Thank You, God, for Failure

old-bus

Thank you, God, for my failures. I do not like to fail, but I trust you use my failures for good in me.

In my failure, I realize how much I need help. So often I fail because I barrel into a task or project on my own. Thank you for reminding me of my limitations and for providing every droplet of assistance I need.

In my failure, I see my vulnerability and sin. I recognize my selfish choices, my blind spots, and the categories I didn’t even know existed. Thank you for pointing out my mistakes and for forgiving me as your child.

In my failure, I recognize the opportunity to grow. In my pride I often think I am wise and strong. Thank you for the chance to continue being human, to learn about your world and to gain abilities in it.

In my failure, I see the opportunity to identify with others who fail. Though I am prone to push other people away by boasting in my success, you are equipping me to help and talk with those who struggle. Thank you for your presence with me—and in me—that allows me to be a presence to others.

In my failure, I see an accurate picture of myself. No one fails at everything, but we hit the ground more often than the bullseye. Thank you for Jesus, who always hit the mark. Thank you for the gracious exchange of the gospel, in which he took my sin and gave me his righteousness. Thank you that every failure is a reminder of your patient mercy toward your children.


Thanks for reading! If you’re interested, you can follow me on Twitter, subscribe to this blog by email (see the box on the upper right part of the page), or follow my blog’s RSS feed here.


Photo Credit: Pablo García Saldaña (2015), public domain

Advertisements

Amplify the Power of the Sermon in Your Life

amplifier

During his earthly ministry, Jesus had a lot to say! He comforted some people, exhorted others, and preached far and wide about the kingdom of God. One of the brilliant aspects of Jesus’ preaching was the vibrant images he used.

Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock.

And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it. (Matthew 7:24–27)

For disciples of Jesus, hearing him is only our first step. What happens after hearing makes all the difference. What produces an unshakable life that stands on a rock-solid foundation is hearing followed by obedience. Without obedience, we will be washed away in the storm.

I’ve often tried to apply this warning to my personal Bible study. But I’ve missed another obvious context for applying this passage.

The Sunday Sermon

I suspect that, as a people, we do not heed Jesus’ warning with regard to the preaching we hear at church. We pay little attention to the weekly sermon outside of Sunday. For some, the sermon only comes up over lunch as a way to praise or criticize the preacher.

Yet God, through his ministers, puts his Word in front of us every week. Pastors put in long, difficult hours during the week to study, pray, and prepare the sermon. They think carefully about what the Bible says and what their congregation needs to hear.

If we routinely forget the Sunday sermon by Monday morning, I fear we are building our houses on sand. The preacher must interpret God’s Word rightly, explain it clearly, and help the congregation understand it—but then we must build our house on the rock.

Are we doing after hearing the Word?

One Way to Build Your House on the Rock

I’ve been neglecting this area for too long. And with the help of a friend from church, I’ve been working toward change. Here’s one way I’m learning to build my house on the rock that I hope will inspire you to do the same.

My friend and I take one day each week to pray about the issues raised in the previous sermon. For me, this has produced rich prayer times, full of conviction and thanksgiving. Here is a description of our practice, which you might apply with your spouse, friend, or children.

1. Take notes during the sermon.

We capture the preacher’s outline of the passage along with the main interpretive points. We write down applications. I’ll also record any questions the passage raised for me.

2. Prepare the prayer guide.

On Sunday or Monday, while the sermon is still fresh in our minds, one of us will take their sermon notes and produce a prayer guide. We include the Bible text and then five to ten ways to respond in prayer.

Sometimes the passage calls for praise, thanksgiving, or petitions. But we’ve also seen the need to remember what God has promised and to lament the state of our world, our city, and our own hearts. We ask God to show us our doubts, sins, biases, and unwillingness to obey. This leads to confession and pleas for God to change us.

While we talk with God as individuals and ask him to work in us personally, we also think about our church, our community, and our neighbors:

  • Where is there corporate disobedience?
  • How should we thank God for his broader work?
  • Where can we work to apply the gospel to these groups and the institutions that affect them?
  • How can our church respond?

3. Pray.

We usually pray on Wednesdays. We pray with and for each other, using the prayer guide, throughout the day. (This practice also pairs well with a day of fasting, but that’s a topic for another time.)

4. Follow up.

My friend and I haven’t taken this step yet, but it would close the loop nicely. Sometime after the prayer day, either over the phone or in person, talk with your friend, spouse, or children about the sermon again.

  • What did God show you during your time of prayer and reflection?
  • What are some ways you were called to obey?
  • What implications do you see for your church?

Don’t Forget Jesus

Jesus is the key to all biblical interpretation. If you’re trying to understand a passage without the work of Christ in mind, you’ll probably miss the point (see Luke 24:25–27).

But Jesus is also the key to biblical application! We cannot claim that we have been saved by the grace of God through the death and resurrection of Jesus and then insist that our obedience or spiritual growth will come because of our own effort or discipline or zeal (see Galatians 3:3).

All of our application must find its purpose and power in the work of Jesus. So when my friend and I apply God’s Word to our lives with this exercise, we try to remember these four truths.

