Why Read the Bible: To Learn What Discipleship Looks Like

What I am saying is that as long as an heir is underage, he is no different from a slave, although he owns the whole estate. The heir is subject to guardians and trustees until the time set by his father. So also, when we were underage, we were in slavery under the elemental spiritual forces of the world. But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship. Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.” So you are no longer a slave, but God’s child; and since you are his child, God has made you also an heir. Formerly, when you did not know God, you were slaves to those who by nature are not gods. But now that you know God—or rather are known by God—how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable forces? Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again? You are observing special days and months and seasons and years! I fear for you, that somehow I have wasted my efforts on you.

–Galatians 4.1-11 (NIV)

When I was a young boy I idolized my grandpa Shaffer. I wanted to dress like him, talk like him, act like him. In fact, my desire to imitate my grandpa got to the point where it earned me the nickname, “Little Earl,” after my grandpa’s first name. And those of you who are old enough to remember Beatlemania can relate to this. During those heady days teenagers dressed like the Beatles, tried to talk like the Beatles, and boys wore their hair like the Beatles (primarily, I suspect, so they could get as many girls as the Beatles).

All of this points to a spiritual reality. Just as nature abhors a vacuum, so does the spiritual world abhor a spiritual vacuum (cf. Luke 11.24-26). We are creatures made to worship, and as Paul points out in today’s lesson, we will end up being “slaves” to something or someone (i.e., we will end up worshiping something or someone) and those who think otherwise are just fooling themselves. The question, then, is to whom or what are we going to be a slave? Who or what will we worship? On Friday we looked at the plight of the human condition, which reminded us that too often we humans choose to be a slave to almost anything other than God.

Don’t be put off by Paul’s use of the word “slave.” He is simply referring to the fact that we all choose to be owned by something or someone. Many of us choose to pursue wealth or power or fame. Just look at the explosion of YouTube videos, some quite shameful and which seek only to bring a fleeting moment in the sun for the poster, if you don’t believe me. Others of us seek prestige or the ability to control. Others prefer to pursue human knowledge as our god. Still others of us make ourselves to be god; we pride ourselves at being rugged individualists and self-made persons. But none of this can bring real life or raise us from the dead. In other words, none of this can completely satisfy our deepest human needs and desires and Paul would call our pursuit of these things “slavery” to them.


So what does all this have to do with today’s passage? Just this. In the previous chapters of Galatians, Paul has sought to combat the effect of the Judaizers on the church of Galatia. They apparently had been teaching the false doctrine that believers were saved not by the grace of God in Christ but by their ability to follow a bunch of rules and regulations.

In other words, the false teachers were trying to make it all about the Galatians rather than Jesus (and unfortunately they’ve had a lot of company since then, even to this day).

Here Paul is reminding them that they are choosing to be “slaves” to the wrong things. “If you want to really be free–free from the deadly effects of human sin, free to be truly human the way God created you to be, free to love God and others with all that you are–then you have to choose to be a slave to the right Person. You have to choose to be a slave to Christ,” Paul is telling them (and us).

What does he mean? Simply this. We have to become “Little Christs.” If we really love Christ, we will want to imitate him and do the things we know really pleases him, just the way I loved and wanted to please my grandpa Shaffer. What should be immediately apparent is that this frees us from having to follow a bunch of rules for their sake.

Sure, if we intend to follow Christ and be his disciples, we will have to be disciplined in our behavior (discipline and disciple have the same root). We’ll want to pray regularly and read our Bible everyday. We’ll want to gather with other folks who love Jesus to worship and praise him for setting us free from the power of sin and death by dying for us on the cross and bearing our rightful punishment for us. But these are means to an end, not an end themselves, and if we really understand what God has done for us in Christ, we will want to do these things because we know it pleases him and he desires that we pursue holy living.

Wanting to follow Jesus will have other implications for how we live our lives as well. For example, instead of taking revenge on those who wrong us, we will choose to show them mercy. Instead of insisting on our own way and wanting to be in control of things all the time, we will consider the needs and desires of others and acquiesce to those needs and desires if we know they are not harmful to us or the other. We will choose to pray for our enemies instead of cursing them. We will strive to end injustice where we see it, and to the extent we are able. And we will seek to ask God to show us his will for us each day and strive to do what he asks us to do, no matter how hard it is because we love him and are grateful for the gift of life he has given us in Jesus.

When we see Christian discipleship through this lens, it is tremendously freeing. Yes, we will have to put to death those things in ourselves that are unholy, but that is for our good. Yes, we will have to deny ourselves from time to time (perhaps regularly). Yes, we will have to live for Christ and others instead of ourselves. But we will want to do these things because following Jesus is more than trying to follow a bunch of arbitrary rules in the hope that it will make us right and acceptable in God’s eyes.

It won’t. Only by the blood of Christ are we made acceptable in God’s eyes and if that offends you, please do ask Jesus to help you get over it because it will kill you if you don’t.

Being a disciple of Jesus is a wonderful and joyful thing. We are free to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8). We are free from the fear of being alienated and separated from the Source and Author of all life, both here in our mortal lives and for all eternity. We are free from being moralistic and legalistic bean counters. By the power of the Spirit, we are free to reclaim and embrace God’s image in us so that we can be truly human.

