The Sermon on the Mount is probably the most famous sermon ever preached, and for good reason. Its speaker is the Lord Jesus Christ; its location on a hill overlooking the Sea of Galilee is unique; and its language is both beautiful and profound. Even non-believers are familiar with many of the words Jesus spoke in this sermon.
Yet, for as well-known as the Sermon is, it is often misunderstand and misused. Therefore, as we begin to study this passage of Scripture, we should look at three common, but misguided ways to approach the sermon.1. The liberal way
Now, the word liberal used in this context is not a political term, but a theological term. Liberal theology is an approach to Christian doctrine and especially the Bible and the person of Christ, which denies the miraculous, rejects the supernatural claims of the Bible, and explains away the full deity of Christ—to list only a few credentials of Protestant Liberalism.
With respect to the Sermon on the Mount, therefore, a liberal approach extracts this passage from the rest of Matthew’s Gospel. It sees Jesus as a great teacher, but only as a teacher or rabbi. It fails to see how the Gospels present Jesus as God’s Son, and how Matthew shapes his Gospel to highlight the humanity and deity of Christ.
In other words, it fails to see how Jesus’s teaching about the kingdom of God (in Matthew 5–7) is presented in combination his miracles of healing (in Matthew 8–9). Instead of seeing the full portrait of Christ, the liberal way of reading the Sermon on the Mount makes it a “pamphlet” with Jesus as a superlative moral teaching.
Clearly, such a reading mischaracterizes who Jesus is, who Jesus said he was, and what the eye witnesses testified about Christ. But honestly, Bible-believing Christians can also fall into a liberal reading of the Sermon, if we miss the connection of Jesus words with his deeds in Matthew 8–9. In other words, if we only read the Sermon as a corpus of his teaching, disconnected from the rest of Matthew’s Gospel, we are preparing ourselves to misread the Sermon.
Therefore, we must understand the Sermon in the context of Matthew’s Gospel, and specifically in the context of Matthew 4:23–9:38, which is the first of five blocks in Matthew that is composed of Jesus’ speech and Jesus’ actions. For more on the whole book of Matthew read this.2. The legalistic way
In contrast to the liberal way of reading the Sermon, the legalistic way takes the words seriously. In fact, it reads Jesus so seriously that it seeks to apply the radical demands of Jesus as the regulations of the Christian life.
While there is something to this plain reading, passages like Matthew 5:48 (“You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly father is perfect”) make it sound like we must be perfect in order to please God. Yet, such a reading fails to understand the meaning of this word (teleios) and the wisdom genre Jesus is employing in this sermon. More on this in a minute.
Under this legalistic category, the Sermon has been used in church history as a standard for monastic orders and the creation of a special classes of Christians. The trouble with this, of course, is that Jesus addresses his disciples (5:1), and he tells these same disciples in Matthew 28:19 to teach all disciples to obey all that he had taught them.
So, the Sermon on the Mount is not just for some followers of Christ; it is for all of us. Yet, a straightforward reading, especially one that does not understand the original meaning of the word makarios (“blessed”) in the beatitudes (Matthew 5:3–12) and or teleios (“perfect”) in Matthew 5:48 will incline Christians to read the Sermon as a legal document, outlining the rules they must obey.
In response to this sort of legalism and the rewards based on such Christian works-righteousness, we find a third way to read the SM, which is theologically better but also misguided.3. The Lutheran way
Martin Luther, as you may know, was the man God used to ignite the Protestant Reformation. And it was the goal of this German Reformer to stand against anything that looked like the works-righteousness of the Catholic church, which is why he often questioned the book of James.
Yet, because the Sermon on the Mount is very similar to the book of James—some scholars believe the book of James “echoes” the Sermon on the Mount—and because Luther was so committed to justification by faith alone, he failed to understand the purpose of Jesus words in Matthew 5–7. Thus, when he read the call for righteousness in Jesus’ sermon, he understood it as an “impossible ideal” that was meant to lead him and us back to God’s grace in Christ.
As Jonathan Pennington puts it in his commentary, Luther saw the Sermon with its “impossibly high demands” as goad “meant to make all people aware of their sin and poverty before God and thereby turn to Christ in faith” (p. 6). Theologically, Luther’s approach has great merit. But it in the end, it fails because it does not rightly perceive the way Jesus is fulfilling the law, bringing the good news of the kingdom, and speaking to disciples who have already been brought within the bounds of this kingdom.
In other words, Jesus is not giving a new law for us to obey, nor is he aiming to afflict us with God’s high ideal, so that we would flee to him for grace. Rather, Jesus is announcing the fulfillment of the law (5:17), the arrival of the kingdom (6:33), and the gracious message that God’s people now have access to the Father through the arrival of the Son.
Jesus is not preaching law; he’s announcing the good news of the law fulfilled. And, as we’ll see, Jesus sermon’s is a message of apocalyptic wisdom—which is to say Jesus is revealing (hence apocalypse) God’s kingdom and bringing healing to the nations. As Matthew 4:17, 23 indicate, he is teaching about the kingdom and fishing for disciples who will join him in the kingdom he is bringing.
Recently, I was invited to a meeting with area pastors about a serious issue that our school board was facing. An organization was suing our school board for various acts of religious expression that they felt violated the separation of church and state. It had made national news. Suddenly, so many things collided: faith, politics and my congregation. How was I, as a pastor, going to lead our people through these challenges? I had politicians in my church, teachers, the school superintendent, students, parents and more.
As the events unfolded, I knew I could not remain silent or neutral. No matter the controversy, I needed to speak biblical truth and encourage and instruct on matters that many would rather avoid. But God was so gracious, and thousands of students and families stood stronger in their faith. It was an interesting and challenging season for sure.
Over the years of my pastoral ministry, I have had church members say to me, “Pastor, I would highly recommend that you not bring politics into the pulpit.” And when they say this, it is usually accompanied with a tone that says the pulpit should never be controversial. This has been an interesting recommendation to consider.
I want to first ask, “What do these fellow Christians mean when they say ‘politics’?” Most people simply think “politics” includes voting for a candidate and voting on issues. Additionally, they envision the mean spirit and deceptive tactics so often seen and associated with those running for a particular office in a local, state or national race.
Without question, there are actions and attitudes that are cringe-worthy and un-Christlike in political races, and I do not blame church members for not wanting those things emanating from the pulpit, much less from the life of their pastor. The result of these concerns is that many pastors will avoid anything that can be construed as political in their preaching ministry.
But is this the best reaction? Paul called Timothy in 2 Timothy 4:2 to “preach the Word; be ready in season and out of season.” Every pastor is to preach, teach and proclaim the Word of God to the people of God. All of it.
You know what I have discovered? The Bible speaks to every issue that intersects with our political debates. And there are many issues that become positions in politics. Some of these issues are abortion (Jeremiah 1:5), same-sex attraction (1 Corinthians 6:9-11), racism (Galatians 3:26-28) and numerous others.
If you are a pastor who preaches the Bible and is committed to teaching your flock all of God’s Word, then you will ultimately preach on issues that many will deem political. But God’s Word must be our standard and foundation of all truth, and, as pastors, we must be committed to delivering His Word to His people so that the church can be strong in the faith and Christians can stand boldly in our world regardless of the issue. Our people need to know what God’s Word says about any particular issue more than what some person or company says about it on Twitter.
Beyond the issues that intersect with political debates are the people who desire places of leadership on the local, state and national levels. Does never bringing politics into the pulpit mean that a pastor can never speak about a candidate seeking a place of leadership? In our American form of government, that place might be in a local, state or national office.
The Bible is clear that within the roles of government and leadership are people who will either fill those roles responsibly or irresponsibly. For example, in Ecclesiastes 4:1-3, Solomon teaches us that those in roles of power and leadership can use their position to bless or oppress others. Those who are in positions of power and leadership really do matter.
Think about it: God greatly used the leadership of Joseph (Genesis 41:39-42) to bless others rather than oppress them. God greatly used the leadership of Esther (Esther 8) to bless others rather than oppress them. God greatly used the leadership of Daniel (Daniel 6) to bless others rather than oppress them. Leadership truly matters, and having great leaders in places of authority and power is critically important.