1. Obedience is not optional. In addition to what we have seen above, Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15).

2. Obedience is impossible on our own, apart from the Holy Spirit. “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever” (John 14:16).

3. Obedience will not make God love us more. (Neither will disobedience make him love us less.) We are perfectly loved by God our Father; thus we obey.

4. Our obedience will be imperfect, because of our mixed motives and uneven desires. We will always need the finished, perfect obedience of Jesus to please God. And this is exactly what is credited to Christians by faith!

When we focus on application, it’s easy to think exclusively about discipline, methods, and details. But we must view all of our repentance and obedience in the light of Jesus’ work.

Let’s Get to Work

Not every sermon will be a five-star masterpiece, but God will use our every encounter with his Word for his good purposes (Isaiah 55:10–11).

In the sermon, God gives you a passage of Scripture each week upon which to meditate. Then he invites you to build. Brick by brick, board by board, come away from the sand and construct your house on the rock.

This post originally appeared at Unlocking the Bible.


Photo Credit: Kai Oberhäuser (2016), public domain

 

After Many Years

stars

The gravity of our bond keeps us
spinning, orbiting.
But we move no closer.

Our space cold, familiar.
Path-worn answers to ancient questions.
The pressure flattens words to dark silence.

Light from only one direction.


Note: I submitted this “short poem” (less than 40 words) for a contest run by Fathom Magazine for their latest issue. My poem wasn’t selected, but I had so much fun writing it that I thought I’d publish it here anyway.


Photo Credit: Denis Degioanni (2018), public domain

 

Good News for Husbands

couple

God does not make demands without supplying grace.

In our last article, we studied Paul’s exhortation in Ephesians 5 that husbands must “love their wives just as Christ also loved the church and gave himself up for her.” This is a serious, heavy responsibility, focused on the wife’s spiritual growth (v. 27).

But in the midst of this command, we read that it is Christ’s mission to “present to himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing.” As a husband who falls far short of this mandate to love, I need this encouragement. Though I may fail to give myself up for my wife’s sanctification, I can be sure that Jesus gave himself up for mine!

As Christ Loves the Church

We have, however, only explored half of Paul’s instruction for husbands. First, Paul tells husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the church (v. 25). Then, he says husbands must also love their wives as Christ loves the church.

The key section of the passage is Ephesians 5:28–30:

So husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies. He who loves his own wife loves himself; for no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the church, because we are members of his body.

To apply this passage, we must consider two distinct but related questions: How do humans love their own bodies? And, How does Christ love the church?

As Your Own Body

Fortunately, we need not consider all possible ways a man cares for his body, for Paul speaks of nourishing and cherishing in verse 29.

Paul uses the word for “nourishes” later in the context of raising children to maturity (Ephesians 6:4). And the word for “cherishes” is translated as “tenderly cares” in 1 Thessalonians 2:7, where Paul describes his gentleness among the people.

So, how does a man care for his body? He nourishes his body by feeding and providing for it, through exercise, sleep, and nutrition. He strengthens and equips it. He cherishes his body by cleaning it, protecting it, and giving attention to any wounds or weaknesses.

Not all of these descriptions translate to the marriage relationship, but some do.

Just As Christ Does the Church

Christians often hear what Jesus has done for his people in history—and rightly so! His birth, life, obedience, suffering, death, resurrection, and ascension are glorious and essential.

But we don’t often recall the ways that Jesus cares for his church today. This is what Paul points to in Ephesians 5:29 when he uses the present tense, and we are to use this example, in part, to learn obedience as husbands.

Paul has not left us in the dark about Christ’s present care for the church. Consider what he has already written in Ephesians:

1. In Christ, we have been sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is a pledge of our inheritance (1:13–14). Jesus gives us his promise and points to the glorious future we will share with him.

2. God has put all things in subjection under Jesus’ feet, who has been given as head over all things to the church (1:20–23). Jesus is the supreme ruler, governing all things for the good of his body.

3. We have been brought near by the blood of Christ. Jesus has broken down the wall that divided Israelites from Gentiles. These are written in the past tense, but here is the present truth: Jesus is our peace. The reality of the ascended Jesus means we currently have peace with God; we are not excluded (2:11–16).

4. Because of Jesus, we have present-day access to God (2:18).

5. We are God’s household, growing into a holy temple in the Lord, a dwelling of God in the Spirit (2:19–22).

6. Paul prays that Christ would dwell in the Ephesians’ hearts by faith, so that they “may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that [they] may be filled up to all the fullness of God” (3:18–19). Christ’s presence gives a supernatural knowledge of his immense love, which fills us up to the fullness of God.

7. Christ has given gifts to the church (apostles, prophets, etc.) to equip the saints for the work of service. Since these gifts include pastors and teachers, this is a present-day work of Jesus, helping us grow in unity, knowledge, maturity, and love (4:11–16).

There are other ways that Jesus loves his church — in particular, he prays and advocates for us (Romans 8:34; Hebrews 7:25; 1 John 2:1). Isn’t his love for us lavish? Overflowing? Tender and generous?

So should a husband’s love be for his wife.

