December 15: Mark 10:45; John 11:33; John 11:35; Romans 12:15; 2 Corinthians 5:15; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4–7; 1 Peter 3:8–9; Matthew 21:28; Romans 6:11–13; 1 Corinthians 15:58; Galatians 4:7; 2 Timothy 2:21; 1 Peter 1:14–16
- Morning: Mark 10:45; John 11:33; John 11:35; Romans 12:15; 2 Corinthians 5:15; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4–7; 1 Peter 3:8–9
- Evening: Matthew 21:28; Romans 6:11–13; 1 Corinthians 15:58; Galatians 4:7; 2 Timothy 2:21; 1 Peter 1:14–16
Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.
Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant.—“For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”—And he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.
When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled…. Jesus wept.—Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.
Have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind. Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing.Mark 10:45
When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved1 in his spirit and greatly troubled.Footnotes
 11:33 Or was indignant; also verse 38
(ESV)2 Corinthians 5:15
Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,1 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,2 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant,3 being born in the likeness of men.Footnotes
(ESV)1 Peter 3:8–9 Suffering for Righteousness' Sake
Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind. Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing.
(ESV)Evening: Matthew 21:28; Romans 6:11–13; 1 Corinthians 15:58; Galatians 4:7; 2 Timothy 2:21; 1 Peter 1:14–16 Matthew 21:28; Romans 6:11–13; 1 Corinthians 15:58; Galatians 4:7; 2 Timothy 2:21; 1 Peter 1:14–16
“Son, go and work in the vineyard today.”
So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.
So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness.—As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.”—Set apart as holy, useful to the master of the house, ready for every good work.
Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.Matthew 21:28 The Parable of the Two Sons
Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness.
(ESV)1 Corinthians 15:58
(ESV)2 Timothy 2:21
Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from what is dishonorable,1 he will be a vessel for honorable use, set apart as holy, useful to the master of the house, ready for every good work.Footnotes
 2:21 Greek from these things
(ESV)1 Peter 1:14–16
As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.”
“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10)
As I was about to begin this devotional, I received word that Marion Newstrum had just died. Marion and her husband Elmer had been part of our church longer than most of our members had been alive at the time. She was 87. They had been married 64 years.
When I spoke to Elmer and told him I wanted him to be strong in the Lord and not give up on life, he said, “He has been a true friend.” I pray that all Christians will be able to say at the end of life, “Christ has been a true friend.”
Each Advent I mark the anniversary of my mother’s death. She was cut off in her 56th year in a bus accident in Israel. It was December 16, 1974. Those events are incredibly real to me even today. If I allow myself, I can easily come to tears — for example, thinking that my sons never knew her. We buried her the day after Christmas. What a precious Christmas it was!
Many of you will feel your loss this Christmas more pointedly than before. Don’t block it out. Let it come. Feel it. What is love for, if not to intensify our affections — both in life and death? But oh, do not be bitter. It is tragically self-destructive to be bitter.
Jesus came at Christmas that we might have eternal life. “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). Elmer and Marion had discussed where they would spend their final years. Elmer said, “Marion and I agreed that our final home would be with the Lord.”
Do you feel restless for home? I have family coming home for the holidays. It feels good. I think the bottom-line reason for why it feels good is that they and I are destined in the depths of our being for an ultimate Homecoming. All other homecomings are foretastes. And foretastes are good.
Unless they become substitutes. Oh, don’t let all the sweet things of this season become substitutes of the final, great, all-satisfying Sweetness. Let every loss and every delight send your hearts a-homing after heaven.
Christmas. What is it but this: I came that they may have life? Marion Newstrum, Ruth Piper, and you and I — that we might have Life, now and forever.
Make your Now the richer and deeper this Christmas by drinking at the fountain of Forever. It is so near.
You can’t make the new birth happen on your own. If you’re alive in Christ today, you’re a miracle of God’s word.
They typically receive fourth billing in Christmas plays. Outfitted with oversized bathrobes and foil crowns, they present shoeboxes to the baby doll in the manger. Nearby are cattle-a-lowing, angels, and shepherds too young for speaking parts.
They are the “wise men.” Immortalized in Matthew 2:1–12 and seared into our collective consciousness by the song “We Three Kings,” these figures have been a mainstay in retellings of Jesus’s birth for centuries.
But what do we really know about these men? Narrative padding has tended to stifle their profound importance in Matthew’s Gospel. Yet by looking at things afresh—what they aren’t and what they are—we can better appreciate their role in heralding the gospel itself.
Indeed, God can use even pagan astrologers to inaugurate the worship of the world’s divine King.
Mental pictures of biblical stories can gain traction even if they don’t quite square with Scripture. Let us first, then, recalibrate some things about these “three kings of Orient” by asking six specific questions.1. How many were there?
Tradition pegs their number at three. One is hard-pressed, however, to find that detail in Matthew 2. Three, which dates back at least to Origen (AD 185–254), comes from ascribing the number of gifts (gold, frankincense, myrrh) to the number of men bringing them.
But church history is not uniform here: Two men appear in the ancient catacomb of Peter and Marcellinus, four in the catacomb of Domitella, and eight or twelve in other medieval lists.
We simply do not know. Matthew just uses the plural.2. What were they?
The traditional “wise men” or “kings” are not found in Matthew’s account either. He simply calls them “Magi” (Greek magos).
Who are these mystery figures? Magos derives from a Persian word denoting a priestly caste, but it’s also used for interpreters of astrological signs or dreams. Philo uses magos for the Egyptian sorcerers of Exodus 7. Josephus uses it for dream interpreters. In the Greek of Daniel 2, magoi appear with the Babylonian enchanters and wise men consulted by Nebuchadnezzar to interpret his dream. Acts 13:6–8 describes Bar-Jesus/Elymas as a magos. Some believed magoi legitimately possessed supernatural abilities; others deemed them charlatans.
The Magi were likely specialists in dreams and astrological phenomena. . . . They were ‘wise men’ only in a secular sense, and it’s unlikely they were real kings.
Matthew’s magoi were likely specialists in dreams and astrological phenomena, as attested by their interpretation of the star. They were “wise men” only in a secular sense, and it’s unlikely they were real kings.3. Where were they from?
“Orient” is a largely outdated word for eastern Asia. In the hymnody it probably derives from the Latin oriens, which means “east” and is a fine translation of what Matthew actually says: “magoi from the East” (2:1). The English word “Orient,” however, confuses things.
These magoi were likely from Persia, Arabia (Syria/Jordan, not Saudi Arabia), or Babylonia. Some church fathers, such as Clement of Alexandria, favored Persia, since it was a hotbed of Zoroastrian astrology. Other fathers, such as Justin—partly based on the typical sources of the spices mentioned, partly based on Psalm 72:15—favored Arabia. Babylonia is also a great candidate, since its magoi would have come into contact with Israel’s Scriptures during the captivity.
Babylonia is a great candidate [for the Magis’ origin], since they would have come into contact with Israel’s Scriptures during the captivity.
They came “from the East” (2:1) and “went back to their territory” (2:12). We know little more—but they probably did not come from “the Orient.”4. When did they visit Jesus?
Traditional nativities place the magoi with the shepherds at the stable on the night of Jesus’s birth. This harmonization of Matthew 2 with Luke 2 is well-intended, but it misconstrues some details. In Matthew, the magoi apparently arrived some time after the birth—perhaps weeks, even months.
Matthew 2:1 reads, “Now after Jesus was born . . . magoi from the East came to Jerusalem”—implying a time gap. Word reached King Herod, who assembled his advisers, consulted the magoi, and dismissed them to Bethlehem (2:4–9). It would be nearly impossible to fit these proceedings in the gap between the birth and the angelic appearance to the shepherds that night (Luke 2:7–8).
Further, if the star appeared at or shortly before Jesus’s birth, it would have taken days or weeks for the magoi to travel from “the East.” Upon their arrival (2:9–11), Matthew describes Jesus as a “child,” not a “baby” as in Luke 2:12. And the magoi visit him in a house, where the family apparently relocated after the birth. Finally, Herod decrees the death of boys 2 years old or younger, “according to the time ascertained” from the magoi (2:16). The magoi weren’t there that first night but sometime later. The combined Matthew/Luke sequence runs: Jesus’s birth, angels/shepherds, circumcision, presentation at the temple, visit by the magoi, flight to Egypt, and resettlement in Nazareth (where the storylines reunite—Matthew 2:23 and Luke 2:39).
