Promises, Promises.

Christianity, Hebrews, Religion
Gravestone St. Domitilla catacomb in Rome depicting two fish anchored to the anchor of hope. Courtesy of https://earlychurchhistory.org/

“Because God wanted to show His unchangeable purpose even more clearly to the heirs of the promise, He guaranteed it with an oath, so that through two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to seize the hope set before us. We have this hope as an anchor for our lives, safe and secure.” Hebrews 6:17-19

In Hebrews 6, we read some of the author’s most reassuring words. These words of hope and comfort come in the middle of a discussion of the eternal and unchanging nature of God’s promises. Here, we see the author demonstrate how faithful God is to keep His promises by using Abraham’s example. We are reminded of how God kept His promise to bless Abraham with many descendants. This stands as a reminder to us that God will also keep His promises to us.

What are the promises that God is going to keep to us? They are His promises to redeem us from sin, to offer us forgiveness, to make us His people. They include Christ’s promises to never leave us nor forsake us, to be with us each and every day until the end of time, and to return for us to take us to be with Him in heaven. These are the promises that will be kept to us. The author reminds us that these promises give us hope and that they anchor our souls.

The imagery of an anchor is especially important in this passage. Think about what an anchor is used for–they used to keep a boat from being blown off course or blown into danger during a storm. When the seas rage and the storms overwhelm the boat, the anchor holds the boat steady. This is what Christ does for us; He holds us steady during life’s trials and troubles. He is with us in the midst of the storms. Our anchor is securely fastened to His throne of mercy, and He secured it there when He blazed a trail through the heaven. Regardless of what we might encounter in this life, our anchor will hold firmly.

It is important to point out that Christ did not promise us smooth sailing, nor did He promises is a comfortable life. Christ did not promise us health, wealth, or prosperity. Christ did not promise us happiness. Many people started believing these things along the way, but these are not promises that Christ ever made. These are lies that were fabricated by false teachers.

The promises that Christ made are more important and more incredible than comfortable living, health, wealth, prosperity, and happiness. He promised to be with us and to hold us amid life’s storms. He called upon us to be willing to give up our health, wealth, and prosperity for His sake, and in return, He promised to sustain us and provide for us each and every day. Christ has promised to bring us peace and comfort during the times when we have no happiness, when we are surrounded by pain and sorrow, and when our tears are drowning us. He has promised to give us a joy that endures even the darkest days. Christ promised to anchor us throughout everything we endure, and this promise will never be broken.

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

Salvation Is His Name.

Christianity, Religion

“And she will have a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” Matthew 1:21

Matthew and Luke both record in their respective gospels the narrative of Jesus’ birth. Each account gives a distinct perspective of how Christ’s birth came to be and took place, and each gospel writer gives unique details about the events surrounding Jesus’ birth. For example, in Luke’s account, we are given the familiar story of Gabriel’s visit to Mary, Caesar Agustus’ census, the birth in the stable in Bethlehem, and the appearance of the heavenly host to the shepherds.

While Luke’s account is focused mainly upon Mary, Matthew gives us a version that deals with Joseph’s side of the story. This focus on Joseph is essential because one of Matthew’s intention is to show how Jesus is the promised messiah, or king, from the line of David. To accomplish this, Matthew lists Jesus’ family tree, from Abraham to King David, all the way to Joseph. We learn from this that Joseph is a direct descendant of David, and as such, Jesus would be adopted into the Davidic line.

After connecting Joseph and Jesus to David, Matthew’s attention shifts to the events surrounding Jesus’ birth, specifically with the issue that Mary has become pregnant in the middle of her engagement to Joseph. Jewish engagements of this era were almost as binding as the marriage itself; to break the engagement, one party would have to receive a bill of divorce. Matthew tells us that Mary had conceived her child by the Holy Spirit, but Joseph still found himself in a precarious situation. For Mary to be pregnant with a child that was not Joseph’s during the engagement could have raised accusations of adultery. With that charge, Mary could be put to death, as was the prescribed penalty under the Law of Moses.

Matthew tells us that Joseph was a righteous man and that he did not want to disgrace Mary publically. Joseph did not want to do anything that would endanger Mary; he was prudent. He has a man who followed the Law, but he also cared for Mary and did not want her to be hurt. She was going to have enough difficulty ahead being pregnant and unwed, there was no need to add to her burden. So Joseph decided to handle everything secretly and let everyone go their separate ways.

Though Joseph might have thought he was handling everything, this was not God’s plan. God was still going to use Joseph to be the earthly father of His Son, and Joseph was going to provide Mary’s child with the necessary Davidic lineage. He did not know it yet, but Joseph was going to play a vital role in God’s plan to redeem humanity.

