Bell Creek Community Church

A non-denominational church in Livonia, Michigan with Biblical teaching, worship, and kid's ministries.

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The Chaos Is No Match for the Cosmos

Mon, 01/14/2019 - 12:03am

Have you ever read Revelation 21’s description of the new earth and wondered why there’s “no more sea”? I mean, no more pain—I get that. No more death, absolutely! But what’s so bad about the sea? At one level, Sidney Greidanus’s new book, From Chaos to Cosmos: Creation to New Creation, can be seen as one long answer to that question.

From Chaos to Cosmos is the seventh release in Crossway’s “Short Studies in Biblical Theology” series, edited by Dane Ortlund and Miles Van Pelt. The author, Sidney Greidanus, is a former professor at Calvin College and Seminary and a well-known name in biblical theology.

Much more is going on in the book, of course. You’ll learn about a “Leviathan” that has nothing to do with Thomas Hobbes and a “Rahab” that has nothing to do with scarlet cords. But most of all, you’ll see how the chaos introduced into creation by sin is being crushed by Jesus Christ, as he restores cosmos to his creation one step at a time.

And if you’re not even sure what those terms mean, keep reading.

Defining Our Terms

For Greidanus (quoting Webster), cosmos refers to “the world or universe regarded as an orderly, harmonious system” (18). It’s the very good creation we read about at the end of Genesis 1, and the super good new creation we read about in Revelation 21.

Chaos, however, is a little more complicated. We usually think of chaos as morally evil, and it certainly can be. In fact, for most of Scripture, it is. But chaos can also refer to the amoral condition of disorder that existed before God began forming and filling his creation on Day One. This is how theologians have traditionally referred to the dark, watery state in Genesis 1:2. Moses describes it this way:

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. (Gen. 1:1–2)

This passage is foundational for the entire book. Greidanus comments:

This verse describes total chaos, piling up five words that will be used later in Scripture either individually or in combination to refer to some forms of chaos: “without form,” “void,” “darkness,” “the deep,” and “the waters.” (29)

He then notes that “Genesis 1 adds two more words that refer to chaos: ‘seas . . .’ in verse 10, and ‘great sea creatures/monsters . . .’ in verse 21, for the perfect number of seven words at this stage” (29).

These seven words form the basic vocabulary Greidanus uses to find the chaos theme throughout the Bible. At times it may feel like the net is a bit too broad, and that basically anything negative can be labeled “chaos” (and anything positive “cosmos”). But it’s only fair to recognize that almost all the terms in his definition come from one verse at the beginning of the Bible, so he’s not being arbitrary.

Chaos before Sin

It’s also important to note that while all these chaos terms will later take on sinister overtones, “this original chaos was not evil. God created it” (29). In this vein, Greidanus spends a good bit of time contrasting the Bible’s creation story with those of other ancient Near Eastern cultures, whose creation stories similarly feature God battling against a watery chaos, often in the form of sea-gods or sea-monsters. And while Greidanus gladly acknowledges that the biblical authors borrowed language and imagery from neighboring cultures (including language about sea serpents like Leviathan and Rahab), the differences are more significant than the similarities (18–24; 60–63).

According to the ancient Near Eastern myths . . . the Babylonian god Marduk and the Canaanite god Baal both battled for control with the god of the sea (chaos). By contrast, in Genesis 1 God does not struggle with the forces of chaos, nor is chaos considered a god. In fact, in Genesis the primordial waters are not even personified. According to Genesis 1 it was God who created these waters and then, by merely speaking, turned chaos into cosmos. (27)

In short, the Bible begins by stressing the sovereignty of the one true and eternal God. And if he could bring cosmos out of chaos once, there’s no reason he can’t do it again.

Fighting with Chaos

Greidanus painstakingly (and often fascinatingly) shows how the biblical storyline after the fall can be read as case after case of God bringing cosmos out of chaos. Sometimes this takes the form of God judging the wicked and saving his people with the same chaotic flood (48). Think Noah in the ark and Israel on the other side of the Red Sea. In both cases God brings cosmos to his people by fighting with the chaotic sea as his instrument (rather than fighting with the chaotic sea as his adversary). This is our sovereign God—the one who killed both our chaotic sins and also his demonic enemies with the same cross (Col. 2:13–15; Heb. 2:14–15).

Chaos is simply no match for the One who “forms light and creates darkness, makes well-being and creates calamity” (Isa. 45:7).

And that’s good news. Because as Greidanus shows, the entrance of sin unleashed a new kind of chaos (35); one that manifests itself in everything from sickness, famine, and death, to drug cartels, hurricanes, and wild animals. All these are graphic illustrations of the deepest, darkest form of chaos—sin itself, with its disordered rejection of God’s loving lordship and embrace of selfish autonomy.

Thankfully, the God who conquered chaos by saying “Let light shine out of darkness” is able to shine in our dark, sinful hearts, bringing new creation life through the same Holy Spirit who brooded over the dark, chaotic waters in the beginning (2 Cor. 4:6; 5:17; Gen. 1:2).

So What About That Sea?

After the fall, just as “darkness” became a metaphor for sin (John 3:19), so the “tossing sea” became a symbol of evil (33)—a dark, dangerous place that swallows up ships, swarms with dangerous monsters, and churns up mire and beasts (Isa. 57:20; Rev. 13:1). It’s no accident that Jesus is described both as light shining in darkness and also as one calming the stormy sea with a word (Matt. 4:16; 8:26). Should it then surprise us that the new creation, the place where there is no more night (Rev. 21:25), is also described as a place where there is no more sea (Rev. 21:1)?

For those who think of the sea mainly as a lovely place for recreation, this may seem like bad news. For what it’s worth, however, Greidanus doesn’t think the new earth will be literally bereft of all seas (167). The meaning is in the symbolism. The problem is chaos, not water.

But even with our modern technology, the sea remains a violent force that can’t be tamed. The Boxing Day tsunamis of 2004 killed a quarter of a million people. The massive freighter Edmund Fitzgerald went down with all hands in a Lake Superior storm in 1975. Last year, many Atlantic coast residents were evacuated from their homes due to Hurricanes Florence and Michael.

Events like these remind us that the sea is chaos writ large—a pointer to all the enemies of shalom, a symbol of everything that threatens peace and flourishing, whether it be disease in our bodies, predators in our forests, crime in our streets, or sin in our hearts.

With chaos occurring in so many forms, it’s good to be reminded that one day it’s all going down. The One who once said, “Thus far shall you come, and no farther,” will then say, “Depart from me.” The sea of God’s wrath will fall on our external enemies, the fire of God’s grace will purify us of all internal disorder, and chaos and its perpetrators will be evicted from God’s creation, placed safely outside and sealed off in the cosmic wastebasket of hell, the “ultimate form of chaos” (166).

The result will be a perfect and permanent cosmos. Perhaps there will be no lions at all (Isa. 35:9), or perhaps the lions will eat straw like an ox (Isa. 11:7). Perhaps there will be no sea at all, or perhaps the sea will no longer destroy and drown. But either way the point is the same: nothing will hurt or destroy in all God’s holy mountain (Isa. 11:9). Chaos will be subdued, cosmos will reign, and we will have reached our true home, where we will see God’s face forever. And sea or no sea, that’s something to look forward to.

Is Evangelism Harder Than It Used to Be?

Mon, 01/14/2019 - 12:02am

Painting with an admittedly broad brush, I’ve noticed some changes in Christian attitudes and motivations toward evangelism over the years.

A while ago, many evangelized out of guilt. They felt so bad they hadn’t told their friends about Jesus that they just had to “get it off their chests.” This was not ideal.

Then for a while, we proclaimed the good news with confidence in our methods and apologetic firepower. We had answers—lots of them! No one was going to stump us. So we shared the good news of grace with the bad attitude of pride. This was even worse than the guilt-ridden days.

In the past few years, I’ve heard another motivation, expressed in numerous ways as compassion. More and more Christians, I sense, don’t know what to say to their non-Christian friends, but they feel burdened to say something out of love. Their friends’ lives are falling apart and Jesus can help them. I’m greatly encouraged by this trend. When we proclaim the gospel out of concern for people, they feel a qualitative difference than when we exude pride, guilt, anger, or superiority.

But recently, I’m hearing another attitude creep in: despair. As I conduct evangelism trainings, I’m sensing some pushback that wasn’t there a few years ago. Believers tell me the answers we offer to outsiders might be true and accurate and biblical, but they just won’t work. “People will just think we’re crazy,” they tell me. “They won’t even listen!”

Still a Potent Weapon

I agree the temperature has gotten hotter when it comes to gospel conversations in the late-modern West. And I don’t deny that our task has gotten more difficult. We have to work harder at pre-evangelism and plausibility building than we used to.

If we ever thought evangelism was easy, we failed to grasp the seriousness of the situation.

But we need to remember something. While the challenges to evangelism may be more formidable than in the past, God’s power to break through hasn’t diminished. Our neighbors may be more resistant than ever. But God’s “two-edged sword” is as sharp as ever (Heb. 4:12). The prevailing culture may encourage more condemnation of Christians than in recent times (I believe that’s the case in America, at least). But the gospel’s power to save hasn’t lost any potency at all.

If we ever thought evangelism was easy, we failed to grasp the seriousness of the situation. If we ever relied on the power of our reasoning skills or the strength of our apologetic arguments, we succumbed to an arrogance that trusted in ourselves rather than God. Somewhere along the way, we forgot that people are “dead in their trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1). We thought they were just confused or misinformed or ignorant. We slipped into thinking people needed answers more than a Savior.

Surprisingly Liberating

But evangelism isn’t just difficult. It’s impossible. And that’s actually liberating.

