The Answer to Selfishness isn’t Selflessness But Love

Children don’t need to learn selfishness. Unlike swimming or tying shoes, self-centeredness comes naturally. Self-focus is in our DNA. The boiling pot of a sinful heart releases the vapor of selfishness that animates us every hour of our lives. 

But our attention to and ambition for ourselves is dangerous:

For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. (James 3:16)

If we take the Bible seriously, this is a four-alarm warning. Disorder and every vile practice! How should we, as Christians, fight against selfishness? 

Selflessness Is Not the Answer 

We might advocate for selflessness. On the surface, this seems right; instead of thinking so much about myself, I’ll try to think about myself less

But this approach still puts the self  in the spotlight on stage. We still focus on how frequently or deeply we think of ourselves. Not only is this unhealthy it’s also not what the Bible advocates.

The Answer is Love 

The greatest commandments, according to Jesus, offer a summary of the law as well as a foundation for all Christian ethics. 

And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:37–40) 

As we devote ourselves to loving God and loving our neighbors, we will inevitably turn our attention away from ourselves. This call to love is fundamental, demanding, and only possible for those who have been born again by the Spirit of God. 

Paul Guides Us 

Because of our self-centered instincts, we must follow the path away from selfishness all of our days. Paul gives us some guidance along this path in Philippians 2:1–11.  

He commands us to “do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit” (v. 3), and the larger context offers positive pointers. 

Be of one mind 

Paul emphasizes the unity of the church body: “complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind” (Philippians 2:2).  

With the effort it takes to be “in full accord” and “of one mind” with our brothers and sisters, we will necessarily focus on others. 

Count others more significant 

At the end of verse 3, Paul writes that we must “in humility count others more significant than [ourselves].” We’re quite talented at asserting our own significance, but we’re not as good at highlighting others. 

Your brothers and sisters in Christ have great value and significance because they are both created in the image of God and adopted as his precious children. Thanking God for the blessings and contributions of others is a good way to highlight their significance. 

Look to the interests of others 

Paul isn’t finished pointing us toward others. He wants us to be invested in their interests: 

Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. (Philippians 2:4) 

What do your brothers and sisters value? Where are they hurting? What do they need? How can you attend to their wounds or encourage them? 

Consider Christ 

This is Paul’s all-in play. In verses 5–11, he highlights Jesus’s humility and sacrifice. Paul’s goal is to show us Jesus not only as an example but also as the crucified servant who is now resurrected, exalted, and worthy of worldwide worship: 

  1. Jesus did not cling to his own status, glory, or importance (2:6). 
  2. Jesus emptied himself and took the form of a servant (2:7). 
  3. And, Jesus humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death on a cross (2:8). 
  4. God has highly exalted Jesus (2:9).
  5. At the name of Jesus every knee in all creation will bow and every tongue will confess his lordship, all to God’s glory (2:10-11).

Because God has brought us to himself, and because he is our sovereign, loving father, we can trust him to care for us. We don’t need to devote all of our attention to ourselves.  

Following the example and command of Christ, and empowered by his Spirit, we can now seek the good of others. 

Two Practical Suggestions 

In Philippians 2, Paul helps us consider what it means to love our God and love our neighbor. To obey faithfully, we must enter the practical realm. 

Worship with your local church.  

Yes, the church is messy. It’s often hard. But the local church is the expression of Christ’s body on earth.

If you haven’t yet found and joined a local church, I urge you to prayerfully seek out a Bible-based community in your area. Then, worship God with these people!

You will likely have different musical preferences than some and different theological positions than others, but the weekly gathering of the saints is a unique opportunity to love God and love others. 

Serve with your local church.  

Nothing binds Christians together as quickly or as deeply as shared ministry. And I guarantee your church has ministry needs!

Consider helping with the Bible study in the local nursing home, driving an elderly neighbor to the grocery store, or pitching in to prepare the coffee at church on Sunday morning. 

A Lifelong Path 

In our flesh, we love to sit in the dark, thinking of and serving only ourselves. And since the sinful flesh will not be completely eliminated on this side of heaven, our fight against selfishness is a war, not a battle. 

