Restore.

1 Peter, Christianity, Religion

“And, after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace who called you to his eternal glory in Christ will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.” 1 Peter 5:10

Peter’s first epistle is often classified with the ‘general epistles,’ meaning that it contains information that is general, or broad, in scope. The epistles in this category focus on addressing many big-picture themes, such as faith, hope, works, love. They differ somewhat from Paul’s letters that often are directed to a single congregation or individual and often focus on thoroughly explaining a single topic in great detail. Both sets of epistles, the general and those by Paul, provide something of a ‘how-to’ manual for living the Christian life. It is in the epistles that we see the theology and doctrine of the gospels unpacked and explained and applied to everyday life.

While 1 Peter is general in scope, there was still a specific context in which it was written. This letter was addressed to the exiled believers living in Asia Minor. These Gentile followers of Christ were living in their homeland, but Peter addresses them as exiles. This theme is one that is repeated throughout 1 Peter; the Apostle wants his fellow believers to understand that this world is not their home. As followers of Christ, believers are living in this world in a spiritual exile. This “exile” is made real to the believers of Asia Minor in the form of persecution that they experienced because of their faith in Christ.

Throughout the letter, Peter discusses how these believers are to respond to this persecution. He implores them to continue being law-abiding citizens, to look out for one another, to love each other, and to seek to do good to those who are persecuting them. Again and again, Peter calls on the believers to not repay evil for evil, to endure their suffering as Christ endured His, and to remember that they have the hope of a better life to come in God’s kingdom.

Peter focuses on this hope at the close of the letter. In the final lines of the letter, he assures the believers that this suffering is only temporary, that it won’t last forever, that it will be over in a little while. He goes on to provide them with more hope and encouragement by reminding them that when this suffering is over, God Himself will comfort, restore, sure up, repair, and strengthen the believers. Peter’s letter to the persecuted believers of Asia Minor closes with the hope of God Himself comforting and repairing them after the struggle is over.

This hopeful message of restoration reverberates with the echoes of other Scripture. Numerous psalms come to mind. We think of the psalm penned by David in which he pours out his heart and soul upon the page, begging God to comfort him amid his trials. In Peter’s words, we hear echoes of Psalm 23:

He restores my strength.

He leads me down the right paths

for the sake of his reputation.

Even when I must walk through the darkest valley,

I fear no danger,

for you are with me;

your rod and your staff reassure me.

You prepare a feast before me

in plain sight of my enemies. (Psalm 23:3-5)

We hear whispers of Psalm 119, where the psalmist pleads with God for Him to restore the grief-stricken author as God promised to do. “My soul melts away for sorrow;

strengthen me according to your word!” (Psalm 119:28) The psalmist knew that God would nourish and restore him after his trials, and he pleaded for God to keep that promise.

Peter’s words mirror those of his contemporary, Paul, who wrote, “but the Lord is faithful, and He will strengthen you and guard you against the evil one,” ( 2 Thessalonians 3:3). In each of these passages and countless others, the believer is continually reassured and reminded that after their suffering is complete, God will restore, repair, strengthen, and nourish them. Whether it be on this side of the grave or the other, God will shepherd the believer in green pastures, will lead them to still waters, and will restore their soul.

Trials and troubles are too many to count in this life. Without the hope we have from Christ, this world is bleak, and its burdens will grind us down. Christ, in His atoning death and defeating the grave through His resurrection, has given us new hope. This hope comes from the prospect of a renewed relationship with God. To those who have faith in Christ, the promise of God’s comfort and restoration never goes void. Place your faith in Christ and allow God’s promise of future restoration to give you strength for the trials ahead.

Artwork, Cover for the Bible, Verve No. 33-34 (Mourlot 117), Marc Chagall

Keep Stretching.

1 Peter, Christian Living, Christianity, Love, Religion

“Above all, maintain an intense love for each other, since love covers a multitude of sins. Be hospitable to one another without complaining.” 1 Peter 4:8-9

In 1 Peter 4, Peter transitions into a discussion of what is one of the believers’ highest obligations–to love for one another. He states that the believers must continue to do this, to continue to love one another and continue to live in a Christ-like manner, for the end of all things–the end of days, the end of time–is approaching. Now, Peter is not telling the believers that the end is near to incite fear or panic, but rather to state a simple fact: that they are living in the last days.

We must understand that the last days began with Christ’s resurrection; from that moment, the clock has been ticking down to the end. We even see that Peter makes mention of this in his famous sermon at Pentecost. There Peter quoted from the prophet Joel and said the following about the arrival of the Holy Spirit that had just occurred:

And it will be in the last days, says God,

that I will pour out My Spirit on all humanity;

then your sons and your daughters will prophesy,

your young men will see visions,

and your old men will dream dreams.

I will even pour out My Spirit

upon My male and female slaves in those days,

and they will prophesy,” (Acts 2:17-18).

Peter understood that the arrival of the Holy Spirit meant one thing: that the last days had finally arrived. As such, believers must be all the more diligent about the work that they have before them; the believers must be disciplined, self-controlled, on watch, sober-minded, clear-headed, and committed to prayer. Given the unique nature of the times, Peter was emploring the believers to finish strong, to see the job through unto the end. Peter also wanted the believers to remember that, above everything else, more important than finishing the job well, is the duty to continue loving one another.

In the Greek, Peter calls upon the believers to keep their love ektenes (ἐκτενής), or “stretched out,” because love covers a multitude of sins. The idea here is that the believers keep stretching their love for one other out,  and to demonstrate forgiveness to one another. We see Paul reflect a similar idea in 1 Corinthians 13 when he wrote 

“Love is patient, love is kind.

Love does not envy,

is not boastful, is not conceited,

 does not act improperly,

is not selfish, is not provoked,

and does not keep a record of wrongs.

