Bell Creek Community Church

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

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How Do I Show Kindness to My Children and Expect Them to Obey?

Tue, 04/03/2018 - 8:00pm

How do we teach our children to respect our God-given authority, while also treating them with Christlike humility and servant leadership?

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In Search of Home

Tue, 04/03/2018 - 11:00am

A strip of road unwound toward a nondescript town that neither of us had ever visited. He hailed from rural Kenya, where he taught neighbors about the Bible among plots of maize and rust-colored earth. I knew only the concrete and white clapboard of the northeastern US — its coffee mugs, felt coats, and snow-gray skies. An ocean separated the daily trappings of our lives.

For one hour on a highway, however, we conversed with the easy tenderness of a brother and sister, of two strangers made close through Christ. We talked about calling, about service, and about hearing God. As telephone poles slid past the windshield in a dark grid, I asked how his seminary studies in the US had influenced his life in Kenya.

“It’s hard,” he sighed. “Being here has changed me. I’ve never completely belonged here, but I don’t fit in there anymore either.”

Tangled Memories

I recognized in his voice the same forlorn tone with which other friends had spoken of this straddling between worlds. Psychologists and sociologists give it a name — acculturation, the merging and modification of cultures. As is often true of theory and statistics, journal articles seldom capture the flesh-and-blood nuances of the struggle: the creases upon a brow, the eyes misting from the sting of tangled memories. The photographs that suddenly seem out of place. The drifting.

My friend drew a breath, and with it seemed to take hold of the New England tree line, to anchor himself in that cragged horizon. When he finally spoke, his words were taut, his voice barely holding together, the foundation cracking. “It’s like I don’t really have a home,” he said. “But then again, what home does any of us have, before heaven?”

The words hung in the air, their weight pulling upon my heart. I could not know the intricacies of his suspension between cultures, the raw wounds that struggle tore open. But everyone on this lush earth knows the yearning for home. I could palpate the longing, could feel the emptiness twisting my stomach as I reached into my own memory for places that seemed to flicker and vanish, fragile lights snuffed out.

Wanderers on the Earth

Home is a word we brandish casually, its colors weathered, its edges frayed from careless use. It connotes stability, rest, belonging. Yet with all its familiarity, how often does the peace of home elude us?

How many of us return to a childhood home to find the enchanted gardens overgrown with weeds, and cracks and ivy climbing the walls? How often do we return to beloved spaces to find the people who shaped us gone, their voices and scent vanished from the empty, unswept rooms? How do we grasp home when families break and scatter? How do we cling to it, when its definition forever shifts, its location constantly changes? How do we admit that wherever we go, we don’t really belong? That when we stroll boulevards fringed with skyscrapers, and lose ourselves in a sea of people, we still feel so alone?

Places leave imprints upon us that persist for a lifetime. Our own marks upon our surroundings, however, are ephemeral. Homes in this life change us, then forget us. They mold our hearts, but eventually our fingerprints fade from their surfaces. With each cycle of the earth about the sun, cherished walls wither and crumble. This side of the fall, every soul stumbles about the planet in search of home. Wrenched from God, none of us entirely belongs. We yearn to be at rest with the Lord, but we all remain wanderers, lost in the desert.

Our heritage as nomads began when Adam and Eve, trembling, skulked away from the garden with their eyes averted from God (Genesis 3:21–24). Our displacement has continued since then, driving us into shackles (Deuteronomy 6:21), into the wilderness (Numbers 32:13), into a constant restlessness as we strive to become whole again. To be gathered and led, finally, completely, by the patient, loving arms of the good shepherd (Zechariah 10:2; John 10:11).

In the meantime, our souls stir in discontent. Restlessness grips our bones. “How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts!” we inwardly cry. “My soul longs, yes, faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God” (Psalm 84:1–2). While we seek, strive, and pine for belonging, we know the rust-colored roads and white clapboard are only shadows of the home for which we all yearn.

Heaven’s Walls

Yet even in our most desperate longing, we have hope. As C.S. Lewis writes, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world” (Mere Christianity, 138). While photographs grow yellow and roots from trees push through the decaying sidewalk, we remain God’s beloved. We bear his image (Genesis 1:27). He knows every wind-torn hair upon our heads (Matthew 10:30).

Christ offers us, at long last, the promise of home, and peace, and belonging for which we all thirst (Psalm 42:1, Matthew 11:28). While we struggle through cultures and memory to discern our place, we cling to the hope that this sojourn on earth is transient. As Paul writes, “For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling” (2 Corinthians 5:1–2).

We serve a God who hears our cries, who knows the fracturing of our hearts as we wander the earth. Through Christ’s sacrifice, he welcomes us into respite (Psalm 107:4–7). As the father embraces his prodigal son, so God rushes to us with open arms, welcoming us to his table, inviting us to enjoy the communion possible only through the healing power of redemption (Luke 15:20) — through the forgiveness of our sins, which at long last restores us to God and makes all things new (Revelation 21:5).

In Christ, we find belonging. Through him we revel in a joy without boundaries, a joy that never fades, a joy whose walls will never crumble to dust. As the road unwinds, Christ’s resurrection draws us into the perfect communion for which our souls ache. He restores us. He renews us. He finally, gently pulls us weary and dust-covered from our wanderings, and at last calls us home.

Psalm 1:1: How to Lose Your Happiness

Tue, 04/03/2018 - 9:47am

Those who say they want to be happy while they still indulge in sin do not really want to be happy.

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Psalm 1:1: How to Lose Your Happiness

Tue, 04/03/2018 - 8:01am

Those who say they want to be happy while they still indulge in sin do not really want to be happy.

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Where Did the Pope Come From? The Rise of the Roman Pontiff

Mon, 04/02/2018 - 8:02pm

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “The Roman Pontiff, by reason of his office as Vicar of Christ, and as pastor of the entire Church has full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered” (882).

Further reinforcing his power and authority, the catechism claims, “The Pope enjoys, by divine institution, supreme, full, immediate, and universal power in the care of souls” (937). The catechism presents the papacy as a divinely appointed institution that presides over the life of the church and exercises its rule over God’s flock.

Where do these massive claims come from? Roman Catholics trace the pope’s origin to the apostle Peter. But history tells a different story.

On What Rock?

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was the Roman Catholic papacy. It was a long process that led to the setting up of this millennia-old office that combines spiritual and political claims.

The pope claims to hold an office originally bestowed by Jesus upon the apostle Peter, and which has been passed down through a direct and unbroken line of succeeding apostles. In other words, the pope claims to hold apostolic authority and continue the mission Jesus supposedly entrusted to Peter in Matthew 16:18: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.”

The Roman Catholic Church sees an embryonic stage of the papacy in this passage. It believes Jesus gave to Peter (and by implication, to all his formal successors) a foundational role in the building of his church. Subsequent traditions and practices continued to develop the bishop of Rome’s role to the point at which the papacy eventually emerged.

However, when we do a little digging, we soon enough find no organic connection between what Jesus says of Peter in Matthew 16:18 and the function of the papacy. The pope claims a succession to Peter’s ministry, but Jesus makes no reference to such a succession. Nor can we see in the text how this succession became attributed to the city of Rome, nor the imperial form that the papacy took.

A better interpretation of Matthew 16:18 is that the church, the community of Jesus’s disciples, will be built upon Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, not on Peter himself. Jesus underlines the fact that “my” church will be built in such a way. It is not Peter’s church; it is the church of Jesus, founded by Jesus as the Messiah. Jesus is the founder and the builder of the church, whereas Peter is a witness, a spokesperson of this divine truth that God was revealing to him and the other disciples.

Moreover, Jesus gives no indication that Peter will have successors that will take his place. This text can be seen as the biblical basis for the papacy only if the doctrine of the papacy has already been established apart from Scripture, and then subsequently and retrospectively squeezed into it.

