Should I Forget My Past? 21.5.2019 06:02

Pursue, strain forward, press on. God wants us to put all energy into making it to the end, not revisiting the life we had before we started the race.

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Our Hidden Help on High: From One Angel to Another 20.5.2019 17:02

Our Hidden Help on High

My beloved Toviel,

The Almighty has seen fit to reassign you to the department of soul care. Praise be to God! You have been handed the unspeakable privilege to serve those who are to inherit eternal life (Hebrews 1:14). At present, the Master bids you to help a man who has piqued the interest of demons. I will be assisting you in our mission to bring him home.

Can you remember, dear nephew, when we first laid eyes upon them? I can’t get passed it. The sheer brilliance of our happy Creator — who could have guessed his mind? We all stood by and watched him paint. He opened earth’s chapters with light. New sentences soon followed filled with breathing forests, towering mountains, budding flowers, roaring waters, and all sorts of wonderful creatures. The eagle soared, the gazelle pranced, the dolphin swam, waves crashed. Thunder clapped and shook the earth (even Michael grabbed at the hilt of his sword, startled at the sound).

Can you remember shouting for days on end in pure ecstasy? I know the Master does (Job 38:7). Each new day (as he then named it) contained new reasons for happiness.

Divinity’s Mirror

Yet, the brush stayed in hand. He continued.

Can you not still feel the hush that fell as the Almighty knelt down (to speak in a human way) and breathed into the dust? What happened then, even I, “the preaching angel,” hesitate to speak. He made a creature, distinct from himself, and yet, in a real sense, a reflection of himself. A creature, fashioned specially into the image of its Creator. For months, I simply stared. Our awe doubled as he made her, similar to the first in imaging his Majesty, yet different from the first as the moon differs from the sun. Eve, that first man named her.

But heaven’s poison found paradise. Our cursed brethren — violently thrust from above — attacked these beings God called children below.

Outside of the Holy One himself, they despised his image-creatures most — even above Michael’s sword, I wager. The vicious one slithered in and tempted the couple. We watched in horror as all that was once colorful became dark. The mirrors turned dim. Weeds began to grow in the celestial garden. The Creator clothed them in animal skins and expelled them. With drawn sword, our kin protected entrance from its former rulers.

Grand Announcement

For centuries we inquired into what our Master had planned. We witnessed death and rebellion, murder and rape. And just when all seemed lost, he himself entered his own creation; the Author wrote himself into the play. I, Gabriel, still remember when he sent me to the humans to make the announcement. (I have not moved that fast since.) I still recount my lines, as an actor recalls the grand performance of his youth:

Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end. (Luke 1:30–33)

The Son, who would open the door to the locked kingdom, went. He himself, we soon realized, was destined to fulfill the ancient prophecy and crush the serpent’s skull (Genesis 3:15). Our Master, the King we spent countless ages praising upon his throne, took on the form of his servants. He became man. Man who would die. But of course, you know all of this already. I cannot but help it. What else should we discuss, if not this? Do we not long to look into such things?

Will Humans Recognize Us?

Ah yes, I nearly forgot. Now to your question. As you consider your new line of work, you ask whether the human you assist and strengthen, whose spiritual good is your mission and whose salvation is your glory, will he, who you serve out of sight and out of mind, recognize you in glory? On that day when our Master will chariot the clouds and make all things new, will your man — assuming that he is one of the chosen — know you?

When they meet us, beloved Toviel, I imagine that, like everything else in our Master’s kingdom, they will greet us with a sense of familiar wonder. All will be new, yet not that type of new which is just out of place — not that new which, when met, completely surprises. Rather, the tune that they have hummed the whole journey, the song they learned from they know not where, the melody which played in their hearts as the only comfort on darkened nights, will meet them at last. And on that day, when faith shall turn to sight, they will not merely hear the song; they will join it, as raindrops finally reaching the ocean’s surface.