While you should consider the pros and cons of publically endorsing a particular candidate, preaching and teaching about the importance of leadership and being engaged in the opportunity of seeing people put in leadership who will bless rather than oppress is an awesome opportunity and responsibility. Pastors do not need to cower in the face of elections. Religious liberty, the value of human life, the sanctity of marriage and so much more are directly impacted by those who become leaders on every level government affords. Much is at stake, and every pastor must be courageous and clear, even when it comes to those issues our people might deem political.
So am I going to bring politics into the pulpit? No, but I am going to bring my Bible. Yes, it will be controversial. Yes, some will perceive it to be too political. But preaching the Word of God is what we are called to do. And what God says about every issue and every quality of leadership is what we really need.
In the first post in this series, I mentioned the change that reading whole books of the Bible in one sitting made for my understanding of the Bible. In the second post, I mentioned thirty-three books of the Bible that can be read in thirty minutes or less as a starting point for this discipline. In this post, I want to offer perspectives on reading books of the Bible in the 40 to 90-minute range.Focus needed
Even the most distraction-prone reader can (probably) muster up the patience to sit for 30 minutes or less and focus on reading a shorter book. Such reading often fits within the grooves and rhythms of our day with minimal disruption. They might easily be read before leaving the home for school or work, during a lunch break, while waiting for an appointment, etc.
Yet reading for more than a half-hour requires more time and focus than many of us in Gen X and younger are accustomed. I may share some experiences and opinions on why my generation and those younger than me struggle to read in a subsequent post, but if I have identified an area where you struggle, be encouraged: one of the blessings of the gospel in the presence and ministry of the Holy Spirit, who brings “patience” and “self-control” into fruition (Gal 5:25) within believers. That is good news indeed when it comes to Bible reading, for we need both of those virtues to flourish as thoughtful readers.10 books for one (longer) sitting
By my count, ten books of the Bible fall into the 40 to 90 minute range.
- Ezra (40 minutes)
- Nehemiah (1 hour)
- Daniel (1 hour 15 minutes)
- Zechariah (40 minutes)
- Mark (1 hour and 30 minutes)
- Romans (1 hour)
- 1 Corinthians (1 hour)
- 2 Corinthians (40 minutes)
- Hebrews (45 minutes)
- Revelation (1 hour 15 minutes)
Just glancing at the books on this list brings back memories of particularly meaningful times spent reading them over the years. It is a diverse list: three books are heavily apocalyptic and have some of the most powerful (and debated) imagery in the whole Bible (Daniel, Zechariah, and Revelation). Three are epistles written to specific congregations to remind them of the gospel and its implications for life together (Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians). Two are OT narratives of the return from exile and really should be read together (Ezra and Nehemiah). One is the shortest and perhaps earliest Gospel and one is a general letter that bridges the OT and NT so magnificently.
Reading a book (or two together) on this list may require you to re-order part of your day or night around reading. It might mean adding this reading to your Bujo or iCal as an intentional to-do item. Or, in keeping with the theme of these posts, each of these books is a perfect candidate for you if your summer schedule slows down a bit. Because their length requires extra focus, you should approach these books when you are at your sharpest, with the most energy, and least competing distractions. That time will look different for each reader. It looks different during different seasons for me.
On vacation last summer I sat in my in-laws’ gazebo from 6:30-8 a.m. with a really big coffee mug, a Leuchtterm notebook and Namiki Falcon fountain pen in hand, and read all of 2 Corinthians, really slowly, writing lots of notes, before everyone else was awake. At other times I have sat during the quiet of the witching hour, reading from midnight until 1 a.m., while everyone in my home (as well as those who might send me emails or texts) were sound asleep. Before we had children, my wife and I once spent a Sunday evening reading Hebrews out loud, alternating chapters with each other. In every one of these circumstances, I had to be intentional about spending time, an extended time, reading. So will you.
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God created three institutions this side of heaven—family, church and government. Family was the first institution He created in Genesis 1-2, and it has been under assault since Genesis 3. Family is the basic unit of society. If you weaken the family, you weaken society; if you destroy the family, you destroy society. Edward Gibbon, in his book entitled The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, lists five reasons for the fall of the Roman Empire. His top ranked cause was the undermining of the dignity and sanctity of the home as the basis of human society. That is, the Roman family unit was destroyed, and Rome consequently fell.
Pew Research Center recently published an article entitled “7 facts about American dads.” Although much can be said about each of the facts presented, I want to focus on the article’s opening paragraph:
Fatherhood in America is changing … more and more children are growing up without a father in the home.
To be sure, God’s design for the family unit is under rapid decay in our present society. America is following the trajectory of the fall of Rome. One of the symptoms of the decay is the increase in fatherlessness.
Fatherlessness is the most significant family or social problem facing America according to 72.2 percent of the U.S. population. The increase in fatherlessness over a short time period is staggering, as these statistics demonstrate:
- The percentage of U.S. children living with an unmarried parent has more than doubled since 1968, jumping from 13 percent to 32 percent in 2017.
- About one in five children (21 percent) are living with a solo mother, up from 12 percent in 1968.
- Some 7 percent of children are living with cohabiting parents, about double the share that were doing so in 1997.
According to the National Center for Fathering,
More than 20 million children live in a home without the physical presence of a father. Millions more have dads who are physically present, but emotionally absent. If it were classified as a disease, fatherlessness would be an epidemic worthy of attention as a national emergency.
The consequences of fatherlessness are a clear and present danger to God’s design for family. The removal of fathers from the family unit is ripping apart the fabric of society—not a small teasing of the fabric, but a deep, ragged rip. For a sobering review of the social consequences of fatherlessness, view here and here.
Yes, suicide, crime, drug abuse, sexual perversion, poverty, etc. are heart-breaking consequences. However, the penultimate consequence of fatherlessness is the distortion of one’s view of God the Father.
God intended the family unit to be a visible word picture of the Trinity. There is no more critical aspect as a believer than to learn who God the Father is. One cannot truly understand the depth of His love in giving us His Son and the gift of His Spirit without first understanding Him as Father. How can a boy or girl or man or woman begin to understand God the Father if they have no earthly father? When I witness to folks who have experienced fatherlessness, I cannot begin the conversation with “God the Father loves you.” They have no context and typically have a negative reaction to any earthly father figures. Vance Fry, an editor for Focus on the Family, wrote:
Some people may have a difficult time relating to God as a father. Fatherhood is an idea that we’re all very familiar with, and we may project our expectations or experiences of what a father should be, or has been, onto our heavenly Father. A boy who longs for a dad has a hard time seeing God as capable of filling that role. A girl who feels she has to succeed in sports and school to earn her father’s approval may see her relationship with God in a similar way. For others, the word father may bring up memories of abuse or neglect. How tragic that such a beautiful facet of God’s character—that He is not a distant, impersonal ruler, but a warm and welcoming papa—is often tainted by the weaknesses of human fathers!
I am the first demonstration of father my four children see as they begin to conceive who God the Father is. This is a wonderful responsibility, but also a weighty responsibility, and one in which I fall short many times. I consistently pray that I demonstrate God the Father’s wisdom, lovingkindness, righteousness, provision and protection to my children and to the watching world.
Men, on this upcoming Father’s Day, consider the following:
- Assess how you are doing in reflecting the word picture of God the Father to your children and to others. Pray that you first of all can relate to God as Abba Father. Then pray that God works in you so that you demonstrate His fatherly characteristics and not that of the world’s.
- If you have experienced fatherlessness, know that God can heal all wounds. He is a father to the fatherless (Psalm 68:5). In addition, your past experience does not have to be repeated. We are made new creatures in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17), and we are to put off our old selves and don our new selves (Ephesians 4:22-24).
- Mentor younger dads. The body of Christ has a responsibility to train and equip the next generation. Help younger dads learn from your mistakes and help them grow closer to God the Father. In doing this, you will be having a lasting impact on the dads, their children and their grandchildren.
- Help teach in the preschool and children’s ministry at your church. Children need to see godly father figures in their lives. Children need to see men in the classroom. Far too many of our children and preschoolers have no adult male role model at home.
- Ensure that your family and church have mechanisms to help solo mothers.
Not long ago I traveled to a closed country to serve pastors and elders. Their hunger for God’s Word and for insights on local church ministry gave me energy that whipped the jetlag that should have swamped me. The time of serving, teaching, answering questions, engaging in dialogue, and getting to see firsthand local church ministry in a persecution setting, left me filled with joy at the grace of God at work and the power of the gospel.
