Ordinary Ingredients of Christian Growth

Fad diets exist because healthy diets are boring. We don’t like to hear about vegetables and exercise; we’d rather lose ten pounds in a week by taking some radical step.

But fad diets don’t work. The most reliable path to a healthier body is the one doctors have been recommending for decades.

Ordinary Means

So it is with our spiritual lives. We think mountaintop experiences will provide the jolt we need to grow closer to God.

But the truth is both more mundane and more wonderful. We don’t need to climb the mountain; God has come down! By his Son and by his Spirit, he dwells with his people. As a consequence, God uses ordinary means to make us grow.

Four Ingredients

My recent Bible reading has shown me four ingredients of Christian growth. (This list isn’t comprehensive.)

The Word

God’s word gives us growth.

Therefore, putting aside all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander, like newborn babies, long for the pure milk of the word, so that by it you may grow in respect to salvation, if you have tasted the kindness of the Lord. (1 Peter 2:1–3, NASB)

We need the Bible like newborn babies need milk: desperately!! Surely you’ve seen a hungry baby. We should long for God’s word with the same urgency. Without the Bible, we simply won’t grow.

Community

God has created a healthy interdependence within the church.

  • God gave the apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds, and teachers “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (Eph 4:11–12). God gives people to equip the saints, and the purpose is the body’s growth.
  • The goal of this building up is “the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God.” Paul wants us to aim for “mature manhood” and “the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph 4:13). In the growth of the body, we will find maturity, fullness, and unity. Notice that Paul mentions “knowledge” specifically, so community is not just about emotional support. We are to help each other grow in understanding as well.
  • We are to grow past the adolescent stage, where we are “tossed to and fro by the waves.” Instead, “speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (Eph 4:14–15). Much has been written about the phrase speaking the truth in love, but in context it must involve steadying, correcting help that leads to growth. By definition, this cannot be done in isolation.
  • The “whole body” is “joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped.” Every single part of the body is necessary to join and hold it together, and “when each part is working properly,” the body grows and “builds itself up in love” (Eph 4:16). Every part of the body is necessary for the body’s growth, and no part grows without the body.

Repentance

Christians are not to walk as the Gentiles walk. Instead, they have been taught

to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. (Ephesians 4:22–24)

This is the process of repentance. Note the three distinct parts: put off, be renewed, put on. We identify and turn away from our sin, we remember our new God-given identity, and we adopt the godly behavior or thought that replaces sin. To help us, Paul lists five examples of this repentance in Eph 4:25–32.

Beholding the Lord

There is a glory present in the new covenant that was veiled in the old. The veil keeping people from God is removed for those who turn to Christ.

Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. (2 Corinthians 3:17–18)

As we behold the glory of the Lord, we are transformed from glory to glory. Though “beholding” sounds mysterious, it must include a few actions.

We cannot behold the Lord without delighting in the Bible, the unique place where we hear of Christ’s glorious work. We meditate on God’s glory—thinking about his character and work, thanking him for his love and grace, anticipating the excellencies of his presence. The word leads to our meditation which leads to prayer.

Powerful Means of Growth

It may not be flashy, but God faithfully causes growth from the most ordinary of means: regular Bible intake, membership in a local church, repentance of sin, and beholding the glory of the Lord in meditation and prayer.

God takes weak and ordinary people and uses them in extraordinary ways. He does the same with the ordinary ingredients of Christian growth. They may not be radical, but they are powerful.


Photo Credit: Rohit Tandon (2016), public domain

You Are Not the Bride of Christ

man

You won’t find the phrase “bride of Christ” in your Bible. Just like the Trinity, this concept appears in Scripture without the wording we now use.

Though the biblical authors use this image to refer to the collective people of God, many today misapply it to individuals. This error has far-reaching and unexpected consequences.

The Old Testament

Let’s begin with the Bible. In the Old Testament, the nation of Israel was the people of God by virtue of God’s gracious covenant. In Isaiah 54 (and elsewhere), God used the language of marriage to describe his relationship with his people as a whole.

