What’s hard about reading 1 Corinthians?
Who is this commentary for?
How do we interpret hard NT texts?
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Pastoring sometimes feels like riding an emotional roller coaster full of ups and downs, twists and turns. Day after day, you watch people you love make decisions that bring you joy and make you cry — sometimes in the same day. Anxiety increases as you hear the clack, clack, clack dragging you slowly up the peak of conflict only to be pushed over the top into the free-fall of relational chaos, knowing only that a sharp turn is just ahead. No one blames you if you feel overwhelmed and want to get off the ride. You’re not alone.
If we’re to endure faithfully in pastoral ministry, we need to remember that we’re leading the church in a time of tension — between the already and the not-yet. We’re called to shepherd the flock of God among us to the celestial city, laboring to point them to Christ and his glorious promises and warning them of the dangers of this present evil world, the temptations of our flesh, and the schemes of the Devil. If we’re to do this well, we must understand what Christ has gained for us already in these last days and what we have yet to gain on the Last Day. When we fail to recognize this tension, we’ll punch our ticket to the emotional roller coaster of pastoral ministry—a ride that often leads to disappointment, discouragement, and perhaps even pastoral burnout.Perils of an under-realized eschatology
When we don’t appreciate what Christ has accomplished for us, when we don’t account for what’s already ours through our union with him, as D. A. Carson puts it, we’ll be tempted toward pessimistic defeatism. Imagine doubting God’s forgiveness or questioning your standing before God. Such a perspective will eventually lead to despair as you’re left to your own devices to try and earn acceptance before God. It will be difficult—nearly impossible—to lead a church while dealing with such nagging doubts. Rather than run to Christ and rest in what he has accomplished, you may be tempted to leave the ministry altogether.
But I suspect the majority of us who continue in pastoral ministry have learned to preach the gospel to ourselves. We may not doubt our standing before God, but if we tend toward pessimistic defeatism, we may functionally doubt others’ standing before God. Just think about how this under-realized eschatology might affect your ministry:
Culture: Are you tempted to view this world as so irredeemable that you don’t associate with unbelievers? Are you tempted to believe that things are so bad “out there” that you should avoid it altogether and encourage your church to do likewise?
Evangelism: Do you view some unbelievers as beyond the grace of God? Are there unbelievers in your life that you’re convinced will never come to Christ, causing you to think, “Why even try?”
Discipleship: Are you so frustrated with church members who seem to struggle with the same sins again and again that you’re ready to give up on them?
Preaching: Have you come to the place where you feel it doesn’t matter how much you prepare or how faithfully you preach because it won’t hardly make a difference?
Leadership: Have you thrown in the towel in trying to raise up leaders in the church because you believe no one will rise to the biblical standards?
It’s no shock that such pessimistic defeatism will lead to burn out. When we don’t rest in the work that Christ has accomplished for us and for our people, we’ll be tempted to step into his sandals and rescue people ourselves. We’ll be tempted to think it’s finally up to us to change the culture; to convince unbelievers into the kingdom; to work out our people’s sanctification; to preach sermons that transform lives; to raise up biblical leaders.
But it’s not. We’re not the Savior of the world, and we’re not the Sanctifier of the Church. If an under-realized eschatology ever causes us to forget this, then burnout is inevitable.Perils of an over-realized eschatology
On the other hand, if we mistakenly believe that Christ’s finished work guarantees for us now promises that won’t be fulfilled until the consummation of all things, then we’ll be tempted toward overly optimistic triumphalism. While we may not actually believe this world is fully restored and the saints are fully sanctified, we may functionally hold to a sort of prosperity theology in which we expect a substantial down payment on our future inheritance now. This inevitably leads to disappointment and doubt when Christ doesn’t deliver what we mistakenly expect of him.
Think also about how an over-realized eschatology affects our ministry:
Culture: Do you believe that because Jesus is King (Eph. 1:19–23), we can go into our communities and redeem the culture so that we can cultivate a slice of heaven here on earth?
Evangelism: Are you under the impression that because in this new age sower and reaper are working together (John 4:35–38), that you should expect to experience a fruitful evangelistic ministry in your church?
Discipleship: Do you expect that because we all have the Spirit that all your church will equally love God’s Word, one another, and you? Do you think that because we’re all to be maturing in Christ, your church will never face conflict?
Preaching: Have you become convinced that because God promises that his Word will never return empty that every sermon you preach will have lasting impact on your congregation?
Leadership: Are you expecting every man who desires to be an elder to be qualified to serve such that you don’t need to put processes in place to raise up leaders?
Surprisingly, even optimistic triumphalism will also lead to burn out. Why? Because when we assume we have more of the future blessings now than we really do, we set ourselves up for disappointment and discouragement. And disappointment and discouragement lead toward doubt and eventual burnout.
So, where do we go from here?Tension must remain
If we’re to keep the tension between the already and the not-yet, then we must renew our minds and root our thinking in the gospel. In his first letter, Peter reminds the defeated Christians in Asia Minor that, because of Christ’s work (1:2), they already possess a future inheritance that awaits them at the consummation (1:3–4). Already, he writes, these Christians are living in a privileged time, the age of salvation the prophets longed to see (1:10–12). But until the consummation, he assures them that they will face suffering that God will use to strengthen their faith (1:5–9).
So with a right perspective, the suffering Christians in Asia Minor can live amid suffering by looking forward to the blessings that await them in the final salvation.
As for the triumphalistic Corinthians (1 Cor. 4:8–13), Paul admonishes them as his beloved children (4:14), exposing their spiritual immaturity (3:1–4) and calling them to love one another (13:1–13). Like Peter, Paul also grounds the Corinthians’ identity and standing in Christ. Because of Christ’s work, they’re no longer what they used to be. So, by faith, they are to live as those who have been washed, sanctified, and “justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (6:11).Embrace the journey
It’s true that sometimes pastoral ministry feels like an emotional roller coaster ride and we’re just hanging on for dear life. But it’s also true that sometimes the reason for that feeling is confused expectations that lead to an inability to live by faith in the tension of the already and the not-yet.
Instead, we should consider the Christian life a journey. Jesus has already blazed the trail for us; he’s reached the final destination (Heb. 12:2). We’ve not yet arrived, but Christ has given us everything we need. Let us, then, fix our eyes on Jesus and run the race that he set before us (Heb. 12:1), knowing that as we follow in his steps, we’re not only following him into suffering, shame, and death, but also into victory, glory, and eternal life.
Editors’ note: This article was originally publishedat 9Marks.
Corporate worship is one of the fundamental purposes and actions of the church. Unfortunately, that which should unite us together in praise of the triune God often serves as a wedge to divide the people of God across fault lines of age, socioeconomic status, and personal preference. We often make decisions concerning the various aspects of corporate worship without searching the Scriptures to determine the priorities that God places on this central action of His body.
In His encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4, Jesus emphasizes the divine priority of worship when He utters the incredible statement, “But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers. God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:23-24). Here, Jesus describes authentic worship as that which is offered to the Father in spirit and in truth. Astoundingly, the Father is searching for those who will offer Him this type of worship. We must continually evaluate and adjust our worship practices in light of these Scriptural mandates.
Throughout his letters to the churches in Asia Minor, Paul continues to unpack the meaning of Christian worship. In the Epistle to the Romans, he locates the fundamental problem of humanity in its false worship whereby “they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator” (Romans 1:25). He spends considerable time correcting faulty worship attitudes and practices throughout 1 Corinthians. It is the twin Pauline passages found in Colossians and Ephesians that speak of “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” that provide us the best vantage point from which to examine the Pauline understanding of biblical worship through song.
Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God. Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father (Colossians 3:16-17).