Because when we remember that evangelism involves talking to spiritually dead people, we ask God to do what only he can—raise the dead. When we recall that the devil has blinded people, we ask God to lift the veil. When we see that people need more than just answers, we do our best to give them good answers, but we also beg God to soften hearts.

Let’s not ignore the obstacles we face. But let’s not doubt the God who cuts through obstacles for his glory.

Life without God Is Weird

Mon, 01/14/2019 - 12:00am

I think logic and argument can suggest God. I have personally benefited from apologists like William Lane Craig, who do this well.

Of course, this is not the only way to suggest God. It’s possible to make God plausible, not as the conclusion of a thread of reasoning, but as the premise of human experience. This approach says, in effect, “if God doesn’t exist, so much of life—so much of what we simply assume everyday in the way we function—becomes mysterious and inexplicable.”

Such a strategy is often rationally avoidable. But that doesn’t mean it’s less effective in real life. In fact, in our cultural setting, many of the lonely, transcendence-starved, quietly despairing people around us may resonate with aesthetic and existential considerations more than a logical case. Quite often the sheer beauty of the gospel is its most powerful apologetic. That is why I go back to C. S. Lewis’s fiction again and again. He speaks to the imagination powerfully.

Quite often the sheer beauty of the gospel is its most powerful apologetic.

Here are three aspects of human life and society that are somewhat out of place—homesick, we might say—within the confines of a naturalistic worldview. They don’t prove God, but they’re just kind of weird without him.

1. Thought

If our brains are simply the epiphenomenal byproduct of a naturalistic, evolutionary process, then thought becomes something of an oddity. In naturalism, our brains function as they do because of the winnowing effect of unimaginable eons of natural selection. Passing on our genes has determined everything. So can we trust our use of reason—or any of our knowledge? More basically, what exactly is thought? How is it generated from strictly physical processes?

You don’t have to be religious to appreciate the complexity of this question. It’s a perennial challenge of philosophy. Consider the issue of consciousness, for instance. Thomas Nagel, who happens to be skeptical about God’s existence, thinks human consciousness is not reducible to strictly material process. In his excellent introduction to philosophy, he admits:

I myself believe that this inner aspect of pain and other conscious experiences cannot be adequately analyzed in terms of any system of causal relations to physical stimuli, however complicated. There seem to me two very different kinds of things going on in the world: the things that belong to physical reality, which many different people can observe from the outside, and those other things that belong to mental reality, which each of us experiences from the inside in his own case.

This whole idea of a “mental reality,” distinct from the physical one, is curious. Why should the physical world generate this separate, mental realm?

This whole idea of a ‘mental reality’ is curious. Why should the physical world generate this separate, mental realm?

Take, for example, math. We tend to think of math as a strictly logical, self-explanatory phenomenon. But when you think about it, math is highly mysterious. Why should it be the case that 2 + 3 = 5 always and everywhere? The physical world is interdependent and relative—even time and space are interwoven, as Einstein showed. But the world of numbers is fixed and universal and binding. So where did it come from?

Here’s a way to grasp the problem: If the entire universe collapsed into non-being, would it still be that 2 + 3 = 5? Most people say yes. But if the universe is all there is, what gives these numbers their stability? Why does the mental realm have permanence if the material realm is in flux? What is this intellectual world that rises up all around us, like an invisible castle—and how did it get here?

Without God, thought seems out of place.

2. Choice

Choice is another oddity within naturalism. If the universe is a closed system of cause and effect, then ultimately everything that happens has a prior material cause—like one pool ball hitting another.

So, if we are strictly material entities (albeit highly complex ones), where would free will come from? We make choices with our brains, and our brains are physical objects, alongside the whole panoply of other physical objects in the universe, from stars to sponges to sauerkraut. What would make our choices something other than the result of an extremely complicated series of previous material events—trillions of pool balls?

If reductive physicalism is the whole show, in what sense can our actions be objectively good or evil?

In fact, the more we understand neuroscience, the more see how tightly our mental life is correlated with the physicality of our brains. Consider the case of Phineas Gage, who worked in railroad construction in the 19th century. He had an unfortunate accident in which a large iron rod was driven completely through his head, up through the left frontal lobe. But he survived and slowly recovered. Unfortunately, his personality changed after the accident. (Basically, he became not so nice.) Lots of other instances like this have been documented, in which the physical brain exerts a massive influence on the sum of our mental life. This raises the question: Is mind ultimately reducible to matter? If so, is our consciousness of making responsible decisions illusory? Is free will possible?

Even more troubling, what about our moral decision-making? If reductive physicalism is the whole show, in what sense can our actions be objectively good or evil?

Without God, choice seems out of place.

3. Hope

Hope is essential to human life. As the holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl put it, “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.” And tragically, the opposite is true. Hopelessness is unlivable. Recent headlines have sadly reminded us what we do when we run out of hope.

The power of hope is dramatized poignantly in the movie The Shawshank Redemption, and in particular its portrayal of Andy Dufresne’s struggle to find hope in a seemingly hopeless situation. It’s hope that determines whether life is worth living: either “get busy livin’, or get busy dyin’.”

He chooses to live. And in the context of this choice, he says, “Hope is a good thing, maybe the best thing; and no good thing ever dies.”

But can a naturalist agree with Andy Dufresne? I cannot see how. In a naturalistic philosophy, hope does die. Just wait long enough, and there’s no one around to do any hoping. In fact, not only will every individual person die, but the entire universe will eventually wind down into a heat death, and thus every single achievement of every single person will also be swallowed up and forgotten forever.

It’s a curious thing that a world ultimately devoid of hope should produce creatures who cannot function without it.

Why do we hate and fear this prospect of everything winding down so much? Why does it seem so unnatural? Sadness at death is understandable on the grounds of naturalism. But the intensity of our fear of death is curious. Why do we long for ultimate meaning, for abiding happiness, for connection to something transcendent?

It’s a curious thing that a world ultimately devoid of hope should produce creatures who cannot function without it.

Indeed, without God, hope seems out of place.

Someone Whispering  

C. S. Lewis famously wrote, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains.” In other words, not all of God’s speech is at the same volume. The clarity and force of divine revelation varies.

Clues of God in our mental, volitional, and emotional life are, as I see it, in the “whisper” register. These are not the most obvious or undeniable places to find God. (For those, I personally go back to the Big Bang, the resurrection of Jesus, the lives of godly saints, and my own deep-seated, undeniable sense of God in my heart and conscience.)

Nonetheless, that our world has produced creatures who think, choose, and hope is, within a naturalistic framework, a curious turns of events. If we listen carefully, we might hear Someone whispering.

I Lost Mom, but I’ll Never Lose the Church

Sun, 01/13/2019 - 12:03am

It was 6:45 p.m. on a Sunday last March. I was surrounded by my three older sisters and a few other family members. We watched as my mom, who moments before had life support removed, took her last few breaths. For five grueling minutes, we watched as her chest increasingly slowed its movement with each inhale and exhale, until it didn’t.

One of the pains of losing a loved one is that their life came to an end, but yours didn’t. You still must face tomorrow and the days to follow. One of the strangest feelings that night was simply leaving the hospital. My sisters and I had spent several days in a waiting room as Mom unsuccessfully fought the repercussions of cardiac arrest. After almost a week of praying for her healing, we had to walk away from the hospital that night without her—marking the beginning of a strange new chapter in our lives.

Church Was There

I was left to figure out how to live the rest of my days without a mother. The pain that comes from losing a parent at a young age is difficult to describe, and as I write, I still feel it. Yet God in his good providence had already instituted a major cure for my plight—his church.

It’s not hard to find articles pointing out the church’s shortcomings. Our reading streams are inundated with digital fingers pointing out her stains and failures. And yes, the church is frail and frequently falls short of her calling. Yet in all her missteps and imperfections, she met me in my sorrow, and she was exactly what I needed.

Whether it be the moment I got the call that my mom was unresponsive in the kitchen, the days my sisters and I spent in the ICU, or the days ensuing her loss, the church was there. And it wasn’t just my church. I saw the overwhelming love of the church at large on display. My wife and I got texts, phone calls, messages, and personal notes letting us know our family was in their prayers. We had friends drop off food, clean our house while we were away, take care of our dog, put us up, spend time with us, and leave us alone when we needed it.

Persistent Love

Though these acts of kindness were immediate, the church’s love didn’t wane with time. It’s been months since Mom died; those who’ve had a similar experience know the pain comes in waves. The most unexpected moments can trigger a memory that brings a wave of sorrow. But so often my waves have been interrupted by the kindnesses of God’s people. These glorious intrusions have been moments of light when it felt like the darkness had won.

And more than just physical acts of kindness and quality time, the church has served as embodied evidence of the glory yet to come. Death is a stinging reminder that things aren’t right, a cruel signpost that we aren’t yet home. But there is a gloriously strange calm in walking with the saints through suffering. Each member of Christ’s body is a trophy of grace, which reminds the hurting that God is in the business of resurrection.

While it’s not hard to find someone in the news, on social media, or even among friends ridiculing the church for one of her many stains, in the bitter providence of losing my mom I learned I wouldn’t want to live without God’s people. This isn’t to deny or make light of the fact that the church has mishandled the pain of many people in the past—maybe even your pain. But while she’s not perfect, she was the exact kind of messy, broken, God-ordained, blood-bought haven I needed in this tragedy.

It’s vital for Christians to press into the local church for a number of reasons, including fidelity to the Scriptures. But we should also press in because during tragedy, you can find sweet refuge as the redeemed point you to the supreme Refuge.

I lost my mom, but I’ll never lose the church. In this, God has given me grace upon grace.

Homeschooling Parents in Germany Lose Right to Educate Their Children

Sat, 01/12/2019 - 12:03am

The Story: A European court ruled that German authorities are allowed to forcibly remove children from their home if the parents homeschool. Could that happen in the United States?