Child of the Empire

If the papacy isn’t the office of Peter’s apostolic successors, where did it come from? A look at history shows that it’s far more a product of the Roman Empire than of Peter’s ministry. The Roman imperial pattern was the influential blueprint that shaped the papal institution from the fourth century onward. The papacy is more a child of imperial categories than biblical ones. The papacy never would have emerged if there were no empire forming the political and cultural milieu of the life of the early church.

The slow process that led to the formation of the papacy depended on the importance of Rome as the capital city of the empire and the power it exercised in the ancient world. The ideology of the Roma aeterna (eternal Rome) crept into the church and influenced the way Christians perceived the role of the church of Rome in relation to the role of the city in the affairs of the empire.

As the Roman Empire gradually abandoned the West, what was left in Rome was the “imperial” structure of the church with the pope as its head. Then, between the fourth and fifth centuries, popes applied to themselves the title of pontifex, the name of the chief high priest in ancient Rome.

Several centuries later, confronted with the Protestant Reformation, which invited the church to turn from its self-absorption and rediscover the gospel of God’s grace, Rome strengthened a sacramental system that made the church the mediator of divine grace. Then, confronted with modernity, which pushed for a review of the prerogatives of the church over people’s consciences and society, Rome elevated the papacy to an even more accentuated role through the dogma of papal infallibility — a move without any biblical support whatsoever.

Rome vs. the Reformers

The papacy is a child of the Roman institutional church, rather than a child of Scripture. This is why the Protestant Reformers took issue with it. In writing against the Catholic theologian Johannes Eck in 1519, Martin Luther developed his critical approach towards the papacy with a full set of arguments.

According to the German Reformer, the authority of popes and councils should be subordinate to that of the Bible. The papacy was not instituted by Christ, but was instead established by the church over the course of its history. So it does not come from “divine law,” but is instead a human institution.

Luther argued, further, that the “rock” of Matthew 16:18 is not a reference to Peter, but is either his confession of Jesus on behalf of the whole church or Christ himself. Christ alone is the solid foundation of the church (1 Corinthians 3:11). The Roman popes have nothing “Petrine” about them, nor is there anything “papal” in Peter. The papacy is not commanded nor foreseen in Scripture, and therefore obedience to the word of God must take precedence over obedience to any mere human. Luther stressed that if the pope disobeys Scripture, the faithful Christian should follow the latter without hesitation. Christians are not obligated to obey an unfaithful pope.

In 1544, writing on the unity of the church, John Calvin also refuted Catholic arguments for the papacy, stating that while Scripture often speaks of Christ as the head of the church, it never speaks of the pope this way. The unity of the church is based on one God, one faith, and one baptism (Ephesians 4:4–5), with no mention of the necessity of the pope in order for the church to be the church. Moreover, Calvin argued, in listing the ministries and offices of the church, Paul is silent about a present or future papacy. Peter was Paul’s co-worker, not his pope-like leader. The universal bishop of the church is Christ alone.

To this biblical argument for the headship of Christ, Calvin added a historical reference to some patristic writings that support the same New Testament view. Even Cyprian of Carthage, a church father considered by many to have favored an early form of the papacy, calls the bishop of Rome a “brother, fellow-Christian, and colleague in the episcopate,” thus showing that he did not have in view the kind of primacy that was later attributed to the pope.

To keep the unity of the church, Christ alone is the Lord we need. This was true in the sixteenth century, and it continues to be true today.

What About the World?

In today’s world, this is only one side of the matter. In ecumenical circles, many are inclined to believe that, in the globalized world, a global Christian spokesperson would be practically useful for Christianity as a whole. In interfaith circles, some religious leaders (for example, from the Muslim world) go as far as to say that the pope represents the whole of humanity when he advocates for the poor of the world or when he makes appeals for peace.

The world, both religious and secular, seems to yearn for a global figure that no political institution and no international organization can provide at the moment. Therefore, Protestants are pressed with the question, Does the world need a leader in order to live in peace? It’s a question that continues to be posed to Bible-believing Christians, especially in times when the pope attracts much attention and is looked at as being one of the few, if not the only one, who can speak on behalf of all.

The troublesome reality, however, is that the pope continues to claim religious and political roles that are biblically unwarranted. As the church does not need a mere human pope to be united, so the world does not need a global religious leader, other than Christ himself, to live in peace. Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you” (John 14:27). The church and the world need Jesus Christ, and him alone.

Deny Yourself for Greater Delight

Mon, 04/02/2018 - 8:00am

Self-denial is not an end in itself, but a pathway to greater joy in Jesus.

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He Preached a Big God with a Broken Heart: Charles Spurgeon (1834–1892)

Sun, 04/01/2018 - 8:02pm

Everyone faces adversity and must find ways to persevere through the oppressing moments of life. Everyone must get up and walk through the routines of making breakfast and washing clothes and going to work and paying bills and discipling children. We must, in general, keep life going when our hearts are breaking.

But it’s different with pastors — not totally different, but different. The heart is the instrument of our vocation. Charles Spurgeon said, “Ours is more than mental work — it is heart work, the labour of our inmost soul” (Lectures to My Students, 156). When a pastor’s heart is breaking, therefore, he must labor with a broken instrument. The question becomes, then, not just how you keep living when the marriage is blank or when the finances don’t reach or when the pews are bare and friends forsake you, but how do you keep preaching?

I thank God for the healing history of the power of God in the lives of his saints and, in particular, for the life and ministry of Charles Spurgeon, who, for thirty-eight years at the New Park Street Chapel and the Metropolitan Tabernacle in London, modeled how to preach through adversity. And for those who have eyes to see, the lessons are not just for pastors, but for all of us.

Tireless Preacher

Spurgeon was called at the age of seventeen to be the pastor of a Congregational church in Waterbeach. Just short of two years later, at the age of nineteen, he candidated at the New Park Street Chapel, London. He started his ministry there the next year (1854). The church changed its name to the Metropolitan Tabernacle when a new building was constructed. Spurgeon would be the pastor of this congregation for 38 years until his death in 1892.

Preaching was the most renowned and effective part of Spurgeon’s life. He preached more than six hundred times before he was twenty. After the new building opened, he was typically heard by six thousand people on the Lord’s Day. He once preached to the largest indoor crowd of his life, 23,654 — without electronic amplification. His sermons would eventually sell about twenty-five thousand copies a week and be translated into twenty languages.

When he came to New Park Street Chapel, there were 232 members. Thirty-eight years later, there were 5,311, with a total addition of 14,460 (an average of 380 new members a year). All of this happened even though he had no formal theological education. He was self-taught and read voraciously — about six books a week, with a phenomenal memory. At his death, his library consisted of about twelve thousand volumes. To secure the legacy of preaching for other churches and times, he founded a Pastors’ College, which trained nearly nine hundred men in his lifetime.

In addition to the six substantial books he read a week, Spurgeon produced more than 140 books of his own — such as The Treasury of David, which was twenty years in the making, and Morning and Evening and John Ploughman’s Talk.

But the ever-present Lord Jesus did not spare his friend and servant the “many tribulations” Paul promised to all who would enter the kingdom of heaven (Acts 14:22). His life was hard and, by the standard of his friend George Müller, short. He stood before his people for the last time on June 7, 1891, and died the following January 31 from a painful combination of rheumatism, gout, and Bright’s disease. He was 57.

Spurgeon’s Suffering

Spurgeon knew the whole range of adversity that most preachers suffer — and a lot more.

Spurgeon knew the everyday, homegrown variety of frustration and disappointment from lukewarm members. He felt the extraordinary calamities that befall us once in a lifetime. He was familiar with the adversity of family pain. He faced unbelievable physical suffering. He had to endure a lifetime of public ridicule and slander, sometimes of the most vicious kind. And finally, Spurgeon had recurrent battles with depression.