 Love finds no joy in unrighteousness

but rejoices in the truth.

 It bears all things, believes all things,

hopes all things, endures all things.

 Love never ends,” (1 Corinthians 13:4-8).

There are several words in Greek for love, and Peter uses in his letter the most familiar word– agape (ἀγάπη). Agape can mean unconditional love, a love that will love you regardless of being loved in return, a non-stoping love, the sort of love that God demonstrates to the world, a sacrificial love. Agape can also be used to mean a deeply devoted, brotherly love. 

Here, Peter is telling the believers to have a non-stoping, unconditional, non-grudge-holding love for their brothers and sisters; that they are to love one another no matter what.

This lesson on love and forgiveness is one that Peter himself received a crash course in, and his words here show us how far this Galilean fisherman grew in his understanding of love and forgiveness. It was this same Peter who asked Christ how many times a brother must be forgiven, who asked if forgiving a brother just seven times would suffice. It was this same Peter who denied Christ three times and cursed His name after Jesus’ arrest. It was this same Peter who sat upon the beach with the resurrected Christ–the very Christ whom he had cursed just three days before–and it was this same Peter who Christ asked three times if Peter loved Him. It was this same Peter who responded three times that he did love Christ, and it was this same Peter whom–out of love– Jesus forgave for his denials, his cursing, and the rest of his sins.

Here, in this letter, we see this same Peter–a man who has grown dramatically in the Spirit–who encouraged his fellow believers to resolve to love one another.

We hear in Peter’s exhortation echoes of Christ’s words at the Passover meal when Christ said to the disciples, “a new command I give you: love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another,” (John 13:34-35). Peter wanted the believers to understand that the love they demonstrate for one another is the most persuasive witness to the world of their commitment to Christ; that love is the hallmark of the believer. The love that Christ commands means believers must look out for each other. Believers must take care of each other. This love requires believers to carry one another’s burdens, and it requires them to use the gifts and talents they all have to serve one another. In everything they do, the believers are to demonstrate their love for God and their love for each other. In doing this, the believers will bring glory and honor to God and Christ

In many ways, what Peter calls on us to do here in chapter 4 might be more challenging than any of the other exhortations he gives in this letter. This call to love is difficult because it forces us to take a look in the mirror. We have to check our resolve; we have to ask if we are really as determined and committed to living like Christ as we ought to be? Are we as committed to loving one another as we are supposed to be? When we start asking ourselves these questions, they open a whole litany of other questions that we must answer. The truth is that we might not like the answers we get when we really start being serious about being followers of Christ and asking ourselves if we are truly living out our faith, or if we are merely going through the motions. This examination is something we must do; it is crucial–it is imperative–that we understand the importance of resolving ourselves to loving one another. Loving one another is a foundational aspect of being a follower of Christ. It is a fundamental practice, and if we cannot do it properly, we will not ever grow in our faith; we will always be hindered, we will be hobbled.

We must ask ourselves if we are resolved to love our fellow believers, our brothers and sisters, unconditionally? Is the love we exhibit to our brothers and sisters eager to forgive and patient and kind and sincere? Or do we keep a record of wrongs and hurts and grudges? Do we only love when it is convenient for us to do so? When it is easy for us to do so? Do we only love when we get something in return? Do we love all our fellow believers or just those who are like us?

We must understand that there may come a time when our church–the people, the community, the family of believers–might be all that we have in this world. With this in mind, we must demonstrate a love for each other that shows our brothers and sisters that we will be there for them through thick and thin, for better or worse, ’til death do us part. 

We must also remember that for a Christian to not love their brothers and sisters is hypocrisy: it shows no thankfulness for the grace and mercy and love of God. It shows a disregard for the commands of Christ, who called upon us to love as we have been loved. For a Christian not to love is a waste. We have the hope of the world, secure and eternal, that can never be taken away from us regardless of what situation in which we find ourselves. This hope was given to us out of God’s unconditional love. We have been given hope and received a love that the world does not have. Out of love, Christ suffered and died so that we can have freedom from slavery to sin and death–how then could we not love? We must remember that we are to resolve ourselves to live like Christ and to love one another.

Resolve yourself to live like Christ. Resolve yourself to love like Christ. Love your brothers and sisters, and keep stretching that love and showing forgiveness, for this is how the world knows we are His disciples.

Artwork: “Love One Another III,” Ivan Guaderrama, 2015. https://fineartamerica.com/featured/love-one-another-iil-ivan-guaderrama.html

An Apology for Hope.

1 Peter, Christianity, Religion

“…but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect,” 1 Peter 3:15.

Peter’s first epistle is focused on encouraging believers to remain steadfast in their commitment to following Christ, despite the persecution they were enduring. Throughout the five chapters that comprise this letter, Peter reminds the believers that they do not belong to this world, that they are exiles and wanderers who are citizens of the kingdom of Heaven. As such, they must continue to seek to live as God called upon them to live. Peter repeatedly exhorts the believers to live differently from the world around them, and his letter is peppered with calls for the believers to be a holy people, a holy nation, living stones, living temples, and a holy priesthood. 

While calling upon the persecuted believers to be different from the world around them, Peter also gives practical applications of holy living to the believers for them to model in their lives. Peter provided insight and advice to Christian slaves, and also for Christian wives and husbands. Peter called upon all the believers to be good neighbors and respectful citizens. The believers were to demonstrate different characteristics than the world; they were to “put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander” (1 Peter 2:1). The followers of Christ were to “have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind” (1 Peter 3:8). Believers were also to be the “bigger people” in situations in which they were wronged,  just as Peter wrote, “do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing,” (1 Peter 3:9). It was of the utmost importance to Peter that the believers understood that they must be different; that they must live holy lives.