What Tender Love Looks Like

From these descriptions, we can make some practical conclusions about the ways a husband should love his wife.

Each husband must nourish and cherish his wife; this has physical, emotional, and spiritual dimensions. Because each marriage is unique, instead of giving universal suggestions I have provided a list of questions for husbands to consider.

  • Are you tending to your wife’s health? Do you pray for her physical, emotional, and spiritual vitality? As much as it depends on you, are you working to provide for her in these areas? Do you talk with her about them?
  • In areas of weakness for your wife, are you tender? Does she have confidence that you are for her, protecting and covering and nurturing her, eager for her growth and flourishing?
  • Do you know the best ways to pray for her? Do you pray regularly and fervently for her?
  • Do you value her? Does she know how much you value her? Do you celebrate the woman she is and the woman she is becoming?
  • Do you give her gifts that let her know you love her? Do you make arrangements to share special times and make memories together?

Good News for Husbands

I love the way Paul injects hope into his commands. There is difficult work here for husbands, but there is so much good news too.

Remember—Jesus nourishes and cherishes the church. He does this not simply out of obligation or command, but because we are members of his body. In the same way that a man and woman become one flesh in marriage, so it is with Christ and the church.

Out of the overflow of infinite love, God the Father sent his Son to rescue his people. Because of the work of the Son in history, we are now joined to him—in love—forever.

Husbands, love your wives. Nourish and cherish her as your own body. Do so knowing that, as part of the church, Christ loves you with a tender, unbreakable, unending love. And in that love and strength you will be able to love your wife.

This post originally appeared at Unlocking the Bible.


Photo Credit: Anne Edgar (2016), public domain

 

Husbands, Love Your Wives

couple

I’m a deep sleeper, so it’s unusual for me to see the clock at 2:00 a.m. As my brain shook off the fog I heard the call again. “Mo-mmy! Da-ddy!” I grabbed my glasses and headed for the door.

My daughter had a nightmare. This happens about once a month, so we both know the routine. We prayed, focused on happier thoughts, and turned on some music. She slid back to sleep within minutes.

I can’t say I love these wakeup calls, but they provide a reflex test for my heart. When I know I should get up, will I hesitate? Will I wait for another call, hoping my wife will get up instead? Or will I take this small opportunity to give of myself?

Christ’s Love for the Church

At the end of Ephesians 5, Paul lays out a stunning picture of human marriage. He concludes, “this mystery is great; but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church” (Ephesians 5:32). In sum, the command to wives is to respect their husbands; and husbands, to love their wives (v. 33).

Paul’s command to husbands in this letter is two-fold. He first tells husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the church (v. 25). Paul then tells husbands to love their wives as Christ loves the church (vv. 28–29).

We’ll explore the first part of Paul’s teaching in this article. In a later article, the second command will be addressed.

A Word to Non-Husbands

Men make up less than half the church, and not all men are husbands. Is this passage relevant for everyone?

If you are not currently a husband, I hope you will continue reading. This passage in Ephesians will remind you of the love of Jesus for the Church—for you—and will instruct you how to pray for, encourage, and support those who fulfill this role. And, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16).

A Husband’s Aim

Ephesians 5:25-27 says:

Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.

Christ’s aim for his church is a husband’s aim for his wife—her sanctification. “Sanctify” is just a fancy word meaning “set apart for God’s intended purpose.” God’s plan is to “present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (v. 27).

Husbands are to labor for the holiness and purity of their wives, just like Christ labors for the purity of his church. This means a godly husband will prioritize his wife’s spiritual growth. How can he practically do this?

Each husband should consider some serious questions about his wife on a regular basis:

  • In what areas is her relationship with God strong? Where is it weak?
  • What brings her the greatest joy?
  • What battles with sin does she face? Where does she encounter discouragement, doubt, fear, or despair?
  • What care, help, or wisdom does she need from me?

Husbands are commanded to “live with your wives in an understanding way” (1 Peter 3:7), meaning they should strive to understand and get to know their wives. Through all of these inquiries, it’s vital that the husband makes his wife a priority, not a project. Love should make no one feel like the target of an investigation.

The answers to some of these questions will come through conversation and simple listening. Other answers will come through experience, advice, and the leading of the Spirit.

Sanctification may seem like a lofty goal, but Paul gives one simple, all-encompassing means to achieve it. Husbands must give themselves up for their wives (vv. 1, 25). This is a broad command begging for specific explanation and illustration.

Give Up Yourself

What does it look like for a husband to give himself up in order to sanctify his wife? There’s no one-size-fits-all answer, because each person and each marriage is different.

The basic principle is that the husband should set aside what he values to help his wife value most what is most valuable—God himself. As someone has said: “A husband must be willing not only to die for his wife but also to live for her.”

Consider this short list of suggestions, offered to help each husband think specifically about how to lay down his life for his wife.

