Author Archives: stevenkopp

About stevenkopp

Steven Kopp is a Pastor / Software Engineer / Author / Husband / Father in West Michigan.

Did Jesus speak in parables to be confusing?

Why did Jesus speak in parables? Did he use parables to make is abstract teaching concrete by connecting it to everyday life or did he use parables to intentionally obscure his teaching? Passages like Mark 4:11-12 make it seem like the second option:

He told them, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that, “’they may be ever seeing, but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!’”

This seems to contradict Mark 4:33 which says that Jesus spoke to the people in parables “as they could understand.” And, more significantly, 1 Timothy 2:3-4 which says, “This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” Could it be that Jesus speaks in parables to intentionally prevent people “on the outside” from understanding and being forgiven?

Jesus the Prophet

Jesus’s language in Mark 4:11-12 is that of an Old Testament prophet so his words here are best understood in that light.

The word translated as “secret” in the NIV can also be translated as “mystery” (NASB). I prefer “mystery” because “secret” connotes something that should not be revealed. Secrets are meant to be kept. But for prophets, mysteries are meant to be revealed, in the proper way and time. A mystery, then, is a message that was hidden, but is now being revealed. Jesus is on a mission of disclosure as he says later in verse 22: “For whatever is hidden is meant to be disclosed, and whatever is concealed is meant to be brought out into the open.” However, he is disclosing his message in different ways to different people, directly to his disciples and through parables to the crowd.

Next we come to his quotation of Isaiah 6:9,10. God gave Isaiah an impossible task. God called him to be his messenger to wayward Israel, which was already under God’s judgment. Their hearts were hard and their necks were stiff against God’s word. At one level, God’s word could be a message of salvation, if it was accompanied with repentance. But, because they had already turned off their spiritual senses, they responded to Isaiah with only more hostility. In this way, God’s word was transformed into a word of judgment as the people became guilty of yet another rejection. Isaiah asked how long he would need to speak to deaf ears. God’s response: until his judgment was completed.

Jesus came into a very similar environment. The people had already rejected God so he know they would also reject his word. They would also reject his Son. For those closed off to him, his words intended to bring salvation would only bring more guilt. For those closed off to Jesus, everything about Jesus would be a riddle, a puzzle, a parable. They would see the outer layer but could never perceive it’s meaning. Jesus is speaking as a prophet, revealing the hearts of men.

Parables, then, function as a sort of filter. For those of the “good soil”, they are an open gate, an invitation to dig deeper. They reveal in a way that leads to further revelation. For others, they function as a wall. The word falls on soil and the devil comes and snatches it away. Jesus is offering a stern prophetic warning: “Whoever has ears, let them hear” (4:9).

Clarity doesn’t seem to effect response

This becomes clear when we realize that Jesus’s method doesn’t seem to really have a big impact on the response of his hearers. Jesus’s disciples, to whom he gave the most clarity, to whom he revealed the “mystery of the kingdom” are consistently the most spiritually blind in the book of Mark. They act more like the bad soils of Jesus’ parable than the good.

The experts of the law and the religious teachers, those with the most knowledge, saw Jesus’s miracles – a clear indication of his power – as the work of Satan.

But those who, from a human perspective, were “on the outside” respond with the most faith: lepers, the demon possessed, the Syrophoenician woman.

The parables in Mark 4 point to one of the mysteries of the kingdom: It’s growth and influence seems to defy logic. It is met with obstacles and enemies and still yields its crop. It starts out tiny, almost imperceptible, but grows to have massive influence. It has a power of its own, an internal vitality that works completely apart from human influence. Those we expect to respond, don’t. Those we don’t think will, display the greatest faith. All we can do is watch in expectation as it happens.

From the prophetic perspective, it’s unsurprising that the word will be rejected, what’s incredible is that despite all the obstacles, the word will not fail to produce a crop, an explosive harvest, for the life of the world.

Note: I’m primarily following the argument of William L. Lane in the NICNT Gospel of Mark commentary.

On Gun Control

I was asked the other day if I had ever blogged or spoken on the topic of gun control. While I’ve made fleeting references to it, I’ve never dedicated a post to it. The reason is simply this: My own position has been taking a while to solidify. It’s still not totally solid, but given the importance of the topic, I think it is worthwhile to sketch out a few of my thoughts on the topic.

What’s clear:

Gun violence is a horrific evil. Whether in the form of mass shootings, daily crime, or suicide, it rips bodies, lives, and families apart. All people of good faith – conservatives and liberals – want a more peaceful world and grieve whenever we hear yet another act of violence. News of violence should cause us to ask probing questions: Why is this happening? What can we do?

What can we do?

In polarized America, two overly simplistic narratives take center stage.

1) Gun violence is evil. We can solve gun violence with gun control. Therefore, anyone who opposes gun control must not really care whether or not people keep getting shot.

2) Gun violence is evil. Gun control won’t solve gun violence, or it will make it worse. Therefore, anyone who thinks we need gun control is stupid.

These are, of course, caricatures of the arguments, but in a Facebook and Twitter world, that’s about all we’re left with these days. The nuanced arguments are pushed to the side. The fringes get the press.