This final adversity was the result of the others. It is not easy to imagine the omnicompetent, eloquent, brilliant, full-of-energy Spurgeon weeping like a baby for no reason that he could think of. In 1858, at age twenty-four, it happened for the first time. He said, “My spirits were sunken so low that I could weep by the hour like a child, and yet I knew not what I wept for” (“The Anguish and Agonies of Charles Spurgeon,” 24). He added:

Causeless depression cannot be reasoned with, nor can David’s harp charm it away by sweet discoursings. As well fight with the mist as with this shapeless, undefinable, yet all-beclouding hopelessness. . . . The iron bolt which so mysteriously fastens the door of hope and holds our spirits in gloomy prison, needs a heavenly hand to push it back. (Lectures to My Students, 163)

He saw his depression as his “worst feature.” “Despondency,” he said, “is not a virtue; I believe it is a vice. I am heartily ashamed of myself for falling into it, but I am sure there is no remedy for it like a holy faith in God” (“The Anguish and Agonies of Charles Spurgeon,” 24).

In spite of all these sufferings and persecutions, Spurgeon endured to the end, and was able to preach mightily until his last sermon at the Tabernacle on June 7, 1891. The question I have asked in reading this man’s life and work is, how did he persevere and preach through this adversity?

Preaching Through Adversity

There were innumerable strategies of grace in the life of Charles Spurgeon. The ones I have chosen to mention are limited, but the scope of this man’s strategies and the wisdom of his warfare were immense.

1. Submit to a Sovereign God

Spurgeon saw his depression as the design of God for the good of his ministry and the glory of Christ.

What comes through again and again in Spurgeon’s writings is his unwavering belief in the sovereignty of God in all his afflictions. More than anything else, it seems, this kept him from caving in to the adversities of his life. He writes:

It would be a very sharp and trying experience to me to think that I have an affliction which God never sent me, that the bitter cup was never filled by his hand, that my trials were never measured out by him, nor sent to me by his arrangement of their weight and quantity. (“The Anguish and Agonies of Charles Spurgeon,” 25)

For Spurgeon, this view of God was not an argument for debate; it was a means of survival. Our afflictions are the health regimen of an infinitely wise Physician. Though Spurgeon dreaded suffering and would avoid it, he said:

I am afraid that all the grace that I have got of my comfortable and easy times and happy hours, might almost lie on a penny. But the good that I have received from my sorrows, and pains, and griefs, is altogether incalculable. . . . Affliction is the best bit of furniture in my house. It is the best book in a minister’s library. (“The Anguish and Agonies of Charles Spurgeon,” 25)

I would say with Spurgeon that in the darkest hours, it is the sovereign goodness of God that has given me the strength to go on — the granite promise that he rules over my circumstances and means it for good, no matter what anyone else means.

2. Breathe Different Air

Spurgeon supplemented his theological survival strategy with God’s natural means of survival — his use of rest and nature.

For all Spurgeon’s talk about spending and being spent, he counsels us to rest and take a day off and open ourselves to the healing powers God has put in the world of nature.

“Our Sabbath is our day of toil,” he said, “and if we do not rest upon some other day we shall break down” (Lectures to My Students, 160). Eric Hayden reminds us that Spurgeon “kept, when possible, Wednesday as his day of rest” (Highlights in the Life of C.H. Spurgeon, 161). More than that, Spurgeon said to his students:

It is wisdom to take occasional furlough. In the long run, we shall do more by sometimes doing less. On, on, on forever, without recreation may suit spirits emancipated from this “heavy clay,” but while we are in this tabernacle, we must every now and then cry halt, and serve the Lord by holy inaction and consecrated leisure. Let no tender conscience doubt the lawfulness of going out of harness for a while. (Lectures to My Students, 161)

In my pastoral ministry experience, I can testify that time off is crucial for breathing a different spiritual air. When we take time away from the press of duty, Spurgeon recommends that we breathe country air and let the beauty of nature do its appointed work. He confesses that “sedentary habits have tendency to create despondency . . . especially in the months of fog.” He then counsels, “A mouthful of sea air, or a stiff walk in the wind’s face would not give grace to the soul, but it would yield oxygen to the body, which is next best” (Lectures to My Students, 160).

3. Commune with Christ

Spurgeon consistently nourished his soul by communion with Christ through prayer and meditation. It was a great mercy to me at an embattled point in my ministry that I discovered John Owen’s book Communion with God. It nourished me again and again as my soul asked, “Can God spread a table in the wilderness?”

Spurgeon warned his students:

Never neglect your spiritual meals, or you will lack stamina and your spirits will sink. Live on the substantial doctrines of grace, and you will outlive and out-work those who delight in the pastry and syllabubs of “modern thought.” (Lectures to My Students, 310)

I think one of the reasons Spurgeon was so rich in language and full in doctrinal substance and strong in the Spirit, in spite of his despondency and his physical oppression and his embattlements, is that he was always immersed in a great book. Most of us cannot match Spurgeon’s six books a week, but we can always be walking with some great “see-er” of God. Over the years, I’ve learned that the key in all good reading of theology is to strive in the reading for utterly real fellowship with Christ. Spurgeon said:

Above all, feed the flame with intimate fellowship with Christ. No man was ever cold in heart who lived with Jesus on such terms as John and Mary did of old. . . . I never met with a half-hearted preacher who was much in communion with the Lord Jesus. (Lectures to My Students, 315)

In many ways, Spurgeon was a child in his communion with God. He did not speak in complex terms about anything too strange or mystical. If we are going to preach through adversity, we have to live in communion with God on such intimate terms — speaking to him our needs and our pain, and feeding on the grace of his promises and the revelations of his glory.

A Sure Triumph

Near the end of his life, in Spurgeon’s last address of his pastors’ conference, he said, “Who is he that can harm us if we follow Jesus? How can his cause be defeated? At His will, converts will flock to His truth as numerous as the sands of the sea. . . . Wherefore be of good courage, and go on your way singing [and preaching!]:

“The winds of hell have blown,
The world its hate hath shown,
Yet it is not o’erthrown.
Hallelujah for the cross!
It shall never suffer loss!
The Lord of hosts is with us,
The God of Jacob is our refuge.” (An All-Round Ministry, 395–96)

Is the Great Commission for Every Individual Christian?

Sun, 04/01/2018 - 8:00pm

God may not call you to move to another country to join the Great Commission, but he has called you to play a significant part.

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The Single Most Important Day in History: Relive the Surprise of Easter Sunday

Sat, 03/31/2018 - 8:02pm

It is Sunday, April 5, AD 33. This day will change the entire course of world history, more than any other day before or after, though only a handful of people will know this by day’s end.

In an ancient, arid, Near Eastern city, one singular event will occur this day, unleashing a movement so compelling, so enduring, so influential, so unstoppable that two thousand years and billions of adherents later, it will still be growing, faster than ever, while the mighty empire that witnesses its birth will long lay in ancient ruins. This movement will shape nations, span oceans, birth universities, launch hospitals, transform tribal peoples in the world’s remotest places, and be spoken, read, and sung about in more languages than any other religious movement by far.

That singular event? The body of Jesus of Nazareth will exit his tomb.

The Women

The not-yet-risen sun is coloring the sky with purples and blues, the high clouds with reds and oranges, as a handful of women wind their way through the dark, quiet streets of Jerusalem. They are headed toward a burial garden. Few words are shared. This isn’t merely to keep a low profile. No one has the heart to speak. The reality and horror and grief and disorientation of Jesus’s death is re-dawning on them the closer they get to his grave.

