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What is Non-Negotiable?

There is a well-known phrase that goes back to Saint Vincent of Lerins (died AD 445) that goes as follows: “In Essentials unity, in Non-Essentials liberty, and in all things Charity.” And, in principle, the idea is a good thing. Confessing Christians are commanded in scripture to treat one another with love — ἀγάπη (agape) even. Those who cannot or who will not act with love toward other Christians are not really Christians in the first place (1 John 3:14-15). Further, there are plenty of areas in which we might disagree with Christian brothers (the application of this verse or the interpretation of that passage) and no essential piece of theology is altered. I remember the first time that I preached the “Parable of the Steward of Unrighteousness” (Luke 16:1-13). At the time, I was in seminary still and looked up 17 different commentaries on the parable and each commentator approached the text differently. Go figure…

The real problem with this phrase of St. Vincent is not the latter two clauses, but the initial clause. What defines the “Essentials of the Faith.” Or perhaps, to use more Biblical phraseology, what defines the “Faith once and for all time delivered to the saints.” What points of doctrine are we compelled to be united on lest the Christian faith be lost and we fall into outright heresy? This is a somewhat more hotly debated question.

Some theologians tend toward a more minimalistic approach — if we can all agree on the Apostles’ Creed, we can claim that we are Christians. Yet, Mormons would claim to hold to the Apostles’ Creed and even most mainstream denominations would identify the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints as a cult and not as a Christian denomination. Why is that? It is because the LDS church has redefined some of the terminology to suit their theological views. 

Others have suggested that the four so-called Ecumenical Creeds together form this Essential view (Apostles’ Creed, Nicene Creed, Athenasian Creed, and the Christological Statement of Chalcedon). These four certainly draw us much closer to the answer and add some much-needed definitions to the terminology of the Apostles’ Creed. Yet, the Pope would affirm these four Creeds and most protestants would argue that the Pope is in serious error and many of us (particularly in the Reformed school of thought) would argue that the Pope is an antichrist.

So, where do we go next? While the next logical step is to appeal to the Confessions of the Church, we must be reminded that the purpose of a Confession is to clarify distinctions between Christian bodies, so confessions unapologetically cover things that may not fall into the realm of “Essentials.” So, that still leaves us asking the question, “Where is our starting point when it comes to Essentials?”

The answer has to fall back to looking at the Bible — the sixty-six books that comprise the Old and New Testaments. But, we need to go a little further than that. We ought to clarify that it is these books, treated as the inspired, inerrant, and infallible Word of God, consisting and treated as a unified whole, not a collection of disparate books gathered by the church. When the Scriptures become our starting point and our only rule for faith and practice, we now have a substantial basis upon which essentials can be distinguished.

The Bible is also the only place where we can know the Gospel. Gospel, of course, is a word that is used rather broadly — it refers to the four books that begin the New Testament and it also refers to the message of salvation we might would use in evangelism. In its most basic sense, though, the word means “Good News” and the Gospel (in that sense) is the whole of the Bible as the Bible contains the good news of God’s redemption of man throughout history. Beginning to end, it is the only place where we can discover the good news of the forgiveness of sins and a hope for eternal life. That is our Essential — everything else we hold flows out of this one book.

The Ever-Relevant Bible

“Indeed, there is not a man who is righteous on the earth who does good and does not sin.”

(Ecclesiastes 7:20)

Boy, this sounds an awful lot like the Apostle Paul when he writes:

“What then? Are we in a more prominent position? By all means, no! For both Jews and Greeks are already found guilty under sin, just as it is written: ‘No one is righteous, not even one; no one is understanding, no one searches diligently for God.’

(Romans 3:9-11)

Gee, it seems as if Solomon has a pretty good handle of the basics of the Gospel…Paul will go on and write:

For all have sinned and failed to reach the glory of God, but are justified freely in his grace through the redemption of Christ Jesus whom God sent as propitiation through faith in his blood, which is a demonstration of his righteousness through the passing over of sins that were done beforehand, in the clemency of God to demonstrate his righteousness in this time — to be just and justifier of him who has faith in Jesus.

(Romans 3:23-26)

Truly, Paul takes this further than does Solomon and leads us to Jesus Christ the Messiah, but Solomon understands the problem that is at the heart of the existence of man (see also 1 Kings 8:46 at the dedication of the Temple). We sin. We cannot, no matter how good we try and be, merit heaven. It just is not possible. 

And so Solomon makes it very clear to us that we will all fall short — we will sin and miss the mark of God’s perfection. This, of course, is not an excuse for failure to live with integrity nor is it a justification for our sin. It is a reminder of the reality that we need one to redeem us from our sins.

All too often, people think of the Gospel as only a New Testament thing, yet, it is impossible to understand the Gospel apart from the Old Testament. Contrary to those who suggest that we “unhitch” from the Old Testament, we must be assured that if we cast off the Old Testament as irrelevant or inapplicable, we enter into heresy and we render the work of Christ in the New Testament worthless. They are dangerous grounds on which folk such as that stand.

People sometimes ask me how a book that is several thousand years old can still be relevant to life. The answer is simple and is found here. No one does good without sin. No one. We all fall short of the glory of God. And because we all sin, no matter our culture, our upbringing, or our pedigree, we all share the same problem: “How are we reconciled to God?” The only answer is Jesus Christ. And the Bible is the only place that answer can be found. That makes the Bible the most relevant book that mankind has ever seen and a gift of God’s grace to fallen man. Too bad so many people despise and ignore this book (even some who profess to be Christians!).

What is Going On?

I am told that there is a Chinese curse that goes: “May you live in interesting times.” Well, whether it is a curse or not is perhaps still up for debate, but I think that it is safe to say that we are indeed living in such times. As a nation, America is more divided than it has been in my short lifetime. We are at loggerheads over political ideologies, ethnic backgrounds and the color of our skin, gender roles and who may fill each, and socio-economic classes. College, which was once believed would be the ticket to upward mobility, no longer serves that purpose but often leaves students buried in debt. 

On one level, big business seems to be gobbling up all of its smaller competitors but at the same time, the internet has created a whole new class of entrepreneurs who have made millions of dollars marketing themselves in innovative ways to a very selective group of followers. Violence and crime is rampant while at the same time many things that once were considered crimes (like marijuana use or erotica) have become more or less mainstream. Marriage has been redefined by the courts to include homosexual partners and most likely, will soon be redefined to include polyamorous relationships if not pedophilia. Nope, we do not live in the world my parents grew up in anymore. 

So, are you depressed yet? I don’t mean to depress you (and there is good news…just keep reading), but I do mean to look at the world plainly and honestly through Christian eyes. So, bear with me…

Sadly, the church in America is not better off than the culture. Divorce rates in the church are statistically as high as divorce rates in the broader society around us. Increasingly, people are identifying themselves as “spiritual” but are rejecting any sort of organized religion — preferring a religion of their own making. The mega-church model is largely just a re-packaging of Finneyism and are destroying their communities and creating new “burned out districts” in their wake. And for fear of offending (and then losing) members, the church has largely abdicated its responsibility to preach repentance and correct the spirit of the age.

The largest church in America (Joel Osteen’s congregation) is preaching a non-judgmental prosperity gospel and the second largest church in America (Andy Stanley’s church) is preaching that Christians should “unhitch” themselves from the Old Testament and the Ten Commandments — a position that has been held to be heretical by the church for 1800 years. The Word of Faith movement, founded by Kenneth Hagin and made popular by people like Kenneth Copeland and Joyce Meyer, claims that Christians can harness the power of God through the use of words, speaking things into reality — a view that has historically been considered a form of witchcraft by the church. 

Homosexuality is being redefined in the church so that it is no longer considered a sin from which one ought to repent, but a legitimate and God-ordained tendency that ought to celebrated. And while this was not uncommon in liberal circles of Christianity, the conversation is being had within conservative, reformed congregations at this point (the “Revoice” conference, for example, is being hosted by a PCA congregation in the midwest). The Southern Baptist Convention is debating having a female president, claiming that the president is not a preacher, and then putting Beth Moore forward as a candidate, neglecting the fact that she regularly speaks and preaches to audiences of mixed men and women. With the conservative churches doubling back and reconsidering historically held positions, is it any wonder that the broader culture no longer respects us when we speak of absolute principles?

Okay, okay…I promised you some good news. The good news is that despite the depravity of the culture, of the church, and of the parody-church (those claiming to be the church but are heretical), the Gospel has remained the same. In fact, with the veneer of Christianity fading away from our culture, not only does depravity become that much more clear, but the Gospel becomes that much more defined as light in the darkness. And that means we have today more opportunities to share the Gospel with people than did our parents and our grandparents before them. The key is, we just need to equip ourselves to do it. Sure, that takes work, but there is no more important work that you could be doing than this (and there are more resources today than ever — we just need to use them). 