But, of course, that sequence makes for a complicated live nativity.5. Why did the star prompt them to go to Jerusalem?
Why did these magoi, upon seeing a star, go to Jerusalem looking for “he who has been born king of the Jews” (Matt. 2:1–2)?
The hymns envision the star floating along, “westward leading, still proceeding,” guiding the magoi from “the Orient” to Jerusalem. Matthew’s account does not actually say this. Something like that occurred on the short trip south to Bethlehem (Matt. 2:9), but Matthew is silent on the initial westward trip to Jerusalem. There’s a different explanation.
In antiquity, astrological wonders were understood to accompany political events, from the star landing in what becomes Rome to the star presaging the destruction of Jerusalem. Herod was no mere paranoid fool when he detected something politically amiss with the star’s appearing (Matt. 2:7).
Magoi were experts in such astral phenomena. But what about this star drew them to Jerusalem? The most plausible explanation lies in Israel’s Scriptures. As learned men who interacted with various religious literature, the magoi would have been familiar with Jewish political or messianic oracles. And one of the central political prophecies in the Hebrew Scriptures is Balaam’s oracle.
In Numbers 22–24, Balak of Moab summoned the pagan Balaam to curse Israel. Balaam was a performer of incantations and divinations (Num. 23:23; Josh. 13:22). He came “from the east” (23:7), and was labeled a magos by Philo. But this pagan seer, otherwise a scoundrel (2 Pet. 2:15), blessed Israel by prophesying its deliverer-king via the symbol of a star:
I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near: a star will arise out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel; it shall crush the forehead of Moab. (Num. 24:17)
This future figure is also described as “a man from [Jacob’s] seed who will rule many nations” (Num. 24:7).
Of great importance is the verb used in Numbers 24:17: the star “will arise.” Matthew alludes to it in 2:2 and 2:9, with the magoi seeing the star “in its rising,” which is derived from the word in Numbers 24:17. Matthew does not specify whether it was a supernova, comet, planetary conjunction, or other supernatural event—only that it “arose” and “appeared” (2:7, 16).
Balaam’s star oracle was read messianically in other early Jewish writings: Dead Sea Scrolls, Sibylline Oracles, Aramaic translations of Numbers (replacing “star” with “king”), and rabbinic tradition.
The star fulfilled a well-known Jewish messianic prophecy within a broader ancient sensitivity to astrological politics.
In short, the star fulfilled a well-known Jewish messianic prophecy within a broader ancient sensitivity to astrological politics. The magoi observed the star and recognized that the true king of Israel, the one promised by God of old—not the one appointed by Caesar, whose neurotic obsession for self-preservation was exacerbated by the star—had entered the world. It’s a fascinating collision of earthly revelation with divine revelation through the mouth of a pagan! That is what prompted the magoi to look for Jesus in Jerusalem.6. What is their significance for Matthew’s nativity?
What role, then, do the magoi play in Matthew 2?
Foreign dignitaries visiting new rulers was not uncommon. It happened to Herod the Great himself, and Pliny lists magoi in the entourage honoring Nero. So when the magoi “fall down and pay homage” to the boy Jesus (Matt. 2:11), it could simply signify respect for the one they believed to be Israel’s future earthly king.
This, by itself, is immensely significant in Matthew’s Gospel.
Matthew goes to great lengths to portray Jesus as embodying Israel’s entire history. Matthew’s genealogy places him in King David’s line (Matt. 1:1, 17). His father Joseph’s dream leads to Egypt to escape a murderous king—much like the patriarch Joseph’s dreams led to Egypt, where Moses would be born, escape a murderous pharaoh, and deliver the people. In this way God said “out of Egypt I have called my son” (Matt. 2:15; cf. Hos. 11:1): Israel as God’s firstborn culminates in Jesus as God’s true firstborn and deliverer.
But, as Matthew proceeds to recount, the bulk of Israel in Jesus’s day would reject him as their deliverer-king. The nativity anticipates death; the myrrh of the magoi points to that of the cross (Mark 15:23) and tomb (John 19:39). Israel’s leaders who knew the Scriptures (Matt. 2:6) wanted nothing to do with the “star arising from Jacob.”
Instead, it is thoroughly pagan Gentiles—perhaps from a nation that had held Israel captive, if the Babylon theory is right—who alone read the Scriptures rightly and came to herald the true King.
It is thoroughly pagan Gentiles—perhaps from a nation that had held Israel captive, if the Babylon theory is right—who alone read the Scriptures rightly and came to herald the true King.
But there’s more. By responding to a starry light and bringing gifts, these magoi fulfill Scripture in another way—every phrase of Isaiah 60:1–6 reads like a script for Matthew’s scene. The nations, here represented by the magoi, respond to the rising of the LORD with “gold and frankincense” and “good news.” When the magoi bow down, they implicitly signal what Matthew later makes explicit (28:19–20): Jesus is not just Israel’s king, but their king, possessing authority over all nations.
When the magoi “pay homage” to Jesus (2:11), the verb can also mean “worship,” as in many English translations. Matthew leaves it open-ended. But no doubt, as the full identity of Jesus unfolds, their instincts prove right. For this boy is not only “king of the Jews,” not only king of all nations, but the fully divine Son and Lord—Immanuel himself.
The wonder of Christmas, then, is that pagan astrologer magician-types are transformed to worship the incarnate divine Son through reading and responding to the ancient words of a pagan seer. Indeed, this is good news for lost sinners of all kinds throughout the world.
We need to move discipleship from the margins of our churches to the mainstream.
Date: April 9, 2013
Event: The Gospel Coalition 2013 National Conference, Orlando, Florida
Randy Pope is the founding pastor of Perimeter Church in North Atlanta. He is the founder of Life on Life Ministries and the author of several books, including Insourcing: Bringing Discipleship Back to the Local Church [interview | video].
You can listen to this episode of The Gospel Coalition podcast here.
I wanna talk about me; I wanna talk about I; I wanna talk number one, oh my me my; what I think, what I like, what I know, what I want, what I see! I like talkin’ bout you you you you usually, but occasionally . . . I wanna talk about me!
If we’re honest, is this the theme song humming beneath most of our day-to-day interactions? All I know is the 2001 Toby Keith hit played in my head for a few days after I read Sharon Hodde Miller’s book, Free of Me: Why Life is Better When It’s Not about You.
After experiencing painful insecurity and loneliness for several years, Miller realized she was walking around with a metaphorical mirror in front of her face. She found she’d been approaching many areas of life—family, friends, work, possessions, church, even God himself—as objects to be used for self-interest. She had turned them into mirrors, reflecting her own nature back to her, instead of opportunities to practice love and worship.
Miller—a pastor’s wife, mother of two small boys, and blogger at SheWorships.com—started searching for solutions, bumping first into a women’s book study whose message was less than helpful. She concluded this common Christian self-help solution to women’s insecurity wasn’t going to cut it:
The only path out of self-focus is self-forgetfulness, which is why Christian messages about “believing in myself” weren’t helping me. Instead of solving the problem, they were contributing to it. Rather than pry my gaze off of myself, they simply handed me a mirror with a Jesus tint. (34)Not About Sharon Miller, Either
Miller tells quite a bit of her own story throughout Free of Me. Given the theme of the book (“it’s not about you”), this might raise questions about her sincerity in wanting to take her eyes off herself. But the final chapters offer a clear vision of her message, which is about worship: you must worship God, she says, in order to get your eyes off yourself.
You must worship God in order to get your eyes off yourself.
Even though we hear a number of Miller’s own stories in order to reach that message, it’s a message worth hearing. Besides, her many anecdotes help us relate, and we begin to recognize the problem as our own.