  • Give up early mornings to read and study the Bible with your wife. Help each other make specific applications for that day.
  • Give up devotional time to pray for her; pray with her.
  • Give up your time and perhaps your finances to encourage the cultivation and expression of her God-given gifts.
  • Give up your comfort to gently correct her from God’s Word, lest she be found with “spot or wrinkle” (v. 27). (Invite this correction of yourself, too!)
  • Encourage her to spend time with her friends. Assume the necessary responsibilities and burdens to make this happen.
  • Affirm her talents, her sacrifices, and her contributions to your family on a regular basis.
  • Give up potential advancement or praise at work by spending time with her rather than at the office after hours.
  • Give up your preferences when finding a church for your family. Within the scope of Bible-preaching, Jesus-loving churches, seek out what would be the best fit for your wife. What will help her to grow?
  • Give up the comfort of being passive. Step into the leadership role God has given you within your family (1 Corinthians 11:3). In love, serve your wife by making plans, asking questions, and stepping out in front in ways that will bless her.

Not Just an Analogy

Paul uses a husband’s love for his wife as an example and explanation in this passage. But we must not miss the glorious truth contained in this analogy!

Jesus gave himself up for the church. He lost his comfort, his friends, his position, his time, his dignity, and he lost his life in a gruesome, humiliating display on the cross.

And because of his resurrection, one day Jesus will present the church to himself “in splendor”, without any spot or wrinkle at all. This gives me tremendous hope! When I look at myself and the church around me, I see lots of spots and wrinkles, lots of blemishes, and lots of evidence that we still need to be sanctified.

But let’s raise our eyes and see what Christ has done in his love for his Bride. He sacrificed himself making the one-time cleansing for her sin, but also secured and provided the power for her ongoing change. Jesus is committed to his holy church—to making her holy. You might think we have a ways to go, but make no mistake—the sanctified church is a certainty.

Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it. (1 Thessalonians 5:23–24)

This is good news for Christians, including husbands who fail to love, fail to give of themselves, and fail to joyfully labor for the sanctification of their wives. The church of God has a heavenly husband who provides all the forgiveness and power we need to joyfully lay down our lives for our wives as he laid down his life for us.

This post originally appeared at Unlocking the Bible.


Photo Credit: Priscilla Du Preez (2016), public domain

 

The Man With Two Names: How Jesus is the Fulfillment of Immanuel

bible rock

We celebrate and sing the name “Immanuel” at Christmas, and rightly so. “Immanuel” means “God with us,” and in one sense this is the story of the entire Bible. It is certainly the story of Advent.

But a Bible search for the word “Immanuel” doesn’t return many results. Aside from its appearance in Matthew 1, we only find this name twice in the early chapters of Isaiah.

Matthew 1

When the angel of the Lord visits Joseph in Matthew 1, he tells Joseph to name Mary’s baby Jesus, “for he will save his people from their sins” (v. 21). Matthew comments:

All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel’ (which means, God with us).” (vv. 22–23)

Since “all this” which took place must include the angel revealing Jesus’ name to Joseph, then the name “Jesus” fulfills Isaiah’s prophecy. But in Isaiah’s prophecy, the son would be called “Immanuel.”

This passage raises a question: How does the name “Jesus” fulfill the prophecy that this son would be named “Immanuel”?

Isaiah 7

We need some background before we land on an answer. After King Solomon’s reign, the nation of Israel splintered. The 10 northern tribes formed their own country with the capital of Samaria. This country was then referred to as “Israel” while the two southern tribes formed the country called “Judah.”

During the time of Isaiah, the Assyrian empire was gaining power, and the other nations in the area were scrambling. Israel joined Syria in a pact of mutual defense against Assyria, and they pressed Judah to join them. As Ahaz, king of Judah, resisted, Israel and Syria threatened to attack Judah and replace Ahaz with their own king.

Isaiah 7:10–17 is one of the best-known passages in all the Prophets. God told Ahaz to ask for a sign that God would protect Judah from their enemies. Ahaz refused, so God promised his own sign—the sign of Immanuel.

We know that the prophecy about the virgin bearing a son (v. 14) is fulfilled when Jesus is born. Matthew says so! But many biblical prophecies have both immediate and ultimate fulfillments. Is this prophecy fulfilled before Jesus is born?

Isaiah reveals the answer as we read on. One key is that the Hebrew word often translated “virgin” can also be rendered “young woman” or “maiden.” Thus, a miraculous birth is not necessary for an immediate fulfillment. Verse 16 also contains language pointing to a not-long-from-now fulfillment. And the beginning of the next chapter brings this first fulfillment into focus.

Isaiah 8

In Isaiah 8:1–8 we read of the way God will bring about his thorough judgment.

One of the striking features of this passage is the strangeness of Isaiah’s son’s name: Maher-shalal-hash-baz (v. 4). This name means “the spoil speeds, the prey hastens.” Through this name God was communicating his plan to break the Israel-Syria alliance by the coming of Assyria.

Isaiah was used to giving his children names with messages. In Isaiah 7:3, God told Isaiah to take his (older) son Shear-jashub with him to speak to Ahaz. This name means “a remnant shall return.” This son carried his name as a reassuring message to Ahaz, designed to give him confidence in God.

It’s impossible to miss the parallels between Isaiah 7:16 and Isaiah 8:4. The birth of Maher-shalal-hash-baz is tied to the victory of Assyria over Israel and Syria. As Immanuel comes, Judah will be free from the immediate threat of these nearby nations.