This passage demonstrates that the Word of Christ—the truth of the Gospel about Christ—should indwell the music of the church. This means that the Gospel should permeate the lyrical content of what we sing together as believers. In the School of Church Music at Southwestern Seminary, we train men and women who will serve God in a variety of capacities, with many of them serving as worship and music leaders in their churches. One of the priorities that we emphasize countless times is the pastoral responsibility they bear as they place the Word of God on the lips of the people of God.
Music possesses tremendous power to guide the thoughts and affections of those who listen and, more importantly, actively participate. Singing the truth of the Word of God drives these doctrines deep into the minds and hearts of the congregation. It is necessary and beneficial for the people of God to express their love, devotion, and need for God, but often the music of the church can lack the revealed truth of the Bible. Just as we urge preachers to “let the Word speak,” so also must we “let the Word sing”!
And do not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord; always giving thanks for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God, even the Father; and be subject to one another in the fear of Christ (Ephesians 5:18-21).
This parallel passage in Ephesians similarly emphasizes singing to the Lord with thankfulness, but the prominence shifts from the work of Christ to that of the Spirit. Here, we are commanded to be filled with the Spirit as we address each other and sing to the Lord. Paul concludes by instructing believers to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. These dual mandates teach us a powerful truth: Worship is corporate in nature, and the Spirit uses our times of worship to shape us into the image of Christ.
Corporate worship is not just a collection of individuals who happen to be worshiping God in the same room. When we lift up our voices to praise the Lord together, we are united in spirit and in faith. In fact, corporate times of singing are the only times when we are all doing the same thing at the same time. The Spirit of God uses these experiences to mold us into the body of Christ, where we set aside our stylistic preferences for the good of the body and the sake of the Kingdom of God.
Sing praise to the Lord, you His godly ones, and give thanks to His holy name (Psalm 30:4).
Let the Word of God be on our lips as we sing praises to Him, and let the Spirit move among us as He becomes more and more the object of our worship!
“Should I join a church?” I’ve been asked this question many times — not just through my Practical Shepherding website, but also in my own church by visitors. It is a common scenario. You move to a new area. You get find your new residence and job. You get the kids enrolled in school. Where you settle in a local church often becomes a longer, more drawn-out task.
After checking out all the churches you desire to visit, here are four questions to ask yourself as you narrow the search to make a decision.Is this a church where my family will be regularly fed by God’s Word?
This is the first question that needs to be asked. Not just are they faithful to the Word of God, but will this church preach and teach in such a way that my soul and the souls of my family will be nourished? In other words, are they preaching expositionally through books of the Bible as the regular, steady diet of the congregation? This approach does not automatically answer this question, but it is a great place to start and evaluate.Is this a church where I am convinced the care of my soul will be a priority?
Does this church have real pastors/elders who see their primary task to be the spiritual care and oversight of the souls of the members? In other words, just because they have powerful, biblical preaching does not mean your individual soul will be tended to on a regular basis. Ask the pastors. Ask other church members. It will not take much investigation on whether this work is a priority of the leadership of the church.Is this a church where my family will experience meaningful Christian fellowship and accountability?
To know this, it will require a bit of a commitment to one church for a time to build relationships, attend some church fellowship events, and get to know some of the pastors and leaders. Yet you must have a realistic expectation since you are not yet a member, and so you should not expect to be treated like one.Is this a church where I can serve God’s people and use my gifts for its benefit?
It will help to know where you are gifted and what some of the needs of the church are. Some needs can be filled by your simple presence and commitment. Also, do not assume you know what those areas of need are by your limited observations.
You should be able to know the answers to these questions within a few months of attending one church if you give yourself to the process. If you can answer in the affirmative to all four of these questions, it is a good possibility you have found your next church. At that point, I would encourage you not to delay but to pursue membership.Final element
One final element is the key to persevering with the zeal required in this search. You and your family should feel a sense of persistent unease knowing that you are not in covenant fellowship with a local church and are not under the authority of undershepherds caring for your souls. The freedom and absence of accountability many experience in the search for a new church can cause a sinful complacency.
In other words, you do not ever want to become comfortable being one of God’s sheep who has wandered away from the fellowship of the flock and the accountability of shepherds to care for you, even if that journey at the time feels fun and exciting.
Editors’ note: This article was originally published at The Gospel Coalition.
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For years, I’ve heard of the joys of pilgrimaging to the holy land, but I had no opportunity to visit until now. Joining a large group from Prestonwood Baptist Church led by Pastors Jack Graham and Jarrett Stephens, we crisscrossed our way through the Promised Land to various biblical sites, including Caesarea, Capernaum, Jericho, Bethlehem, the Dead Sea, and, of course, Jerusalem. Walking these sites did much more than satisfy my love for history; it was a spiritual experience that stirred in me a love for pilgrimage.
In its simplest form, pilgrimage is “voyaging to see and pray at a specific holy place,” and there is a long history of this practice. In Genesis, God calls Abraham to journey to a new land (Genesis 12:1) and then, years later, uses Moses to lead the Hebrews out of exile to the same place. When he delivers the Law, Moses stipulates that the nation should pilgrimage to Jerusalem three times a year for religious festivals (Deuteronomy 16:6). As they traveled, they sang the Psalms of Ascent (Psalm 120-134), and it’s not hard to imagine their emotions as they approached the temple singing, “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord.’ Our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem…”(Psalm 122:1-2).
In the New Testament, we see pilgrimage in the journey of the magi who come to visit the newborn king. Then, at the age of 12, Jesus, along with Mary and Joseph, pilgrimages to the temple for the Feast of the Passover (Luke 2:41-42). After the Lord’s resurrection, we also find the Ethiopian eunuch traveling to Jerusalem, where he meets Philip and discovers the true identity of the suffering servant of Isaiah 53. These stories illustrate the reality that all Christians are “sojourners and exiles” journeying toward the Kingdom that is to come (1 Peter 2:11).
In the early church, pilgrimage to holy sites dramatically increased. Origen and Eusebius, for example, resided in Caesarea, and Eusebius boasts that Origen’s knowledge of Scripture was supported by visits to important biblical sites. It was the Christianization of the empire under Emperor Constantine, however, that truly paved the way for the expansion of pilgrimage.
Not everyone was impressed with the developing culture of pilgrimage. Gregory of Nyssa warned against it because of the dangers in traveling to these sites. Egeria, a fourth-century nun, lamented that many sites were “being touted, with dubious historicity, by local monks who already witnessed to the ‘tourist trade’ element of pilgrimage.” These criticisms were recycled by the Protestant Reformers, such as Martin Luther, who in his Address to the Nobility of the German Nation condemned the abusive practices, saying, “All pilgrimages should be done away with. For there is no good in them, no commandment, but countless causes of sin and of contempt of God’s commandments.”
While many shared Luther’s feelings, others found the concept of pilgrimage helpful, the most famous being John Bunyan in his Pilgrim’s Progress. Like Bunyan, Christians from Anabaptists to Puritans continued to draw on the theme of pilgrimage as they imagined the Christian life as a progressive journey of sanctification toward the Kingdom of God.
With its biblical examples and spiritual allure, it seems that Christians cannot escape the attraction to pilgrimage. For all its problems, pilgrimage is deeply rooted in the evangelical yearning for relationship and communion with God. It offers a form of spiritual discipline that educates and edifies the faith of the believer.
After returning home and reflecting on my own travels, I see many benefits in Christian pilgrimage. First, pilgrimage undoubtedly sheds new insights into the events of Scripture and Christian history. It reminds us that Christians are decidedly anti-Gnostic and devoted to the work God accomplished in time and space. To stand in a synagogue in Magdala, where Christ most likely taught, or to stroll among ruined walls of the temple in Jerusalem, where Christ certainly walked, is a staggering reminder of the wonder of the incarnation. These stones, fields, seas, and rivers heard His voice and bowed to His miraculous works.