But God gives grace! Those who are in Christ are beloved by God. His great commandments are not only good for the world but also good for us. They are part of his plan to bring us into the light and make us conformed to the image of his Son (Romans 8:29).

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Obeying God’s Commands as the Body of Christ

This part of the Bible wasn’t written for me.

I’m not an older woman, so why should I pay attention to Titus 2:3–5? I’m not a preacher, so what relevance does 2 Timothy 4:1–5 have for me? It almost feels like opening my neighbor’s mail.

The Effect of Individualism

We have a great temptation toward this thinking in the United States, as we breathe the air of individualism from an early age. Our sinful hearts hardly need any help, but our culture insists at every turn: be true to yourself, take care of yourself, believe in yourself. It isn’t long before our lungs are full of that toxic cloud and we lack the oxygen to think about others.

But God has called Christians to a different reality. We are the body of Christ, a people vitally connected to each other and to Jesus.

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit. (1 Corinthians 12:12–13)

The books of the Bible were composed for all the people of God. Even when a letter was written to a church or an individual, the intention was public reading and instruction for the whole church.

So when we say that a part of the Bible wasn’t written for us, we’re actually wrong. If the Bible applies to anyone in the body, it has implications for all of us. We must not check out.

We Need Help From Others

Christians readily acknowledge that we need God’s help to obey his commands. (Though we always do well to remember!) It’s easier to forget how much help we need from other saints.

We need others praying for us, encouraging us, and giving us counsel. We need to talk with older saints who have stood in our shoes. We need the bold, clear-eyed enthusiasm of younger Christians to strengthen our wills to do what is right.

Finally, we also need correction from Christian friends when we sin. A gentle, loving rebuke is not often what we want, but we should seek and embrace this discipline. (See Proverbs 12:1.)

We must also view this truth—that we need others—from the other side. Others need us too. The experiences and wisdom God has given us are not just for our benefit; they’re also for the church.

An Example: Husbands

Let’s look at an example from 1 Peter. This command for husbands is found in 1 Peter 3:7.

Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered.

Husbands need the prayers of the saints to obey this command. Without the help of the Holy Spirit, husbands will not love and sacrifice in the ways God requires.

Husbands should also talk to married men and women of all ages and experiences. Though understanding and honoring one’s wife will look different from one marriage to the next, husbands can learn of helpful habits to develop and dangerous pitfalls to avoid through the counsel and stories of others.

Each husband needs a few close friends who will ask him difficult questions. Are you honoring your wife? How are you living with her in an understanding way? Good friends will remember a prayer request or a confession of weakness and ask specific follow-up questions the next week. These friends will offer encouragement when they see fruit. A husband may also need a loving rebuke when neglect or selfishness continues without repentance.

And, of course, husbands need to listen to their wives. A wife will know if her husband is working to understand her and live with her accordingly. She will feel the presence or lack of honor.

None of this help is easy or natural to give, and none of it is possible without the work of the Spirit within us.

Called to Obey as a Body

The key to this obedience in community is love. It takes seeing and experiencing God’s love to lift our eyes off ourselves and recognize our corporate calling.

Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love. (Ephesians 4:15–16)

God didn’t call us just to each other, he called us to himself. Through the atoning work of Jesus, God has forgiven his people and the Spirit is working to change us. Though withdrawal may be our default mode—wanting neither help from others nor to give aid ourselves—we are no longer slaves to this sin.

He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls. (1 Peter 2:24–25)

The wounds of Jesus have set us free and given us a new identity. We’ve been healed of our sin so that we might live to righteousness.

By God’s power, let’s do just that. Together.

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A Picture of the Faith That Leads to Salvation

What is faith? One of the go-to biblical answers to this vital question comes from the book of Hebrews.

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. (Hebrews 11:1)

The chapter that follows this definition provides dozens of examples of this faith in action. But we are not limited to Hebrews 11 when looking for biblical teaching on faith.

Faith in 1 Peter

The apostle Peter has a lot to say about faith in his first letter. The first chapter of this letter alone is filled with descriptions of faith and its consequences.

