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I Want Jesus to Be My Treasure — Is the Wanting Enough?

Tue, 04/23/2019 - 9:02pm

Our satisfaction in God will be in measure, not in fullness, until the day we see him face-to-face.

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To the World Through New England: Why John Piper Will Not Forget 1992

Tue, 04/23/2019 - 8:02pm

Forty-five miles west of Boston, a quintessential New England town of fewer than five thousand sits tucked away in the sloping valleys of Worcester County. In 1992, John Piper ventured from the Upper Midwest to Bolton, Massachusetts, to deliver three messages in a series called “Justification and the Joy of God.”

This small, relatively unknown conference in a picturesque church may have seemed like an ordinary speaking engagement, but what Piper did not anticipate was how his trek from the City of Lakes to Beantown would impact the course of his life and ministry. For a brief time, this series of messages echoed only as long as the halls of Trinity Congregational Church would carry Piper’s voice. But in God’s providence, a mundane moment at that conference, tucked inauspiciously between sessions, would help to produce a megaphone for Piper’s mouth, allowing his voice to reverberate for decades to come.

In these three messages, now available for the first time online, Piper lays out his theology of justification. He begins with the ultimate ground, God’s drive for the fame of his own name; moves to the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ by which God declares us righteous; and finishes with the instrument of justification, faith alone — being satisfied with all that God is for us in Jesus.

God at the Bottom of It All

According to one recent survey, a mere 23 percent of American adults believe that “even the smallest sin deserves eternal damnation.” Not only does this pop-theology opinion ignore pivotal texts like Romans 3:23, but it dramatically alters how we think about being right with God. Piper points out in his first message that how we view our fundamental problem really matters.

If you start with man at the center with the natural tendencies of the human heart to assert its rights and wants, you will assess the biblical teaching of justification very differently than if you start with God and with his goal to manifest all that he is, so that he might be known and worshiped with a reverence and awe and joy that correspond to all that he really is in perfect proportion.

Hope for Every Sinner

If God gives us eyes to see that not a single one of us could stand before him on our own merit (Psalm 130:3), and none could “endure the heat of his anger” (Nahum 1:6), then we can begin to understand the gravity of God’s laying on Jesus the weight of our own iniquity (Isaiah 53:6). In the second message, Piper asks,

Who of us ever comes to the end of a day and says, “With all of my strength, and all of my soul, and all of my heart, I have loved God fully today?” Therefore, we are the opposite of Jesus, but God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world, and ordained a magnificent exchange for his people. Christ would be sin, and we would be righteousness.

Saving Faith Sanctifies

This marvelous transaction of Christ’s own righteousness for our unrighteousness only applies to those who put their trust in Jesus — who confess with their mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in their heart that God raised him from the dead (Romans 10:9). But why does God require faith?

Piper’s answer is twofold. First, “faith, by its nature, draws attention away from we who are needy and focuses all attention on God who is rich and gracious and strong and wise.” Second, faith satisfies the one who trusts. Understanding faith as being satisfied in God clarifies how justification and sanctification relate.

If sin cannot persuade you that it is more satisfying than God, you won’t do it. Nobody sins out of duty. Sin only happens in your life because you think it will make you happier. If faith is a resting in and a being satisfied with God, the nerve is cut of sin. Therefore, justifying faith sanctifies.

Three Decades Later

When Piper preached these three messages on justification and its effects, what he did not know was that a man named Moe Bergeron had journeyed from a nearby town to sit in the hardwood pews to hear one of his favorite preachers. At the time, John Piper was a largely unknown 46-year-old urban pastor in a distant Minnesota. In between messages, Moe found his way to the young preacher, and without having to wait in a line of greeters asked, “Do you keep your messages stored on a computer?”

While the messages Piper delivered at the Bolton Conference are only just now making their debut online, the impact of that providential meeting between a preacher and a web pioneer has reverberated throughout the world for almost thirty years. Sometime after the conference in New England, Moe received a package from Minneapolis. That box contained floppy disks with text files of John Piper’s sermon manuscripts. Those sermons would eventually make their way to a website called Piper’s Notes as a forerunning free-of-charge impulse of what one day would produce

Nearly three decades after that conference in Bolton, Massachusetts, God has blessed Piper’s preaching ministry and touched countless lives with his Christian Hedonistic vision of God, his word, and all of life. In 2018 alone, Piper’s sermons received almost 30 million plays, from nearly every country in the world.

In 1992, at a small conference in a quaint New England town, John Piper had no clue that God would multiply such blessings on his ministry. But Piper did know that God “is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think” (Ephesians 3:20). He did know that the same God who leads us in paths of righteousness for his own name’s sake (Psalms 23:3), and the same God who will one day receive worship and honor from every nation (Psalm 86:9), would take pleasure in answering us as we pray with Jesus, “Father, glorify your name” (John 12:28).

A City Under a Hill: Five Problems with Insider Movements

Tue, 04/23/2019 - 11:02am

Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists. Planting churches among the world’s remaining unreached peoples will mean engaging seriously in larger socio-cultural contexts permeated by one of these three major systems of belief and practice.

From a human perspective, such traditional and cohesive societies, with their deeply embedded and communal identity from another religion, pose a host of difficult questions about what it means for Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists in such contexts to become faithful, mature Christians who themselves are evangelistic and discipling others.

Birth of Insiders

Rebecca Lewis has offered perhaps the most commonly used and recognized definition for an approach to pioneer missions that aims to instigate “insider movements” to Christ among such populations. She says,

An “insider movement” is any movement to faith in Christ where (a) the gospel flows through pre-existing communities and social networks and where (b) believing families, as valid expressions of the Body of Christ, remain inside their socio-religious communities, retaining their identity as members of that community while living under the Lordship of Jesus Christ and the authority of the Bible. (“Promoting Movements to Christ Within Natural Communities”)

Kevin Higgins, another proponent of insider movements, defines them as

A growing number of families, individuals, clans, and/or friendship-webs becoming faithful disciples of Jesus within the culture of their people group, including their religious culture. This faithful discipleship will express itself in culturally appropriate communities of believers who will also continue to live within as much of their culture, including the religious life of the culture, as is biblically faithful. The Holy Spirit, through the Word and through His people will also begin to transform His people and their culture, religious life and worldview.

To be clear, such an approach emphasizes that those who want to follow Jesus can do so without leaving the previous, native “socio-religious” identity and community into which they were born. They don’t have to change their religion, so goes the argument (which appears a few times even in the much loved Perspectives Reader); just start “following Jesus.”

In fact, Lewis recently has argued that to require a change of religious identity in order to follow Christ is to commit the Judaizing heresy rejected by Paul in his letter to the Galatian church. For her, insider movements (IM) are not optional. They are what biblical contextualization looks like. (Other passages of Scripture that commonly serve as proof texts for IM are 2 Kings 5:15–19; John 4:1–44; Acts 15:1–21; 1 Corinthians 7:17–24; 9:19–22;.)

In Higgins’s definition above can be discerned the aim for a non-Christian religion to be eventually transformed from the inside out into something biblical and God-honoring. Fulfillment theology, the idea that Jesus can be presented to unbelievers, followed by converts, and worshiped as the fulfilment of a particular non-Christian religion that he gradually reshapes, has been around for at least a hundred years (for instance, J.N. Farquhar’s The Crown of Hinduism, 1913). The appearance of more accessible books promoting insider movements is now slowly starting to catch up with twenty years or so of experimental missionary practice and academic publishing in journals. It’s likely that more and more missions-interested church members and Christian young people will be reading or hearing about it.

When the Gospel Hides

Proponents and practitioners of the IM strategy have developed a multi-faceted argument which includes appeals to Scripture, sociology, and Islamic studies (besides articles by Lewis and Higgins is the book Understanding Insider Movements, edited by Harley Talman and John Travis). In fact, because this approach is paradigmatically different from historic, biblical Christian church planting endeavors, it is perhaps more fitting to name such a thorough reconstruction as a full-blown ideology rather than a mere strategy. Ideologies are mental fortresses that won’t be overturned by the rational rebuttal of merely one facet or point. So, a multi-faceted response is warranted.

The range of voices responding well to IM is wide and growing. Missionaries and theologians from Presbyterian, Methodist, Brethren, Assemblies of God, and Southern Baptist circles have sounded the alarm and are proffering their critiques. IM is, admittedly, a minority view and practice. But it is something that leaders in churches and missions agencies should proactively engage and prepare their people to think about correctly.

What follows is an attempt to systematically and succinctly address the dangerous IM ideology. I argue that the insider-movement approach to missions is inherently wrong for the following five reasons (that make up the acronym H.I.D.E.S.).

1. Hermeneutics

IM is predicated on the misguided idea that faith in Jesus as Lord of one’s life can “complete” and be the apex of any religious tradition or religious identity. Jesus is the Yes and Amen to God’s promises in the Hebrew Scriptures particularly (2 Corinthians 1:20); he is the point of the Old Testament law, writings, and prophets, uniquely fulfilling Old Testament Judaism (Luke 24:44–45) and bringing the Jewish religious identity to terminus (Romans 10:4) by affiliation with Christ and his multi-cultural church, the “one new man” (Ephesians 2:14–17).

It is fallacious logic, and contrary to the teaching of Scripture, to claim that because Gentiles in the New Testament weren’t required to become Jews in order to follow Jesus, Muslims today don’t need to reject Islam and become “Christians” to follow Jesus. This, however, is an argument commonly made by IM proponents.

The refrain “one doesn’t need to change his or her religion; just start following Jesus” is misguided. That is true regarding conversion but not regarding biblical discipleship. That refrain is a product of the still largely nominal Christian context of many Western societies where believers sometimes, with good intent, simplistically posit that genuine Christian faith “isn’t about religion but relationship.” But that’s a false dichotomy. Muslims who believe “Christian” means Western need an explanation of the difference between true and false Christian faith. IM can be a tragic capitulation to the Islamic misperception of what it means to be a “Christian.”

2. Integrity and Identity

Core Islamic doctrine explicitly denies biblical doctrines that are central, and essential, to Christian faith. True faith in the Jesus of the Bible cannot be posited as fulfilling a religion that indoctrinates adherents in the assertions that Jesus was only a prophet and not “the Son of God”; that it’s blasphemy to say, “God is three”; that Jesus didn’t die for our sins, or rise from the dead, for our justification; and that God doesn’t make covenants by which a person can find eternal security and assurance of God’s mercy, redemption, and eternal life in glory.

Anecdotal evidence posits that some Muslims who eventually realized the biblical beliefs of “insiders” felt those “followers of Jesus” who remained in the mosque had been deceiving the rest of the mosque community by still calling themselves Muslim and saying Islamic prayers. While recognizing a great diversity among Muslims in belief and practice, we should reject the IM proposal to redefine and maintain Islamic identity based on the erroneous refutation of “essentialism” regarding Islam (meaning, there really is no singular essence of what Islam is and ought to be according to Muslims themselves, and therefore it can be defined as anything, including a socio-religious shell to house orthodox Christian beliefs).

3. Discipleship

The IM approach stunts Christian discipleship and spiritual growth. Studies have shown (for example, as early as Phil Parshall in 1998 and as recently as Jan Prenger in 2017) that insiders, who remain steeped in Islamic teaching and habits that reinforce it, often continue thinking that Muhammad was a prophet, Jesus wasn’t God, and the Quran is God’s revelation, a holy book, even on par with the Bible. Our Great Commission is to disciple the nations, teaching them to obey all that Jesus commanded. This includes faithful participation in a fellowship with other brothers and sisters in the Lord, a “church” (or “gathering,” or “large-group meeting,” or “family time,” or whatever one may want to call it).