So, when you look at the world around us and just scratch your head at what is going on, just remember, that is your invitation to engage people with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But, will you?

Pursuing the Gospel, not Self

“Now, I want you to know, brothers, that which has happened to me is rather for the advancement of the Gospel;”

(Philippians 1:12)

Paul’s focus here and always is on the advancement of the Gospel. He is willing to suffer anything and lose everything, and still call it good, so long as the Gospel goes forth. For Paul, every encounter, good or ill, is an opportunity to share the Gospel with those who are perishing. And oh, how far short of Paul’s example we generally fall.

How easy it is for us, in today’s age, to forget that we know the answer to the question that people are asking in the depths of their soul. We know that there is a God and that he is the one that gives meaning to life. We know that though we all fall woefully short of the standard of perfection that God sets, he sent his Son, Jesus, to live amongst us, show us the Father’s character in himself, and then to die in our place that we might stand in his place in judgement…we might be viewed as righteous sons, not disobedient rebels. We know that there is life after death and that the only way to the Father is through the Son and all who reject the Son will be cast into the fires of Hell…righteous judgment for a life of sin and rebellion against the Father. We know the Truth of these matters and we have also experienced the life that comes from being indwell by the Spirit of God…why do we shy away from sharing this with others? Why do we not use every opportunity as a tool to advance the Gospel?

Sadly, our tendency is to be consumed with ourselves. When things are going wrong…maybe we are hospitalized for something…we tend to focus on our suffering rather than use the interaction with Doctors, Nurses, and other care-givers as a chance to share the Gospel. When things are going well, perhaps when we are making plans for a wedding or graduation, we tend to be focused again on the details of our own celebration rather than in using this event to evangelize guests or those who we are hiring to cater, decorate, or provide other services. Loved ones, we do this not because of God’s design for us, we do this because of sin. Paul sets another model for us, one where self is secondary to Gospel and where even though he has suffered and has been falsely imprisoned, he is still using these events to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Will you, this day, covenant to start seeing all your interactions as opportunities to share the Gospel with others instead of serving self? Such is the model that Paul sets before us.

Destroyed, Forever and Ever…

“The wicked sprout like weeds,

And all who do iniquity blossom;

To be destroyed, forever and ever.”

(Psalm 92:8 [verse 7 in English translations])


Paul writes in Romans 9:21-23 that God has created the wicked as vessels of wrath for the purpose of pouring out his power upon in destruction. The psalmist speaks in similar terms here. Though the wicked seem to sprout up like weeds all around us and those who revel in their sin seem to prosper, there is a purpose for which they were created…and that purpose is destruction. While the believer may be created, in the words of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, “to glorify God and to enjoy him forever,” the wicked are created to face His wrath and be destroyed forever.

For most of us, that is a fearful warning, for though we may be believers we know many who are not. Indeed, some may be destined for this destruction. Others may be of the elect of God, yet in God’s providence they have yet to come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. The question is, might you be the one whom God will use to share the Gospel with such persons? Yet, such cannot take place unless you begin the conversation with them about what is true and what is eternal. The grass withers and perishes but the word of the Lord lasts forever. Will you be the one to share that word with those in your midst? Will there never be left any question as to your care for their eternal souls?

All too often we read passages like this and we fail to seriously consider the reality of hell and the horrors of such eternal destruction. The scriptures refer to it as the “second death” (Revelation 2:11; 20:14; 21:8). A dying that lasts eternally in all its fearful connotations, devoid of hope. Such is the end to which those this verse speaks of are destined…should it not make us shudder that we have friends, neighbors, and coworkers that will be found under God’s thumb of wrath. Will you warn them of the coming wrath?

Listening to the Truth

“Then Pilate said to him, ‘Then you are a king!’ Jesus replied, ‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born and for this I came into the world — to testify to the Truth. All who are of the Truth listen to my voice.’”

(John 18:37)


The final clause in this statement deserves deeper reflection. Jesus says that “all who are of the truth listen to my voice.” How convicting that statement is when you get down to it. On the surface it is an easy one to affirm, but how often when applied deeper down, we struggle to live it out? How often do people talk a good talk but when it comes to living in obedience to the voice of Jesus, fall far short.

Jesus never states that his words are suggestions for wise living. No, he says that his words are Gospel, his words are Truth, and anything else that we might listen to is in error and separates us from him. We want to do things “my way” but Jesus plainly says that is not an option for us if we wish to be identified as Christian. We must do things “His way.” All else is sin.

Loved ones, there are many people in our world that call themselves Christians but have no interest in listening to any voice other than their own…or the devil’s. Just like Marlowe’s Faustus, our culture has flirted with the devil in the hopes of prosperity and happiness but failed to see that true happiness and contentment come not from comfort nor from the lusts of the flesh, but they come from Christ himself. The world has proclaimed Jesus’ teachings on peace and loving one’s brothers but have ignored Jesus’ words of sacrifice, judgment, and hell. To whom are they listening? Many claim Jesus just another yoga or wise moral teacher. Again, to whom are they listening? Certainly it is not to Jesus himself. And thus their ideas are neither true nor worthy of attention.

My friends, do not fall into the deceptions of this world. There is Truth and he is absolute. Yet, he has revealed his mind to us in his Word, the Bible, so that it might be preserved for all ages, studied, and obeyed. We are called to listen to Jesus’ voice with the implication that we will obey his wisdom — it is True indeed! Will you do so? If you will be of the truth, listening to (and obeying) the voice of Jesus is not an option.

Testifying to the Truth

“Then Pilate said to him, ‘Then you are a king!’ Jesus replied, ‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born and for this I came into the world — to testify to the Truth. All who are of the Truth listen to my voice.’”

(John 18:37)


Focus on the Family’s “Truth Project” gets some milage off of this passage, often posing the question: “Why did Jesus come into the world?” The answer, of course, from this passage would be: “To testify to the Truth.” Of course, Jesus does make similar comments throughout his ministry, for example:

“But he said to them, ‘It is essential that I proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God in these other cities also. I was sent for this.”

(Luke 4:43)

“For I came down from heaven not to do my own will, but the will of the one who sent me out. And this is the will of the one who sent me out: that I might not lose anyone from all he has given me, but rather that I should raise him up on the last day.”

(John 6:38-39)

“I have come into this world as light in order that those who believe in me might not remain in darkness.”

(John 12:46)

“And Jesus said, ‘For judgment I came into the world in order that those who do not see may see and those who do see might become blind.’”

(John 9:39)

Certainly it can be said that these passages do tie together for it is truth that Jesus preaches and it is by the rule of truth that Jesus will enter into judgment upon all those who stand opposed to him. At the same time, it is a reminder that while Jesus did come to proclaim the Truth, our understanding of Truth must be deeper and more relational than we perhaps might ordinarily presume.

The bigger question to ask, perhaps, is the relationship between Truth and the Kingdom of God to which Jesus has come to testify. The answer, of course, is that it is only in God’s kingdom that truth can be found and Truth in its ultimate sense, finds its source in God alone. If we are going to know truth, that means we must listen to the voice of Jesus.

How often people pursue truth in foolish places. Men presume themselves to be the final arbiters of what is true and what is not true. How foolish that is! It is like a child who does not understand calculus proclaiming calculus to be gibberish because he does not know what the symbols represent. By definition, our minds are not capable of discerning the fullness of God, yet how often we deem ourselves judge and lord over what is around us.

The Truth that Jesus came to testify to is light and it is gospel, but it is also judgment upon those who will not believe the truth. Jesus says that he came so that the wicked who reject him might remain in their darkness, becoming blind to eternal things. Indeed, how often that is the case, let us pray that God might lift the blindness of those we love and of those with whom we interact so that the Truth of Christ might rise like dawn in their hearts and healing spring up in their lives (Isaiah 58:8).


Jeremiah or Zechariah?

“Then was fulfilled the word of Jeremiah the prophet saying, ‘And they took the thirty silver pieces, the payment paid for the one on whom the Sons of Israel had set such a payment, and they gave it for the field of a potter just as the Lord instructed me.’”

(Matthew 27:9-10)


Oceans of ink have been spilled in wrestling with these words…not so much because the words themselves are overly difficult nor because this being a fulfillment of prophesy should surprise us, but because it seems, at least on the surface, that Matthew is citing a prophesy made in Zechariah, not in Jeremiah. And that becomes troublesome if you are going to hold to an inerrant view of the scriptures. So, did Matthew just make an honest mistake? Likely not, he is being inspired by the Holy Spirit who is God — not one to make a mistake. Is there some passage in Jeremiah that is being overlooked — some textual variant perhaps — that would rectify this difficulty? Not so much. We must remember that Matthew’s original audience was intimately familiar with the writings of the prophets and would have balked were an erroneous rendering to have been made. Matthew clearly intends this, but the question we are then left with is, why?