Most arguments hinge on the second part of the argument: Would gun control actually work to stem gun violence? (I’m setting aside the constitutional question for a moment). To answer that question we’ll need more than simplistic arguments, we’ll need data. I’m not an expert on this by any means, but I’d wager that some gun control ideas might work well, and others might be useless, unproductive, or even counter-productive.

Instead of asking the question: Will gun control work? Perhaps we should instead ask, Will this gun control measure work? To do this, we would need to set aside ideological bias and come to the specific policy proposal open to wherever the data and analysis leads. Approaching the question in this way values the Christian virtues of wisdom and truth.

Joe Carter’s recent FAQ on mass shootings provides an excellent example of this sort of moral reasoning. He concludes as follows: “[W]e must debate the issue in love by following the dictates of a biblically informed conscience that has been shaped by facts and evidence.”

What about the constitution?

I’m no constitutional expert. Ideally, we would find a way to address gun violence without infringing on citizens’ constitutional rights. I’ll leave interpretation to the courts. The answer is surely important and you probably have a strong opinion about this and want me to as well. Sorry to disappoint.

A weak “theological” argument

I want to address one overly simplistic argument I see on the religious right. It goes like this: “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people. The problem isn’t with the weapon. It’s with the human heart.”

I agree with one part of that argument: Evil finds its source in the human heart. No amount of external constraints is going to make people good. We will find a way to injure or harm one another. We’ll use our bare hands if we have to. That part is true.

But this argument dismisses two important truths: First, guns are not entirely neutral tools, but are designed for a purpose. Second, guns make it possible to kill a lot of people really quickly.

Guns didn’t make the Dayton or El Paso shooters evil, but they gave a lot of power to their evil. They made their evil far more destructive than if all they had had was a knife, a fist, or a rock. You’re not killing 9 people in 30 seconds with a rock. Could evil people still make bombs to kill a lot of people? Sure. Could they use airplanes as guided missiles? Sure. But it’s nevertheless true that in our country, guns are used to give lethal power to a lot of people who end up doing a lot of damage, to themselves or others.

If you want to argue against gun control because people are evil, then you need to also ask the question: If people’s hearts are evil, why are we so comfortable giving them the power to kill others so easily?

Finally, a note on Christians and guns

Whether Christians end up owning guns or not, Christians are called to be people of peace. We, of all people, should shun violence, return evil with good, and grieve over the victims of gun violence. We should love our neighbors and think deeply about how we can live in a more just and peaceful world. We should be a city on a hill and a lamp on the stand in the darkness and chaos of our world. Doing that might take a variety of forms – understanding and analyzing the data, proposing and supporting sensible legislation, providing emotional support for people with deep hurts, vigorously opposing ideologies that incite violence, or preaching the gospel of peace… until the Lord returns.

Presence precedes activity

I’ve been thinking all week about Mark 3:14-15.

He appointed twelve that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach and to have authority to drive out demons. Mark 3:14-15

Specifically, I’ve about the sequence in this verse. Notice what comes first in Jesus’s call: “that they might be with him.” The disciples’ mission – to preach and cast out demons – came later. Drawing near preceded sending out. Presence preceded activity.

I’ve started reading Skye Jethani’s book With this week. Jethani talks about four common ways of relating to God: Life over God, life from God, life under God, and life for God. Those who relate to God with a posture of being over God seek to control life apart from God. The “life from God” posture seeks God primarily for the blessings that he gives, like in the prosperity gospel. Those with an under God posture relate to God primarily as a rule-giver. They tend to have a moralistic view of religion.

The most celebrated of these four postures is the for God. Those with this posture want to do amazing things for God, to live a life of meaning and purpose. Certainly, Scripture calls us to mission just as he called his disciples to preach the good news and to cast out demons and called the Apostle Paul to preach to the Gentiles.

But Jethani points us to a more fundamental posture than the other four: Life with God. Before we relate to God as a rule-giver or as the One who sends us out to “change the world” we must first be with him. This is the story from Genesis to Revelation and everything in between: Life in the garden with God, Jesus coming to dwell with us, the Spirit taking up residence in our hearts, the New City, the dwelling place of God, descending to earth.

For me this is a call to pause and commune with God, a reminder that before I do work for Jesus, I must first be with Jesus.

The Most Interesting Thing: Digital Minimalism

Big Idea: What makes digital tech addictive isn’t what makes it useful

Source: Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport

More: Many tech companies operate in the “attention economy” where your time equals their money. These companies invest a lot of resources in keeping your eyeballs on their products, on keeping your attention. But while this means more money for them, it’s behaviorally addictive for you, keeping you from more meaningful social connections and work.

Cal Newport isn’t against technology, but he’s critical of the uncritical way we have adopted it. Social media does have value for some people, but not compared to the time the average person is putting into it. Newport’s suggestion is to start with our core values and then only adding in digital technology as it pertains to those core values, replacing those hours on line with more life-giving tasks.

Why is this interesting to me: I sense in myself that psychological addiction and I don’t like its effect on my life.