On my last night in the country, I had dinner with a young couple from the church where the meetings took place. Earlier that Sunday, the congregation set apart the husband as an elder. Despite not understanding scarcely a word spoken, I thoroughly enjoyed the ordination service. Observing the seriousness of how they considered elder ministry and the careful, yet joyous way that they set apart this young man and another, reminded me of just how important it was for them to make sure that they had their leadership well structured. Persecution looms so leadership mustn’t be left dangling.
As I sat across from this man and his wife, I asked how they came to faith in Christ. Both attended a local university where they received a substantial education, with the husband holding advanced degrees. That study set them apart from some of their peers, so that they were invited to participate in an academic fellowship in a major Western city. Although that city needs lots of gospel work, thank God, there are faithful congregations preaching Christ and doing evangelism in their city. Some believers struck up relationships with this couple. After a period of interaction that built trust, they invited them to visit their church. God began to work.
Now, keep in mind that this couple lives in a region that regularly persecutes believers and tries to shut down churches. Additionally, they had no previous involvement with any church in their country. They were essentially atheists centered on academics and career. But that never stops the Holy Spirit from working.
As they visited a church they saw something different about the people. They experienced a healthy congregation where the body cared for one another, served in the community, and regularly studied God’s Word together. That church, whether intentionally or not, developed what Mack Stiles calls a “culture of evangelism.” He describes this as churches that are “loving communities committed to sharing the gospel as part of an ongoing way of life, not by the occasional evangelistic raid event” (Stiles, Evangelism, 47). A healthy church with a culture of evangelism partnered with those in the orbit of this young couple’s lives, so that hearing the gospel clearly, coming under conviction, they repented and believed the gospel of Christ.
Then they returned to their home country. Policy toward churches had not changed in their two-year absence. But they didn’t go underground. They began to take a stand for Christ. They testified to their families that they were Christians. Despite the push back, they didn’t hesitate to continue in their faith. They found some local believers, began to attend an “illegal” church, became members, and got seriously involved with the body. Several years later, as they’ve grown in Christ, the congregation recognized the husband’s qualifications to serve as an elder, and overwhelmingly approved of him to this biblical office. While he continues in his very impressive job in the city, he also preaches, teaches, and shepherds the flock where he is a member.
How did it happen? Obviously, God graciously worked in the lives of this young family—from blessing them with good minds, providentially directing their paths in an education and career track that landed them in a Western city where they would hear the gospel, and then return to proclaim Christ. But the instruments that the Lord used were just ordinary believers loving them, sharing their lives with them, inviting them to this odd thing called a Christian worship service, and opening their mouths to teach them the gospel.Missions Is Moving Next Door
Mission is not monolithic. It doesn’t just happen when we cross an ocean. While the Lord is using thousands of workers deployed among thousands of unreached people groups (and some not in that category) to do gospel work, he is also bringing the nations to our doorsteps. Our universities regularly have students from all over the globe coming to the United States to receive an excellent education. Others come to train for particular business or mechanical skills. Still others come to be part of U.S. companies, while an endless stream of tourists visit sights familiar to us.
I sat next to a young man from Saudi Arabia a few years ago that had been attending a U.S. university. I couldn’t just waltz into his country and talk to him about Christ. But I could engage him while seated next to him. He warmly received my words and accepted a gift of a gospel e-book card that he slipped into his bag that would be unnoticed by security when he returned. Perhaps the Lord brought him to our country for that very purpose, to download a book on his cellphone so that he might practice English, and in doing so, read the good news of Christ.
My niece told me about a friend at her university from a country unfriendly to gospel work, coming to faith in Christ. For four years students and others loved her, exemplified Christian living, brought her to church, took time to listen to her, mirrored the gospel, and patiently explained the good news. Just a couple of weeks ago she professed Christ publicly through baptism. International mission came local. When she graduates, a new “missionary” will return to her home country with the ability to communicate Christ to her people.
International mission work has moved next door. While gave last year-end to the work of global missions (my SBC church gladly gives to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering)— and we must, while we’re training people to send to the field—and we must, let’s see with open eyes those the Lord has dropped in our midst. International mission work, by God’s providence, is no longer just international. It’s in our communities.
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I can’t count the times he said to me, “I like you, Robinson, but I can certainly do without your religion”—“religion” meaning my commitment to Christ. He held a particular disdain for claims that the Bible is the Word of God.
One day, my friend and fellow newspaper reporter showed up at my desk with a sardonic grin on his face and an open Bible in his hands. This was going to be one of those conversations I enjoyed much less than our debates over the greatest all-time college football player (it’s Herschel Walker).
“I found something that proves the Bible contradicts itself,” he said. “Jesus is supposed to be all about love and peace, right? Well, listen to this.” He slowly read Luke 14:26, verbally underscoring one word:
If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.
No doubt, it is one of the most staggering phrases to come from Jesus’s lips. I don’t recall my response, but my colleague raised a valid question. What does Jesus mean by “hate” here?Hate speech?
After all, this is gentle Jesus, meek and mild. The Jesus who summons us to love our enemies (Matt. 5:43–46); the one Isaiah calls the Prince of Peace (Isa. 9:6); the Jesus who promised the world will know his followers by their love (John 13:35). And yet this Jesus is asking me to hate my wife, my children, and my parents? Elsewhere, Scripture commands me to love my wife (Eph. 5:25), my children (Eph. 6:4), my parents (Exod. 20:12). What could our Savior possibly mean by this incendiary—and seemingly contradictory—ultimatum?
If we take a closer look at the surrounding context, the nutshell meaning of his distressing words is as clear and concise as it is radical and revolutionary. Jesus is telling his followers: “If you would be a Christian, I must have it all.” We may be scandalized by the “hate” speech, but I suspect in stumbling over Jesus’s plain talk, we can miss the real scandal of this text: There will be rivals warring for supremacy over the throne of our hearts, but our love for King Jesus must defeat every one.
Matthew 10:37 may provide the interpretational key to unlock what Jesus means by “hate” here: “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” Yes, we are to exhibit deep affections for our closest earthly kin, but Jesus is saying we must love even them less than we do him if we would prove to be genuine disciples. Of course, it’s also true that I will love my family and friends well in direct to proportion to the depth of my love for Jesus.Sell all and buy Christ
Jesus is not demanding that you literally hate your family. He is using hyperbole to illustrate the steep cost of following him. Any prospective follower must be glad to give up everything, to love him unreservedly—to sell all in order to have him as your highest treasure (Matt. 13:44–46). Our affections for Christ must be of such an intensity and quality that, by comparison, all other loves seem like hate.
This is the first of three sobering warnings in Luke 14:26-33 against making a hasty decision to follow Jesus. A genuine disciple must:
Love Jesus even more than your earthly family (v. 26).
Take up your cross and follow him (v. 27).
Be willing to lay down everything—even your life—and go hard after him (v. 33).
As a skilled expositor, the Lord illustrates his point with two pictures: A wise builder won’t construct a tower unless he’s first made certain he has enough materials to complete it. A wise king won’t go to war unless he knows his army possesses enough firepower to have a fighting chance at repelling the enemy.
God gives us a vivid application or illustration—perhaps even more shocking than Jesus’s words—of the potential cost of discipleship in Genesis 22.Gift or giver?
God gave Abraham and Sarah their first son when they were senior citizens. The long-awaited son was the one through whom God would bring a greater son to rescue his people from sin and death. But God did something that must have stretched Abraham’s faith to a breaking point: He told the patriarch to take the boy to Mount Moriah and sacrifice him as an act of worship.
It’s a test none of us would want to endure. Would Abraham love the gift more than the Giver? Of course, we know how it turned out. Abraham trusted God, who provided a substitute—a ram to sacrifice in Isaac’s place, giving us one of the clearest gospel pictures in the Old Testament.
Abraham’s faith, displayed in his obedience, powerfully illustrates what our Lord is driving at in Luke 14:26: “Yes, your spouse and kids and relatives are good gifts from my hands, but to which will you give your heart: them or me?”
That’s what Jesus is driving at in Luke 14:26. But how, then, should we live in light of it?What does it apply to us?