The passage in Zechariah that is pointed to is this:

“And I said to them, ‘If it is good in your eyes, give me my wages, if not then refrain from doing so.’ And they weighed out my wages: thirty pieces of silver. And Yahweh said to me, ‘Throw it to the potter!‘ — the splendid price which I was prized by them. So, I took the thirty pieces of silver and threw them to the potter in the House of Yahweh.’

(Zechariah 11:12-13)

Certainly it is easy to see the connections: there are 30 pieces of silver, a Potter, and the “throwing” of the money in the direction of the potter who is in the temple. One might be tempted to stop there and draw the conclusion that Zechariah is really who Matthew had in mind when he cited this text, but doing so would miss some of the importance of how this citation is made. Interestingly, in the context of Zechariah, one might argue that the parallel is not so much with Judas dying in a Potter’s Field as it is with Judas returning the money to the priests. In fact, in Zechariah’s account, nothing is purchased, the money is simply returned.

Further, in the context of Zechariah 11, Zechariah the prophet has been commanded for a season to shepherd a flock that is doomed for slaughter. Remember, Zechariah is writing after the return of the people to Jerusalem, so he is speaking (in an immediate sense) of the fall of Judah to the Macedonians and then to the Romans — that which will anticipate the eventual coming of Jesus. At the end of that passage (verse 16), God says that he is about to raise up another shepherd who will not care for the people — this condemnation is arguably directed toward the priests of the people. So, Zechariah guards the sheep for a season, there is an account with breaking staffs, and then he quits his job and asks for his payment. They pay him well and God then commands Zechariah to throw the money to the potter in the temple. Again, this is a condemnation of the shepherds over God’s people: the priests.

You should be starting to notice some differences, though, that should be highlighted. We have already mentioned that there is no mention of purchasing a field in the Zechariah account, furthermore, there is a different term employed to refer to this potter. In the Hebrew, the term Zechariah used is rEoØwy (yo’er). When this term was translated into the Greek Septuagint, the word cwneuth/rion (choneuterion) was chosen. These words can be used to refer to a potter, but are also used of those who smelt metals. In fact, in the other two spots in the Old Testament (as well as in the one use of this term in the Jewish Apocrypha) it is translated as having to do with a smelter’s fire.

In Matthew’s account, he uses the term kerameu/ß (kerameus), which is always used of a potter and his clay both in the New Testament (see also Romans 9:21) and the Greek translation of rEoØwy (yo’er) in the Hebrew Old Testament (see Isaiah 41:25 and Jeremiah 18:6). If we follow the use of the term kerameu/ß (kerameus) to Jeremiah, as Matthew suggests, we find ourselves closer to unraveling our mystery.

In Jeremiah 18-19 we have an account that also ties in very closely with what Matthew is recording. The prophet is sent to the house of a potter — kerameu/ß (kerameus) is used — and told to observe the potter making a clay vessel. Part of the way through the process, the potter is unhappy with the developing design, so smashes the vessel down and starts from scratch. God instructs Jeremiah that like this vessel, God is going to smash down Jerusalem and rebuild because of the wickedness of the people. Later, Jeremiah is commanded to buy a flask from the Potter and smash it by the Valley of the Sons of Hinnom — the source of the word, “Gehenna” in the New Testament — to be renamed as “The Valley of Slaughter.”

One might be tempted to say, where does the Potter’s Field play into this account. Potters’ Fields historically were grounds that had such a high clay content that growing crops would be difficult, but as a source of clay for the potter, they were excellent. Furthermore, Jeremiah is told to relate that God is going to make the city of Jerusalem a place like a Valley of Slaughter — a place of death. And here, it seems, our connection with the potter’s field becoming a place for Judas’ death is made. While Jerusalem is thrown down in Jeremiah’s lifetime, it would be rebuilt. Judas’ death is a foreshadowing of another destruction of Israel that would take place during the lifetime of at least some of the Apostles…and this destruction in AD 70 would be permanent.

It is true that there is a modern city of Jerusalem that exists, but it is located just to the west of the original Jewish city, which now lies more or less in ruins and has a Muslim Mosque sitting on the temple mount (preventing another temple from being built — why? Jesus is the Greater temple, why settle for a lesser one?). Judas’ death and spilling of his blood is a fulfillment, then, of what Jeremiah promised. For Jerusalem’s apostasy in the death of Jesus Christ, they would be destroyed and the place would be left a horror for all to see. One need not read much of Josephus’ account of the fall of Jerusalem at the hands of the Romans in AD 70 to see elements of this fulfillment taking place — even to the point of the adults eating the flesh of their children. The testimony is heart-wrenching, but the potter’s vessel (representing the people of Israel) was broken on that day and its pieces scattered. Just as the Jews would flee and be sent into exile in Jeremiah’s day, so too, believers were scattered to the far ends of the earth, but this time with the hope of the Gospel to accompany them. How easily we get attached to a location; God says, “Go!”

We have a Stronghold in the God of Jacob

“Yaheweh Tsabaoth is with us;

A high stronghold for us is the God of Jacob. Selah!”

(Psalm 46:8 {verse 7 in English})


What a wonderful statement the psalmist makes. This is the kind of statement that ought to be set in stone on our patios and stenciled on our walls. It should be the words we are reminded of when we wake up and engage the day and that give us comfort when we lie down to sleep. Our God is a refuge that will keep us and preserve us and in his hands we have no need to fear.

This verse is begun with a fairly common title of God: tØwaDbVx hÎwh◊y (Yahweh Tsabaoth) — literally, “Yahweh of Armies” or “LORD of Hosts.” Hosts, in this context, are not those people that wait tables, but are the hosts of soldiers at the beck and call of a general. In this case, it is the Heavenly Host that is spoken of, the hosts of angels that serve at the word and command of God on high. As Christians, we often only think of God in terms of “Jesus meek and mild” and forget that after the resurrection the language we find describing our Lord is of a mighty warrior coming on a horse to destroy his enemies and to liberate his people from the effects of sin in the world around us. This is the mighty God we serve and this is the reason we should have no fear — for Yahweh of Armies is with us!

And not only that, but our God provides for us a stronghold in which to dwell. The word for stronghold, used 11 times in the Book of Psalms (twice in this psalm!) is derived from the Hebrew word bÅgDc (sagab), which refers to something that is inaccessible to the reach of human hands. Thus the idea of a stronghold is not simply marked by strong walls of defense, but it is marked by a high elevation where none but the eagles will roost. And it is from that vantage point that the psalmist describes those who trust in Yahweh as their God. Though the enemy may roar like a lion, the stronghold is quite secure.

So, beloved, why do you fear from within such a stronghold? Do you not trust your God to protect you from slander and from sword? Do you fear the enemy who would malign your name when you are safely behind the walls of our God? Do you fear harm when the mighty hosts of heaven are unleashed in our defense? Loved ones, why do we go about our lives acting with such fear when it comes to sharing what is true with those around us. Do we love those around us so little that we will not show them the pathway to safety in God’s arms — a pathway that leads through the gate of Jesus alone — that we are unwilling to show them the way? How often we act as if we are safe it does not matter what happens to others around us. Is that love? We call it courage when someone runs into a burning building to save someone who is trapped inside; why do we Christians exhibit such cowardice when it comes to the many people trapped in their sin that dwell around us? Loved ones, we have a mighty God to protect us, let us cast fear to the side and boldly share the truth about life in the confidence of the stronghold we have.

The Culture Wars

In Christian circles, we talk a lot about the culture wars and at least vaguely, I think, most people have some sense of what is meant by that. As we look around us, the western culture has grown more secular and less markedly “Christian” as a whole and the culture war is the crusade that many have engaged themselves in to turn back the cultural influence toward one that is more markedly Christian. And, as one who has spoken and written on the importance of Christians living out their faith in every aspect of life (both inside of the church and outside of the church), this cause is one toward which I am very sympathetic. Having said that, can we talk?

First of all, I am not entirely convinced that we are going about things the right way in terms of what we are trying to achieve. Is it the culture we are called by Jesus to redeem or is it the people we are called to evangelize? One might respond that both go hand in hand, and they do, but which comes first, the chicken or the egg? The group that would broadly be defined as leading the culture war would argue that as we see a change in the culture, we will see a change in the people. There is a certain degree of truth to this line of thinking as it would seem that most people will go with the flow and do what is acceptable to the culture.