“Fear not, for you will not be ashamed;
be not confounded, for you will not be disgraced;
for you will forget the shame of your youth,
and the reproach of your widowhood you will remember no more.
For your Maker is your husband,
the Lord of hosts is his name;
and the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer,
the God of the whole earth he is called.
For the Lord has called you
like a wife deserted and grieved in spirit,
like a wife of youth when she is cast off,
says your God.
For a brief moment I deserted you,
but with great compassion I will gather you.
In overflowing anger for a moment
I hid my face from you,
but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you,”
says the Lord, your Redeemer. (Isaiah 54:4–8)

The Israelites understood marriage, so God employed this language to explain his covenant. The prophets regularly used this image to point out Israel’s many idolatries. So we read of the people “whoring” after other gods and abandoning their faithful husband. (See Ezekiel 16 for a detailed and graphic example.)

The New Testament

With the coming of Jesus, the people of God are no longer confined to one nation. Now those who confess Jesus as Lord and Savior make up God’s community, the church.

The theme of the church as the bride of Christ comes from three New Testament passages. The famous passage about marriage in Ephesians 5:22–33 compares husbands to Christ and wives to the church. Paul tells the church in Corinth that he bethrothed them to one husband, Christ (2 Cor 11:2). Finally, the picture John develops in Revelation 21 shows the New Jerusalem as the bride of the Lamb (see verses 2 and 9–10).

Whether Old Testament or New, these references are all collective, not individual.

The Importance of Getting it Right

Teaching that individuals are the bride(s) of Christ is not just an innocent mistake. It can have serious consequences for our worship, our outreach, and our own sanctification. I see at least four reasons why it’s important to cling tightly to what the Bible says about this image.

1. Biblical accuracy is important.

When the Bible speaks about something, even by way of images, illustrations, and metaphors, we must interpret accurately.

2. We use this language in worship.

When we worship God corporately, we naturally use language that captures our relationship with him. This is true in prayer, preaching, and singing.

The church has been infected with Jesus-is-my-boyfriend songs for many years now, and I wonder if a misunderstanding of this biblical image is to blame. When we urge our congregations to sing about being in love with God (instead of loving God), we evoke a romantic image that echoes the brides-of-Christ mistake. I see these solitary, romantic notions nowhere in the Bible.

3. We risk emasculating men.

Some men already feel the church is too feminine. When we ask men—especially men new to (or outside) the faith who don’t yet know our strangeness—to profess being in love with Jesus, they may not come back. Since this brushes against the hot-button topic of homosexuality, we need to be clear about the sort of love men should have for Jesus.

4. We risk sending the wrong message to women.

Some of the single women in our churches long to be married. Trying to encourage them by teaching that they are “married to Christ” now is not helpful. It’s dismissive in addition to being unbiblical.

I suspect the Catholic church’s teaching about nuns has crept into the larger church culture on this point. The Catholic church’s catechism (scroll down to paragraph 923) teaches that nuns are “betrothed mystically to Christ” and that they are “an eschatological image of this heavenly Bride of Christ.”

This is nowhere in the Bible. We need to care for the single women in our churches with biblical comfort and love.

A Beautiful Image

The image in Scripture is clear: God is preparing and purifying his people for a great gathering at the end of time. The victorious Son of God, the Lord Jesus Christ, will meet his bride, the church, and there will be a great feast of celebration.

Let’s not dilute or distract from this great biblical image. You are not the bride of Christ; we are.


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: Andreas (2008), public domain

When God Promises His Presence

fire1

Moses’ call is one of the most striking in the Bible. A miracle, dialogue (with God!), promises—it’s all there.

The whole story—from big plot points to small details—is fascinating. At the center, we see a man questioning his call. We have a lot to learn from God’s response.

The Background

The beginning of Exodus 3 finds Moses in Midian, the country to which he ran when Egypt was no longer safe. He has a wife and family, and he works for his father-in-law as a shepherd.