In chapter 3, Peter reveals the reason why believers must live differently. He reminds them that their very lives are living witnesses of God to the world. Due to this,  believers must always be ready to explain why–even in the midst of trials and persecutions–they have hope. Peter call on the believers to be ready to give an apologia (ἀπολογία), or an apology for their faith and their hope. This type of apology does not refer to showing remorse for doing wrong or asking for forgiveness; instead, this apology relates to a verbal argument defending or explaining one’s faith. Peter wanted these persecuted believers to understand that their holy lives would lead to people asking questions. These would be questions about how the believers could continue to be hopeful and serve Christ, even during their trials and persecutions. When these questions arose, the believers must be ready to explain precisely that–why they had hope and what that hope was rooted in.

If ever there was anything the world needs today, it is exactly what Peter here calls upon us as followers of Christ to do. We need people who are willing to be the bigger person. We need people who are not bent on returning evil for evil, people who bless others–even if those others are bent on harming or destroying them. We need people whose lives reflect the hope we have in Christ.

The world around us can be a frightening place; it often seems as though things here are getting worse and worse. Everything in the world around us is continually being questioned.  There are only wars and rumors of war; we are bombarded with news of heartache, and grief, and coming despair and destruction. It would seem as though there is no hope in the world.

But we, as believers, we have hope, and we know the source of our hope. While the world around us may be crying that the sky is falling and going into a panic–we carry on. We are not frightened by anything alarming; we have no fear and are not troubled.

Because of Christ, we have confidence in the future, not because the world will get better, but because–even if this world falls apart–we have a future with Him. This is why it is so vitally important that we live differently from the world. This is why we must lead lives that reflect our calm assurance of hope in Christ. For in this dark and seemingly hopeless world, we believers are the only sources of hope that the lost might see. We are the small, twinkling stars in a dark and moonless night; we are the nightlight put into this world by God to show others around us that things aren’t as dark and scary as they may seem. We were put here to reflect the hope that we have in Christ.

The fact that we are still here proves that there is still much work to be done. We do this, we reflect our hope in Christ, by doing just what Peter has encouraged us to do:

  • We do it by seeking always to do good to others.
  • We do it by modeling Godly marriages to the world.
  • We do it by being sympathetic and compassionate, and humble in all our relationships.
  • We do it by loving our fellow believers and helping them through their trials and ordeals.
  • We do it by demonstrating respect and gentleness in all our endeavors.
  • We do it by trusting in God and not being scared of what the future holds.
  • We reflect our hope in Christ by seeking to be like Him.

Through this–by living lives that are so radically different from all those around us–by reflecting our hope to them, we can draw them to that hope. When they ask us how we can possibly have hope, despite all the trials that are going on in our lives; 

  • How can we have hope now that our spouse has left us? 
  • How can we have hope now that we’ve received that terrible diagnosis from the doctor?
  • How can we have hope now that we’ve suddenly and tragically lost a loved one?
  • How can we have hope now that we’ve lost absolutely everything?

When asked these questions by the lost, we can look at them–at those souls who are so lost and disillusioned and desperately searching for something in which to hope–and we can tell them that our hope is not fixed upon anything in this world. We can say to them that our hope comes from the God who came to earth, who took our punishment and died for our sins, who then rose again out of the grave and ascended back into Heaven. We can tell them that our hope comes from the God who is alive today and sits upon His throne in Heaven; that our hope comes from the God who is above all the powers of this world. We can tell them that our hope is rooted in this God, who came and died and rose again and reigns on high today, and that He has promised that He will bring us to be with Him once again. We can tell them that, despite what happens to us, despite what goes on in the world around us, we have this promise from Him–we have hope.

The world is watching. Lead a life that reflects the hope you have in Christ. Let your life be a witness for Him and a living apology for all to see.

Artwork: “Blindfolded Hope Sitting on a Globe,”  George Frederic Watts, 1886.

Spiritual Milk.

Christianity, Religion

“You have purified your souls by obeying the truth in order to show sincere mutual love. So love one another earnestly from a pure heart. You have been born anew, not from perishable but from imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God…So get rid of all evil and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander. And yearn like newborn infants for pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up to salvation,” -1 Peter 1:22-23, 2:1-2 New English Translation (NET)

Peter pulls no punches in his letter to the dispersed believers in Asia Minor. Though they were experiencing persecution due to their faith in Christ, Peter encouraged these believers to remain focused on living differently from the world. He urged them to continue living as Christ had called them to live. Throughout this letter, Peter reminds the believers of what Christ suffered in order to bring salvation to them, and as such, they should be ready to suffer for Him when called to do so.

The believers are reminded by Peter that this call to holy living is a required demonstration of their faith. The followers of Christ are commanded to love one another and to show this love, for they have been born anew and given new, pure hearts. This calls to mind the prophetic promises of the Old Testament in which God promised to replace His people’s hearts of stone with hearts of flesh. The giving of a new heart is itself a sign of the Christian’s rebirth; Peter reminds these believers that this rebirth is not from any ordinary seed. This new birth is from the imperishable seed of God’s eternal and enduring word.

A few verses later, Peter gives very straightforward advice about how the believer is to demonstrate both their new heart and holy living. Peter implores the believers to get rid of all “evil and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander.” There is to be no room in the believer’s new, pure heart for these worldly traits, regardless of who the recipients of these feelings may be. The believer is not to harbor such feelings for non-believers, and especially not for fellow believers.

The believers are to instead “yearn like newborn infants for pure, spiritual milk,” which will aid in their growth as followers of Christ. This call to pursue “spiritual milk” is interesting on a few levels. First, the word that is translated in English as “spiritual” is the Greek work logikos (λογικός), as in “logical.” This word, logikos, is related to a significant Greek word, the word logos (λόγος). Logos is the Greek word for “word.” Despite its seemingly ordinary translation, logos is one of the most important words of the New Testament.  

