Lamenting Like a Christian

It takes no particular religious conviction to complain about the world. But lament is different. The Bible shows us how God’s people throughout time have lamented as his people.

So what does it look like to lament as a Christian? How do we bring our sorrows and pain to God in a way that is specific to followers of Jesus?

Full of Faith

Biblical lament is full of faith. Those who lament know both the character and promises of God. They know God himself. At the same time, the pain and sorrow they suffer in the world don’t line up with what they know of God.

Here is the spark in the furnace of lament for each believer: My anguish in the world doesn’t match the reality I’d expect if the God I know had fully and finally set everything right.

That gap between our knowledge of God and our experience of the world is the space for faith. We need not have watertight answers or certain solutions, but we can turn to trust the one who holds all things together, knowing he is good and wise.

Broken By the Fall

Adam and Eve were the first king and queen of God’s world, and when they fell, everything came crashing down. All the groans ever groaned can be traced back to that original sin.

To be sure, some of the sickness and tragedy on earth may result directly from sinful deeds, evidence of God’s pointed judgment. But this is incredibly hard to discern; it’s safer to say that our hardships are traceable to the general broken state of the world we inherit and in which we participate.

The reasons for lament point to the brokenness of the world, and that brokenness points to sin. It’s exactly this simple: Without sin, the world—our bodies, our relationships, our surroundings—would not be corrupted in any way.

Jesus and the Kingdom

Jesus came to bring God’s kingdom to earth. He came as the perfect human king to rule on God’s throne. And that mission of rule and reconciliation was of necessity also a mission of suffering and sacrifice.

The imperfect and frequently despicable kings of Israel and Judah pointed to the coming of an incorruptible king. When Jesus began his ministry announcing that the kingdom of God was at hand (Mark 1:15), those steeped in the Old Testament would not have reacted with confusion but relief. He’s here!

Jesus’s miracles were brief, glorious windows into the emerging kingdom of God. The blind would see, the lame would walk, and the hungry would be fed. Sickness would flee, and the dead would rise. In those flickers of restoration we saw the curse being lifted by the corner and peeled back.

As the cross came closer, many around Jesus assumed he would pursue a political path to kingship. This excited some and angered many others. But Jesus spoke of death and resurrection, not coronation. He made it clear (to those with ears to hear) that a fully realized kingdom of God on earth would happen in the future, not immediately. Yet Jesus’s unmistakable resurrection also underlined the fact that his kingdom was imminent.

Final Fullness

Lament is our longing for this full and future kingdom to come now. It is our cry with the apostle John—“Come, Lord Jesus!” (Revelation 22:20)

We want God’s kingdom to arrive in its final fullness with the rightful king on his throne. This king will bear the marks of this world in his scarred body. He himself has traveled a path of pain and agony. The bloody sweat at Gethsemane and the mournful cries on the cross bear witness to Jesus’s journey of lament.

When the end finally comes—when all hopes have been realized and the curse is no more—there will be no more need for lament. We will have our full and final comfort in the form of our strong and kind king. We will be at home and there will be no distance between our experience and our longings.

The Man of Sorrows—who bore our sin, who mourned and lamented in our place—makes our present-day lamenting possible. We lament as Christians when we cry out to God in our pain, trust him to keep his promises, and look ahead to the glorious kingdom that Jesus has secured for us.

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Those Who Are Forgiven Much, Love Much

Of all the devastating interactions in the Gospels between Jesus and the Pharisees, this one has to be near the top of the list:

Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little. (Luke 7:47)

The Pharisee and the Sinful Woman

The context of that quote is Luke 7:36–50, a fairly familiar story. Briefly: Jesus is invited to dine at the home of a Pharisee, and as they are reclining at the table a “woman of the city” approaches Jesus, washing his feet with her tears and anointing them with expensive ointment. The Pharisee is horrified that Jesus would allow such a sinful woman to touch him.

Jesus knows the Pharisee’s scorn and tells him how the woman’s hospitality has exceeded his own (the Pharisee’s). Jesus tells a story about a moneylender cancelling two debts, one ten times as large as the other. Which debtor will love him more? The one with the larger debt.