I believe when you see each other as you both are, he will embrace you as a lifelong friend, with whom he only now had the pleasure of a proper introduction. Of course, we do not mean to distract him from our Lord — the dirt beneath must not seize one’s gaze from the flower’s petals — but he will see in your face a necessary ally who he only finally found at that moment. Perhaps, dear nephew, it shall be similar to how they will greet the saints of other generations whose stories and writings played their part in guiding them home.

Still Work to Do

This, dear Toviel, is the type of kinsmanship in which locked eyes and a gentle smile suffice to say all that is needed. And as he goes to shake our hand (I speak again in a human way) you will humbly bow before him — for he will be a king. (In one man, the kingdom was lost; in another, crowns are gained.) As a servant to his king, yet as a friend to his friend, you will finally usher him home with great joy.

That day, dear Toviel, that day, when the host of heaven will swell with completeness, when the last voice shall be present to sing the Great King’s praises, when the last narrator is in attendance to tell their part of the Great Story, when the last king and queen finally take their seat alongside his Highness, all will conclude, and yet, all will begin at long last. Creation groans. Heaven groans. We groan. For that day.

But until then, we have work to do.

Your Fellow Servant of His Glory,

Will Marriage Cure My Lust? 20.5.2019 08:58

Will Marriage Cure My Lust?

Sex in marriage, just like other physical gifts from God, is not an absolute cure for lust, but it can be a great help in the battle.

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Three Ways to Purify Your Thinking 19.5.2019 17:02

Three Ways to Purify Your Thinking

If we are in Christ, God is remaking our minds.

Once, we were “darkened in [our] understanding” (Ephesians 4:18). We may have been smart, even brilliant, but we shut the doors and windows of our minds against the knowledge of God. We preferred illusions over truth (Romans 1:18). We crafted alternative realities where God was not glorious, Christ not worthy, sin not damnable, and holiness not desirable. Our minds, created to be like a garden of the Lord, became a field of thorns, a scorched land.

But in Christ, God is reclaiming his garden. He’s opening the doors and windows and letting the light back in. He has told us that one of the great tasks of the Christian life is “to be renewed in the spirit of your minds” (Ephesians 4:23). Pluck weeds and plant trees. Gather rocks and plow fields. Prune vines and build walls. Purify your mind.

Purify Your Mind

The purifying of our minds happens, in part, as we learn to habitually set our minds in certain directions — as we turn our mind’s eye from the worthless to the beautiful, from the defiled to the pure, from the false to the true. Like all repentance, such turning is not a onetime work, but a daily one, an hourly one, even a moment-by-moment one. Nor is it easy: changing our habits of thought is like carving new ruts in old roads. It will not happen spontaneously.

As we do set our minds in certain directions, and make holy thinking a habit, the effect will be like gradually opening the curtains: light and warmth from the God of glory will come in, making our thoughts bloom like flowers and rise like oaks of righteousness.

God tells us, in the book of Phillipians, to consistently set our minds in three directions: on glory above, on beauty below, and on people around.

1. Set your mind on glory above.

Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. (Philippians 3:19–20)

Paul reminds the Philippians of their heavenly citizenship directly after he warns them not to be like “enemies of the cross of Christ,” people who have “minds set on earthly things” (Philippians 3:18–19). By earthly things, Paul does not mean the gifts in God’s good creation, but rather sinful pleasures (see Colossians 3:5). Those who set their minds on earthly things have scrubbed heaven from the horizon of their minds, preferring to fill their heads with dark pleasures.

The antidote is to look up: lift your eyes to glory above, and walk often in the fields of heaven. But Paul will not let us speak vaguely of “glory above.” A mind set on high is not filled with a spiritual haze, but with a Person: Jesus Christ. “Our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior.” “Set your mind on glory above,” then, mainly means, “Set your mind on Christ and all that is yours in him.”