New believers should form congregations that strive to be faithful to the New Testament patterns of being a church, who prioritize loving relationships with one another in Christ, and who are growing in their understanding of the “good deposit” (2 Timothy 1:14) as they are shepherded and taught by gifted and godly elders. Missionaries must steward the Scriptures, and the great salvation revealed therein, by communicating robustly and equipping converts to interpret, understand, and teach the Bible correctly themselves.

4. Ecclesiology

One’s identification with Christ should entail identification with all of Christ’s people in the world today and throughout time. That is more fundamental, ultimate, and significant than ethnic, cultural, linguistic, family, or local identity (Galatians 3:28). Despite what some IM proponents claim, “churches” do not exist as natural social networks in a place before the gospel enters. Churches are not natural social networks just waiting for the gospel to be added to them. The New Testament pattern is that local congregations emerge as new aggregate fellowships comprised of converts who join with one another from various backgrounds and pre-conversion networks.

The universal church, comprised of Jew and Gentile — and, one day, some believers from “every tribe and tongue” — is together a new race, as it were (the term “new race” has been used throughout church history by theologians to describe the “one new man,” Ephesians 2:14, comprised of both Jewish and Gentile background believers). Following Jesus cannot faithfully be cast as something thoroughly “indigenous” and local but as the joining of a global and diverse new family that includes even U.S. American and Israeli believers (which would be, understandably, a difficult reality for Muslim persons to naturally embrace). IM is a “hyper-local” approach to discipleship and contextualization in a world that is increasingly globalized and interconnected.

5. Soils and Strategy

Though admittedly difficult in many contexts, religious identity and ethno-cultural identity can and should indeed be differentiated. The former must be given up for Jesus and the church. We should reject the conflation of social and religious identity. The hard work of contextualization entails rejecting, maintaining, and repurposing specific aspects of one’s culture, perhaps including certain religious practices, for the sake of serving biblical ends and without compromising biblical meaning. That said, IM should not be considered “C–5” on the contextualization spectrum. One can be C–5 without being IM (the propriety of the C–5 approach in general is another matter). Labelling IM as “C–5” to supposedly provide it safe cover as controversial but merely “high contextualization” is dubious.

We should object to the framing of IM as the antidote to “extractionism” as a supposed way of doing missions. That argument for IM posits a false dichotomy and the use of a strawman. A significant proportion of Western, Protestant missionaries for generations have pursued indigenous expressions of Christian faith to one degree or another.

Some soils may be extremely rocky, dry, and difficult for gospel seed and Christian identity. That is no legitimization for pursuing the IM approach. Missionaries should indeed counsel and coach both seekers and converts to remain in their families, villages, and other social circles for the sake of their faithful gospel witness to others. But hostilities against them for their new faith, and other factors, may mean that a convert wants or needs to remove themselves to another location and situation. This is not necessarily wrong or a failure of missions.

Decisions should be prayerfully made on a case-by-case basis. We should not allow the missionary goal of a “movement” to Christ among any people group to subvert and contradict what is best for individual converts, sacrificing his or her spiritual growth — and perhaps their physical safety — for the sake of a misguided, over-reaching but underachieving strategy.

Light for All Peoples

Do you know what the agencies you (and your church) support are teaching their “workers” as valid options for disciple-making strategies in frontier missions? To remain faithful to the Great Commission as missionary-sending churches and individuals, let us not be complicit in supporting the IM ideology and its counter-productive practices.

Though proponents and practitioners of it doubtless have good intentions, the Insider Movement actually hides under the bushel of errant missiology the Christ-light of vibrant faith and the Spirit-fructified life of newly planted, healthy churches pursuing together all that Jesus commanded (Matthew 5:15; Philippians 2:15).

Philippians 3:7–10: Suffering Can Be an Answer to Prayer

Mon, 04/22/2019 - 9:02pm

Christian, God is working in your suffering. He is working Christlikeness, working trust, working to draw you closer to himself.

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End Your War Against Weakness

Mon, 04/22/2019 - 8:02pm

For a few weeks during my freshman year of college, I was a man at war.

You could find me in the campus library, hunched over a book, my fingers furiously scanning the page. Never had anyone consumed Victorian literature and oceanography textbooks so quickly, so intensely. Nor, perhaps, had anyone retained so little.

The path was well-worn. As with so many other students of merely average reading abilities, I was working to master the art of speed. And, along with the majority, my reading legs eventually couldn’t handle the sprint, and I returned to walking through books.

Looking back, those weeks appear to me now as a skirmish in a larger war — one I’ve been waging for a long time, one many of us give our whole lives to. Too often, we spend our days on the battlefield, waging war against our own weaknesses.

At War with Weakness

By weaknesses, I mean those parts of us that keep us from doing what we want to do or being who we want to be. Unlike sins, weaknesses are morally neutral, traits that usually do not (and need not) change as God’s grace renovates us.

We are, for example, not as intelligent as we wish we were, not as athletic, not as good-looking, not as musically gifted, not as charismatic in front of a crowd, not as witty, not as productive, not as skilled at leading, not as fast at reading, not as creative in writing. Although some of these weaknesses yield to disciplined attempts to overcome them, many of them are firm as a rock face. We may push, strain, and put our shoulder into it with a running start, but we find over time that the rock is going nowhere. This weakness is our lot.

Our war with such weaknesses is understandable. The tamest of them can be embarrassing — the sort of thing that gets you laughed at in middle school. The worst of them can act like a collapsed bridge, keeping you from the only road you ever wanted to take in life. So, instead of learning to boast in our God-given thorns (2 Corinthians 12:9–10), many of us spend our time, energy, and money trying to pull them out.

But Christians need not fight a war we cannot win. While many in the world respond to weakness by gathering more troops for battle, Christians remember that some weaknesses are there not to be warred against, but to be welcomed.

Fearfully and Wonderfully Weak

God, in his good creation and providence, sends us into this world beset with weaknesses. “Who has made man’s mouth?” he asks Moses, the meekest of men with the weakest of speech. “Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the Lord?” (Exodus 4:11). What’s true of our mouths, ears, and eyes is true of the rest of us. None of our weaknesses escaped God’s notice when he stitched us together in our mother’s womb. We are fearfully and wonderfully weak (Psalm 139:13–14).

The new birth, for all of the radical change it brings, rarely erases the weaknesses we received at our first birth. God’s redeemed community, in fact, is a kingdom of glorious inequality, where one’s weakness is complemented by another’s strength (Romans 12:3–5). God has made some of us feet, some hands, some eyes, and some mouths — and he expects the mouth to have a hard time walking, and the eyes to struggle with words (1 Corinthians 12:14). Some in the church can preach, and others shake at the sight of a microphone. Some administer with excellence, and others have a hard enough time remembering their children’s names.

When, for one reason or another, we continue our attempt to overthrow the weaknesses God has given to us, even after all reasonable efforts have failed, we are probably being driven less by faith than by discontentment. And discontentment never did anyone good. If persisted in, we risk spending years of our lives trying to become someone God never made us to be.

Make Peace

There’s only one sane way forward: Give up the war. Raise the white flag. Call for a treaty. Make peace with weakness.

Many of us have spent untold months and years trying to overcome our weaknesses, and now we must embrace them? Even become well pleased with them (2 Corinthians 12:10)? Yes. For when we do, we will find that God never sets a boundary that is not for our flourishing.

We will find that great relief comes from dropping the false standards we have raised for ourselves — perhaps even mistaking them for God’s. Some of us have carried such standards like a boulder on our backs for years and years, and what a relief to cast it alongside the path! The new mom need not be as productive as the seasoned mother of five. The firstborn need not live up to his parents’ vocational hopes. The man made to be a deacon need not become a pastor. The high-school girl need not aspire to look like the prom queen.

What a relief when Peter stops trying to be John, and John stops trying to be Peter, and both hear Jesus say to them, “What is that to you? You follow me!” (John 21:22). Our glory is not to acquire the strengths of so and so, but to pursue actual righteousness with all of our hearts, and to become the most Christlike versions of ourselves — with all of our strengths and weaknesses — that we can be.

Live for His Good Pleasure

When we stop trying to make other peoples’ gifts our own, we can finally embrace those gifts God has given to us (1 Corinthians 12:4–7). The foot, done trying to be a hand, can start to get good at walking. The eye, finished with trying to talk, can hone its ability to see.

Of course, this brings us back to the nub of the issue, because our war against weaknesses so often begins by despising our strengths. Our strengths, we fear, would not go for much at an auction. Perhaps they are mundane, unseen, and underappreciated: we stand in the sound booth and not on stage; we clean the hallways rather than teach in the classroom; we balance the checkbooks instead of leading the meetings. These are the sorts of gifts people rarely notice until they’re gone.

But contentment never comes from having a certain gift or skill over another. Contentment comes, rather, from receiving every gift with thanks, discharging our duties faithfully, and praying all the while that God would take these meager offerings and turn them into something corresponding to his great worth (1 Peter 4:10–11). Contentment comes from making much of Christ — in our strengths, however great, and in our weaknesses (2 Corinthians 12:9–10).

Teach Me, My God

We would all do well to adopt the posture of that humble poet George Herbert, who prayed,

Teach me, my God and King,
In all things thee to see,
And what I do in anything
To do it as for thee. (“The Elixir”)

Those who can pray such words from the heart, and then use their gifts in God’s strength, will find soon enough that they hear the words “Well done,” whether their talents were ten, five, or just one (Matthew 25:21). And they will feel down to the depths of them that his good pleasure cannot be matched by the world’s applause, though the ovation should last till kingdom come.

The Four-Hundred-Year Flower: Arminius, Dort, and the Battle for Grace

Mon, 04/22/2019 - 11:02am

I grew up in a cultural context that believed — mostly in jest, but not entirely so — that “if you ain’t Dutch, you ain’t much.”

We had wooden shoes on the fireplace, Delft blue in the kitchen, and Dutch plates hanging on the walls. My mom liked to ask two questions whenever I was interested in a girl: Is she Reformed? And is she Dutch? (I got the important one right.) Looking back, I don’t think there was ever a serious sense that being Dutch was better than being German or Irish or Mexican or Korean, but there was a strong sense of pride in who we were, where we had come from, and the Reformed tradition we inhabited.

The first of my family to emigrate to America was Teunis P. DeJong, who was born in Holland in 1839 and died in Edgerton, Minnesota, in 1925. The earliest ancestor that has been traced in my family tree is Pieter DeJong, who was born in Dordrecht in 1695 and married Neeltje Liesveld of neighboring Zwijndrecht on August 23, 1716. I’ve searched in vain for a record of any DeJongs who helped shape the Canons in 1618–19, but I’d like to think I had a great-great-great-whatever looking in on the action as the Synod of Dort debated and defended the exact nature of God’s free grace.

Because of my ethnic heritage and my Reformed upbringing, I’ve always had a soft spot for the Canons of Dort, even when many Christians — if they’ve even heard of Dort — have considered it an embarrassment of overwrought sovereignty and doctrinal hairsplitting. And yet, the Canons of Dort are not just for Dutch people, and they certainly cannot be reduced to antiquated theological fussiness. The doctrine defined and defended at Dort touches on the most important elements of who we are, how God works, and what Christ accomplished.

Flower Blooms in Holland

The Synod of Dort is a high-water mark of Calvinism, but it would never have taken place were it not for Arminianism.

Jacobus Arminius (1560–1609) began his teaching career thoroughly Calvinistic. After studying for a time in Geneva (1582–87), Arminius moved to Amsterdam to pastor a prominent church in the city. As a pastor, he was called upon to defend Calvinistic teaching against a man with one of those amazing Dutch names, Dirck Volckertszoon Coornhert. In preparing his defense of traditional Calvinist doctrine against Coornhert, Arminius became convinced of his opponent’s teaching.