When the “Blue Laws” were in place, people’s lives revolved around church because there was little else to do. There is no question as to the sociological benefit of these laws as even the most basic moral teaching of the Bible affects people’s lives and behavior. Yet, when the Blue Laws were repealed, church attendance dropped, which indicates that the percentage who left were only there because of the cultural expectations upon them and not because they had a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Jesus did say that in the final judgment there will be many who will cry out, “Lord, Lord!” and to whom Jesus will say, “Get away from me, I never knew you” (Matthew 7:21-23). So, did the “Christianization” of the culture build the church? The church as an institution perhaps was built up, but the word “Church,” in a Biblical sense, normally refers to a body of believers that have been called out from the world and into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Arguably, then, the church was not built up by simply existing within a Christian culture.

It should be noted that we use the term “culture” in a variety of different ways. In addition, we talk about cultures and sub-cultures within a given culture. There are also various “cultural expressions” that people may embrace as well as the “culture” of certain pieces of music, art, or literature. In addition, when you are sick and go to the doctor, he or she may take a swab and apply it to the back of your throat to take a “culture” to see what kind of bacteria may be developing in your body. So, when we talk about a “Culture War,” what kind of culture are we talking about and is that even the proper term that we ought to be throwing about?

Typically, when speaking of a “Culture War,” we are referring (as do sociologists) to those shared norms, ethics, linguistic expressions, histories, folk-stories, values, and beliefs that bind a group of people together. We might talk broadly of the “Western” culture that has been dominated by the thought of the Greek Philosophers and Latin thinkers, the European Renaissance, and the Christian religion (as this was the dominant influence in the development of Europe for well over 1,000 years.

We might narrow the discussion down further and talk about the “American” culture or even about the evangelical sub-culture within America, but bottom line, it still gets back to these shared beliefs and histories that bind a people together. But how do these beliefs get propagated? Certainly they are not innate as cultural expression varies widely throughout the world. They are taught then, by one generation to the next, either intentionally or unintentionally, by those who hold said beliefs. And unless one makes a deliberate effort to “break out” of a cultural norm, that culture will continue into another generation.

Interestingly enough, the word “culture” comes from that Latin term colere, which means “to cultivate or tend,” and was originally used to describe the way that a farmer would work the ground and tend to the crops that he has planted. This is a valuable note because there is nothing unintentional about the way a field is cultivated. The farmer chooses how he prepares and fertilizes the plot of land, the kinds of seeds that are sown, and the way those plants are tended and harvested. Similarly, culture is created by those within the community.

Yet, if culture is created by those within the community, does the idea of a “culture war” really make any sense at all? It presents a picture of workers in a field warring over which seeds to plant — one side fighting to plant corn and the other fighting to plant wheat. Does it not make more sense to focus on changing the hearts of the planters?

Prejudice is one of the things that people have been trying hard to change in our culture (and rightly so). And in many areas, the work has been very successful. But what is bringing the most success? Is it laws that are written outlawing prejudice or is it people’s hearts being changed and choosing not to propagate the prejudices of their parents in the lives of their children? I would suggest that the latter is the tactic being used with success. I would also suggest that the families where people marry across ethnic lines is where you will see the most pronounced removal of the prejudices because hearts change when people are in fellowship with one another.

Does this mean that Christians should not engage the culture? Of course not, we are called to tear down the strongholds of Satan in this world (2 Corinthians 10:3-6). As Christians, we should express the faith that we hold in every area of life. That being said, we will not fulfill the Great Commission by once again having Christian thought and principles dominate the cultural norm; the Great Commission needs to be fulfilled by discipling people. And for people to be discipled, their hearts must first be changed by the power of the Gospel.

One final note on this line of thinking from the five years that I taught Bible in a Christian Academy. It was amazing how often I had students who could answer all of the questions correctly on a Bible or a Worldview test but when left on their own, would live as an unbeliever. The culture at the Christian School was intentionally Christian. The curriculum was also designed to foster a Christian worldview. As teachers and administrators, we had won the “Culture War” at our school (at least on the surface). Yet, we had many kids who could live in the Christian culture, yet were not being discipled because the Christian culture was not the culture that they had embraced as their own. The solution for the school environment was not to institute more rules or to offer more Christian “cultural” experiences. The solution is to get to the heart of the student and apply the Gospel in the hopes and prayers that God would regenerate their dead hearts and give them life.

The school tends to be a microcosm of the community and the Christian school is a microcosm of a community that is dominated by Christian culture. If we aim to change hearts by changing the visible culture, we will likely lose both. Yet, when hearts are changed, the culture will be changed by default. The “Culture War” as described is at best a crusade that will change small pockets of life — we may take the promised land by force, but for how long will it be held? Instead, let us wage war against the powers and principalities of Satan, seeking to evangelize the hearts of men, for this will be the “Holy War” that will bring long-lasting and spiritual fruit.

Playing Dominoes in Ukraine

I spent about half an hour the other day playing a game of two-on-two Dominoes with several of my Ukrainian students. The game was the basic game that I had played as a child, though it has been many years since I had played, and it was fairly easy to follow the progression even though neither my opponents nor my partner and I spoke the same language.

Though my gaming partner and I did lose our little tournament, it began to get me thinking about the nature of cross-cultural ministry on two levels. First, how often we go to great lengths to put on an expensive program or elaborate activities to help us bridge the language barriers when often one of the most significant ways we can bridge that gap is by our simple presence in their lives. That which proved meaningful to my three students was not so much that I was able to play a game that they liked or that I could be competitive with them (then again, my partner and I did lose the game, so I am not sure just how well I did at playing) but it was simply that I was willing to spend time interacting with them on a very basic level outside of the classroom.

Such was the case even when I was teaching students in America where no (or almost no!) language barrier was present. It was not the things that I normally did in the classroom that endeared my students to me and it was not my lectures that they will remember for years to come (as much as I would like that to be the case!). Instead, it was the time that I spent with my students outside of the classroom, living life together, sitting down to arm-wrestle, or working together on a project. It wasn’t even always about the quality of the interaction, but it was the willingness to interact that made the impact.

The second thing that I got to thinking about was in terms of the nature of what “cross-cultural” means. Typically we think of cross-cultural as going somewhere else in the world and bridging a language-barrier. Such activities are essential in working out the Great Commission and I have enjoyed the privilege of being able to do so in a small way myself here in eastern-Europe. Yet one need not travel 5,000 miles away from home to find a cross-cultural context. In seminary, I spent several years doing inner-city homeless ministry — a culture that was very different than the rural middle-class context in which I was raised. Sometimes cross-cultural simply even means sitting down with your grand-kids and listening to their favorite music or sharing a favorite movie of your own with them. You may find out that cross-cultural contexts are as close as your neighbor’s back yard or even your own home.

In putting this all together, I am reminded both of Jonah and of Jesus’ ministry to the Samaritans and others outside of the Jewish context. The Syrophoenician woman, for example, came to Jesus shortly after he had spent time in her non-Jewish town. Jonah, of course, did not want to go proclaim the Gospel to the Ninevites, but God sent him the hard way. The sermon that Jonah finally preached was terse at best and he fled the city hoping to see a mighty display of fireworks. Yet God moved even through Jonah’s half-hearted message. The very fact that God had sent them his prophet must have (at least initially) made an impact on the people and caused them to take notice. Jesus’ response to the Syrophoenician woman was that it was not yet time for the pet dogs to receive their meal; hardly a cordial greeting, but his mere presence in her community told her that he would be willing to help and the desperation she felt for her daughter’s need drove her to be undaunted by this initial rebuke. Even in Samaria, Jesus’ interactions are warm, but brief, yet the impact is profound.

Ukraine may be a long way to come simply to play a game of Dominoes, but no distance is too far to go for the opportunity to share the Gospel and to help develop disciples. Even so, you likely do not need to travel very far to cross a cultural barrier. My encouragement is to look for those opportunities, find a chance to simply be present in the life of your neighbor (even in the Good Samaritan sense) and build a relationship with him or her, for it is out of that relationship that you will have a chance to share the Gospel. Who knows, were Jesus to have come for the first time in this world today — a world of running water in homes and water-fountains in public places — I wonder how he might have engaged the Samaritan woman at the Well…it might have even been through a game of Dominoes.

Blood Atonement: Genesis 20:16

“And to Sarah he said, ‘Behold, I have given a thousand pieces of silver to your brother. Behold it is for you a covering of the eyes to all that are with you and to all that you may be found to be in the right.’”