Think much of the Lord Jesus. Consider how he left his Father’s side and took the form of a servant. Ponder how he relinquished his rights in order to die for desperate sinners. Remember how he is now clothed in a glorified body, bearing the scars of our redemption and crowned with the highest name. Meditate on how he will one day “transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body,” and make everything broken about us whole (Philippians 2:6–11; 3:21). Only then will we know something of what it means to “have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5).

Search for this Jesus as you read your Bible day by day. Cast your mind in the mold of his goodness. Carry his promises with you in all the chambers of your head. Return often throughout the day to think of glory above.

2. Set your mind on beauty below.

Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. (Philippians 4:8)

A mind set on heaven does not cease to think of earth. No: heaven sends us hunting through creation for all the marks of our Father’s handiwork. Thinking on beauty below is a matter of Christian obedience.

Too often, however, I substitute “whatever is lovely” for “whatever gives immediate gratification.” Many of us are content to set our minds on pleasures that sprint through our souls without leaving a trace. We need heaven to recalibrate our earthly tastes, so we move past snap delights to “approve what is excellent” — truly, enduringly excellent (Philippians 1:10).

Those with minds set on glory above will not ultimately be satisfied with trivialities below. We will search to find a deeper echo of the tune, something that sends us past the crust of life to the core. We will look for something to awaken us to the wonder of being image-bearers of the high God, in a broken but beautiful world, with the gospel on our lips and glory in our hearts (Philippians 1:27). We want something that will absorb us, that will take us outside ourselves and send us into Reality, with all its hard edges and bracing air, all its grand and intricate glory, all its raw and cultivated splendor.

We might, as our Savior was prone to do, regularly get out beneath a big sky and look at the birds of the air, the flowers of the field, the movement of clouds, and the habits of sheep. We might lose ourselves in some story that rekindles in us the glory of everyday life. We might find some hobby that rivets us and, for a few moments at least, makes us forget about ourselves as we run, hike, play, fix, write, craft, cook, and then kneel down to give thanks to the Giver of it all.

3. Set your mind on people around.

Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. (Philippians 2:4)

As we go on the hunt for beauty here below, we would be blind if we passed over those walking wonders all around us — those children of Adam, destined for immortality in either heaven or hell, whose interests Paul tells us to look to (Philippians 2:4).

This command to “look . . . to the interests of others” means more than “consider meeting others’ needs if they’re in your path and you have time.” This looking is, rather, proactive looking, attentive looking, the kind that would not happen apart from serious, creative thought. Look to means “Think, dream, plan, and study how to do the most good to those around you — and then get to it.”

We know this because Paul gives Jesus as our model of looking to the interests of others (Philippians 2:5–11). The cross was not a good work Jesus stumbled across, but one dreamt up in the merciful imagination of the triune God, and executed at extreme cost to himself. We are looking to the interests of others only if we reflect something of Jesus’s initiating, creative, and costly love, and are “genuinely concerned for [the] welfare” of those around us (Philippians 2:20).

The most well-balanced people in this world are those whose heads are so full of God and others that they have little time to circle around their own misfortunes. For many of us, then, perhaps the healthiest thing we could do with our minds is to absorb ourselves in the hopes, struggles, successes, and heartbreaks of another.

Think About These Things

The call to purify our minds is one we only begin in this life. Even the saintliest among us must stand guard over their mental garden, continually shooing away the crows of corrupt thoughts. Our thinking will bloom as it ought to only when we sink our minds into the soil of Mount Zion.

But much of our peace in this life, and much of the fruit we bear for God’s glory, comes as we heed the call to “think about these things” — to set our minds on glory above, on beauty below, and on people around. These are the windows that bring light and warmth to our minds, until the day Light himself will purify our minds completely.

If We Could See Sunday from Heaven 18.5.2019 17:02

If We Could See Sunday from Heaven

Have you ever caught yourself looking past Sunday morning? Has the promise of the week ahead ever begun to eclipse the wonder of gathering with God’s people?