So, how does this relate to Peter’s call to pursue spiritual milk? Peter made reference to the word (logos) of God in 1:23 when he reminded the believers of their new birth of the imperishable seed of the enduring word of God. He then used a similar and related word, logikos, and uses a little bit of word-play to encourage the believers to yearn for the word of God. It is almost as if he is saying, “yearn for the word of God milk.” This idea fits into the context of the statement: just as a newborn child yearns for milk to grow, the newborn believer is to yearn for the word of God so that they may grow in their faith.

There is, however, a more profound message here. We must remember that the word logos is one of the most important words of the New Testament. Logos is used as a code word for Christ, and it is often used to refer to Christ being the means through which God communicated to humanity. In the same way that humans use words to communicate with each other, God used Jesus to communicate with humanity and to tell the world how it could have a renewed relationship with the Father. Jesus is the literal word of God, and this is best illustrated in the opening verses of John’s gospel account. In John 1:1-4, we read the following, and we know that John is referring to Christ everywhere we used the word “Word”: 

 In the beginning was the Word (logos), and the Word (logos) was with God, and the Word (logos) was God. He (the logos) was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him (the logos), and without him (the logos) was not any thing made that was made. In him (the logos) was life, and the life was the light of men.

With this in mind, let’s look again at Peter’s call to pursue logikos milk. Considering the connection to logos and Jesus, we see that when Peter is telling us to hunger for and be nourished by the word of God, he doesn’t only mean the written word–the Scriptures. He also means for us to hunger and yearn for the real logos itself– to hunger and yearn for Christ. It is then, when we yearn for Christ, and seek to be nourished by Him, and by the Scriptures, we can put away all the fleshly desires and habits of this world. When these desires and habits are put away, we can live just as He called us to live– as His holy people.

Hunger and thirst for Christ; seek the nourishment and growth that only He can give. Pursue Christ above all else, and let Him work in you to remove all the evil and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander that infests each of us. Let Him give strength to your new, pure heart. Then use that new heart to exhibit His love to all you encounter.

Artwork: “Milk Bottles,” by Ollie Tuck, https://www.saatchiart.com/print/Painting-Milk-Bottles/1088026/4264596/view

Roll Your Sleeves Up.

Christianity, Religion

“Therefore, with your minds ready for action, be serious and set your hope completely on the grace to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” 1 Peter 1:13

In the days surrounding the New Year, it has become customary to look back over the year that is closing and to review its highs and lows. At the end of a  year, we take stock of that year, and we look forward with hope to a better year to come. With this hopeful anticipation comes another New Year’s custom–that of making resolutions. These resolutions are frequently related to self-improvement–eating healthier, losing weight, reading more–so as to improve the “success” of the upcoming year.

The trouble with New Year’s resolutions is that after the celebratory fervor of the New Year wears off, so too does the commitment to one’s resolutions. Frequently, as January closes out, we often find ourselves sliding into old habits–cheating on those diets, sleeping in when we should exercise, choosing to watch another episode of a show instead of reading that book that’s been living on the nightstand.

Sadly, we often experience such variations and fluctuations of commitment and apathy in our lives as followers of Christ. We may have had an emotional experience that resulted in our making a commitment to Christ, but as time goes on, that initial enthusiasm fades away. If time does not cause our faith to lose its luster, the advent of trials and hardship certainly can. Many people have bought into the lie that believing in Jesus will give them health, wealth, and success. The Bible says nothing to this effect; in fact, it says the opposite. In John 15, just before Jesus was betrayed and arrested, He says, “if the world hates you, you know it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, the world hates you. Remember the word I said to you, ‘A slave is not greater than its master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:18-20). Following Christ does not mean one will be free from experiencing heartache, grief, and suffering. Following Christ means being buffeted on all sides by the world and by the powers of the world.

Peter understood this firsthand. He endured prison and beatings because of his commitment to Christ. He wrote a letter of encouragement to believers in Asia Minor who were also suffering through trials and persecutions that befell them due to their faith. This letter, 1 Peter, was written roughly 2-3 years before Peter’s own death during the persecutions in Rome under Emperor Nero. In this letter of encouragement, Peter exhorts the Christians to remember that this world is not their home; that they are citizens of a land that is to come. He reminds them that these sufferings are only for a little while, but that God’s promise of salvation to them is eternal.

Peter also gives the suffering Christians a bit of advice: He tells them to be “ready for action and serious-minded.” Peter’s words in Greek literally translated are “gird up again your loins.” This phrase refers to the practice at this time of taking one’s robe and tucking it into a belt, so one could do work unencumbered by the robe. To use the language of our day, Peter told the believers to roll their sleeves up and stay focused on Christ. Peter encouraged these believers to continue in their faith, to stay focused on Christ, and to continue living as He called them to live, despite what it might cost the believers. If they lived, glory to God. If they died, glory to God– for their faith would become sight.

Millions of Christians today live in places where their faith costs them significantly. We must continually lift up these brothers and sisters in prayer, and those of us who are fortunate to live in places where we can freely practice our faith must ask ourselves if we take our faith as seriously as those who are dying because of their faith in Christ.

For those of us who are not persecuted: we must also heed Peter’s exhortation. We cannot let our faith be so weak that we allow setbacks, hardships, heartaches–no matter how minor or severe–diminish our faith. When times are good, we must be serious-minded and set our faith in Christ. When times are bad, we must roll up our sleeves and continue being serious-minded and focused upon Christ.

Resolve this year to being an obedient follower of Christ. Commit each and every day to serve Him and seeking to do His will. No other resolution is of any importance or relevance if you are not first focusing daily upon Christ. So roll up your sleeves and get to work.