Peter opens this letter with effusive praise to God (1 Peter 1:3–12). He reminds us of God’s mercy toward us in giving us new life (verse 3), an imperishable inheritance (verse 4), and his powerful protection (verse 5).

But faith is never far from Peter’s mind. Faith is the instrument through which we are being guarded (verse 5). Genuine faith will result in honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ (verse 7). And the outcome of faith is salvation (verse 9).

A Working Definition of Faith

I take two verses in the middle of 1 Peter 1 as a working definition of faith that is memorable, encouraging, and motivating.

Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls. (1 Peter 1:8–9)

For the purposes of a discussion on faith, there are at least four important parts of this statement.

You have not seen him; you do not see him. Like the definition from Hebrews, Peter reminds us that faith is not one of the five natural senses. We have not seen Jesus with our eyes, and he is not with us in the flesh. Faith is a spiritual, God-given sense.

You love him. Faith is not merely belief. We do not receive faith by merely ascribing to a list of propositions about God. Faith involves our hearts, and a true believer doesn’t just acknowledge or trust Jesus, they love him.

You believe in him. Faith is more than belief, but it is not less! These verses follow several beautiful statements about salvation (verses 3–5) in which God’s role and the centrality of the resurrection (verse 3) are clear. Faith always has an object, and Christians must know and believe what is true about Jesus in order to have faith in him.

You rejoice with great joy. A faith that does not lead to rejoicing may not be true faith. Peter wrote to people who were suffering, and yet there was a deep, bubbling spring of joy within them because of their new life in Christ. Faith is always future-looking, and Peter points ahead several times in this first chapter. Suffering and trials are not reasons to rejoice; but when we understand the effect of our trials (verse 7) and we rest in the inheritance that is kept in heaven for us (verse 4), we can be joyful people. This joy doesn’t mean we are delusional or fake-happy. But our abiding trust in God’s goodness, his control, and his fatherly love will give us a satisfaction in him that looks strange to a watching world. And that may give us a chance to discuss the hope that is within us (1 Peter 3:15).

Cultivating This Faith

Faith is a gift of God, but it is also something we can tend and water so that it will grow (by God’s grace). This discussion of faith from 1 Peter prompts a few ideas about cultivating faith.

  1. Get to know and love Jesus. If faith involves belief, then we need to know what God is like and what he’s done for us in Jesus. This means that the Bible is essential to our faith! We might be naturally drawn to the New Testament to learn about Jesus, which is good and right. But the Old Testament also feeds our faith. Hebrews 11(quoted above) points to dozens of imperfect, Old Testament saints as having great faith. As you learn about Jesus, train your heart to respond in adoration and worship. Keep the Psalms handy.
  2. See beyond your sight. Peter twice mentions that we cannot rely on our eyes to see Jesus. Many of the most important things about us are invisible. Illnesses, injuries, loneliness, grief, and despair—they can crash upon us like a tidal wave. They are so tangible! But we must remind ourselves (and each other) that our circumstances are not the only true things about us. Crucially, they are not the final true thing about us. Instead, we are “born again to a living hope,” we have an inheritance in heaven that is “imperishable, undefiled, and unfading,” and we are being guarded “by God’s power…for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.” By Jesus’s work we are loved, adopted, and secured by God as his children.
  3. Grow in joy. Faith should produce joy, so if our efforts to cultivate faith are not leading to greater joy, we’re doing something wrong. There are many ways to grow in joy in Christ, but here is one suggestion: Find joyful Christians and learn from them. Listen to their music; read their poems, stories, essays, and biographies; watch their films and videos; take walks with them; call, text, or email with them. God gives his children faith, and he also brings his children into his church where we can learn from each other what it means to have such a loving and powerful father.

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7 Writing Tips from Brett McCracken

Since I enjoy podcasts and I enjoy writing, it’s not a shock that I enjoy podcasts about writing. One of my favorites is the Home Row podcast, hosted by J.A. Medders.

Brett McCracken (author and editor at The Gospel Coalition) was the guest on a recent episode. Toward the end of the episode, Medders asked McCracken for his best writing advice. The advice was so good, I thought I’d jot it down here. To get the full explanation behind each nugget, listen to the episode! (The advice starts around the 29 minute mark.)