You probably don’t despise church, but you might still quietly pine for the extra rest that afternoon and evening. You might long for another week to start. A temptation arises, at times, to take Sundays for granted and start looking forward, instead, to what comes on Monday: to routines, relationships, events or activities, maybe even to work. Church slowly, even imperceptibly becomes an interruption in the week, instead of the culmination.

How does the awe-inspiring weekly gathering of God’s chosen people devolve into a stoplight — an inconvenient intrusion in the flow of our lives? Often, it’s because we’ve started worshiping something else the rest of the week.

Wishing Worship Would End

The temptation to look past corporate worship (and just go through the motions) is not new. While God’s old-covenant people revolted against him, adoring their money and plundering the poor, the prophet Amos overheard their plotting. He writes,

Hear this, you who trample on the needy
     and bring the poor of the land to an end,
saying, “When will the new moon be over,
     that we may sell grain?
And the Sabbath,
     that we may offer wheat for sale?” (Amos 8:4–5)

When will corporate worship be over, so that we can do what we really want? They were caught looking past worship to what they really loved. They grumbled while they waited and waited at the stoplight. The last words of every gathering had become the sweetest — because it meant they were finally dismissed.

Do you see how their hearts worked? They didn’t skip worship. God forbid! They rigorously observed the new moon and Sabbath rituals — likely as rigorously as anyone. But even before the call to worship, they wanted it to be over. They wanted to get on with their real lives. More specifically, they wanted to get back to making money (and at whatever cost).

Their words betray their piety, showing that, in reality, their worship happened on any day but the Sabbath. Money was their god, and corporate worship was simply another detour.

Commanded to Enjoy God

The new moon refers to monthly worship that took place in Israel (Numbers 28:11–15). God commanded Moses to mark the beginning of each month with a sacrifice. “You shall offer it as a food offering, with a pleasing aroma to the Lord” (Numbers 28:8). Essentially, Israel held a monthly meal for Almighty God, to atone for sin, and to announce again their delight in and devotion to him.

The Sabbath offering took place every week (Numbers 28:9–10), beginning while Israel wandered in the wilderness (Exodus 16:23–29). God said to Moses, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God” (Exodus 20:8–10). Those who ignored the command were put to death (Numbers 15:32–36). God himself set this day aside for God — and for the joy of his people. They were commanded by God to cease from their daily labors and pause to worship him.

Because God commands our worship, it can subtly begin to feel like just another obligation rather than an unprecedented and immeasurable privilege. Make no mistake, it is an obligation. The God of heaven and earth orders us to come, but in ordering us, he does not burden us. He bids us into true glory and lasting joy. Has any law fallen more sweetly?

When God commands us to worship, he commands what will make us happiest, like forcing us to spend an extra summer day along the shore of our favorite beach. This commandment is not burdensome; it is unbelievably beautiful.

Warning for Them

As irresistible as the promise is, the warning is every bit as severe. If we begin, subtly or overtly, to despise the corporate worship of our God for the greener, more profitable grasses of the week, God notices. Israel was as healthy, wealthy, and prosperous as ever, giving them a false sense of security and independence. Worship had become just the icing on the cake — and they were considering cutting the extra calories.

When Israel started overlooking the Sabbath, God warned them,

“Behold, the days are coming,” declares the Lord God,
      “when I will send a famine on the land —
not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water,
     but of hearing the words of the Lord.
They shall wander from sea to sea,
     and from north to east;
they shall run to and fro, to seek the word of the Lord,
     but they shall not find it.” (Amos 8:11–12)

This famine will not be of food or water, but of God. God will take away their food and water, even their homes, but this will be far more serious. Devastatingly serious. He will withdraw himself. Because they took worship for granted, they would soon find themselves searching the whole earth for his voice. And they would search, however relentlessly, in vain.

Having struck gold as a people, without having done anything to deserve to have the true God as their God, they had deserted the mines. To make a few extra pennies. Now, their eyes and ears had been closed for good.