It means at least four things for us.1. In speaking the gospel, tell them to count the cost.
Three times, Jesus uses a conditional “if . . . cannot” formula, concluding in verse 33: “So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.” In other words, “If I do not have all of you, you will have none of me.” When we proclaim the gospel, we must avoid communicating cheap grace. Following Jesus demands our life, our soul, our all—otherwise, Jesus said, “you cannot be my disciple.”
We must explain the cost as Jesus explained it to the rich young ruler. It was love that drove Jesus to unmask the young man’s hypocrisy: he hadn’t kept God’s law because he was guilty of loving his wealth more than his neighbor (Mark 10:21).2. Following Jesus may not make your life easier.
Much popular preaching promises that believing in Jesus will make your life easier. Perhaps a desire to see as many people as possible converted to Christ drives such preaching, I hope so. And there is profound joy in following Christ; there are pleasures forevermore at his right hand (Ps. 16:10). But if we would hear the message of Luke 14, we must admit there’s a real sense in which your trouble may be just beginning when you follow Jesus.
For one thing, it may not make your family life better. “I came not to bring peace but a sword,” Jesus declared. “For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household” (Matt. 10:34–36). As J. C. Ryle put it, a Christian must be willing to offend his family rather than offend his King. Think of the many who’ve been disowned by parents after spurning Allah, Buddha, or the Watchtower Society in favor of Christ. On his way to Moriah, it’s doubtful Abraham thought, My best life is now.3. Clinging to Christ loosens our grip on even our most intimate earthly relations.
Losing close family members and friends is heartbreaking; but even so, we can rejoice in Christ. My father died 27 years ago. My mother died in January. I think of dad daily, and the wounds are still fresh from saying goodbye to mom. Even so, I will always have Christ—and he must be enough.4. They who trust him wholly, find him wholly true.
Can you imagine Abraham’s journey up that mountain? He was no supersaint. The obedience must have been agonizing. Yet he trusted God when it seemed impossible. And God provided a lamb, just as he has for us.
I’m not sure how my former colleague would respond to the answer I’ve given here nearly three decades later. But I know Luke 14:26 is a deliberately unsettling way for my Savior to call me to love him supremely—even if it costs my life. No matter what, it’s worth it.
This article was originally published at TGC.
In Matthew 13:10-17, in the midst of his parables of the kingdom, Jesus explained something of the purpose of the parables to his disciples. The answer is problematic, however, because it goes against our common assumption that the purpose of the parables was to simplify and clarify. Consider the following:
Then the disciples came and said to him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” And Jesus answered them in a way we might find disturbing:
To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. Indeed, in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says:
‘You will indeed hear but never understand, and you will indeed see but never perceive. For this people’s heart has grown dull, and with their ears they can barely hear, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and turn, and I would heal them.’ But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. For truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.
This raises a couple of questions.Is the purpose of the parables to reveal truth?
This seems to be one of the most obvious things in the world at first glance. My guess is that if you asked most regular church attenders what the purpose of the parables was, you would hear something like “stories that illustrate truths or principles from Jesus.” And for good reason.
The word “parable” actually comes from a compound Greek word parabola meaning “to throw alongside.” In other words, a parable is meant to be a story thrown alongside a more abstract idea to illustrate it in familiar terms. Parables are earthly stories illustrating heavenly truths. For example, has ever a better illustration been given of what it means to love one’s neighbor than the story of the Good Samaritan; or, of the forgiving love of the Father than the story of the Prodigal Son?
So the parables exist to reveal, clarify, illustrate truth.
But, if this is the case, why did Jesus have to explain his parables so many times? This leads us to our next question.Is the purpose of the parables to conceal truth?
In verse 10, Jesus is asked by his disciples the precise question that we are considering this morning. This what we want to know. “Why do you speak to them in parables?” Jesus’ answer is as pointed as it is shocking. Rather than to reveal his teaching, Jesus says his parables are meant to conceal truth.
First, he says, it distinguishes between his disciples and the unbelieving crowd. Verse 11: “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given.” This highlights the necessity of supernatural revelation for us to know divine truth. Divine revelation is necessary because humans naturally do not understand God’s truth.
First Corinthians 2:14 tells us that “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” Scriptre clearly teaches human inability to attain any saving knowledge of God apart from an exercise of his grace. For example, in John 6:44, Jesus says, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.” The word “can” is a word of ability.
While all are invited to come and all “may” (a word of permission) come to Christ, the biblical reality is that no one can apart from God’s gracious drawing of that individual to himself. This fulfills Isaiah 6:9-10 quoted in verses 14-15. We see here the nature of human ability. It is not the lacking of some physical faculty, but a moral inability. They see, but will not see. This means they are morally responsible, because it is not lack of physical ability that hinders them from coming to Christ. This is why Jesus could say in Matthew 23:37, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” Their guilt is their own.Human inability, God’s ability
This reality of human inability makes divine initiative an absolute necessity if anyone is ever to be saved. Thankfully, God graciously reveals himself to some. To his disciples, Jesus said in verse 11, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given.” This is exactly what Jesus was talking about in Matthew 11:25-27:
At that time Jesus declared, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.
These verses highlight the divine prerogative that God has to reveal truth to some and conceal it from others. We don’t understand this fully, but we are committed to believing what Scripture teaches and rejoice that God in his grace has chosen to reveal himself to us. This is exactly what Jesus says we should do (verses 16-17). Marvel at divine grace to you! The doctrine of election is never in Scripture something to be argued over and debated, but something to wonder over in amazement at God’s grace. If we truly understand human sinfulness and rebellion, our question will never be, “Why does God not reveal himself to some?”, but “Why, oh why, has God revealed himself to me?”The answer is “yes”
So, the answer to the question, “Did Jesus teach in parables to reveal or conceal truth?”, is an unequivocal “Yes!” Jesus taught in parables to illustrate and clarify abstract spiritual truths with physical illustrations with which everyone could identify. However, he did so in such a way that those truths would actually be unclear to those in rebellion against him and clear only to those committed to following him.
Though Jesus spoke these parables in public to large crowds, they mostly only heard a good story. They didn’t understand the spiritual meaning. When Jesus was alone with his disciples, he would explain the heavenly meaning. In this way, Jesus made it more difficult for his opponents to have accusations against him, but he also used this method to fulfill his divine prerogative of revealing truth to some and concealing it from others. The same sun that hardens the clay, also melts the wax. In a similar way, the same parables which concealed the truth to some, revealed it to others.
At the end of the day, our response should be gratitude to God for his gracious revelation of himself to us.Produces gratitude
The primary response of believers should be gratefulness! We who were spiritually dead and totally unable to come to God have been awakened by divine grace and made to see the glories of Christ to which we have gladly responded in repentance and faith. To God alone be the glory!
This teaching should also lead us to compassion for the lost. That we would weep for them as Jesus did and plead with them to come to Christ (as Jesus did). We should pray to God that the same God who opened our eyes would open their eyes to the gospel. This is their only hope. If we truly believed this, we would be people of prayer!
Finally, we should be grateful that we have in Scripture Christ’s own explanation of many of these parables. These teachings have been preserved for us by the work of the Holy Spirit who inspired biblical writers to record this information. We also have the presence of this very same Holy Spirit in our lives as believers to lead us in our study of Scripture. The Spirit of Christ himself lives within every believer guiding in our understanding of God’s Word. Thanks be to God for his unspeakable gift!
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I’ve spent most of my adult life hating silence—and didn’t know it. It was a major blind spot. I always dismissed my desire to be with people and avoid being alone as being an extrovert and loving people. I excused my talkative nature to my heightened relational instincts. These qualities also seemed to help my interactions with people as a pastor, so I thought nothing more of it. It wasn’t until I began my own counseling journey out of a personal crisis where I was confronted with this long-held deception in my life.
My counselor observed some behavior in my life that went unnoticed by most, but became flags of concern for him. He saw that I ran from being alone. He realized I was uncomfortable in silence and didn’t know what to do with it. He experienced the way I often dominated conversations with my words. This also exposed my terrible listening skills, which he was wise and winsome enough to connect to my silence issues. So, he began to press me in this area and it was difficult. In fact, it led to an implosion of my soul and began the process of healing it desperately needed.Silence exposes the soul
It was through this journey that I learned if my emotions are the gateway to my soul, then it is silence that exposes the soul. I was not ready to face the ugly things that got exposed. But God in his amazing grace met me in a sweet, powerful way and began a healing journey that has brought a consistent peace in my soul. It was through silence in a quiet place, meditating on truth, and prayerfully asking the Lord’s help that I experienced this deeper level of God’s grace and presence within my soul. It is the same place that every pastor must expose and reach with the power of God’s grace for us to experience his love deeply and, as a result, have a long ministry.