The Background: On Thursday, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Germany’s ban on homeschooling did not violate a family’s fundamental rights. Germany is one of the few European countries that penalizes families who want to homeschool.

According to Alliance Defending Freedom International, more than 30 police officers and social workers stormed the home of the Wunderlich family in August 2013. The authorities brutally removed the children from their parents and their home, leaving the family traumatized. The children were ultimately returned to their parents, but their legal status remained unclear. After courts in Germany ruled in favor of the government, the European Court of Human Rights agreed to take up the case in August 2016. The family still has the option of bringing the case to the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights, the highest level of the court.

“This ruling ignores the fact that Germany’s policy on homeschooling violates the rights of parents to educate their children and direct their upbringing. It is alarming to see that this was not recognized by the most influential human rights court in Europe. This ruling is a step in the wrong direction and should concern anyone who cares about freedom,” said Paul Coleman, executive director of ADF International.

“This judgement is a huge setback, but we will not give up the fight to protect the fundamental right of parents to homeschool their children in Germany and across Europe,” added Mike Donnelly, international homeschooling expert and director of global outreach for the Home School Legal Defense Association.

The Wunderlichs have only been given partial custody and must send their children to a government-approved education program.

Why It Matters: Although this case is in Europe, it’s a reminder of how fragile parental rights are in America.

In 2010, a U.S. immigration judge granted political asylum to a German family who fled to America because, like the Wunderlichs, they were unable to homeschool their children. The judge ruled they had a reasonable fear of persecution for their beliefs if they returned to their homeland. The judge also denounced the German policy, saying it was, “utterly repellent to everything we believe as Americans.”

President Obama’s Justice Department disagreed, and argued that the family should be denied asylum based on their contention that governments may legitimately use its authority to force parents to send their kids to government-sanctioned schools. On appeal the the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the Justice Department and denied the asylum:

The German law does not on its face single out any protected group, and the Romeikes have not provided sufficient evidence to show that the law’s application turns on prohibited classifications or animus based on any prohibited ground. For these reasons, we deny the Romeikes’ petition.

As many Western nations have made clear, parents are not a “protected group.”

Our duties and rights as parents are circumscribed by the cultural norms of the secular public. This is true even in the United States, as late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia repeatedly warned us.

For example, in November 2015 Justice Scalia told an audience at Georgetown University Law Center that there is no U.S. constitutional right of parents to direct the education and upbringing of their children. Although Scalia believed the right of parents to direct the upbringing of their children is among the “unalienable rights” mentioned in the Declaration of Independence, it is not a right necessarily protected by the Constitution, since many “important rights are not contained there.”

“For example, my right to raise my children the way I want,” Scalia said. “To teach them what I want them taught, not what Big Brother says. That is not there.”

As I noted last year, a proposed amendment to the Constitution of the United States last year relating to parental rights is pending in the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice.

Most Christian parents have not even heard of this bill, much less asked their legislators to advance its passage. Because so few of us know about it, the legislation will likely continue to languish and be forgotten—only to be dusted off after a Supreme Court ruling further jeopardizes parental rights. Unfortunately, by then it may be too late. A Supreme Court ruling undermining parental rights would make it nearly impossible to pass such an amendment in the future.

We didn’t heed Justice Scalia’s warning before his death. But we still have an opportunity to protect the rights of parents before the court decides the state, rather than parents, should decide what’s best for our children.

Evangelism Must Explain What’s Wrong with the World

Sat, 01/12/2019 - 12:02am

People around us today often scoff at the notion of sin. Our world has new names for what ails us: poor self-esteem, neurosis, addiction, anxiety, psychological wounding, and so forth. It isn’t that these issues aren’t a reality; it’s that such analysis doesn’t go deep enough to reveal the root cause.

Yet for all the protest that sin is an old-fashioned, outdated concept, nearly everyone agrees that something has gone terribly wrong and must be made right. We see the wrong in world wars, racism, genocides, terrorism, human trafficking, exploitation of children—and in our own personal battles evidenced in broken relationships, anger, addictions, and on and on.

What happened that caused our planet to go from paradise to our present brokenness? And how can this explanation be good news for our unbelieving neighbors?

First Rebellion

In Genesis 3, we discover that, though Adam and Eve were created in God’s image, they rejected God’s rule and chose to be self-ruled when they disobeyed God’s command not to eat the fruit of that tree. As a result, sin entered the human race: there’s now no area of human personhood not infected by sin—even though we still reflect, however dimly, the image of God in which each human being is made.

But the perfection God had established was broken, and human beings have been in the grip of sin ever since, as Genesis 4–11 so chillingly describes. Sin is such an all-inclusive reality that Paul says, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). Like Adam and Eve, all humans have chosen self-rule instead of God-rule.

That means that everything we see around us and in us that’s so tragically wrong—natural disasters, famine, genocides, and all forms of personal brokenness—can be traced back to the time when humans first rebelled against God.

Into that garden came the evil Serpent, whom Revelation identifies as “that ancient serpent, who is the devil, or Satan” (Rev. 20:2). The Bible reveals the reality of Satan and other supernatural beings who have rebelled against God and who do their best to tempt human beings to sin.

Although the Bible reveals various forms of evil—such as corporate, systemic evil or Satan and his demons—the Bible is clear that at the heart of sin is personal rebellion against God.

Wages of Sin

Over dinner, a skeptic psychiatrist friend described the typical problems that drive people to seek her help. Then she said, “But you’re a Christian, so you think the problem is that we’re all sinners!” I asked what she thought the biblical understanding of sin was, and she answered, “Oh, something along the lines of drugs, sex, and rock ’n roll?”

What my friend didn’t grasp is that from the biblical perspective, sin at its core isn’t just misdeeds. The Bible locates sin at the very center of human personality. Sin could be described as having a God-complex: we get ourselves and God mixed up! We live as if we’re in charge.

Sin could be described as having a God-complex: we get ourselves and God mixed up.

Sin is actually twofold: it’s the deliberate refusal to trust and worship God as God, and it’s the prideful claim to insist on the right to run our lives. Sin is both unbelief and idolatry, as we try to create meaning and identity by depending on things other than God.

Biblically speaking, sin is always against God. That’s why we can’t understand sin’s true meaning without understanding that sin, first and foremost, is rebellion against a righteous God.

What was the final outcome of human disobedience to God? When Adam and Eve turned away from God in rebellion, God declared to them his righteous judgment, just as he had promised. Suffering and death fell on the human race. The consequence of Adam and Eve’s rebellion was disastrous: the human race became catastrophically separated from the eternal love of God.

The perfect trust and warm, intimate friendship they had enjoyed with God and with each other were destroyed; they lived instead under his judgment of death. God’s presence was removed and human beings experienced a spiritual separation from God they had never known.

The predicament of fallen humanity is so serious, so grave, and so desperately wrong from within and without, that it’s beyond human ability to fix. Think about it: Can fallen human beings change the intrinsic structure of our sinful nature and remake our natures from the inside? Can we defeat Satan? Do we have the power to conquer death? Clearly we do not!

Who then has the power to deliver and rescue us? Who can take what is so terribly wrong and make it right? Obviously, only a power that is stronger than ourselves can help us overcome ourselves. Nothing short of divine intervention can rectify our situation.

Hope for the Broken

We glimpse this divine intervention even in the garden of Eden. Although God banished Adam and Eve from the garden, he didn’t stop loving them, as we see when he tenderly made them better clothes than what they’d made for themselves, to protect them once they were outside the garden.

Most important, in Genesis 3:14–15, God declares war on the serpent (Satan) and says that the offspring of the woman will crush the serpent’s head. The whole rest of the Old Testament points toward the coming of that promised offspring who would finally defeat Satan: Jesus the Savior, born of a woman named Mary. God will not allow the Enemy’s plan to harm his plan. This is the first promise of the gospel.

The Bible reveals that before the beginning of time and the human revolt, God had already decided on his plan of how to rescue the planet that had turned from him (Titus 1:2; Eph. 3:11). He would send a Redeemer, Christ Jesus the divine Son of God, who would endure suffering and death in order to bring sinners back to God. Even in human rebellion, we see the promise of God’s grace.

The good news of the gospel is that sin and judgment weren’t the end of the story! Though God owed us nothing, in his mercy and grace he sent his divine Son from heaven on a rescue mission to redeem a people for himself and to restore everything under Christ—“to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ” (Eph. 1:10).

Jesus now commands all believers to “go and make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19). When we see the beauty and glory of the gospel, the victory won by the Son of God on our behalf and in our place, and the cosmic significance of all that Christ has accomplished, how can we possibly remain silent and keep this glorious news to ourselves?

Is the Church Where Creativity Goes to Die?

Fri, 01/11/2019 - 12:04am

“Whether you realize it or not, creativity is the language of the culture. Beauty is the new apologetic. . . . We live in a culture where beauty determines everything. It doesn’t matter what is true; if it’s painted beautifully, that wins the affections of the people.” — Thomas Terry

Date: October 17, 2018

Event: TGC 2018 West Coast Conference, Fullerton, California

You can listen to this episode of The Gospel Coalition podcast here.

Related:

Find more audio and video from TGC’s 2018 West Coast Conference on the conference media page.

Youth Ministry Is Not Just a Stepping Stone

Fri, 01/11/2019 - 12:03am

I once interviewed for two ministry positions at the same time—a youth pastor role and a senior pastor role.

I ended up pursuing the youth position, understanding it as the best fit in that season. When I tell people, I get a variety of responses from a simple “Great!” to “Why don’t you want to be a senior pastor?”

A common misunderstanding about youth pastors is that they’re training for the higher-ranking position of lead pastor. While it’s true many pastors once worked with youth, the two roles are distinct. Senior pastors who’ve previously served as youth pastors can provide encouragement and understanding. They can also channel their experience into unrealistic expectations, perhaps beginning with the refrain, “Back when I was a youth pastor . . .”