  1. Good writers are good readers. Read a lot, and read broadly.
  2. Be curious about the world. Expose yourself to all sorts of inspiration.
  3. Make interesting and unexpected connections.
  4. The habit of writing is essential. Find daily rhythms of writing.
  5. A good piece of writing is made in the editing process.
  6. Be unexpected in your ideas and your writing.
  7. Avoid the hot take. Take a considered approach; don’t rush to be the first to say something.

Six Woes from Jesus Reveal His Perfection

It’s easy for modern Christians to scoff at the Pharisees. In the Gospels, they appear mean, petty, and vindictive. 

Let’s be careful, though. The Pharisees were the religious leaders of their day, enjoying and abusing their power and prestige. Today’s church leaders face these same temptations. 

But it’s not just leaders who need Jesus’s warnings. The Pharisees were honored in the first century, so those who weren’t Pharisees respected them. Therefore, at least some of the qualities Jesus rebuked in the Pharisees were present in the common synagogue member. If Jesus’s criticisms would have stung the average Jewish citizen back then, all Christians today should give full attention to his critiques. 

Six Woes From Jesus 

In Luke 11:37–54, we read some harsh words from Jesus. He was invited to dine at the house of a Pharisee, and the issue of pre-meal washing came up. Jesus offered this stinging rebuke. 

Now you Pharisees cleanse the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You fools! Did not he who made the outside make the inside also? But give as alms those things that are within, and behold, everything is clean for you. (Luke 11:39–41

Christians know that Jesus was perfect, but we seldom explore the details of his perfection. In this passage, Jesus levels six woes against the Pharisees and lawyers. As Jesus is the exact opposite of what he criticizes, we will see Jesus as the perfect religious leader and teacher. 

Woe #1: Tithing 

The first woe concerns the Pharisees and their tithes: 

But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. (Luke 11:42

It’s an absurd picture—these socially powerful men gathered around a scale, removing a precise portion of garden herbs. And those hearts that cared deeply about the weight of mint cared little for God or neighbor.  

Jesus was just the opposite. His entire mission was defined by justice and the love of God. His love for his Father compelled him in his quest to save sinners. Our holy God wanted to dwell with sinful people, and that could not happen without his just wrath aimed at those sins. Jesus came—as the perfect man—to solve this problem. 

Woe #2: Reputation 

In the second woe, Jesus focused on the Pharisees’ desire for acclaim and recognition. 

Woe to you Pharisees! For you love the best seat in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces. (Luke 11:43

As often happens with those in high positions, the Pharisees twisted the honor due to a leader into a hunger for praise. They were eager for people to flatter them and exalt them in religious and social settings. 

Though Jesus deserved the seat of honor, he faced derision and scorn. He did not seek out popularity but associated with the lowly. And his earthly life ended in the shame of a bogus trial and a gruesome death. Jesus humbled himself to the point of death (Philippians 2:8) so that his people might be rescued and exalted.

Make no mistake, one day everyone will see Jesus in the best seat—his throne—but during his earthly ministry he sacrificed his own comfort, ego, and reputation for others. 

Woe #3: Uncleanness 

Jesus’s final woe against the Pharisees was the most severe:

Woe to you! For you are like unmarked graves, and people walk over them without knowing it. (Luke 11:44

According to Jewish law, anyone who came into contact with a dead body or a grave was unclean (Numbers 19:11, 16). Since Pharisees were devoted to ceremonial cleanness, Jesus’s image of them was horrifying. 

The mercy and power of Jesus are seen in sharp contrast to this picture. By his touch, Jesus made unclean people clean! (See Matthew 8:1–4, for example.) 

Woe #4: Heavy Burdens 

After the first three woes, Jesus focused on the lawyers in the crowd:

Woe to you lawyers also! For you load people with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not touch the burdens with one of your fingers. (Luke 11:46

It’s easy to see Jesus on the opposite side of this coin:

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. (Matthew 11:28–30

The burden of following Jesus is one of dying to oneself. But this yoke is easy in view of the burden Jesus bore for sinners.  