Second, pilgrimage sets aside concentrated time to reflect on the work of the Lord for spiritual renewal. Pilgrimage is a form of spiritual discipline that nurtures prayer and contemplation. Just as the Lord “would often slip away to the wilderness and pray” (Luke 5:16), so does pilgrimage offer a kind of retreat from the daily routines and troubles of life. As I walked the seaside where that the Lord restored Peter in John 21 or gazed out over the Judean wilderness where the Lord was likely tempted, I found myself praying, reading Scripture, and remembering the His works.
Finally, pilgrimage, especially with a group of fellow Christians, generates a deep sense of Christian community and fellowship. As we traveled, we joined together with so many Christians over the centuries to celebrate the works of God. I will never forget gathering in the fields on the outskirts of Bethlehem, where the shepherds heard the angelic voices, and joining in a chorus of Christians singing together, “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”
While pilgrimage has a rather checkered history, the allure of journeying to holy sites continues to edify the Christian pilgrim. Few if any in our group from Prestonwood left Israel unmoved by what they experienced, and I can only hope that many more will have the opportunity to share in the joys of Christian pilgrimage. When they do, my prayer, following the sentiments of N.T. Wright, is “that they may make the right use of their time journeying: to learn new things, yes, to pray new prayers, yes, but most of all to take fresh steps along the road of discipleship that leads from the earthly city to the city that is to come, whose builder and maker is God.”
 John A. McGuckin, “Pilgrimage,” in the Westminster Handbook of Patristic Theology, 274.
 John Gatta, “Toward a Theology of Pilgrimage,” Institute for Faith and Learning at Baylor University, 2016, accessed at: https://www.baylor.edu/content/services/document.php/270260.pdf.
 For a similar discussion of the benefits of pilgrimage, see N.T. Wright, The Way of the Lord: Christian Pilgrimage Today, Eerdmans, 2014; or Ted Olsen, “He Talked to Us on the Road: The Surprising Rewards of Christian Travel,” April 3, 2009, accessed at: https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2009/april/15.23.html.
 N.T. Wright, The Way of the Lord, 11.
Legalism does not work. It never has and it never will. Legalism is the pursuit of good works — obedience to God’s law and the ethical commands of the Bible (and beyond) — abstracted from faith in Christ in order to be acceptable before God. The legalist approaches the Bible as a law-centered document rather than a Christ-centered one. Legalism attempts to domesticate the law of God and exacerbates sin rather than killing it because it feeds the flesh.
Legalism always produces two kinds of people: Those who know they do not measure up to God’s standards; and those who pretend that they measure up to God’s standards. I have often asked people, “What are your personal standards for what a person should say and do? Have you, in every instance, lived up to your own standards?” The answer is always no. If we haven’t lived up to our own standards, then we can be certain we have not lived up to God’s standards either.The problem with the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees
The Sermon on the Mount turns on Matthew 5:20: “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus’s assertion would have been startling to his hearers. Who could enter the kingdom of heaven then? The hearers would have been wondering: “How can anyone have better righteousness than those experts in the law?” At the end of the next section (Matt. 5:21-48), Jesus clarifies, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48).
In Matthew 5:21–48, there are six sections addressing various examples of the better righteousness: (1) murder (5:21–26); (2) adultery (5:27–30); (3) divorce (5:31–32); (4) oaths (5:33–37); (5) vengeance (5:38–42); and (6) love of enemies (5:43–48). Each of these begins “You have heard that it was said” (vv. 21, 27, 31, 33, 38, 43), and then “But I say to you …” (vv. 22, 28, 32, 34, 39, 44).
Jesus’s teaching in this section is often described as “antitheses,” but that is a poor description of his instruction. After all, Jesus had already clarified, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matt. 5:17).
A close reading of this section reveals three common words and phrases that Jesus uses throughout this section. These three formulas hint at Jesus’s primary takeaway for his disciples:
- The gospel according to the legalist: “You have heard that it was said”
Using this phrase, Jesus refers to a particular Old Testament law and exposes the way a legalist would wrongly interpret and apply the command.
- The gospel according to Jesus: “…But I say to you”
Next, Jesus explains the way the law is rightly to be understood and applied in light of deeper kingdom dynamics because, in him, the kingdom of heaven was at hand.
- Don’t pit Old Testament vs. New Testament: “If,” “so,” or “then”
Jesus also, with one exception, provides examples of how one could take steps that would demonstrate the obedience of faith — the better righteousness.
Some wrongly pit the Old Testament against the New Testament, asserting that the OT is law-focused and external while the NT is heart-focused and internal. Even a cursory reading of the OT makes clear that true righteousness always involved internal faith and a transformed heart.
You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart (Deut. 6:5-7).
Rend your hearts and not your garments (Joel 2:13).
The legalist abstracts the biblical command from the canonical gospel narrative. Thus, according to the legalist, if you have not murdered, committed adultery, and have not given a deceptive oath, then you are righteous; if you have, then you are unrighteous. The legalist also concludes, since they are righteous, they have a right to give a certificate of divorce, administer vengeance, and hate their enemies. Their focus is on the self.
The citizen of the kingdom of heaven hears the commands of God as embedded in the biblical gospel narrative. This is why the beatitudes do not make sense to the legalist but they do make sense to kingdom citizens. The Bible is not law-centered (another way of saying man-centered), but it is Christ-centered and gospel-focused.Contrasting patterns of thought
Consider below and contrast the pattern of thinking of the legalist and the kingdom citizen. They can read the same laws and come to opposite conclusions because they have opposing starting points. The fundamental issue with Jesus’ six examples in Matthew 5:21-48 is that they are not abstractions, they exhibit the way kingdom ethics work. The examples should be considered as a part of the same gospel cloth and not as independent abstract commands.
The pathway of legalistic thinking is:
- The law
- Their righteousness
- How much their righteousness will please God and others
The pattern of the kingdom citizen’s thinking is:
- God in Christ.
- Christ’s righteousness and law-keeping for me.
- How can I serve God in Christ and others by rendering the obedience of faith?
With the first way of thinking, a legalistic approach to applying the “You have heard it said” commands make sense, yet Jesus’s responses (“But I say to you”) do not. The kingdom citizen reverses the focus, trusts in Christ’s righteousness, and walks in line with the gospel.
Occasionally I am asked, “Does a Christian have to keep a journal in order grow more like Jesus Christ?” Of course not. There is no command in Scripture—explicit or implied—requiring the followers of Jesus to keep a journal. And while I’ve written and spoken of the benefits of keeping a spiritual journal, I’ve never written or said that the Bible anywhere obligates Christians to keep a journal. In fact, I have never read or heard anyone making such a claim. Moreover, there is absolutely no evidence—biblical or otherwise—that Jesus kept anything like a spiritual journal.
While we credit the Lord Jesus Christ (since He is a member of the Triune Godhead) with the ultimate inspiration of all the written Word of God, the only account of Jesus physically writing anything during the days of his humanity is when he stooped to write on the ground in John 8:6. That is not to imply that the omniscient Son of God was illiterate in his incarnation. For the New Testament refers to Jesus reading Scripture aloud (Luke 4:16), and it is hard to imagine him receiving an education where one is taught to read but not to write.Does the Bible command it?
So if the Bible does not require a Christian to keep a journal (indeed, a person can be both a devoted Christian and yet completely illiterate), and if Jesus did not keep a journal, why do I encourage followers of Jesus to consider journaling and why did I include entire chapters about this practice in some of my books? I recommend to Christians the discipline of keeping a spiritual journal because (1) something very much like journaling is modeled in Scripture, and because (2) believers throughout church history have found journal-keeping so beneficial to their growth in grace.