Artwork: “Blacksmith’s Boy – Heel and Toe (Shaftsbury Blacksmith Shop),” Norman Rockwell, c. 1940.

Blessing.

Christianity, Religion

“The Lord said to Abram:

‘Go out from your land,

your relatives,

and your father’s house

to the land that I will show you.

I will make you into a great nation,

I will bless you,

I will make your name great,

and you will be a blessing.

I will bless those who bless you,

I will curse those who treat you with contempt,

and all the peoples on earth

will be blessed through you.’” Genesis 12:1-3

The calling of Abram (later to be Abraham) is one of the most critical chapters in the Bible. In this scene, we read of God choosing Abraham to be the father of His chosen people, and Abram is told that these people will be a great nation. Abram is seventy-five at this point, and he and his wife, Sarai, are childless. Despite this crucial fact, Abram does not question God. Abram demonstrates faith.

God commanded Abram to leave his family and his land and everything that he knew and to go to the land that God would show him. Abram’s role in God’s plan, aside from being the father of a great nation, was to go into exile. This makes us recall Genesis 3, where God exiled Adam and Eve from the Garden, both as a punishment for their sin, but also to protect them from the Tree of Life and God’s holy presence. Here in Genesis 12, we see Abram being commanded to go into exile to help bring about God’s redemptive plan to bring humanity back to Him. In leaving his land and people, Abram would walk with God as did Enoch and Noah, and he would suffer exile to help bring humanity back to God.

Perhaps the most crucial part of God’s promise to Abram was that all the people or nations of the earth would be blessed through him. Again, we think back to Genesis 3 to the Fall in the Garden, and how humanity was cursed toil with the land to eke out an existence, and also cursed with pain in bearing children. God’s promise of blessing to the nations isn’t a blessing of wealth or might, it is a promise of relief–that the curses of the Fall would be broken; that no longer would there be toil or grief or separation from God. The blessing that would come from Abram would be a reversal of the curses. For the curses to be broken, the important prophecy of Genesis 3:15 would have to be fulfilled–the Promised One from the seed of the Woman would have to crush the head of the Serpent. What God has promised to Abram is that one of his innumerable descendants would be that Promised One who defeats the Serpent and makes all things right again.

Abram would not see this fulfilled in his lifetime, but he still followed God.

So often, we get sidetracked and worried about details and things in our lives that are beyond the scope of our control. We worry, and we stress, and we don’t heed God’s call to follow Him because we can’t see how the pieces of His plan all fit together. We think–as the Serpent tricked Eve into thinking–that we can handle managing our lives ourselves, without God’s help. More often than not, when we try to take control of our lives, we only make the situation worse. It is only through submitting to God and His plan, and in doing what He calls upon us to do, that we can have any semblance of peace in this life.

We have to trust that if God has called us to do something that He has ordained to do, then there is nothing that can thwart or foil His plan; His will shall be accomplished. Likewise, we should have no fear of following His will. We know that the Promised One–Jesus Christ– has come, and the Serpent has been defeated. No longer are we banished from God’s presence; instead His Spirit lives within us. What then is there to fear in this world? Death and the grave are defeated, our slavery to sin broken, and our God is alive and lives within us. We have no reason not to have faith in Him and to follow wherever He calls us. Our blessing has come, but there is still work to be done and calls to be obeyed.

Artwork: “Abraham Leaves Haran,” Francisco Bassano the Younger, c.1560-1592.

Hope for Tomorrow.

Christianity, Religion

“But this I call to mind,

and therefore I have hope:

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;

his mercies never come to an end;

they are new every morning;

    great is your faithfulness.

‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul,

    ‘therefore I will hope in him.’”  Lamentations 3:21-24

The Book of Lamentations, as its title indicates, is not a happy book; it is a book of sorrow, sadness, and grief. The author, traditionally believed to be the prophet Jeremiah, composed the text in the immediate wake of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 587-586 BC. The book is a funeral dirge for the lost city. As one reads Lamentations, it is easy to picture the author walking through the rubble and destruction of the city, through the ruins of the Temple, all the while weeping for the once-great city who turned away from God and met this tragic fate. 

It is easy to understand why the author would express sadness and sorrow in this situation. As far as the author can see, there was only devastation, destruction, death, and pain. The great City of David leveled. Solomon’s Temple destroyed. Scattered all around were the lifeless bodies of friends and loved ones. Many of the survivors were being shackled together sent off away from their homeland into exile in Babylon. This destruction happened as the result of Judah and Jerusalem’s wandering away from God–the same sinful wandering that Jeremiah spent his career preaching against and telling the people of which to repent. The people did not repent, and they followed after the debased desires of their heart, going happily and unashamedly down the path to destruction, mocking God and Jeremiah all the way. Sadness and sorrow are the natural emotions that one would experience when witnessing such a scene, and we see Jeremiah express these same emotions in the laments he wrote in the aftermath of this destruction.

The Lamentations, however, take a curious turn. In the middle of the book, the author turns from weeping and grief to an unexpected emotion–hope. In chapter 3, as he recounts all the sorrow and devastation and destruction he has witnessed, the author transitions into a message of hope for the future. Though all around Jeremiah is the devastation of God’s wrath, morning has come, and with it a new day. The prophet realized that, though God’s fury and judgment were severe, the people have not been destroyed. Though they are going into exile, God was not done with His people, and if God is still working with this rebellious and stiff-necked people, there was hope for the future. God would remain faithful to the promises He made to Abraham and David. He would remain committed to the people who are incapable of being loyal to Him. Since God was still working through His people, then there would be a future, and there was a reason to be hopeful. It was because of His lovingkindness that they were not utterly destroyed; He was merciful even in His judgment. Even in the worst of circumstances, Jeremiah found reasons to praise God and to be hopeful.