So God sent a messenger to Joseph; an angel came to him in a dream. This angel spoke to Joseph and told this very important descendant of David not to be afraid to marry Mary. This was not just any ordinary child that she was carrying, this was a child that was conceived by the Holy Spirit. In the same way that God created everything in Genesis from nothing, He had created a baby in Mary from nothing. The angel continued to tell Joseph that Mary would have a son and that they must name this son Jesus. The angel then gives a critical detail about why this child must be called Jesus: it is because this child will save the people from their sins.

But what does this mean? What is the connection between the name Jesus and saving the people?

The English name “Jesus” comes from the Greek name Iesous (Ἰησοῦς), which is the Greek translation of the Aramaic name Yeshua (יֵשׁוּעַ). Yeshua is a shortened version of the Hebrew name Joshua, or Yehoshua (יְהוֹשׁוּעַ). In essence, Christ’s first name would be Josh. Both Yeshua and Yehoshua have the same meaning: YHWH is Salvation. So, our first step in understanding why Jesus must be named Yeshua is because that very name means “YHWH is salvation.”

There is a relationship between the name Yeshua and Hebrew words relating to salvation; they call come from the same root. For instance, the term “salvation” is yeshu’ah (יְשׁוּעָה) which sounds nearly identical to the name given to Christ. Likewise, the phrase “he will save” in Hebrew is yasha (יָשַׁע), which is an even more compact form of the name Yeshua. This all helps us to understand that salvation is at the very core of the name being given to Mary’s son. The baby must be named “Salvation,” because He is bringing salvation, and He Himself will do the saving.

This also sheds light on the identity of Jesus. His name, Yeshua, means “YHWH is Salvation,” but according to the angel’s explanation, Jesus is the one who will be doing all the saving; Jesus Himself has become the agent of salvation. Therefore, if Jesus’ name means “YHWH is Salvation,” and if Jesus is the one bringing salvation to the people-brining redemption from sin–then Jesus must be YHWH; He must be God. Proving that Jesus is God is why Matthew includes the quote from Isaiah 7:14– since Jesus is God, He is the fulfillment of the Immanuel prophecy given by Isaiah. Jesus is Immanuel (God with Us) because Jesus is God, and He has come to be with His people.

God spared no attention to detail in His plan to redeem humanity. He sent the world His Son, and that Son was named Salvation because He would save the people from their sins. That baby, who was both fully human and fully God, grew up to be a man who led a perfectly obedient life to God, and that man died so that salvation could be given to the world. Three days later,  Salvation–who is God with Us– rose from the dead, defeating sin and death once and for all.

Place your trust in the one who is both fully God and fully man. His name is Salvation, and there is no other name that you can call upon to be saved.

Artwork: “The Nativity,” from “Derriere le Miroir” Marc Chagall, 1950

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.

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.

Trust.

Christianity, Religion

“In you, O Lord, do I take refuge;

    let me never be put to shame;

    in your righteousness deliver me!

Incline your ear to me;

    rescue me speedily!

Be a rock of refuge for me,

    a strong fortress to save me!

For you are my rock and my fortress;

    and for your name’s sake you lead me and guide me;

you take me out of the net they have hidden for me,

    for you are my refuge.

Into your hand I commit my spirit;

    you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God.” Psalm 31:1-5

“But I trust in you, O Lord;

    I say, ‘You are my God.’” Psalm 31:14

David’s psalms are some of the most heart-wrenching writings in all of Scripture, and yet they are also some of the most relatable. When reading his work, the reader never has to wonder what emotion David is trying to communicate; the emotion of the text leaps of the page. David’s psalms of sorrow and anguish hit us in the pit of our stomachs, and his psalms of joy leave us feeling as happy and invigorated as he was when he penned them. Ever the poet, David understood how to express and communicate whatever emotions he was experiencing.

The thirty-first psalm is no exception to this rule; in this psalm, David laid bare his soul and expressed to God–and to later readers–the emotional and spiritual toll he experienced as a result of the numerous trials he went through. 1 Samuel recounts the saga of David and Saul when David had to stay on the run from an ever increasingly paranoid and deranged Saul, who was bent on killing the anointed future king of Israel. Samuel’s account tells the reader of David’s hiding in the caves in the wilderness of Israel, his having to periodically flee Israel, of doing absolutely anything to stay always one step ahead of Saul–the king whom David had sworn to serve and who at one time found such solace from David’s music. Saul would stop at nothing to kill David. Despite this, David had numerous opportunities to kill Saul, and yet he spared Saul’s life every single time. On more than one occasion, David had to flee to the land of the Philistines–Israel’s mortal enemy at the time–because it was safer for David to live in the land of his enemies than to live amongst his people. While Saul lived, David was a vagabond; he lived a life of exile. Those who aided him did so at a high cost; helping David elude Saul warranted death. Saul did everything within his power to ensure that David had no one to turn to for help or protection–or so Saul thought.