In the middle of the book, she spends a chapter on each of the areas of life that we often commandeer to serve self: God, family, physical appearance, possessions, friendships, calling, and church. Here we find some helpful phrases such as “compassion over comparison” (referring to our attitude toward physical appearance), “image management” (as it relates to controlling our spouse’s reputation to protect our own), and “an attitude of gratitude” (to describe Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s solution for a critical spirit among church members).Only Antidote to Self-Focus
But it’s in the final four chapters—which Miller has alliterated “Praise,” “People,” Purpose,” and “Passion”—that we see true solutions taking shape.
Especially in the first of these, “Praise: Why Loving God Sets Us Free,” she outlines the strategy that helped her re-train herself out of panicky trips into self-absorption:
We can embrace the truth that God created us to praise. And the more praiseworthy the thing, the more joy we have in praising it, a principle that finds its ultimacy in God. . . . That’s also why my “strategy of praise” is more than a distraction or an escape. It’s what we were created to do. We were created to worship. It’s why we exist. When we take the time to meditate on God and praise him for who he is, our souls connect with their God-given design. (138)
And in the chapter on “People: Why Loving Others Unleashes Us,” she brings us to the logical outflow of worshiping God, which is serving others:
When insecurity strikes, the question we must ask ourselves is, How can I turn this into love? This question opens our eyes to the people we might have previously overlooked, and it prepares our hearts to care for them. Whether it’s a crushing grief or a slight pang of insecurity, this question pulls us out of our soul-killing self-focus, and it shows us the way to resurrection, no matter the size of the death. (151)Age of Self
Our contemporary age could be characterized as the Age of Self. Our social climate plays to the selfish tendencies already in our hearts. A book about why life is “not about you,” then, could not be more timely. And while it may feel ironic to read a book about yourself, and yet how you aren’t the center of the world, it’s certainly a place to start. Any word that directs the self onto the road of worship is a word well spent.
And any song that interrupts the Toby Keith anthem in our hearts is a song worth hearing.
We live in a fast-paced world that constantly demands our attention. The regular barrage of headlines makes it hard to remember last week’s breaking news, let alone the memories of a lifetime. In a world that moves so quickly, remembrance is often a liability, especially when our memories hurt. But that’s where Pixar’s newest release, Coco, offers a refreshing critique. It’s a film that reminds us of our need to remember, even the painful parts we’d prefer to forget.
The film tells the story of Miguel, an aspiring young musician and the progeny of a family of shoemakers. Years earlier, his great-great-grandfather abandoned his wife and daughter, Coco, for a career in songwriting, leading Miguel’s family to outlaw music in their home. But that hasn’t stopped Miguel from learning how to play guitar in secret.
In a world that moves so quickly, remembrance is often a liability, especially when our memories hurt.
Coco’s story begins on Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. Miguel’s family has devoted an entire room to a shrine where they have perched photos of departed family members, all in preparation for a visitation from their ancestors.
As evening approaches, Miguel sneaks away to perform in the community’s local talent show. In need of an instrument, he heads to the mausoleum of famed musician Ernesto de la Cruz and steals his guitar from its display. To celebrate, he strums a chord in victory, which immediately transports him to the realm of the dead.
When Miguel discovers his relatives, they whisk him away to the Land of the Dead, where they strategize about how to get him back to the living. Their decisions set in motion Miguel’s frenzied search for Ernesto de la Cruz, who he has come to believe is the great-great-grandfather who abandoned Coco and has the power to return him home.Imagination and Memory
Visually, Coco is one of Pixar’s most stunning accomplishments to date. The Land of the Dead appears in vibrant rippling colors, connected to the living by a luminescent bridge of cempasúchil petals—an orange flower that figures prominently in Mexican celebrations of the Day of the Dead. It’s hard to walk away from the film without an appreciation for its artistic imagination.
Although Coco does not pack the storytelling punch of some of the studio’s previous works, it provokes some thoughtful questions about the significance of memory. Why should we remember? What do we lose by forgetting? And perhaps most importantly, how do we remember the hard things of life without forgetting the beauty in the process? The film addresses each of these questions through the lens of family.
Remembrance and loss are central to the plot. Residents of the Land of the Dead depend on their living families to maintain their memory. If lost, the dead dissolve into ethereal dust and drift away, forgotten forever. Coco portrays forgetfulness as a powerful force both in the present and afterlife.
After her husband left, Miguel’s great-great-grandmother excised the man’s memory from her life. But in doing so, she also deprived her daughter, Coco, of recalling the brief joys she had with her father (as well as the presence of music). It’s an understandable decision. No one wants to live with that kind of pain, but removing all memory creates a pain of its own, one that carries consequences for the future.
In some ways, Miguel’s rebellion is one of those consequences. His decision to chase his dream of music at the expense of his family stems from a misunderstanding of his great-great-grandfather—one made possible by his family’s commitment to forget.
So how do we remember in a way that embraces both the pain and the joy of the past? Coco resolves the tension through the support of family and community. Remembering rightly will be hard, but we do not have to bear that weight alone.
Remembering rightly will be hard, but we do not have to bear that weight alone.
Coco made me think about relationships in my life that have helped me embrace my past in a way that is both true and also instructive. As Christians, we are called to bear one another’s burdens in a similar manner. But family alone cannot temper the pain of the past, especially when family itself is the problem. So what then?Biblical Remembrance
Scripture is filled with calls to remember. God regularly interacts with the Israelites by recounting their history as his people—both the good and the bad—and the New Testament commands us to remember our former lives as fuel for the wonder of our salvation (Eph. 2:11–13). We are called to remember, not because we can do so in our own strength or even that of our community, but because we do so in the strength of the Spirit who lives in us.
Through the prophet Ezekiel, the Lord promised to replace a heart of stone with a heart of flesh in those who would believe (Ezek. 36:26). To have a heart of stone is to exist separated from God, seeing self-sufficiency as the only escape from the troubles of this world. In contrast, a heart of flesh finds joy trusting in God rather than circumstances. That kind of trust enables us to remember rightly the pain and the joys of our past, since we’ve been set free from self-protection and guaranteed a future by the One who holds forever in his hands.
Coco’s conclusions about remembrance are not wrong. They are simply incomplete. We can and should invite others to help us carry whatever brokenness lies in our past. When we do, painful moments—like a husband’s abandonment—can be redeemed and even instructive, especially for future generations.
But beyond human relationships, we need the safety found in Christ to truly remember—both the reality of our former lives and also the beauty of transformation we enjoy by God’s grace.
The fact that joy will always be tinged with sorrow should neither crush us nor cause us to flee from painful memories.
The fact that joy will always be tinged with sorrow should neither crush us nor cause us to flee from painful memories. Christ has redeemed us such that we recognize this life for what it is—temporary. Together, we look toward the day when our sadness will expire.
It’s a day of sore hearts and wet eyes for many of us. “Do you not know that a prince and a great man has fallen this day in Israel?” (2 Sam 3:38). Read Justin Taylor’s tribute here.
Watch RC’s face light up as his Highland Hymn is sung. The beautiful words which he composed (see below) were never truer for him than today.
Above the mists of Highland hills
E’en far above the clear blue skies
The end of pain and earthly ills
When we shall see His eyes
Lutes will sing
When we see Him face to face
On that day
His face now hidden from our sight
Concealed from ev’ry hidden gaze
In hearts made pure from sinful flight
Is the bliss that will amaze
We know not yet what we will be
In heaven’s final blessed state
But know we now that we shall see
Our Lord at heaven’s gate
The beatific glory view
That now our souls still long to see
Will make us all at once anew
And like Him forever be
Let’s stay close to the heart of Christmas: God took on flesh that he might die to destroy our enemies, deliver us from sin, and give us eternal life.
R. C. Sproul (1939–2017) went home to be with his Savior today at the age of 78. (Read Justin Taylor’s obituary.) The former pastor of St. Andrews Chapel and founder of Ligonier Ministries was also a prolific author who had a way with words.
Here are 40 of my favorite R. C. quotes. Thank you, God, for his life and legacy.
“There are only two ways of dying. We can die in faith or we can die in our sins.”
“We are secure, not because we hold tightly to Jesus, but because he holds tightly to us.”