This silence I am advocating for in the pastor’s life is not some form of secular meditation, but a biblical silence and solitude. Don Whitney considers it a significant spiritual discipline of the Christian life. It is a stillness that allows us to grow more aware of our soul’s activity as the Holy Spirit lives and works in us. It is a discipline by which we commune with Jesus, become more powerfully aware of his truth and presence, and more receptive to his unending grace. Puritan scholar and longtime pastor Joel Beeke articulates well the kind of meditation that fosters this experience:
Puritan meditation engages the mind with God’s revealed truth in order to inflame the heart with affections towards God and transform the life unto obedience. Thomas Hooker defined it like this: ‘Meditation is a serious intention of the mind whereby we come to search out the truth, and settle it effectually upon the heart.’ The direction of our minds reveals the truest love of our hearts, and so, Hooker said, he who loves God’s Word meditates on it regularly (Ps. 119:97). Therefore, Puritan meditation is not repeating a sound, emptying the mind, or imagining physical sights and sensations, but a focused exercise of thought and faith upon the Word of God.
God commands that we be still and know he is God (Ps. 46:10). The Psalmist reminds us our souls are to go into silence and wait on God alone (Ps. 62:1-5). Jesus regularly went off to a solitary place to pray and be still (Mark 1:35; Luke 5:16; Matt. 14:13). Silence and solitude is a biblical discipline of the Christian life every Christian needs. Pastors are no different.
This article seeks to not only call every pastor to the discipline of regular silence and solitude in his life, but to see this is an essential piece to the care of a pastor’s soul. First, let’s consider the reasons for silence in our life, then turn to the practical of how to begin to embrace it amidst a busy and noisy ministry.Reasons for silence
Most of us can agree on some obvious reasons for silence, such as we all need quiet, time to get refocused, time alone with God, time to pray and read God’s word, and less distractions. However, I would like to give four reasons that are less obvious and connect more so to silence being a catalyst to care for one’s soul.1. Silence exposes the soul
A common defense mechanism is to use busyness and noise to avoid pain in our lives. It could be unresolved pain and abuse from the past, or it could be a current suffering. Regardless, noise and distraction can give the illusion it isn’t there, or that it has no power. Silence can expose that deep pain and demonstrate its undeniable presence in our souls. It is when we are still and silent that we become more aware of our emotions, what our minds obsess over, and the physical pain we feel that could be related to stress and anxiety.2. Silence confronts the voices.
The voices to which I refer are the messages we hear about ourselves. We all have them. They are voices from those throughout our life. They are the messages the enemy loves to whisper in our ears. They are the interpretive messages of those presently in our life. When those voices are harsh, abusive, and lie about our value and identity in Christ, they become very unpleasant to hear and we do what we must to run from them.
These voices tormented me. Abusive voices from my past, lies from the enemy, and painful words of criticisms in the present all created these messages of failure and self-loathing that were loudest when I was alone in silence. So, I ran from silence to try and escape these voices. I needed silence to confront these voices and speak powerful, gospel truth against the lies I heard and had believed for so long. Martyn Lloyd Jones has famously addressed these voices in the context of depression, stating:
The main trouble in this whole matter of spiritual depression in a sense is this, that we allow our self to talk to us instead of talking to our self. Am I just trying to be deliberately paradoxical? Far from it. This is the very essence of wisdom in this matter. Have you realized that most of your unhappiness in life is due to the fact that you are listening to yourself instead of talking to yourself?
Silence allows us to confront the reality when we listen to ourselves instead of talking to ourselves and consequently say harsh, soul-crushing words.3. Silence teaches us to listen.
It was a troubling discovery when I realized how long I had been a pastor yet was still a poor listener. I listened, but it was to prepare to respond. I needed to learn to listen without a need to respond. Just listen and empathize. As I began to embrace silence, I realized I was learning to listen also. I heard sounds around me I never noticed before. I felt more receptive to the message of God’s word. It is amazing what happens when you are not so pre-occupied with trying to figure out what to say or do next. Just listen.4. Silence tests our need for noise.
I thought I just loved people and activity. I had no idea that I needed noise because my soul was tormented in silence. Silence exposes the soul and can test how much we have grown to depend on noise to block out the pain of our lives. This is one of the many reasons why we all need blocks of time away from our phone, email, social media, and every electronic device that creates much of the constant source of noise in our life. Pastors do not have to make much effort to find noise and distraction in their life. But silence is another matter. We must fight for it. Silence challenges us to face that pain and allow the power of the gospel to penetrate deep in our souls and begin to find healing. And yet, how does a pastor begin to embrace silence out of care for his soul?Embrace the quiet
While away on a silent retreat, I was reminded of these words found in a room dedicated to silence and solitude:
The role of silence was deemed to be important here, as a means of ensuring that one did not fritter away precious but demanding leisure through acedia and small talk. Communities which respect human growth probably need to make explicit provision for solitude, otherwise a potential source of enrichment is lost.
Although I hated silence, I slowly came to realize I needed to make “explicit provision for solitude” for the sake of my soul. As a result, I was led through a three-step process that helped me come to not just realize I needed silence, but caused me to eventually long for it. That three-step process is daily practice, extended times of silence, and scheduled retreats.
First, a pastor must begin by establishing a short daily silence. The Psalmist writes for us to be still and know God is God (Ps. 46:10). Small, but regular goals are the key. Don’t underestimate the value of carving out five to ten minutes a day where you sit in silence with no music playing, no phone ringing, and no people talking. Just sit and take in the quiet. Be aware of God’s presence. Know he is God. Pray. Listen to what is around you.
Next, a pastor needs to find more extended times of silence. The Psalmist reminds us our souls are to go into silence and wait on God alone (Ps. 62:1-5). We cannot rush waiting. It takes more time. This could be one hour a week where you are away from all noise and people to be alone with God. As the short, daily silence helps keep you centered for the day, this more extended time is what I find more restful and restorative for my soul. This typically happens in my life on Monday mornings when I go on a run on a hiking trail away from people. After my run, I just sit in the quite with God, aware of his glory in Creation all around me in the woods or near a pond. I remain still and know he is God and I am not (Ps. 46:10). And I wait for God alone (Ps. 62:1-5).
Finally, a pastor should move to scheduling one to two silent retreats each year. It is here where you will discover how you truly feel about silence. I did. This could be an overnight trip somewhere, but doesn’t have to be. I have scheduled my silent retreats to be during the day where I will leave early in the morning and return for dinner with my family.
This pursuit of silence takes the care of your soul to another level, for it exposes how much you need noise, people, busyness, and distraction. An all-day silent retreat will expose much, including what you use noise to run from in your life. My silent retreats have become a gut-check of things hidden in my soul from which I try to run by busyness in my life. Every pastor needs something that will press those hidden things, causing him to be confronted with them before God, and time to stop and receive his grace and forgiveness.Set free from the noise
Jesus has set us free from the power of sin, shame, and death, and has rescued us from the wrath of God we deserve. It is all by grace through faith. Our identity is now in Christ and we are eternally adopted children of the One true God. We have the Holy Spirit of God indwelling each of us by faith, making us more like Jesus every day. And yet, so many Christians fail to experience deeply in their souls the power of God’s grace in the gospel. This includes pastors. This was me most of my ministry and it took an awareness of my own soul and how to gain access to it so that powerful grace in the gospel would permeate in those deep, dark places.
Silence is a wonderful tool and gift from God to bring that awareness. We can only shepherd our people to the places to which we have personally gone and experienced. Embrace silence as that peaceful, healing balm for your noisy, restless soul.