For as long as I have written on the subject of spiritual disciplines, I have sought to advocate only those disciplines which are taught or modeled in Scripture. Without this God-inspired means of evaluation, anything and everything that anyone pronounced as profitable for his or her soul could be touted as a spiritual discipline Christians should pursue. Apart from a sola Scriptura standard to guide Christian spirituality, anything from the trivial to the heretical could be claimed as equal in value to personal disciplines as basic as Bible reading and prayer or interpersonal disciplines as important as hearing God’s Word preached and participating in the Lord’s Supper.
And while there may be some intramural debate among Bible-believing Christians about whether certain practices do have scriptural support, it is crucial to recognize the importance of God’s Word as the sufficient means for assessing “everything pertaining to life and godliness” (2 Pet. 1:3).
Can we say, then, that there is a biblical basis for journaling? While the evidence for it is clearly not as strong as for a personal spiritual discipline like prayer, I believe that something very similar to what has historically been called journaling is found in Scripture by example. In the Psalms, we repeatedly find David writing things such as, “Incline Your ear, O Lord, and answer me; For I am afflicted and needy” (Psalm 86:1). Cries like these are not unlike a believer today writing a heartfelt plea to the Lord in a journal.
When, in the book of Lamentations, the prophet Jeremiah recorded his Godward feelings about the fall of Jerusalem, he was doing something not very different from the Christian today who types his or her Godward feelings into a word processor file named “Journal.” Of course, unlike the words of David and Jeremiah in Scripture, no believer’s writings today are divinely inspired. But the example of these men in writing their prayers, meditations, questions, etc., provides scriptural validation for Christians today to do the same.Jonathan Edwards and journaling
A second reason I advocate journal-keeping is because of the sanctifying benefits that so many Bible-believing Christians throughout history have attributed to the practice. Jonathan Edwards found the discipline so helpful that he kept journals or notebooks of various kinds. He penned a diary, a 500-page journal of “Miscellanies” (basically thoughts on theology), and enormous notebooks with “Notes on Scripture,” “Notes on the Apocalypse,” and reflections on “The Mind.”
A separate collection of “Miscellaneous Observations on Scripture” includes more than ten thousand entries made from 1730 to 1758, according to biographer George Marsden. And the first biography published in America—still in print and still powerfully used by the Lord—was primarily a missionary’s journal to which Edwards attached a short biography and called it The Life and Diary of David Brainerd.
I know only one person who keeps a written record of insights into Scripture, prayers, significant life moments, etc., on a scale comparable to Edwards. Unlike Edwards, most journal-keepers—whether they write by hand, on a word processor, in a blog, or some other way—are not daily journalers. Regardless of the frequency of their entries, however, they journal because God blesses them in it and also because it helps them to practice other spiritual disciplines found in Scripture.
For instance, one friend has told me that he tries to write simply “one key thought” from his Bible reading. He reports that “Some of the most meaningful, the most convicting, the most ‘blessing’ and reinforcing perspectives I’ve ever gotten from Bible study have come from my daily journaling process. . . . God has been pleased to bless this discipline in my life, far more than [I] can express.” As Scottish pastor and author Maurice Roberts put it, “The logic of this practice is inevitable once men have felt the urge to become molded in heart and life to the pattern of Christ.”Should I journal?
So, do you have to keep a spiritual journal? Well, if you are enrolled in my Personal Spiritual Disciplines class at the seminary and you want to pass, the answer is yes. Otherwise, no; journal- keeping is not necessary for Christlikeness.
Many of the greatest Christians in history have kept journals, and many equally godly men and women have not. But I urge you to consider whether you might be among those who would find journaling an easy and practical encouragement the Holy Spirit would use in your growth in grace.
Are you up for an adventure?
It’s not like seeing the Grand Canyon, nor is it like going to an acclaimed restaurant for the first time. This is an adventure of the soul.
You can venture into it wherever you may be. It’s an adventure into the supernatural, into wholesomeness.
If it knocks your socks off, so to speak, it likely will be in a tender, quiet way. This adventure takes place in your mind and heart and in Scripture.
It begins when you pick a passage from the Good Book, as they call it, whether one verse or several, and read it from time to time, perhaps daily or whenever you have a moment. Start with the first phrase or sentence. In a few days, or longer (there’s no hurry), you may be able to repeat it in your heart. Then add the next phrase, then the next until the passage begins to become part of your consciousness.
As the adventure unfolds, you may notice a word, or a few words, or a thought in the passage that begins to affect your life and connect you to the heavenly Father. As you become intimately familiar with the words of the passage, the Holy Spirit may begin to use it to enhance your thoughts, your relationships, your endeavors.
Sometime later, you may gain another revelation or two from the passage. You may sense that it is helping to undergird your life, as if helping you to stay afloat amid the flow of your daily experiences.
You may be stirred to repeat this adventure with another passage, then another, perhaps on different topics such as prayer, your integrity as a person, your hurts and struggles, the quality of your friendships, your readiness to help others.
At some point, whether early on or later in the journey, you may be stirred to know how all this relates to God the Father, Jesus the Son and the Holy Spirit, how faith is a core dynamic in human well-being.
Far different than the Grand Canyon or an extraordinary meal, this adventure can be continuous, transforming you into a precious child of God, a tender soul always ready to venture into new revelations of divine, eternal significance.
Solomon concluded the book of Ecclesiastes, his breathtaking reflection on the meaning of life, with a memorable word about writing: “Of the making many books there is no end . . .” (Ecc. 12:12b). In that vein, there were many, many excellent books published in 2018 related to ministry, including several about Paul’s two-pronged admonition to Timothy for ministers to “keep a watch over your life and doctrine” (I Tim 4:16).
I’m confident many useful books for pastors will roll off the presses in 2019, but as we close out the old year and usher in the new, here are several of the best ministry-related books I read in 2018. If you missed some of these, I’d recommend moving them near the top of your reading in the New Year.
- Reformed Preaching: Proclaiming God’s Word from the Heart of the Preacher to the Heart of His People(Crossway) by Joel Beeke. A temptation for the theologically-driven pastor is to dump all the good things he’s learned on his first congregation. In this excellent book, Joel Beeke (one of my favorite living preachers) shows how Reformed preaching avoids the twin fallacies of sounding like a lecture of being a mere emotional appeal. The best preaching takes theology and appeals to the affections, informs minds and engages hearts. Along the way, Beeke provides insights on preaching from a survey of the Reformers and Puritans, who rediscovered and filled out what he rightly calls “Reformed experiential preaching.”
- The Man of God: His Calling and His Godly Life(Trinity Pulpit Press) by Albert N. Martin. This work is the first of four volumes in the highly-anticipated series on pastoral theology from a veteran pastor who has mentored dozens of men of God over the past several decades. Volume one examines the call to pastoral ministry and the critical call for God-called men to set a watch over the walls of his life.
- The Privilege, Promise, Power & Peril of Doctrinal Preaching(Free Grace Press) by Thomas J. Nettles. How did popular preaching become so weak and doctrine-free? SBTS historian Tom Nettles traces the decline of doctrinal preaching from the robust days of Jonathan Edwards to the modern-day “life coaching” of Joel Osteen.
- Expository Exultation: Christian Preaching as Worship(Crossway) by John Piper. It’s far too easy for those of us who prepare sermons every week to forget that our preparation and execution of sermons is, most fundamentally, an act of worship. Piper, like perhaps no contemporary author can, reminds us of this critical truth.
- The Pastor’s Soul: The Call and Care of an Undershepherd(Evangelical Press) by Brian Croft and Jim Savastio. This book is written by two dear friends, both of whom have spent decades in the trenches of local church ministry. I can’t think of two men better positioned to show pastors how to take care of their life and doctrine. This little book is unique in that it details how a pastor should care for his own heart. One of the most helpful chapters is a call to the spiritual discipline of silence, which Southern Equip excerptedthis summer.