(Genesis 20:16)


In many cases, this is the kind of passage we might be tempted to pass over as simply Abimelek giving an additional peace offering to Abraham for having taken Sarah as his wife. And we might as well have glossed over the passage save for one word: tOwsV;k (kesoth). Literally, this means “covering” and in its most basic sense refers to the clothing that one would cover their body with, like a robe or a cloak. Yet, in ancient cultures, clothing also served to indicate your status in society as well as your status before God. In the ultimate sense, it reflects the work of atonement, hence after Adam and Eve have sinned, God kills an animal and makes for them clothes to wear, not simply for protection from the elements, but a sign of the work of atonement that has been promised in Christ.

Abimelek understands that he is making atonement for his sin and the silver offered is a sign that Sarah committed no sin. The principle is that there is a cost incurred when the law is broken. Just as with the civil law today, when an infraction occurs, there are fines typically attached to the infraction. If we drive too fast, we pay a speeding ticket; the worse the infraction, the more serious the fine. The seriousness of breaking a law is related proportionally to whose law is broken. Thus, breaking a county ordinance is typically not as serious as breaking a state law and breaking a state law is not as serious as breaking a federal law. In turn, most people are less concerned about being in the county jail than in the federal penitentiary. When we break the law of God, we are not offending a local, state, federal, or even an international body—we are offending the creator of the universe and his perfect, righteous character. He is infinite and thus breaking his law is an infinite offense. Thus, the fine is far greater than a few thousand silver pieces—the fine, the punishment matches the infinite greatness of the one we have offended: God himself!

Since the wages of sin is death, the payment that must be exacted for our infraction of the law of God is eternal death—eternal death not just for our sins as a whole, but eternal death for each and every sin we have committed. In the Old Testament, substitutes were offered for the sins of the people, but the blood of rams and goats could only serve as a reminder of the horror of our own sinful state. Animals died, but they were neither perfect nor infinite, and thus could not effectively stand in our place to pay the debt we owe. For thousands of years, blood flowed from the altars of the people. All to no lasting avail.

Yet, God himself provided a better substitute in his Son, Jesus Christ. Jesus was fully man, thus could identify with us and effectively take our place and he was fully God, which means he was without sin and infinite, thus able to pay an infinite debt. He owed God nothing, but chose to pay God everything in substitute for our sin. And thus, just as Abimelek, after making a payment of atonement for Sarah declares her to be righteous before all who would judge, so too, does Jesus Christ declare us to be righteous before his Father, the one who judges us according to his perfect law. While the atonement is more than a payment for sin incurred, said payment is a very important aspect of what it is that Jesus is doing, praise be to the Lord!

Loved ones, do not miss these shadows that God has blessed us with here in the Old Testament. We often read through these narratives without making much note of what God is pointing us toward, yet the Holy Spirit has seen fit to have these encounters recorded for all time to be both a word of instruction and encouragement for us—to not take time to notice that encouragement, misses much of what God has given us. Jesus indeed has made a covering for us, not from silver or gold nor from the blood of animals, but instead from his own blood. Let us never take for granted this remarkable gift and let us celebrate and share that gift with others, telling them about the Good News of what God has wrought for sinful man.


The Great Nation of Ishmael

“And unto Ishmael, I have heard you, so behold, I will bless him and will cause him to bear fruit and I will make him exceedingly great. He will bear twelve princes and I will give to him a great nation.”

(Genesis 17:20)

Because of God’s promise to Abraham, God blesses Abraham’s firstborn and allows him to build a nation. Like Jacob, from Ishmael we are told that 12 princes would come (see Genesis 25:13-16 for the list of Ishmael’s twelve sons). These sons would grow in stature and influence and founded many of the nations that surrounded ancient Israel and which are even today seeking to destroy the rest of those who descend from Abraham. These, of course, are ultimately the current Islamic nations.

So why did God permit the rise of Islam? Couldn’t God have just cut off the line of Hagar as he did with Keturah (Abraham’s wife after the death of Sarah)? Indeed, God could remove all of the obstacles between us and glory, yet God uses those obstacles to refine us and to mature us in our faith. Islam is also designed to be a reminder to us of the grace and mercy of God. Their religion is law, law, law and it is as contradictory to the Christian faith as light is to darkness. If man’s natural bent since the fall were not legalism, Islam would have no appeal.

As we look at the political landscape of the world around us, one may be quick to wonder if life indeed would be easier if the Muslims were not a threat. Not only has there been centuries of warfare between Christians and Muslims but that warfare has been coupled with terrorist activities. In additions, Muslims are immigrating all over Europe and America and some are suggesting that one day these once Christian nations will be under Sharia Law.

So, indeed, what is the solution to this great dilemma that Christians are facing today? The answer is the same, beloved, as it has always been: be bold in your witness of the Gospel. Part of the reason that Islam, Humanism, eastern Mysticism, and other false religions are making such headway into the thinking of lands who have once been dominated by Christianity is that Christianity no longer dominates in the public square. We have sadly turned inward and have decided to focus more on building buildings, running programs, and having a following than in making disciples of all nations. Can you imagine what America would be like if we were so bold with our testimony of the Gospel that everyone who came would end up converting to Christianity? If that were the case, we would be excited about more Muslims immigrating from the Middle East because that would mean that they would soon be becoming Christian. Even many pastors have become defeatists, acting as if they are serving the church in Sardis, strengthening what is about to die, rather than engaging and breaking down the gates of Hell. God has given us the armor and weapons of warfare to do so; will we not use them?

Beloved, we have been called by our great captain to engage the enemy, let us do so with vigor and with boldness and proclaim that we will not lay down our arms before the foe because the war has already been won by Jesus Christ upon the cross. Let Christianity once again be on the march because it is through Isaac and through Christ that the promise is given, not through the other children of Abraham.

Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war,

With the cross of Jesus going on before.

Christ, the royal Master, leads against the foe;

Forward into battle see His banners go!

At the sign of triumph Satan’s host doth flee;

On then, Christian soldiers, on to victory!

Hell’s foundations quiver at the shout of praise;

Brothers lift your voices, loud your anthems raise.

Crowns and thrones may perish, kingdoms rise and wane,

But the church of Jesus constant will remain.

Gates of hell can never gainst that church prevail;

We have Christ’s own promise, and that cannot fail.

Onward then, ye people, join our happy throng,

Blend with ours your voices in the triumph song.

Glory, laud and honor unto Christ the King,

This through countless ages men and angels sing.

–Sabine Baring-Gould

The Conversation

“Some weather we’ve been having, isn’t it?” “Did you see the game last night?” “Did you read the paper this morning, with crime going up and unemployment going up, what is this world coming to?” “Did you hear what those democrats did?”

Conversations, we all have them every day and usually they are had around some fairly mundane subjects—weather, sports, news, politics, etc.  Most of the time, we strike up these conversations without much thought and they are over almost as quickly as they begin.  Most of the time these conversations are had with complete strangers with no expectation of ever seeing them again.  So, of what value are they?  Do they serve a purpose other than that of trying not to look unsociable and filling up dead air with useless chatter? I am not convinced that they do.

But what if even those short conversations were ones that could become significant? What if they could become eternally significant? Would we have the conversation if it contained meaning and not just noise? What if we opened our conversations with, “where do you go to church?” instead of “what do your think of the weather?

God has given us language so that we can exchange ideas with one another in community—that is what the very word, “conversation,” means—“to exchange ideas.” In addition, ideas have consequences because the ideas you offer will in turn spark ideas in the mind and hearts of those who hear them. The question is whether or not you are exchanging ideas of consequence or whether you are merely beating the air. The weightier the idea the more significant the consequence.

One of the things that concerns me, though, is that as a society we have become rather superficial not only in our conversations but in our ideas. It is almost as if we are afraid of the consequences of significant conversation so we opt to avoid it altogether. Yet significant conversations are essential for building significant relationships and significant relationships are essential for effecting change in peoples’ lives.

So, what do your conversations look like? Are they significant or do you play it safe, seeking to stay in the shallow end of the relationship pool. If we are going to effect change in our community, shallow will not cut it.  We need to enter into the deepest end of the pool and speak of the resurrection of the very Son of God who came into this world, lived amongst men, died a horrible death to atone for the sins of his people, and rose again on the third day.  There is no conversation more significant that that and there is no conversation that this world needs to hear more than that one. Will you be the one to have that conversation with those you meet, though?

Sent into the World as Christ was sent into the World

“Just as you sent me into the world, I also send them into the world, and for them, I sanctify myself in order that they also might be sanctified in Truth.”

(John 17:18-19)

This statement that Christ makes is very simple to understand, but very difficult to apply and live out because of the ramifications that it means for those of us who are believers.  “Just as,” Jesus says, the Father sends the Son, so the Son sends the believers.  The simplest way to understand this is to see this as a call for us to evangelize the world.  Yet, there is much more to what Jesus is teaching, for we must ask in what way did Christ enter into the world?  In turn, how are we to live out being sent in the same way?