While carrying out his shepherdly duties, Moses is confronted not only with the famous burning bush but also with God himself (Ex. 3:6). God announces his compassionate intention to free his people and take them to a good land, and he plans to send Moses to do this enormous work. Moses isn’t exactly ready for this.

Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt? (Exodus 3:11)

The Question

Moses might deserve some criticism for his later excuses (recorded in Exodus 4), but this seems like an honest, natural response. Who am I to do this? Consider some of the reasons behind his question.

Moses doesn’t have a great history with Pharoahs. Though he grew up in a previous king’s home, that same man tried to kill him (Ex. 2:15).

Moses has been away from Egypt for about 40 years. The Hebrew people last saw him as nosy and scared (Ex. 2:14). Will they remember him? Will they follow him?

Not being a military or political leader, Moses wasn’t an obvious choice for this job. He was just a shepherd in the wilderness. He didn’t seem prepared or qualified.

Finally, Moses tried to stand up to Egyptian oppression once before, and it did not end well. Moses killed an Egyptian he saw beating a Hebrew (Ex. 2:12). But instead of being grateful, the Hebrews resented Moses putting himself in the place of “prince and judge” (Ex. 2:14). What would they say if he tried to take charge, give orders, and lead the nation?

God’s Answer

On a first reading, it doesn’t seem like God answers Moses’ question.

He said, “But I will be with you, and this shall be the sign for you, that I have sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God on this mountain.” (Exodus 3:12)

God gives Moses a personal promise and an outward sign. The promise is simply I will be with you. Is this answer supposed to be reassuring?

Yes! If we consider how God has revealed himself to Moses, we’ll see why this promise is comforting.

God is sovereign and mighty. He began to call Moses with a miracle (the burning bush). He makes the very place where he appears holy (Ex. 3:5). He is the covenant-keeping, faithful God of Moses’ ancestors (Ex. 3:6).

But God is also tender and compassionate. He has seen the hardships of his people, he has heard their cries. He knows their sufferings and has come down to deliver them. (See Exodus 3:7–9.)

God wasn’t concerned about Moses being lonely. His presence isn’t that of a stuffed animal, a guard dog, or even a best friend.

God promises his holy, fiery, powerful, loving presence. With his own background and qualifications, Moses didn’t know where to start. But with God’s presence, he would be unstoppable.

God Qualifies Us

There’s at least one lesson for us to learn here. By God’s presence, he qualifies us for our callings.

The Bible frequently uses Moses and the Exodus to point to Jesus and the cross, and this is no exception. The calling of Moses corresponds to Jesus’ baptism. God anointed Jesus for his saving task by sending the Holy Spirit (Mark 1:9–11).

God makes the same promise to each Christian that he made to Moses. By his Spirit, he will be with us. (See John 14:15–17 and Hebrews 13:5.) God calls us to himself and then to particular roles and tasks. His ongoing, holy presence with us qualifies us for our calling.

This doesn’t make our calling easy or even something we’re supposed to face on our own. But God’s abiding presence means we can face even the scariest challenges with confidence.

Naomi and the Names We Call Ourselves

hello2

Despite our best intentions to resist, our circumstances inevitably affect our outlook on life. I’m stuck in this job. I’ll never get married. I must be a lousy father.

This isn’t new.

The Story of Naomi

Naomi is a central figure in the book of Ruth. After a famine-prompted move from Bethlehem to Moab, her husband and two sons died. Naomi was left with only her daughters-in-law.

Hearing that the famine had ended, Naomi headed back to Bethlehem. She freed her daughters-in-law from any obligation to go with her, but in a heart-warming statement of love and loyalty, Ruth stayed by Naomi’s side (Ruth 1:16–17).

Though she had a steadfast companion, Naomi’s life had fallen apart. Without a husband and with no other men in her family, she re-entered Bethlehem in low spirits.

The Story of Mara

Naomi already admitted her anguish (Ruth 1:13), but her bitterness boiled over when she met the women of Bethlehem.

She said to them, “Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went away full, and the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi, when the Lord has testified against me and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?” (Ruth 1:20–21)

Naomi felt so crushed by God she rejected her given name (“Naomi” means pleasant) for another (“Mara” means bitter). How could she remain “Naomi” when life seemed anything but pleasant?