- The Preacher’s Catechism(Crossway) by Lewis Allen. These 43 questions and answers, written to reflect the format of historic catechisms, seek to nourish for weary pastors in the thick of ministry. Each chapter features content designed to care for your spiritual health, feeding your mind and heart with life-giving truth aimed at helping you press on in ministry with endurance, contentment, and joy. It’s a good spiritual vitamin for pastors. Read one per day for six weeks.
- Prayer: How Praying Together Shapes the Church(9Marks/Crossway) by John Onwuckekwa. How often does your church pray together? This powerful little volume calls the church back to returning corporate prayer to the heart of ministry. Concise and well-written, the author instructs the church on prayer through two of Jesus’s best-known prayers — the Lord’s Prayer and his petition at Gethsemane. Perhaps my favorite aspect of the book is the way in which the author uses personal anecdotes and even touches of humor to promote the centrality of prayer in the body of Christ.
- Living Life Backward: How Ecclesiastes Teaches Us to Live in Light of the End(Crossway) by David Gibson. Earlier this year, I, along with my fellow elders, preached through the book of Ecclesiastes. Gibson’s volume was an incredible help to me and helped me point the congregation to Solomon’s central truth that living in light of the finish line helps keep one properly focused on Christ during the race. This little commentary is one of the most compelling books I’ve read on what has become one of my favorite OT books.
- Watchfulness: Recovering a Lost Spiritual Discipline(Reformation Heritage) by Brian G. Hedges. This was my favorite book I read all year and is now one of my favorite spiritual discipline books of all-time. Through biblical exposition and the best of Puritan spirituality, Hedges teases out all the crucial implications of Matthew 26:41—the necessity for all Christians, of keeping a close watch on your life. This lost spiritual discipline is vital for all Christians, but is particularly important for pastors who are called to keep a watch over their own lives as well as the lives of their sheep. This powerful little volume is best read slowly, carefully, and reflectively.
- Graciousness: Tempering the Truth with Love(Reformation Heritage) by John Crotts. For this book, I would almost ditto what I wrote above about the Hedges work. Crotts is an SBTS graduate and a veteran pastor and his impactful little volume provides a much-needed reminder that we are to communicate the truth in a manner befitting the humility of our Lord. The latter chapters include some excellent practical ways for developing graciousness as our default setting in our preaching and teaching as well as in private conversations. Every pastor and future pastor should read both this book and the Hedges work.
- Remember Death: The Surprising Path to Living Hope(TGC/Crossway) by Matthew McCullough. With life expectancy twice what it was 200 years ago, even Christians—who ought to know better—tend to live as if they are never going to die. Death is not somebody else’s problem, it’s mine. McCullough, a Boyce College graduate, has written the most compelling book I’ve ever read about death. While this is not directly related to ministry, reading this book served as a powerful (and much-needed) reminder of how to live in light of Jesus’s promises now and positioned me to better teach my congregation how to do the same.
Two I contributed to in 2018
Collin Hansen, who serves as editorial director for The Gospel Coalition, and were privileged to edit two multi-author volumes this past year aimed at pastors in their first few years of ministry, and I’d like to humbly commend them for your reading.
- 15 Things Seminary Couldn’t Teach Me (TGC/Crossway) seeks to show that seminary education is immensely valuable but is only half the important part of becoming a pastor. A God-called man is only able to learn how to put to work those good things learned in seminary while serving on the front lines of local church ministry. In his preface, SBTS President Albert Mohler compares ministry preparation to basic training in the military—seminary equips you to fight in the war, but only the battlefield makes one a battle-ready soldier.
- 12 Faithful Men: Portraits of Courageous Endurance in Pastoral Ministry (TGC/Baker), seeks to show that suffering is normative in pastoral ministry. The book examines the lives and ministries of 12 men from church history — ranging from the apostle Paul to John Calvin, John Bunyan, Andrew Fuller, J. C. Ryle, and a few less-recognizable names — and details the ways in which they suffered while serving the local church but grew into humble, effective instruments in God’s hands through their affliction.
Como los cristianos confunden el tema de la heterosexualidad (What Christians Get Wrong about Heterosexuality)
Preston Sprinkle republicó un ensayo de 2017 por Greg Coles: “You don’t need to pray that God makes me straight” (“No hay que rogar a Dios que me haga heterosexual”). Salió recientemente en el Center for Faith, Spirituality, and Gender. Coles rechaza fuertemente la idea de la heterosexualidad.
El mensaje de Coles se une a un grupo grandísimo de libros y coloquios que animan los cristianos para involucrarlos en los asuntos LGBT. Se supone que deben compartir “la verdad en amor.” Hay líderes destacados de este movimiento con vínculos en instituciones cristianas. Por ejemplo Mark Yarhouse es catedrático en Regent University.
El Center de Sprinkles se parece a Love Boldly, Faith in America, Reformation Project, Revoice, Spiritual Friendship, New Ways Ministry, y LivingOut. También hay los Metropolitan Community Churches. Hay gente famosa que colabora con ellos, como Jackie Hill Perry, Rosaria Butterfield, Karen Swallow Prior, Wesley Hill, y Sam Allberry.
Estos grupos quieren hacer puentes entre dos perspectivas opuestas. Una adapta la exégesis bíblica a la cultura posmoderna. Cuando toma en cuenta la cultura homosexual de hoy, dicha perspectiva apoya la identidad, el deseo, o hasta los actos homosexuales (lea aquí para estudiar “Lado A” versus “Lado B”.)
La otra perspectiva distingue las culturas de hoy valorizándolas por la autoridad de la Biblia. Siguiendo lo que dice la Biblia, considera pecados las identidades, los deseos, y los actos actuales homosexuales (aquí hay un argumento que relaciona los movimientos sexuales posmodernos con la historia bíblica de Sodoma.)
Coles dice que son parecidas la heterosexualidad y la homosexualidad porque las dos son igualmente rotas y llenas de pecado. Él declara, “gay o straight, somos todos vulnerables a los comportamientos lujuriosos.” Él presenta una decisión entre dos opciones distintas:
- rechazar toda la sexualidad porque toda es igualmente pecaminosa, o
- ofrecer la misma gracia a todos deseos sexuales.
La primera opción les negaría a los cristianos los placeres y la procreación de sexualidad normal. Esto es imposible y no es conforme a lo que manda Jesús (Él glorifica las relaciones íntimas entre hembras y hombres dentro del matrimonio en San Mateo 19:4-12 y en San Marcos 10:6-12.) Les lectores se obligarán a escoger la segunda opción.
Entones la gracia a toda sexualidad se convierte de facto en apoyar el deseo homosexual. Esto es retórico pero no es bíblico.
Si se borran las diferencias entre la heterosexualidad y la homosexualidad, se fortalecen varias creencias pro-LGBT:
- Los deseos son “normales,”
- Los deseos hacen una “identidad,” y
- Es “discriminación” esperar que los homosexuales superen sus deseos, si no esperamos lo mismo con respecto a los heterosexuales.
Aceptadas estas creencias, es muy difícil seguir una ética casta, hasta si tenemos los motivos más puros. Estudien el caso de Julie Rodgers en Wheaton College.
Mientras tanto, los contextos católicos y seculares, homosexuales y heterosexuales, todos dan razones a los evangélicos para tener muchísimo cuidado con esta retórica. La iglesia católica sufre consecuencias catastróficas debidas a los abusos sexuales por sacerdotes. Entre estos ochenta y cinco porciento ocurrieron entre el mismo sexo. También el movimiento MeToo enfocó abusos heterosexuales causados por la pérdida de fronteras sexuales. Los límites ciertos importan. Sin embargo el movimiento para “verdad en amor” se hace siempre más popular.