Does that mean that therefore anything goes? Hardly. Neither does it give us the liberty to rewrite what Scripture says in terms of what it means to be “holy”–only God can do that. Rather it means that we believe God really does love us and really does want to have a relationship with us. It means we are free to love him and do our best to imitate him with the help of the Holy Spirit. And at the end of the day, we can have confidence that despite our mistakes, despite who we can sometimes be, despite our body of sin that weighs us down so heavily at times, despite the weight of our worldly problems, we can look forward to hearing these words: “Well done, good and faithful servant. Take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world” (Matthew 25.34).

You will never hear sweeter words in all your life.

If you are someone who is seeking real life and real truth, if you are seeking to live your life with meaning, purpose, and power but are hesitant to follow Jesus because you’re afraid you’ll have to follow a bunch of rules and turn into some kind of a prig, consider seriously what we’ve just talked about. Not only will you find you are mistaken in your understanding of what it means to follow Jesus, you will discover all that your heart yearns for and desires. Then you will understand that being a slave to the Lord of the universe is the most freeing thing you will ever do.

Do you really want to be free? Then take the chance. Follow Jesus. Discover a freedom that will blow your mind.

John Wilson–Changing Forever How You Think: Recovering the Lost Art of Scripture Memorization

A compelling article on why those of us who are serious about following Jesus should practice the discipline of memorizing Scripture.

We live in a time when memorization is routinely scorned, an attitude summed up in the ubiquitous phrases “rote memory” and “rote learning.” Memorizing, we are told, discourages creativity, critical thinking, and conceptual understanding.

This scorn is odd. It doesn’t seem to jibe with our everyday experience. After all, training to be a doctor or a lawyer entails memorization—a lot of it. We don’t foolishly assume that the creativity of actors or musicians is crushed by the formidable feats of memory their art demands. And why is Peyton Manning such a dazzlingly good quarterback? In part because he spends countless hours in the film room, studying defenses, looking for patterns to memorize, so that—in the midst of the action, with a 290-pound lineman who runs like a cheetah and hits like a sledgehammer bearing down on him—he will make the optimal decision in a split second.

[later in the article]

Again and again, Kang emphasizes that memorizing Scripture is not an end in itself. “When we meditate deeply on the words of Scripture,” he writes, “we begin to bear fruit,” directed by the Spirit. “The more we commit the Word to memory, the richer our being becomes. The melodious concert of his Word will continually echo within us. Then we’ll encounter the conductor, our Lord Jesus, the Holy Spirit, who helps us remember the Scriptures, and the Father, who’ll receive glory through all of this.”

Read it all (and then get busy).

Jennifer Powell McNutt: The Enduring Church

A fine article debunking the myth of the theory of secularization. Lesslie Newbigen also sharply refutes the secularization theory, in part, by pointing out that many accept it uncritically. McNutt’s article is a bit long but worth the read if you are worried about the state of the Church and/or the decline of Christianity in America.

Memories of Christianity over the ages are valuable assets in a culture prone to expecting the worst about the future. Christianity has undergone periods of rise and fall in every century, with documented success and concerns of decline. The noteworthy story of the Christian church is that despite all challenges and shortcomings, the church has survived, blossomed, and been transformed, sometimes against all odds. It has been restored and revived, it has changed, and it has overcome. In short, the church has endured.

Read it all.

Why Read the Bible: To Learn Why the Gospel Really is Good News

You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh?

For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, as it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.” Clearly no one who relies on the law is justified before God, because “the righteous will live by faith.” The law is not based on faith; on the contrary, it says, “The person who does these things will live by them.” Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole.” He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.

–Galatians 3.1-3, 10-14 (NIV)

This passage was actually yesterday’s NT reading but it is too important to ignore. Here Paul lays out for us the heart of the Gospel and if we are ever to understand why the Good News is good news, it is helpful for us to have a Big Picture overview of it.

Paul provides us with that Big Picture in yesterday’s passage. If we are to come to appreciate why the Good News (Gospel) is good news, we must first understand the plight of the human condition. We must divest ourselves of the delusion of human self-help in terms of ending our exile and alienation from God. Ain’t gonna happen if we have to fix it ourselves.

Paul tells us why here. First he wonders who has played trickeration with the Galatians. “Do you really think you are capable of fixing yourselves, of getting rid of all that is unholy in you so that you can live forever in the Presence of the Holy God who loves you and created you? Get real, kids! Humans have been trying to fix themselves from the get-go and it just doesn’t work.”

In essence Paul reminds us that no one can perfectly keep God’s Law (think 10 commandments, not the gazillion petty regulations that had come into existence in the Judaism of Paul’s day). And if we cannot keep the Law perfectly, we remain under God’s curse, not because God is some mean ogre or unwilling to forgive us, but because God cannot abide evil of any kind and we humans are thoroughly infected. This is what is known as the “human condition.” It is kind of like inoperable cancer. There comes a point when surgery will not help. Likewise with the human condition.

And if we think about it, this should make sense to us. After all, do you want to spend an eternity being bedeviled by evil and brokenness? If there is such a thing as “heaven” or God’s space, don’t you want it to be free from any kind of evil and brokenness?

But the human condition doesn’t have the final word. Paul goes on to remind us that God loves us and created us for relationship, not destruction. So what to do? “Well,” Paul says, “God became human so he could do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. He fulfilled the requirements of the Law perfectly and then allowed himself to bear the curse of the Law on our behalf so as to make it possible for our exile and alienation from God to be ended forever.” That is the heart of the Gospel and we cannot earn it. It is God’s free gift to us because God is our great Lover. The Gospel is ours by the grace of God and we receive it by faith. Nobody can prove it nor does anybody need to because we have God’s word on it and God is not a liar.