She was empty and God was to blame. From that moment on, her new name would announce her deep bitterness to everyone.

What Happened to Mara?

With this background, it’s surprising to reach the end of Ruth without another mention of the name “Mara.” Everyone uses “Naomi” without a second thought.

In Ruth 2:6, one of Boaz’s servants refers to Naomi. Boaz himself refers to Naomi in Ruth 4:3, 4:5, and 4:9. The women of Bethlehem, whom Naomi had urged to call her Mara, use her original name in Ruth 4:17. Finally, the author of Ruth doesn’t use the name Mara again.

What do we make of this?

Our Names

Like Naomi, sometimes we name ourselves based on God’s difficult providences or our feelings.

Sometimes we adopt new names out of self pity, sometimes out of outright defiance. We think these new names define us, that they tell a complete, set-in-stone story from now on and forever.

Victim. Fearful. Outcast. Impatient. Guilty. Angry.

These descriptions might be accurate. They might describe you. But if you are a Christian, they do not define you. You don’t have the authority to name yourself.

Christians are given new names by God Almighty. These names define us. His authority is greater than ours, so his names for us stick. What are some of those names?

Child.
Redeemed.
Free.
Heir.
Saint.
New Creation.
Righteous.
Chosen.
Holy.
Forgiven.
Alive.
Citizen of heaven.
Loved.

Whose Voice?

There’s a great quote by Martyn Lloyd-Jones about self-talk for the Christian. It contains this gem.

Have you realized that most of your unhappiness in life is due to the fact that you are listening to yourself instead of talking to yourself?

Lloyd-Jones goes on to say that we must speak essential truths to our souls: “…remind yourself of God, Who God is, and what God is and what God has done, and what God has pledged Himself to do.”

Search the Bible. Embrace all that God has done for you in Jesus. Instead of the names spit out by your flesh, wear the names God gives you with thanksgiving.

How God Rebukes Us

change1

From eating vegetables to visiting the dentist, there are many things in life we need but do not want. To stay healthy, we endure needles, checkups, and the occasional cabbage, though we’d rather ignore them all.

As Christians, we don’t usually want God’s discipline. It’s painful, but we need it. Our disobedience is both offensive to God and bad for us. But God corrects us out of love; in fact, God proves we are his children through his discipline (Hebrews 12:7–8).

Fine. But how exactly does God rebuke us?

Providence or Revelation?

Many will point to circumstances. They cite the “difficult providences of God” (illness, loss of a job, natural disasters, etc.) as the way God shows his displeasure.

But outward suffering is no more evidence of sin than material blessing is a sign of obedience. (See Psalm 37, Psalm 73, or Luke 13:1–5.) We rarely learn the reasons behind God’s providence.

However, the Bible provides direct revelation of God’s will. Even in difficult circumstances, God rebukes his children through his word. This happens in three main ways.

1. God’s Rebuke Through Preaching

When Paul wrote to Timothy, he included these words about the Bible.

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16–17)

Since the phrase “man of God” recalls a common Old Testament term for a prophet, Paul probably had a pastor’s preaching in mind. This is consistent with Paul’s teaching elsewhere that pastors/elders should rebuke those in error. (See especially 1 Tim 5:20, 2 Tim 4:2, Titus 1:9; 1:13; 2:15.)

Therefore, one of the purposes of a preacher’s message is to rebuke Christians.

Don’t get the wrong idea. You might dislike the idea of rebuke because you picture angry, fire-and-brimstone preachers heaping guilt on the congregation and bringing everyone to tears.

But rebuke is simply correction. God corrects us because it is better to obey than to disobey. Our blindness to sin (coupled with our forgetfulness) means we need a lot of correction.

Rebuke from the pulpit is the explanation and specific application of a Biblical text. This is what happened in Nehemiah 8, when the reading (verses 3–6) and explanation (verses 7 and 8) of the law prompted tears (verse 9) and extensive confession of sin (chapter 9).