But how should we understand the meaning of “Immanuel” in Isaiah 8:8?

Even when defeat looks near and the Assyrian army is filling the land, it is still Immanuel’s land. God will not abandon his people, even in their darkest hour. Assyria will come in like a flood, sweeping Syria and Israel away. But Assyria will eventually fade from history. Judah will remain in the land of Immanuel. God will be with them.

There is one final mention of Immanuel in this chapter. Though not a title, Isaiah specifically refers to “God with us” in verse 10:

Be broken, you peoples, and be shattered;
give ear, all you far countries;
strap on your armor and be shattered;
strap on your armor and be shattered.
Take counsel together, but it will come to nothing;
speak a word, but it will not stand,
for God is with us. (Isaiah 8:9–10)

Isaiah was speaking to those who would attack Judah in the future. He dared them and warned them that they would be broken and shattered. The reason all their counsel will come to nothing and none of their words will stand is because God is with them.

Putting It Together

What does this background to the name “Immanuel” add to our reading of Matthew 1?

“Immanuel” in Isaiah is a sign for God’s people that they will see victory over their enemies. Despite the doom and devastation, God will be with them, and they will be victorious. Isaiah’s son was a first, imperfect version of Immanuel, pointing to God’s victory over military enemies through his presence.

Notice how the announcement to Joseph fulfills this prophecy. Jesus will “save his people from their sins.” For God’s people then and for us now, our sins are an enemy. They are worse than any menacing country. We are no match for them on our own, and we dare not make peace or an alliance with these scoundrels.

Sometimes our sins seem overwhelming and damnable. These rise to our necks and threaten to drown us—

But Jesus is Immanuel, God with us! He will save us from our sins!

For those who trust in him, he has taken away the punishment our sins deserve. And he will strip our sins of their power over us, taking away their allure, appeal, and longevity.

The more we see the strength and rebellion of our sin, the more we see the glory and love involved in the work of Jesus for us. He is God with us, and this is good news worth celebrating, not just at Christmas but all year long.

This post originally appeared at Unlocking the Bible.


Photo Credit: Aaron Burden (2016), public domain

 

Ask Questions to Expose Idols

cafe

What is an idol? I’ve addressed this at greater length elsewhere, but here’s a quick definition. An idol is anything we worship that is not the true God.

This definition of an idol includes the statues and poles shaped from wood and metal that we read of in the Old Testament. But it also includes more common things—even good things—we see and enjoy around us every day.

Family. Church. Reputation. Lack of conflict. Influence. Wealth. Knowledge. Success.

Because our hearts are expert in twisting and fashioning idols from good, God-given parts of our lives, identifying idols is a difficult task. In fact, it’s a task we cannot do on our own.

Idols Kill Relationships

Andy Crouch’s book Strong and Weak has some excellent advice for Christians who long to kill their idols.

The first things any idol takes from its worshipers are their relationships. Idols know and care nothing for the exchange of authority and vulnerability that happens in the context of love—and the demonic powers that lurk behind them, and lure us to them, despise love. So the best early warning sign […] is that your closest relationships begin to decay. It is those relationships, after all, that could grant you the greatest real capacity for meaningful action. But they also demand of you the greatest personal risk. — Andy Crouch, Strong and Weak, pp. 106–107

The more we give ourselves to an idol, with its false promise of success or peace or power or happiness, the more our closest relationships wither.

Exposing Idols

Relationships may be a casualty of idolatry, but they also offer a strong defense against the same. The strategy is as simple to state as it is difficult to implement.

Ask your friends, consistently, about their closest relationships.

By asking your friend about her relationships with her sister, her mother, her best friend at work, or her husband, you may help her identify some idol currently gaining a foothold in the dark.

Part of the beauty of the church of God is that we’re not alone in the battle against sin. Indwelt by the Holy Spirit, we have a valuable role to play in our friends’ spiritual lives. Having these conversations can be uncomfortable and awkward—they involve real risk!—but these interactions are a tangible way for us to “encourage one another and build one another up” (1 Thess 5:11).


Disclosure: the links to Amazon.com in this blog post are affiliate links, meaning that I get a small percentage of any purchase you make on Amazon if you make that purchase after clicking through this link.

Photo Credit: Christian Battaglia (2015), public domain

The Good News of the Ascension of Jesus

sunrise

“Do not cling to me.”

This can’t be the reception Mary Magdalene was expecting when she encountered the resurrected Jesus.

Mary had been weeping outside Jesus’ tomb. You can imagine her distress, having just watched her dear friend suffer a humiliating, grisly death. Now his body was missing.

Jesus walked up to her while she investigated the empty tomb. Mary initially thought he was the gardener, but when Jesus spoke her name, she recognized him! She called out, in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (John 20:16).

But instead of an embrace or some other warm gesture, Jesus was much more direct:

“Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” (John 20:17)

Read in the wrong light, this sounds cold, almost cruel. But in this statement, Jesus reveals his focus on his Father and also provides hope for Mary and the other disciples.