The destruction that Jeremiah witnessed in Jerusalem is only a preview of the destruction which sinful humanity deserves. God does not have to continue to sustain humanity, yet He does out of His love and mercy. As if that display of compassion was not enough, God does more for us. God came to earth in the form of Jesus Christ, and He took our damnation and our destruction upon Himself.  He did this so that we could have a future–not just the hope of one, but the assurance of one–with Him. Christ paid the penalty for our sin so that we might become His people. He gave us a future of hope when we deserved a future of destruction. The words of hope that Jeremiah cried out to God in the wake of the destruction of Jerusalem ring even more valid now in the aftermath of Christ’s atoning death outside the walls of Jerusalem: 

“But this I call to mind,

and therefore I have hope:

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;

his mercies never come to an end;

they are new every morning;

    great is your faithfulness.

‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul,

    ‘therefore I will hope in him.”

Regardless of what situation we may find ourselves in, we have a future of hope. Christ demonstrated the infinite depth of His love and mercy by taking our sin and our destruction. He is faithful to us even when our faithfulness wanes. He is our portion forever, and He is the only hope we have.

Artwork: “Jeremiah,” Marc Chagall, 1956

Walk the Line.

Christianity, Religion

“The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: ‘Stand in the gate of the Lord’s house, and proclaim there this word, and say, Hear the word of the Lord, all you men of Judah who enter these gates to worship the Lord. Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your deeds, and I will let you dwell in this place. Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.’ …Behold, you trust in deceptive words to no avail. Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are delivered!’—only to go on doing all these abominations?” Jeremiah 7:1-4, 8-10

In 1956, the late country musician Johnny Cash recorded what would become his first number one hit. Cash wrote the song, “I Walk the Line,” to help alleviate the fears that his wife held about the lures of fame and life on the road might be taking on Johnny and their marriage. The song’s message of faithfulness and commitment were popular with the public; however, the tragic irony is that Cash did not live up to the high bar of fidelity that he presented in the song. The wiles of fortune got the best of Cash and took a toll on both his health and marriage. The song he wrote to help ease the fears of his wife proved to be an empty promise. The song was merely a collection of deceptive words that were uttered to help hide a lifestyle of inappropriate behavior. Cash would later become–during his second marriage–a devoted family man, but it would take the remainder of his life to work to reconcile the mistakes of his past.

In the Book of Jeremiah, we are presented with a similar situation, though one that is infinitely greater in its magnitude and importance.

The prophet Jeremiah was called by God to go to Jerusalem to preach against the sins of the people of Judah, the majority of whom had turned away from God and given wholly into idolatry and pagan worship. Despite the occasional righteous king, Judah had–like the northern kingdom of Israel–become a spiritual wasteland. The majority of the population no longer sought after God; instead, they turned to Baal and other false gods and offered sacrifices, sometimes of their children, to these pagan deities. This wholesale turning away from God was marked by Judah’s failure to live as God commanded. Those who were supposed to be looked after, the widows and orphans and foreigners, were ignored and exploited. Innocent blood was shed, and justice and righteousness were nowhere to be found. The Promised Land and the City of David–the very place where God’s presence dwelt amongst His people–had become overrun with corruption and spiritual pollution.

Despite this lack of regard for God and His commandments, the people of Judah did not think anything was wrong. Though Jeremiah and other prophets would appear and preach about the error of their spiritual philandering, the people of Judah–especially those in Jerusalem–took no heed of these calls to repentance. They would, instead, point to the temple and say, “we have the Temple of the Lord.” The temple served as evidence that judgment would not befall Jerusalem or Judah, because it made no sense for God to punish the very place that housed His temple. The presence of the temple was viewed as an assurance of peace and security. The people of Jerusalem and Judah were trusting in the presence of a physical structure, not in the God whose presence inhabited the building.

Jeremiah pointed out the error in this thinking. He preached against the duplicity of the people of Judah. Jeremiah explained that the people would go to the temple and offer some arbitrary prayer or sacrifice in an attempt to appease God, only to leave and continue sinning. They would say that the temple was Lord’s, but they did not live as though that were true. They failed to understand that having the temple was a call to holy living, not a symbol of security. They trusted in the vain and deceptive words that they muttered to themselves as they slid further and further into sin. “God won’t destroy Jerusalem,” they said, “we have the temple of the Lord,” and so they justified their sins. They thought that, since God had blessed the faith of their ancestors Abraham and David, they could live and do whatever they wanted. The people of Jeremiah’s era failed to realize that each generation must commit themselves to live the life of righteousness and justice that God demands.

God would only be mocked for so long. To show the people how wrong they were, and how misplaced their trust was, Jerusalem was attacked by the Babylonians in 587 BC. When the Babylonians captured the city, the temple was utterly destroyed. The judgment for the people’s sins had come. The building that the people trusted in was leveled before their eyes.

Followers of Christ have the same call to holy living as the Israelites had. It is God’s desire for his people to live differently from the world; to be holy as He is holy. We must be sure that we are heeding this call and that we are radically different from the world around us. We must remember that the salvation Christ gave us–at the expense of His life–is the beginning of the sanctification process. As we grow deeper and stronger in Christ, we are to be increasingly less like the world. Our salvation is not “fire insurance;” nor is it a “get out of jail free” card. Our salvation is not an invitation to test the limits of God’s forgiveness while we continue to sin and live as we wish. This is no different than pointing to the presence of the temple as a sign of God’s favor and protection. To live such a life of contradiction–to profess Christ, while willfully continuing in sin–makes a mockery of the cross. 

Live a life that reflects your professed commitment to Christ. Live a life that bears fruit for Him. Do not mock Him. Do not point to baptism or a walk down the aisle to justify living as you wish. Live a life that strives for sanctification. Don’t merely tell Christ you will walk the line; do it.