That is why the cross is so scandalous. It is God’s testimony that he has done the impossible for us and that often rankles our human pride. “What do you mean God has done the impossible for me? I’m not a bad person. I don’t need anyone’s help because frankly there isn’t that much in me for God to forgive.” But this is a deadly delusion because it fails to take sin seriously. Neither does it take God’s implacable opposition to sin seriously. Simply put, the profane (humans) can never live with the Holy (God) and so God did something about it to cover our profanity so that we can live with him, both here on earth and for all eternity. Cool.

It is also important for us to remember that the Gospel is not something God developed on the fly. God didn’t wake up one morning, look around at the mess that is his good created order–a mess caused by human sin (Genesis 3)–and say to  himself, “Well, this isn’t working out. I’d better try something different and see if that’ll work.” No, the Gospel is part of God’s eternal Rescue Plan to end our alienation and exile from him. I don’t know why he chose to do it this way and honestly I don’t care because God is God and, well, I’m not. I’m just glad that God loves us enough that he did do something to end our exile from him. Frankly, if I had to love somebody like me to the extent God does, that would be, um, “interesting”.

What about you? Does Paul’s message make you indignant or flat out happy? Are you offended that he is telling you that you are beyond hope in terms of enjoying real life if left to your own devices? Do you see the critical need for the cross? If you don’t, you probably have some work to do on the pride thingy of yours.

The intent of the Gospel (and hopefully those who proclaim it) is not to make you feel like a lowlife or to burden you down with crushing guilt. Doing so is being unfaithful to the Gospel and mean-spirited. But let’s face it. You cannot have a solution (Good News) to a problem (the human condition) if you don’t think there is a problem in the first place. Scripture reminds us consistently that there is a problem and that left to our own devices we are without hope.

But Scripture doesn’t leave us there.

No, Scripture just wants us to be realistic about the plight of the human condition so that we will be ready to receive the Good News of Jesus Christ. Scripture spends most of its time telling us about God’s rescue plan, from the calling of Abraham and his descendents, Israel, to giving them the Law and the Prophets (and the ugly human reaction to both), to the ultimate fulfillment of God’s eternal Rescue Plan in Jesus Christ. The Gospel just won’t make sense unless you see the Big Picture and if you want a nice summary of it, you will find it in the passage above.

If you are hurting or losing hope, take heart and hope. You are not on your own. You don’t have to schlep through life by yourself. You have the very promise of God himself as made manifest in Jesus that he loves you and wants you to come back home so that you can enjoy real life. You don’t have to wait till you die to enjoy that life. It’s available to you right now. All you have to do is accept God’s offer to heal and redeem you. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you have done. You are one of God’s creatures and he loves you beyond your wildest imaginations. Accept his gracious offer and begin to enjoy life as God intended for you.

Even in the midst of all that can go wrong in this world, you will not be disappointed in the final analysis. Having a relationship with Jesus won’t make you immune to life’s heartaches and disappointments, but you will discover that you have a grace and power that is not your own to deal with them. Don’t take my word alone for it. Ask any of the countless folks who have given their lives to Jesus. You’ll hear the same Good News from them as well.

Why Read the Bible: To Learn How to be Comforted

Shout for joy, you heavens;
rejoice, you earth;
Shout for joy, you heavens;
rejoice, you earth;
burst into song, you mountains!
For the LORD comforts his people
and will have compassion on his afflicted ones.

But Zion said, “The LORD has forsaken me,
the Lord has forgotten me.”

“Can a mother forget the baby at her breast
and have no compassion on the child she has borne?
Though she may forget,
I will not forget you!
See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands;
your walls are ever before me.
Your children hasten back,
and those who laid you waste depart from you.
Lift up your eyes and look around.

This is what the Sovereign LORD says:

“See, I will beckon to the nations,
I will lift up my banner to the peoples;
they will bring your sons in their arms
and carry your daughters on their hips.
Kings will be your foster fathers,
and their queens your nursing mothers.
They will bow down before you with their faces to the ground;
they will lick the dust at your feet.
Then you will know that I am the LORD;
those who hope in me will not be disappointed.”

–Isaiah 49.13-18a, 22-23 (NIV)

I am persuaded that one of the reasons people fall into despair is that they become convinced they are on their own in this world and in their heart of hearts realize how woefully inadequate and unprepared they are for the task of living in the midst of a broken world. For whatever reasons, they have become convinced that either there isn’t a God or if there is, he too is incapable of helping them deal with all that can go wrong in life.

Apparently this was also a problem for the people of ancient Judah as today’s passage attests. Here God speaks through his prophet to tell his people to rejoice because he is both willing and able to bring real hope and comfort to them, that he really is an adequate God.

Despite this promise, however, God’s people have forgotten that he is the Sovereign and omnipotent God, more than able to take care of their every need, both as individuals and collectively as God’s chosen people. And if we are careful to read today’s passage in its broader context, we certainly can relate to them, can’t we, because we too are every bit as broken and hurting as they were.