Then Jesus speaks verse 47 (quoted above) to the Pharisee and turns to the woman and repeats, “Your sins are forgiven.” The implication for the Pharisee is clear to the reader—his sins are not forgiven.

But there is (to me) a natural question that flows out of the logic of this passage. If those who are forgiven much, love much, and if we want to grow in our love for God, should we also focus on how much we have been forgiven? If so, wouldn’t that involve dwelling on our sin?

Forgiveness and Forgetfulness

There’s an impulse among modern Christians to forget our sin after we know our forgiveness from God is secure. We know the mental and spiritual anguish that can be stoked by focusing on our failures. And we’ve heard the forgive and forget mantra enough that forgetting is an essential part of forgiving and being forgiven.

What is forgiveness between people? There’s a good illustration in Matthew 18:21–35, where Jesus again uses the analogy of a debt. When we forgive others, we absorb the debt caused by their sin against us so that they do not have to pay it. Among other things, this means that we will no longer hold that sin against them. We don’t need to pretend it didn’t happen, as there may be necessary consequences to sins, but we won’t extract any personal retribution. (I use the phrase “personal retribution” here in contrast to legal notions of justice that forgiveness does not erase.)

We can be sure that God acts this way toward us when he forgives us. He does not remind us of our sin nor use the memory of our past to harm us. (You may protest that Hebrews 8:12 says that God “…will remember their sins no more.” I think John Piper is correct when he reads that as God will not call to mind our sins in a punishing, vindictive way.)

We do have examples in Scripture, however, where Paul reminds fellow Christians of their sinful past. Here are two examples.

Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Cor 6:9–11)

Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands—remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. (Eph 2:11–13)

In both of these situations, Paul notes what these people once were. But he does not stop there. He also reminds them what is now true of them.

Recall Sin and Grace

Putting this together, it seems like we should recall what we were, but that we should also remember what we are. We are sinners, but we are washed and justified. We are loved and forgiven. We were without hope and without God, but now we have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

Over time, we will grow in our understanding of how much we have been forgiven. We will see more of our sin, and we will see our current and former sin in greater, darker depth. This is part of developing and changing as a Christian.

How Much We’ve Been Forgiven

Returning to my question following the story of the Pharisee and the sinful woman, here’s the lesson. If we want to grow in our love for the Lord, we should focus on how much we’ve been forgiven.

This means recalling our sin, but never without also recalling God’s gracious forgiveness of that sin and our permanent standing with him as beloved children.

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The Wisdom of God’s People

How do we measure the wisdom of a people?

The answers throughout history are clear. Among other things, we measure the wisdom of a nation by its decisions, its interaction with other nations, and the wisdom of its leaders.

How is the wisdom of a nation noticed in the Bible?

A Near God and a Righteous Law

In Deuteronomy 4, Moses is giving a preamble to his second telling of the law. He calls the people to listen to and keep God’s commands (verse 1). They must not add to or subtract from these commandments; this is necessary for their obedience (verse 2). And this law should be kept when they go into the land they are about to possess (verse 5).

Moses goes on to predict how the surrounding nations will react to Israel when they move into the land. When they observe the people keeping the law, they will see that “this great nation is a wise and understanding people” (verse 6).

Why is this? Moses gives two reasons.

  • “What great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is to us, whenever we call upon him?” (Deut 4:7)
  • “What great nation is there, that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this law that I set before you today?” (Deut 4:8)

God’s people will be seen as wise because God is so near and his laws are so righteous. These two points come together in the subsequent passage (Deut 4:9–14) where Moses recounts the giving of the law, when God brought the people close (see verses 10–11) at Mount Sinai.

Christ Our Wisdom

In the church, many think the way to wisdom is to impress. Gather the scholars and experts, open the doors, and good teaching will flow through the land.

But now, as always, the wisdom of God’s people is rooted in God himself. We know, after all, that Christ “became to us wisdom from God” (1 Cor 10:30).

If we want to be wise, we must look to the Word made flesh, who now lives in his people through his Spirit. Think of it: God has never been nearer to his people than he is right now.