Artwork: “Jerusalem was taken by Nebuchadnezzar as was the prophecy of Jeremiah,” Marc Chagall, 1956

Go and Proclaim.

Christianity, Religion

“As they were going along the road, someone said to Him, ‘I will follow You wherever You go.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘The foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.’ And He said to another, ‘Follow Me.’ But he said, ‘Lord, permit me first to go and bury my father.’ But He said to him, ‘Allow the dead to bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim everywhere the kingdom of God.’ Another also said, ‘I will follow You, Lord; but first permit me to say good-bye to those at home.’ But Jesus said to him, ‘No one, after putting his hand to the plow and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.’” Luke 9:57-62

Luke 9 is, quite possibly, one of the most critical chapters of Luke’s gospel account. Within its sixty-two verses, we see some of the most important events of Christ’s ministry chronicled. The chapter begins with Christ commissioning the twelve disciples to go out before Him and prepare the towns through which He would be passing for His arrival and teaching. After this, we read of the account of Christ’s feeding of the 5,000 with only five loaves of bread and two fish. Peter’s confession of Jesus follows this scene as the Messiah, and when we read immediately after this Luke’s account of Christ’s transfiguration in front of Peter, James, and John. In many ways, this chapter is a highlight reel of sorts in its depiction of Christ’s miracles and ministry.

This chapter is significant for another reason, beyond that of the scope of its content. Luke 9 is the turning point of Luke’s narrative account of Jesus’ life. Chapters 1-8 dealt with Christ’s birth and ministry in and around Galilee;  Luke 9 is the point of transition to Christ’s journey to Jerusalem for the Passover and His crucifixion. We see this made clear in Luke 9:51, “When the days were approaching for His ascension, He was determined to go to Jerusalem.” Christ knew the day–the literal day–of His ascension back into heaven was drawing near, and that it was time to head up to Jerusalem to complete the mission for which He had been sent to earth. He knew it was time to head up to Jerusalem to die for humanity’s redemption. Everything that happens following Luke 9:51 and before Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem in Luke 19 occurs on His journey up to Jerusalem. In that ten chapter span, Christ continued teaching and preaching and performing miracles, knowing that the crowds that followed Him in amazement would soon be crying out for His crucifixion. He knew all of this, and He continued to journey toward Jerusalem to His death. 

As Christ and the twelve “were going along the road” (Luke 9:57), crowds would have been following them to see what Christ would do next. People were undoubtedly trying to get close to Jesus to speak to Him, and Luke details the interactions that Jesus had with three anonymous men.

The first man mentioned approached Christ and told Jesus that he would follow Christ wherever he went. Jesus’ response was not one welcoming the man aboard; instead, the answer was intended to make sure the man understood the nature of the commitment he was making. Christ told the man that, unlike the birds and foxes, He–the Son of Man–had nowhere to lay His head. Jesus had no place of His own, nor did he have material wealth. He lived the life of a vagabond, relying on the Father to provide for and meet His needs. If this was the case for Christ, then the follower of Christ wasn’t to expect anything better. The man needed to understand that committing to following Christ was committing to living a life of total reliance and dependence upon God; it was a commitment to living the type of life that Christ Himself modeled. Following Christ does not lead to earthly wealth and comfort. Following Christ causes the follower to live out their trust in God’s dependence; it forces the follower to put their faith and trust into practice. 

The second man Luke mentions did not approach Christ; instead, Christ called the man to “Follow Me.” We are not told anything about this man, about why Christ chose to issue this call to him over others who may have been there. We only know what Luke tells us; that the Incarnate God called on this man to follow Him, and that this man could not commit to this call. The man’s response to Christ’s call reflects a misunderstanding about the importance of the call the man just received. The called-man asks for permission first to go and bury his father. The man’s request shows that he thought that fulfilling this familial obligation was more important than following Christ; that checking off some ritual duty was a better use of his time than heeding Jesus’ call. In its essence, the man’s response was “I will follow you, but not now; not yet.” Christ corrected the man’s skewed thinking. He told the man to “let the dead bury the dead,” to allow the spiritually dead–those who hadn’t just been called by God Himself–to go and attend to this less important duty. As for the man, he must go and preach the kingdom of God. Christ saw the flaw in the man’s thinking and priorities, and He quickly corrected them. The man had no more important duty than that of following Christ–who was on the way to Jerusalem to die–and preaching the kingdom of God.

The third man mentioned repeated the same mistake as the second man. He wanted to follow Christ, but he wanted to do so on his terms–he wanted to begin following after he took care of the business of saying good-bye to his family. Like the second man, this man was attempting to put conditions on his commitment to following Jesus. Once again, Jesus corrected this inappropriate thinking. Christ told the man that he would be of no use to the kingdom of God if he kept looking back at the things of his life before following. Following God must be the sole priority of the follower; they cannot look back at the old things–family included–and follow God at the same time. One cannot say they want to follow God and wish they could do other things as well. God must be the most important thing in the follower’s life.

We are not told what happened to these men. We are not told that they followed Christ, nor are we told that they turned away from Him that day. We are only told what we need to know, and the accounts of these interactions serve to teach us a crucial message about the nature of following Christ: saying that we will follow Christ means nothing if we do not back up that profession with our actions. It is not enough to merely profess Christ with our lips, our hearts and actions and lifestyle must also reflect this commitment. To do otherwise is to repeat the same mistakes as ancient Israel. We would be acting no differently than those in the days of Isaiah, when God said “this people draws near with their words and honors Me with their lips, but their hearts are far from Me,” (Isaiah 29:13). Saying we want to follow Christ requires us to do just that—no ifs or buts.