“To know that God knows everything about me and yet loves me is indeed my ultimate consolation.”
”There is no greater state than to get up from your knees knowing that God has forgiven every sin you’ve ever committed.”
“If God is not sovereign, then God is not God.”
“When God says something, the argument is over.”
“A god who is all love, all grace, all mercy, no sovereignty, no justice, no holiness, and no wrath is an idol.”
“As soon as we think God owes us mercy, we’re not thinking about mercy any more.”
“When there’s something in the Word of God that I don’t like, the problem is not with the Word of God. It’s with me.”By James Thompson from Louisville, KY, USA (R.C. Sproul) CC BY 2.0
“You are required to believe, to preach, and to teach what the Bible says is true, not what you want the Bible to say is true.”
“God does not always act with justice. Sometimes he acts with mercy. Mercy is not justice, but it also is not injustice. Injustice violates righteousness. Mercy manifests kindness and grace and does no violence to righteousness. We may see nonjustice in God, which is mercy, but we never see injustice in God.”
“People in awe never complain that church is boring.”
“I’ll retire when they pry my cold, dead fingers off of my Bible.”
“If ever a person had room to complain of injustice, it was Jesus. He was the only innocent man ever to be punished by God. If we stagger at the wrath of God, let us stagger at the cross. Here is where our astonishment should be focused. If we have cause for moral outrage, let it be directed at Golgotha.”
“No matter how much injustice I have suffered from the hands of other people, I have never suffered the slightest injustice from the hand of God.”
“God answered Job’s questions not with words but with himself.”
“The Christian life is a life of non-conformity.”
“Not only does Christ take our sins, our debts, and our demerits, but he also gives us his obedience, his assets, and his merits.”
“If there is no sanctification, it means that there never was any justification.”
“If we despise the justice of God, we are not Christians.”
“The only kind of God we can love by our sinful nature is an unholy god, an idol made by our own hands.”
“We are not really surprised that God has redeemed us. Somewhere deep inside, in the secret chambers of our hearts we harbor the notion that God owes us his mercy. Heaven would not be quite the same if we were excluded from it. We know that we are sinners, but we are surely not as bad as we could be. There are enough redeeming features to our personalities that if God is really just he will include us in salvation. What amazes us is justice, not grace.”
“There are no draws with God, no split decisions. When we wrestle with the Almighty, we lose. He is the undefeated champion of the universe.”Photo from My Morning Meditations
“The justice of God is always and ever an expression of his holy character. . . . What God does is always consistent with who God is.”
“When we sin, we not only commit treason against God, but we also do violence to each other. Sin violates people. There is nothing abstract about it. By my sin I hurt human beings. I injure their person; I despoil their goods; I impair their reputation; I rob from them a precious quality of life; I crush their dreams and aspirations for happiness. When I dishonor God, I dishonor all people who bear his image. Is it any wonder, then, that God takes sin so seriously?”
“The problem we face is that the word holy is foreign to all languages. No dictionary is adequate to the task.”
“Death reminds us that we are creatures. Yet as fearsome as death is, it is nothing compared with meeting a holy God. When we encounter him, the totality of our creatureliness breaks upon us and shatters the myth that we have believed about ourselves, the myth that we are demigods, junior-grade deities who will try to live forever.”
“Only once in sacred Scripture is an attribute of God elevated to the third degree. Only once is a characteristic of God mentioned three times in succession. The Bible says that God is holy, holy, holy.”
“God has entrusted to us the ministry of the Word, not its results.”
”The cross was a glorious outworking of the grace of God, by which the Father commissioned the Son to make full satisfaction so that sinners might be saved with no sacrifice of God’s justice.”
“A Substitute has appeared in space and time, appointed by God himself, to bear the weight and the burden of our transgressions, to make expiation for our guilt, and to propitiate the wrath of God on our behalf. This is the gospel.”
“If I want the words of eternal life, there’s only one place I can go to get them—to the One who gave his life that we might live.”
“Nobody was ever saved by a profession of faith. You have to possess faith.”Photo from Reformation Theology
“God doesn’t want me to play with religion. He doesn’t want me to dabble in church. He wants me—body and soul.”
“We are not sinners because we sin. We sin because we are sinners.”
“The grounds of your justification are the perfect works of Jesus Christ. We’re saved by works, but they’re not our own.”
“Without the doctrine of justification by faith alone, the gospel is not merely compromised; it’s lost altogether.”
“We fail in our duty to study God’s Word not so much because it is difficult to understand, not so much because it is dull and boring, but because it is work. Our problem is not a lack of intelligence or a lack of passion. Our problem is that we are lazy.”
“You can’t open your eyes in this universe without seeing a theater of divine revelation.”
“You can’t love Jesus and not love his Word.”
The impact of R.C. Sproul on my life and ministry is owing to an incomparable combination of his unashamed allegiance to the absolute sovereignty and centrality of God, his total devotion to the inerrancy and radical relevance of the Christian Scriptures, his serious and rigorous attention to the actual text of Scripture in shaping his views, and his jolting formulations of biblical truth in relation to contemporary reality.
Let me illustrate. I can remember the very room in which I was standing when this incomparable combination landed on me for the first time. It was a back room of our house, listening to a cassette tape on a Walkman, while doing some chores. The text that R.C. was preaching on was Luke 13:1–5.
I had chosen to listen to it because I was struck by the title of the message printed on the cassette: “The Misplaced Locus of Amazement” (re-preached in recent years as “The Locus of Astonishment”). I had no idea what he meant. Even when I thought about the content of Luke 13:1–5, I didn’t have the wisdom to discern what he would be getting at. Then I began to listen. And as so often happens in listening to his expository messages, I was riveted.Our Misplaced Amazement
Some people had come to Jesus and confronted him with the horror that Pilate had slaughtered some Galileans and mingled their blood with their own sacrifices. Interestingly, those who came to Jesus didn’t ask any questions. They simply expressed amazement. But inside their amazement was a question: What horrible sin had these Galileans committed that brought down such a judgment?
Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:2–3). And to make sure they knew he saw such horrors in the world, he added this: “Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:4–5).
Then R.C. made a devastating — jolting — observation. He said that these crowds, who were so amazed that some people had been judged for their sin, had put their amazement entirely in the wrong place — “a misplaced locus of amazement.” They were amazed that something horrible had happened to a few Galileans. What they should have been amazed at was that something equally horrible hasn’t happened to everybody in Jerusalem — indeed, R.C. added, everybody in the world.
“Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” (Luke 13:2–3)
The meaning of these calamities that happened to others is that I should repent. The amazing thing is that I am not now, at this moment, in hell for my sin. Jolting.Incomparable Combination
As time went by, I came to realize that the impact of such preaching was owing to R.C.’s incomparable combination of allegiances.
First, he had a serious and rigorous attention to the actual text of Scripture. He was not making his points in general, as his sermon floated in a fog above the text. He was reading the text. He was pushing my nose into the clauses. He was showing me what is really there. The shocking realities were real because they were really in the text.
Second, over time, when you heard R.C. do this kind of thing repeatedly, you realized such serious and rigorous attention to the text was owing to his total devotion to the inerrancy and radical relevance of the Scriptures. He didn’t believe that the message of biblical texts was innocuous and unexciting, and therefore in need of artificial verbal boosters to make the thunder crack. Oh no. If you take the text seriously, and you realize this is the very word of God, you may expect that its relevance will be repeatedly shocking.
Third, therefore, the jolting formulations of biblical truth that were sprinkled so liberally through R.C.’s preaching and writing were not artificially concocted to add effect, but strategically chosen to express reality. And he would say that the jolting expressions, if anything, fall short of, rather than exaggerate, the reality of the text.
Fourth, emerging from the exegesis, and rising in my heart, was an unashamed allegiance to the absolute sovereignty of God to show mercy or to judge according to his infinite wisdom. This was R.C.’s goal: a heart that is stunned and humbled and captivated by the transcendent greatness and purity of God.Holy God, Humble Man
Consider one other illustration of this kind of jolting exposition. King David decided to bring the ark of God from Kiriath-jearim to the city of David. But contrary to the law of God, it was carried on an ox-drawn cart, not on poles by the priests (Numbers 4:15). The oxen stumbled, the ark tipped, Uzzah put out his hand to steady the ark, and God struck him dead (1 Chronicles 13:10).