Warning for Us

The warning and promise are no less serious for us today: Any of us who despises worship, subtly or overtly, invites the horror of a world without God.

If that world doesn’t sound all that horrible to us, we are the most vulnerable of all. We may never say it out loud, but some of us wouldn’t mind a heaven without God, as long as it was a better, safer, more secure version of what we’ve got going right now. That’s why Sundays feel inconvenient, and a little intrusive. We have started to treat God like a nice addition to the good life, instead of seeing him as the one who makes life worth having.

Sadly, many won’t realize how awful it is to be forever apart from God until they hunt high and low for him to no avail. Some will go to the grave assuming he has a room for them (Matthew 7:21), and then be left desperately holding up their church attendance (Matthew 7:22).

When will this service be over? If the thought persists, imagine God starving you, your family, and your church of his word. Imagine him holding you out of the new heaven and new earth, where his Word will replace the sun (Isaiah 60:19). Then remember the wonder that God has given us himself and his word, adopted us into his family, and lovingly commanded us to cease from work long enough to see and enjoy him again in worship.

Incomparable Gathering

How do we avoid falling into such a temptation, folly, and judgment? By prizing the God of worship above all else — and seeing Sundays like we will from heaven one day. As John Piper writes of worship in the New Testament,

There was no gathering like this in the world: a people of God’s own possession, chosen before the foundation of the world, destined to be like the Son of God, bought with divine blood, acquitted and accepted before the court of heaven, a new creation on the earth, indwelt by the Creator of the universe, sanctified by the body of Jesus, called to eternal glory, heirs of the world, destined to rule with Christ and judge angels. Never had there been a gathering like this. It was incomparable on earth. (Expository Exultation, 69)

We are invited into that gathering every weekend. How can we overlook Sunday mornings unless we’ve grown dull to the constellation of incomparable beauties that come together in those ninety precious minutes? In some real sense, what we experience in worship together is the closest to heaven we come in this life. No matter how familiar or mundane it may feel in any given week, what happens on Sunday morning is a wonder to anticipate, behold, and enjoy.

Philippians 3:11–14: The One Reason to Live 18.5.2019 07:45

Devote your whole life to this one pursuit: attaining the fullest possible experience of Christ imaginable.

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His Scars Will Never Fade: The Wounds Christ Took to Heaven 17.5.2019 17:02

His Scars Will Never Fade

Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe. (John 20:27)

We know precious few details about Jesus’s resurrection body.

It was the same body in which he died, and yet it was not only restored to life but changed. He was still human, but now glorified. What was sown perishable was raised imperishable (1 Corinthians 15:42). He could pass through doors and walls (John 20:26), yet eat solid food (Luke 24:42–43). His “natural body,” which died at Calvary, was raised and transformed into a “spiritual body” (1 Corinthians 15:44), new enough that those who knew him best didn’t recognize him at first (Luke 24:16, 37; John 20:14; 21:4), but also, soon enough, knew it was indeed him (Luke 24:31; John 20:16, 20; 21:7).

Among the fascinating few details we have, one of the most intriguing is his scars.

See My Hands

The scars were the main way he confirmed to his disciples that it was truly him, in the same body, now risen and transformed. When Jesus first appeared to them, according to Luke, “they were startled and frightened and thought they saw a spirit” (Luke 24:37). Then he showed them the scars.

“See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. (Luke 24:39–40)

The apostle John reports that Jesus “showed them his hands and his side” (John 20:20) and includes the account of doubting Thomas, who “was not with them when Jesus came” (John 20:24). Thomas insisted he must see Jesus’s scars for himself, to confirm it was in fact him. In divine patience, Jesus waited eight days to answer Thomas’s prayer, and when he finally visited, he offered him the scars. “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe” (John 20:27).

Treasure in the Scars

If Luke and John didn’t tell us about the scars, we likely would assume that a glorified, resurrected body wouldn’t have any. At first thought, scars seem like a surprising feature of perfected, new-world humanity. In fact, they sound initially like a defect. Would we not expect that such an upgrade — from a perishable body designed for this world to an imperishable body designed for the next — would mean he would no longer bear the marks of suffering in this world?