In 1603, Arminius was appointed professor of theology at the University of Leiden, where he was strongly opposed by his colleague, Francis Gomarus. Both Arminius and Gomarus believed in predestination, but they differed over the meaning of the word. At the heart of the disagreement was whether predestination was based solely on the will of God (Calvinism) or based on foreseen knowledge of belief (what would later be called Arminianism). Both men thought of themselves as Reformed, as Calvinists, but they were not saying the same thing.

After Arminius

Following Arminius’s death in 1609, the movement continued under the leadership of Janus Uytenbogaert, a court preacher at the Hague. In 1610, the Arminian party issued a document called the Remonstrance, setting forth the “Five Articles of the Arminians.” Gomarus and others formed a Contra-Remonstrance party (Gomarists) to oppose the Arminians.

The Remonstrance of 1610 was issued to Johan van Oldenbarneveldt, advocate general of Holland and Friesland. Oldenbarneveldt, who was working to secure a better relationship with Spain, wanted toleration for the Arminians. The Contra-Remonstrance from Gomarists was submitted to the States of Holland in 1611. Oldenbarneveldt and the States of Holland decided on toleration. But the Gomarists wanted an official theological pronouncement to settle the issue once and for all.

Over the next several years, the conflict went from bad to worse, with prominent theological and political leaders siding with the Arminians. The Gomarists (who we would think of as the Calvinists) feared the Reformed doctrine would soon be lost in the Netherlands. Prince Maurice, the son and heir of William of Orange, eventually took the side of the Gomarists and had Oldenbarneveldt imprisoned. With the nation on the brink of civil war, the estates general finally called for an assembly to end the conflict.

Five Points

An international synod convened in Dordrecht from 1618–19. Of the approximately one hundred members present, twenty-seven were from Britain, Switzerland, and Germany, while the rest were Dutch. The Dutch contingent was comprised of roughly an equal number of ministers, professors, laymen, and members of the estates general.

In the end, The Remonstrants were soundly defeated at Dort, leading to one of the greatest theological formulations of the Reformation era. On April 22, 1619 — exactly four hundred years ago today — the Synod adopted the Canons and settled, for the Netherlands and for much of the Protestant world in the years to come, what constituted authentic Reformed faith.

The Canons of Dort, in rejecting the five points of Arminianism, outlined five points of their own: the first concerning divine election and reprobation, the second on Christ’s death and human redemption through it, the third and fourth points on human corruption and how we convert to God, and finally the perseverance of the saints.

Centuries later these five heads of doctrine would become the five points of Calvinism known at TULIP (total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints). Although TULIP is an anachronistic summary of the Canons, it can be a handy mnemonic device for important soteriological themes. The Canons do not pretend to explain everything about Reformed theology (or about the Bible for that matter), but rather they set out to declare what was “in agreement with the Word of God and accepted till now in the Reformed churches” concerning “Divine Predestination.”

Champions of Grace

Before the Synod of Dort conducted its business, each member took a solemn oath that “I will only aim at the glory of God, the peace of the Church, and especially the preservation of the purity of doctrine.” They ended with a prayer: “So help me, my Savior, Jesus Christ! I beseech him to assist me by his Holy Spirit.” The delegates at Dort were joyfully serious about promoting and preserving the truth.

Do we care as much about defining and defending grace?

Paul argues that “there is a remnant, chosen by grace” (Romans 11:5). He then moves to defend and define this grace, maintaining that “if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace” (Romans 11:6). Words mattered to Paul. He was never content to casually speak the same vocabulary as his opponents if he knew they were using different dictionaries. He understood that people can champion grace, laud grace, and celebrate grace, while still losing all that makes grace to be grace.

At its very heart, the Canons of Dort are about the nature of grace — supernatural, unilateral, sovereign, effecting, redeeming, resurrecting grace, with all of its angularity, all of its offense to human pride, and all of its comfort for the weary soul. That’s what Dort wanted to settle. That’s what they were jealous to protect. Some words are worth the most careful definitions, just as some truths are too precious not to defend.

The Bombs on Easter Sunday: Five Ways to Pray for Sri Lanka

Mon, 04/22/2019 - 10:24am

While most Christians in Sri Lanka were in church yesterday morning, celebrating the risen Christ on Easter Sunday, bombs went off in four of our cities (Kochchikade, Negombo, Batticaloa, and Colombo), targeting churches and hotels. The latest figures seem to leave us with at least 290 dead and 500 injured from the eight bombings. Some arrests have been made.

There are hints emerging as to who is responsible for the attacks, but I do not want to speculate too much on that and unnecessarily implicate those who are not involved in this crime. It is better to be safe and remain silent than to give false witness, which is a serious sin. We pray that God would guide the security officials to whom he has given the authority to be agents of his wrath, punishing wrongdoers (Romans 13:3–4). As for Christians, we will do what we can to be agents of peace in our fractured land (Romans 12:14–21).

Close to Home

The Zion church in Batticaloa, where at least 28 were killed (including many children), is a vibrant church at which I have preached several times. The pastor was out of the country at the time of the bomb blast. The sister of our Youth for Christ leader in Eastern Sri Lanka, Thamendran, was worshiping there and is fighting for her life in the hospital, with serious head injuries.

A young man from our sports ministry lost one of his legs in the Colombo explosion. A neighbor couple of ours and their daughter died, and their young son is in the hospital. As far as we know, there is one former Youth for Christ clubber who died in Colombo.

Five Ways to Pray

While it may seem foolish to spend time praying when there is a crisis around us, this is the most powerful thing God’s people can do in a national crisis (2 Kings 19). We need to mobilize individual and corporate prayer among Christians.

1. For Holy-Love

Please pray that the church would act with maturity, reflecting the holy-love of God: on the one hand, insisting that the authorities will carry out a thoroughgoing investigation and will punish the wrongdoers; and on the other hand, personally and corporately showing love to all, including our enemies. We cannot afford to let hatred blunt our witness. God will judge the wicked, and he will do that often through government institutions. Our belief in the doctrine of judgment takes away our bitterness over gross sinfulness like this. On our part, we do what we can do, and that is to love our enemies.

2. For Faithfulness

Pray that the church would faithfully carry out its calling to be an agent of healing in broken situations. Individually, we can get close to suffering people. I prayed with my Hindu neighbor this morning when he came home to tell me that his sister had died in the blast. We also can get involved in a more corporate way in bigger projects.

3. For Healing

Pray for the injured and for their speedy recovery, and pray for the medical services to do their work well.

Pray also for the emotionally scarred and for their steady recovery. This is a time when we can be agents of the God of all comfort through our listening and ministering (2 Corinthians 1:3–4).

4. For Comfort and Strength

Pray for God’s comfort and strength to the many Christian and non-Christian people who have been devastated by the loss of their loved ones.

5. Against Unrest

Pray that extremist forces would not use these incidents to cause unrest in the country. Christians can act as moderating agents because, while we may be enraged by what happened, we are freed from bitterness as we know that a just God who controls history is greater than the problems.

We look at everything in life through the lens of our belief in a God who is holy-love. We know that he judges the wicked, and so we are not bitter. We know that he loves the world and that we are called to be agents of that love. This drives us to action. But we don’t do so with a defeatist attitude. We know that God is building his kingdom, culminating in the return of Christ, and that our actions are building blocks in this process.

Holy-love must win in the end! Amen. Come, Lord Jesus (Revelation 22:20).

My Joy Is So Short-Lived — How Do I Make It Last?

Sun, 04/21/2019 - 9:02pm

God promises lasting joy. But what should we do when we feel full on Sunday but empty by Monday?

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Together in Bed, Apart in Soul: Four Steps to Spiritual Intimacy

Sun, 04/21/2019 - 8:02pm

“With no one else has it been more difficult to have consistent, uplifting spiritual conversations than with my wife. . . . And I’m sure she would say the same.”

Grimaced nods suggested he wasn’t alone. Fights, misunderstandings, indifference, exhaustion, busyness, and insecurities made consistent soul-intimacy feel next to impossible. Co-existing, many of us had experienced, was easier than co-mingling. Some of the men around the table had given up entirely, explaining away their hunger for it as “something that just doesn’t work for us.”

As spiritual leaders of our homes, we brainstormed why the struggles persisted. Some had married extremely competent women who could take care of their own spiritual lives well enough (and had done so for years). These women didn’t seem to need us to nourish their souls and wash them with the water of the word (Ephesians 5:25–27) — some of the men felt that they actually slowed their wife down. Others of us couldn’t talk much about anything without it leading to an argument. Others felt too exhausted from work to go deep when they got home. Others feared losing their wife’s respect because they weren’t a biblical scholar like other men she appreciated.

Whatever the reason, she had her Bible study; we had ours. She read this book; we read that book. We may pray together before meals. Many of our most in-depth talks stood as distant memories. While dating, the day didn’t afford enough hours to discuss all we wanted to concerning the Lord. Now, we seemed prepared to go deep with anyone but her. What happened? Together in bed, apart in soul. We had become spiritual roommates.

The Wall We Need Removed

Sometimes, our spouse can be the hardest Christian to have spiritual intimacy with. We can go deep with close brothers, our small group, those we disciple, or old friends we’ve known for years, but the path roughens when we attempt to “go there” with her. A wall stands between us and our lily.

The wall is made of many bricks. Endless needs of family, church, and neighbor, self-doubt about our knowledge of the faith, seasons of spiritual depression on one or both sides, residual conflicts all make the undressing of souls harder than the unbuttoning of clothes. The battle for spiritual intimacy is uphill — and our enemy ensures it.

Satan hates our marriages because he hates what it represents: Christ’s relationship to his Bride. He means to destroy them. And if he cannot convince us into adultery or apostasy just yet, what better way to immobilize our spiritual union than to divide us? What God has joined together, Satan means to spiritually — if not physically — separate. He will not have us holding hands gazing upon the beauty of the Lord. He intends for us to live spiritually as though we had no spouse.

These challenges speak nothing of a flesh that tempts and excuses, a world that numbs and distracts, difficult circumstances that leave us low and confused, and marriage advice borrowed more from psychology than theology. Even some of our leaders avoid eye contact when the question is asked: How do you lead, nourish, and cherish your wife spiritually?

Four Simple Ways to Start

The need of the day is intentionality. We often can get deceived into assuming that because we have physical proximity — we eat dinner together, run errands, watch TV, live, play, and sleep under the same roof while both loving Jesus — we will necessarily have soul intimacy. We mistake the rubbing of shoulders with the kissing of souls. It is not uncommon to go weeks without even realizing that you’ve not talked deeply once. Proximity suggests intimacy, but can actually undermine it. We are reminded to date our spouse, and now, to go deep with them.

My aim then is simple: To encourage you to press on and remind you that there is more. You can have depth again. You can behold him together, and be changed from one degree of glory to another together. For some, this may seem unattainable — as it did for my wife and me for a season. But to increase spiritual intimacy, we resolved to spend intentional time together in his word and prayer, developing a routine we found to be manageable, effective, and at the very least, a good place to start.

1. Hunt Little Foxes

When we seek the Lord by ourselves, we can better ignore tensions in our marriage. When we seek him together, we can’t. (It’s much harder to, anyway.) Thus, it’s good to begin by hunting little foxes that would threaten our time before the Lord.

Expose and then pray that the Lord would kill the little hindrances to your love, any impediments to your beholding him in his glory together. The lovers prayed this way in the Song of Solomon: “Catch the foxes for us, the little foxes that spoil the vineyards, for our vineyards are in blossom” (Song of Solomon 2:15).