In an earlier post, I mentioned one big change that really helped me grow as a Bible reader: reading whole books in one sitting. In this post, I want to encourage folks who would like to start this discipline but aren’t really sure where or how to begin. My goal is to encourage you to begin today and so set a rich trajectory of Bible reading for your summer and beyond.Thirty-Three Books in Thirty Minutes or Less
Although I have been reading the Bible regularly for a quarter-century, it wasn’t until this last week that I realized half of the Bible’s 66 books could be read in thirty minutes or less. Better late than never I suppose. The following list uses the reading times mentioned in Andy Naselli’s really helpful chart (he uses the ESV Hear the Word audio Bible as his point of reference). Of course some people will read faster and others more slowly, but these times have proven a helpful reference.
There are several ways you might approach this list. First, if you want to start slow, you might divide these readings out across one month. It won’t take you long to realize that you can easily read more than one of these books each day. Second, you might decide to take one or more of these shorter books and read it every day for a month this summer. This approach will really help you see the outline, argument, and flow of the book and before the month is out you will likely begin memorizing large parts of the text simply by repeated exposure. If you take this approach, be sure to read Joe Carter’s excellent advice over at TGC. Additionally, while I assume you’ll ask God to illuminate your reading (Ps 119:18), after a few days of getting accustomed to the text, you might begin to slow down your reading pace to meditate (think deeply) over the text and let it shape your other prayer priorities. Third, you might use these books in your small-group or d-group. They are short enough that your group can read one of these books out loud in one meeting, have time to ask some questions, and still get a refill on coffee before having to wrap up the group’s meeting. I’ll mention more about how d-groups can benefit from reading longer books in another post.
Regular reading is essential because of our nature as pilgrims and sojourners (1 Pet 2:11). Every day we are inundated with messages from the world that are simultaneously native and foreign to us as exiles. The messages are native to us because we are accustomed to them: satisfy your cravings with this food, this movie, this phone, this car, this home renovation, this dunk, this laugh. Yet they are foreign as we come increasingly to realize that these cravings cannot satisfy; only God can. We need regular engagement with the Word of God to remind ourselves what really is “true . . . lovely . . . and worthy of praise” (Phil 4:8), to reorient ourselves to the path, and to resist the voices of temporary pleasure. I often remind my students that the ultimate goal of Bible reading is to enjoy fellowship with the Father, through the Son, by the Spirit. Finishing the day’s reading exercise is a helpful discipline, but it is subordinate to fellowship. Having this goal in mind can help you (and me!) from getting distracted, whether we read for four minutes or four hours (yes, this really is possible!).
- Ruth (15m)
- Esther (30m)
- Ecclesiastes (30m)
- Song of Solomon (20m)
- Lamentations (30m)
- Hosea (30m)
- Joel (12m)
- Amos (25m)
- Obadiah (4m)
- Jonah (8m)
- Micah (20m)
- Nahum (8m)
- Habakkuk (9m)
- Zephaniah (10m)
- Haggai (7m)
- Malachi (11m)
- Galatians (20m)
- Ephesians (20m)
- Philippians (14m)
- Colossians (13m)
- 1 Thessalonians (12m)
- 2 Thessalonians (7m)
- 1 Timothy (16m)
- 2 Timothy (11m)
- Titus (7m)
- Philemon (3m)
- James (16m)
- 1 Peter (16m)
- 2 Peter (10m)
- 1 John (16m)
- 2 John (2m)
- 3 John (2m)
- Jude (4m)
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That sweet family sitting in worship may have secrets. Dad and his teenage son probably visit the same pornographic websites. Mom may be flirting online with her high school sweetheart. The middle school daughter may be sexting photos to her boyfriend. And grandmother may be reading Fifty Shades of Grey.
Most church leaders know the research and are aware that most of the men and boys of the church struggle with pornography, that women and girls increasingly struggle with pornography and impure chatting, and that emerging technologies will only make matters worse.
Most leaders know that adults are as likely to be sexually involved outside marriage as are teenagers. The U.S. is quickly following Western Europe, where cohabitation has almost completely replaced marriage among young adults.
Most leaders know that the issues of gender confusion, gender change, and same-sex “marriage” have come or will come to every congregation.
And bottom line, most leaders know that the church cannot fulfill its mission to make disciples of all peoples while a cancer of impurity impacts a large percentage of members. Could sexual impurity be a major cause of the spiritual lethargy in the church today? Timothy Keller succinctly states, “Whatever controls us is our lord.” Derek Rishmawy notes:
When you’re engaged in behavior you’ve been raised to believe is wrong, but is … powerfully enslaving, you want to find reasons to disbelieve your former moral convictions. … Illicit sex is an idol in our generation that cannot be ignored, but must be dethroned if the worship of the true God is going to fill the Temple of His Church.
Most church leaders believe the issue of purity is important, but they also know that a return to the moralism of the previous century is not the solution. Legalistic lectures and commands to “try harder” are dead-end strategies. Layering on shame tends to keep people in their sin.
Thoughts and behaviors will not change until hearts are transformed. The idolatry of impurity will only lose its power if such idolatry is replaced by something more powerful and precious—and nothing is more powerful and precious than a personal awakening to much more of who King Jesus is today.
By God’s grace, I preach in a different church every Sunday. Many Sundays, my sermon includes a focus on the ascension of Jesus. My mentor David Bryant calls that day “the moment all authority in heaven and on earth would be bestowed on Jesus visibly, in perpetuity—the day he would be inaugurated before saints and angels as monarch over all, openly elevated by the Father to the everlasting throne of glory.”
Lifting eyes to the power and glory of Christ enthroned awakens something in believers. For many, the moment is almost like meeting Christ again for the first time. Such awakening leads to heart transformation. Gratitude for the Gospel, amplified by a new vision of the King, may prompt believers to worship Jesus with jaw-dropping awe and intimacy that transcends the marriage bed. Such heart transformation, informed by the clear teaching of Scripture, can lead to movement toward purity.
A growing number of pastors and church leaders now say, “Our church celebrates the family. We champion parents as the primary spiritual leaders in their homes.” Perhaps the time has come to move from words to actions.
Perhaps the time has come to see the home as ground zero for heart transformation leading toward purity. That does not mean just calling parents to be the morality cops who try to catch their hormonally crazed teenagers doing bad things.
- That does mean inspiring family members to worship together, study together, encourage one another, watch one another’s backs, and share grace-filled accountability.
- That does mean “we present an alternative view … of sex that is beautiful, but different than the one offered in the dominant cultural narratives; affirming of the goodness of sex, but presenting it within a God-intended framework that imbues it with meaning and value.”4
- That does mean acknowledging that Christ-followers stumble, experience cleansing grace, and continue on their journey toward purity.
- That does mean giving believing dads the lead role with their families (and cheering on single moms who must stand in the gap).
Has the time come for a new movement in the church?
- To see believers awakened to the glory of God’s beloved Son…
- Leading to adoring Him with greater gratitude, love, and awe…
- Leading to believers with hearts transformed…
- Leading to movement toward sexual purity…
- And for all of this to happen in families of one or many…
- And for dad to take the lead with those families.
The time may be right for a new movement in the church, a movement that might be called Pure Hearts at Home. I invite those intrigued by such an idea to come to www.PureHeartsAtHome.com.
Counterfeit Gods, xxiv.
Last week I sat on an ordination council for a worship student who has faithfully served his rural Baptist church in Indiana while attending Southern Seminary. His church is one of many around the seminary that views itself as a “sending” church. They take young greenhorn worship musicians and shape them into more mature spiritual shepherds.
Nothing substitutes for the opportunities students have when they apply what they’ve learned in the classroom to real-time, real-life church work.Ordination council
Prior to the interview, the young worship leader submitted written answers to 50 questions ranging from specific theological perspectives to philosophy of ministry and worship service methodology. The following questions were asked during the in-person council:
- Explain justification by faith.
- Explain your view of sanctification. What are the various means God uses to sanctify the believer?
- Can a person have Christ as his Savior without submitting to Him as Lord? Explain.
- What is your position on inerrancy?
- How does the Bible relate the sovereignty of God to salvation?
- What does the Bible teach about the extent of man’s depravity?
- What does Christ’s atonement accomplish?
- What is the proper use of the Old Testament Law?
- Do you believe that Jesus Christ was born of a virgin? What is the significance of your belief?
- What is your interpretation of the biblical teaching on hell?
- Do you believe that the events described in Genesis 1-11 are factual or symbolic?
- What is the church?