If we want to be wise, we must also look to the Word of God. Jesus fulfilled the good, righteous law of God for us, and he now empowers us to obey. The law of God is anchored in love for God and love for our neighbors, so it is no surprise that our humble obedience will point our neighbors to the source of all wisdom.

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A Contrast of Kings at Christmas

Secular Christmas scenes are full of snow, wreaths, lights, and cookies. The roaring fires and flannel pajamas that appear on so many cards paint the holiday as one of coziness and warmth.

While there’s nothing wrong with these seasonal elements, none of them capture the biblical reality. Christmas is the time to rejoice in the Incarnation, the birth of Jesus.

But even in the Bible, Jesus’s birth was not an occasion for universal joy. While there was great celebration, the Christmas narratives are also serious, dark, and cautionary.

Herod the King

The second chapter of Matthew’s Gospel offers a stark contrast. Right from the beginning, we read that in the days of Herod the king the wise men came looking for the king of the Jews. This contrast seems intentional, as Matthew refers to Herod as “king” a total of three times (Matt 2:139).

While the wise men traveled a great distance to worship this new king (Matt 2:2), they went to Herod only for information. The wise men rejoiced when approaching the house where Jesus was, and they brought extravagant gifts, falling down in worship. Since God warned them away, the wise men didn’t even speak to Herod again.

Herod was “troubled” by this talk of a new king (Matt 2:3). The Jewish religious leaders reported that prophesies pointed to Bethlehem as the birthplace of a “ruler” who would “shepherd” the people of Israel (Matt 2:6). This was not good news for Herod.

Jesus the Child

The contrast between Herod and Jesus is heightened by the difference in their ages. Herod was an adult; Jesus had just been born. In fact, Jesus is referred to as a “child” nine times in this chapter.

Given the difference in physical ability and political power between Jesus and Herod, it seems bizarre that Herod was threatened by this baby. But Herod was so enraged when the wise men did not report back to him that he ordered the death of all male children in and around Bethlehem under two years old.

We should pause here and note the violence and devastation that Herod caused. His fear and his lust for power proved to be a murderous cocktail. These deaths were unspeakably cruel, selfish, and senseless, and they must have left Bethlehem residents horrified and empty with grief.

While Herod took drastic, human steps to eliminate Jesus, Matthew’s text shows us the supernatural elements used to honor and protect Jesus. The star that the wise men followed (“his star” in Matt 2:2) appeared both before and after their visit to Jerusalem (Matt 2:9–10) and led them directly to Jesus. Additionally, God acted through dreams to warn the wise men (Matt 2:12) and to direct Joseph and his young family (Matt 2:131922).

Finally, notice the role of prophecy in this chapter. In his birth in Bethlehem (Matt 2:5–6), his exile to Egypt (Matt 2:17), and his settling in Nazareth (Matt 2:23), Jesus fulfilled what the prophets had spoken. On the other hand, the prophecy that Herod fulfilled was one of tears and lamentation (Matt 2:17–18).

Worship Christ, the Newborn King

Jesus was declared a king at his birth. And the contrast between Jesus and all other kings continued through his earthly life and beyond.

Because Jesus is the great, high king, he is a threat to all who hold power. God demands (and deserves) our undiluted worship, and this is a problem for anyone who craves any glory that belongs to God.

This is a warning to all in authority: Worship Jesus as the high king willingly while you can. One day every knee will bow, whether willingly or not (Phil 2:9–11). Your power is delegated power and should be used to help those around you to flourish.

And for everyone, this is a call to worship Jesus. He is no mere human king; he is the Lord of all. And as Lord, he shows himself to be vastly superior to Herod.

Though he is powerful and his authority is absolute, he is merciful and gentle. We have all grasped for power; we have all neglected and rejected proper worship. But king Jesus offers love and forgiveness for those who turn to him.

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Learning from the Humiliation of Jesus

Jesus’s crucifixion was not only unjust, it was tortuous. The Romans were famous for their punishing, public executions.

But physical pain was not the only agony Jesus suffered in his final days. In fact, one Gospel writer highlights the emotional torment of Jesus far more than his bodily pain.

Mockery in Luke

As my small group made its way through the end of Luke this year, the humiliation of Jesus jumped out at me.