These faithful women had kept vigil all through Jesus’s brutal execution on Friday and stayed as close to him as possible till the stone had sealed his tomb. But Joseph and Nicodemus barely had the Lord buried before the Sabbath began at sundown. There simply hadn’t been time to properly anoint the corpse. These devoted and courageous followers of Jesus intend to finish this precious, horrible job this morning. And best to do it before the city is up and going, so as to avoid undesired attention.

One of the women raises the massive problem of the tombstone. Another prays that the Roman guards will show some mercy and help them.

The Guards

Unbeknownst to them, the guards are in no position to help. They are at the chief priest’s residence frantically describing their terrifying experience to Caiaphas, Annas, and a number of Sanhedrin members. The earth shook! A bright being seemed to descend from the very heavens! He rolled away the stone like it was nothing and sat on it! They had all collapsed in terror.

Caiaphas the Sadducee listens, eyes closed, rubbing his forehead with his left hand. These hardened men can’t seriously believe such superstitious lunacy. He suspects a failure to execute their job is behind this supernatural thriller. He knows what they’re really terrified of: Pilate’s execution orders when he discovers what happened. The guards plead for protection. Caiaphas thinks this might actually be useful.

Council members confer. They clearly had underestimated the scope of this elaborate Messiah hoax. They must get ahead of the story, control the narrative. Tales of a resurrected Messiah will fill the streets with an ignorant mob demanding revolution. The zealots will take every advantage. Jewish blood will flow from Roman swords. And Rome will be done with the Council’s ineffective leadership. The word must be spread immediately: Jesus’s body was stolen by his disciples. It’s the only reasonable explanation. And the guards must not be harmed. They’ll be needed as eyewitness advocates for the reasonable explanation. Pilate will understand this necessity, in view of the potential explosiveness of the moment.

Council members demythologize the morning’s events for the soldiers, and explain the urgency of the situation. Their cooperation is required for the good of everyone. Financial compensation is provided for their “trouble,” along with a promise that if they help avoid further trouble, no harm will come to them from the governor. If the guards are not convinced by the Council’s explanations, they are most definitely grateful for the Council’s protection.

The Tomb

Once in the garden, the women realize things aren’t right. First, there are no guards. Next, they see that the tombstone poses a far different problem than they feared. It’s been roughly shoved to the side. The grave’s mouth is gaping open. So now are the women’s. They stand for a moment in frozen confusion and fear.

Then Mary Magdalene walks up to the opening and takes a step in, the others tentatively following. She stifles a gasping sob. Jesus’s body is gone, she reports. Hurriedly laying down her spices, she says she must tell Peter, and runs off.

The others look at one another and then back at the tomb. The other Mary leads them inside. Perhaps they’ll find clues to what’s happened. Suddenly two men appear out of nowhere, startling the women to the ground. The men are clothed in blinding white. The women would have shielded their eyes if they hadn’t already done so out of terror. The men speak to them in powerful and strangely comforting unison,

“Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise.” (Luke 24:5–7)

Just as suddenly, the men are gone. The women hesitantly lift their eyes. Did that just happen? They share stunned looks of what would be disbelief if they hadn’t just experienced this together. They said Jesus is risen? Alive? Now they must tell Peter.

The Disciples

When Mary Magdalene reaches the disciples’ hideout, she makes sure no one is watching, then knocks. John lets her in. She asks for Peter. There’s shock in her eyes and panic in her voice. Peter steps close and she speaks low. She’s been to the tomb. It’s open. Jesus’s body is gone! So are the guards! The blood drains from Peter’s face. He runs out and John takes off after him. Mary begins to follow and can’t contain the tears. They killed him, for goodness’ sake! Could they not leave him alone, even now?

The other women, meanwhile, take an indirect way to the disciples’ place, trying to appear inconspicuous. They knock and are let in. They too ask for Peter. He’s gone. So is John. What’s wrong? They share their remarkable story with the nine. But the men don’t remark. They just look back with incredulous and uncomfortable expressions. This story is a fairytale.

John beats Peter to the tomb. He stops outside and peers into this sacred place of profane death. Peter arrives seconds later and bursts right in. John, emboldened, follows. What they find doesn’t make sense. This clearly isn’t the work of grave robbers or vandals. Why would someone take the body? Perhaps they moved him to another grave. Then why leave the burial cloths? And why take the care to fold the face cloth? And where are the guards? They exit puzzled and troubled, and walk past Mary who’s leaning against the stone, weeping quietly.

The Lord

After a few minutes, Mary moves over and peers into the tomb. She gasps again. Two men in bright white are sitting on the deathbed. They speak to her in powerful and strangely comforting unison, “Why are you weeping?” Stunned and confused, all Mary stutters, “They have taken away my Lord and I do not know where they have laid him.”

A noise startles her from behind. She turns. A man is standing a few yards off. A strange sensation flashes over her. The man speaks. “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” There’s something about his voice. Who is this? The gardener? “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” He’s looking at her with familiar intensity. “Mary.” Her eyes and mouth grow wide. She places the strange sensation: recognition! It is the Lord! “Rabboni.”

So begin the appearances. A short time later he appears to Peter (Luke 24:34; 1 Corinthians 15:5). In the afternoon, he spends three hours with two other disciples walking to Emmaus and giving them a lesson in redemptive history, only revealing his identity to them at dinner (Luke 24:13–35). In the evening, he appears to all the disciples but one (Luke 24:36–43; John 20:19–23).

The Most Reasonable Explanation

So ended the single most important day in history. And so began the single most influential movement in history. Love it or hate it, the world has not seen anything like it.

The singular event that crowned the greatness of this day, that launched the irrepressible movement, was Jesus of Nazareth’s exit from the tomb.

We might ask, was there ever an exit in the first place? Or is the whole story as legendary as the Easter Bunny? Few credible historians deny Jesus’s existence or his execution. The historical evidence is too compelling. So is the historical evidence that his tomb was found empty.

Or we might ask, did Jesus exit the tomb as a stolen corpse? This idea is less credible than it all being a legend. The Jewish and Roman authorities had all the power, resources, and motivation to track down a body or convincing evidence and witnesses, but they never could. It never went beyond an assertion. Nor could they silence convincing witnesses of his resurrection. And it’s extremely unlikely these witnesses were lying, considering that nearly all who claimed to witness Jesus’s appearance on that most remarkable Sunday suffered horrible deaths because of their claims.

So, did Jesus exit the tomb as the resurrected Lord of life? Considering the weaknesses of the other possible options, the more we look at it, this surprisingly becomes the most reasonable explanation, making this question a haunting one. Something simply astonishing happened that day. The strangest, least likely claim if it didn’t really happen — that Jesus exited the tomb alive, as witnesses testified — has survived and overcome every attempt (often brutal) to refute or squash it. And the church Jesus established has, against all odds, spread all over the world, just as he said it would. Whatever this is, it is not the stuff of legends nor lies.

That empty tomb, after all these years, is more influential than ever. It refuses to leave the stage of world attention. Look seriously at the vacant grave and ponder the angels’ words: “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen” (Luke 24:5–6).

And then ponder Jesus’s words: “Do not disbelieve, but believe” (John 20:27).

Love Delights in Another’s Joy

Sat, 03/31/2018 - 8:00am

Love does not rest until others participate in all that we have in Christ.

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No One Will Take Your Joy from You: Why Jesus Had to Leave the Earth

Fri, 03/30/2018 - 8:02pm

As his death approached, Jesus became increasingly focused on stabilizing the joy of his disciples in the face of the looming crisis. He deals with two main threats to their joy in John 16:4–24. First, he is leaving them and going to the Father. Second, he is going to die soon. Both seem to undermine lasting joy.

In answering their perplexity, Jesus speaks in a way that reaches across the centuries to stabilize our own tottering joy. This is not incidental. It is what he meant to do: “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (John 15:11).