Jesus Longed for His Ascension

As you read through the Gospels, especially the Gospel of John, you’ll find that Jesus focused much more on his ascension than we do. By “ascension,” I’m referring to Jesus’ bodily return to heaven after his resurrection (see Luke 24:50–51 and Acts 1:9–11).

In John 20, Jesus didn’t want Mary to think he’d be on earth forever. He didn’t want her to get attached to his resurrected form. There was still work to do.

We think of Jesus’ work for us in three distinct categories: his life, death, and resurrection. But Jesus would have us add his ascension as a fourth category. And there’s no doubt this was his most anticipated work.

The Ascension Is Relational

Jesus loved his Father and longed for a reunion.

  • Jesus says to his disciples, “You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I will come to you.’ If you loved me, you would have rejoiced, because I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I” (John 14:28).
  • “I came from the Father and have come into the world, and now I am leaving the world and going to the Father” (John 16:28).
  • Jesus prays to his Father, “And I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one” (John 17:11).

Before his incarnation, Jesus enjoyed perfect fellowship in the immediate presence of God the Father. This is what he longed to reclaim, and it’s one reason the ascension was so important to him.

In his ascension, he would experience the unbroken presence of his Father.

Don’t miss the fact that Jesus’ ascension was a bodily ascension. This matters! It means that in the incarnation Jesus took on and identified with the human body for all time. It also means that, as the head of the new humanity, Jesus shows us the destination of the redeemed: to be with God, bodily, forever (see Revelation 21:3).

This destination should shape our longings. When our aspirations or goals are dashed, when we experience pain in body or soul, we can lift our eyes to our final home. The new heavens and the new earth await, and we will dwell with God!

The Ascension Is Functional

Though Jesus wanted the heavenly reunion that his ascension would accomplish, he also had work to do. In his ascension, Jesus accomplished and began several vital tasks for our salvation.

Jesus is coronated as King.

Jesus was declared to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead (Romans 1:4). The Old Testament background for the title “Son of God” (see Psalm 2 and 2 Samuel 7) makes it clear that this title has a royal meaning. By his resurrection, Jesus was declared to be the king!

If the resurrection declared Jesus to be King, then the ascension functions as his coronation ceremony. It was important that his disciples saw him depart, ascending to his throne, knowing he would return in the same fashion.

For more support of this function of the ascension, note the following:

  • Jesus has conquered and sat down with his Father on his throne (Revelation 3:21), where he is praised (Revelation 5:6–14).
  • Peter says that God made Jesus Lord, sitting at his right hand until his enemies are his footstool (Acts 2:34–36). This is the language of a king.
  • Paul writes that Jesus must reign (like a king!) until he has put all enemies under his feet (1 Corinthians 15:25).

Jesus sends the Holy Spirit.

We begin to learn what the ascension means when we consider what we would lose if it never happened. Here’s a huge implication: If Jesus never ascended, his followers would never have received the Holy Spirit.

Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you. (John 16:7)

Let’s not underestimate the sending of the Spirit! Because of the Spirit, we have the conversions at Pentecost, the growth and expansion of the early church, and the Bible. If the Spirit were not sent, you and I would not be Christians!

Jesus is our heavenly high priest.

Jesus’ ascension also takes him to a place of great importance. He is now at the Father’s right hand, and his ongoing work there is vital.

  • The Bible tells us that Jesus is the true high priest for his people. He “is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them” (Hebrews 7:25). Jesus brings his people to God for true deliverance and salvation.
  • Jesus is also our heavenly advocate. He reminds his Father of his sacrifice for sin and holds our status as sons and daughters before God. “If anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (1 John 2:1).
  • Jesus transcended physical limitations in his ascension. Though he keeps his human body forever, Jesus is now able to listen, rule, and heal without the familiar time and space restrictions we know.

What the Ascension Means for Us

The ascension of Jesus is a glorious fact that has scores of implications for his people. Here are a few:

Assurance

As our high priest, Jesus sat down at God’s right hand, indicating that his work of sacrifice is done (Hebrews 10:11–12). Our standing with God doesn’t depend on our actions or our emotions, but on the finished work of Christ.

Confidence

The enthroned king has been given all power to rule, and this power is his to dispense to his church (see Ephesians 1:15–23). Nothing can stand in the way of God’s purposes, and he will accomplish them with power, often through us.

Hope

When Jesus spoke to his disciples about his departure from earth, the note was joyous, not mournful. “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also” (John 14:3). In this one verse, Jesus gives at least three reasons for hope.

He is preparing a place for us. He will come again. He will take us to be with him.

This is the destiny for those who, by God’s grace, call on Jesus in faith.


Note: I benefited greatly from reading these three articles in researching this topic: Why Is the Ascension So Important?Four Reasons Jesus’ Ascension MattersMore Than an Afterthought: Six Reasons Jesus’s Ascension Matters.

This post originally appeared at Unlocking the Bible.


Photo Credit: Dawid Zawiła (2016), public domain

 

Five Leadership Lessons From the Mountain

man on mtn

When we think of the Israelites wandering through the desert, we often picture God leading them by cloud and fire (Exodus 13:21). But God also appointed human leaders to govern, judge, and guide his people into the promised land.