The implication of such responses is that the youth pastor role isn’t true ministry; only those who have the title of senior or lead pastor hold that distinction.

All Gifts Equally Valuable

Thankfully, God doesn’t distinguish.

In 1 Corinthians 12:12–27 Paul uses parts of the body to illustrate God’s people needing one another. Each person within the body of Christ is valuable and helps the church function. No part is inadequate or indispensable. While Paul may suggest a difference in role for church members, he makes clear that everyone is needed:

God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. (1 Cor. 12:24–27)

Youth pastors should be seen as a valuable part of the body. God places us in a unique position to minister to children, young people, and their families. We’re part of the wider church seeking to serve those in a particular demographic, those with particular questions about faith and unique struggles as they move through adolescence into adulthood.

The youth pastor—especially those who are part of a pastoral team—seeks to fulfill his ministry to students through the same lens as the lead pastor. Their goals are largely the same: to serve, to teach the Scriptures, and to present everyone mature in Christ.

Encourage and Champion

First Timothy 3 outlines the qualifications for all pastoral leaders, which includes (I believe) modern youth pastors. When we view and treat the youth pastor role as a mere stepping stone to senior ministry, we do a disservice to the body of Christ in at least four ways.

1. It minimizes the importance of ministry to young people.

Staff members who have a pastoral role work hard at teaching God’s Word and shepherding those under their care. The youth pastor helps families, recognizing that the primary role of spiritual guidance and teaching belongs to parents. In this age of loneliness and confusion, the importance of having another mature adult walk alongside young people can’t be overstated.

2. It pressures youth pastors to look for the next thing.

The youth pastor in your church already puts immense pressure on himself. Adding expectations about moving up the church ladder doesn’t lower the pressure; it leaves him feeling more insecure about his value and place. Encourage your youth pastor by letting him know you deeply appreciate him and his work.

3. It says youth pastors should only be around for a short time.

It’s been estimated that youth pastors stay about 18 months at a given church. I hope this isn’t true, though anecdotal evidence suggests it is. When a youth pastor is asked questions about eventually becoming a senior pastor, he often falls into the trap of accepting short tenures. How great are the ministries of those who have stayed and faithfully taught the Scriptures, who have rejoiced at conversions and baptisms, and who have participated in marriage ceremonies.

Let’s encourage and champion long-term youth ministry.

4. It fails to appreciate individual gifts for ministry.

As I was interviewing for those two positions, I knew youth ministry was my passion and calling. While being a senior pastor is appealing in certain ways, the issue is one of the heart: Am I seeking a name on the door or a title on a business card? Once we’ve dealt with our own pride and popularity-seeking, there’s still the issue of the gifts and desires a sovereign God has chosen to give. This is something I wrestle with, and no doubt other youth pastors do, too.

The next time you speak with a youth pastor, encourage him in his gifting and calling. He is a vital part of the mission, service, and ministry of Christ’s church.

Life Is Not ‘Meaningless’ in Ecclesiastes

Fri, 01/11/2019 - 12:02am

This book is for you. How do I know? Because—and I hate to be the one to break this to you—you’re going to die.

Living Life Backward: How Ecclesiastes Teaches Us to Live in Light of the End is by David Gibson, minister of Trinity Church in Aberdeen, Scotland. It’s a poignant and powerful exposition of the message of Ecclesiastes. Over the past few months it has become one of the books I most frequently give away, reflect on, and return to in my ministry as a pastor. I want you to read it. I’m confident it will do you lasting good.

My only critique of the book is a minor one, so I’ll air it early. The book is nearly, but not quite, an exposition of the book of Ecclesiastes: chapters 6, 8, and 10 are entirely absent. Gibson gives such a lucid account of Ecclesiastes that I don’t doubt the pieces he left out fit with the parts he expounds. But I wish he had at least gestured toward how the three missing chapters fit with the arresting picture he assembles for us.

Ecclesiastes’s Answer to Death

When I read the book a few months ago, two of our pastoral interns asked me what it’s about. I replied along these lines: “The message of Ecclesiastes is that it’s good news that you’re going to die.” “Oh,” one of them replied. “You mean, since Jesus rose from the dead, we no longer need to fear death?” Not exactly.

Of course, Jesus’s resurrection is the ultimate answer to death. But it isn’t Ecclesiastes’s answer. And as Christians, God has given us not only the resurrection’s answer to death, but also Ecclesiastes’s answer. It’s an answer that’s somewhat harder to hear—harder both to understand and to embrace. Which is why we need Gibson’s book.

God has given us not only the resurrection’s answer to death, but also Ecclesiastes’s answer.

In Gibson’s words, the message of Ecclesiastes, and therefore his book, is this: “Ecclesiastes teaches us to live life backward. It encourages us to take the one thing in the future that is certain—our death—and work backward from that point into all the details and decisions and heartaches of our lives, and to think about them from the perspective of the end” (12). More briefly, “Death can teach you the meaning of mirth” (11–12).

Fleetingness of Earthly Joy

Ecclesiastes poses a dilemma for many Christians. The book seems brutally nihilistic, from the time the preacher first opens his mouth: “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity” (Eccles. 1:2). If everything is vanity, is life worth living? How can such a defeatist message be the Word of God? Do we have to shoehorn in Christ’s resurrection in order to rescue the book from its bleakness?

As Gibson points out, a key to this dilemma is that the Hebrew word hebel, often rendered “vanity,” doesn’t exactly mean pointless or futile (19–24). Instead, the preacher of Ecclesiastes plays on the word’s basic sense of vapor or breath. What is everything? Not meaningless, but fleeting, evanescent, ungraspable. Wait for a cold day, open your mouth wide, and breathe out. Try to grab the cloud in your hands. That, proclaims Ecclesiastes, holds for all of this life’s joys. They all flicker and vanish. Even the most seemingly solid fixtures of our lives can disappear in less time than it takes to blink. And one day death will take from us, and take us from, whatever joys we have left.

The message of Ecclesiastes isn’t that earthly joys are worthless, but that they are not ultimate.

Does that leave us where we started? No, because Ecclesiastes directs our eyes not only to the limits of life in this world, but also to the wisdom of its Creator.

The message of Ecclesiastes isn’t that earthly joys are worthless, but that they are not ultimate. As Gibson writes, “What does it mean to love life and the world if it’s passing away, and if I’m meant to enjoy God and live for Christ first and foremost? Let me say that the two things go hand in hand absolutely beautifully, and for this reason: in the created world, you can only truly enjoy what you do not worship” (115).

Living Well

When we recognize that no earthly goods are ultimate, we can stop treating them like they are. When we own the fact that death will take everything from us, and take us from everything, we’re free to enjoy life’s flickering goods for what they are. God richly provides us with everything to enjoy (1 Tim. 6:17). The problem, ultimately, isn’t your marriage or career or money, but the weight of expectation and longing you invest in them. Only the new creation is solid enough to bear the full weight of all our yearning. Only the unobstructed sight of the imperishable God is enough to secure our unending happiness.

When you live in light of the certain tragedy of death, you’re free to enjoy the comedy of life. When you stop treating this life as if it must satisfy you entirely, you’ll find it more satisfying. Like flowers springing up after the weight of snow has melted, earthly joys regain their proper shape and substance when you stop requiring them to do what they were never meant to. “Only someone who knows how to weep will really know what it means to laugh. That’s the message of Ecclesiastes. It’s an invitation to be a person who realizes that living a good life means preparing to die a good death” (98).

Want to live well? Prepare to die. Know that the breath will vanish, and enjoy the fleeting glory.

3 Precious Words for This Troubled Soul

Fri, 01/11/2019 - 12:00am

It has been happening most mornings recently. I’ll wake up feeling crushed and exhausted. Condemnation. I’m doing everything wrong. And everyone knows it. It feels like when I wake, the whole human race rolls its eyes and sighs, Oh. It’s this guy. I don’t know why this happens, just that it does, and that it feels utterly real. And if this is what others think (and why wouldn’t they?), then what must God think? After all, they only see the outside of my life; he sees the inside. There’s no excuse for someone like me.

So this is what I’m banking on: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1).

Whatever condemnation there might be from others (and in my better moments I know the human race doesn’t spend its time consumed with my daily failings), this verse says in three words what I need to hear every day: Now no condemnation. Three simple words. Can I dare to believe them?

Condemnation

To condemn someone is to expose them because of what they have done. This is what we all deserve. It’s what I deserve.

What have I done with the life God has given me? I have squandered opportunities on an hourly basis to love him and to love others. How can we even quantify this loss? I should feel crushed by the weight of it all. People who think they have their lives together baffle me. I’ve been around human beings long enough to know what we’re really like.

No Condemnation

So here it is, in black-and-white letters on the page of Holy Scripture. Somehow it’s possible to go from deserved condemnation to no condemnation. Such a category exists. But if it in any way depends on me, I can’t do it. So Paul sets me straight: “There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”

This is not our normal way of speaking about Christians, but it is the New Testament’s. Far and away the most common description of us is those who are “in Christ.” Open any New Testament letter at random and you’ll see this phrase multiple times on the page. Being “in Christ” means we’re united to him, such that what is true of him is now also true of us. What is naturally his is now shared with me. It’s like a marriage, where the estate of the one becomes the estate of the other. Christ absorbs my debt; I gain his righteousness. He faced condemnation in his death so I could enjoy the future prospects he naturally deserves. I can’t say, “There is now no condemnation for Sam Allberry.” But I can (and must) say, “There is now no condemnation for Sam Allberry who is in Christ Jesus.” That status is mine only because I am his.

“No condemnation” means God will never count my sin against me. Even the most shameful things I’ve done will never be used against me. His disposition will forever be one of favor. He will always be for me, never against me.