1. Your Sorrow Will Be Short

First, he is leaving them. This is not good news in their ears. “Now I am going to him who sent me. . . . Because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your heart” (John 16:5–6). This sorrow is owing to love and ignorance. To love: because their joy is in him. To ignorance: because they have no idea how his physical absence could be to their advantage.

So Jesus seeks to solidify their joy in his absence not by diminishing the love, but by removing the ignorance. He says, “I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you” (John 16:7). Among the many reasons this is to their advantage, the main one is that the Spirit is going to make the glory of Jesus more real. Yes, more real than if he were there in the flesh: “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth. . . . He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine” (John 16:13–15).

This is breathtaking. Do we see what this means to the disciples and to us? How many Christians today say, “If only I could have been there and seen him face-to-face!” Or: “If only I could have a vision of Jesus as he really was in history — something tangible!”

Such longings betray a grave ignorance of the advantages we have, precisely because Jesus died, rose again, and is not here in bodily form, but present by his Spirit. The Helper, the Spirit of truth, that the Father sends is the Spirit of the risen Christ. “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you” (John 14:18). When the Spirit comes, Jesus comes. And this presence, he says, is better than the bodily presence of his earthly days.

To have the Spirit of Christ at work in us, glorifying the risen Christ and making real for us all that the Father is for us in him and in his triumph over death — this is a wonder vastly superior to what the disciples knew in their lifetime. There is no greater glory than the glory of God in the face of the risen Christ (2 Corinthians 4:6). The fuller we are of the Holy Spirit, the more clearly we see and enjoy this glory.

That is the first way Jesus sought to stabilize their joy in these last, dark hours before his death. Though there is a long-term departure coming, he will be with them in a way better than if his earthly stay were extended indefinitely.

2. Real Sorrow for a Little While

The second way Jesus stabilizes their joy is just as remarkable. His disciples thought they heard him correctly when he said, “I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer” (John 16:10). This departure, they understood to be for a long time, probably their lifetime.

But suddenly Jesus said these unexpected words: “A little while, and you will see me no longer; and again a little while, and you will see me” (John 16:16). Now they are confused. He had said, “I go to the Father.” He had said that in his place he would send the Spirit of truth. He had not spoken of a quick turnaround. So they began to question, “What does he mean by ‘a little while’? We do not know what he is talking about” (John 16:18).

Every time Jesus had tried to explain to the disciples that his pathway to the Father was through horrific crucifixion, they had been resistant or baffled. “They did not understand the saying, and were afraid to ask him” (Mark 9:32). But this is what he would now address. They do not yet grasp how great will be the threat to their joy in the next three days. If their joy is to be stable and lasting, he must prepare them for this.

He does so by warning them that sorrow is on the way. He does not try to stabilize their joy by telling them their life will be without sorrow. On the contrary, the sorrow will be intense. And it is coming very soon — in just “a little while.” So he says, “A little while, and you will see me no longer.” This is the source of their sorrow. What he does not say directly is: “You won’t see me because I am going to be dead.” But that is what he means. He calls his indirect words “figures of speech” (John 16:25).

The way he makes the realism of their sorrow serve the stability of their joy is first by saying that the sorrow will be short (“ . . . again a little while, and you will see me”), and then by contrasting their sorrow with three things: (1) the joy of the world, (2) their own future joy, and (3) the joy of a mother after giving birth.

1. Real Sorrow Compared to Immortal Joy

“Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice.” (John 16:20)

Why does Jesus say this in the final hours of their sorrows? Because hard things are less likely to rock your world if you know they are coming. This is Jesus’s way of saying: The world is going to rub salt into the wound of your sorrow at my death. Through your heaving sobs, you will hear the scoffing voices, “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!” (Luke 23:35)

The disciples need to know this. It is part of God’s design for their deliverance. Herod’s mocking game of dress-ups with Jesus was part of the everlasting plan (Acts 4:27–28). This “rejoicing” of the world at the death of Jesus did not take Jesus off guard. He knew the miseries of his dying would be compounded by merciless ridicule. “The world will rejoice.”

The disciples need to know this. Knowing it does not make them less liable to sorrow. But it does make them less vulnerable in sorrow. Now they know that even the scoffing joy of the killers is part of God’s plan. And Jesus is saying to them: Though it is sure, it will be short.

2. Their Own Future Joy

“You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy.” (John 16:20)

This is Jesus’s interpretation of the saying they found so baffling: “A little while, and you will see me no longer; and again a little while, and you will see me” (John 16:16). In a few hours, he would die and be buried. They would see him no longer, and they will be sorrowful. Intensely sorrowful. Then in three days, they would see him. “Again a little while, and you will see me.” And “your sorrow will turn into joy” (John 16:20).

On the other side of my death, he says, is my resurrection. On the other side of your sorrow is your joy. When you see the horrors tomorrow morning, don’t forget that I have told you this. Let your love for me break your heart with sorrows. But do not let your ignorance break your hope.

The rejoicing of the world will be suddenly altered. What made the world happy and you sad will be no more. I will be alive. They will have failed. It is you, not they, who will be rejoicing now. Your sorrow must come, just like my death must come. But you will no more remain in sorrow than I will remain in the tomb.

3. A Mother After Giving Birth

“When a woman is giving birth, she has sorrow because her hour has come, but when she has delivered the baby, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world.” (John 16:21)

There is more going on in this “figure of speech” than the obvious fact that the joy of birth follows the pains of labor. That is true and significant. First pain, then joy. It will be true for Jesus and the disciples in the next three days.

But labor pains don’t just precede a child; they produce a child. It’s not as though there are labor pains, and then right on schedule a stork flies through the window with a baby. The baby doesn’t just come behind the labor pains. The baby comes by means of the labor pains.

So it is with this new joy on the other side of Jesus’s death. The labor pains of the mother in this “figure of speech” refer not just to the disappearance of Jesus (“you will see me no longer”), but to the distresses of Jesus. Not just to his parting, but to his pain. Therefore, the joy on the other side is not just coming behind that pain; it is coming by means of it. The pain of Jesus on the cross did not just precede the new rejoicing; it produced it.

Jesus emphasizes this by the wording he uses in verse 20. He says, “Your sorrow will turn into joy.” He does not say your sorrow “will be replaced with joy,” but literally “will become joy.” Henry Alford puts it like this: “Not merely changed for joy, but changed into so as itself to become — so that the very matter of grief shall become matter of joy; as Christ’s Cross of shame has become the glory of the Christian, Galatians 6:14” (Greek New Testament, vol. 1, 870).

From where we stand on this side of the cross and the resurrection, how the agonies of the cross actually become our joy is more plain. The sufferings of Christ remove our sin and God’s wrath, and bring us to God and joy. “Christ also suffered once for sins . . . that he might bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18), and “in your presence there is fullness of joy” (Psalm 16:11). “Through him [that is, his sufferings] we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God” (Romans 5:2).

So when Jesus says that after the birth of a child, a mother “no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world,” he means that the labor pains have been transformed from remembered anguish into bringers of joy. So it is with Jesus’s sorrows and their effects on the disciples. Jesus wanted them to know this ahead of time to stabilize their joy: All this sorrow “will turn into joy” (John 16:20).

There is one more stunning thing Jesus says about their joy that should make them stable enough to weather the coming storm of Good Friday. The child born to this woman in the “figure of speech” represents Jesus after the resurrection. And Jesus, after the resurrection, could never die. “Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again” (Romans 6:9). When the labor pains of death give birth to life, that life is immortal.

This means that the joy Jesus promises is immortal joy. “I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you” (John 16:22). This indestructible joy is because “I will see you again.” I will rise from the dead. I will be alive and with you, by my Spirit, forever. Your joy cannot be taken from you because I will not be taken from you. I am your joy (John 15:11; 17:13). “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you” (John 14:18).

No One Can Take This Joy

We can scarcely hear too often that it was better for us that Jesus leave us and go to the Father. “It is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you” (John 16:7).