We might assume the Father would have chosen to remove the scars from his Son’s eternal glorified flesh, but scars were God’s idea to begin with. He made human skin to heal like this from significant injury. Some of our scars carry little meaning, but some have a lot to say, whether to our shame or to our glory, depending on the injury. That Luke and John testify so plainly to Jesus’s resurrection scars must mean they are not a defect, but a glory. What is the treasure that awaits us for all eternity in the visible, glorious scars of Christ?

Behold His Hands and Side

First, Jesus’s scars tell us that he knows our pain. He became fully human, “made like [us] in every respect” (Hebrews 2:17), that, as one of us, he could suffer with us, and for us, as he carried our human sins to die in our place. His scars remind us that he knows human pain. Pastor and poet Edward Shillito (1872–1948), who witnessed the horrors of World War I, found comfort in the “Jesus of the Scars” who knew what it was like to suffer in human flesh.

The heavens frighten us; they are too calm;
In all the universe we have no place.
Our wounds are hurting us; where is the balm?
Lord Jesus, by Thy Scars, we claim Thy grace.

Because he chose to suffer for us, Jesus’s scars also tell us of his love, and his Father’s. “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Hymn-writer Matthew Bridges saw love in the scars and crowned him “the Lord of love” in his 1851 hymn:

Crown him the Lord of love!
     Behold his hands and side —
Rich wounds, yet visible above,
     In beauty glorified.

Lamb Who Was Slain

Finally, Jesus’s scars — as healed wounds — forever tell us of our final victory in him. As the book of Revelation unfolds to us that ultimate triumph, it is our scarred Savior — “the Lamb who was slain” — who stands at the center of heaven and sits, with his Father, on the very throne of the universe (Revelation 7:9–10, 17; 22:1, 3).

From that first introduction as “a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain” (Revelation 5:6), Jesus is referred to (27 more times) as “the Lamb.” Heaven’s worshipers fall down before him, saying, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain!” (Revelation 5:12), and the book of life is said to be “the book of life of the Lamb who was slain” (Revelation 13:8; also 21:27).

Far from forgetting his suffering and shed blood, it is a glory beyond compare that his people forever celebrate him as the Lamb who was slain, the sheep with the scars, in whose blood they have been washed (Revelation 7:14), and by whose blood, once shed through his still visible scars, they have conquered (Revelation 12:11).

We will worship him forever with the beauty of his scars in view. They are no defect to eyes of the redeemed but a glory for saved sinners beyond compare.

Meet the Maker of Middle-Earth: The Magic in Tolkien’s Story 17.5.2019 08:02

Meet the Maker of Middle-Earth

Tolkien, a biopic by Finnish director Dome Karukoski, focuses on the early life of famed author J.R.R. Tolkien. Heavily intercut, chronologically it begins with his late childhood in the idyllic village of Sarehole, and ends with his undergraduate years at Oxford and his experiences as a newly commissioned officer in the horror and mud of the Battle of the Somme. A brief final scene jumps to show Tolkien, now married and the father of four, writing the famous opening line to The Hobbit.

Having read a number of disparaging reviews, I was prepared for a mix of frustration and disappointment but instead found that I enjoyed Tolkien a good deal more than I had expected.

Stories That Stick with Us

It’s been said that when it comes to Middle-Earth, there is no middle ground. Readers are either great admirers of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings or they dislike them greatly. Those who admire them greatly are likely to have read several, perhaps many, reviews before this one, so I will not spend much time covering the usual ground.