God famously called to a man named Moses from a burning bush in Exodus chapter three. He summoned Moses to go to Pharaoh and lead the Israelites out of Egypt, where they were enslaved (Exodus 3:10). When Moses protested that he wasn’t skilled in speech, God promised that Aaron, Moses’s brother, would go with him and speak to the people (Exodus 4:10–17).

These brothers led the Israelites away from Pharaoh and out of slavery, through the Red Sea, and eventually to Mount Sinai, as God commanded. Here, Moses climbed up to meet with God and left Aaron in charge of the camp below (Exodus 24:12–14). After just 40 days, Moses returned to a camp in chaos.

Open Idolatry

In Exodus 32, we see a failure of leadership, and the contrast between Aaron and Moses is stark.

While Moses was at the top of Mount Sinai with God, the people at the base camp grew restless. They demanded that Aaron make them “gods who shall go before us” (Exodus 32:1).

Aaron seemed eager to comply. He melted their jewelry into a golden calf. The people were enthralled; they threw Moses to the side and forgot the God who delivered them from Egypt (Exodus 32:1, 4; see also Psalm 106:19–23). They attributed God’s mighty saving acts to the idol.

When the people wanted to worship the calf, Aaron built an altar and proclaimed a feast day (Exodus 32:4–5). Aaron knew better; yet he even used God’s covenant name “YHWH” (v. 5) in his feast day proclamation.

Meanwhile, God told Moses of the rebellion (Exodus 32:7–8). God wanted to destroy the people, but Moses interceded and pleaded for mercy, which God granted (Exodus 32:9–14).

Moses then went down to the camp, and he was super upset. As he charges into camp and confronts the people, the contrasts between the brothers jump off the page.

Five Characteristics of Godly Leaders

Let’s observe the major differences between Aaron and Moses.

1. Godly leaders know God and are concerned for his glory.

When God told Moses about the people’s sin, Moses immediately took to prayer (Exodus 32:11–14). He reminded God that wiping out the nation would violate his purpose in delivering them (v. 11), expose him to slander from the Egyptians (v. 12), and stall his promises to Abraham (v. 13). Killing all the Israelites would contradict God’s purpose to glorify himself through his people.

Meanwhile, despite seeing God’s miraculous work up close, Aaron built an altar for the idol. “They exchanged the glory of God for the image of an ox that eats grass” (Psalm 106:20). Had Aaron been jealous for God’s glory, he would have rebuked every attempt at false worship.

2. Godly leaders don’t tolerate sin; they work to eradicate it.

When Moses came into the Israelite camp, his “anger burned hot” (Exodus 32:19). He broke the tablets and destroyed the calf. “He took the calf that they had made and burned it with fire and ground it to powder and scattered it on the water and made the people of Israel drink it” (Exodus 32:20).

Moses knew the evil of the idol. He saw the temptation it offered and eliminated every trace of it.

Aaron, on the other hand, formed the idol and made no attempt to point the people back to God.

3. Godly leaders fear the Lord.

Aaron caved to the people’s request, perhaps fearing they would harm him (see Exodus 32:1–2).

On the other hand, Moses took action against popular opinion. He destroyed the calf in quick order, and then addressed the people’s behavior. He sent the Levites through the camp with their swords drawn. “And the sons of Levi did according to the word of Moses. And that day about three thousand men of the people fell” (Exodus 32:28).

While Moses feared God and honored him as holy, Aaron feared the people.

4. Godly leaders take responsibility for their flock.

Aaron was quick to make excuses when Moses confronted him. “You know the people, that they are set on evil” (Exodus 32:22). You can hear the contempt in Aaron’s words. He saw the people’s flaws and eagerly blamed them, rather than take responsibility for the sin he advanced.

But Moses worked for the people’s forgiveness. He didn’t minimize their sin, but sought the Lord on their behalf. He took on their burden as his own. “Perhaps I can make atonement for your sin” (Exodus 32:30).

5. Godly leaders are sacrificial.

Moses wasn’t perfect. But the contrasts in this chapter culminate in a breathtaking example of sacrificial leadership.

When Moses spoke to the Lord about the people’s sin, he begged for their forgiveness. But he knew that sin had a cost, and his love for his people produced a shocking request:

So Moses returned to the Lord and said, “Alas, this people has sinned a great sin. They have made for themselves gods of gold. But now, if you will forgive their sin—but if not, please blot me out of your book that you have written.” (Exodus 32:31–32)

While Aaron condemned the people to save himself, Moses was willing to be condemned to save his people. And in this request, Moses points to the Messiah.

At the cross, Jesus our great High Priest also appeared before God and confessed his people’s “great sin” (Hebrews 3:1-3). Like Moses, Jesus stood as a leader and mediator, knowing that a sacrifice was needed for the people to be saved.

And while God refused Moses’s proposal (Exodus 32:33–34), he planned and accepted Jesus’s offer of himself (Isaiah 53:10).

Learning from These Lessons

Godly leadership is of vital importance, and all of God’s people need to pray for, recognize, and encourage such leadership.