I can just hear them now. “God, you’ve punished us and threatened us with impending exile. We’re supposed to be your chosen people. How can you possibly even think about doing the unthinkable to us?” Of course, in saying this they have not stopped to see things from God’s perspective. They haven’t stopped to consider that their pursuit of idols and immoral living is actually leading them to death because it will effectively keep them alienated from the Source and Author of all life. It’s almost as if they are telling God, “If you love us, you’ll let us do whatever we want!”

Sound familiar?

But God will have none of that nonsense, not from his chosen people of ancient Judah and not from us living today. Let’s take a moment and look at this from God’s perspective, at least as best we can. “I’ve warned you repeatedly through my prophets to change your ways because your idolatry and immoral and unjust living are killing you,” God seems to be saying to his people in the broader context in which today’s passage falls, “and I want you to live because I created you to have a relationship with me. I didn’t create you for death, but for life, and you can only find and have life in me. And because you have been so persistently and willfully stubborn and rebellious, you leave me no choice but to punish you because I love you. I want you to wake up and see the desperate situation you are putting yourself in so that you will stop pursuing those things that will inevitably lead to your death and permanent separation from me. Please listen to me! Even if you don’t fully understand my concerns, you must trust me because I am God your Creator and I see the Big Picture in ways you simply cannot because you are finite and mortal.”

For those of us who have been parents, we can readily understand what God is telling us here, can’t we? For example, we think of those times when we have expressed our concerns about the people our kids hang around because we know that bad company must inevitably corrupt the good. We don’t want to see our kids fall in with the bad because we love them and don’t want to see them engage in potentially destructive behaviors. Sometimes, this leads us to punish them, not primarily because our kids have made us mad but because we love them and are trying to protect them from themselves as well as others. As parents we have the knowledge and perspective that our kids simply do not have yet and so we often move to protect them, even when our kids simply do not understand. This often leads them to dig in their heels and resist us when we do. In biblical terms this is called being stubborn, wayward, and rebellious, among others.

Go back and read the “hard passages” of Scripture through this lens and it will give you an entirely new perspective on God’s interactions with his wayward people. If you start reading Scripture with the assumption that God loves you beyond your wildest dreams (faith seeking understanding) instead of seeing God as some mean, cosmic ogre bent on preventing you from ever having any fun (interpreting the Bible with suspicion), God will bless your reading of his word with breathtaking clarity and wonderfully comforting new insights about him.

Coming back to today’s passage, then, we see God reassuring his fearful people. “Don’t be afraid. Open your eyes. See why I have had to punish you and take me at my word that I love you beyond your wildest imaginations. Trust me. I know what is best for you. Yes, I have had to punish you but it was for your own good. However, that’s not the kind of relationship with you I want or my heart desires. I love you with the tenderness of a mother nursing her baby. How can I let you go? How can I forget you? But you have got to trust me and turn from the things you are doing that must cause you to die. I’m not talking about your mortal bodies dying. I am talking about being separated from me forever. That’s real death.”

When by God’s grace we finally understand that God really does love us despite who we are (we needn’t look any farther than the cross to see the truth of this), we are ready to let God comfort us with real comfort and hope. We realize that we are not left to our own devices in the game of life. We finally get that we don’t have to live life by ourselves. Our eyes are opened up to the manifold blessings that God gives us in this life, blessings that don’t make us immune to the hurts and heartaches of life but rather are given to us to help us deal with them with grace and power.

We feel God’s love for us through the Presence of God’s Holy Spirit living in us and in the life of Jesus we see the supreme exemplar of how God intends us to live our mortal days because we see God himself living as a human, struggling to live under the same conditions he has set for the rest of us. And when we muse on and ponder all this, we finally get that God really is Sovereign and really can provide help and comfort to us if we are willing to let him. The biblical term for us doing that is called humility and we are promised good things when we are able to behave consistently with humble hearts.

Are you living in despair? Have you lost hope? As Augustine reminds us, despair can kill the soul and infect our lives. It can lead us to believe we really are unlovable or beyond God’s forgiveness. Today’s passage, however, is the antidote to despair because it reminds us that nothing is farther from the truth. No one is beyond God’s love. No one is beyond God’s forgiveness. That is why reading Scripture regularly is so important because it is, in part, the testimony of God’s love story for his fallen creatures.

If you are living in despair, take heart and hope. Think deeply on the message of today’s passage. Ask God to give you grace to really come to know his great love for you and let him answer you as he will. Look at the resources you have available to you right now, both spiritual and human, and don’t discount any of them.

Most importantly, decide to trust God and have faith that he has the power to heal you in his own way and time. Count on it. Expect it. Read passages in Scripture that remind you of his great love for you made manifest in Jesus and of his Sovereign power to help you deal with your afflictions. And don’t forget to find others who are willing to allow God to use them to minister to you (and you to them). Remember that you were created for relationships, not to live in isolation.

As John reminds us in his Gospel, Jesus came to earth so that we might have life and have it abundantly. Take Jesus up on his gracious offer. He wouldn’t offer it if he couldn’t deliver and he wouldn’t offer it to you if he didn’t love you. You’ve got the witness of Scripture and of countless others to testify that Jesus is good to his word and that his offer extends to everybody, even the most unlovable amongst us. Is that not enough to just blow your mind?

Notable and Quotable

One explanation of Easter that will not do is the au courant academic fantasy that the disciples of Jesus worked themselves into such a frenzy of grief over the death of Jesus that they succumbed to mass hysteria and said, “You know, when we get together it’s almost like Jesus is still with us.” This is the old he’ll-live-on-in-our-memories rationalization of Easter.