Now No Condemnation

Paul isn’t just talking about some hypothetical future prospect; it’s a present-day reality. It’s not something I have to wait for, hanging in there until it arrives. This reality is now.

I was recently at a large banquet where each table was summoned in turn to go to the buffet. As always with these things, the process took far longer than expected, and everyone else’s table seemed to go up long before ours. But eventually one of the staff came up to us with that glorious word, “Now you may go and be served.”

It’s even more glorious to know that now there is no condemnation for me. What Jesus has done applies this moment of this day. It applies when I wake up tomorrow. However I feel, I will be waking up to the undiluted favor of God. I need to bury that truth in my deepest core, allowing it to seep into the innermost parts of my heart. It needs to define how I see myself. I need not fear the disapprobation of man when I have the guaranteed approval of God.

Related:

Juan Sanchez on Image, Identity, and Idolatry

Thu, 01/10/2019 - 12:04am

The first thing we learn about who we are in Genesis 1 is that we are made in the image of God. But what does that mean? What does that say about our purpose in this world? How was that affected in the fall? And what difference does Jesus make?

I posed these questions along with many others to Juan Sánchez, TGC Council member and pastor of High Pointe Baptist Church in Austin, Texas. Over the course of our conversation we traced the Bible’s message about the image of God from Genesis, through the history of Israel, to the person and work of Christ, and into the future when the image of God in us will be fully restored.

You can listen to our conversation here.

Recommended Resources:

How Discernment Is Like Thrifting

Thu, 01/10/2019 - 12:03am

The smell is unmistakable and hits you as soon as you walk through the door. It’s not exactly unpleasant, but it is distinct: the smell of mothballs and dust, of worn textiles and decaying books. It’s the smell of time and humanity and a hundred thousand different lives assembled in one place.

It’s the smell of the thrift store.

I suppose the eclectic nature of thrift stores could be unsettling, even disorienting, for some people. After all, there’s no predictable supply, no reliable order, no telling what you’ll find or even what you’re looking at. Here, you might find a cut glass candy dish that looks exactly like the one your grandmother had, or a mid-century vinyl footstool that fits perfectly in your mid-century brick ranch, or a metal flashlight that makes you feel like Nancy Drew when you use it.

In many ways, life offers up its dilemmas and choices with about as much predictability as a thrift store offers up used goods. And because we can’t custom order our lives, we must become people who can spot goodness wherever and whenever we encounter it.

Perhaps that’s why in Philippians 4:8 Paul calls us to think about whatever is pure, honorable, just, pure, lovely, and commendable and why he repeats this idea in the verse’s final phrase: “if there is any moral excellence, and if there is anything praiseworthy—dwell on these things.”

If there is anything, anywhere that is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely and commendable; whatever you can find that is excellent and praiseworthy; wherever you find it—focus you mind and attention on these things.

Because we can’t custom order our lives, we must become people who can spot goodness wherever and whenever we encounter it.

At the same time, Paul’s call to seek “whatever” and “anything” is not a wholesale embrace of all the world offers; it is a conditioned one. Because quite frankly, a lot of things the world offers are junk, broken beyond repair, and you’d be foolish to take them home.

Like I told my husband recently, the trick to buying clothes from Goodwill is to figure out how to not dress like you buy your clothes from Goodwill, the line between vintage and outdated being a fine one. Successful thrifting really depends on the eye of the purchaser—on whether she has developed an instinct for what’s worth buying and what’s best left on the shelf.

Does she know what is good by simply looking at it? Has she learned discernment?

Good Taste

Beyond calling us to seek goodness, Philippians 4:8 also gives us the principles we need to discern whether something is good in the first place. The virtues of truth, honor, justice, purity, beauty, and praise act as a type of shorthand we can apply to whatever choices we face.

But these principles also develop our “taste” for goodness, simultaneously guiding and shaping us. In other words, pursuing virtue makes us discerning people.

Nobel Prize winner Joseph Brodsky explained this concept, as it relates to reading, in a 1988 lecture he delivered at a book fair in Italy. Speaking to the crowd, he addressed one of their greatest challenges: There are simply too many books and too little time. How can you know what you should read? Brodsky said we must develop the skill to know whether a book is worth reading within a few pages, and we do that by reading poetry.

According to Brodsky, poetry is “the most concise, the most condensed way of conveying the human experience.” By reading it, you will learn what good literature looks like in a shorter amount of time. You learn about the importance of detail, word choice, layering, allusion, and anticlimax. And then you can transfer this knowledge to prose, enabling you to decide whether a book is worth continuing or whether you should put it aside.

“All I am trying to do,” he tells his audience, “is to be practical and spare your eyesight and brain cells a lot of useless printed matter.”

By turning our attention to the principles of virtue in Philippians 4:8, Paul is trying to provide a similar approach to navigating the world around us. Just as reading poetry equips us to recognize good literature, pursuing these virtues helps us develop a taste for goodness by changing us and what we desire.

As we seek truthful things, we’re forced to confront our own falsehood. As we pursue justice, we must grapple with our own injustice. And as we search for whatever is lovely, we learn to reject the tawdry and pragmatic for things of eternal worth and beauty.

Soon we’ll be able to spot the difference between what’s good and bad because we are being made good. Soon we’ll be able to make wise decisions because we are becoming wise people. Soon we’ll know what to leave on the shelf and what to take home.

Lost and Found

My home is full of things I’ve gleaned from thrifting. Our kitchen table where we gather to eat. The matching lamps that light our family room. A small corner cabinet that I bought for $3 and painted red—it still makes me happy just to look at it. The dresser in our bedroom and the jewelry box that sits on top of it. The copper kettle on my woodstove. The chair I sit on as I write this. Pictures, art work, records, hats, glassware, books—a world of treasure and curiosity.

I think what I love most about thrifting is that, in some small way, it feels like an act of redemption. David writes in Psalm 113:7 that God “raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the trash heap,” which sounds a lot like thrifting to me: something that was no longer wanted, thrown to the side, and deemed of no value is suddenly given new life.

It’s not a perfect metaphor of course, but there’s something there, I think. Not only have my thrift store finds been saved from destruction, they also have been made useful once again. They don’t simply sit in my house—they do what they were created for. They have purpose.

I can’t help but feel a particular affinity to these lost and found objects, these reminders of grace and goodness. And I can’t help but think that the work of cultivating discernment is part of the larger work that God is doing in the world. A work of rescue and redemption, of recovery and restoration. The work of making all things good once again.

Church Planter, Redefine Success and Seek Emotional Health

Thu, 01/10/2019 - 12:02am

“Can you brothers pray for me? I’m mentally, physically, and emotionally depleted from pushing all week despite being sick. I’m so discouraged I don’t even want to go to our gathering today, let alone preach.”

This was a text I sent a few dear brothers several weeks ago. Gripped by anxiety and physically zapped, I sat in my car and sobbed uncontrollably an hour before our worship gathering began. I’d hit a wall. Most church-planting training doesn’t prepare you for these moments.

Don’t get me wrong: Most training I know about is solid and robust. But as I’ve planted a church, I’ve been faced with challenges that have taken a toll on my emotional wellbeing. How do I process the pain of betrayal or having my trust broken? Whom do I confide in about pastoral issues? Who will shepherd my soul amid stress and difficulties while Im learning to lead?

As I’ve planted a church, I’ve been faced with challenging issues that have taken a toll on my emotional wellbeing.

I believe the lack of attention given to emotional health in church planting has yielded a culture where we ignore or downplay certain issues—until a brother falls into sin, when we’re all forced to step back and ask: Why?

We mustn’t underestimate the emotional costs involved in planting a church. Whether it be the constant change, pervasive uncertainty, isolation, support raising and recruiting, leadership development, frenetic pace, or unrealistic expectations—church planters need to manage all of these, not to mention the daily responsibility to lead people in the truth.

Redefining Success

Many look at the size, scale, and number of services to evaluate “success.” Perhaps one of the main reasons many church planters crumble inwardly is because they’ve bought into these false assessments of true success. Some (myself included) observe the ministries or gifts God has given to others, compare ourselves, and then are driven to doubt and despair.

I’ve spoken with countless planters who are discouraged because they feel their churches don’t measure up. And I believe many are driven to despair in part because “bigger” and “faster” have eclipsed faithfulness as our ultimate aim. Or more subtly, the assumption becomes that these things are the fruit of faithfulness. But this could not be further from the truth:

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. There is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me, but to all who have loved his appearing. (2 Tim. 4:7–8)

Imagine Paul evaluating his ministry as we often do. If size and speed had been his metrics for success, then ending up in prison would have been the utmost failure, and surely no reason to rejoice. But rejoice he did (Phil. 1:18–19). So instead of growing despondent because of what we don’t have, what if we praised God for uniquely equipping us for our church-planting task?

If size and speed had been Paul’s metrics for success, then ending up in prison would have been the utmost failure, and surely no reason to rejoice. But rejoice he did.

Planting through Pain

Pain and church planting are inevitably intertwined. Paul’s ministry was marked by being “afflicted, perplexed, persecuted, and struck down” (2 Cor. 4:8–9). While on my planting journey, I’ve watched many men, and their wives, wrestle with depression and anxiety.

So how should we respond to the emotional pain we face? I’d suggest at least three ways. These are not exhaustive, but I believe they can help.

1. Acknowledge

King David was candid about his pain. Instead of ignoring his heart, he expressed his loneliness, sorrow, and discouragement (Ps. 25:16, 31:10, 42:5, 69:29).

First and foremost, we need to acknowledge our experience before the Lord—as David did—with raw honesty and humble trust.

2. Embrace Frailty

When Paul told the Corinthians “we have this treasure in jars of clay,” he was embracing frailty. Why? “To show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Cor. 4:7).