So often we make the same mistakes as the three men depicted in Luke’s gospel. We find ourselves attempting to put conditions on our commitment to following Him. We attempt only to submit parts of our lives to Him, while we try to keep control over other aspects. We allow other things to take priority over being a follower of Christ. We think that following Jesus will be comfortable and don’t understand the nature of submitting to Him. We say we want to follow Jesus, but we keep looking back to other things and long for those things. If we say we want to follow Jesus, we must submit entirely to Him. We must remember that our usefulness to the advancement of His kingdom is dependent upon our entire submission. Then, once we submit and follow, we can do nothing else but go and proclaim the kingdom of God.

Artwork: “Still Life with Skull and Writing Quill,” Pieter Claesz, 1628.

Illogical.

Christianity, Religion

 “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.  For it is written,

I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” 1 Corinthians 1:18-25

In his first letter to the church in Corinth, Paul had to address several issues. The Corinthians were a raucous bunch, and the church was overflowing with spiritual problems. The church was full of division; there were factions who favored the teachings of certain men over others– some followed Paul, some Apollos; others followed Peter, while still others followed Christ (1 Corinthians 1:12). There was also a divide between the social classes within the church. Paul rebuked the Corinthian Christians for their practice of not eating the Lord’s Supper together as one body. The early churches observed the Lord’s Supper much differently than modern churches do; it would be a full meal at which the baptized members of the church would observe the ceremonial breaking of bread and drinking of wine. When the Communion would be partaken in Corinth, the wealthy members of the church would arrive before the poorer members, while many of the poorer members would still be working. The rich members would not wait for their poorer brethren to arrive, and would begin to eat and drink to excess. When the poor Christians finally did arrive at the communal meal, there would be no food remaining, and the rich Christians would be intoxicated. The Corinthians did not observe then Communion as a sacred act; instead, they treated it like a party. As if these issues were not enough, the Corinthian believers were accepting of an affair between a man and his step-mother, and nobody spoke out against this immorality that was going on within the church. Paul was, at the very least,  disappointed and disgusted with the lack of restraint that was so evident in Corinth; the letter that is now referred to as 1 Corinthians was his attempt to begin helping the Corinthians correct these grave issues.

One of the greatest strengths of the Apostle Paul’s writings was his ability to understand the context of the culture in which his audiences lived. As he said himself, he could be a Jew when among Jews, and a Greek when among Greeks. This cultural awareness is evident in the first chapter of 1 Corinthians as Paul goes to some lengths to discuss the “foolishness” of the Gospel. Paul understood the importance of logic, philosophy, and the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom that was so pervasive within Hellenistic culture. He dealt with this firsthand when he debated the Stoics and the Epicureans before the Areopagus in Athens in Acts 17. The fundamental core truth of the Gospel–that God would send His son, Jesus, to die for man’s salvation– was utterly illogical. Furthermore, as is also evidenced in Acts 17, the idea of a resurrection of the dead was equally laughable. Luke records in Acts 17:32 that “when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some began to sneer…” Paul was no stranger to the opposition to the Gospel that was put forth by those who claimed to be wise by the world’s standard of wisdom.

Paul, therefore, goes on to remind the Corinthian Christians that the world’s standard of wisdom is not the same as God’s, and it is God’s wisdom that they should be concerned about. A prophecy from Isaiah was quoted to reinforce the point that, along with everything else of this world, all man-centered wisdom would eventually pass away and be destroyed. The wisdom that man can ascertain for himself is nothing compared to the wisdom found in God. Compared to God and His wisdom, the wisdom of the world is nonsense.

 To those who have not been changed by Christ, this message would not make sense. To the non-believer, to the philosopher, to the seeker of wisdom the Gospel of the Cross is completely and totally ridiculous. It makes no sense that God–the Creator of the Universe–would send His son to die for the salvation of man–the creation. This kind of belief seems unfounded and illogical. Paul points out that the Greeks’ commitment to having a logical understanding of the world is what prevents them from seeing and understanding the beauty of the Gospel, just as the Jews’ demand for signs prevented them from seeing the signs being played out before them. The cross of Christ breaks all barriers, it is a stumbling block to those of any background, both Jew and Gentile, who don’t believe in it. The message of the cross was too illogical for the philosophers to take seriously. They, like the Jews, were too deeply committed to their own understanding of how the world was supposed to operate and they could not see the incredible work that God did through Christ and the cross. It was through this illogical and “foolish” act that God chose to save the world, and it was this foolish gospel that Paul preached, and is this foolish gospel that draws men and women back to God.

The beauty of the cross is that it makes no sense; its illogical nature is what gives it so much power. Yes, we can study the Old Testament and understand the deep symbolisms and fulfillment of prophecies that are contained within Christ’s death, but even then we are still forced to answer critical questions: Why God would come to Earth and allow Himself to die at the hands of His creation? Why didn’t God just start over again, as He did in the days of Noah? Why would God do this? Why wouldn’t God do that? There are any number of questions that we could ask and drive ourselves crazy with if we were to try to find logic in what Christ did. But that’s just the point–there is no logic in it. Christ’s actions defy any wisdom and understanding of man. We are not saved by finding the logic in Christ’s death; we are saved by having faith in His illogical outpouring of love and mercy and grace. We are not saved by uncovering some secret, hidden knowledge; we are saved by trusting in the God who came to die for us. 

We are foolish to think that we can predict how God will operate. We cannot put Him in a box and systematically predict what He will do. Our wisdom is not His; our wisdom is foolishness in comparison. The message of Christ crucified proves this;  the cross shows us how little we understand about how God operates. Thankfully, God does not operate according to our standard of logic. Our God operates in the illogical, like coming and dying to take away our sins, so that we might be allowed to have a new life with Him.

Artwork: “The Philosophers,” c. 1620-1625.