Sorry, such an explanation explains nothing. For one thing, we have noted that the main reaction of the disciples to “Jesus is raised” was fear. They didn’t expect Jesus to be raised from the dead; in a sense they didn’t really want him raised from the dead. For another thing, has anything you have learned thus far about Peter suggested to you that he had a fertile imagination or a creative mind?

–Will Willimon, Methodist Bishop of the Birmingham, AL Area, Why Jesus?, 132

Why Read the Bible: To Learn the Basis of Real Hope

And now the LORD says—
he who formed me in the womb to be his servant
to bring Jacob back to him
and gather Israel to himself,
for I am honored in the eyes of the LORD
and my God has been my strength—
he says:
“It is too small a thing for you to be my servant
to restore the tribes of Jacob
and bring back those of Israel I have kept.
I will also make you a light for the Gentiles,
that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”

–Isaiah 49.5-6 (NIV)

On Monday we looked at the various ways God expresses his love for us. Today’s passage comes from the Second Servant Song of Isaiah (49.1-7 or 1-11). Here we are reminded of God’s great love for us which forms (or should form) the basis of our Christian hope.

God has just chastised his people for acting unfaithfully, an act of love in itself. But here we see the breathtaking beauty of God’s great love for us that we can more readily understand. Through his Servant, whom the Church has always recognized as Jesus, God promises to restore the faithful remnant of his wayward and rebellious people. Ostensibly, God is talking about the day he will end their upcoming exile in Babylon, but in Christ we are reminded that God’s promise runs much deeper than this. In and through Jesus, God promises to end our exile from him permanently, an exile caused by our sin and its resulting alienation from God and each other. None of us deserves this but God wants it for us. Can you imagine anything like that?

What this effectively means for us is that God has given us a real reason to have hope and we dare not blow that off. I am not talking about some pie-in-the-sky or otherworldly hope in which we sit around and wish for the day we will go to heaven. I am talking about real hope here and now (and so is Isaiah). It is a hope with a future. It is the hope of resurrection and New Creation and it is vital for us if we are ever to really live as hope-filled individuals.

Think about it. You are in the middle of a long trip and are too far along to make a return home possible. All of a sudden it becomes terribly apparent to you that you are lost and have no hope of ever reaching your destination. What would you do? There’s a good chance that you would give up and stop making an effort to go forward. In other words, you would lose hope and when that happens we cease having a reason for living. Unfortunately, we see this awful dynamic happening in those who attempt or succeed in committing suicide. Most have simply lost all hope.

But here the prophet reminds us that we do have a reason to go on living. We do have a reason to hope. And this helps give our life real meaning and purpose. It reminds us we are destined for something far better than we dare imagine. It reminds us we are no longer hostile toward God (or he toward us) so that we can experience real peace in our lives right here and now.

And passages like today’s also remind us we have a wonderful opportunity to help Jesus help others to learn to know God, and that is nothing to be sneezed at. It means we are not to sit around engaging in introspective navel-gazing. It means instead that we are to roll up our sleeves and get to work in helping God bring about his promised New Creation. I can’t tell you what that will look like in your own particular life but Jesus sure can. Why don’t you stop and ask him (if you haven’t already)?

If you are one who is struggling with hope, spend some time reflecting on the passage above. Read it slowly, carefully, and repeatedly. Before you do, ask God to send down his Spirit on you to enlighten your understanding and open your eyes to his great love for you. Admit to Jesus that you are struggling to find real hope in your life and you need him. Dare to ask Jesus to help you and to give you real hope to sustain you. It won’t make you immune to all (or perhaps any) of life’s problems, but it will help you deal with them with grace and power.

When you are Christ’s you have real hope because you have a real future and a hope-filled present. What are you waiting for?

Why Read the Bible: To Learn That We Are to Live Our Faith Together, Not Individually

Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days. I saw none of the other apostles—only James, the Lord’s brother. I assure you before God that what I am writing you is no lie. Then I went to Syria and Cilicia. I was personally unknown to the churches of Judea that are in Christ. They only heard the report: “The man who formerly persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.” And they praised God because of me.

Then after fourteen years, I went up again to Jerusalem, this time with Barnabas. I took Titus along also. I went in response to a revelation and, meeting privately with those esteemed as leaders, I presented to them the gospel that I preach among the Gentiles. I wanted to be sure I was not running and had not been running my race in vain.

–Galatians 1.18-2.2 (NIV)

On this the feast day of the conversion of St. Paul, it is fitting that we look at some of what God has to say to us through him. In chapter 1 of Galatians, Paul has been making a case for his apostleship and for the Gospel he has preached. In today’s passage, he reminds us that our faith is to be lived out together, not as autonomous individuals. In other words, Paul is making a case for the Church, albeit indirectly.

Paul’s conversion was quite dramatic. The Risen Lord confronted him on his way to Damascus where Paul intended to persecute Christians there. As Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 15, he was not part of Jesus’ inner circle of apostles. Instead, Paul considered himself as one who was “abnormally born,” i.e., an abortion. Paul alludes to this in the passage above when he talks about being unknown to the churches of Judea and how they had only heard of his dramatic conversion, giving thanks to God for it.