Jesus came into the world in humility for the purpose not only of showing the people the Truth, but also to die—to be a sacrifice, holy and true, for sinful people.  Thus, Jesus sanctified himself so that he would be prepared to be a sacrifice for his people.  Thus, if we are to also be sent into the world as Christ was sent into the world, we need to be prepared to be sacrifices for the gospel, not living for ourselves or for selfish gain, but living humbly for the glory of God and to call others to Christ.  Thus, Paul calls us to become “living sacrifices” (Romans 12:1-2), being wholly committed to the sacrifice taking place (the Old Testament animal sacrifices kept nothing back, but were wholly committed to the altar—so too was Jesus, so too are we to be!).  Wealth, reputation, status, and privilege should not only be seen as God’s blessing to us, but also be seen as a tool toward advancing the end of the Gospel, not simply to make ourselves comfortable.

So, as you look at your life, how is it that you will sacrifice all for the Gospel?  What are the things that are holding you back from being sent into the world as Christ was sent into the world?  And how are you sanctifying yourself so that you can be a faithful and true living sacrifice to the glory of God?  These are dangerous questions for most of us to ask, because if we ask these questions honestly, God will call us to change in one way, shape, or form.  In addition, if we seek to live this out, God will call us to step outside of our comfort zones and stretch—but stretch to what end?  Think of things this way, Jesus called 12 Apostles (11 originals plus Paul) and those twelve men—wholly committed to the Gospel and to being led by the Holy Spirit—turned the world on its head.  Think of what God might do if confessing Christians today would be willing to be wholly committed to the claims of Christ that are upon them.  We would stop just “doing church,” but we would demolish the strongholds of this culture and turn this world on its head once again to the glory of Jesus Christ.  The church has largely embraced the devil’s temptation of comfort and has largely become impotent; let us see what would happen if we embrace Jesus’ prayer for us instead—the world, and our own lives, will never be the same.

This is Our Message (1 Corinthians 15:11)

“Wherefore, if from me or them, in this way I preached and in this way you believed.”

(1 Corinthians 15:11)


            Paul has returned to his starting point.  This fact of the resurrection of Christ, he says, is the heart of his preaching.  Without the resurrection, there would be no good news for man.  There would be no hope for anything beyond this life except eternal condemnation.  The resurrection of Christ is the surety we have been given that points to our own resurrection.  This is an essential of the faith.  Paul is saying that there is no Christian preaching apart from this fact and no one can come to faith apart from this fact.  If one denies the doctrine of the resurrection of Christ, one cannot be a Christian.  It is that simple.

            All too often, when we think of the afterlife, we only think in terms of the spiritual.  Some of this is a result of the tremendous influence that Greek philosophy has had on our culture, which taught that the spiritual was good and the physical was bad.  One of the things that Paul goes out of his way to show us in this chapter is not only the reality of the physical resurrection of Christ, but later on he will talk at length about the physical resurrection of us.  The point is that the Greeks were wrong and the conception of floating around in spiritual bodies forever is also wrong.  There is indeed an intermediate state, where we will be with God in spirit and our bodies will be kept in the grave, but that state is not final.  There will come a time when Christ will return as he left, with a shout all of those who are dead in Christ will rise up from the grave and be reunited with their spirits and they, along with all believers who are still alive, will be caught up in the air with Christ in glorified bodies.  Those who are unbelievers will also rise to life once again, but will be raised for the purpose of eternal condemnation.  Eternal life will be physical—though without the negative effects of sin.

            Friends, I hope that you look forward to that day.  It will be a day where you will be restored to a body that will be free from sickness and disease, free from aches and pains, and free from weakness.  It will be a day where we will work, but without frustration or toil.  It will be a day when hope is transformed into the reality of Christ’s presence.  What a glorious time that will be!  Praise be to God!


Reminders (1 Corinthians 15:1)

 “Now I reveal to you, brothers, the gospel which I preached to you, and which you received, and in which you have stood,”  (1 Corinthians 15:1)


As Paul is bringing this letter to a close, he closes by putting before the Corinthian church both the hope that they have (resurrection) and the reason for that hope (the resurrection of Christ).  Do understand that when Paul says that he is “revealing” these things, or making them known, that this is no new information for the Corinthians.  The death and resurrection of Christ is the single-most important aspect of the gospel and was at the heart of Paul’s preaching.  Yet, in light of the church’s problems, it is very appropriate for him to remind them of these things—reminding them to put first things first.

One of the things that you will find in the New Testament model for preaching and teaching is that when there are problems within churches, the Apostles taught doctrine.  How doctrinal teaching is lacking in our churches today!  People often think of doctrine as something that is dull and lifeless, and that impression could not be further from the truth.  Doctrine is rich with truth and it is doctrine that allows us to live out our lives faithfully in this world.  Doctrine is the rudder of the church, without it we will drift to and fro without direction.  Doctrine keeps us from drifting into the shallow reefs of error.

Thus it is important that we always keep these things before us, but more importantly, it is important that we stand upon these things.  Paul reminds the Corinthians that they did stand on those teachings at one point, but given that they have drifted into problems, the implication is that they are no longer standing firmly on the doctrines, which Paul preached. 

And this doctrine, which Paul is reminding them of, is the heart of all doctrines.  Apart from the death and resurrection of Christ, we can have no hope.  There would be nothing for us but sin and condemnation.  In Christ, there is life and hope.   Loved ones, keep this doctrine before you and ground your hope in it.  In Christ, there is life.  Keep that before you always.

The Fire and the Cedars (Judges 9:15)

“And the bramble said to the trees, ‘If in truth you anoint me to be king over you, enter and take refuge in my shadow.  But if there is not, let fire go out from the bramble, and let it consume the cedars of Lebanon!’”  (Judges 9:15)


There are two levels to how we need to approach this passage.  The first level is the immediate context of the passage.  Here, the bramble is given kingship and will subjugate all of the trees, destroying them in the process.  Indeed, there is a curse that is attached to the acceptance of the bramble:  may fires go out to consume even the great and stately cedars of Lebanon.  Abimelech will be made king, he will rule with an iron fist—and does so for three years—and not even the greatest of the people who made him king will be able to stand against him, indeed fire will consume even his strongest opposition during his reign.

And, were we just studying the book of Judges, we would leave this verse be with that translation.  But, given that all scripture is authored by God, it is important for us to see where this imagery is referenced in other books of the Bible.  And, indeed, the imagery is referenced in other books of the Bible, and in those cases, the language carries with it Messianic intent. 

Indeed, just as Abimelech, the false king of Israel destroys his enemies, so too, does the true king of Israel destroy his enemies with fire.  The book of Amos, within its first two chapters, repeatedly finds God sending out his fire to consume his enemies.  Also, in Zechariah 11:1-3, God pronounces his judgment against the unbelievers in Israel by declaring that his fire will devour the cedars of Lebanon.  Though this language is often used figuratively, it also looks backward to a time before the time of Judges, during Israel’s wilderness wanderings, where God literally destroyed his enemies with fire (Leviticus 10:1-7).

Yet, there is an even more compelling allusion to the language of this parable that occurs nearly 1300 years after the Jotham’s telling of this parable.  In Revelation 11, there is a reference to the two witnesses of God breathing out fire and destroying their enemies.  Now, admittedly, there is a great deal of debate as to just what these two witnesses represent, but I hold the position that they represent Christ during his earthly ministry.  The two witnesses are described as the two olive trees that stand before the lampstands which are before God.  This is imagery taken right out of Zechariah 4, where the two olive trees are the “anointed ones” that stand before the Lord (Zechariah 4:14).  Who is the anointed one before the Lord?  It is the Messiah—Jesus our Lord. 

Why then is Jesus represented by two witnesses?  I would like to suggest two options: first, Jesus’ witness is to both the Old Testament believers and to the New Testament believers, and second, Jesus had dual natures—one human and one divine.  Thus, two witnesses are given within the figurative language of the book of Revelation.  And indeed, getting back to the imagery that we spoke of earlier in this passage, Jesus is the olive tree; he is the rightful king of Israel.

Did Jotham have all of this in mind when he told his parable?  I very much doubt it.  Jotham was telling a story to tell the people what they had gotten themselves into.  At the same time, God, through other Biblical writers and in other times, used that imagery to warn those who would be the enemies of his son.  Abimelech would rule as a despot, and the righteous had much to fear; Jesus rules as the rightful and righteous king, and the unrighteous have much to fear.  Our God will obliterate even the strongest resistance to his rule—even the modern cedars of Lebanon cannot withstand his wrath.

I find it comforting to serve a God who has all of his enemies at his feet.  As believers, we know just how the story will end up and who ends up on top.  We do not worship in vain and we worship a God that gives life and sanctuary to those who enter under his shadow.  Jesus calls out to all who would hear:  “come and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).  Won’t you rest in him?