I’ve experienced things inwardly I thought I’d never feel. I’ve felt worry from unrealistic expectations. I’ve known sorrow and loneliness due to the weight of shepherding people in dark places and being the lead pastor in a small church plant. I’ve felt the hurt of helping others who ended up turning on me and my family.

But even still, so much of my pain comes from relying on my own strength. I need to repent, embrace my weakness, and take comfort as I rest in God’s power—accepting my limits instead of attempting to surpass them. God’s power is not manifested in our competence and capability. Rather, he displays his surpassing power precisely because, in and of ourselves, we are neither competent nor capable.

3. Don’t Fly Solo

All difficulties are exacerbated when suffering alone. I know many pastors who scream “community” but are personally isolated. Planter, your heart needs tending and care. Find godly men who will bandage the wounds of your soul before you spiritually bleed out.

As Dietrich Bonhoeffer aptly noted, “[Man] needs his brother solely because of Jesus Christ. The Christ in his own heart is weaker than the Christ in the word of his brother; his own heart is uncertain, his brother’s is sure.” Planting a church creates a uniquely dangerous opportunity for isolation. So pursue accountability. Don’t let the pressure make you to turn inward. Rather, ensure there are brothers and sisters who know you and will invest in you. Doing this will bless your family, your church, and your soul.

Emotional health is complex, and there’s so much more that could be said. But the above three ways are foundational if we are to pursue humble dependence on Christ. And depending on him is far better than the size or “success” of any ministry.

After all, church planter, apart from him you can do nothing (John 15:5).

The Reverse Genesis Narrative of ‘Bird Box’

Thu, 01/10/2019 - 12:00am

Bird Box begins in hell.

Hell, in this case, is a rapidly escalating global catastrophe—a creaturely presence that, upon being seen, drives one to sudden and violent death by suicide. The only way to save oneself is not to see this evil. Survival depends on remaining behind darkened windows when inside and wearing a blindfold when out.

Adapted from a 2014 novel, the Netflix original film (directed by Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier) was viewed a record-breaking 45 million times within a week of its release. As thrillers go, Bird Box is intense. (It kept the adrenaline of this suspense addict jacked up for all 124 minutes.) The suicide scenes are so disturbing that some have (understandably) called for trigger warnings for the sake of viewers struggling with mental illness or suicidal thoughts.

The suspenseful content is heightened by the story’s artful structure, which effectively cuts back and forth between scenes taking place just before, during, and several years after the onset of the apocalypse. This non-chronological order does more than just build suspense, however. It also highlights the development of the central character, Malorie (Sandra Bullock), from reluctant to loving mother.

Horror of Parenting

This parenting theme is one reason many compare Bird Box to last year’s A Quiet Place, leaving some to wonder if the former merely imitated the latter (which isn’t the case, since the novel Bird Box was published in 2014, with the film rights sold in 2013 before the book was even released).

Even so, the similarities between the films are notable. Viewers unversed in the genre may not realize how central a role parenting—whether good or ill—plays in horror films from Carrie to Halloween to The Shining. Both A Quiet Place and Bird Box portray parents and parenting in a positive light—an unexpected, but welcome tilt of a common trope.

The horror in these two films is also directly connected to the senses—hearing in A Quiet Place and sight in Bird Box. In this age of sensory overload (manifested, increasingly and not surprisingly, in sensory disorders), these films demonstrate how the horror genre always deals in some way with whatever scares us most in any given age.

A Quiet Place and Bird Box demonstrate how the horror genre always deals in some way with whatever scares us most in any given age.

What scares Malorie is becoming a parent. The film hints that her fears about becoming a mother are directly connected to her own parents’ problems. In a conversation with her sister (Sarah Paulson) about a horse her sister hopes to purchase, Malorie says wryly, “Great to be a horse. Then we would have, like, a mother who would have actually raised us and a father off on some faraway stud farm.”

“Hold on,” her sister responds. “Our father was off on a faraway stud farm.”

The film opens several years after this conversation, with Malorie sharply commanding a young boy and girl, both blindfolded as they set off on a dangerous boat ride down a river. Then a flashback (the first of many) returns to a heavily pregnant (and single) Malorie, who is so detached from the child she carries that her obstetrician gently suggests she consider placing the baby up for adoption. Not only does Malorie keep the child (birthed in terrifying circumstances, also similar to A Quiet Place), but she also takes into her care another child whose mother falls victim to the apocalyptic plague. Adoption thus emerges as one of the film’s more subtle but interesting themes, a theme reinforced by the birds of the titular box.

Birds and Blindness

The birds serve a number of functions in the story, both literal and symbolic. One thematic purpose is explicit in the film’s script but doesn’t appear to show up in the film. The movie portrays Malorie obtaining the birds in an abandoned grocery store. The script states that “a trampled sign on the floor” reads, “TODAY ONLY / ADOPT A PET!” Malorie does.

The investment of so much care in such seemingly insignificant creatures as small birds, under the circumstances, is a stretch of the imagination—unless viewed within the context of the film’s central theme about risking love in a dangerous world. It’s a world in which loving someone—a child, a sibling, a spouse, even a pet—all but guarantees the pain of loss.

The thematic significance of the film’s central image of blindness/seeing goes back at least as far as the ancient Greek dramatist Sophocles, and much chatter by viewers (not to mention the viral memes) about Bird Box centers on interpretations of just what kind of moral, personal, or social “blindness” the film suggests.

Echoes of Genesis

However, it’s the more subtle archetypal symbols that increase the film’s interest for me (spoilers below). The safety Malorie seeks for herself and the children is found in a boat, a type of ark. At a critical moment, Malorie faces a kind of Sophie’s Choice between one life or another—and refuses to choose. Immediately afterward, the boat capsizes, and the trio’s journey on the boat ends. She and the children are immersed the river’s waters in a kind of baptism before undertaking the last steps in their pilgrimage. Like Christian’s journey in Pilgrim’s Progress, they must resist the pull of voices that would lure them away from their destination. They must resist the temptation to take off the blindfold, opting instead to (literally) “walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7).

In a reverse Genesis narrative, Bird Box ends with an entrance into, rather than an expulsion from, a kind of Eden. Unlike Adam and Eve, who were ejected from Eden for their insistence on knowing, Malorie enters not by knowing, but by trusting. This is a paradise not incorruptible like the new heaven and the new earth, but one that is lush, flourishing, full of love, and a shelter from the unseen evil terrorizing the outside world. It is a place where birds beckon and warn by song, fly free, and play upon a canopy of trees, recalling a story told earlier in the film to the children, a story of hope Malorie refused to hear because she was afraid to hope. She so lacked in hope, in fact, that she refused to name the children. Reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy’s unnamed “boy” protagonist in his apocalyptic novel The Road, the children in Bird Box are simply called “boy” and “girl.”

In a reverse Genesis narrative, Bird Box ends with an entrance into, rather than an expulsion from, a kind of Eden.

But when Malorie arrives at an Edenic garden hidden away, she finds hope. Startlingly, delightfully, the refuge is populated by those who have what in the pre-apocalyptic world would be considered a disability but is, ironically, lifesaving. In their weakness is their strength. All along—until that pivotal point earlier in the boat—Malorie has believed her power lie in her invulnerability to both external evil and internal emotion. At last, she gives up her resistance to risky love and, like Adam in that first Eden, gives the children names, declaring to the others—but mostly herself—“I am their mother.”

3D Glasses for the Heart

Wed, 01/09/2019 - 12:04am

“What God has in store for us, what God has already given us in Christ, is mind-boggling in scope and beautiful in its contours, but we do need to be wearing the proper eyewear to see it.” — Jonathan Griffiths

Text: Ephesians 1:15–23

Preached: September 30, 2018

Location: The Metropolitan Bible Church, Ottawa, Ontario

You can listen to this episode of TGC Word of the Week here.

Related:

How to Brave the Wild Technological Future

Wed, 01/09/2019 - 12:03am

We live in a technology-saturated world, full of wonder and amazement about what will be developed next and how it will influence our lives. The rate of technological innovation is faster than ever, and it often feels like we’re just getting started. How should we respond to this whirlwind of change?

In his recent book, Braving the Future: Christian Faith in a World of Limitless Tech, Douglas Estes helps Christians navigate these challenges by providing a theological and philosophical approach to technology. The main thrust of his argument is that technology is a tool Christians must learn to wield with wisdom. We need to develop a rich theology as we move into the new technological frontiers of virtual reality, autonomous machines, gene editing, artificial intelligence (AI), robots, nanotechnology, and cybernetics.

Estes is an associate professor of New Testament and practical theology at South University in Columbia, South Carolina, a regular contributor to Christianity Today’s science channel, and the editor of Didaktikos, a journal for theological education. He is also a self-proclaimed tech optimist who believes that technology, when used properly, will improve our lives and lead to greater flourishing for our neighbors.

Theological Approach to Technology

Estes approaches technology as a tool, not an active agent that has the power to form culture, mold human choice, and shape the future (39–40). Using this instrumentalist view, Estes shows how Christian theology provides a coherent worldview to navigate emerging technologies.

He does the reader a great service by explaining the often misunderstood concepts of materialism, pragmatism, humanism, and transhumanism in an accessible way using movies and stories to illustrate. Each chapter focuses on a single piece of technology, but his application often overlaps as he applies the doctrines of redemption, aseity, omnipotence, and omniscience to each.

He also wisely points out that we should pursue technological development with thought to the consequences (77–78). We must evaluate how these technologies might be used in sinful and dehumanizing ways. While we won’t be able to account for all possible uses, we need to make wise judgments for the wellbeing of others. We’re responsible for how we use technology, and we need to use it to love God and our neighbors.

Modest Critique

While there’s much to commend in this book, there are also some areas of concern.