By the end of our meeting the ordination council had covered these questions and more—from congregational worship languages and cultures to dealing with cantankerous church members. I could not have been more proud of our Department of Biblical Worship student who will graduate this week with his M.Div. from Southern Seminary.
I’m recounting my experience on the ordination council because I’m overwhelmed with gratefulness. As I listened to the young worship leader answer the questions with confident humility, evidence of his rigorous study at the seminary in tandem with the shepherding experience he had developed at the church became wonderfully obvious.
The apostle Peter’s charge was beautifully displayed during the council meeting:
“Make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (2 Peter 1:5-9)Three lessons
I left the rural Indiana church that day encouraged by so many things, but three stand out in my mind:
1. The pastor and the church take ordination very, very seriously.
2. Our student was incredibly well-prepared for the ordination interview. He worked hard during his time in Louisville, both in his studies at school and as a worship leader at the church. He grew theologically, musically, spiritually, and pastorally.
3. The ordination council never lost sight of the vital role of an ordained man: being a pastor/shepherd.“Go shake hands with the people”
While I was both thrilled and grateful to be a part of a council that explored so many vital areas of ministry, I was also reminded that pastoral ministry is primarily about shepherding and caring for people. In fact, people are the ministry.
One of the pastors looked at my student and said, “I remember watching you work at putting all of your music and gear away at the end of the service the first few weeks of your ministry here. Do you remember what I said to you about three weeks after you started?” “Yes sir,” replied my student, “Quit messing with your gear and go shake hands with the people.”
That’s a good word for all of us.
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There is a strange tension one can experience when visiting military cemeteries. Having gone to school in Gettysburg, attended funerals in Arlington and visited Normandy this past year, I’ve learned to better recognized the emotional reaction evoked, especially in those of us who are veterans. These cemeteries embody a serene order that on the surface has a certain beauty but still reflect a tragic loss of human life born out of the utter horror of war.
Americans stop to honor this sacrifice annually on Memorial Day celebrated the last Monday in May. For pastors, it is one of two times on the calendar where it is helpful to think about how to minister specifically to military veterans.Caring for patriots
Titus 2:1-10 is critical to understanding the need for generational roles in discipleship and congregational life. Unfortunately, in way too many of our churches, we develop intra-generational ministry separating everyone into their demographics instead of inter-generational ministry as Scripture calls for. Pastors can magnify this problem when it comes to the congregation’s attitude toward patriotism. Several times I have heard pastors regret the pain they caused older members by suggesting it was time to remove the American flag from the sanctuary. Generations are separated as the suggestion seems practical to the younger members, only to be met head on by the older members with an attitude of “Not on my watch.”
But I have also see in these same churches loving pastors who balance both the mission of the church to the nations, and the sense of a congregation’s loyalty to their nation. One of the most common ways is to acknowledge military veterans (and often their spouses) on the Sundays that precede Veterans Day in November and Memorial Day in May.
Often veterans are asked to stand so that the congregation can recognize them. The problem is these are two different holidays that acknowledge and pay tribute to two different aspects of our military history. The first acknowledges those who have served in the military, while the latter pays tribute to those who have lost their lives in service to the country. For a long time this has, frankly been a distinction without a difference. However as someone who lives and works within the community and culture of veterans, I want pastors to know how this is changing.A subtle shift
Without speculating on why, I have noticed a subtle shift in the veteran community’s attitude toward Memorial Day. Where older veterans have not been concerned with a distinction between the two holidays, younger veterans are. I have seen friends from the military services specifically put messages on social media expressing how they are uncomfortable they are receiving gratitude on Memorial Day and in some cases even reacting angrily when thanks were offered.
Speaking directly as a veteran, I would ask pastors and congregants to understand that we acknowledge your appreciation for the years of service paid by veterans over the past two decades. However please understand that many of us who served since 9/11 have are very aware and thankful that we made it home. Most of us know someone who did not. Within 24 hours of arriving in Baghdad on my first deployment I learned that a friend had just been killed by an IED.
Additionally, many of us have friends who made it home, but lost their lives to the invisible injuries of war. Veteran culture has a strong ethic for honoring the fallen before we accept honor ourselves. To accept your praise on the Memorial Holiday can be viewed by some veterans as robbing honor from our brothers and sisters. Older veterans likely see standing for Memorial Day as paying tribute to those left behind, but many of us experience guilt for stealing from those we love.What to do?
I understand if you think writing on the topic of a simple tribute on a Sunday morning is making a mountain out of a mole-hill. (Of course, I would invite you to remove the American flag from your sanctuary and see what happens.) But I want pastors to know about this shift within what is likely a minority culture in the local congregation. Those of us who served in uniform and our families are part of a specific culture and thinking about Memorial Day vs. Veterans Day offers a great opportunity to think of ways pastors can serve their vets, not only these two Sundays but year-round. Let me offer three practical ideas:
- Get personal. Perhaps the most specific, practical recommendation I can make is to approach each holiday as a unique opportunity. Veterans Day is a great time to publicly thank service members, and Memorial Day is a great time to personally thank them. Find the vets after your Sunday service and speak to them one-on-one. Teach your congregation to do the same. I think you will find them encouraged when you acknowledge the day and the loss they likely feel over someone specific from their time in the service.
- Leave the door open. Veterans, especially older ones, are unlikely to talk about their experiences. But it’s still worth asking. Ask veterans if you can spend some time listening to what they did in the service. It doesn’t need to be war-time service, but the story will likely be worth the cost of a cup of coffee. It’s rare to find a good pastor who is not also a student of history, and these men and women have a history to tell.
- Link us together. Which brings us back to Titus. Veteran culture tends to create a closed community, complete with our own language (usually made of acronyms). So teach us, like Paul told Titus, to care for each other. Find the one veteran you can disciple and train him or her to care for the others. Over time as they care for each other, you will find them more open and caring toward the rest of your congregation.
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Jesus as Philosopher and Thinker
Dallas Willard once said, “There is in our culture an uneasy relation between Jesus and intelligence.” What Willard meant is that there are many things we, as Christians, think of when we think of Jesus, but His smartness and intelligence are not often among those things. It’s true that most of us will affirm Jesus’ divine omniscience, but we do not seem to think of Him as generally a brilliant thinker. That is, when we think of the world’s great philosophers and thinkers, Jesus doesn’t often make the list. Or when we read through the Great Books, we read Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and often blow right past Jesus and perhaps pick up with Plutarch to Athanasius and Augustine. We rarely read the teachings of Jesus as a great and influential work of intellectual history.
Why is this? Perhaps it is, in part, that Jesus did not often teach on the level of theory. Jesus taught us how to live (applied ethics) and what to think (worldview) without providing a specific philosophical theory to underlie this ethic and worldview. Though there is some truth to this, His claims and thought are still revolutionary and turned the world upside down.
A more salient reason that we fail to appreciate the intellect of Jesus is that we fail to make Jesus Lord of our intellectual lives. We look to Jesus for how to live morally and perhaps what to think theologically, but we do not look to Jesus as our model in how to think. We seem to think being Christ-like intellectually is simply optional.
The Intellect of Jesus
Jesus performed miracles and cast out demons. These things gathered a crowd, to be sure. However, Jesus also regularly put on display His intellect and wisdom. And people gathered and were equally astounded! There are far too many examples of this to mention (consider Matthew 7:28-29; 13:54-57; Mark 11:18; Luke 4:22). At one point, having heard His teaching, the Jews asked in amazement, “How has this man become learned, having never been educated?” (John 7:15).
Many of us know the Great Commandment (Matthew 22:37-40) by heart. But we often fail to notice the context and some of the implications of this command. The intellectual elites of the Jewish world, the Pharisees and the Sadducees, attempt to theologically trap and intellectually confound Jesus. This does not go well for them.
The Pharisees press Jesus about whether it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. If he says “yes,” then this recognizes Caesar as an authority. If he says “no,” He breaks Roman law. In response, Jesus requests a coin and asks who is pictured on the coin. They have to concede that it is Caesar. Jesus tells them, “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s” (v. 21b). And they were amazed! At what are they amazed? Jesus’ brilliant answer.
The Sadducees approach Jesus with an elaborate thought experiment intended to refute the idea of a general resurrection. We are to imagine a wife who has married in turn seven brothers after the brother before has died. In the resurrection, whose wife will she be? Since she cannot be married to all and there is no reason to think that she will be married to any one of the brothers in particular, the implication is that the notion of resurrection is absurd.