¿Qué está pasando? En vez de analizar todas las reacciones cristianas a la homosexualidad, uno puede encontrar más ilustración si uno estudia porqué los evangélicos no entienden muy bien la heterosexualidad.
Fui redactor del libro Jephthah’s Daughters (2015). Se incluyó en él un capítulo mío titulado “Problema de Mujeres.” En Norteamérica, muchas veces la fobia del sexo produce un miedo varonil de mujeres y un miedo femenino de hombres. Entonces los hombres evitan las mujeres y las mujeres evitan los hombres. El resultado es una cultura que separa los sexos uno del otro. Nathaniel Hawthorne no inventó por nada sus historias del temor que los puritanos sentían acerca de la sexualidad. De “Rip van Winkle” a Walden, se encuentra una historia muy larga de norteamericanos que huyen de la heterosexualidad doméstica (también investigo este enigma en varios capítulos de Colorful Conservative.)
¿Coles presenta una nueva idea? De verdad tiene siglos. Él y la mayoría de los demás en este movimiento empiezan con una idea equivocada. El gran desafío para los cristianos de hoy no es “¿cómo reaccionamos a la homosexualidad?” sino “¿cómo cultivamos una heterosexualidad bíblica?”
En Génesis 1-2 Dios diseña los machos y las hembras para que acompañen y beneficien uno a otra (y una a otro) por medio del acto sexual. El quinto mandamiento en Éxodo 20:12 presenta “madre” y “padres”—papeles relacionados al acto sexual y a la procreación—como personas que se deben respetar igualmente, para que la “tierra” entera encuentre prosperidad. Rechazar un sexo es rechazar el diseño de Dios en la escritura.
Dios no creó orientaciones sexuales. Él creó sexos. Dios dio a cada sexo un cuerpo capaz de regalar placer físico e hijos al otro sexo. Todos son heterosexuales porque todos nacen en cuerpos de hombre o mujer. Esta verdad no cambia hasta si uno tiene sentimientos muy difíciles contra los cuales uno debe luchar. La homosexualidad no tiene nada que ver con la heterosexualidad y la primera no equivale a la segunda.
Hay gente que sienten deseos poderosos hacia el mismo sexo. Así narra Greg Coles en su ensayo. Pero no cambia la verdad que ya son heterosexuales porque Dios los creó así, así que la Biblia nos cuenta. Los hombres en tal situación tienen que dejar de analizarse a sí mismos para adivinar si pueden hacerse straight—basta ya con aquel debate muy cansado. Necesitan maestros que pueden ayudarlos a invitar muchachas para ver si pueden casarse con una.
Los ministerios deben ayudar la gente a prepararse mentalmente, físicamente, y espiritualmente para el noviazgo deliberado del otro sexo. Coles relata sus propios fracasos cuando no pudo sentir deseo al ver imágenes pornográficas de mujeres desconocidas. Allí él pierde su hilo. Dios creó el cuerpo de este hombre para que sea atractivo a una mujer. Entonces Greg Coles tiene un regalo que debe compartir. Los ministerios deben animar los cristianos a utilizar sus anatomías dadas por Dios. Su anatomía sexual les otorga un talento que se debe compartir según su diseño, no negárselo al otro sexo.
Hemos gastado demasiado tiempo enfocando la cuestión de si el cristianismo prohíbe la homosexualidad o no. En 2019, necesitamos un nuevo discurso sobre una heterosexualidad:
- que sea un bien inherente, si no se abuse,
- que sea incomparable a la homosexualidad, y
- que sea la meta de cualquier ministerio para los cristianos identificados como LGBT.
Los hombres y las mujeres—de hecho todos humanos—tienen los derechos y las obligaciones iguales a estar en tal discurso. Todos deben dejar de decir “la heterosexualidad no es santidad.” Ese refrán es incierto y engañoso. Es un non sequitur. Dios nos diseñó. Su diseño para nosotros es sagrado. Su diseño para nosotros es heterosexual. Hasta un celibato tiene que reconocer la belleza y valor intrínseco del otro sexo. Nadie puede vivir su vida creyendo que el otro sexo no merezca cariño y gozo.
A los que son como Greg Coles, permítanme decirles, “dejen de pensar en la homosexualidad y sean machos como Dios los creó!” Si vuelven sus pensamientos a la oscuridad, oren y llenen sus mentes y corazones del Espíritu Santo.
Preston Sprinkle republished a 2017 essay by Greg Coles: “You don’t need to pray that God makes me straight” at the Center for Faith, Spirituality, and Gender. Coles boldly rejects the idea of heterosexuality.
Coles’s message joins an enormous genre of books and conferences exhorting Christians to engage LGBT issues by speaking the “truth in love.” Key players in the discussion hail from Christian institutions, most notably Mark Yarhouse of Regent University.
Sprinkle’s Center resembles Love Boldly, Faith in America, the Reformation Project, Revoice, Spiritual Friendship, New Ways Ministry, and LivingOut, not to mention the Metropolitan Community Churches. They partner often with Christians like Jackie Hill Perry, Rosaria Butterfield, Karen Swallow Prior, Wesley Hill, and Sam Allberry.
These groups aim to bridge clashing worldviews. One worldview adapts Biblical exegesis to postmodern culture. In noting homosexual culture today, this worldview condones homosexual identity, homosexual desire, or even sodomy itself (see here for “Side A” versus “Side B”.)
The other discerns today’s cultures according to the Bible. Based on what the Bible says, it deems today’s homosexual identity, desire, and intercourse wrong (see here for an argument linking postmodern sexual movements to the Sodom story.)
Coles equates heterosexuality and homosexuality as equally broken and sinful, stating, “Gay or straight, we are all drawn to lustful behaviors.” He offers an either/or choice:
- reject all sex as equally sinful or
- offer the same grace to all sexual inclinations.
The first would deny Christians the pleasures and procreation of normal sex. Since this is impossible and conflicts with Jesus (who glorifies male-female intimacy within marriage in Matthew 19:4-12 and in Mark 10:6-12), readers must choose #2.
Consequently equal grace to all sexuality becomes a de facto endorsement of homosexual desire. This is rhetorical but not Biblical.
The leveling between heterosexuality and homosexuality reinforces LGBT tenets:
- the desires are “normal,”
- the desires form an “identity,” and
- it is “bigoted” to ask that homosexuals repudiate their desires if we do not ask heterosexuals to abandon theirs.
These tenets make it difficult to uphold chastity, even with the best intentions. Study the case of Julie Rodgers at Wheaton College.
Catholic and secular, homosexual and heterosexual contexts all provide grounds for evangelicals to approach such reasoning with caution. The Catholic Church faces catastrophic fallout over sex abuse by clergy, of which 85% was same-sex. A MeToo movement spotlighted heterosexual abuses resulting from the loss of sexual boundaries. Clear limits matter. Yet the “truth in love” movement grows in appeal.
So what’s going on? Rather than scan the Christian responses to homosexuality, one can gain greater insight by examining evangelicals’ failure to understand heterosexuality.
In Jephthah’s Daughters (2015), I included a chapter called “Problem of Women.” In America, fear of sex has often led to a male fear of women and a female fear of men. In response, men avoid women and women avoid men through social arrangements that become sex-segregated. Nathaniel Hawthorne did not construct the Puritans’ fear of sexuality from nothing. From “Rip van Winkle” to Walden, one finds a long history of Americans dreading heterosexual domesticity (I explore this conundrum at length in The Colorful Conservative as well.)
While Coles appears to present a new idea it is actually old. His starting premise, like the premise of most others in this movement, errs: the major challenge facing Christians is not how to respond to homosexuality, but rather how to cultivate a Biblical heterosexuality.