R.C. suggested that the issue here was deeper than a failure to follow Mosaic stipulations. It was a failure to see the depth of human defilement. Why, he asked, should Uzzah presume that his hands were cleaner than the soil on which the ark was about to fall? Soil is only ceremonially unclean. The hands of sinful men are morally and spiritually unclean — a vastly more serious uncleanness.
To the objection that this seems harsh, R.C. answered that there are, according to Jewish tradition, 23 breaches of the law that receive capital punishment in the Mosaic law. This is an absolutely astonishing and merciful limitation on God’s part since, at the beginning of human history, all sins were punishable by death!
Again and again, I heard him draw out such jolting observations from Scripture — all of it in the service of magnifying the holiness of God, and the humility of man. I marveled. The effect was to make me want to handle the Bible with blood-earnestness, to submit to it absolutely, to preach it faithfully, and to unashamedly herald the greatness of God’s sovereign grace.
For me, it was this faithfulness to biblical texts, and this high view of God’s sovereignty and holiness, that made R.C.’s fight for the imputation of Christ’s righteousness so credible and compelling. The bigger and more central and more sovereign and more holy God is in our eyes, the more clearly we see our desperate need for justification by faith alone.
Someday, when the official biography is written, and the best studies of his life and ministry are done, there will, I believe, emerge a remarkably coherent body of truth and devotion. He never allowed himself to go down marginally important rabbit trails (excluding aberrations like a devotion to the Pittsburgh Steelers!). He stayed close to the great doctrines of Scripture and their profound impact on life and ministry and church and missions. These have been the girders from which he has built a coherent, God-centered worldview.“I Love the Chair”
I close with one last personal memory that endeared R.C. to me in a special way. He had invited me to Orlando to be part of one of the Ligonier conferences. I was to preach after he had just preached on the meaning of faith. In his message, he pictured a chair on the platform and illustrated that if you trust the chair, you don’t just say so, you sit in it. That is what faith is.
In the course of my message following his, I ventured to say that there was more to faith than that: that you must love the chair — find the chair beautiful and precious. You must treasure the chair, not just sit in it — not just use it. After the message, I slipped out the back in a hurry to catch my plane home. R.C. had been watching on a monitor in the green room. He grabbed my arm, whispered his thanks, smiled, and said, “I love the chair.”
How easily he might have been miffed. But he was not that kind of man. His smile and his laughter and his affirmation were real and deep. They were not frivolous. We must embrace Christ not only as useful in holding us up, but as precious in being our all-satisfying Treasure.
I love R.C. Sproul. I am sure I owe him more than I can even recall. My reverence for the holiness of God and the truth of his word would not be the same without his influence. I will miss him (for a short while).
Christ was born on earth that you might be born again to heaven.
December 14: Exodus 15:11; Psalm 66:2; Psalm 69:30; Psalm 86:12–13; Isaiah 43:21; Jeremiah 33:8–9; Hebrews 13:15; Revelation 15:3; Job 1:8; Job 40:3–4; Psalm 51:5; John 3:6–7; Acts 13:22; Ephesians 2:3; 1 Timothy 1:13; Titus 3:3
- Morning: Exodus 15:11; Psalm 66:2; Psalm 69:30; Psalm 86:12–13; Isaiah 43:21; Jeremiah 33:8–9; Hebrews 13:15; Revelation 15:3
- Evening: Job 1:8; Job 40:3–4; Psalm 51:5; John 3:6–7; Acts 13:22; Ephesians 2:3; 1 Timothy 1:13; Titus 3:3
Give to him glorious praise!
“The people whom I formed for myself that they might declare my praise.”—“I will cleanse them from all the guilt of their sin against me, and I will forgive all the guilt of their sin and rebellion against me. And this city shall be to me a name of joy, a praise and a glory before all the nations of the earth.”—Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name.—I give thanks to you, O Lord my God, with my whole heart, and I will glorify your name forever. For great is your steadfast love toward me; you have delivered my soul from the depths of Sheol.—“Who is like you, O Lord,… majestic in holiness, awesome in glorious deeds, doing wonders?”—I will praise the name of God with a song; I will magnify him with thanksgiving.—And they sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb, saying, “Great and amazing are your deeds, O Lord God the Almighty!”Exodus 15:11
I will cleanse them from all the guilt of their sin against me, and I will forgive all the guilt of their sin and rebellion against me. And this city1 shall be to me a name of joy, a praise and a glory before all the nations of the earth who shall hear of all the good that I do for them. They shall fear and tremble because of all the good and all the prosperity I provide for it.Footnotes
 33:9 Hebrew And it
“Great and amazing are your deeds,
O Lord God the Almighty!
Just and true are your ways,
O King of the nations!1
 15:3 Some manuscripts the ages
(ESV)Evening: Job 1:8; Job 40:3–4; Psalm 51:5; John 3:6–7; Acts 13:22; Ephesians 2:3; 1 Timothy 1:13; Titus 3:3 Job 1:8; Job 40:3–4; Psalm 51:5; John 3:6–7; Acts 13:22; Ephesians 2:3; 1 Timothy 1:13; Titus 3:3
By nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.
For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another.—“Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’”
Then Job answered the Lord and said: “Behold, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth.”—And the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil?”
Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.—“David,… of whom he testified and said,… ‘A man after my heart, who will do all my will.’”
Though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy.—“That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.”Job 1:8
(ESV)Job 40:3–4 Job Promises Silence
(ESV)1 Timothy 1:13
Why a Down syndrome diagnosis reveals the sanctity of human life, not just genetics
A moral revolution leads to a new government in Palm Springs, California
From LGBT to LGGBDTTTIQQAAPP: An expanding set of letters for the sexual revolution
- Daily Mail (Staff) — Canadian elementary school teachers attend 'LGGBDTTTIQQAAPP' inclusiveness training session. Would you understand the title?
Why religious activity is more revealing than religious identification
- Christianity Today (Brad Wilcox) — Evangelicals and Domestic Violence: Are Christian Men More Abusive?
Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises. (Hebrews 8:6)
Christ is the Mediator of a new covenant, according to Hebrews 8:6. What does that mean? It means that his blood — the blood of the covenant (Luke 22:20; Hebrews 13:20) — finally and decisively purchased and secured the fulfillment of God’s promises for us.
It means that God, according to the new covenant promises, brings about our inner transformation by the Spirit of Christ.
And it means that God works this transformation in us through faith — faith in all that God is for us in Christ.
The new covenant is purchased by the blood of Christ, effected by the Spirit of Christ, and appropriated by faith in Christ.
The best place to see Christ working as the Mediator of the new covenant is in Hebrews 13:20–21:
Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.
The words “working in us that which is pleasing in his sight” describe what happens when God writes the law on our hearts in accord with the new covenant. And the words “through Jesus Christ” describe Jesus as the Mediator of this glorious work of sovereign grace.
So, the meaning of Christmas is not only that God replaces shadows with Reality, but also that he takes the Reality and makes it real to his people. He writes it on our hearts. He does not lay his Christmas gift of salvation and transformation under the tree, so to speak, for you to pick up in your own strength. He picks it up and puts it in your heart and in your mind and gives you the seal of assurance that you are a child of God.
These guides have been designed so that men’s groups can go through Reset and women’s groups can go through Refresh. However, the questions have also been composed in such a way that men and women can discuss the books in mixed groups, with only a few questions here and there (marked with an asterisk) that are significantly different.
It also allows a husband and wife to work through Reset and Refresh together using the Study Guides to compare notes and discuss the differences between men and women’s experiences of stress, burnout, anxiety, depression, etc.
As with yesterday’s Study Guide, there is no copyright on these, so print and photocopy at will!
Here’s a message from my colleague, Chris Hanna, Director of Development and Marketing at PRTS.
Dear PRTS Partner,
The end of 2017 is just about here, and it has been a remarkable year. There has been joy and sorrow, but throughout it all the Lord has reigned from on high. He is still sovereign!