Practically, this means confessing sin to one another and then bringing it before the Lord. When I’ve led this effectively, I’ve asked my wife if there is anything we should confess to each other or any hindrances that stand between our hearts and the Lord. Such times have often allowed us to give and receive forgiveness, centering our relationship on the foundations of what makes such forgiveness possible: the good news of God’s mercy toward us in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (Ephesians 4:32).

This is a consistent opportunity to be honest, keep short accounts, and forgive one another as Christ forgave us. This is not an invitation to settle old scores, be passive aggressive, or take out our frustrations on one another. It is an opportunity to ready ourselves to seek the Lord of mercy in his word together.

2. Look at the Book

Read through a chapter or so of the Bible together. You could read more or less, but the point is to read something — and that something being from the word of God.

Reading through books together can certainly be profitable, but if you have time for only one thing, let it be God’s book. No other can shape your life and marriage like the Bible can. No rival exists. No book is sweeter, truer, more powerful, more satisfying, and more fortifying for our souls or marriages than Scripture. No other book is living and active, no other is God-breathed, no other one can raise the dead and show us God. How different would our marriages be if we were building them on the rock of God’s word?

3. Discuss the Text

A man need not be more knowledgeable than his wife to wash her with the word. But it does require some effort. Wrestle with the text some beforehand, even for a few minutes. Come ready to ask a question or two. Draw out your wife’s insights and questions. Share thoughts (and ask her) about what you love about God from this text or what application you’d like to apply in the family for the week ahead. Help place this passage within God’s redemptive story. Don’t feel pressure to speak profoundly about the word; let the word be seen as profound and Christ as beautiful.

Three fatal errors can occur in our Bible reading together. First, we can fail to be consistent. Second, we can fail to ever have any real-world application to our lives. Third, we leave with much to do or think while missing God. We must not neglect our pure spiritual milk, nor be mere hearers of the word, nor search the Scriptures while missing Jesus. Find fresh reasons to worship God, love neighbor, and put sin to death — together.

4. Pray: Adore God and Ask for Help

After meditating on the text, exult in who the triune God is: his excellencies, his holiness, his steadfast love and faithfulness. Then exult in who God is for us: Father, Savior, Master, Friend. Delight in him together as two children before their Father. Then pray his word over your life, your marriage, your neighborhood, your nation, your world. Ask for help to obey and live for his glory.

Don’t Despise the Day of Small Beginnings

Just as many couples take time to learn how to serve one another emotionally or physically, it takes time to learn one another spiritually (no matter how long you’ve been together). It may be bumpy at first, but you can be more than roommates. Daily plodding, daily seeking. You can’t go back in time, but you can begin where you are. For my wife and me, this meant starting to spend meaningful time together in the word (from 20 to 45 minutes) multiple times per week.

On days when my wife and I misunderstand one another or sin against each other, our resolve to press on in this makes all the difference. We committed to do it, and this gives us freedom to really try. By God’s grace, we’ve drawn near to the Lord together, believing that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him (Hebrews 11:6). As we fight to resist the devil’s sowing discord in our time together in God’s word, he has begun to flee from us.

It is possible to spend intentional time together, multiple times a week, in prayer, his word, knitting ourselves together, exploring mountain ranges of his glory, and being refreshed through confession, repentance, and gospel-reminders. There are flowers, fruits, and streams in the garden of spiritual intimacy that you can, even now, cultivate and enjoy.

He Rose Again to Warn the World: The Empty Tomb — and Coming Judgment

Sat, 04/20/2019 - 8:01pm

I will tell of the decree: The Lord said to me, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you.” (Psalm 2:7)

Beep . . . Beep . . . Beep.

The timer starts slow, but then gets faster and faster. Beep. Beep. Beep.

Heart rates rise. The air gets thick. The end draws near. Beep, beep, beep.

The accelerating clock makes all the difference in the game Catch Phrase. Each player tries to help his teammates guess the word or phrase, without saying it, that appears on the handheld device. Once they guess correctly, he passes the device to the opposing team. While the teams are passing it back and forth, the timer is running down — first slowly, and then with increasing speed: beep, beep, beep. Whatever team is holding the device when the beeps stop loses that round.

One often overlooked aspect of the resurrection of Jesus is how it signals that the time is short. Easter tells us that history now is beeping more and more rapidly, calling for our repentance. The nations soon will be a footstool for the feet of the Son (Psalm 110:1). They, and each of us, should kiss the Son and take refuge in him before it is too late (Psalm 2:12).

Today I Have Begotten You

The refrain of resurrection returns many times in the Psalms, but it makes its first appearance in Psalm 2. Do you hear the refrain?

I will tell of the decree:
The Lord said to me, “You are my Son;
     today I have begotten you.” (Psalm 2:7)

The today of Psalm 2:7 is Easter Sunday. It is as if the psalmist sings, “Christ the Lord is risen today.” How do we know that the today of Psalm 2 is the same day as Easter Sunday? Listen to the apostle Paul preach and apply Psalm 2.

As It Is Written

Acts 13 is the clearest text that establishes the connection between the resurrection of Jesus and the today of Psalm 2. There, Paul preaches the good news of the gospel, from the Old Testament Scriptures, to unbelieving Jews. He declares that God raised Jesus from the dead in fulfillment of the promise to the fathers. What text will he choose to prove it?

We bring you the good news that what God promised to the fathers, this he has fulfilled to us their children by raising Jesus, as also it is written in the second Psalm,

     “You are my Son,
           today I have begotten you.” (Acts 13:32–33)

Paul’s sermon ought to provoke some pondering on our part. How could the psalmist say that there is a day (“today”) that Jesus was declared the Son of God (“You are my Son”)? The eternal Son of God never had a beginning; there was never a moment when he suddenly came into existence and God the Father declared him to be his Son. This text, however, seems to say that there was a moment when God the Father made a sonship declaration.

Declared to Be King

At the start of Romans, Paul unpacks the good news of God’s Son (Romans 1:1–3). He highlights the greatness of the Son of God from two different vantage points — his earthly life (as a descendant of David according to the flesh) and his resurrected life:

[He] was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 1:4)

When was the eternal Son of God declared to be the Son of God in power? Answer: “by his resurrection from the dead.” This declaration is a moment of enthronement because he is the Son of God “in power.” This phrase in power is related to the first phrase “descended from David.” He fulfills the promise of the royal Son of David who would rule on Jerusalem’s throne in power. The moment of fulfillment is the resurrection.

Tale of Two Thrones

This New Testament reality of the Son of God’s enthronement resolves a perplexing tension in the Old Testament. God is King — his dwelling place is in heaven. But he also said that his dwelling place was in the temple in Jerusalem. And there was a throne there too — a human king descended from David would sit on that throne. The kings of Israel often rebelled against God’s rule. Therefore, the King of the universe often had to judge the king of Israel. How and when would those two thrones ever come together and reign as one?

Answer: the resurrection and ascension of Jesus. Jesus took his seat on the throne promised to David’s Son. Where is that throne? The earthly David had a throne in the earthly Zion (Jerusalem), but great David’s greater Son has a throne in the heavenly Zion. Because Jesus is risen and cannot die, the heavenly throne is filled forever (Hebrews 1:1–5).

Advance Warning

What is the Easter lesson for us in Psalm 2? The nations urgently need to hear heaven’s decree: Jesus is risen. Psalm 2 calls all nations, and all rulers, to stop raging (Psalm 2:1–3) and start repenting (Psalm 2:10–12). Why? God has installed his resurrected king on the throne of the universe.

The resurrection is the advance warning that judgment is coming. The King has been raised. The rebellion failed. The resurrection changes everything. Since the Son rose from the dead, history is now racing toward judgment, like a freight train with a full head of steam.

Paul makes the same point in Acts 17. The resurrection has happened. “The times of ignorance” have ended, and the time for repentance has come:

The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead. (Acts 17:30–31)

The resurrection, among other things, is the assurance that God means business. Judgment is coming. Let all peoples be warned. And let those who have bowed to the Son “rejoice with trembling,” for “blessed are all who take refuge in him” (Psalm 2:11–12).

Philippians 3:7–10: Where to Turn When Suffering Comes

Sat, 04/20/2019 - 11:47am

God gives us power — not to escape or avoid suffering — but to endure suffering while looking to Christ.

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He Sang in the Belly of the Earth: Holy Saturday in Hades

Fri, 04/19/2019 - 8:01pm

You will not abandon my soul to Sheol,
     or let your holy one see corruption. (Psalm 16:10)

I love to sing Psalm 16, because it’s a psalm of joy and gladness in God’s goodness. I love the truth in these eleven verses.

David begins, “Preserve me, O God, for in you I take refuge” (Psalm 16:1). The fundamental declaration is that God is our Lord and our good. In fact, all the goods that are good come from the Good that is God.

David celebrates the goodness of his people, brothers and sisters in the faith, in whom he delights (Psalm 16:3); the goodness of our inheritance, which he is keeping for us (Psalm 16:6); the goodness of his counsel (Psalm 16:7). In his presence is fullness of joy, and at his right hand are pleasures forevermore (Psalm 16:11). He is our portion and our cup (Psalm 16:5). He is our lodestar — set out before us, making us unshakeable. Because of all of his goodness, our hearts are glad. We rejoice with our whole being, and our flesh dwells secure (Psalm 16:9).

Who wouldn’t love to sing lines like these?

Death Comes to Us All

But those aren’t the only reasons I love to sing this song. I love to sing Psalm 16, because it reminds me of one of the glories of living after Easter. You see, the people of God have not always sung the psalm in the same way. We sing Psalm 16 differently than David did. For David, Psalm 16 contains a bit of a puzzle. It’s found in verse 10:

You will not abandon my soul to Sheol,
     or let your holy one see corruption. (Psalm 16:10)

This verse is a puzzle because of a simple fact: David died. He was buried. His soul was abandoned to Sheol. He was laid with his fathers and saw corruption (Acts 2:29; 13:36). And not only David, but all of the saints in the Old Testament died in this way.

Psalm 16 gives us a window into what happened when people died. At death, the soul is separated from the body. The body is laid in the ground and decays. The flesh falls to corruption. The soul is sent to Sheol, to Hades, to the realm of the dead. The righteous journey to Abraham’s bosom, to the place of waiting, while the wicked land, across the chasm wide, in a place of torment.

But everyone — wise and foolish, rich and poor alike — everyone goes the way of all flesh. No man can ransom another from the power of Sheol. No amount of wealth or riches can suffice to keep us from the place of the dead. Death comes as a shepherd, and all of us are his sheep.

He Descended into Hades

David sang verse 10 as a puzzle, as a riddle — until the Messiah came.

David died. He went the way of all flesh. And as a prophet, he could sing Psalm 16. But he was not the true singer. The true psalmist, the Greater Psalmist, was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into Hades. But he was not abandoned there. His flesh did not see corruption.

As Jesus sang the Psalms during Holy Week, Psalm 16 was on his lips and in his heart. As he entered Jerusalem on the donkey, he prayed for God to preserve him, because he sought refuge in God alone. As he turned over the tables and cleansed the temple, he did so consumed with zeal for his Lord, who was his only good. As he confounded his enemies, he delighted in the saints in the land. As he contemplated Judas’s betrayal, he sang of the sorrows of those who chase the false god Mammon. As he ate the bread and drank the cup with his disciples, he delighted in God as his portion and his cup. As he sweat blood in Gethsemane, he steeled himself with a song of his beautiful inheritance.

As he carried his cross to Calvary, he set his Lord before him, so that he would not be shaken. He sang Psalm 16 up until his dying breath. And then he kept singing.

In the Belly of the Earth

As the human soul of Christ descended to Sheol, his heart was glad. His whole being rejoiced. His flesh, as it lay in Joseph’s tomb, dwelt secure. Unlike the myriads who had sunk down to Sheol before, Christ took the journey with joy. He wasn’t just going the way of all flesh. He was making a new way for all flesh. And he knew it. We know Jesus knew it, because he sang Psalm 16.