The Word of His Power: Hebrews 1:1-4 (part 12)

also bearing all things in the word of his power;


Beloved, we have asked the question in terms of what “all things” refers to, but we must also pose the question as to just what is the “word of his power.”  Indeed, the simplest and most straight-forward answer, particularly in the context of the creation language that precedes it, is the idea that God spoke all things in to being and, as John reminds us that Jesus is the very Word by which God created (John 1:1-2).  Yet, the language of this passage in Hebrews is not limited to the work of creation, but encompasses the entirety of all history (as well as the future) when he points out that not only were all things created by God, but all things are borne or upheld.  The Apostle Paul speaks similarly when he states that all things “hold together” in Christ Jesus (Colossians 1:17).  So it is the “word of his power” that not only creates, but sustains throughout redemptive history.

Thus, we are back at the initial question, what is this “word of his power”?  The term that is used here is the word rJhvma (hrama), which is a synonym for the more familiar term lo/goß (logos).  Both terms refer to words or communications that are either spoken or written and both can refer to generic “things” or “stuff.”  The only distinct difference in usage between these two terms is that lo/goß (logos) can be personified, standing alone as “The Word,” to refer to our Lord Jesus Christ.  With this in mind, we can do some searches to see how the language of “word” and “power” (du/namiß—dunamis, from which we get “dynamic” and “dynamite”) are used together in scripture.

With this in mind, Paul’s letters to the Corinthian churches are particularly helpful in understanding this language:

“For the word of the cross to those who are perishing is foolishness;

but to the one who is being saved, it is the power of God.”

(1 Corinthians 1:18 )

There are two things that we should note from this verse, though a lifetime could be spent reflecting on its meaning and ramifications for life and ministry.  First, in the context of the passage, the language of “the word of the cross” is referring to the Gospel as it is preached.  It is the promise that those who would flee sin and the things of this world, repent of their sins, and cling to Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior, believing in their hearts and confessing with their lips, will be saved from eternal condemnation.  It is the word that brings the only hope to mankind—that Jesus, who was perfect and without guilt, chose to come down to this earth, take on flesh to walk with men and to be tempted as we have been tempted, and yet lived without sin, went so far as to substitute himself for me, paying the penalty for my sin so that I might not have to face God’s wrath.  Believer, let that great promise sink in and let your soul sing with praise!  For Christ has come with grace and in grace you are forgiven!  This is the word of the cross—this is the Gospel—that there is redemption to be found in the person of Jesus Christ!  Indeed, as there is power in the blood, there is power in this message! 

Secondly, also, please note the transition in verbs (participles in the Greek).  In the first clause, “perishing” is presented in the middle tense and in the second clause, “being saved” is in the passive tense.  While this may seem like a fairly minor nuance, note the implications that are brought about by this language.  We are reminded, first, that our salvation is an action of God and we are passive recipients.  We are “being saved,” not saving ourselves.  We add nothing of our own merit to God’s salvific work.  In turn, the language is different when it speaking of those “who are perishing.”  The middle tense, in Greek, reflects the idea of people participating themselves in the action that is happening to them.  In other words, by their unbelief, the people who belong to this world are destroying themselves as well as being condemned in judgment by God.  This is the language that Paul developed further in Romans 1:18-32, and indeed, is reinforced by the language that is used in this verse.

Though much more could be drawn out of this verse, it provides us with a foothold on the idea that the word of Christ’s power is connected to the Gospel.  Paul echoes this further when he writes:

“and my word and my proclamation were not in persuasive words of wisdom,

but in proof of Spirit and power.”

(1 Corinthians 2:4)

Once again, Paul is reminding us that his word and proclamation (the Gospel) were not given in terms of eloquent rhetoric, but were delivered accompanied by proof.  And what was that proof of the Gospel?  The Spirit came (people were born-again) and power was demonstrated (Paul’s words were accompanied by signs and miracles that confirmed his message).  In other words, the proof of the message of the Gospel was not so much the logical consistency of it as the Greeks would have judged wisdom, but instead, the proof of the message was found in changed lives and miracles being worked.  Yet, also we ought to be careful not to limit the term du/namiß (dunamis—“power”) to miraculous works, for the term carries with it the idea of ability and force.  In other words, we should also understand that the “power” of which Paul speaks is in the ability of the Gospel to break down broken hearts, convict men of their sins, and bring them to repentance—something that is seen when the gospel is proclaimed even today.  The Gospel changes those who hear it—it brings some to repentance and hardens others, but none will ever remain the same after sitting under its power!

“But the Kingdom of God is not in word but is in power!”

(1 Corinthians 4:20)

One more note found in connection with Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, and this is in connection with the idea of Kingdom.  In short, the Kingdom of God refers to the entirety of God’s redemptive plan in bringing his people to himself through the ages.  Hence, it is a kingdom that is coming (Matthew 6:10; Luke 13:29), but it is also here (Matthew 4:17; Mark 1:15).  That is why Paul can assert that while believers live in this world, our citizenship is in heaven (Philippians 3:20).  With this in mind, Paul affirms that the Kingdom is not found merely in word, but in power as well.  There is a power and might in the gospel that draws believers into the kingdom and speaks redemption and judgment to the nations.

The final passage that it is important for us to look at is found in 2 Corinthians 5:1-6:13.  Paul is speaking of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and how Christ came and died to set them free from sin.  Paul speaks of how every man will have to eventually stand before the judgment seat of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:10) and that Paul and the Apostles have been commissioned to sound that warning so that men and women may be reconciled to God through Christ’s completed sacrifice and as Christ bore our sins, so we too may bear his righteousness (2 Corinthians 5:11-21).  Paul then calls the people to respond in faith (2 Corinthians 6:1-2) and reminds them that the ministry that Paul had in Corinth was an honorable one (remembering that false apostles were seeking to discredit Paul, which is part of the reason he is writing).  Paul goes on to describe the character of the ministry that he had in Corinth and writes these words:

“in words of truth, and in the power of God;

through the weapons of righteousness, in the right hand and in the left hand;”

(2 Corinthians 6:7)

One must really read verses 3-10 for the full context, but Paul is describing the work he has done in Corinth, and he describes the Gospel he preached as in “words of truth” and as “the power of God.”  This, of course, picks up on the language of 1 Corinthians 1:18, and is a reminder that this power of God is the Gospel.  As a side note, take care to notice the language of the second clause of this verse.  Paul is employing gladiatorial language, portraying righteousness (in connection to the Gospel) as the weapons of battle.  Gladiators often fought with double weapons, typically an offensive weapon in the right hand and a defensive weapon in the left (remembering that even a shield or a net can be considered a weapon).  Oftentimes we think of the military language of the Bible that portrays the church, through the Gospel, tearing down the gates of Hell in a systematic and organized way.  And, indeed, this is the role of the organized church through the ages—hence we are called to put on our “Gospel Armor” (Ephesians 6:10-20).  Yet, Paul describes his early work in Corinth in different language—that of being a gladiator, attacked from every side, and typically fighting alone or in a small group.  Indeed, how often that is the case with those on the mission field and how true an illustration this is of Paul’s ministry to Corinth.

So, with these things in mind, we can rephrase our question.  If the “word of his power” is in reference to the Gospel as well as to creation, then we must ask, how the Gospel helps bear or uphold all things.  The answer is really very simple.  When Adam and Eve fell, they earned God’s wrath and judgment.  Yet, God offered them grace and promised them a coming redeemer (Genesis 3:15).  This redeemer, of course, is Christ and this promise made to Adam and Eve was the first proclamation of the gospel.  Without God’s promise to send his son as redeemer, without the promise of the Gospel, the world would have ended in judgment then and there at the garden.  Instead, we have history.  Indeed, that history has been marred by sin and the effects of sin in this world, yet that history has been steeped in the grace of God as God has, generation after generation, brought men and women into a relationship with himself through faith in Jesus Christ.  The very fact that we have history is a direct result of the Gospel that was given and the work of which was completed by Jesus on the cross.  So long as there are more of the elect who have not yet been brought to faith and so long as there are yet elect who will yet die for their faith, this world will continue along its designated path and history will move along—upheld by the Gospel.  When the Gospel is no longer necessary, the world will cease to be.

Oh, loved ones, do you not see the importance of this great gift that God has given us?  Will you not revel in its promise?  The gospel is the word of God’s power and the gospel is the warp and the woof that holds the fabric of existence together.  It will not fail you as it has not failed God throughout history.  Trust in it, proclaim it, rejoice in it, and give God thanks for it.  And teach your children to do the same.

How sweet the Name of Jesus sounds

In a believer’s ear!