To be sure, the Holy Spirit — the Helper — was active in the world before Jesus went to the Father. But one thing he never did before the resurrection of Jesus: he never glorified the risen Lord of the universe! Now this is his main work in the world. “He will glorify me!” (John 16:14). He does it daily, and he does it sovereignly, in all the children of God. Whenever we see the glory of Christ, here’s why: “This comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18). Without this, we would all make shipwreck of our faith.

By means of this Christ-exalting work, the Spirit fulfills the promise of Jesus that no one will take our joy from us (John 16:22). Think of that! The skeptics and scoffers cannot take your joy. The doctor with the biopsy report cannot take your joy. Your adulterous spouse cannot take your joy. Your straying children cannot take your joy. The political climate, and global terror, and school shootings, and racial injustice, and financial disaster, and unemployment, and theological controversies, and unfulfilled dreams, and the memories of your own failure — they cannot take your joy. No one can.

“I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you” (John 16:22). Meaning: I will rise from the dead. I will verify this by looking you in the face. Then I will go to the Father. Then we will pour out my Spirit on you. And until I come again, my Spirit will make my glory so real to you that no one will take your joy from you.

Not Only Joy

Jesus does not promise only joy. “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). Take heart indeed! How can we not! Not only has he overcome the world — and hell and the devil and death — but he remains with us and in us like a mighty warrior against all our foes. “Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world” (1 John 4:4).

So, yes, there will be tribulation. Sorrows of so many kinds in this fallen world we can’t count them. But the world that makes us so sorrowful will not have the last word. Therefore, the watchword of the Christian in this world is “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:10). Through every grief, we are being kept by the power of the Helper. Therefore, “you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials” (1 Peter 1:6).

You may be tempted to cry out, “Oh, that I could go back and see him as he was in the flesh!” But remember, you see more of him now by his Spirit in his word than the disciples did during his earthly life. And you will see him again. But not the way he was. His face will be “like the sun shining in full strength” (Revelation 1:16). Take heart from Peter’s words: “Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and glorified” (1 Peter 1:8–9). This is the joy that cannot be taken from you.

How to Battle Bitterness

Fri, 03/30/2018 - 8:00am

When you harbor feelings of vengeance you show that you don’t have faith in what God has promised. Vengeance belongs to the Lord. He will repay.

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It Was My Sin That Held Him There: Weeping at the Foot of the Cross

Thu, 03/29/2018 - 8:02pm

On Good Friday, we celebrate the saddest day in history.

Blood streamed down his face. Massive thorns stuck to the head of their Maker. Groans of agony came from the mouth of him who spoke the world into being. The soldiers beat him. They flogged him. They tortured him.

As he inched through the streets of Jerusalem, his cross pressing into his lacerated back, many shuddered at him. The face of God, which Moses could not look at and live, could no longer even be recognized as human (Isaiah 52:14). Women hid their children from the bloody mass of flesh before them. Men taunted him. Soldiers clubbed him. Angels shrieked in horror.

Every prophecy about his suffering was being fulfilled. By judgment and oppression, he was taken away. His sheep scattered when their enemies struck him. One of his own sold him and betrayed him with a kiss. He found no rest as they beat him, spit on him, and mocked him through the night. In the morning, he gave his back to those who struck him, his cheeks to those who plucked his beard.

He stepped forward to Calvary as a lamb to the slaughter.

His Love Was Rated-R

I remember the first time I watched The Passion of the Christ fourteen years ago. The sight of Roman ninetails sinking their claws into his back seemed to pierce my soul with Mary’s (Luke 2:35). The blood. The screams. The anguish. I could never again thoughtlessly tell others that Christ died for them. The scene forbade cliché. It was grizzly, ghastly, gruesome — rated-R.

I rarely cry, but as I watched Jesus shed his blood all over the Roman courtyard, I could not help but weep. As they held the nails over his hands and feet — his mother watching him — every swing of the hammer pierced my heart. Only the heartless could watch unfeelingly. Has there ever been a more tragic scene?

I did not consider his wounds enough. I did not weep over his suffering as often as I felt I should have. But how does Jesus respond to me, and people like me, who take Good Friday to grieve over his unbearable sufferings? Two thousand years ago he said to those weeping for him that day, “Weep not for me; weep for yourselves.”

Silence on the Set

Of the many horrors of Calvary, one that was especially acute was the shame of it all (Hebrews 12:2). His was a public execution. The condemned usually were naked. To add to this, the prophecy reads, “All who see me mock me; they make mouths at me; they wag their heads” (Psalm 22:7). It is one thing to suffer; another to do so before a whole nation as they ridicule you.

But mockery was not the only sound made on his behalf. A host of women trailed behind him, lamenting the expiring prophet. They followed Jesus’s drops of blood — as so many of us do today — with drops of tears.

But upon hearing their sobs, Jesus, battered and broken, turned his face towards them and spoke these gracious, yet shocking words: “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children” (Luke 23:28).

This part of the passion didn’t make the movie.

On that first Good Friday, Jesus turned to his loudest sympathizers — those who are not cursing him, mocking him, but wailing on his behalf — and silenced them. He commands their tears escort him no further. He opts to press into the night without their mourning.

Weep Not for Me

Jesus did not need their tears two millennia ago, and as unpopular as it may be, Jesus does not need our tears today. And this fact owes to us seeing his passion through the eyes of faith.

Weep not for me, he said. As if to say,

I am saving my people. I have prayed, tender souls, and know my Father’s will concerning this cup — shall I not drink it (John 18:11)? My hands willingly grasp this wood because my food is to do my Father’s will (John 4:32, 34). And his will is glorious: he sent me to serve and give my life as a ransom for my people. My body is broken, and my blood is spilled for you (Luke 22:19–20). Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. Do not weep over the labor pains that give birth to your salvation and unshakable joy (John 16:20–22).

Weep not for me, as if to say,

I am not a helpless victim. I am a warrior-king with thousands of angels at my beck and call (Matthew 26:53). One word from me and this horror would end. One word from me and Rome would be destroyed. One word from me and all would be eternally condemned. But I was sent to save the world, not condemn it (John 3:17). Trust that no man — or army — can steal my life from me. I lay it down of my own accord, and I will take it up again (John 10:11–18).

Weep not for me, as if to say,

I am conquering. You see my heel being bruised and you mourn — but look through the eyes of faith and see the serpent’s skull trampled (Genesis 3:15). Although I walk as the Lamb, I conquer as the Lion — the predator, not the prey, will hang on the cross (Revelation 5:5–6). I am a King who shall rule the universe from a tree. And I shall make this cross my scepter. As they lift me up, I thrust my enemies under my feet as a footstool (Psalm 110:1). My triumphal entry is followed by a triumphal exit. Why should you weep over my hour of glorification (John 12:27–28)?

Weep not for me, as if to say,

Sunday is coming. I have said repeatedly that in three days I shall rise (Matthew 16:21; 17:22–23; 20:18–19). Although today is full of unutterable darkness, unimaginable pain, unthinkable terror, Sunday is coming. My Father’s perfect hand is crushing me, evil men are murdering me, my disciples have fled from me, but truly I tell you, Sunday is coming. Joy is set before me and empowers me to endure. A crown awaits me. An endless celebration awaits me. My blood-bought people await me. Eternal glory awaits me. My Father awaits me. Weep not for me.

Weep for Yourselves

Jesus does not stop their tears completely but redirects them: “Do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children.” God’s wrath will soon visit the people for their sin. The nation that rejected her Messiah — not Jesus — is to be pitied.