Estes spends a good chunk of time on the controversial idea of the singularity. The singularity is a theory that artificial intelligence might become conscious or self-aware. Estes describes the singularity as “a possible event in the near future in which the power of technology approaches the infinite” (101). In theory, this general intelligence could become so powerful at such a rapid pace that it would take over our world and relegate humans to the dustbin of history. It’s still being debated whether the singularity is even possible.

Estes’s focus on the singularity overshadows the real concerns and moral implications that technological innovations, like artificial intelligence, already pose in society. Discussions about AI shouldn’t be relegated to future theoretical debates; it’s a topic Christians must engage now, because AI already can be used for good or evil. From advanced prosthetics enabling amputees to walk and the Uber that picks you up for work to controversial drone warfare techniques and even implicit racism found in automated home loan applications, AI is already disrupting our society. Christians offer our neighbors a framework to engage these technologies based in the image of God and human dignity.

If we wait until the singularity to honestly engage these topics, it will be too late. While Estes engages some of the current controversies surrounding artificial intelligence and emerging technology, the future-oriented nature of the book can give the false impression that the truly revolutionary technology is yet to come, instead of recognizing that it’s already sitting in your hand as you read this review.

Dangerous Conclusion

Near the end of his work Estes describes a future in which human beings have become so connected to technology that we will fundamentally become less human. The language of “becoming less human” is interesting because Estes spends so much time providing a rich theological vision for technology and how we engage it. In an ironic twist, he seems to betray he own assertion that human beings are created uniquely by God and that our fundamental identity is being made in the likeness of God.

He describes this concept of “becoming less human” in his last chapter:

The more we use technology, and commit to technology, the more it makes us a little less human. By the time that we reach the singularity, we will have consigned our bodies to a synthetic biology that literally changes who we are, from the outside in. We will look different, we will take in information differently, we will think differently. If it goes far enough, we will barely be human. (195)

This passage took me by surprise, but it could be that he is describing our adoption of technology in a way that will shock the conscience into action. Regardless of intent, the assertion is false. No matter how advanced our technologies become, they will never be able to make us less human, because they aren’t able to change what God has created us to be, nor what he proclaims about our identity found in him. Being truly human is to exhibit the defining characteristics given by God in creation and to use our rational minds to create technology that enhances our lives, loves our neighbors, and glorifies God.

Overall, Estes has assembled a helpful framework for Christians to navigate our technologically rich culture, which he underpins with a theologically robust foundation. There are few Christians engaging the debate surrounding technology, especially with artificial intelligence. But while there is much to commend in this work, the vision cast for what technology is doing to us as individuals is a dangerous line of argument that easily devolves into portraying us as advanced machines rather than divine image bearers. We might try to merge with the machines, download our brains to synthetic bodies, or reach the singularity, but nothing will change how we’ve been created and the irreducible dignity that comes from being made in the imago dei.

American Psychological Association Claims ‘Traditional Masculinity’ Is ‘Psychologically Harmful’

Wed, 01/09/2019 - 12:02am

The Story: An influential psychological organization claims that “traditional masculinity” can be psychologically harmful. But in criticizing masculinity they reveal the danger of androgyny.

The Background: The American Psychological Association (APA) is the largest professional and scientific organization of psychologists in the United States. The APA possesses a significant influence over the field of psychology through such actions as accrediting college degree programs, overseeing more than 70 professional journals, and hosting professional conferences and meetings. Another way APA wields influence is by providing resources for continuing education (CE).

Licensed psychologists are required by their state licensing boards to meet annual mandatory CE requirements, which can often be met by using APA’s resources, such as “CE Corner.” For example, to earn CE credit a psychologist can read an article, complete an online learning exercise, and then take a CE test.

In the most recent CE Corner, one of the “learning objectives” states, “After reading this article, CE candidates will be able to: Discuss the research that suggests that aspects of ‘traditional masculinity’ can be ‘psychologically harmful.’” As the article notes, “The main thrust of the subsequent research is that traditional masculinity—marked by stoicism, competitiveness, dominance, and aggression—is, on the whole, harmful.”

APA’s new Guidelines for Psychological Practice With Boys and Men strive to recognize and address these problems in boys and men while remaining sensitive to the field’s androcentric past. Thirteen years in the making, they draw on more than 40 years of research showing that traditional masculinity is psychologically harmful and that socializing boys to suppress their emotions causes damage that echoes both inwardly and outwardly.

[. . . ]

Gender and sexual minorities, too, must grapple with societal views of masculinity. This is an ever-shifting territory. When Levant and Rabinowitz launched the guideline-drafting process in 2005, only Massachusetts recognized same-sex marriage. Today, transgender issues are at the forefront of the cultural conversation, and there is increased awareness of the diversity of gender identity.

“What is gender in the 2010s?” asks Ryon McDermott, PhD, a psychologist at the University of South Alabama who also helped draft the men’s guidelines. “It’s no longer just this male-female binary.”

The APA’s Guidelines for Psychological Practice With Boys and Men, released last August, says, “The present document articulates guidelines that enhance gender- and culture-sensitive psychological practice with boys and men from diverse backgrounds in the United States.” However, by “boys and men,” they are referring to gender identification, and not to anything rooted in biology. As the document clarifies, “These guidelines address conflict that cisgender, transgender, and gender-nonconforming individuals may experience due to societal expectations regarding gender roles.”

Why It Matters: The APA article has rightly drawn criticism for its pathologizing of “traditional masculinity” (see, for example, David French and Rod Dreher). While this is certainly a valid objection, it can lead us to miss the underlying trend the APA is promoting. In focusing solely on the anti-masculine propaganda we may miss the even more pernicious pro-androgyny agenda.

Androgyny often refers to a manner of presentation that mixes masculine and feminine characteristics. Outwardly, this often results in a more gender-neutral appearance. When we think of androgyny today we often associate it with a “unisex” look, made famous by David Bowie in his Ziggy Stardust phase. But androgyny is more than mere fashion. It’s a mixing of characteristics in a way that almost always privileges men.

Two years ago, in writing about how transgenderism is about redefining reality, I said:

Those who accept the idea that we can ignore biological sex for the mental construct of “gender identity” are endorsing metaphysical subjectivism, the view that “our own mental activity is the only unquestionable fact of our experience.” They are not only disagreeing with those of us who believe reality is created by God, but are attempting to make metaphysical subjectivism the standard that trumps all others in determining norms and ethics.

An inevitable result of metaphysical subjectivism is the domination of the strong by the weak and vulnerable.

Androgyny gives the appearance of promoting equality and egalitarianism between the sexes. What is really does, though, is to provide men with numerous advantages associated with being female while allowing them to reject any obligations of being a biological male. For example, the “traditional masculine” perspective holds that because of differences in physiology (e.g., men tend to be physically stronger than women because we have, on average, more total muscle mass) men have certain obligations of behavior (e.g., “Never hit a woman.”).

But the androgyny of transgenderism, rooted in metaphysical subjectivism, says that since what really matters is our mental activity we can reject biological reality. This allows men to retain their physical advantages in competing against women—even if it leaves women bloodied and broken. It’s why we find “trans women” (i.e., biological men pretending to be women) beating up women in mixed-martial arts (MMA) fights yet never see “trans men” (i.e., biological women pretending to be men) fighting against biological men.

We miss the point if we think the objection to “traditional masculinity” by the APA and others is simply about making men more feminine. The indoctrination efforts are also attempts to allow men to reject normative standards of behavior. By co-opting aspects of femininity, androgynous men are able to shirk their “traditional” responsibilities as men. Because these responsibilities were often put in place to protect women, discarding all aspects of traditional masculinity ultimately harms women. As Brian Attebery observes, “To critics of the androgynous vision, the integration of masculine and feminine into a single self is another, sneakier way to eliminate the feminine.”

An astute observer of this phenomenon is Camille Paglia. She is an academic who has been studying androgyny for decades. Although she identifies as transgender she says she’s “skeptical about the current transgender wave.” Several years ago she claimed that the explosion of gender identities is a recurring sign of cultural collapse throughout the history of civilization:

The movement toward androgyny occurs in late phases of culture, as a civilization starts to unravel. We find this again and again throughout history. . . The people who live in such periods, the late phase of culture—whether it’s the Hellenistic era or whether it’s the Roman Empire or the “mauve decade” of Oscar Wilde in the 1890s or Weimar Germany—people who live in such times feel they are very sophisticated, very cosmopolitan. Homosexuality, heterosexuality, so what, anything goes. From a distance, though, you can see it’s a culture that no longer believes in itself.

We don’t need much distance to see the post-Christian culture of the West “no longer believes in itself.” What we need is a plan to counter our androgynous future by showing the world that beauty is found in the binary gender design as male and female (Gen 1:26–28). What we need is a renewed commitment to showing all men and women that their only hope in life and death can be found in our Savior Jesus Christ (Rom. 15:13).

6 Needed Shifts for Reaching the Next Generation

Wed, 01/09/2019 - 12:00am

My friend Danny prides himself on being spiritual but not religious, environmentally caring, generally loving, and suspicious of all organized religion, especially evangelical Christianity. My team of campus ministers first met him playing pickup basketball. While he was quick to express he was not interested in a relationship with Jesus, he continued to be intrigued by and drawn into our Christian community.

True to his central belief of tolerance, Danny was always open to spiritual conversations. We sat down one morning so I could share with him the central story of Christianity. Remembering that I had moved from the Bible Belt to a much different culture, I didn’t start by jumping into the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. Instead, I attempted a cursory yet comprehensive metanarrative approach. Beginning with the creation of Adam and Eve, we then moved toward the fall and redemption.