Anyone looking for an extensive plot summary, a thorough evaluation of the cinematic elements, or a detailed account of the film’s historic accuracy can easily find these things elsewhere. My brief take is that the cinematic elements in Tolkien are quite impressive — particularly the casting, acting, and period design — and that the film is, for the most part, historically accurate, although these kinds of movies are usually intended to capture the emotional truth of events rather than the actual facts. For example, in the film we see Tolkien about to be shipped off to France just moments after he and Edith have been reunited. While this makes for great cinema, in reality they had been reunited for three years, and married for two months, before he was sent to the front.

Tolkien foresaw such embellishments. In chapter three of The Hobbit, the narrator points out, “Things that are good to have and days that are good to spend are soon told about, and not much to listen to.” Some good lives are not worth watching on the big screen, and yet, people tend to think authors of particularly interesting fiction must have led particularly interesting lives. If Tolkien’s life was not exactly the stuff Hollywood movies are made of, where is the appeal of a film that sets out to depict it? While there are a number of possible answers, I would suggest that the best one has to do with the unique quality of Tolkien’s fiction.

Daniel Taylor has written that there are certain, special stories that “receive us at birth, accompany us through the stages of life, and prepare us for death,” giving pattern to “otherwise chaotic experience, making it memorable and meaningful.” For countless readers, The Lord of the Rings is this kind of story, and for them seeing the author’s early years brought lovingly to life will be a rare delight. For others, Tolkien may serve merely as a moving tribute to the way that art — whether fiction, poetry, music, or painting — has the power, as we are told in the film, to change the world. And, of course, the power to change one person’s life as well.

The Glaring Absence

Notably missing from the film is much about Tolkien’s Christian faith, and it is missing in a certain way — not like a piece of a puzzle or a slice cut from a cake, but missing like an element that is, or would have been, part of everything.

We meet the Catholic priest who became Tolkien’s guardian, but we are never given much indication that Tolkien possessed a faith of his own — one that was a profound source of comfort in the trenches and later a critical factor in his writing. The film tries to show other elements that went into the creative formation of one of the world’s most beloved authors — Tolkien’s lifelong enchantment with language, the short-lived fellowship of his friends in the Tea Club and Barrovian Society, and Tolkien’s devotion to his first and only romantic love. We never see, however, the devotion that would later lead him to tell a correspondent seeking the really significant facts about him, “I am a Christian (which can be deduced from my stories).”

Early in The Lord of the Rings, Frodo is told, “Courage is found in unlikely places.” Tolkien is filled with many moments of courage, the kind found on the battlefield as well as the kind found in the living of an ordinary life. It is clear that the makers of Tolkien approached their subject with a great deal of affection, understanding, and reverence. Although they extracted the heart from the man, we who have eyes to see can still benefit from the film.

One other point should be made. In a manner that fails to do justice to the creative process, the filmmakers take pains to show us Tolkien’s hallucinations of monsters, fire-breathing dragons, and knights on horseback who appear on the battlefield as well as a soldier named Sam who looks after the young Lieutenant — as though this is the way authors get their ideas.

In Sarehole we almost expect to see a birthday party taking place under a giant tree or, later as the bullets and shells begin flying, to hear someone repeat the words Gandalf says to Frodo, “Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment.”

A Magic Greater Than Grief

In The Fellowship of the Ring as the members of the quest approach the boundaries of Lothlorien, their guide, an elf named Haldir, observes that although the world is full of peril and many dark places, “Still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.”

As we travel through our own dark places, we take heart knowing that, as candles shine brightest in the darkness, the fireplace warms best on cold nights — love’s rays pierce the more beautifully through shadows of grief. “Sorrowful, yet always rejoicing,” said the apostle (2 Corinthians 6:10), and rejoicing the more heartily because of the sorrows, replies the Christian. Our laughter comes from deeper wells — wells Tolkien depicted well.

In Tolkien we also see this fallen world with its mingling of love and grief, joy and sorrow. Companionship, sacrifice, loss and heartache, laughter and tears take residence here where dragons aren’t wont to dwell. And yet, though no Morgul-blades stab or Nazgul roam, here too love grows beyond grief and becomes the greater of the two.


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