“Behold, the days are coming when they will say, ‘Blessed are the barren and the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!’ Then they will begin to say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us,’ and to the hills, ‘Cover us.’” (Luke 23:29–30)

“Weep for yourselves,” as if to say,

I can bear my cup, but you cannot bear yours. Rome will kill your children before your own eyes. The beast you conspire with today will surround you tomorrow. Your anguish will be so severe that it is better to collect these tears in a bottle to save for that dreadful day.

My sufferings will end at death; yours may not. Many of you will cry for the mountains to cover you, but that can only spare you from the judgment of Rome — it cannot spare you from the judgment of God. The hounds of his justice do not stop at death. He is God of both the living and the dead (Acts 10:42). Vengeance is his; he will repay (Hebrews 10:30). And it is a fearful thing to fall unshielded into the hands of the living God (Hebrews 10:31).

Weep for your sins. Gentle daughters, useless are the tears that fall on my behalf because of suffering but never fall because of sin. Many weep over my suffering, but not the sin which caused it. The horror you see before you is my becoming sin for my people and bearing the wrath they deserve, that they should have my righteousness (2 Corinthians 5:21). If you weep, better to weep over the lust that hammers the nail deeper, the lie that sticks a thorn in the brow; the cowardly duck that makes a gash upon me, the prideful strut that keeps me upon Calvary’s path.

It Was My Sin

I watched The Passion of the Christ each year for four years — being moved every time to tears — all while I was not truly born again. And I thought myself better for crying, as if my sins would be passed over if I had tears painted on my doorpost. It did not take a regenerate heart to weep over the sufferings of Jesus — our world is full of unbelievers who cry over sad things — but it did take a regenerate heart to mourn over what I rarely really mourned over: my sins (James 4:8–10).

And those who witnessed Jesus’s execution two thousand years ago didn’t see their sins in the cross either: “Who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people?” (Isaiah 53:8) The horror stayed “over there,” while they remained innocent bystanders. They missed the point and beauty of the cross. They cried and cried, but had not love. Until we can truly sing, “It was my sin that held him there, until it was accomplished,” we weep for him in vain.

We should weep indeed at the foot of the cross, but not with pity. With faith. Those tears don’t dry up the Monday after Easter. Those tears mourn over the sin that nailed him there. Those tears sing over him as our conquering King. And those tears celebrate his death until he returns.

Does Reformed Theology Impede Racial Reconciliation?

Thu, 03/29/2018 - 8:00pm

Some have suggested Reformed theology is a hurdle to racial harmony. Pastor John explains why the opposite has been true over decades of urban ministry.

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The Hour Had Come: Maundy Thursday in the Garden of Agony

Wed, 03/28/2018 - 8:02pm

“The hour has come. The Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners.” (Mark 14:41)

All Jesus’s human life had anticipated this hour. Every careful attempt at keeping the messianic secret. Every emotional investment poured gladly into his disciples. Every glimpse of the ocean of his kindness as he healed the blind, the mute, the lame, the demonized, and even raised the dead.

Now the hour has come. All history hinges on this hour. And it is utterly terrifying. Jesus must decide: Will he protect his own skin, and soul, or will he embrace his Father’s perfect and painful will?

His dying had begun long before this hour, but now in Gethsemane, he must face the death to self that comes before the death at Calvary. Never has a soul been in such anguish. Never has a human been so undeserving of divine wrath. Never has anyone else faced such horror, to be made sin on behalf of others — to put himself forward in our place.

His Hour Has Come

Even as early as John 2, when Jesus turned water to wine, he knew, “My hour has not yet come” (John 2:4). But he acknowledged his hour would come. And it shaped him from the beginning.

When he went up to Jerusalem privately for the Feast of Booths, he knew, “My time has not yet come” (John 7:6). Once he began to teach publicly, it wasn’t long before “they were seeking to arrest him, but no one laid a hand on him.” Why was he spared? John explains: “Because his hour had not yet come” (John 7:30). Then again in John 8, during this same appearance in the holy city, “he taught in the temple; but no one arrested him.” Again John explains his invincibility: “Because his hour had not yet come” (John 8:20).

But when Jesus finally came to this grave and prescient Passover week, he knew, at long last,

The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:23–24)

When Jesus reclined with his disciples in the upper room to prepare them for his departure, he knew this was the hour (John 13:1). As he began his magnificent, high-priestly prayer that Thursday night, he prayed, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you” (John 17:1).

Why “Maundy”?

In the English-speaking church, we have come to call this gut-wrenching night before Good Friday “Maundy Thursday.” Scholars suspect the word maundy comes from the Latin mandatum meaning command. It’s a reference to Jesus’s charge to his disciples, in that upper room, after washing their feet (John 13:1–20) and watching Judas depart (John 13:21–30):

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34–35)

Calling it Maundy Thursday (Thursday of the Command) may give the wrong impression, that the accent falls on our love, not Jesus’s. The focus of this holy Thursday, however, is not the fresh charge to the church (“love one another”), but the inimitable act of her groom (“as I have loved you”).

When Jesus said, on that first Maundy Thursday, “as I have loved you,” he was not mainly referring to his washing of the disciples’ feet. He was looking forward to what the foot-washing foreshadowed — to his own death the next day and the ultimate sacrifice he would make to rescue them. Their sin, and ours, justly deserved the omnipotent wrath of God. Jesus’s rescue, and demonstration of his love for us, would require far more than foot-washing. And far more than mere physical death.

Anguish in the Garden

When Jesus finished praying in the upper room, “he went out with his disciples across the brook Kidron, where there was a garden, which he and his disciples entered” (John 18:1). His hour had come, and this would be the garden of his agony. The first Adam felt no anguish in his garden, because he gave in so quickly, but Jesus knew that to resist this greatest of all temptations, he must suffer.

His hour of literally excruciating suffering to come at Calvary would be bracketed by emotional and spiritual agony past finding out. Before he would cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” at the great eclipse of his Father’s light (Mark 15:34), he must first, here in the garden, make the final choice to subject himself to hell itself. He must embrace the pain, not just endure it. He must choose the nails and the darkness. He must step forward to receive his Father’s holy wrath. He must welcome his hour.

Never Before

He will be no mere victim. If he is to go as a lamb to this slaughter, he must go willingly. Freely, by his own eternal spirit, he must offer himself (Hebrews 9:14).

If there ever was a holy panic, this is it. He begins to be “greatly distressed and troubled” (Mark 14:33). Fully human, he confesses, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death” (Mark 14:34). “Being in agony” (Luke 22:44), he falls to the ground and prays that, “if it were possible, the hour might pass from him” (Mark 14:35).

So great is his torment that “his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground” (Luke 22:44). He offers “loud cries and tears” (Hebrews 5:7). As he hangs by a thread, “there appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening him” (Luke 22:43).

With each passing moment, he is closer to the traitor arriving with his troops. He will be betrayed into the hands of sinners, and they will enact, for all the world to see, the very essence of sin itself: assault on God, with intent to kill. How could each minute in the garden not feel like a lifetime?

Anguish, for Joy

He knew that hell itself was coming. How then can he, as man, embrace it in all its horror?

Earlier that very night, he had told his men what his hour would mean: anguish, for joy.

“When a woman is giving birth, she has sorrow because her hour has come, but when she has delivered the baby, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world.” (John 16:21)

In the garden, he still stands on the other side. And yet he speaks, in all the terror and torment, in all his sorrow and distress, feeling only enough joy to choose the joy to come. Isaiah had prophesied, “Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied” (Isaiah 53:11). Duty alone cannot carry this hour. It will require joy. “For the joy that was set before him [he] endured the cross” (Hebrews 12:2).

At last he resolves, “Not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42).

Never Again

Never before had a human heart, mind, and will faced what Jesus did in that garden. And never again will God require it. His Son’s trip into Gethsemane is utterly unique from any garden of anguish into which God might lead us.

Those who hate God will soon enough stand unshielded to face his omnipotent, righteous wrath. But they will never do so on another’s behalf. And they will never do so for the joy set before them, from love for the Father and his people.