In Genesis 1-2 God designs males and females to fulfill each other through sexual intercourse. The fifth commandment in Exodus 20:12 places “mother” and “father”—roles based on intercourse and procreation—as figures whose respect bestows flourishing on “the land.” Rejecting one sex goes against God’s design in scripture.
God did not create sexual orientations. He created sexes. God gave each sex a body equipped to provide physical pleasure and children to the other sex. Everybody is heterosexual because everyone is either male or female, regardless of what feelings they may grapple with. Homosexuality has nothing to do with heterosexuality and cannot be cast as its corollary.
Some people feel powerful same-sex desires, as Greg Coles narrates in his column. This does not change the fact that they are heterosexual already, because God made them that way, as the Bible tells us. Men in his situation need to stop self-analyzing to see if they can become straight—that is a moot point. They need coaching to help them date marriageable women.
Ministries should help people prepare themselves mentally, physically, and spiritually for deliberate courtship of the opposite sex. Coles relates his own failures to feel desire at random images of women. That misses the point. God created his body to be desirable for a woman, so he has a gift to share. Ministries should encourage Christians to use their God-given anatomies. Their sexed anatomy grants them a pleasurable talent to be shared according to its purpose rather than denied the opposite sex.
The focus on whether Christianity forbids homosexuality has taken too much energy. For 2019, we need to begin a new discussion of heterosexuality as:
- a good in itself, provided that it is not abused,
- incomparable to homosexuality, and
- the necessary end of any ministry for Christians who identify as LGBT.
Males and females—indeed all humans—have equal right and duty to engage in such discussion. People should stop saying “heterosexuality is not holiness.” That statement is vague and misleading, a non-sequitur. God’s design for us is holy and His design is heterosexual. Even a celibate person has to acknowledge the beauty and intrinsic value of the opposite sex. Nobody can live life believing that the opposite sex does not deserve affection and pleasure.
To people like Greg Coles, I can only say, stop thinking about homosexuality and apply your male body to its God-given purpose. If your thoughts go back to dark places, pray and fill your mind and heart with the Holy Spirit.
Paul talks about different roles in the work of God in his first letter to the Corinthians. Paul himself remained a pioneer church planter after he started the church at Corinth. Paul’s role is absolutely essential. It was essential in his day, and it remains essential in ours.
However, Paul is not the only model for missionary service presented in his first letter to the Corinthians. Apollos was a church-developing missionary, and his ministry was also absolutely essential. While it is true that new believers have the Spirit and the Word, it is also true that missionaries need to be careful in dealing with new churches on the mission field to avoid creating dependency. However, the apostolic model shown in this text is not “plant and abandon.” This model does not advocate a few follow-up lessons followed by inductive Bible study as all that is needed to keep a church of new believers going. Careful nurture and ongoing instruction are essential.
Apollos had done an essential part of the missionary task in following behind Paul and working with the church to help her members understand the truth and apply it to their lives. In addition to Paul and Apollos, there is another group in view in this text. Paul is gone, and so is Apollos, but there are still leaders in the church. These are the teachers who continue to instruct and guide the fellowship of believers. Paul doesn’t give us names, but these are the ones to whom he will shortly address the warning: “Be careful how you build.”
LAYING THE RIGHT FOUNDATION
Each role — that of Paul, Apollos, and the church leaders — is essential. The pioneers must make sure that they lay the right foundation. And the only foundation that matters, according to Paul, is Jesus Christ. Not just any Jesus will do, however. Only the Jesus of Paul’s gospel, who died for our sins according to the Scriptures, who was buried, and who was raised again on the third day according to the Scriptures (1 Cor 15:3-4), can serve as an adequate foundation for the church.
I was once in a church that, sadly, abandoned its commitment to the Scripture. In describing the work of evangelizing an unreached people group, I discussed the essential role of Bible translation. Afterwards, a man came up to me and asked, “Why all this fuss about the Bible? The Bible just divides us. Why don’t you simply focus on Jesus?” I responded, “Which Jesus would you like?” Without the witness and control of the word of God, you can make up any Jesus you want — and plenty of people have done so.
The Jesus of whom Paul speaks in 1 Corinthians was a real man, with a real body that could be put to death. This Jesus was the Messiah who fulfilled everything to which the Old Testament pointed. This Jesus was the substitutionary sacrifice for sins. We need missionaries who know the gospel with crystal-clear accuracy and who know how to communicate that gospel effectively across whatever cultural barriers exist. This Jesus is the only foundation worth laying.
BUILDING ON THAT FOUNDATION
However, subsequent builders who come after the pioneer must also build with care, building on the foundation of the gospel. In 1 Corinthians 3:10-15, Paul shifts to a building metaphor and talks about the quality of what each person builds; he is talking about the life of the church. This text is not about how individual Christians build their Christian lives, as some think. It is about how believers build Christ’s church. Paul gives two types of materials with which one can build on the foundation of Jesus Christ. The first class is permanent and precious: gold, silver, and precious stones; the second class of material is flimsy and flammable: wood, hay, and straw. God will judge the quality of each person’s work in building the church. God not only cares what each person does in his or her personal, private life. He also cares passionately about what each person does with the church.
The foundation of the church is the gospel of Christ. The pioneer church planter, according to Paul, must build wisely.
SENDING THE BEST INTO THE WORLD
Today’s pioneer missionaries must be among our best people. They must have the best understanding of theology and biblical studies. They must have the best cultural understanding and cross-cultural communication skills. The task of a pioneer missionary is not a fall-back option for those who can’t make it in the states. It requires the best skills. It requires more skill to minister effectively cross-culturally than in your own culture: you must understand Scripture for yourself in your own setting, and then you must understand how to communicate it and apply it in a setting not your own.
Similarly, church-development missionaries like Apollos are still an essential need, and they also must be our best. They also must have the best understanding of the classical theological disciplines. They must also have the very best ability to communicate that knowledge cross-culturally. The message of this text is that God takes his church seriously. Whatever your role may be, build wisely, because your work will be evaluated by fire.
Like Paul, we must also have a passion about building wisely, laying a solid foundation of the complete biblical gospel and building carefully on that foundation both in terms of content and in terms of character. My vision for Southern Seminary is that we would marry these two passions. I want us to be a school that marries a passion for missions with a passion for doing missions rightly. My vision is that we would send our very best to the ends of the earth, where they can lay the foundation of the gospel with skill and integrity and build on that foundation with the whole counsel of God.
The post All of the church’s best leaders should move away. Here’s why. appeared first on Southern Equip.
Our youngest daughter has been longing for a certain Christmas gift for weeks. She placed it on every Christmas list she prepared. She told everyone that she wanted a particular doll for Christmas, but somewhere along the way, she got the idea that she would not get it. Her second grade teacher told my wife the other day that our daughter thought we didn’t take her request seriously. All the while, this doll had been hidden away for weeks in anticipation of Christmas.
Since we travel to visit family every Christmas, we celebrate a few days early with just our family of six. All throughout the day, our youngest daughter talked about the doll and how much she wanted to get it for Christmas. My wife and I would occasionally catch each other’s eye and smile. Finally, the time came for our annual family Christmas celebration. After dinner, we distributed gifts and directed each child which gift to open first. Although she was excited to open her first couple of gifts, our daughter kept asking about the doll. Finally, we told her to open her last gift, and there it was. The sheer joy and excitement on her face was indescribable!
Our daughter had spent weeks hoping for one present. Most of her conversations revolved around the possibility of receiving this gift for Christmas. Once she received it, she continued to talk about it. But now she talks about this gift in different terms. She wants everyone to see the doll. She wants everyone to know that she got the doll for Christmas. She wants everyone to enjoy her doll as much as she does.