It soothes his sorrows, heals his wounds,

And drives away his fear.

Jesus! my Shepherd, Husband, Friend,

O Prophet, Priest and King,

My Lord, my Life, my Way, my End,

Accept the praise I bring.

-John Newton

A Proverb in a Song: part 3

“As well as the sons of Adam—even the sons of man—

together, both the rich and the needy.”

(Psalm 49:3 {Psalm 49:2 in English Bibles})


If you have been reading along with this psalm in your favorite Bible translation, you will quickly notice that there is some disparity between the language above and how most translators translate the first portion of this verse.  Most will translate this as “both low and high” or something very similar to that.  Essentially, what they are doing is taking the language of the “sons of Adam” and “the sons of man” and treating them idiomatically to reflect the idea of highborn and lowborn people of various estates, which would also make the first half of the verse parallel to the second.

Yet, I am not convinced that this is what the psalmist is seeking to do.  As we talked in the previous verse, this psalm is not written to Israelites alone, but it is directed to all people of all nations.  With that in mind, it seems to me that the psalmist is using language that is as broad as possible to refer to people from every tribe and nation.  The psalmist uses the very specific language of the Sons of Adam, which of course is all of mankind, and then he uses generic language that again refers to all people.  The idea here being that all people without exclusion are called to listen to the words of wisdom he is about to write—given as emphasis of what he proclaims in the previous verse.

Yes, beloved, as we said earlier, the Gospel is for all people of all time.  There is no one—man, woman, or child—that the words of scripture do not apply to.  The question is, if we understand this and agree with this, why do we not share the truth of God’s word with more people in our lives?  Why do we back down at the first sign of challenge and fail to stand for what we know to be the truth?  Oh, beloved, let us sound the alarms and preach from the rooftops—let us proclaim to the sons of Adam—indeed to all the children of the earth—that Jesus Christ is Lord and that salvation is found in his name and in his name alone!


I.  The Purpose of a genealogy

            A.  they establish Jesus’ credentials

            B.  Matthew, writing to a Jewish audience takes his genealogy back to Abraham

                        1.  Matthew picks up where the genealogies in Genesis 5 and 11 leave off

                        2.  Matthew’s emphasis is on the fulfillment of Jesus’ Sonship in terms of

     the Abrahamic promise

3.  Note prominence of David and Abraham in Matthew’s genealogy

            C.  Luke, writing to a Gentile audience, takes his genealogy back to Adam

                        1.  Luke wants to show that the whole world has a connection to Jesus

                        2.  Luke emphasizes Sonship in terms of Jesus’ divine Sonship

                        3.  Luke also emphasizes Jesus as the “second Adam”, which is why the

     genealogy is found just before the temptation account—showing that

     Jesus succeeded where Adam failed (see 1 Corinthians 15:42-49 and

     Romans 5:12-14)

            D.  The point is that Jesus has the proper credentials to be the agent of salvation

      not only of the Jews but of the whole world!

II.  Differences between Matthew and Luke’s genealogies

            A.  Matthew traces from David to Solomon, Luke from David to Nathan

            B.  Luke has significantly more people in his genealogy

            C.  Matthew leaves out 4 kings in his line

                        1.  Joash, Amaziah, Ahaziah, and Jehoiakim

                        2.  These 4 kings were connected to curses in Hebrew tradition

            D.  Matthew’s three groups of 14 aren’t really fourteen (to make it work there is

      duplication in the third but not the second)

III.  Solutions

A.  Luther proposed that Luke’s genealogy was traced through Mary and   

      Matthew’s through Joseph

B.  Also has been proposed that Luke’s genealogy is a biological genealogy of

      Jesus and Matthew’s is a theological or “kingly” geneaology

C.  The point is that Jewish genealogies were not done to see all of the biological

      connections, but their purpose was to show a theological connection to the

      covenant body—Matthew’s certainly does this

IV.  The Women—Matthew’s genealogy contains 5 women—very unusual

            A.  Tamar (Genesis 38:27-30)—seduced her father in law by masquerading as a


            B.  Rahab (Joshua 2)—a prostitute

            C.  Ruth (Ruth)—a Moabitess, the Moabites descended from the incestuous

                    relationship of Lot and his daughter

            D.  The Wife of Uriah (Bathsheba—2 Samuel 11&12, also Psalm 51)—an


            E.  The point?  Jesus’ messiahship is not just for those who are “in authority” but

      is for all kinds of people



Oh how sober a garden that must have been.  Here Jesus has come just prior to his arrest at the hands of the children of the Serpent; he has been betrayed by one of his twelve; he will soon be denied by Peter, the leader of the twelve; and abandoned, at least for a while, by all of the rest (John and the women make their way to the cross).  Jesus is intentional.  They have come into this garden so that he can retreat from the world and pray, seeking strength and an internally unified approach to the passion that was to come.  Peter, James, and John, he has taken to the side to pray on his behalf as he seeks the Lord’s face.


There are many things that we can learn from this passage; a few are worth noting:

1) For the Christian, when preparing to face great trial, prayer must be our primary retreat.  Here, even Jesus, the very Lord of Creation is seeking his father’s face.  Oh, how we make a mess of this principle.  Prayer so often is our last resort, when for the Christian it must be our first.  Look here, dear Christian, if the Lord of the heavens needs to pray for strength before trials, then how much more do we, the frail and sinful, need that same prayer. 


2) Jesus shows us the value of intercessory prayer.  Here Jesus has taken three of his trusted apostles to the side.  Jesus continues on to pray for a spell and leaves the three of them to wait.  What, dear Christian, do you think that they were meant to be doing while Jesus prayed?  If they were meant to be chatting about the day’s events in Jerusalem or swapping jokes, then why was Jesus so upset when they chose to take a catnap?  No, these three were meant to be praying for Jesus that he would have strength to lift his prayers and burdens before his father.  Brethren, do you want to know who your faithful friends are?  It is those brothers and sisters who agonize with you in prayer before the father’s throne. 


3) Times and trial and tribulation can cause us to have great internal struggles of faith, but disunity of spirit and body will cause us to stumble.  Our Lord had two natures, a human one and a divine one.  His petitions before the Lord were partly out of a desire to approach the coming suffering with the assurance of a unified witness.  His human nature would not fail him, but would be faithful to the divine will.  It is times when we are filled with indecision that we fail in our appointed task.  As terribly important as Jesus’ next days were, not merely to his mighty work, but to the very future of mankind, Jesus was aligning his human and divine natures together for this task.


Yet what strikes me about this passage is how sad a place the garden must have been that night.  There was a time that the Garden would have been a place for celebration and joy amongst the olive trees, but that night was quite different.  Oh, the weight, not only of the task ahead, but of disappointment in his faithful apostles for their lack of faith even after all they had seen.


It must have taken Jesus back to another garden, Eden, recalling the disappointment that must have been felt at the time of the fall of our first parents.  That garden as well was turned from a place of joy into a place of sadness.  How often we do this with the gardens of blessing in our own lives.  We take the gifts of God for granted and we bring sin into those gifts.  We bring sin into our homes, or jobs, and our families.  And we bring sin into our churches.  Psalm 128 paints a picture of the blessing of work, family, and Church fellowship that God gives to those who fear him; we bring sin into all of these areas.


That same psalm describes our children as olive shoots.  I want to be careful about how the analogy it draws, so as not to spiritualize the connection of olive shoots and the mature garden of Gethsemane, but it is worth noting the garden imagery.  As with any garden, olive shoots need care and they need a strong fence to support them as they mature.  If they do not have that fence to support and mold them, the shoots will creep across the ground and quickly become diseased, rotten, and die.


The sadness of Gethsemane came as a result of our sin.  Adam and Eve sinned and fell, and Jesus, in this next garden, is preparing for the task of making right that which we made so wrong.  As he leaves his time of prayer, he does so with a renewed determination.  Notice that Jesus does not hide from the people coming to arrest him; he does not seek out just a few more minutes of prayer.  He lays his prayer before his father three times and then, with renewed determination sets forward and presents himself to the children of darkness.  It is as if he is saying, “let’s do it…” and  entering into the belly of the beast—offering his life before them.  And this he does on that lonely cross.


Loved ones, this was a path we could not walk; yet, Christ walked it so that we might not have to.  This is the promise of the Gospel—we who deserve death are offered life and he who is the Lord of Life went to his death on our behalf.  What wonder that this should raise in our heart, what amazement it should birth in our souls, yet how often we go through this time of the year thinking only of our own desires and wants.  For you who are already trusting in Christ, let this Passion Week renew your adoration of and commitment to the Lord of your life; for those who are suffering in your own futile struggle against sin and guilt, know that Christ offers life—come to him and live!