Never again will God walk one of his children through this garden of the shadow of death. We very well might give our own lives in this world to save others here, but we cannot choose God’s wrath in place of another’s sin. What Jesus did on that Thursday evening is utterly unique.

And yet this is Thursday of the Command: “Just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.”

Our Joy to Echo Such Love

Jesus’s garden will not be ours. His hour will not fall to us. But having been loved like this, how can we not love one another? How can we not, as the beneficiaries of Christ’s irreplaceable sacrifice, ache to empty our own selves for another’s good? Having tasted such fullness from him, how can we not gladly pour out to meet the needs of others?

Yes, we will love, but Maundy Thursday does not turn on our love. This is a night to marvel at what Jesus embraced for us. To be astounded at the uniqueness of his sacrificial love. To wonder that while we were still sinners, he died for us (Romans 5:8). “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10).

On Maundy Thursday, we don’t mainly shoulder up to the charge to love others. We fall awestruck to our knees, face to the floor, and say,

For me it was in the garden
He prayed: “Not My will, but Thine.”
He had no tears for His own griefs,
But sweat drops of blood for mine.

How marvelous! How wonderful!
And my song shall ever be:
How marvelous! How wonderful!
Is my Savior’s love for me!

You Did Not Make Yourself a Christian

Wed, 03/28/2018 - 8:00am

We can’t unblind our eyes to the glory of God on our own. Only the Holy Spirit has the power to open deaf ears to the beauty of the gospel.

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For God So Loved His Worth: The Temptation to Make Holy Week About Me

Tue, 03/27/2018 - 8:02pm

Many of us miss the glory of Passion week because deep down we think we’re the center of what God did two thousand years ago. We think Jesus came and lived and died and was raised mainly for us — for me. We read the Gospels, and write ourselves into the lead role — the star worth everything Jesus had to suffer to have us.

If Jesus is merely a supporting actor in our story, his betrayal, death, burial, and resurrection will still be thrilling, but for the wrong reasons. Holy Week will be moving, but fleeting if we try to make ourselves the center of it. But if we find ourselves small in the story compared to the bigness and power and beauty of God, what moves us will get deeper and sweeter year after year — and last forever. His love for us will take on new meaning — a truer, less vain, more satisfying meaning.

God Loves You Because of God

John Piper explains the danger,

We need to see first and foremost that God is God — that he is perfect and complete in himself, that he is overflowingly happy in the eternal fellowship of the Trinity, and that he does not need us to complete his fullness and is not deficient without us. Rather we are deficient without him.

Unless we begin with God this way, when the gospel comes to us, we will inevitably put ourselves at the center of it. We will feel that our value rather than God’s value is the driving force in the gospel. We will trace the gospel back to God’s need for us instead of tracing it back to the sovereign grace that rescues sinners who need God. (The Pleasures of God)

God did not write Holy Week into history because he was desperate to have you (Acts 17:25), but because loving you, despite how little you deserved his love, would display just how loving he is — how glorious he is. He really does love you — genuine affection, fatherly provision, sacrificial devotion, tender care — but not because you’re great. Because he is great.

On Maundy Thursday, Jesus was betrayed for God and his glory. On Good Friday, Jesus was crucified for God. On Easter Sunday, Jesus was raised for God. And in all of it, you were saved by Jesus for God. Our good news is “the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Corinthians 4:4). If we’re humble enough to be the small, hopeless sinner rescued by sovereign grace for his glory, the news gets better, not worse. We will be far happier in a world that’s not centered on us.

Maundy Thursday: Jesus Was Betrayed for God

On the eve of Good Friday, Jesus was preparing to go to the cross for you, but his eyes were fixed on his Father’s glory. He prayed,

“Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you. . . . I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do. And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.” (John 17:1, 4–5)

He was not a lovesick Savior, but an adoring Son — striving to draw the world into his admiration of the Father. He wasn’t dying to make you feel more important, but to show you what’s most important — who is most important.

As he entered the garden of Gethsemane to be betrayed, “He fell on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. And he said, ‘Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will’” (Mark 14:35–36). God had called him to die in love for you, but he went to please the Father — to do the Father’s will, to honor and magnify his wisdom, sovereignty, and love.

Good Friday: Jesus Was Crucified for God

Make no mistake, if Jesus is your Lord, Savior, and Treasure, he died for you. He bore your griefs (Isaiah 53:4). He carried your sorrows (Isaiah 53:4). He was pierced for your transgressions (Isaiah 53:5). He was crushed for your iniquities (Isaiah 53:5). By his wounds, you were healed (Isaiah 53:5). Your debt was nailed with him to the cross (Colossians 2:14). And he died because he loved you: “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10).

But he died for you to glorify the Father. He was “obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8). “It was the will of the Lord to crush him; he has put him to grief” (Isaiah 53:10). And because Jesus submitted himself to the Father’s will, the Father “has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:9–11).

Even when Jesus was exalted, on the other side of his crucifixion, above every other name, he was exalted for the glory of another — for the glory of the Father.

Easter Sunday: Jesus Was Raised for God

Jesus was betrayed to glorify the Father. He was crucified to the glory of God the Father. And when he rose — resurrecting our hope for forgiveness, life, and happiness — he rose for the glory of God. As Paul says, “He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory” (1 Timothy 3:16).

Paul actually says, “Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father” (Romans 6:4). The resurrection of Christ was so wrapped up in the glorification of the Father that Paul can say Christ was raised “through” or “by” glory. In the single greatest act of divine intervention — greater than building up mountains or carving out valleys on the earth, greater than placing the stars or forming galaxies, greater than creating man from the dust — the Father was revealing his glory by raising his Son. He raised “the radiance of the glory of God” from the grave into majesty (Hebrews 1:3; see also 1 Peter 1:21). Into glory, and for glory.

You Were Saved for God

That God’s glory is the highest purpose of Holy Week does not at all diminish the good news for you in Christ’s life, betrayal, crucifixion, and resurrection. Our flesh desperately wants to be the pearl of greatest price in the gospel story — the treasure hidden in a field for which God sold everything to have. Any unbelieving person could believe a gospel that made us feel like that — that made us look that glorious.

The love in that gospel, however, pales in comparison with the love of God in the true gospel. Instead of fawning over us and our worth, God draws us to himself in love — despite what we are worth because of our sin — to make us a shining forever picture of his worth. He tells the world about his glory through you. He does it through mountains and oceans, stars and galaxies, through heaven and hell, and he does it through you. And because of Christ, he glorifies himself in loving you, not damning you.

Christ was betrayed for the glory of God, because in being betrayed God was able to adopt sinful us as precious sons and daughters “to the praise of his glorious grace” (Ephesians 1:5–6). Christ was crucified for the glory of God, because in being crucified he was able to bring us to God (1 Peter 3:18). Christ was raised for the glory of God, because in being raised God made us alive with him (Ephesians 2:5), and shows the world “the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us” (Ephesians 2:7).

God’s glory shines brightest in the story of his love for you — unexplainable mercy, sovereign grace, immeasurable kindness, unwavering faithfulness — all of it now working for you to say something breathtaking about him.

Dating: Good Jealousy and Bad

Tue, 03/27/2018 - 8:00pm

Is all jealousy bad? No, God models perfect jealousy, and calls us to have the same zeal for his glory in all we do — even in dating.

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Philippians 2:3–4: Short-Term Loss for Long-Term Gain

Tue, 03/27/2018 - 8:00am

Love makes huge sacrifices for the beloved. Because the joy of the beloved is our own joy.

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Philippians 2:3–4: Short-Term Loss for Long-Term Gain

Tue, 03/27/2018 - 7:37am

Love makes huge sacrifices for the beloved. Because the joy of the beloved is our own joy.

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