It was during this chapter of David’s life that he penned Psalm 31. In this psalm, David cried out to the One who would not forsake him, to the One who had aided and protected him all along the arduous journey. David knew that, had it not been for God’s protection, Saul would have captured him and killed him long ago. God alone had been David’s refuge, his stronghold. David also knew that he had done nothing to merit God’s favor or protection; God had been doing so purely out of love and mercy, and because it was what He desired to do. God had foiled Saul’s plans and intentions every step of the way, and David trusted that God would continue to do so. David understood that God had saved him–ransomed him–for a purpose, and so he knew he must entrust his life and soul to God’s care; he must commit his spirit into God’s hands.

David did not hold back from crying out to God in this psalm. Though he was trusting God’s providence for the outcome of this trial, David was still being crushed under the weight of his ordeal. He was reaching his mental and physical breaking points; his life was nothing but sorrow, distress, and sighing. His body was withering away. Those who knew him avoided him; those who were once his friends looked at him as a danger and threat to their own safety. People had forgotten about him as they would a person after their death. David–the man the people once cheered for and celebrated–was now an object of scorn and rebuke. The man who slew the giant to save his people had now been forsaken by them. In spite of this, he continued to trust in God. The world may attack David and shake him to his very core, but God would remain his rock and refuge.

At times, it is difficult for us to have this same level of trust in God. In times of joy and plenty, it is easy for us to say that we trust in Him, but that confidence does not always readily carry over into the times of sorrow and anguish. In the difficult times, we more closely resemble the disciples in the boat in the midst of the storm when they cried out “Save us, Lord!” (Matthew 8:25). What was Jesus’ response to this plea? “Why are you afraid, you men of little faith?” (Matthew 8:26). There the phrase “little faith” could also be translated “little trust.” Our trust in God is directly related to the faith we put in Him; we will never be able to trust in Him fully if we do not place the entirety of our faith in Him. Our trust in God reflects our faith in Him. If we have great faith in a great God who can do all things, then we can boldly endure the trials of this life, regardless of their impact upon us, just as David did.

God does not count our failures to always trust in Him against us; He loves us and sustains us in spite of this. Furthermore, He knows what these moments of anguish and turmoil feel like, for He experienced them firsthand. Matthew, Mark, and Luke each detail in their gospel accounts Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane before His betrayal and arrest. The Gospel of Luke says this: 

 “And He withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, and He knelt down and began to pray,  saying, ‘Father, if You are willing, remove this cup from Me; yet not My will, but Yours be done.’ Now an angel from heaven appeared to Him, strengthening Him. And being in agony He was praying very fervently; and His sweat became like drops of blood, falling down upon the ground.” (Luke 22:41-44).

The miracle and the beauty of the Incarnation is that Jesus was fully man and fully God. His deity allowed Him to know exactly what was going to happen and what would befall Him; He understood everything that He was going to endure. His humanity allowed Him to feel the emotions that would accompany such knowledge. He knew the pain and the torture and the cruelty that awaited Him. He knew He would be mocked and ridiculed and scorned. He knew to defeat sin and death and the grave that He must first die. He knew that He would be forsaken by His friends and neighbors. He knew all of this, and He was scared. He asked the Father if it were possible to achieve the salvation required for humanity to be accomplished another way, then to allow it to be so. Yet, He prayed for the Father’s will to be done, not His. His faith was in the Father, and He trusted in the Father, just as his forefather, David had. Christ took the cup that was set before Him, went forward on His mission of salvation, and with His dying breath, quoted the words of His ancestor David:  “And Jesus, crying out with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit.’” Having said this, He breathed His last,” (Luke 23:46). Christ’s last words, as He hung dying on the cross, forsaken by all humanity, were those that His ancestor David had penned at a time when he too was forsaken by all, except God. In their moments of agony, David and Jesus both trusted God. 

The sin-slayer and the giant-slayer, both scorned and forsaken by men, knew that they could do nothing else but trust in God.