All of this background is necessary if we are to understand Paul’s remarkable humility expressed in today’s passage and the importance he ascribed to Christian fellowship and mutual accountability. Despite seeing the Risen Lord, despite being given the Gospel by Jesus himself, Paul felt it necessary to seek out Peter and the other leaders of the new faith to confirm what he had been given was true!


It is even more remarkable when we consider Paul’s disposition. By his own admission he was a man’s man, a Pharisee’s Pharisee (he would work much longer and harder than the average bear to show his learned brethren that he was indeed holier than they were and therefore superior to them), and a Jew’s Jew, zealous for the Law and his people. He was a learned scholar and quite sure of himself.

So why would he have felt the need to visit Jerusalem to compare his Gospel with the Gospel of Jesus’ other followers? It is not unreasonable to believe that Paul understood the fickle nature of the human mind, how easy it is for us to get things wrong as often as not, and to believe and teach erroneous things. In other words, Paul understood the human condition with its proclivity to err and therefore understood the need for mutual accountability in the Christian faith along with a prerequisite dose of humility.

All this suggests the critical need for the Church and for mutual Christian accountability, and this should make sense to us. If indeed Jesus is the only way to the Father (John 14.6), it is critical that we get the Gospel right. If we truly love others, we will want the best for them, we will want them to have real life, the kind that we enjoy in and through Christ. This, of course, requires that we share the real Gospel with them, Christ’s Gospel, the one contained in the NT, and not one of our own making, which is really no gospel at all.

Today’s passage also suggests that there is no such thing as an isolate Christian. No one is an island. We were created to have relationships with one another and with God and there is a proper ordering to those relationships. We need one another to help us steer a straight course through life and we must be humble enough and realistic enough to acknowledge we are prone to get it wrong as much as we get it right. We don’t have to read very far in Paul’s letters to find “one another” passages that suggest Paul understood this dynamic too and placed a premium on it.

If you want to follow Jesus, you had better be prepared to do it together with other followers of Jesus, and this is for your own good. Yes, each of us needs to have a personal relationship with Jesus but we also must remember that he expects us to have that relationship in the context of his Body, the Church. When we commit our lives to Jesus, we acknowledge that he is Lord and we are not, and we expect to be transformed by his wondrous love for us. But we also must remember that he uses human agency, in part, to accomplish this transformation. And when we think about it, this is for our good because we can tap both spiritual and human resources to help us in along the way in our faith journey, a journey that is never mundane or ordinary.

Certainly we need spiritual resources to help us in our journey, resources like daily prayer and reading our Bible regularly. But we are also creatures of flesh and blood who need the human touch on an ongoing and regular basis, and here Paul tacitly acknowledges that this is part of God’s intention for the proper ordering of our relationships with each other, especially in Christ’s Body, the Church.

Do you trust Jesus enough to let him love you not only directly but also through his people? Yes, this will be terribly frustrating at times because Jesus’ followers are every bit as broken as those who do not follow him and that will inevitably cause problems and conflicts for us within the Church. But it will also be immensely satisfying and helpful to us when we get it right. “How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity!” (Psalm 133.1)

Moreover, to try and enter the Christian journey on our own will ensure our failure because as Paul indirectly reminds us today, we were created for each other and need each other so that we can speak and act in ways that will ultimately bring Jesus honor and glory. What a wonderful privilege and opportunity that is!

If you have not yet done so, take the plunge so that you too can learn to enjoy life to its fullest. In doing so you can have confidence that you have tapped into the very Source and Author of all life, Jesus-God.  You can also take additional comfort in knowing that you don’t have to live your new life in Christ alone. Because life in Christ is terribly costly, he wants you to do it with others to reduce the risk that you will stumble and fall away. Is that not way too cool?

Why Read the Bible: To Learn About the Manifold Expressions of God’s Love for His People

“Listen to this, you descendants of Jacob,
you who are called by the name of Israel
and come from the line of Judah,
you who take oaths in the name of the LORD
and invoke the God of Israel—
but not in truth or righteousness—
you who call yourselves citizens of the holy city
and claim to rely on the God of Israel—
the LORD Almighty is his name:
I foretold the former things long ago,
my mouth announced them and I made them known;
then suddenly I acted, and they came to pass.
For I knew how stubborn you were;
your neck muscles were iron,
your forehead was bronze.
Therefore I told you these things long ago;
before they happened I announced them to you
so that you could not say,
‘My images brought them about;
my wooden image and metal god ordained them.’
You have heard these things; look at them all.
Will you not admit them?

“From now on I will tell you of new things,
of hidden things unknown to you.
They are created now, and not long ago;
you have not heard of them before today.
So you cannot say,
‘Yes, I knew of them.’
You have neither heard nor understood;
from of old your ears have not been open.
Well do I know how treacherous you are;
you were called a rebel from birth.
For my own name’s sake I delay my wrath;
for the sake of my praise I hold it back from you,
so as not to destroy you completely.
See, I have refined you, though not as silver;
I have tested you in the furnace of affliction.
For my own sake, for my own sake, I do this.
How can I let myself be defamed?
I will not yield my glory to another.

–Isaiah 48.1-11 (NIV)

In one sense, the Bible contains the unfolding story of God’s love for his people, both Jew and Gentile, and today’s passage gives us insight into the many ways God expresses his love for us. At first blush this seems like a very odd way for God to express his love. For those who are not mature Christians or are not familiar with Scripture at all, frankly a passage like today’s isn’t a good place to start exploring the wondrous nature of God’s love about which the Bible consistently speaks.