After Jesus was arrested, the men who held him abused him. Notice the way they mocked Jesus, belittling his position as a divine prophet.

Now the men who were holding Jesus in custody were mocking him as they beat him. They also blindfolded him and kept asking him, “Prophesy! Who is it that struck you?” And they said many other things against him, blaspheming him. (Luke 22:63–65)

Later, Pilate sent Jesus to Herod. Herod and his soldiers “mocked him.” As part of this humiliation, Jesus was dressed in “splendid clothing” (Luke 23:11).

Jesus was “railed at,” “scoffed at,” and “mocked” (Luke 23:35–3739). He suffered the indignity of being crucified with criminals. Jesus’s accusers threw the title of “Savior” in his face—surely he cannot be the Christ or the King of the Jews if he can’t even save himself!

The Pain of Public Taunting

Let’s consider these indignities carefully. In public, Jesus was denounced as being utterly powerless. Jesus couldn’t be the Christ, he couldn’t be the Chosen One, he couldn’t be the King.

Because Jesus was fully man, we can imagine some of what he felt during this mockery. Think of a core mission of your life or a label given to you by God. Now imagine someone screaming these taunts at you in the town square. You must not be a child of God! She is not much of a mother! He cannot be a true missionary!

Here’s the awful, terrible truth. Jesus was completely humiliated. He was mocked and taunted and denounced. He heard every biting word, and, one by one, they sliced open his heart.

Lack of Physical Suffering

When compared to the emotional pain that Jesus suffered, Luke records far less physical suffering.

Luke tells us about the beating from the soldiers (Luke 22:63) and the way Herod and his soldiers “treated him with contempt” (Luke 23:11). But Luke doesn’t record Jesus’s crown of thorns or his scourging by Pilate’s men (see Matthew 27:29 and Matthew 27:26, respectively). Luke also omits other incidents of beating, spitting, and slapping that we read in the other three Gospels.

These omissions don’t point to a contradiction. They also don’t mean that Luke was unaware of these abuses. Luke just chose to emphasize Jesus’s emotional suffering.

Why This Emphasis?

This may seem like a strange focus, but it is a natural conclusion to the way Luke writes Jesus’s story. Throughout his ministry, Jesus identified with those who were scorned and cast out. He elevated the humiliated and called his followers to humble themselves in service of others. Once we look for this thread, we see it woven through every page of Luke’s Gospel.

  • Jesus announced his ministry by saying he would focus on the poor, the captives, the blind, and the oppressed (Luke 4:18–19).
  • Jesus’s healings largely focused on those suffering in ways that put them on the margins of society. Among others, he healed a leper (Luke 5:12–13), a naked man possessed by many demons (Luke 8:26–39), a woman with a 12-year discharge of blood (Luke 8:43–48), a boy possessed by a violent demon (Luke 9:37–43), a woman with an 18-year “disabling spirit” which bent her in half (Luke 13:10–13), and a blind beggar (Luke 18:35–43).
  • He kept company with “tax collectors and sinners” at a time when religious leaders looked at such people with scorn and disgust. (See Luke 5:27–32Luke 7:34Luke 7:36–50Luke 15:1–2, and Luke 19:1–10.)
  • In the Beatitudes, Jesus blessed those who were poor, hungry, weeping, and hated (Luke 6:20–23).
  • Jesus’s teaching on discipleship emphasized self-denial (Luke 9:23–27), selling one’s possessions to give to the needy (Luke 12:33–34), and inviting the poor, crippled, lame, and blind to a banquet instead of friends and family (Luke 14:12–14).
  • Jesus showed concern for the humiliated in his parables. In the parable of the banquet, the master brought in the poor, crippled, blind, and lame (Luke 14:15–24). The father of the prodigal ran to meet his broken and humiliated son when he returned (Luke 15:11–24). And Lazarus, a poor beggar covered with sores, was elevated to heaven while the rich man suffered in Hades (Luke 16:19–31).
  • Peter proclaimed he was willing to die for Jesus (Luke 22:33) and wanted a fight when Jesus was arrested (Luke 22:50). He didn’t want to be identified with a humiliated Jesus (Luke 22:54–62). Jesus’s look at Peter (Luke 22:61) was a quiet rebuke; following Jesus does not bring the honor of a final glorious battle, it requires the willingness to give up one’s rights and die.