He had warned the scribes and Pharisees who would crucify him, “Just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matthew 12:40). And just as Jonah sang in the belly (Jonah 2:1–10), Jesus went in singing. Like Paul and Silas, who would shake the foundations of a prison with a simple melody (Acts 16:25–26), Jesus sang a greater earthquake into the prison of all prisons.

Jesus came to the City of Death. He entered its gates. Doors that no man can open slammed shut behind him. But Jesus was no mere man. Unlike those who had come before, he had come to this city willingly, voluntarily. He had laid down his life of his own accord. And he had the power to take it back up again. He had come to rip the doors off the City of Death. He had come to blaze a path of life back to eternal pleasures at the right hand of God, not only for himself, but for every sheep in his fold.

Christ had run his race and finished his course. For the previous six days, he had labored, and now, on the seventh day, he rested. In Sheol. In the belly of the earth. And while he waited, he sang Psalm 16.

The Veil Was Torn in Two: What Happened on Good Friday?

Fri, 04/19/2019 - 11:02am

ABSTRACT: The Gospel writers tell us that, directly after the death of Jesus, the veil of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The meaning of the veil’s tearing is wrapped up in its old-covenant function to separate the Israelites from the direct presence of God. Matthew in particular narrates the tearing of the veil in a way that reveals its epoch-turning significance. Because Jesus has died on the cross, the gates to God’s presence are open, and the age of the new covenant has dawned.

We asked Dan Gurtner, professor of New Testament interpretation at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, to explain the meaning of the tearing of the veil for our series of feature articles by scholars for pastors, leaders, and teachers. You can download and print a PDF of the article, as well as listen to an audio recording.

And behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. (Matthew 27:51 NASB)

From the Bible, we know that the death of Jesus is a glorious truth, foundational to our Christian faith. It grants us peace with God (Romans 5:1), redemption and the forgiveness of sins (Colossians 1:14). But how does the Bible express the significance of Jesus’s death in narratives, like the Gospels? This is exactly what we find at the crucifixion of Jesus and the tearing of the temple curtain (or veil) immediately after his death. Though the tearing of the veil is described in all three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew 27:51; Mark 15:38; Luke 23:45), none of them stops to explain it. Presumably, they thought the event was clear enough to their original readers. But what are we to make of it?

To complicate matters, the account in the Gospel of Matthew recounts a host of extraordinary events that puzzle us today. Yet in them the apostle Matthew, ever with his mind steeped in Israel’s sacred Scriptures, helps us to understand the significance of the historical realities around Jesus’s death. And all this occurs on Good Friday, where we see the goodness of God in Christ on display in anticipation of Easter Sunday.

What Veil Is Matthew Talking About?

It may seem strange to readers that Matthew refers simply to “the” veil of the temple, without any explanation as to which of the many hangings, curtains, and veils in the Old Testament tabernacle and subsequent temple he had in mind. Interpreters must simply presume that Matthew would have expected his readers to know what he meant. Since Matthew makes such frequent appeals to the Old Testament (Matthew 1:22; 2:15, 17, 23; 4:14; 5:17; etc.), presuming it to be an important authority for his readers, it is to the Old Testament we must look.

The word for veil used by Matthew (katapetasma) is a technical term that, in the Greek version of the Old Testament (Septuagint), is used for three different hangings in the tabernacle and temple. But the syntax of Matthew’s statement “veil of the temple” (Matthew 27:51 NASB) suggests only one hanging can be in view: the inner veil before the holy of holies. This veil, described first and most fully in descriptions of the tabernacle, was made of blue, purple, and scarlet yarn and finely twisted linen, with cherubim worked into it by a skilled craftsman (Exodus 26:31; 36:35). It was to be hung before the holy of holies, which was a perfect cube of ten cubits per side. The veil was hung by gold hooks on an acacia-wood frame, which itself was overlaid with gold (Exodus 26:32–33), and the ark of the covenant was kept behind the veil (Exodus 26:33).

Generally, this veil served to separate the holy place from the holy of holies (Exodus 26:33) and shielded the atonement slate1 of the ark (Exodus 26:34). The veil was also used to cover the ark of the testimony while in transport (Numbers 4:5). Sin offerings were made against the veil (Leviticus 4:6, 17), and entry behind it was permitted only for a ritually pure priest, Aaron or a descendent, who would enter behind the curtain on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:2, 12, 15). In Solomon’s temple, patterned after the tabernacle, there was a veil “of blue, purple and crimson yarn and fine linen, with cherubim worked into it” (2 Chronicles 3:14 NIV).

The veil was near the very center of the tabernacle, suggesting a rank of holiness that is also reflected in the quality of its construction. As with the other hangings in the tabernacle, the veil was made of “finely twisted linen” (Exodus 26:31 NIV), a fine grade of linen. The curtains were violet — or, as some suggest, blue-purple or a darker purple compared to the lighter purple. This color was occasionally thought to be the color of the sky,2 which may help account for its association with the heavenly firmament (Genesis 1:6) in later Judaism. This color, which required twelve thousand murex snails to yield only 1.4 grams of pure dye, was known for its association with both divinity and royalty in the ancient Near East, which lends itself to the notion that Yahweh was both the sacred deity and the King enthroned in the midst of Israel within the tabernacle.

The use of royal colors and materials should come as no surprise, as the tabernacle in general and the angelic wings over the veil in particular are often thought to represent the kingly presence of Yahweh among his people. This is confirmed by the description of Yahweh’s presence with Israel as being “enthroned between the cherubim” (1 Samuel 4:4 NIV; 2 Samuel 6:2; 2 Kings 19:15; 1 Chronicles 13:6; Psalm 80:1; 99:1; Isaiah 37:16), which, when coupled with a reference to God’s enthronement “in heaven” (Psalm 2:4 NIV), may support the notion that the holy of holies was thought to be a replica of heaven.

What Did the Veil Do?

Integral to interpreting the tearing of the veil is some explanation of its purpose and function. Surprisingly, few interpreters look explicitly to the Old Testament to address this issue. Yet we find some information about the veil that is imperative for interpreting the meaning of its tearing at the death of Jesus.

As we have seen, the unique workmanship required for the veil is directly related to the presence of cherubim on the veil. These figures symbolized the presence of Yahweh and were woven of elite quality, “the work of a skillful workman” (Exodus 26:31 NASB). In biblical tradition, cherubim served a guardian role from their first appearance in canonical texts, where they guarded “the way to the tree of life” (Genesis 3:24 NASB). They were carved on walls around Solomon’s temple and Ezekiel’s visionary temples (e.g., Ezekiel 10:1–20; 11:22; 41:18–25).

Elsewhere, the cherubim are present at man’s meeting with God (e.g., Exodus 25:22; Numbers 7:89), and they are the winged throne upon which God sits or mounts to fly (2 Samuel 22:11; Psalm 18:10). Yahweh instructs Moses to make “two cherubim out of hammered gold” (Exodus 25:18 NIV), with wings spread upward and overshadowing the atonement slate. They were to be arranged in such a manner as to face each other (Exodus 25:20; cf. Hebrews 9:5), where they were guardians of the atonement slate from which the divine Glory would speak to Israel (Exodus 25:1–22). Perhaps the cherubim on the veil, then, similarly served to guard the way to the sanctuary of God within the holy of holies, as their presence suggests the presence of Yahweh enthroned among his people.

The veil’s primary function was to separate the holy place from the holy of holies (Exodus 26:33). This separation is at the heart of the entire priestly code of the sacrificial system (e.g., Leviticus 11:1–45): to separate (badal) between the unclean and the clean. Likewise, in Ezekiel’s vision of the temple, there is to be separation of “the holy and the profane” (Ezekiel 42:20 NASB; cf. Ezekiel 22:26; 44:23). The veil, then, was a physical barrier that both represented and enforced the separation from the holy presence of the enthroned Yahweh within from Aaron and his sons — the violation of which brought death (Numbers 18:7; cf. Leviticus 16:2).

Exception for entering the holy of holies was made only in the context of the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:11–28), when the high priest would take the offering behind the veil as a sin or purification offering (Leviticus 16:11). Here the blood was taken into the holy of holies and sprinkled on the atonement slate of the ark (Leviticus 16:14). On the Day of Atonement, Aaron was to use the blood of the sin offering to purify and consecrate the altar (Leviticus 16:19). Yet the man entering must be the high priest and may not enter “whenever he chooses,” says the Lord, “for I will appear in the cloud over the atonement cover” (Leviticus 16:2 NIV; Numbers 7:89).

Even on the Day of Atonement, when the high priest was permitted physical accessibility to God within the holy of holies, the atonement slate was hidden from sight by the cloud, in this way saving the high priest from death (Leviticus 16:12–13). That is, the physical restriction was extended to the visual (e.g., Exodus 35:12; cf. 39:20b [MT=34b]). Even while in transit, the veil was used to conceal the ark from sight, as it was the most sacred object of the tabernacle (Exodus 25:10–22), where the Lord spoke to Moses. Looking upon the holy things, even by a high priest and even for a moment, incurred death (Leviticus 16:13; cf. 1 Samuel 6:19–20). Thus it seems the veil served as a physical and visual barrier, protecting the priest from the lethal presence of the enthroned Lord and reinforcing the separation between God and humankind.

The prohibitive function of the veil — conveyed implicitly and explicitly in the Old Testament — underscores the restrictions placed upon Israelite worship based on the holiness of God. This is important because worshipers in the old covenant were restricted in their access to God in the temple, and could approach him only through sacrifice and prayer, and not at any time they chose. Only a high priest who was ritually pure and without defect could approach Yahweh without being put to death. The severity of this punishment primarily concerned the holiness of God himself and the sanctity of objects directly related to worshiping him (cf. Exodus 33:19–23). Even Moses was forbidden to see the face of the Lord, “because man may not see my face and yet live” (Exodus 33:20 author’s translation).

The Veil in Jesus’s Day

There were a few legends about the veil of the temple in the days of Jesus. One from the Dead Sea Scrolls describes angelic worship in the heavenly sanctuary, where animated cherubim, embroidered in the curtain, sing praises to God.3 Some rabbis, writing long after the temple was destroyed by Rome in AD 70, depict the veil as symbolic of the heavenly firmaments (cf. Genesis 1:6). In this way, the veil was a barrier between heaven and earth, behind which divine secrets were kept, known only to God.4 The Jerusalem temple during the days of Jesus had been significantly renovated by Herod the Great (rule 37–4 BC).5 The historian Josephus, himself a priest, describes the structure, including the veil, in some detail.6 He says it was made of “Babylonian tapestry,” scarlet and purple, clearly depicting royalty. The “marvelous skill” with which it was made was rich in symbolism that depicted the elements of the universe. Embroidered into the veil was “a panorama of the heavens,”7 meaning it resembled the heavens, likely the heavenly firmaments (Genesis 1:6) or the sky.8

The Veil in Matthew’s Narrative

Matthew’s account of the death of Jesus (Matthew 27:50–54), which most scholars presume expands on the parallel account in Mark (Mark 15:38–39), contains some unique features throughout in the immediate context (Matthew 27:35–54). We must constantly recall, however, that all of these features are immediately relevant to the primary subject matter of the passage — the death of Jesus. The passage is replete with irony: He is mocked with a sign indicating that he is “King of the Jews,” but in fact he really is! He is cajoled to save himself and come down off the cross, “if you are the Son of God” (Matthew 27:40) — the precise language used by the devil in the temptation (Matthew 4:1–11) — and yet his saving activity is achieved for others, not himself, by remaining on the cross (cf. Matthew 27:42). When he cries out in a loud voice (Matthew 27:46), his quote from Psalm 22:1 (Hebrew Eli, Eli) is confused by the bystanders with Elijah — who has already come in the person of John the Baptist (Matthew 11:14).