Woe #5: The Blood of the Prophets 

This fifth woe is the hardest of the six to decipher (Luke 11:47–51). Jesus condemned the lawyers for building the tombs of the prophets, the same prophets whom their fathers killed. “So you are witnesses and you consent to the deeds of your fathers” (Luke 11:48).

Jesus goes on to say that “the blood of all the prophets…may be charged against this generation” (Luke 11:50). 

If the lawyers approved of the death of the prophets, then they opposed the greatest prophet ever—the one standing before them. All the law and prophets pointed to Jesus, and the lawyers, who were supposed to be experts in the Scriptures, ignored these signposts. Because they despised the Son of God, their generation was guilty. 

Woe #6: The Key of Knowledge 

What is the goal of Scripture if not to point people to God? 

Woe to you lawyers! For you have taken away the key of knowledge. You did not enter yourselves, and you hindered those who were entering. (Luke 11:52

Jesus called people to follow him and worship the Father. He sought his Father’s presence and wanted the door to his Father’s house flung open for many. Jesus used the key of knowledge—understanding the nature and will of God—to bring people to God. 

3 Applications 

As we move from condemning the Pharisees to commending Jesus, we must realize the demands this passage makes on us. As people who are loved, saved, and secured by God, how should we respond? 

  • Don’t neglect your heart. It’s tempting to focus on our appearance, but God knows and cares about our hearts. He who made the outside also made the inside. 
  • Don’t mistake religious practice for love. We are often so consumed with the details of church activities that we miss the larger point. We should be giving, praying, serving, worshiping, and reading, but we must not neglect justice or the love of God. 
  • Invite others to God. The church is not a club or secret society, and the knowledge of God should be used to gather people, not scatter them.

This post originally appeared at Unlocking the Bible.

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Singing Is An Act of Faith

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Singing is a big part of the Christian life. We sing several times each Sunday, and we read of singing throughout the Bible. Christians are musical people.

When viewed from outside the church, however, all this singing is weird. There’s no other part of life—except, perhaps, birthday parties—that involves as much singing as Christianity.

I notice this whenever we have an official ceremony at Washington & Jefferson College, where I teach. Most of these ceremonies end with the alma mater, a song written to express one’s undying loyalty to and affection for the school. (Most colleges have such a song.) The music begins and everyone stares at the program. If not for the student singers up front, there wouldn’t be much to hear. For those who don’t sing outside the shower, it is a strange moment. I’m supposed to sing these words? To a tune? With my mouth? It’s no wonder most students (and faculty) end up mouthing the words or standing in disinterested silence.

Why We Don’t Sing

For Christians, singing is simply part of the deal.

Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth! Serve the LORD with gladness! Come into his presence with singing! (Psalm 100:1–2)

Paul commands the church to sing as well—see Colossians 3:16 and Ephesians 5:18–20. He connects this command to thankfulness, being filled with the Spirit, and “making melody to the Lord with your heart.” Singing is part of the way we glorify God as his body.

But, let’s face it. Not many of us are born singers. We are grateful for the word “noise” in the phrase “joyful noise.” We naturally make comparisons, and we feel awkward singing when our skills fall so far short of the worship leaders or soloists in church.

And beyond the lack of talent, singing exposes us. We put ourselves at risk when we sing; there’s nowhere to hide. Those near us hear our wrong notes, missed beats, and bad pronunciation. To avoid embarrassment, we sometimes decide to make a joyful noise internally.

Why We Sing

However, our obedience to God’s command to sing doesn’t depend on our ability. God doesn’t only want singing from the choir.

Think of an analogy. We wouldn’t leave giving, praying, Bible reading, caring for orphans and widows, or loving neighbors only to those who were naturally gifted. If a friend confronted us with the Biblical command not to gossip, we wouldn’t respond, “Oh, it’s okay—I’m just not very good at not gossiping!”

We’re not called to sing because we’re great singers. We sing because God is great and greatly to be praised! And, by God’s design, one of the chief ways we praise him is through song. He is worthy of our song, so we sing!

And as we sing, especially for those not naturally gifted, we exercise faith.