Is this not how we should feel about the greatest gift ever given? Should we not find great joy in the fact that God has given us the precious gift of His Son?
At this time of year, I like to reflect upon some of the prophecies in the Old Testament regarding the Messiah. In many ways, they remind me of the anticipation that my daughter expressed for receiving the one gift that would make her Christmas special. One of my favorites is found in Isaiah.
In Isaiah 7, God offers Ahaz a sign of His promise. He says, “Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14).
I can only imagine how Ahaz received this prophecy. Did he anticipate this child would come immediately? Did he inquire about the circumstances of every birth from that point forward? Did he expect to meet Immanuel personally? We may never know the answers to these questions, but we do know that this prophecy was fulfilled very specifically.
Fast forward to the Gospels, and we see a couple—Mary and Joseph—who had an unusual experience. These two were betrothed to be married, but Mary was found to be pregnant. Luke 1:26-38 tells us that the angel Gabriel had appeared to Mary to tell her of the special circumstances of this child’s birth, but Joseph was still unaware.
Imagine with me what a conversation might have looked like between Mary and Joseph the next day. Mary finds Joseph at his carpentry shop and asks him to step outside for a quick conversation. She tells him that she is expecting a child. In shock, he asks her how this could be. She tries to reassure him that all is well because an angel had appeared to her the night before, telling her that she was carrying the Son of God. Joseph must have been flabbergasted and convinced that his soon-to-be bride had lost her mind. Matthew tells us that Joseph even considered sending her away secretly—a righteous act considering that her apparent infidelity could have brought public shame. However, Matthew goes on to report that an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph to reveal to him that his betrothed wife was telling the truth. This is where we are pointed back to the prophecy of Isaiah. Matthew records:
But when he had considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife; for the Child who has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. She will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.” Now all this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall be with child and shall bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,” which translated means, “God with us” (Matthew 1:20-23).
From the days of Ahaz until the angel revealed to Joseph that his betrothed wife would bear a son, the prophecy of Isaiah was mostly a mystery. Yet that mystery was revealed in Matthew 1:23. The fulfillment of this prophecy gives us great hope. God has come to us. He has made a way for us to be in relationship with Him.
How should we respond? I pray that our joy would be revealed just like the joy on my daughter’s face when she received her most anticipated gift. We do not anticipate this gift any longer; however, we should find great joy in telling others about the gift we have received. May this Christmas be filled with reminders of God’s precious gift and the joy we have in both receiving it and telling others about it.
One of my older children recently posed an excellent question during our family worship time: “Is there a place in the Bible that gives a good, short summary of the real meaning of Christmas?” There are many, of course, but as a pastor tasked with preaching many Advent seasons through the years, I’ve discovered one that may be overlooked: the hymn that Simeon sings after seeing baby Jesus in Luke 2:29-32 and his subsequent words to Joseph and Mary in vv. 34-35. It brings the whole Bible together in a powerful summary.
Who is Simeon? The only time he is mentioned is when the baby Jesus’s parents present him at the temple for purification in accord with the law of Moses. We are only told that he was “righteous and devout” and came to the temple by the Spirit’s drawing. He was a Jewish man waiting for the “consolation” (literally “comfort”) of Israel. He took Jesus up in his arms and praised God for him, then spoke (or perhaps sung) what many scholars believe was a short hymn:
Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your Word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.
Naturally, Jesus’s earthly parents marveled at Simeon’s words. What he said next to Mary brought the ages together:
Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.
A remnant remained
When Jesus was born, the faith of Abraham was crumbling under the legalism of the Pharisees and Sadducees. Yet, even while the people of God suffered under the lash of Roman rule, God still had a remnant.
Simeon’s song is a good summary of the meaning of Christmas. In the span of these few words, promise and fulfillment collide to tell the story of Christ’s Advent. It tells us at least six things about the glorious hope of Christmas:
- This child fulfilled the promises of old
He was the promised consolation of Israel. God had fulfilled his Word and now Simeon could die in peace. Christ is the fulfillment of the Old Testament promises and is the key to understanding the Bible. He is second Adam who emerged, unlike the first Adam, without sin. He is the true Moses, who has gone into the promised land to prepare a place for his people. He is the true priest who is both our great high priest and the sacrifice itself. He is the final King, the promised relative of David and the ultimate heir to his throne. Jesus is the fulfillment of all the old covenant promises.
- This child brought salvation to all peoples
God has sent his son as a Savior for all peoples, both Jews and Gentiles. He was a light for the Gentiles, who had formerly walked in darkness. As the apostle Paul put in Ephesians 2:12-13, the Gentiles previously were “separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus, those who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.”
God’s ethnic people already had God’s revelation and are the people through whom the Savior came. There is now one people of God. Christ has broken down the wall of separation that once divided Jew and Gentile and has made for himself one people out of two. J. C. Ryle’s words are poignant here:
The spiritual darkness which had covered the earth for four thousand years was about to be rolled away. The way to pardon and peace with God was about to be thrown open to all mankind. The head of Satan was crushed. Liberty was about to be proclaimed to the captives, and recovering of the sight to the blind. The mighty truth was about to be proclaimed that God could be just, and yet, for Christ’s sake, justify the ungodly … The first stone of God’s kingdom was about to be set up. If this was not ‘good tidings,’ there never were tidings that deserved the name.
- This child was appointed for the rise and fall of many
Christ’s arrival is good news. He is appointed for the rise — or literally, the resurrection — of many in Israel. Christ is the savor of life for those who believe in him (2 Cor. 2:14-16). Many who were once alienated from God by sin will now flee to him and find reconciliation with God. This is the good news of Christmas. Just as Christ raised Lazarus after he had been dead for many days, so will many sinners be raised to newness of life by the Son of God who is fully God and fully man. This good news links the Christmas story with Easter and shows how one is incomplete without the other.
While the good news rescues many, it is a word of judgment for the disbelieving world. God appointed Jesus for the fall (lit. “ruin”) of many. He is a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense for all who reject him as Lord and Savior.
- This child would be a sign that is opposed
He would be a mark for all the fiery darts of the evil one. He would be despised and rejected by men. This child and his people would be a city set upon a hill, attacked and hated on every side by all kinds of men throughout the centuries. He would wind up reviled, rejected, and blasphemed, a man of sorrows acquainted with grief. In their depravity, sinful men oppose this promised one. Thus, since Scripture here predicts that many will oppose Christ, we should not be surprised when the majority of those around us do not follow him. Love and compassion should compel us to keep praying and proclaiming.
- This child was born to die
Here is the good news of the gospel in miniature. How? Simeon foretells the sorrow that will come upon the Virgin Mary, picturing it as a deep-cutting and heart-piercing sword. This was fulfilled when she stood by the cross and saw her son hanging there, bearing the sin of his people. But her sorrow would turn to joy, for Mary was a sinner in need of grace every bit as much as we are. The sword that pierced her through in the death of her son turned out to be the salvation of her soul. The light has indeed shone in the darkness.
- This child would reveal sinfulness of human hearts
The gospel reveals the true heart of all people. Preaching the cross provokes anger and enmity in some, but agony over sin and repentance unto life in others. To some, it only increases the opposition and culpability, it further hardens their hearts; to others, it brings light to a dark place. To these, Paul’s words in 2 Cor. 4:6 are precious: “For God, who said, Let Light shine out of darkness, has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”
For some, Christ is the light of the world; to others, he is a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense. Many who are righteous in their own eyes will have the truth about their hearts revealed in the light of Christ.
Go tell it
Simeon’s gospel is the good news of Bethlehem and Golgotha. The story of Christmas is never complete without Good Friday and Easter. This Advent season, as we gather to celebrate the Incarnation of our Lord, sing the song of Simeon far and wide — especially to those who still walk in the darkness.