Jesus gives two responses. First, He says that they do not properly understand the concept. When the resurrection is characterized properly, the problem does not even arise.
Second, he quotes Exodus 3:6 and makes a very subtle point about what it implies. Jesus says, “But regarding the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was spoken to you by God: ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead but of the living” (vv. 31-32).
Now the argument here is not immediately obvious. J.P. Moreland has said about Jesus’ response to the Sadducees:
As a young Christian, I was puzzled by Jesus’ response because I myself could have cited better verses than this one—for example, Daniel 12:2, which explicitly affirms the resurrection. Or so I thought. Jesus’ genius is revealed when we recognize that He had studied Sadducean theology and knew that they did not accept the full authority of the prophets, including Daniel. He also knew that the very passage He used was one of the very defining verses for the entire Sadducean party! His argument hinged on the tense of the Hebrew verb. Jesus does not say, “I was the God of Abraham, etc.,” but, “I am (continue to be) the God of Abraham, etc.” a claim that could be true only if Abraham and others continued to exist.
With this very subtle but penetrating argument, they were astonished!
Despite seeing this, the Pharisees are not done. They muster one last question to test Jesus: “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” (v. 36). And here it comes. Jesus’ response is that we are to love God with all of who we are—with all our hearts, souls, and minds (v. 37).
Loving God with All Our Minds
We are intellectual beings. Jesus tells us that we are to pursue God with the deepest parts of who we are, including our intellect. Jesus lived this out. If He is the Lord of our lives, this should mean patterning our lives after His in all ways. Thus, being intellectual about our faith and loving God accordingly is simply part of our discipleship.
One may think, “But we will never attain to the intellect of Jesus.” True. But we will never attain His moral perfection either! The point is that we should see Jesus, in both regards, as our exemplar; we should strive to be like Him in all ways. Thus, we should see Jesus as the ideal logician and thinker and make Him Lord over our intellectual pursuits.
Christian Scholar’s Review, 1999, Vol. XXVIII: 4, 605-614.
Love Your God with All Your Mind (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2012), 53.
First Peter 3:15 serves as the clarion call for Christians to be ready to give an answer for their faith in Jesus Christ. The Christian Standard Bible captures the urgency in Peter’s exhortation when it states: “be ready at any time” to give an answer. Believers of all ages must expect to face situations where their faith is challenged or questioned. Further, believers are to think through what they believe, and why they believe it.
Christians in the 21st century—particularly in the West— have gladly taken up Peter’s call in 1 Peter 3:15 to be ready to give an answer for their faith. We are blessed with a wealth of apologetic resources to aid in understanding the various charges brought against Christianity and in answering these charges. Believers have at their disposal numerous books, websites, conferences, videos—you name it—such that Christians today are well-equipped to proclaim and defend the Gospel.
While Christians have understandably emphasized Peter’s call to action in verse 15, not enough attention is given to the manner in which we are to carry out our defense of the Christian faith. Note the entirety of Peter’s exhortation:
But in your hearts regard Christ the Lord as holy, ready at any time to give a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you. Yet do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that when you are accused, those who disparage your good conduct in Christ will be put to shame. (1 Peter 3:15-16)
Taken in isolation, Peter’s exhortation to be ready to give an answer seem to give warrant to various manners in which to do apologetics. Today, the general sense of some apologists is that giving an answer becomes more about winning arguments and demolishing ideas antithetical to the gospel. Granted, Paul states in 2 Corinthians 10:5-6 that we are to demolish everything raised against the truth of God and to take captive every thought in obedience to Christ. However, the manner in which we do apologetics is not left to our own discretion.
How we conduct our apologetics is just as important as our obedience to defend the faith.Accountability
“In your hearts regard Christ the Lord as holy.”
Peter’s exhortation to defend the faith occurs within his larger discussion of how believers are to conduct themselves. Specific to the passage in question, Peter addresses the believer’s conduct in the midst of suffering. Though believers may suffer for their faith, they shall not fear. Instead, they are to regard Christ as holy. That is, they are to remember for whom they live and act, and to whom they are accountable. Believers do not live for the approval of man; rather, they live as holy unto the Lord.
Likewise, believers in the 21st century do not do apologetics for the applause of man or to win an argument. These should not be what believers aim for. Rather, we are accountable to the Lord for how we act toward others—even enemies of Christianity—and for whom we act. We are accountable to the Lord for how and why we do our apologetics.Attitude
“Yet do this with gentleness and respect”
There is a growing trend in apologetic literature that calls for a change in how Christians do apologetics. The Enlightenment focus on rationality as led modern Christian apologetics to emphasize argumentation at the expense of more existential challenges to Christianity. When the apologist focuses primarily on presenting the right arguments, they address only the intellect and fail to address the unbeliever in their humanity.
There is a grain of truth in the current challenges brought against modern apologetics—somehow, we have become more about addressing ideas as opposed to the very person to whom the ideas belong. As such, apologetics becomes more about warfare than engagement, and the unbeliever becomes an object of attack than a person in need of a Savior. As a guard against such an approach, Peter exhorts believers to defend the faith “with gentleness and respect.”
Gentleness and respect does not refer to a sort of George McFly attitude; rather, the attitude Peter describes contrasts with the fool in Proverbs. For instance, in Proverbs 12:15, the fool always assumes he is right. According to Proverbs 18:2, the fool cares not about understanding, but only with stating their opinion. Finally, the fool is quick-tempered and easily agitated (Prov. 12:16-18). The fool is not concerned about proclaim and defending the truth; rather, the fool cares only about being heard at the expense of others.
Contrary to the fool, the Christian is a lover of wisdom (God’s truth). Our conduct, according to James 3:13, is to “show that [our] works are done in the gentleness that comes from wisdom” (CSB). No longer is the believer concerned about pushing their own agenda. Instead, the believer seeks to align their life according to God’s will and Word. Zeal for winning an argument (i.e. the fool) is transformed to a passion for seeing the lost respond in faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Apologetics becomes less about mere argumentation and more about listening and patiently giving answers (see Jesus’ interaction with the woman at the well in John 4).
Further, Paul notes in Romans 11:20 that believers are not to be conceited in their faith; rather, we are to walk in fear, or respect. Christians are to remember who they are before God—sinners saved by grace—and that prior to their faith in Christ, they were once like the sinner. Our salvation in Christ, then, is not an occasion to boast; rather, our salvation in Christ ought to lead to humility before God and humankind. This humility ought to be manifested in our apologetics.Uprightness
“…keeping a clear conscience, so that when you are accused, those who disparage your good conduct in Christ will be put to shame”
Finally, when we are active in giving an answer for our faith, Peter encourages us to act such that we have a clear conscience. Paul speaks to this issue as well in Hebrews 13:18: “Pray for us, for we are convinced that we have a clear conscience, wanting to conduct ourselves honorably in everything.” Walking uprightly before God entails that we walk uprightly before others.
But, what does this look like in apologetics? In another post, I addressed the propensity for some Christians to rant about the culture as opposed to engage it with the truth of the gospel. When one merely rants, they do little by way of defending the gospel and more about broadcasting their opinions.
Doing apologetics with a clear conscience, on the other hand, avoids ranting, ad hominem attacks, straw man fallacies, contentious arguing, and self-promotion. Instead, the apologist is to defend the gospel in such a way as to magnify Christ and the truth of his Word. The apologist is secondary to the truth of the gospel. As such, the matter becomes less about the emphasizing certain arguments and methods (though these are important) and more about reflecting the image of Christ through word and deed.Go, do it
There is no better time than now for every believer to be active in and prepared for giving an answer for their faith. God has blessed us with a wealth of resources such that everyone can be aware of the challenges and the responses to Christianity’s challenges. Let us not forget, however, that Peter’s call to action carries with it great responsibility for the believer. We are ambassadors for Christ, not cultural warriors exacting scorched-earth warfare nor apologetic experts peddling our wares in the marketplace of ideas. May we do well in defending the faith in “gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience.”
Paul’s words to the church in Colossae aptly elaborate upon Peter’s call to apologetics:
Act wisely toward outsiders, making the most of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you should answer each person. (Colossians 4:5-6)