Why? Because you will be reading this from the perspective of an outsider who does not really know God. It is not unlike those situations in which we see a parent disciplining his child in public. Seeing it makes us uncomfortable, especially if we do not know the parent, because none of us really likes to be disciplined. We don’t know what the parent is thinking or what motivates him to discipline his child. We might even wonder if we are witnessing an abusive parent in action.

If the above analogy doesn’t work for you, try this one. Starting to explore the Bible with passages like today’s is not unlike viewing our own parents from the perspective of a teenager. We don’t really understand why mom and dad are so hard on us. We sometimes misinterpret their discipline as really an unloving act instead of seeing appropriate and deserved discipline for what it is–an expression of the parents’ great love for us that causes them to want the best for us.

But for those who are mature enough in the faith, passages like today’s can be quite enlightening–if in the process we can resist the temptation to project our own broken and unholy anger onto God. Because we know God’s great love for us in Christ, because we spend a good amount of time at the foot of the cross, we can see in passages like today’s not an angry, capricious God but rather a God who laments over his creatures’ willful, foolish, and ongoing decision to try to live their lives apart from him, which can only lead to their death since God is the only Source of life.

When we understand that real love always desires the best for the beloved, it allows us to see that in today’s passage God is really imploring his people (in this context, his Jewish people) to shape up and get with the program. God urges them to give him more than lip service, to behave like they really do love God so that they will obey him and show their love for him, in part, by loving each other. We see God telling his people in no uncertain terms to ditch their various idols (things of human origin) because no idol can give life or rescue us from death.

And then at the end of this passage, we really begin to understand how true love works. First God tells his people that because they have been so persistently stubborn, rebellious, and willful, there is no hope for their exile from him to be ended. Their behavior will bring about their much deserved punishment, in this context their future exile to Babylon.

But then we read the most remarkable thing. God will not punish Judah as she deserves! He will not destroy his people completely. He will not let the shame of their future exile last forever because doing so would give outsiders the wrong impression about God and who he really is! No, because of God’s mind-blowing love for his people, God promises to redeem them–at least a remnant of them who remain faithful to him–because, well, that’s just who God is.

This picture of God is confirmed elsewhere in the OT and in spades in the NT. All we have to do is look at the cross of Christ to have God’s massive love for us confirmed. In the death and resurrection of Christ, God has demonstrated to us decisively that he created us for relationship, not destruction, and he has poured out his Holy Spirit on us to help us learn this magnificent truth and understand it as fully as we finite humans are able. In other words, God has done all the work to ensure that we can have life to its fullest, both here in this mortal life and for all eternity.

As I said at the beginning of this reflection, if you are new to the Bible or are searching for real Truth and life, don’t start reading Scripture by reading passages like the above because as Scripture makes clear elsewhere, our spiritual journey is dynamic, not static. Every one of us starts out as infants in the faith and like physical infants are not able to feed on adult (mature) food, which today’s passage represents. With that in mind, start out with John’s Gospel and spend a good amount of time on his prologue. Ask God to help you wrap your mind around the wondrous truth and promises contained in it and to deepen your understanding of his word in Scripture. You have the testimony of countless believers that you will not be disappointed.

But expect opposition along the way from multiple sources. For example, living in a culture that glorifies the self and sees love as some sort of sappy sentimental feeling that quickly gives the beloved anything the beloved desires impedes our understanding of real love made manifest. This, in turn, is compounded by our inability to know about or know God without him revealing himself to us.

But when by God’s sheer grace we begin to wrap our minds around his great love for us manifested in Jesus, we can begin to read hard passages like today’s with new eyes, eyes of faith and trust. We begin to develop an accurate understanding of the real nature of love. We begin to ask ourselves what would motivate God to behave toward his people in the ways that he does. And with the help of the Spirit, we suddenly realize God’s character never changes nor does he ever act inconsistently with his people.

If you are a seeker or someone who is struggling with your faith, think on these things. The God who chastises and punishes his wayward people does not do so because he is some sort of cosmic bully or angry abuser of his creatures. No, he chastises and punishes us to help open our eyes to the mortal danger we are really in. We know this because we have seen his cross on Calvary and have stood at its base. We can’t fully comprehend the depth and breadth of his love for us but that shouldn’t (and doesn’t) stop us from putting our faith and trust in him. When we do, we will want to spend the requisite time and make the requisite effort to get to know this crucified God of ours, and by the help of his Spirit living in us, we will not ultimately be disappointed. We have God’s very word on it.

What’s holding you back? Take the chance. Take the plunge. Ask God to help you follow him through Jesus so that you will get to know him as fully as you are able. When that happens you will discover what it means to really have life.

Why Read the Bible: To Learn How to Count the Cost of Discipleship

[Jesus] taught [the crowd] many things by parables, and in his teaching said: “Listen! A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants, so that they did not bear grain. Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up, grew and produced a crop, some multiplying thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times.” Then Jesus said, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.” When he was alone, the Twelve and the others around him asked him about the parables.

Then Jesus said to them, “Don’t you understand this parable? How then will you understand any parable? The farmer sows the word. Some people are like seed along the path, where the word is sown. As soon as they hear it, Satan comes and takes away the word that was sown in them. Others, like seed sown on rocky places, hear the word and at once receive it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. Still others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful. Others, like seed sown on good soil, hear the word, accept it, and produce a crop—some thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times what was sown.”