Lost in Translation

After 20 minutes of what I felt was the most brilliant and relevant gospel presentation I’d ever shared, he interrupted me: “I think I’m understanding what you’re getting at.” I nodded with great pride at my astuteness and cultural savvy. Then, he continued. “I just have one question: Who the hell is Adam? You keep talking about Adam. Is he one of campus ministry people I haven’t met yet?”

Danny had never set foot in a church. Yet I made the mistake of assuming he knew about Adam and Eve, at least from a childhood story. I might as well have been talking about John Quincy Adams.

I wish this were an isolated incident. But over and over, my team is ministering to an audience completely unprepared to hear the gospel.

New Approaches

After scores of similar conversations with unprepared audiences, our team has been shifting its approach to evangelism. By no means are we proposing that we shift away from clear biblical teaching on important truths such as our legal guilt before God. We are merely saying that shifting intuitions may require new starting places in evangelistic conversations and discipleship relationships. Here are six shifts we believe are critical to meaningfully engage the next generation.

1. Move from the assumption that your audience is biblically literate.

This shift isn’t only for the pastorate and the pulpit, but for all believers seeking meaningful, intentional relationships with those outside the faith. At least on the West Coast, the days have long past when one could start talking about Jesus and assume people knew his identity and claims.

The apostle Paul, who was quick to jump into the message of Jesus with Jewish audiences, shifted his approach when speaking to the unprepared Athenians (see Acts 17). Unlike his typical messages laden with Old Testament references and Jewish assumptions, he was patient, contemplative, and slow with unprepared audiences.

2. Move to a developmental approach to ministry.

Ministering to younger generations demands that we disciple the whole person for all of life. In the past, much discipleship started in the spiritual realm. But upcoming generations need mentoring that helps to press Christianity into practical areas like finances, relationships, faith and work, and countless others.

One realm for development is evangelism. As Paul discipled those in his apostolic band, he sought to develop them as the evangelists of coming generations. Paul, a naturally gifted evangelist, didn’t expect everyone to be as gifted or fruitful as he was; nevertheless, he exhorted his young disciple Timothy to “do the work of evangelist” (2 Tim. 4:5). Thinking developmentally doesn’t bifurcate your ministry to insiders and outsiders; it brings them together.

3. Move to a dialogue-oriented form of discipleship.

How many of you disciple your children by preparing a speech, bringing them into the room once a week, delivering it eloquently in three points, then telling them to go and do likewise? It’s not that teaching ministry isn’t significant in discipling. The preached Word is essential in making disciples. But younger generations (and often the older as well) also crave honest, relational dialogue. True and lasting change happens through Spirit-enabled teaching and relationships.

4. Move from apologetics to hospitality.

God’s Word is timeless. We ought to always be prepared to give a defense for the hope within us (1 Pet. 3:15). Yet we won’t have much of an audience if we don’t regularly practice intentional hospitality toward those outside the faith. You must establish a safe and secure space for gospel conversations. Hospitality and making space in your schedule (and home) for those different from you opens the door for deeper friendship and deeper dialogue.

If you’re serious about reaching the outsider, you might consider committing to two significant events each week: Sunday morning worship around the cross at church, and Friday night friendships around a meal in your home. This might best be done with a team of like-minded believers. For more on this, see Rosaria Butterfield’s book The Gospel Comes with A House Key.

5. Move to emphasize shame before guilt.

A staff member recently told me, “Whenever I talk about people’s sin issues, they get a glazed-over look in their eyes, yet when I talk about what I’m learning in regard to shame, people lean in and want to know more.” Guilt says, “You did something bad.” Shame says, “You are bad.”

Because younger generations have grown up in a culture largely devoid of absolute truth, guilt-based conversations as an entry into their lives don’t tend to get you in the front door. But even though they don’t know or agree with the absolute truths we assume, their souls are sick and separated from God. They feel this deeply as shame, even when they don’t connect the dots to guilt. We certainly don’t deny guilt and must teach it as Scripture does, but try shifting the emphasis to shame as an entry point. Teaching on guilt may need to come later.

6. Move to winsome boldness.

Our culture is growing in antagonism toward the gospel, and many Christians have become fearful and timid in their evangelism. Yet Paul, amid far greater opposition, sought to stir the hearts of next-generation church leaders to witness courageously. He asked boldness of timid Timothy—not borne of personality or confidence in his own giftedness, but grounded in God and his invincible gospel (2 Tim. 1:7; cf. Rom. 1:16).

In a culture that panders to public opinion, may we boldly and winsomely proclaim the bad news that leads us to the greatest news in the history of the world.

The Biggest Misconceptions About Evangelism

Tue, 01/08/2019 - 12:04am

Becky Pippert has traveled all over the world to talk about evangelism. She’s been surprised to find that, in every part of the world, the misconceptions people have about evangelism are always the same. Pippert, Gloria Furman, and Shar Walker (contributors to the new book Joyfully Spreading the Word) sat down to discuss misconceptions—and the truth—about evangelism.

Most commonly, people say they can’t evangelize because they feel inadequate. They think they don’t know enough or won’t be able to answer hard questions. Pippert dispels fears of inadequacy by pointing out that none of us is adequate to bring someone else to faith: “Recognizing our inadequacy is the first step to really being effective in witness.”

Some think that only a select few or only those “in ministry” have the gift of evangelism. But all of us are called to share the good news of salvation. Furman remarks, “A lot of our misconceptions could be addressed just by looking at what the Bible says about what evangelism actually is, and by looking at our Savior to see how he did it.”

You can listen to the episode here or watch the video.

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Why Did Jesus Sleep During the Storm?

Tue, 01/08/2019 - 12:03am

The story of the sea storm in the Gospel of Mark picks up right after Jesus has given a series of sermons. He’s preached to a crowd so large that he had to speak from a boat pushed a short distance into the water.

Mark 4:35–41 tells the story of Jesus calming the storm—but, curiously, we find the Lord asleep as the chaos breaks out around him:

And a great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion. And they woke him and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” And he awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. (Mark 4:37–39)

Why was Jesus asleep in the boat?

There are a few possible explanations. Mark, as well as most of the other biblical authors, is spare with his details—including only those elements necessary to the author’s agenda—so we could assume it’s a salient element to the story. There are three possibilities.

1. A Link to Jonah

Perhaps Mark tells us Jesus is sleeping in order to link the account to Jonah. The story of Jonah shares similar elements and language (in its Greek translation) to the one in Mark 4, which suggests Mark is evoking the story. One is the idea of the main character sleeping in the bottom of the boat during the storm, though the language used to describe Jonah is more vivid and possibly pejorative.

2. A Clue about Jesus’s Humanity

Jesus is fully human: He works hard, does much public speaking, and deals with many different people, all of whom want something from him. Given the strains ordinary ministers experience in their daily work, the fully human Jesus must have suffered from exhaustion during his earthly ministry.

3. A Clue about Jesus’s Divinity

Though Jesus is a human, he also has full confidence in his divine identity. As only the second person of the Trinity can, Jesus sleeps like a baby amid the chaos, secure in the realization that he is one with the Creator, and his time has not come. His sleep signals divine insight: Jesus knows he’s not going to die tonight.

Of course, all three of these explanations are possible at the same time, because human language in the hands of a skilled author can convey multiple complex ideas at once.

Why These Three Options?

Surely, the sleeping Jesus is supposed to make you think about Jonah’s story (the first option), where a suspicious storm develops and is quieted by God and all the witnesses are left terrified. Remember when the sailors cast lots, asking, “Who has brought this storm on us?” The lot falls on Jonah. They begrudgingly throw the prophet overboard, and the storm immediately dissipates. The emphasis is on who calms the storm. The Lord, Creator of heaven and earth, stills it, and the sailors know they have just witnessed God’s hand and his complete authority over the forces of creation. In Jonah 1:16, “the men feared the LORD exceedingly.” The Greek translation of this passage emphasizes the great fear the sailors experience when they see God’s power on display. It’s even greater than their fear of the storm (1:5). It’s fear-inducing to know that the cosmic God who calms the storm also cares about the rebellion of a single man.

In Mark, Jesus also sleeps. The disciples wake him for fear of their lives (as in Jonah, the sleeper is roused with a rhetorical question), and the wind and waves are calmed. Mark seems to be drawing our attention to the agent who calms the storm. In Jonah, the agent is the Lord, but in Mark 4 it is Jesus. Jesus is to the storm in Mark 4 what God is to the wind and waves in Jonah 1.

Jesus is to the storm in Mark 4 what God is to the wind and waves in Jonah 1.

And as if to drive the point home, the disciples who bear witness to all of this are described in virtually the same phraseology used in the Greek translation of Jonah. They are “exceedingly afraid” (Mark 4:41).  The storm was terrifying, but this prophet in the boat with the power to speak truth to the weather presents an entirely new source of fear. The authority of God inspires such fear in those who see it firsthand.

But the second option works as well. Jesus’s sleep in the boat is a reminder of his humanity. It’s a fascinating idea that there were regular moments when the God-man, the Lord of the universe, may have laid down and pondered some random thoughts before sleep overtook him. As a human, he could grow tired, even to a point of exhaustion. So he gets in the boat and lies back like a business traveler on a red-eye flight, trying to fit in sleep wherever he can. Mark’s audience could readily identify with Jesus’s humanity.

The third option is also compelling. Just the fact that Jesus sleeps is a clue to his divinity. How? Jesus didn’t fear the wind and waves or anything they could do to him. The Creator need not be restless in the face of a dangerous creation. When Jonah secretly sleeps below the decks, he does so in a spirit of fatalism and dread. When Jesus sleeps in the hull of the boat, he does so in confidence. He doesn’t lose sleep on account of weather patterns.

Jesus is more than a teacher; he’s a miracle-worker. Once the reader absorbs that point, Mark ups the ante.

Jesus is more than a teacher and more than a miracle-worker. He has the authority of the Creator himself.

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