The echoes of Psalm 31 in Christ’s crucifixion are one of many of the amazing and unbelievable threads of continuity within Scripture. One final detail to point out is that Psalm 31 is one of the many psalms which are dedicated to “The Choirmaster.” outside of the psalms, this phrase appears many times, but only one other instance is it translated from Hebrew into English as “choirmaster.” In every other situation, it is translated as “Eternal One,” or “The One Who Overcomes.” Additionally, these particular psalms–the ones to the Choirmaster–have messianic themes, and often have the highest view of God’s majesty. With this understanding, it makes Christ’s last words even more powerful. Not only was Jesus quoting David; He was quoting a work that was dedicated to Him.

Trials and grief and sorrow in this life are plentiful and sure to come. But take hope in the One who has been your rock and your refuge. Trust in the One who knows how hard it can be to trust. Commit your life and your spirit to the One who took your damnation and who died to slay sin to save you.

Artwork: “Crucifixion,” 1964, Marc Chagall

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.

By Faith.

Christianity, Religion

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the people of old received their commendation. By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.” ‭‭ Hebrews‬ ‭11:1-3‬

“And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.” Hebrews‬ ‭11:39-40‬

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

The Letter to the Hebrews is a beautifully-written piece of Christian theology and doctrine. Though there are numerous speculations as to who its author was, the true identity is still unknown. What is known, however, is the purpose for which this letter was written. In the years following Christ’s ascension into Heaven, there was the belief that His return would be imminent. However, as time carried on, and Christ had yet to return, some Jewish believers began to think that maybe Jesus had not been the promised Messiah. These people began to go back into their old rituals and practices and started to once again wait for the coming of the Messiah. The author of Hebrews, determined to correct this fallacy and “falling away” (Hebrews 6:4-5), gives detailed teaching about the Jewish rituals and observances, and how Christ fulfilled all of these things in His life and death. The author of Hebrews uses the traditions and teachings of the Old Testament to make the fact that Jesus is the Messiah crystal clear.

In chapter eleven of Hebrews, this systematic approach of teaching through the Old Testament is on full display. In this chapter, the author highlights the importance of faith, and how it was by faith that the heroes and heroines of the ancient days, of the Old Testament, were gained their approval from God, and it was through a life of faith that they bore witness of God. It was by faith, by the “assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen” (Hebrews 11:1) that the people of old lived; they never saw God in the flesh, and many of them never lived to see God’s promises to them fulfilled, yet they trusted in God nonetheless. The writer of Hebrews goes through the Old Testament, person-by-person, to demonstrate how the figures in this “ Hall of Faith” lived out their faith in God, regardless of the cost. For some, like Noah and Abraham, this life of faith did not cost them their lives. For many of the prophets, their faith in God cost them everything: “Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment.  They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated— of whom the world was not worthy” (Hebrews 11:35-38). None of the people mentioned by the author of Hebrews received what was promised to them in their lifetime–they did not live to see their inhabitants become a great nation or live to see the coming of the Messiah–and yet they persisted in their faith, knowing that God would keep His promise in His time.

Where Hebrews 11 ends with those who did not live to see God’s promises come into fulfillment, Hebrews 12 begins with those who are living after the coming of Jesus the Messiah. Though the promise of the Messiah has been fulfilled, we must still live a life of faith. We must always press forward in life toward the promise of eternal life with God in His Kingdom. The heroes and heroines of the Old Testament, that “great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1), surround us and they have modeled for us how we are to live. We are to live as they did; with our eyes to the future and our faith firmly rooted in God. Christ, who is the author and perfecter of our faith, is now seated at the right hand of God. Since He endured our shame and punishment, He has enabled us to continue in the race that is life, and through our faith in Him, we can put aside the sins which so easily trip us up and drag us down. 

As we run our race, we must keep our eyes focused on Christ–as those of old focused on God the Father–because without Him and His help, we cannot finish the race. The race before us is not a sprint; it is a marathon. It is a race that will push us to our very limits; it is a race that will be long and arduous. Like those of old, our race might end painfully, and it might end without us seeing all of God’s promises coming into fruition. But as the Apostle Paul wrote in Philippians 1:21, “to live is Christ, to die is gain.” While we live, we run the race that is before us; when we die, our race is done, and we are with Him.

Our lives today are just as much rooted in faith– rooted in the “assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen”–as were the lives of those in the Old Testament. We have not seen God, nor have we seen Christ. While we can look back at our individual lives before Christ saved us, and see how God worked in us and changed us, it is our faith that lets us know that the things that happened were done by God and not by chance or karma. It is by faith that we believe the Bible to be true. It is by faith in the hope that there is a better life to come that we continue forward–sometimes trudging–in this life. Most importantly, it is by faith in Christ, in Christ alone, that we are saved.