–Mark 4.2-10, 13-20 (NIV)

In today’s passage we see Jesus reminding us to count the cost of being his disciple. Following Jesus is not an easy thing and we should expect to encounter stiff opposition on the way, both from the Evil One himself and from the circumstances of our life that serve to distract us and throw us off course. Here we see our Lord reminding us to beware and to be aware.

The first thing that we notice is that God’s Kingdom will come, regardless of opposition or what we might try to do to “help” it along (a true oxymoron if ever there was one). Jesus makes this clear when he talks about the seed yielding a crop in amazing amounts. Try as we might to help or hinder the Kingdom, it will come. For those of us who are trying to help bring about the Kingdom, this immediately takes the pressure off us to produce results. Instead it frees us to focus on being obedient to God’s will for us, both as individuals and collectively as his Church, and then trust God to do the rest in his good time and way. For those who oppose the coming of the Kingdom, this is bound to produce ulcers. But hey! There is always time in this life to jump on the Kingdom’s bandwagon!

The second thing we notice is Jesus’ insistence that we pay close attention to what he is saying here. He begins and ends the parable with the imperative to “listen!”. One of the things Jesus seems to be saying to us is that we cannot approach discipleship non-chalantly. If we do, we can count on getting our behinds kicked.

The third thing we notice is that Jesus does not try to explain why there is opposition to the Kingdom, why there will be opposition to our discipleship, or why there will be some (many?) who fall away and not be included in the Kingdom. “This is serious stuff,” Jesus seems to be saying, “and you need to be focusing your attention and efforts on being a good disciple of mine rather than sitting around and asking a bunch of ‘why’ questions.”

The last thing we notice is that Jesus tells us explicitly from whence our opposition comes. First and foremost, he reminds us there is an Evil One who hates us and wants nothing but our harm. He wants us to choose death over life. He wants us to choose to remain in permanent exile from God. None of us are strong enough to oppose Satan on our own and so this reminds us to ask for God’s protection daily from the falling into the clutches of the Evil One or doing things in our relationship with others that gives Satan an opportunity to wreak his havoc on us.

Jesus also reminds us that the circumstances of life can (and do) conspire to distract us, even to the point where we fall away from following Jesus. This, of course, can only lead to our death. “Be careful not to put your ultimate hope and trust in the wrong things or in the wrong people,” Jesus says. “Money and people cannot raise you from the dead or give you life; I am the only One who can do that. Sure, money can buy you nice things but you are mortal and the things that money can buy you won’t last forever. Don’t be like that rich owner in another parable that I told, who after making a bunch of money sits back and is ready to enjoy life, but whose life God claims before he has a chance to enjoy what he has worked so hard to acquire.”

This serves to remind us to keep the Main Thing the main thing.

If you are trying to decide if you want to be a follower of Jesus (he’s not on Twitter, BTW), Jesus is warning you that it isn’t going to be a cakewalk. It will cost you your very life, at least the dark and ugly parts of it–which is to your good. Before you decide to become a disciple of Jesus, you must first count the cost and decide if you are willing to pay the bills (with Jesus’ help because he never leaves us to our own devices if we allow him to do so).

If you already are a follower of Jesus, today’s passage reminds us that we really do have to take up our cross every day. We have to be on guard against being distracted by the circumstances of life, both good and bad. We have to remember to ask for God’s protection from the Evil One everyday so that we do not become Satan’s prey. And we have to be humble enough to do all of the above, no small feat for any of us!

But if we stop and count the cost, if we are willing to ask Jesus to help us because we acknowledge that we cannot be his disciple on our own power, if we keep our eye on the Prize, and if we acknowledge that following Jesus is a long-distance race rather than a sprint, we can look forward to the wondrous and joyful opportunity of being transformed into his very image so that he can use us as he pleases to help him bring about his Kingdom work here on his earth.

Imagine that. The God of this great and wondrous universe loves us enough and thinks enough about us to allow us to share in his life giving and life-saving work. And he calls us to do so despite who we are! Is that not just the most amazing thing?

If you are not yet a follower of Jesus, I encourage you to count the cost and then take the plunge. Begin today to enjoy the most satisfying ride of your life that you will ever enjoy. Yes, there will be heartaches, sorrows, and frustrations along the way. But in the final analysis you will not be disappointed because you will remember that you have been claimed by the very Source and Author of all life, and in that knowledge you will find power and strength to live your life with meaning and purpose that transcends your wildest hopes and imagination.

Mollie Ziegler Hemingway–Flunking Pew’s Pop Quiz

My family watches Jeopardy! every night. My husband, a well-read man with an excellent memory, gets most of the answers (er, questions) correct. But I struggle with trivia. Even if I’ve read the Shakespeare play, I cannot remember the characters’ names. I can picture the map but can’t recall the mountain range.

So far be it from me to overreact to a Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life survey that showed that Americans are not religion experts. Still, it was embarrassing. Fewer than half of those surveyed could name the Gospels or identify who launched the Reformation. Only 16 percent knew that Protestants traditionally teach that salvation comes through faith alone. While white evangelicals knew this in greater numbers than other groups, nearly twice as many of those surveyed knew that the Qur’an is Islam’s holy book as knew what Protestants teach about salvation.

A good and insightful article. Read it all.