The contrast between Moses and Aaron is particularly arresting for those in or aspiring to leadership positions in the church. We would all benefit from considering these reflection questions that flow out of Exodus 32.

  • Where have you made allowance for sin in your life? Are there idols you need to grind into powder?
  • In what ways have you blamed others? Take note of your temptations toward gossip and resentment.
  • Have you been concerned for your people’s holiness? Have you compromised God’s standards to satisfy your people?
  • How is God calling you to sacrifice for your people? Are there unpopular steps you must take to help your people glorify their Savior?

If you find these questions convicting, don’t lose heart. The Savior who Moses foreshadowed is sufficient for leaders and followers alike. He always offers forgiveness, cleansing, and strength for those who come to him in faith.

This post originally appeared at Unlocking the Bible.


Photo Credit: Julentto Photography (2017), public domain

 

Too Busy to Love My Neighbor

busy

I’m a college professor, so my life is marked by the rhythms of the academic calendar. We gear up in August and January for 14 intense weeks, then we enjoy the slower pace of the winters and summers.

This past fall was especially busy. I had new classes to teach, a department to chair, plus other obligations too boring to recount. In addition, I taught a new class at my church for ten weeks in a row.

I’ve had busy seasons before, but this fall wrung me almost dry.

The Effects of Busyness

Looking back at the semester, I noticed one unpleasant effect of this busyness. At least in me, busyness aggravates self-centeredness.

As my to-do list filled beyond to-doing and my calendar crowded to standing room only, I focused more attention on myself than usual. I was concerned about my tasks, my meetings, and my responsibilities.

My time and attention were squeezed, like a half lemon giving up its juice. I felt mentally out of breath—my commitments seemed to rush at me, each one faster than the last. Though my days were full, the mental consequences of this busyness were more damaging than the shortage of time.

With my vision narrowed, I ignored critical areas of my life. I didn’t go beyond the bare minimum in my most important relationships.

  • My prayer life was almost nonexistent.
  • I scheduled no date nights with my wife.
  • I didn’t spend much time in meaningful conversations with my daughters.
  • I didn’t anticipate how I could bless others in my church, my neighborhood, or my wider circle of friends. I neglected all acts of proactive love.

Have you experienced anything like this? I doubt I’m alone when it comes to the detrimental effects of busyness on my heart.

Toward a Solution

This isn’t a healthy or sustainable state of affairs, so is there a solution to be found?

Answers are probably as different as the people asking the question. I’m still sorting through my thoughts on busyness, but here’s where I am now.

The main thing I’ve learned is this: the areas of our lives are all connected. The decisions I make regarding work affect my personal/home life. Family choices influence pressures on the job. The threads are all linked behind the screen.

Digesting this lesson of connectivity—perhaps obvious to many—is an important first step. But there must be practical changes if I want to avoid another semester like this past one. Here are some steps I’m trying to take moving forward.

First, I need to repent where appropriate. Though my situation may introduce temptations and pressures, it’s never an excuse for sin. If I’ve neglected my family and friends, I need to take this matter to God and to the people I’ve sinned against.1

Second, I need to remember my particular weaknesses, tendencies, and temptations. If extreme busyness tempts me toward selfishness, I must avoid that type of schedule whenever possible.

It’s helpful for me to review my weekly calendar ahead of time. If I know what’s coming up, I can adjust my expectations accordingly.

Finally, both at work and at home, I want to be present and take advantage of the time God has given me. At home, this consists mostly of building relationships and serving my family in practical ways. At work, there are three ways I’m trying to clear out some space on my calendar and in my brain.

  • Say no. Especially at the beginning of my career, I felt pressure to agree to every request. I’ve gotten better at declining invitations, but I haven’t yet mastered the art of delicately ending the small conversations that eat up my day. I need to say “no” or at least “not now” more frequently.
  • Build margin into the calendar. I’m feeling the effects of stress as much as busyness, so I need to make sure I have time to breathe during the day. Even a small step like scheduling at least 10–15 minutes between meetings can pay large dividends.
  • Be less available (at times). I need to be accessible to my students. But this doesn’t mean I need to be available at all times. I’ve found that I’ll never get any long blocks of work time (necessary for grading, research, and class preparation) if I spend all day in my office with the door open. So, I’ve taken to stealing away to the school library or a local coffee shop for a few hours each week in an attempt to engage in deeper work. As a middle ground, I’ll also close my office door at times to work inside. The key is to communicate my availability as transparently as possible.

Personal Reviews

The times between academic semesters are valuable for me to take stock of what has happened and what’s to come. If your yearly rhythms don’t have this natural reflection time, I suggest adding it. Take a personal day, take advantage of a federal holiday, or just block off one day on a weekend.

As you think through your closest relationships and the opportunities you have (or the ones you want) to serve and love your neighbors, make sure your calendar and commitments aren’t working against you.


  1. I have written before that asking your children for forgiveness is one of the most powerful actions you can take as a parent. 

Thanks for reading! If you’re interested, you can follow me on Twitter, subscribe to this blog by email (see the box on the upper right part of the page), or follow my blog’s RSS feed here.


Photo Credit: José Martín Ramírez C (2014), public domain