2. God’s Rebuke Through Private Bible Reading

Though the words rebuke and reprove are often associated with preaching, the Holy Spirit can correct us in private. (See John 14:26 and John 16:13–15.) This usually happens during personal Bible reading.

We have a few Biblical examples. In Acts 8:26–40, we read that God prepared the Ethopian eunuch for Philip’s visit through private meditation on Isaiah 53. In 2 Kings 22:11–13, Josiah was convicted by a private reading of the law.

The Spirit convicts us as we read and study the Bible. To learn how to study the Bible, I recommend the book Knowable Word or this series of blog posts.

3. God’s Rebuke Through Other Christians

God also rebukes us through others. As examples, consider Priscilla and Aquila correcting Apollos in Acts 18:26 or Paul confronting Peter in Galatians 2:11–14. Jesus went beyond an example and commanded his disciples to rebuke brothers in sin (Luke 17:3–4).

Further, the language of reproof is all over Proverbs. Solomon assumes those seeking wisdom will give and receive correction.

Wise men love reproof (Prov 9:8), and there is honor for those who heed it (Prov 13:18). Rebuke goes deep into a man of understanding (Prov 17:10), and the wise reprover is like gold to those who will listen (Prov 25:12). In summary, fools resist instruction, but the wise seek it and grow.

This sort of rebuke happens when a friend applies Biblical truth to your life in a corrective way. By God’s grace, you see the need to change your thinking, your desires, or your behavior and you move forward in repentance.

Cultivate Humility

If God disciplines us in these ways, what does it mean for us?

In short, we should invite the Lord’s rebuke. That may sound scary, but encountering the Bible is a serious matter. Sometimes God’s correction is exactly what we need.

Before listening to the Bible taught or preached, before reading it privately or with your small group, pray that God would rebuke you as needed. Ask God to prepare you to receive correction from your friends.

This requires humility. We must acknowledge our weakness and sin; we should thank God for his wisdom and love in correcting us.

Any reproof we receive points us back to the gospel. The only correction Jesus justly received was the divine rebuke for our sin on the cross. His rebuke ensures that we are rebuked as forgiven children, not as exiled criminals. Further, Jesus’s perfect obedience secures the privilege we have of God’s fatherly correction.

And, thank God, it’s Jesus’s power that makes change possible.


Disclosure: the link to Amazon.com in this blog post is an affiliate link, 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: Gerd Altmann (2006), public domain

Brine Me in the Bible!

I’m no chef. I can follow directions (i.e., recipes) when needed, but I have no feel for the kitchen. It is no place where I have intuition or where my creativity flows unimpeded. Rather, my mental juices freeze, and in scraping away the crystals, I am left grasping again for the enumerated list to be my guide.

turkey1

Though not by my hand, creative things do happen in the kitchen. In the last five years or so I’ve learned of the practice of brining poultry before cooking. This practice consists of combining large quantities of salt and cold water and allowing your bird (preferably deceased) to become acquainted with said mixture for a lengthy stretch. Call it an anti-sauna.

The effect of brining upon the bird is profound. (Yay, chemistry!) A brined turkey, for example, is supposedly more moist, tender, and flavorful than an unbrined turkey. All this from chilling in a wet bucket.

As I start the new year with a new Bible reading plan, this seems a vivid metaphor. Brine me in the Bible! I want to soak in the Scriptures this year to such a degree that when the heat is turned up, there is a profound difference. When I undergo the inevitable suffering or stress of living in this fallen world, I don’t want to dry out.1

I want to read, listen to,2 sing, memorize, speak, and meditate on the Bible this year more than ever before. Won’t you join me? Will you brine yourself in the Bible this year?


  1. The humor of comparing myself to a turkey is not lost on me in this metaphor. Hey, if the shoe fits…
  2. Why not take advantage of this free offer in January 2014 from Christianaudio.com? In exchange for only your email address, you can download the entire Bible (ESV) in audio form!

Photo Credit: Anthony Quintano, Creative Commons License