At his death, “Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit” (Matthew 27:50). Right afterward, Matthew writes, “and behold!” and instantly the reader is transported from Golgotha on Friday (cf. Matthew 27:33) to the temple veil in Jerusalem (Matthew 27:51a), then (presumably) to the Mount of Olives (Matthew 27:51b–53a), then into “the holy city” (Jerusalem) on Sunday (note “after his resurrection,” Matthew 27:53), and only then back to the scene at the cross (Matthew 27:54). What has prompted Matthew to take his readers on such a whirlwind, and what are we to make of it? The events — including the tearing of the veil and all the other occurrences in Matthew 27:51–53 — are just as historical as the death and resurrection of Jesus itself. Yet Matthew’s presentation of these events is done as commentary — historical commentary, of course — on the significance of the death of Jesus. In other words, the death of Jesus is so profoundly significant that it has triggered the following events, which explain to some degree the meaning of Jesus’s death.

Paradise Reopened

But before we look at what these events indicate about the significance of Jesus’s death, our next step is to examine what Matthew has already said about it. To Matthew, Jesus’s death is both necessary (Matthew 16:21) and expected (cf. Matthew 16:17; 17:22–23), albeit temporary (Matthew 17:9)! His death, like John’s, is that of an innocent prophet inaugurating the restoration of “all things” (Matthew 17:11–12; cf. 3:1–15). Significantly, Jesus’s death is a “ransom” for many (Matthew 20:28) — a payment offered to rescue another, perhaps borrowed from the sacrificial language of the Old Testament. Matthew is explicit that Jesus’s death is for the purpose of the forgiveness of sins (Matthew 26:28). It is by his death on the cross — as a ransom that achieves the forgiveness of sins — that Jesus accomplishes his mission to save his people from their sins (Matthew 1:21). Having seen what Matthew has already said about the death of Jesus, we can now look at what else he says about it in the tearing of the veil and the ensuing narrative.

Matthew’s many uses of “and behold” (Matthew 27:51) typically introduce something surprising in the narrative (e.g., Matthew 2:13; 3:16–17; 17:5; 28:20). The passive-voice construction “the curtain of the temple was torn” (Matthew 27:51) implies that God himself tore the veil. This is confirmed by description of the damage: “from top to bottom.” Note also the extent: “in two.” This singular cultic artefact is now irreparably damaged — it can no longer perform the function for which it was intended. This means that there is no longer a physical barrier to God, suggesting that the theological necessity of it is thereby removed. The angelic guardians are disarmed, and reentry into the Edenic presence of God is again permitted for the first time since the fall.

The crucial element here is this: all this is accomplished by the death of Jesus, a ransom for many (Matthew 20:28), whose blood accomplishes the forgiveness of sins and establishes the new covenant (Matthew 26:28). But Matthew insists that it is only the “pure in heart” who will see God (Matthew 5:8; cf. Psalm 24:4). So Matthew seems to imply what writers like Paul make explicit: the death of Jesus accomplishes the forgiveness of sins and establishes the (imputed) righteousness of the believer (e.g., Philippians 3:9). (Remember that the Gospels were written for Christians who were already converted and knew something of the gospel message; cf. Luke 1:1–4.)

The Turning of the Ages

But there is more! Matthew provides additional explanations to his readers than Mark does in his simple statement about the torn veil and the centurion’s statement (Mark 15:38–39), all of which teach something about the significance of Jesus’s death. “And the earth shook” (Matthew 27:51b). Earthquakes were frequently present in theophanic scenes (see Revelation 6:12; 8:5; 11:13, 19; 16:18), but here Matthew draws at least in part from Ezekiel 37 (recall the valley of dry bones), where an earthquake (Ezekiel 37:7) precedes the opening of graves and the resurrection of people who return to the land of Israel (Ezekiel 37:12–13). In Matthew’s context, the earthquake indicates a dramatic manifestation of God at a climactic event in his redemptive-historical plan. So violent was the earthquake that Matthew adds “and the rocks were split,” demonstrating the power of God (Nahum 1:5–6; 1 Kings 19:11; Psalm 114:7; Isaiah 48:21). Here the likely allusion is to Zechariah 14:4–5, where the Lord himself will come and split the Mount of Olives.

Matthew’s statement that “the tombs were opened” (Matthew 27:52a NASB) recalls Ezekiel 37:12–13, where the Lord says through the prophet, “Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people. . . . And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people.” The raising of the dead saints, then, is a declarative statement about God making known his identity, which in Matthew is through Jesus as Immanuel (“God with us,” Matthew 1:23). Those who are to be raised in Ezekiel 37 are the righteous believers who have died prior to the coming of Christ (cf. Zechariah 14:4–5; Daniel 12:2), though Matthew seems less concerned with identifying these people than he is with depicting their resurrection triggered by the death of Jesus.

Furthermore, their coming out of their tombs (Matthew 27:53a) is directly from the prophecy of Ezekiel 37:12. But Matthew adds a statement about timing, “after his resurrection” (Matthew 27:53b), presumably in recognition that Jesus was the first to be raised from the dead (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:20–23; Colossians 1:18; Revelation 1:5). When Matthew says, “they went into the holy city” (Matthew 27:53c), he indicates Jerusalem (cf. Matthew 4:5–6), where they “appeared to many” (Matthew 27:53d), seemingly to indicate eyewitnesses to the event.

These unique images are all drawn from various prophetic texts — such as Ezekiel 37:1–14, Daniel 12, and Zechariah 14 — to indicate things that will occur in the future as depictions of salvation, often with the notion of deliverance and restoration from exile. The deliverance here, though, is of a different kind: the events anticipated in the future have occurred at the death of Jesus. And Jesus did not come to save his people from exile, but from their sins (Matthew 1:21), a mission tied up in his very name which, in Hebrew, is the same as Joshua and means “Yahweh saves” or “Yahweh is salvation.” In Jesus, the salvation of Yahweh has been accomplished, and the so-called “special material” is a dramatic illustration that the long-awaited turning of the ages — the hinge-point where redemptive history turns from the old covenant to the new covenant — is accomplished here, at this very point in all history.

Notice that while Mark mentions only the centurion at the cross, Matthew draws attention to the plurality of witnesses: “When the centurion and those who were with him, keeping watch over Jesus . . .” (Matthew 27:54). Matthew then explains that they “saw the earthquake and what took place.” Though this may include the tearing of the veil, the more natural reading of this verse would be that they saw the earthquake and all the other events thereafter. Such “events” (ta genomena) in Matthew typically occur in the life of Jesus in fulfillment of Scripture and to inspire a response, such as repentance (e.g., Matthew 1:22; 11:21, 23; 18:31; 28:11). But how could a centurion at Golgotha on Friday see events that occurred on the Mount of Olives and then in Jerusalem on Sunday? It may be that Matthew is simply telescoping. That is, Matthew notes the earthquake, the rocks splitting, the tombs opening, and the dead rising — and, parenthetically, he notes that these resurrected people appeared to many in Jerusalem after Jesus’s resurrection on Sunday. Suffice it to say that Matthew took no pains to clarify, and so perhaps does not share our concern for explanation.

A Revelation from Heaven

But herein lies a secondary, little-considered function of the tearing of the veil that is hinted at both by the historical depiction of the veil by Josephus and by the Gospel of Mark. As we have seen, Josephus describes the veil in terms of the sky, or the panorama of the heavens.9 In the Gospel of Mark, noted as a source for Matthew, the connection between the veil and the heavens is made explicit: the veil is torn (schizō) at Jesus’s death (Mark 15:38), and the heavens are likewise torn (again schizō) at Jesus’s baptism (Mark 1:10). Add to this the fact that Mark describes Jesus’s death as a kind of baptism (Mark 10:38–39) and the literary connection becomes clear. The splitting of the heavens introduces the heavenly voice revealing the identity of Jesus as God’s Son (Mark 1:11), and the tearing of the veil is in part symbolic of the tearing of the heavens, and serves to reveal to the centurion the identity of Jesus as the Son of God (Mark 15:39).

Importantly, only here in Mark’s Gospel does a human being enter into this supernatural perspective: the voice from heaven declares Jesus to be the Son of God (Mark 1:11; 9:7), the evil spirits also recognize it (Mark 3:11), but in Mark’s Gospel, only at the cross does a human being recognize Jesus as “Son of God” (Mark 15:39). This happens, I suggest, when the historical event of the rending of the temple’s veil is allowed to take on an additional, symbolic role in the Gospel narrative, equating it with the rending open of heaven as an apocalyptic revelation.10 The centurion, like Cornelius in the book of Acts (Acts 10:3–7), receives a special revelation from God. And in Mark’s Gospel, it is here at the cross where Jesus’s “Son of God-ness” is displayed in all its fullness and glory — the sacrificial death on the cross for sins.

How this bears out in Matthew is evident in the response of the centurion and those standing there: “they were filled with awe and said, ‘Truly this was the Son of God!’” (Matthew 27:54). The language of “filled with awe” may be misleading, as the NIV’s “they were terrified” (ephobēthēsan sphodra) is more accurate to the sense. This response resembles that of the disciples when Jesus is transfigured (Matthew 17:6) and suggests a supernatural display (cf. Matthew 14:27, 30; 17:6; 28:5, 10). Their fear is followed by a statement about the identity of Jesus. Despite objections, Jesus truly was the Son of God, as claimed by God himself (Matthew 3:17; 17:5), affirmed by Jesus (Matthew 26:63–64), and even acknowledged by the disciples (Matthew 14:33; 16:16). But the disciples recognize this identity only when a miracle has occurred (Matthew 14:33), and even then, their recognition cannot be the result of natural deduction but rather the result of a supernatural revelation from the Father in heaven (Matthew 16:16–17). With the centurion’s acknowledgement of Jesus as the Son of God, he too has received a revelation from the Father, an acknowledgement of the true identity of Jesus to which the miraculous events surrounding his death, introduced by the torn veil, bear witness.

Celebrating Access to the Father

The veil was a physical, visible barrier indicating that access to God was strictly prohibited because of his holiness. It is imperative to remember that the holiness of God remains unchanged from all eternity — even after the veil is torn. What has changed, then, is that the atoning death of Jesus on the cross has provided the appropriate wrath-bearing sacrifice, one which the bulls and goats of the old covenant could not provide (Hebrews 10:4).

The author of Hebrews expounds on this very clearly: “we have confidence to enter the holy places” (Hebrews 10:19), and this is accomplished by the blood of Jesus. This is the “new and living way” (Hebrews 10:20) that Christ opened for us through the veil, which, the author says, is through his flesh. This means that the breaking of Jesus’s body at the crucifixion is the unprecedented means by which believers have access to the presence of God. This, coupled with the priesthood of Christ (Hebrews 10:21), forms the basis of the author’s exhortation to believers: draw near to God (Hebrews 10:22), hold unwaveringly to our confession of faith (Hebrews 10:23), stir one another up to love and good works (Hebrews 10:24), and continually meet together to encourage one another in the faith (Hebrews 10:25). As we approach Easter, we recall and celebrate what Christ has done for us on the cross, and heed the exhortation to meet habitually in church for corporate worship and exhortation to hold fast to “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).

Listen to the Audio

  1. Author’s rendering of what many translations refer to as mercy seat or atonement cover

  2. Cf. b. Soṭah 17a. 

  3. 4Q405 f15ii-16:3 and 4Q405 f15ii-16:5. 