I want to take a moment to once again say thank you. Every time you donate to PRTS you are working alongside us to train students from around the world to serve Christ and His church. You are helping to equip them with a biblical, Reformed, and historic faith.
It is people like you that are making a lasting investment in the lives of our students, their families, and those whom they will serve as pastors and educators for decades to come.
I recently spoke with a student who will shortly be returning with his family to Singapore. There he will again serve the church he left to attend PRTS. He is grateful for his theological education and for the tremendous outpouring of love he and his family experienced while studying at the seminary.
Maybe you’ve given to the seminary in the past, or considering a first-time donation, and you’re wondering what donation options are available. You can give a one-time gift or become a monthly partner through the seminary website or by calling the Development Office at 616.432.3407. In fact, a gift given by December 31 will be generously matched by loving partners of PRTS. We are hoping to raise $400,000 by year end so as to have a two-month balance for the opening lean months of 2018. Please remember that no gift is too small. Your $50 donation will become a $100 gift to the seminary.
You can also give a gift of appreciated assets. To start this process, please contact the Barnabas Foundation – a PRTS partner – at 888.448.3040 and ask for Cindi Riemersma. If you’re in Canada, please contact our Canadian Development Coordinator, Corney Les, at 604.795.6938 or email him today at email@example.com.
If you or your spouse is 70 ½ or older, you may consider an IRA Charitable Rollover. As of 2015, the US tax code allows seniors of this age to donate tax-free up to $100,000 in IRA assets. The Charitable IRA Rollover is tax-free and will not be included in your adjusted gross income. Once again, please contact Cindi Riemersma at 888.448.3040 for more information.
By supporting PRTS you will be stewarding your resources in a lasting ministry, a ministry that the apostle Paul instructed Timothy to pass on to others (2 Tim. 2:2). Thank you again for prayerfully considering a matching gift to PRTS before December 31.
In the bonds of our Savior,
Director of Development & Marketing
The #MeToo Movement Is Destroying Trust Between Men And Women
I don’t agree with everything in this article, and it shouldn’t be used as a weapon against legitimate complaints. But it shows how the devil can use good movements with worthy aims to ultimately destroy one of the building blocks of civil society.
Like a disease, distrust is infecting our most foundational relationship as a people, the building block of a free, civil society—the relationship between men and women.
How Christianity Gave Rise to Modern Science
“There were a number of ways in which Christianity gave rise to modern science, and the idea that a set of naturalistic assumptions is necessary to do science is just historically false.”
God Has a Heart for the Vulnerable. Do You?
Paul Martin, the father of a special needs child, writes at Tim Challies’ blog:
Disability makes us ask a lot of questions though. Did God make a mistake when He sewed together the little girl with Patau Syndrome? Did He miss a stitch? The short answer is no. God has His own purposes in mind when He created our friends with disabilities. For instance, “Then the LORD said to him, ‘Who has made man’s mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the LORD?’” (Exodus 4:11). These are God’s words to the disabled Moses, the man with some form of speech impediment, but they hold true for us all. God did not make a mistake when He made the disabled. He did not momentarily lose focus or find His power eclipsed by some interfering evil force. At no point does the Bible teach that the disabled lack or lost the image of God.
One Man Faithfully Loving His Wife Through Early Onset Dementia
“Six years ago, a neurologist gave Debbie Echternach, then age 56, a diagnosis no one wants to hear: “Your brain has atrophied. You have early onset dementia.” Since that time, her husband Jay, a good friend and an EPM board member, has written eloquently about their experience. Each time he sends an update about Debbie, I’ve deeply appreciated his heartfelt insights, and faithful love for his precious wife.”
Three Ways The Devil Uses Social Media
“If the Apostles walked among us today, they would warn the church of the following spiritual dangers faced posed by social media”
The Work of the Holy Spirit and the Christian Therapist
I came across this article while researching the work of the Holy Spirit in counseling. I’m linking to it to show how, contrary to some caricatures, Christian counselors outside the biblical counseling movement also rely on the work and ministry of the Holy Spirit in their practice.
Here’s the RHB catalog for the new year.Kindle Books
All That Is in God: Evangelical Theology and the Challenge of Classical Christian Theism by James E. Dolezal $4.99. A book making a lot of waves right now.
Extraordinary Lives: The Art and Craft of American Biography by William Zinsser $1.99. Not a Christian book but six eminent biographers pull back the curtain to explain the pleasures and problems of their craft of reconstructing other people’s lives.
What’s the first thought that comes to mind when you think of Beirut, Lebanon? War? Fashion? Refugees? Food?
There’s no place like Beirut. It’s one of the oldest cities in the world, continuously inhabited for the past 5,000 years.
Beirut is world-renowned for its food and hospitality. Food-and-culture authority Anthony Bourdain has highly recommended visiting the city. In the center of Beirut, you can find a church building and a mosque standing side by side. You can also see 2,000-year-old Roman ruins at the local mall.
Every Western country strongly warns against any travel to Lebanon—and not without reason. This place has a broken and violent past. Beirut has been destroyed and rebuilt seven times.
The effects and remnants of the 15-year civil war (1975–1990) are still seen today. We can’t walk more than two minutes without seeing a bullet-riddled building. Even our friends at the U.S. embassy can’t come over for dinner due to where we live in the city.
We can’t walk more than two minutes without seeing a bullet-riddled building. Even our friends at the U.S. embassy can’t come over for dinner due to where we live in the city.
So, then, what are my wife and I doing here? We’ve come to plant a church. We’ve been in Lebanon for a little more than a year, and in that time the country has been relatively stable. Sure, there are the occasional bomb threats or foiled attempts, along with the devastating nearby war in Syria. Yet for the most part, our life feels much as it did when we lived in Dubai or the States.
It seems a bit odd to highlight the lack of conflict, since tensions have risen recently. I understand a little better what a friend meant when he said, “Everything in Beirut is great until the moment it’s not.” Yet we press on.Hard Places
As my wife and I followed the call to serve Christ in Lebanon, we weren’t ignorant as to what life could look like. We knew the history of the country and the constant instability in the region. We considered the decision through prayer, counsel, and often with tears.
We moved to Lebanon understanding the situation and counting the cost. But it was not in spite of the situation that we chose to come; in fact, it would be more accurate to say we came because we understood the times—and were convinced that the costs of not coming were far greater.
Most of the unreached in our world remain unreached because they live in hard places: whether they’re in closed communities, hard-to-access villages, or other dangerous places. The biblical call to go to them is not void because of these challenges.
If anything, this ought to be a more urgent matter for the church. Christ calls us to take the gospel to hard places. And the gospel will always conflict and confront; the setting or location is irrelevant.
Christ calls us to take the gospel to hard places. And the gospel will always conflict and confront; the setting or location is irrelevant.
All church plants face conflict and opposition, since the church is the kingdom of light piercing the darkness. In our context, that opposition might manifest itself differently than it does in the West, but our battle isn’t finally against flesh and blood (Eph. 6:12).Opportunity in a Dying World
Tim Keller has written much about the dynamics of cities and how they afford great opportunities for the sake of the gospel. The same is true in conflict zones. I’ve spent many hours in conversation with individuals who may have never spoken to me if it not for wars in the region or fighting in their homeland.
People are asking questions they never would’ve asked before—questions they didn’t even know they had. They’re considering things about their beliefs they never would’ve considered if not for the conflict they see and experience.
There’s something about being in a conflict zone that strips away all that is fleeting and confronts you with the big questions of life—questions of purpose, significance, and eternity.
There’s something about being in a conflict zone that strips away all that is fleeting and confronts you with the big questions of life—questions of purpose, significance, and eternity.
These are incredible opportunities for the church to show a hurting, dying world the sacrificial love of Christ.
From the day we arrived in Lebanon, we’ve carried Bonhoeffer’s example as a banner, and today it’s fresher than ever. He chose not to leave Nazi Germany during World War 2 because he believed he wouldn’t be able to minister to his people if he didn’t endure the same trials they were enduring:
I must live through this difficult period in our national history with the people of Germany. I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people.