Those who came before us lived by faith, so too must we. Those who came before us left us a witness and a model to live by, we must do the same for those who will come after us. We can only do this by keeping our eyes focused on Jesus. We can only live by faith.

Draw courage from those who went before you. Keep your eyes on Christ. Live by faith. Leave a witness for those who come after you.

Artwork: Marc Chagall Tapestry in the Knesset, Israeli Parliament, c. 1960-1970 

Rest.

Christianity, Religion

“And He said, ‘My presence shall go with you, and I will give you rest.’” Exodus‬ ‭33:14‬

“Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and ‘You will find rest for your souls.’” Matthew‬ ‭11:28-29‬ ‭

Rest is a precious commodity. As our daily routines run together into weeks that turn into months, and months that turn into years, and we find ourselves exhausted and worn out. Rest is one of the most necessary items we require in our lives, and yet it is the one thing that we so often fail to get or choose to go without. We run ourselves ragged, never taking time to rest and to enjoy all the many things in our lives that God has blessed us with, and then we wonder why we are so miserable and spiritually drained. We do not rest like God desires us to, or as He modeled for us to do through His own actions. 

God rested from His own creative work, so that He might enjoy it. The Sabbath itself was for man to worship God through resting from the mundane. Rest serves as a positive interruption from the grind of our daily lives. Rest is the small break from the toil that sin chains us to as a result of the Fall. 

The importance of rest is further reinforced by the promise thereof in the two passages we see today. In Exodus 32, the Israelites committed their sin of idolatry with the golden calf. As a result of this, at the outset of Exodus 33, God told Moses to carry on leading the Israelites to the Promised Land. God went on to tell Moses that He would  send an angel before them to clear the way for them, but that He would not accompany the Israelites to the Promised Land. God would not be going any further with them because of their obstinacy and continual desires to test Him and stray from Him. The people heard this news and mourned greatly, and Moses pleaded with God on behalf of the people for Him to remain with them. God then promised Moses that He would go with them, and that He would grant them rest—He would lead them to the place He promised to them, and He would allow them to enjoy it. 

This promise of rest is repeated throughout the Old Testament. God reiterated it to Joshua when he began to lead Israel after the death of Moses. God promised to give Israel rest from their enemies as long as they remained faithful to Him. After the conquest of the Canaanites, it was said that even the land itself had rest. The message of rest was continued by the prophet Jeremiah; he told the Israelites that if they had remained in the ways of those of old who had followed God, then they would have received rest for their souls (Jeremiah 6:16).  Instead, they strayed and became even more enslaved to sin, and thus had to experience God’s judgment. Israel’s infidelity voided their promised rest. 

The reward for faithfully following God was not prosperity in this world, nor was it a promise of being spared from pain and suffering. God’s promise was to give His people rest, so that they might endure whatever they encountered. 

Jesus’ own preaching touched on this same promise of rest. In Matthew 11, after calming the fears of the imprisoned John the Baptist, and preaching in honor of John, Christ turned His attention to the cities in which most of His ministry took place. He denounced Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum for their hardheartedness—or obstinacy—-and said that if Gentile cities had witnessed such miracles, they would have  been immediately repentant. Those who thought they knew how God operated and thought they had God figured out were blind and missing what He was doing, while the infants—those who were untaught and uneducated in the Law or how God worked—were the ones who were witnessing and partaking in the miraculous works of the Messianic Age. 

Christ then called on all who are weary and heavy-laden to come to Him and that He would give them rest. Christ is not a cruel and demanding task master, the yoke He offers is not one which will bear the wearer down; it is not a yoke of oppression like that of sin. Instead, the yoke offered by Christ is one which is easy and light, for He is meek and gentle. Those who come to Him and learn from Him and live like Him will find rest for their souls. Christ here  quoted directly from Jeremiah 6:16, saying that those who yoke themselves to Him and follow Him will walk in the paths that lead to rest. 

Christ will give to His followers the rest that God promised throughout the Old Testament. He will grant them  peace and an interruption from the constant and hectic pace of life. Christ promises to His followers the thing they need most in this life. It is not prosperity, nor is it a lack of trials. His promise is that of rest, so that we might worship Him and enjoy His blessings, and so we might be able to endure this world. 

Go to Christ. Allow Him to break your chains of slavery to sin and bondage to this world. Take the yoke that He offers you, and let Him lead you in the ways which lead to rest.  

Artwork: “Noon Rest From Work After Millet,” Vincent van Gogh, c. 1880.