  4. Targum of Pseudo Jonathan, Genesis 37:17; Pirqe de-Rabbi Eliezer, §7; cf. b. Ḥagigah 15a. 

  5. Josephus, The Jewish War, 1.22.1 §401. 

  6. The Jewish War, 5.5.4 §§212–214. 

  7. The Jewish War, 5.5.4 §214. 

  8. In The Jewish War, Josephus says that the veil was among the cultic articles delivered into Roman hands (cf. 6.8.3 §389) and taken to Rome as plunder (7.5.7 §162) when the temple was destroyed in AD 70 (cf. also 1 Maccabees 1:22; 4:49–51). 

  9. The Jewish War, 5.5.4 §214. 

  10. It is important to observe that events in the Bible can be both historical and symbolic (e.g., the exodus and passing through the waters of the Red Sea). 

What’s the Significance of Simon Carrying Jesus’s Cross?

Thu, 04/18/2019 - 9:02pm

Matthew, Mark, and Luke all tell us that Simon of Cyrene helped carry Jesus’s cross. What’s the significance of this story?

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He Was Forsaken by the Father: The Horror of Good Friday

Thu, 04/18/2019 - 8:02pm

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
     Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning? (Psalm 22:1)

We will never know the full weight those nails held.

The divine Son had broken through into our dark world, shining into the pitch-blackness of our brokenness. Yet his own refused him, because they loved the darkness. And now, at Golgotha, the darkness fell, all the way down, on him. His shoulders bore the sin he never knew.

He had been born to climb this vile tree, walking hand in hand with hostility his whole life. Murderers stalked him before he could walk (Matthew 2:16). He fought the war of wars when he lined up against evil himself in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1). While he healed the sick and cast out demons, the religious leaders accused him of devilry (Matthew 10:25). The Word became flesh and dwelt among sinners, and they brutally assaulted him — relentlessly plotting, beating, mocking until his flesh gave way.

Now, on the cross, his silence only amplified the enmity in their mutiny.

But he did eventually break his silence — not with his own words, but with Psalm 22:1. “Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour. And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, ‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’ that is, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’” (Matthew 27:45–46).

God Surrounded

With pierced hands and collapsing lungs, Jesus gripped Psalm 22. These had been the desperate words of an innocent man facing aggression on every side. Now the sinless Son of God was the surrounded one.

Like the rabid jaws of wild bulls (Psalm 22:12–13), the scribes and Pharisees wanted every last ounce of his blood. The viper’s brood had hunted him at every turn, falsely accusing him of evil and conspiring to destroy him (Matthew 12:14). While he hung where he never belonged, they mocked him, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. . . . He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him” (Matthew 27:42–43) — fulfilling what had been foretold in Psalm 22:8.

Like a pack of mad dogs with razor teeth (Psalm 22:16), the crowds seethed with cravings to kill. Salivating, they yelled, “Let him be crucified!” (Matthew 27:22). “Why? What evil has he done?” Pilate asked. “But they shouted all the more, ‘Let him be crucified!’” (Matthew 27:23). The children of wrath rose up in monstrous rage, hating their one and only hope.

Like a herd of lions crouching murderously behind blades of grass, or wild oxen stampeding their prey (Psalm 22:21), the soldiers licked their lips. They stripped him naked (Matthew 27:28). They forced thorns into his head (Matthew 27:29). They spit into his sinless face (Matthew 27:30). They drove nails into his hands and feet. After hanging him out to die, they gambled for his garments (Matthew 27:35), just as it had been written (Psalm 22:18). They relished his misery, laughing into the face that would soon shine like the sun at full strength.

Even one of the criminals, hanging for his own sins and facing his own judgment, spent one of his very last breaths despising the Son. “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” (Luke 23:39). And if the scribes, crowds, soldiers, and robbers were not enough, his closest friends left him for dead. Peter vigorously denied knowing him (Matthew 26:70), then repeated himself. The rest fled in fear (Mark 14:50).

Jesus was surrounded in every way, but not only surrounded. Now he was lowered among the bulls, dogs, and lions alone.

My God, My God

But every threat around him was but a whisper compared with the wrath he endured from above. “It was the will of the Lord to crush him,” Isaiah writes, “he has put him to grief” (Isaiah 53:10) — a grief great enough to swallow every other grief. The hostility of his Father, against thousands of years of God-despising atrocities, finally fell on him — for us.

The apostles soon would pray to his Father, “Truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel” — the bulls, dogs, and lions gathered together — “to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place” (Acts 4:27–28). Before the foundation of the world, the horror of these hours had been written (Revelation 13:8). Every moment of history had led here — to the slaughter of the spotless Lamb.

Jesus knew what he must suffer (Matthew 20:17–19), but that did not lessen the torment. As mere humans, we simply will never know the depths of his agony. We would have known some of his pain, had he not borne it for us.

Final Word

We remember Psalm 22 for its declaration of forsakenness, but when Jesus rehearsed verse 1 from on high, he had not forgotten how the psalm ends. Even when David was feeling utterly abandoned by God, he could still say,

[The Lord] has not despised or abhorred
     the affliction of the afflicted,
and he has not hidden his face from him,
     but has heard, when he cried to him. (Psalm 22:24)

And then two verses later, “The afflicted shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him shall praise the Lord!” (Psalm 22:26). Jesus owned the weight of verse 1, but he would not feel forsaken for long. He knew he would see the Father’s face again — that he would sit and rule at his right hand. The man who died for sin would rise and be enthroned as Son.

He Has Done It

When the author of Hebrews looked through the tree drenched in blood to the unfading crown Jesus received, he quoted Psalm 22:

It was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering. . . . He is not ashamed to call them brothers, saying, “I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will sing your praise.” (Hebrews 2:10–12)

When Jesus lost his breath while crying out Psalm 22:1, he knew he would finish the song one day, and soon. When he said, “It is finished” (John 19:30), he was just getting started. He was finishing the war that began before the first baby was born, and closing the foreword to his forever kingdom.

And, as Psalm 22 foretold (Psalm 22:30–31), it is and always will be told, what he has done.

He Spent His Last Night Singing: The Melody of Maundy Thursday

Wed, 04/17/2019 - 8:02pm

The Lord is on my side; I will not fear.
     What can man do to me?
(Psalm 118:6)

Songs prepared him to die.

On Thursday, the night before Jesus was crucified, he ate a holy meal and sang a holy song with his friends. It was “the first day of Unleavened Bread, when they sacrificed the Passover lamb” (Mark 14:12). So Jesus and his disciples did what they always did on Passover Eve: they ate roasted lamb, bitter herbs, and unleavened bread; they drank wine; they prayed and sang according to the Jewish tradition. But Jesus wasn’t going through the motions on this Thursday night; he was finishing his mission, preparing the last Lamb for slaughter.

Jesus and his disciples sang a hymn before leaving the upper room for the Mount of Olives (Matthew 26:30; Mark 14:26). The chosen hymn for this holy moment was likely one of the “Hallel Psalms” (Psalm 113–118), which the Jews customarily sang to conclude the Passover celebration. They likely sang in two parts: the leader (Jesus) recited the lines, and his followers responded with the refrain, “Praise the Lord” (“Hallelujah”).

Lyrics Prepared Him to Die

Several days before, Jesus cited the last Hallel Psalm to make the point of his parable crystal clear: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes” (Mark 12:10–11; Psalm 118:22–23). He had set his face like flint for Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets. He had warned his followers that he would be rejected by the religious leaders, then killed (Mark 8:31). He predicted that one of the trusted twelve would betray him, then he roused his drowsy friends and readied to receive Judas’s kiss (Mark 14:18, 42).

The Psalms served as the script of this holy story, and Jesus knew his part: he was David’s Son and David’s Lord, the chosen Cornerstone of the Lord’s true temple (Psalm 110:1; 118:22). The Psalms also were the soundtrack for Jesus’s soul as he prepared for desertion, denial, denigration, and death. Here are four melody lines from the music of Maundy Thursday.

Jesus Blessed the Lord

Blessed be the name of the Lord
from this time forth and forevermore!
(Psalm 113:2)

But we will bless the Lord
from this time forth and forevermore.
Praise the Lord!
(Psalm 115:18).

Jesus did not offer fair-weather praise. He continued to bless his Father as he readied for rejection. Praise prepared him for Judas’s betrayal, for Peter’s denial, for the witnesses’ lies, for the mob’s mocking. Praise prepared him to enter the darkness and bear the cross alone.

The Son sang what was true, right, and good even though falsehood, injustice, and evil seemed to have the upper hand. The Psalms of Praise anchored Jesus’s soul and propelled him forward to finish his mission.

Jesus Looked Forward to Life After Death

You have delivered my soul from death,
my eyes from tears,
my feet from stumbling;
I will walk before the Lord
in the land of the living.
(Psalm 116:8–9)

Precious in the sight of the Lord
is the death of his saints.
(Psalm 116:15)

The Psalms reminded Jesus not only that his righteous death was precious to his Father, but also that death would not have the last word. While the psalmist expected deliverance from death’s doorsteps, Jesus knew that he must experience death’s very depths to defeat it forever.

Death could not hold the Author of life (Acts 3:15). He would take up his cross on Friday confident that he would walk out of the tomb on Sunday. God did not preserve the Son from death, but through death into the land of the living.

Jesus Lifted His Cup

I will lift up the cup of salvation
and call on the name of the Lord,
I will pay my vows to the Lord
in the presence of all his people.
(Psalm 116:13–14).

On Thursday evening, Jesus took a cup, gave thanks, and invited his disciples to partake of the wine representing his blood. Then, in Gethsemane, Jesus pleaded with his Father to remove this cup — the cup of God’s wrath (Isaiah 51:17; Psalm 75:8) — yet he submitted to God’s will.

Jesus’s cup held a strange brew: wrath and redemption, forsakenness and forgiveness, bitterness and blessing. The obedient Son kept his vows and willingly drank the cup the Father gave him. He laid down his life to lift up “the cup of salvation” for us.

Jesus Embraced God’s Help and Expected Ultimate Triumph

The Lord is on my side; I will not fear.
What can man do to me?
The Lord is on my side as my helper;
I shall look in triumph on those who hate me.
(Psalm 118:6–7)

The Psalms reminded Jesus that God was with him and that he need fear no man — not the powerful governor, the mocking priests, the brutal soldiers, or the gawking crowd. “What can man do to me?” They can malign and murder, but they cannot frustrate God’s plans.

Jesus did not defend himself against the lies and lashes, because he embraced his mission and awaited his vindication. He did not seek revenge but prayed for his persecutors and committed himself into his Father’s hands. While his opponents gladly tried to finish him off, Jesus fulfilled the Scriptures and declared, “It is finished” (John 19:30).

The Psalms of Praise served as the melody of Maundy Thursday. The Son blessed his Lord even in his darkest hours. He looked forward to life after death. He lifted the cup of salvation and kept his vows. He embraced God’s help and expected ultimate triumph. These scriptural songs strengthened our Savior to endure Friday’s cross and to await Sunday’s triumph.

Is the Church Breeding Loneliness? Interview with Rosaria Butterfield

Wed, 04/17/2019 - 11:01am

Is the church breeding loneliness? Rosaria Butterfield answers yes.

She believes we have declared independence from each other in our culture and, sadly, in our churches. Once upon a time, the church was “of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common” (Acts 4:32). Shared time, shared food, shared possessions. Shared identity. They were the early church — a family bound together by the blood of Jesus.

Many of our churches today have left behind that picture of the family of God, though. The contemporary Western church’s “absolutely low or nonexistent culture of family of God” has fostered an unparalleled depth of loneliness, with single women in particular buried at the bottom.

The Crisis of Loneliness

I interviewed Rosaria Butterfield, author of The Gospel Comes with a House Key, on the topic of codependency. As we talked about friendship and boundaries, we narrowed in on loneliness, especially among single women.