We are thankful for this brother’s example of leadership and love, and we pray that God might grant us the strength—albeit on a much smaller scale—to do likewise.Anchor in the Unknown
There are so many unknowns in this part of the world, especially now. It’s quite possible we could wake up tomorrow and learn that Lebanon has been pulled into war. What’s been taking place in Syria for the past six years could be our next six years. And the cost weighs even more heavily when you have responsibility for a family.
But while the list of unknowns is much too long, we can’t live in a way that puts too much weight on temporal things. God’s promises in Christ are eternal and sure, and in Christ and his finished work we anchor our hope and trust.
The church has stood the test of time—through countless hard places and conflict zones, she has been kept standing because her Savior is strong.
We can trust a God who is sovereign over all lands and all peoples. He will accomplish his purposes, and he will continue to build his church (Matt. 16:18).
We pray and hope for peace in Lebanon, but in the meantime we have a commission from our King.
In his chapter in TGC’s 2017 book Our Secular Age, Mike Cosper writes about how music and the arts in a secular age can “push us to the edge of the immanent frame.” Cosper cites Kanye West’s 2016 song “Ultralight Beam” as an example of contemporary popular culture that straddles transcendence and immanence, religious hope and despair.
Like the Bible’s psalms, the best songs are personal and prayerful, covering the full range of life, loss, and longing. As Christians, we should seek to understand and engage these musical probings of the immanent frame. We should take note of where and how music is grappling with God and transcendence, celebrating the way it can disrupt and unsettle our assumptions about life within the immanent frame.
What were the songs released in 2017 that fall in this category?
The following is my (surely inexhaustive) attempt to gather a list of some of the best, most spiritually charged songs of the year. Some are explicitly worshipful. Others are implicitly theological. Some are just beautiful in their grasping for goodness and grace. All represent bright spots in the musical landscape of 2017.
Here they are, in alphabetical order.
“Are We Not One,” Young Oceans
The first single from Young Oceans’ recently released new album, this track (listen here) starts quietly and builds to a rousing chorus that celebrates the joy, hope, and peace that comes from union with Christ: “Have we not joy, in the midst of every shadow / Have we not hope, in the deepest of the dark / Have we not peace, that passes understanding.”
“At My Table,” J. J. Heller
“This is for the powerless, the wounded and the weak / This is for the immigrant, and those who cannot speak.” That’s how Nashville singer/songwriter J. J. Heller begins this song (listen here)—a beautiful reminder of Christ’s hospitality in inviting every one of us, however broken or fearful, to fellowship with him.
“Atlas: One,” Sleeping at Last
The first of a series of songs inspired by the nine Enneagram types, this track captures the “One” type beautifully and accurately (listen to this podcast episode about the making of the song). Hard-working, perfectionist Ones will resonate when Ryan O’Neal sings, “I’ve spent my whole life searching desperately / To find out that grace requires nothing of me.”
“Call on God,” Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings
Originally recorded in 2007 but just released this year, this beautiful Gospel tune takes on special weight given Sharon Jones’s death last year from pancreatic cancer. The song (watch official video here) finds the iconic soul singer crying out, posthumously: “To be like him is what I long to be / And to share his love to eternity.”
“Evening Prayer,” Jens Lekman
This strange song’s bouncy, disco-esque music (listen here) is a stark contrast to its weighty subject matter—about a friend of Lekman’s who’s had a tumor removed. In the midst of his friend’s pain, Lekman offers prayers: “How I pray that I could stop the pain / When the pain needed more than ibuprofen. / How I pray that I could take away your worries / When they ran deeper than the West Pacific Ocean.”
“Everything Now,” Arcade Fire
The title track off Arcade Fire’s fifth album is a prophetic anthem for our over-mediated moment (watch the official video here). With access to everything all the time via smartphones and Google, we can relate to the feeling Win Butler describes when he sings, “Every inch of space in your head / Is filled up with the things that you read. And every film that you’ve ever seen / Fills the spaces up in your dreams.”
“Fairest Lord Jesus,” Sara Groves
I usually don’t like when perfectly good melodies for old hymns are tampered with in new renditions, but Groves’s melodic variation on this 19th-century classic, from Abide With Me, is subtle and lovely (listen here). The music accentuates the elegance of the lyrics, which describe Jesus as fairer even than the fair meadows and woodlands “robed in the blooming garb of spring.”
“Father, Let Your Kingdom Come,” The Porter’s Gate featuring Urban Doxology, Liz Vice, and Latifah Alattas
This joyful song (watch performance video here) is a standout from the debut album of the Porter’s Gate Worship Project. The refrains are simple but powerful (“May the works of my hands bring You joy. . . . You make all things new”) and the chorus is pure praise: “Hallelu, hallelujah / Father, let Your kingdom come.”
“First Rain,” Teen Daze with S. Carey
The couplet of ambient albums this year from Canada’s Teen Daze—Themes for Dying Earth and Themes for a New Earth—are both worth checking out. Any of their (mostly instrumental) songs could have made this list, but “First Rain” from Dying Earth is especially beautiful (watch video here).
“First World Problems,” Chance the Rapper and Daniel Caesar
This subdued stunner from Chance the Rapper—debuted on the Late Show With Stephen Colbert in September (watch)—is thick with personal lament, confession, biblical allusions, and eschatological longing (“The day is on its way, it couldn’t wait no more. Here it comes. . .”).
“The Greatest Gift,” Sufjan Stevens
The title track off Sufjan’s 2017 The Greatest Gift mixtape (watch official video here), this song explores the love commands of Jesus, which in Sufjan’s lyrical rendering call us “To love your friends and lovers / To lay down your life for your brothers / As you abide in peace / So will your delight increase.”
“Happy to Be Here,” Julien Baker
In this song off Turn Out the Lights, Memphis singer/songwriter Julien Baker wonders whether the “engineer” can fix her “faulty circuitry.” She articulates a familiar obstacle to grace when she sings: “I know I should be being optimistic but I’m doubtful I can change / Grit my teeth and try to act deserving / When I know there is nowhere I can hide / From your humiliating grace.”
“If,” Beautiful Eulogy
The highlights come early in Worthy with the stunning “If.” The song (listen here) is a Scripture-soaked gem that invokes Philippians 3:7–8 to articulate the all-in cost of following Christ, no matter the cost: “I will praise your name / In the giving and taking away / If I have you I could lose everything / And still consider it gain.”
“I’ll Find You,” Lecrae and Tori Kelley
“I’m hanging on by a thread / And all I’m clinging to is prayers,” Lecrae begins in this powerful collaboration with Tori Kelly off 2017’s All Things Work Together. It’s a somber but ultimately hopeful song (watch video here) about being at the end of one’s rope and recognizing in those moments our need for help from beyond ourselves.
“I Promise,” Radiohead
This previously unreleased track from the recording sessions of Radiohead’s 1997 masterpiece OK Computer is a surprisingly straightforward song about committed love in a fidgety age (watch the video here). “I won’t run away no more, I promise,” Thom Yorke repeats. “Even when I get bored, I promise.”
“It’s Not Working (The Truth),” Propaganda, with Courtney Orlando
This track (listen here) from Crooked—Propaganda’s latest album from Humble Beast—finds the lyricist at the top of his game as he explores the need to ground our concern about systemic injustice in the reality of personal sin: “But fixing systemic issues, it ain’t the source of your rest. . . Hoping in a broken system to fix what’s broken in us / It’s not working, is it?”
“John, My Beloved (iPhone Demo),” Sufjan Stevens
What was one of the most beautiful ballads off Sufjan’s 2015 album Carrie & Lowell becomes even more beautiful in this newly released “iPhone Demo” version (listen here). Gorgeously low-fi, Sufjan sounds frail as he cries out to Jesus in the midst of pain and death: “Jesus, I need you, be near me, come shield me / From fossils that fall on my head.”
“Last of My Kind,” Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
This track from The Nashville Sound follows a familiar trope—the country boy feeling alienated and homesick in the big city: “Mama says God won’t give you too much to bear / That might be true in Arkansas / But I’m a long, long way from there.” While home may not be Arkansas for everyone, the laments and longings the song expresses are universal (listen here).