After Jesus loved and cared for the humiliated through his ministry, he became humiliated at the end. He took the place of those he loved.

Our Response

Jesus knows our humiliation because he was humiliated. He is able to sympathize with every one of our conditions and weaknesses (Hebrews 4:15). This is why we can draw near to his throne of grace with confidence, knowing that we’ll find all the mercy we need (Hebrews 4:16).

Jesus also calls us to willingly suffer humiliation for others. As we lower ourselves, giving up money or time or status, we elevate others.

In this, we embrace the pattern of Jesus, who suffered to save his enemies (including us, Romans 5:10). We also depend on (and demonstrate) the power of Jesus. Embracing humiliation for others is not natural; only after we have been changed can we seek out the lower place by the gracious work of the Spirit.

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Jesus, Our Eager Shepherd

What does Jesus think about me?

Does he love me, hate me, or tolerate me? When I sin—is he ashamed of me?

If you’re reading this as a Christian, you’ve probably wrestled with these questions. But here’s another question about Jesus that’s every bit as vital to our everyday faith: How does Jesus view his job?

Did he look forward to his earthly calling, or was he resigned to the task? Is he glad when we pray, or is it a chore for him to care for us?

Our understanding of Jesus’s attitude toward his work and his people affects our prayer lives, our evangelism, and our willingness to trust him. And while the Bible doesn’t record any pre-Incarnation conversations among the members of the Trinity, Scripture is not silent on this issue.

Exhortations to Elders

Peter writes instructions to elders near the end of his first letter (1 Peter 5:1–4). He uses the image of a shepherd with his flock, and he lists three ways shepherds must “exercise oversight.”

  1. Not under compulsion, but willingly (verse 2).
  2. Not for shameful gain, but eagerly (verse 2).
  3. Not domineering over those in their charge, but being examples to the flock (verse 3).

The comparison of God’s people to sheep is instructive if not flattering. Sheep don’t score high on IQ tests. They are prone to lose their way and wander from the herd. In their ignorance they expose themselves to predators, and they are rather helpless on their own.

As those charged to care for a flock like this, elders have a holy and difficult calling. Perhaps this is why Peter follows these commands with a reminder of the promised reward for faithful elders: “And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory” (1 Peter 5:4).

Jesus, the Chief Shepherd

Peter motivates local church elders with the forthcoming crown, but when he refers to Jesus as the “chief Shepherd,” he gives all of us much to ponder. Elders are shepherds; Jesus is the chief.

If the elders are told how to shepherd in verses 1–3, and if Jesus is the perfect and chief shepherd, then the characteristics urged in men are present fully in Jesus. Specifically:

  1. Jesus does not need to be compelled to be our shepherd; he does it willingly.
  2. Jesus does not shepherd us for gain; he does so eagerly.
  3. Jesus is not a demanding shepherd; he is an example to the flock.

Eagerness

Have you ever pondered this glorious truth (see point 2 above), that Jesus is our eager shepherd?

Think of all the pain, conflict, hardship, frustration, loneliness, separation, and sorrow involved in Jesus’ earthly ministry—especially in his passion. If that lay in front of us, we would flee.

And we often project our reaction onto Jesus. We think Jesus must have been talked into his rescue mission. Maybe he was willing, but he couldn’t have been excited.

No! Jesus was eager to save and shepherd us. While it meant tremendous suffering, he charged into the mission with zeal. He was motivated by joy.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1–2, emphasis added)

Jesus was eager to save us, and he is eager to love and keep us. We do not annoy or burden him with our confession and prayer. Our confusion and wanderings do not irritate him. He is not troubled by our doubts or questions. He welcomes our helplessness.

Jesus is our good, good shepherd. He feeds and tends and protects his sheep.

We can be as eager to trust Jesus as our shepherd as he is to embrace us as his people.

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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

hymnal

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)

Post Credit, Photo Credit

Jesus Did Not Come to Bring Peace on Earth

fire

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

 

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