As we open our mouths to sing, we must believe the truth that God is pleased with us. We trust that because of Jesus’s work for us, our Father loves us and wants to hear our voices. Because he is good and tender and faithful, he won’t turn away if we can’t carry a tune.

In a world where we rely on our senses and instincts, this will take some adjustment. We must believe the Bible over our impulse to hide. We need to trust God that our relationship with him does not depend on our performance.

Jesus, the Perfect Singer

If we’re commanded to sing, and if Jesus has perfectly obeyed every command for us, then Jesus is a singer. In fact, he’s the best singer ever.

Think of your favorite hymn or praise song. Or think of the Psalms, most of which were written to be sung in worship by the people of Israel. Jesus has sung and continues to sing these songs of praise to God! His praise to God is perfect, and that obedient praise is credited to us. This is the good news of the gospel!

So when you stand to sing at church this week, don’t hesitate. Don’t worry about your skill. Open your mouth and make your melody, trusting that God loves and accepts you on the basis of his perfect son.

Oh come, let us sing to the LORD; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation! Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving; let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise! (Psalm 95:1–2)

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Jesus Did Not Come to Bring Peace on Earth

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It’s too late for this year. But if you’re looking for a Bible verse for next year’s Christmas card, I have a suggestion.

Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. (Luke 12:51)

Your card is sure to be a hit, though it may get you disinvited from some parties.

What About the Angels?

In seriousness, this passage in Luke 12 raises some difficult questions. We’re used to reading and singing about “peace on earth” at Christmas. And for good reason!

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:13–14)

As we read closely, we see that the angels were praising God and praying as well. They both sought and heralded peace on earth among those with whom God is pleased. So, the angels weren’t declaring an immediate, universal peace with the arrival of Jesus, but they were calling for a peace among his people.

Because the birth of Jesus was a definitive, declarative step in the victory of God, and because this victory brings believers peace with God, peace among God’s people is possible. We can rest in our acceptance by God, our common adopted status as his sons and daughters. We can stop tearing each other down and start building each other up. We can love each other as brothers and sisters.

Not Now But Later

I read that portion of Luke 12 and I think, Why not, Jesus?

Why didn’t Jesus come to bring peace on earth? There’s a deep part of me—maybe it’s within everyone—that cries out for true peace on earth. Now.

But Jesus came to bring division.

“I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled! I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished! Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. For from now on in one house there will be five divided, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” (Luke 12:49–53)

Jesus’s “baptism”—likely his crucifixion—will kindle a fire. That fire will bring division based on allegiance and worship, and these fault lines will shoot through households and families.

Sons and daughters of the king will necessarily divide from those outside the kingdom. We love and work and sing and pray and plead for our neighbors, but eventually everyone’s heart follows their treasure.

But among God’s children, there should not be such division: “Peace among those with whom God is pleased.” Though peace will come imperfectly, it should come.

In this aspect as in many others, the church points ahead. We have God’s presence with us now, but we will have it fully in the age to come. We understand dimly now as we look forward to crystal clarity. And we aim now for the peace that will one day extend in all directions, forever.

No Peace for Jesus

We long for that future day without death or pain or any sign of the curse (Rev 22:3). It is coming as surely as the sun rises. But it comes at a cost. We will have peace because Jesus had none.

During his earthly ministry, life for Jesus was chaotic. He had nowhere to stay, no one who understood him, and a growing crowd of accusers. His life ended with betrayal, loneliness, pain, and disgrace.

But most peace comes through conflict. The peace that Jesus secured for us came through the anguish of the cross. God the Father focused his wrath against Jesus, who stood in our place. We can have peace now in part, and we can look forward to perfect peace, because Jesus knew no peace on earth.

Christmas Cheer

The reason for Jesus’s birth doesn’t lend itself to foil-stamped greeting cards. The Incarnation wasn’t about warmly-lit, soft-focused images to make people feel cozy.

But it was about love. It was about peace.

Remember Jesus’s purpose this season. He came to bring peace within the church, division with the world, and a sure hope that sustains us until he returns.


Photo Credit: raquel raclette (2017), public domain

 

Thank You, God, for Failure

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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.


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

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