“LOVE,” Kendrick Lamar featuring Zacari
Kendrick Lamar’s latest album is full of dichotomies and dualities: wickedness and weakness, pride and humility, lust and love. Lamar explores these through companion tracks, like the hopeful and innocent “LOVE” (track 9) which follows—and provides something of a foil to—the dark and vice-ridden “LUST” (track 8).
“Mercury,” Sufjan Stevens, Bryce Dessner, Nico Muhly, and James McAlister
This gorgeous standout from Planetarium—an album inspired by the planets in our solar system as well as Greco-Roman mythology—is lyrically cryptic but musically stunning (listen here). It’s Sufjan Stevens at his best: introspective and poetic, yet humble in the face of wonders beyond his orbit.
“Messiah,” Beautiful Eulogy, featuring Citizens & Saints
The chorus of this Worthy standout (listen here) is perhaps the most concise articulation of the core problem of our Age of Authenticity: “I can’t always rely on my desires / But I treat them like the Messiah.” Odd Thomas expands on it with brilliant wordplay in his rapped verse: “When a good God gives good gifts we generally tend to twist the list / And take the list of good gifts that God tends to give and make general ‘gods’ out of gifts.”
“Night Has Passed / Morning Has Broken,” The Brilliance
This hopeful song (listen here) from All Is Not Lost brilliantly combines an original praise chorus (“We rejoice / In the gift of this day”) with the melody and some lyrics from the Cat Stevens classic about the new morning mercies of songbirds: “Praise for the singing / Praise for the morning / Praise for them springing fresh from the world.”
“No Country,” John Mark McMillan
One of the singles from McMillan’s 2017 album, Mercury & Lightning, “No Country” is an anthem for those (many) who feel increasingly alienated in today’s world. Evoking Matthew 8:20 and other biblical verses about feeling literally and symbolically homeless, McMillan sings: “Never saw it coming, never thought I’d wake up / With no place to call my country.”
“Pain,” The War On Drugs
One of the standout tracks on the rightly acclaimed A Deeper Understanding, “Pain” evokes a soundscape of personal struggle (“I resist what I cannot change / And I wanna find what can’t be found”) and longing for relationships that bring clarity (“Pull me close and let me hold you in / Give me the deeper understanding of who I am.”)
“Pedantic,” Sho Baraka
We need to be asking the questions this song asks (watch video here). From The Narrative, Volume 2, “Pedantic” explores the dangers of the speed and glut of information in today’s world, which often (wrongly) interprets slowness and silence as weakness or irrelevance. “I learn the value of silence when fools speak / In a culture of speed they will judge you when you’re slow.”
“Persevere,” Gang of Youths
Dave Le’aupepe, lead singer of Australian band Gang of Youths, wrestles with the problem of pain in “Persevere,” a song about his Christian friends whose baby, Emme, died (listen here; warning: explicit). Le’aupepe examines his own faith (or lack thereof) by observing his friends’ confident hope in the midst of unspeakable tragedy: “Nothing tuned me in to my failure as fast / As grieving for a friend with more belief than I possessed.”
“Pianos in Jericho,” Sho Baraka and Sean C. Johnson
The questions Sho Baraka asks in “Pianos in Jericho” (listen here) are timely and convicting: “Is God a magician to fulfill my mission? . . . Is he a lobbyist for my ambitions like a politician? . . . Do we believe when it’s not beneficial?” The song, off 2017’s The Narrative, Volume 2, strikes a prophetic but personal tone, as Baraka confesses what is true for many of us: “I’ve let my problems become my savior / I’ve taken focus off the Lord and focused on my anger.”
“Praise to the Lord,” Sara Groves
At a time of great cultural tension, with a world in flux, the hymns in Sara Groves’s Abide With Me are healing, grounding, steadying—both timeless and timely. Her rendition of the nearly 400-year-old hymn “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty” (listen here) is a case in point. Simply produced, flawlessly executed; this is how contemporary recordings of hymns should be.
“Pray,” Sam Smith
The lead single off Sam Smith’s latest album epitomizes the ways artists in a secular age push the boundaries of the immanent frame, invoking the soul and sounds of religion (gospel choirs!) while bypassing its institutional baggage. “I have never believed,” Smith sings. “But I’m gonna pray.”
“Real Death,” Mount Eerie
Phil Elverum (Mount Eerie) reflects on the death of his wife in “Real Death” (listen here), a song that captures as well as any the brutal, unnatural string of mortality: “Death is real / Someone’s there and then they’re not / And it’s not for singing about / It’s not for making into art / When real death enters the house, all poetry is dumb.”
“Singing in the Victory,” Austin Stone Worship
From their 2017 album, Everflow, this rousing track from Austin Stone Worship is one of the best new worship songs of the year (watch video here). The chorus is catchy and confident, calling us to sing in the victory of the cross, rest in Christ’s redeeming love, and stand in the promises of new life.
“Some Kind of Love,” The Killers
An ethereal, synth-heavy, Brian Eno-esque ballad, “Some Kind of Love” (listen here) praises a wife and mother for having “the faith of a child before the world gets in” and “the grace of the storm in the desert”—for being strong, resilient, and capable of love, even amid the darkness of life.
“Thinking of a Place,” The War On Drugs
Everything about this 11-minute opus—which might be the best overall song of 2017—is good, true, and beautiful. But the two-minute guitar solo in the middle is the song’s transcendent peak (listen here). It captures wordlessly what the song is all about: a transportive reverie of places, times, and loves we’ve lost—and to which we long to return.
“This Wild Earth,” Young Oceans
One of the standout tracks off the latest album from Young Oceans—who are making some of the most musically exciting worship today—this song (listen here) channels the creational groaning of Romans 8:22, calling out to God to “come as the fire, or come as the rain / O, let there be life, life here again.”
“Truth,” Kamasi Washington
The closing track on jazz saxophonist Kamasi Washington’s latest album, Harmony of Difference, “Truth” is as ambitious and encompassing as its name implies. Clocking in at nearly 14 minutes, the instrumental epic includes a beautiful video that is Terrence Malick-esque in its attempts to capture the truth of life—both in its cosmic grandeur and everyday beauty—even when it seems chaotic.
“Watching from a Distance,” David Ramirez
From his album We’re Not Going Anywhere, this song from Texas-based singer/songwriter David Ramirez (listen here) contemplates how relational rupture and distance can become a source of spiritual haunting: “Just cause we can’t speak / Doesn’t mean you’re not on my mind / Like a ghost / Like the moon / Like a God / Like a truth.”
“We Don’t Deserve Love,” Arcade Fire
Arcade Fire have often explored themes of faith in their music, but this song (listen here) from Everything Now is especially direct about it. Invoking the story of Mary Magdalene and the empty tomb, lead singer Win Butler confesses guilt and sin but struggles to find comfort in the grace Jesus offers: “Mary, roll away the stone / The one that you love / Is gonna leave you alone / Particularly the Christ-types.”
“We Labor Unto Glory,” The Porter’s Gate featuring Liz Vice, Josh Garrels, and Madison Cunningham
From Work Songs, debut album of the Porter’s Gate Worship Project, this gorgeous song is surely one of the best worship recordings ever on the theme of vocation (watch video here). As Vice, Garrels, and Cunningham harmonize in the chorus, we work to God’s glory in the now-and-not-yet: “Oh, we labor unto glory / ‘Til heaven and earth are one / Oh, we labor unto glory / Until God’s kingdom comes.”
“We Will Feast in the House of Zion (Live),” Sandra McCracken
Sandra McCracken’s “We Will Feast” is quickly becoming a new worship standard, for good reason. The song’s joy-filled, eschatological longing is perfect for corporate worship, as demonstrated in this live recording of the song (from 2017’s Steadfast Live). Watch the beautiful video here.
“Witness,” Benjamin Booker
This song, from New Orleans artist Benjamin Booker (featuring a soulful sample of Mavis Staples), mixes gospel sounds with prophetic lyrics about race in 21st-century America (listen here; warning: explicit). The chorus is simply a repeated question: “Am I gonna be a witness? Just a witness?”