“Single women,” she says, “are doing a kind of deep-sea diving that married women are not. When you are married, you have somebody holding your ankles when you’re dangling over the cliff. We’ve got these single women, and nobody is there. Who’s going to hold their ankles?” This is a powerful illustration of what Rosaria calls the “crisis of loneliness.” “We [the church] have created the problem, and now we are asking singles to come up with the solution,” says Rosaria. “To tell a single woman who is already lonely to make it her responsibility to set boundaries in relationships” misses the issue.

“We need to do something about this culture of loneliness and lack of family of God in the church.” She says, “Desperate people make idols.” If we defeat the desperation, perhaps the church can be in the business not only of idol destruction, but idol prevention.

Cultivating the Family of God

How, then, do we practically cultivate the Acts 4 “one heart and soul” culture in our present-day family of God? Can the church shift from operating often alone and occasionally together to often together and occasionally alone?

“One heart and soul” may start with one home. Rosaria makes a bold call: “Most families should be living communally with singles in the church.” She continues, “Its purpose, like with parenting, is not to create dependence, but to help people launch. Communal living is a short-term arrangement, for seasons of life when there is a need for a faithful presence.” Discipling, in her mind, ought to grow out of how the Christian family functions.

Rosaria describes several benefits to the covenant family opening its doors: (1) others in the church can have safe intimacy and relationality; (2) it reduces the need for church intervention or counseling because more issues are dealt with organically in community; (3) it places healthy pressure on a marriage to be a godly marriage and not resort to “living together like roommates”; and (4) it visually marks the family of God.

We can weep together. We can rejoice together. We can bear burdens together. We can live life together — because we are already together. You can’t get more of having “everything in common” (Acts 4:32) than by sharing living space and all in it with brothers and sisters in Christ. After all, one day, as the collective bride of Christ, we will all have one dwelling place with our God. Forever (Revelation 21:3).

But Rosaria encourages us to operate as the family of God even when we don’t live under one roof. “At our table, we have many singles in the church that don’t live in our home. They come, they have dinner, we have devotions, and [we] have an understanding of where people are [spiritually].” Scripture anticipates this very togetherness in the body marked by “day by day” gathering, church attendance, prayer, and breaking bread in our homes (Acts 2:42–47). Our homes can and should be open to a regular rhythm of feeding hungry souls and bodies.

For Your Small Group

“One heart and soul” requires an active remembrance that we share one identity. When we celebrated my oldest daughter’s fourth birthday, we threw a party for kids and their parents. Nearly every person in our small group came — and none of them had children. They were all single.

For most of our small group’s life, we have been the only married couple. Our kids have modeled for us what the family of God looks like as they welcome and interact with our brothers and sisters when they walk in the door — from our youngest twenty-something to our oldest seventy-something. To them, each person has a name, identity, gifts, and personality. To them, as it should be for us, we have everything in common: Jesus.

So, what should our small group communities look like? Rosaria points us to the Psalms of Ascent:

Think about what it would have been like to make that pilgrimage to Jerusalem. This is a communal effort, and in that community are people that are very little and very old. There are people that can’t walk themselves and people who have to be carried. There are people who carry other people. There are friendships across ages and all kinds of other differences, and yet we are all looking up to Jerusalem. And that needs to be our model for our Christian family of God, that we are all looking up to this New Jerusalem.

Rosaria strongly warns against homogeneous small groups, particularly those that separate by age, sex, season of life, or common sin struggles. “What single women need are not more single women. What young families need are not more young families.” Why? Rosaria continues, “Small groups that are organized by a sociological category really weaken relationships across differences in a church. And it weakens our ability to really serve one another.”

Rosaria encourages us to “leave room for real, organic friendships.” Christ is our commonality, and we are members of his body. And when we exhibit our unity by blood as we interact across our differences, we not only serve each other; we give the world a picture of genuine fellowship and the One who enables it.

Practical Ideas for Churches

“One heart and soul” must be a church-wide, united mission. For smaller churches, Rosaria says cultivating a culture of family of God can happen more naturally. But for those of us at bigger churches, the elders will have to lead in determining how the right kinds of relationships are established and nurtured. Here are some ideas Rosaria offers to pastors, elders, and church leaders as we grow our family-of-God lifestyle.

1. Provide go-to homes for holidays.

Rosaria recommends, “Some houses in the church are go-to places for holidays — no questions asked; no invitation necessary.” At bigger churches, this initiative may require church leaders to compile a list of members with doors open on holidays throughout the year and have people sign up to join them — a formal start to an organic rhythm down the road.

2. Encourage smalls groups to act as a family.

Small groups break down the walls of big churches into family homes. They are often the means through which we experience fellowship, meet ministry needs within the church, and brainstorm and execute outreach in our neighborhoods and cities. Rosaria reminds us why all three are necessary:

Let’s ask them to be brothers and sisters in the Lord. Let’s make sure that as we serve the Lord together, and we go out there, and we have hard conversations, we’ve got plenty of time to play cards with one another or assemble a puzzle together on the dining room table — that we actually know one another on that level.

We lay down our plans and time at the foot of the cross not only for the sake of outward ministry in the community, but for the sake of knowing each other well. We have game nights, eat less-preferred foods, and surrender kids’ bedtimes (and ours) for the sake of fellowship, like we do for the sake of studying God’s word and engaging the unbelieving world around us.

3. Foster neighborhood-based intimacy.

No matter how foreign Rosaria’s vision for church families feels, we can all take steps forward, especially if we start dreaming and praying with church members in our neighborhood. Much of her counsel assumes that we don’t live far from each other. Regular meal sharing, speaking the word to one another, recreational activities, and missional living in community typically requires proximity.

One practical way forward, then, is simply to figure out who goes to your church and lives close to you. Do you know?

Family Now and Forever

Is the church breeding loneliness? Perhaps. Either way, there is a call here for all of us: through our faithful prayers, listening, and obedience, our day-to-day lives and ministry depict the “one heart and soul” reality of the church, the true family of God. And for those of us who feel like family of God is an unattainable reality, Rosaria sums up our path forward: “Do what you do, and open your arms wider.”

Where Was the Holy Spirit on Good Friday?

Tue, 04/16/2019 - 9:02pm

At the cross, the triune God was at work, securing our redemption. But what role did the Holy Spirit play in Jesus’s crucifixion?

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He Came to Be Betrayed: The Gentle Kiss of Compromise

Tue, 04/16/2019 - 8:02pm

Even my close friend in whom I trusted, who ate my bread, has lifted his heel against me. (Psalm 41:9)

Both would die on trees that day. One hung on a cross; the other swung from a branch. The friendship, by all appearances, spanned over three years. They ate together, laughed together, proclaimed the kingdom together, cast out demons together, battled with Pharisees together. Heaven’s King, stooping from his throne, invited the man into his inner twelve. Night and day, this man fellowshipped with his Creator.

And both died on trees that day. Both were cursed of God: “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree” (Galatians 3:13). One, betrayed; the other, betrayer. The infamous scheme included a familiar face.

Devil Among Disciples

After the pattern of Delilah with Samson, and Ahithopel with David, the lyric of duplicity found in Psalm 41 had to be fulfilled: “He who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me” (John 13:18; Psalm 41:9). The unruly animal would kick out against his Teacher, his Benefactor, his Lord — while still bearing crumbs from the King’s banquet in his beard.

Still embittered that Mary had lavished expensive oil upon Jesus’s feet (John 12:3–8) — instead of giving its price to him so he could steal some before passing the rest to the poor — he went to Jesus’s enemies and sold him for a slave’s price, thirty pieces of silver, as had been foretold (Zechariah 11:12; Matthew 26:14–16). The next evening, as he knew the viper would finally strike, Jesus was troubled in his spirit as he told them one final time, “one of you will betray me” (John 13:21). The psalmist captures his angst,

It is not an enemy who taunts me — then I could bear it; it is not an adversary who deals insolently with me — then I could hide from him. But it is you, a man, my equal, my companion, my familiar friend. (Psalm 55:12–13)

We may bear the roaring indignation of an enemy, but the quiet hatred of a false friend, who can stand? The companion’s dagger reaches the soul. And such flatterers know best where to strike — the relationship proves but reconnaissance. He knew where Jesus would be that night. “Follow me: I shall lead you to him.” Et tu, Judas?

We scrape the bottom of language to hurl appropriate names at his villainy. The Father calls the angels of heaven to be appalled, shocked, undone at the sight (Jeremiah 2:12). Jesus says, “It would have been better for that man if he had not been born” (Mark 14:21). His is the name that became heaven’s curse: Judas Iscariot.

Clean Feet, Filthy Deed

The table was set for his last meal. The night of treachery had arrived. Jesus, having loved them with a perfect love, now “loved them to the end” (John 13:1).

He rose, knowing death would take him back to his Father, wrapped a towel around his waist, and bent low to wash his disciple’s feet (John 13:3–5). The filthy deed was performed with clean feet. Jesus was no hypocrite: “I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you” (Luke 6:27).

Had he known all along? He did. Jesus knew whom he chose when he first saw Judas slithering in the grass: “Did I not choose you, the twelve? And yet one of you is a devil” (John 6:70). That night he said that not all will be cleansed of sin, for, “I know whom I have chosen” (John 13:18).

His final prediction served a purpose: to affirm, even now — especially now — that he was the divine “I am” (John 13:19), the Son of him who authored even this, the darkest chapter. Jesus was not outmaneuvered by quivering Judas — a man whose frail resolve needed a prompt from his victim to finally hatch his evil (John 13:27). He came to be betrayed. The face of the invisible God gave his cheek to the serpent’s kiss.

In Sheep’s Clothing

After he gave voice to his troubled spirit about the betrayal, John gives us the unsettling response. “The disciples looked at one another, uncertain of whom he spoke” (John 13:22).

They met each other’s eyes. How could the culprit sit among them? Instead of wondering who was the greatest, they finally reckoned with the fact that a devil had eaten, slept, and ministered among them. None scowled at Judas and whispered under his breath, I knew it. None grabbed for his sword to cut off his ear. Instead, they asked Jesus, one by one, “Is it I?” (Mark 14:19). Each saw as much darkness in himself as he saw in Judas.

He seemed a devout, well-polished young man. He too left all to follow Jesus. He too performed signs and wonders. He too gained the trust of the other disciples. He too heard the preaching, saw the miracles, and did not depart when things got tough. He would have secured more respect when he feigned great care for the poor (John 12:5–6). Gifted in business, they entrusted him with the finances. This child of darkness shrouded himself in light.

Two Men on Trees

Did Judas know he was a devil? He knew he stole, but then again, what was a coin here and there? He wasn’t hurting anyone, he thought. Although unique in the punctuation that ended his life of sin, his, nonetheless, is a familiar path to perdition. The way of Judas was the way of compromise.

And we too show ourselves devils when we live in secret sin: “Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning” (1 John 3:8). Do you walk the path of Judas? Let his swaying body remind you where the great promises of sin and Satan lead.

But two men die on trees that day.

Behold the glory of this second man, who laid down his life for his friends. He conspired with his Father to undertake punishment as a Judas to save men of Judas’s stock. See him willingly betrayed, forsaken, oppressed; writhing under his God’s wrath to redeem a cursed people from eternal judgment. See him embrace the traitor’s heel to heal traitors.

What will we do with thirty — or thirty thousand — pieces of silver, if we lose him? Reject any and every such offer. Eternal life is to know the Father and his Son whose name has become the fragrance of heaven: Jesus Christ. Our treason was his agony so that his glory would become our treasure.

Philippians 3:7–10: The Mark of a True Christian

Tue, 04/16/2019 - 9:02am

In this life, we will suffer. And through that suffering, we will know Christ in a way nothing else can provide.

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