Critique: While Newport doesn’t write from a Christian perspective, his emphasis on core values, meaningful leisure, social engagement, and the practice of solitude resonates deeply with key tenants of the Christian tradition. I think many Christians would be more effective in their spiritual lives if they adopted his Digital Minimalism philosophy. Personally, this has been a year of making adjustments in how I engage or don’t engage online.

Book Recommendation

Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World

The Most Interesting Thing: Strong and Weak

The Most Interesting Thing I Read *Recently:

Big Idea: “Flourishing comes from being both strong and weak.”

Source: “Strong and Weak” by Andy Crouch

More: We flourish – fully live within our divine purpose – when we have strength (authority – capacity for meaningful action) and weakness (true vulnerability to risk). This is a paradox. It holds two seemingly contradictory ideas in creative tension as illustrated below.

Crouch labels strength/authority without vulnerability “exploiting.” In this quadrant, we move all the vulnerability inherent in the world to others and close ourselves off from suffering. He labels vulnerability without the capacity for meaningful action “suffering.” In this quadrant, we are victims of the exploitative power of others – a reality for too many people. Crouch labels the quadrant lacking both strength and weakness “withdrawing.” (think: replacing real action/risk with the escapist world of simulated action/risk in the digital world).

Flourishing – embracing both strength and weakness – follows the pattern of Jesus. Jesus exercised authority (healing, preaching, etc.) and weakness (suffering and dying on the cross) in a life of true flourishing. He called his disciples to the same, passing along to them authority and a life of vulnerability and risk.

Why this is interesting to me: I love paradoxes! 2×2 diagrams are one of my new favorite things.

Critique: This makes sense in a fallen world where real risk is necessary, but I wonder if this idea of flourishing fits with life after the resurrection? Either way, this is a good book.

Strong and Weak: Embracing a Life of Love, Risk and True Flourishing

*I have to change this column from “this week” to “recently” because sometimes the “big idea” is something I read a few weeks ago.

Breaking down the anatomy of idolatry

Idolatry is a major theme in the Scriptures and in Christian thought. Most popular writers describe an idol along the same lines as Tim Keller does in counterfeit gods: An idol is “anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give.”

This is a good definition, but whenever I compare it to the idolatry described in prophets like Jeremiah, I hesitate. In ancient Israel, the prophets had a very narrow and particular object in mind when they spoke about an idol: A piece of wood or stone or precious medal shaped like a human or an animal that represented some spiritual being.

How do we get from that narrow definition to Keller’s broad definition?

Ancient Israel’s matrix of power

When Jeremiah brought charges against Israel, he sought to undermine their entire worldview. Instead of trusting in their Creator God, they had begun to trust in a matrix of worldly powers. What “powers” did they turn to? They turned to false gods and the idols that represented them. They believed that those pieces of wood and stone had the power to make them safe and secure. They believed that the gods of the nations had some cosmic power over creation. They believed that certain rituals performed before the gods, or sacrifices brought before their idols, would secure for them what they really wanted and needed – the good life.

Jeremiah exposed the powerlessness of the idols. He mocked them:

Like a scarecrow in a cucumber field,
their idols cannot speak;
they must be carried
because they cannot walk.
Do not fear them;
they can do no harm
nor can they do any good.

Jeremiah 10:5

He also showed the foolishness of their religious rituals and their incantations. No matter how many times they said “the temple of the Lord,” they were not secure there.

The rest of Scriptures expose the powerlessness of false gods. Oh, the spiritual beings are real, and they have real power (read the gospels if you doubt this) but before the Creator God they stand utterly defenseless.

Here we begin to see the idea of idolatry expanding just a bit. Idolatry isn’t just about making a statue. It’s also about the sacrifices and rituals we do to appease it. It’s about the spiritual being behind the idol who supposedly has the power to get us what we want.

While there’s a form of spiritualism that seems to be gaining traction in parts of the United States – and is certainly still dominant in many parts of the world – this is still not characteristic of the community in which I live. But Jeremiah is not content to simply expose the foolishness of Israel’s false religion. He also exposes the more concrete and material powers.

When the threat of the Babylonians arose where did Israel turn? They turned to the nations of Egypt and Assyria. They relied upon their armies. When enemies were at the gate, what did they trust? They trusted the wall around their city. They trusted their fortifications. In a war, these are very practical things to trust – armies and defenses. What else should you trust? But for Jeremiah, this represented another sign that they had abandoned God. Astonishingly, their success or failure in war had nothing to do with weapons of this world. If they returned to God, he would rescue them. If they held fast in their rebellion, their best weapons of war would be completely overrun.

In the mind of the ancient Israelite these powers were inextricably linked. The idols were linked to gods who were linked to nations who were linked to kings who were linked to armies. When you tapped into one source of power you were tapping into the entire matrix.

With this in mind we can see how idolatry can fit into a broader system of acquiring power, of using some created thing to achieve some ultimate good. Idolatry fits into a broader framework of false worship and misplaced trust.

The anatomy of idolatry

Today we use the word “idolatry” to talk about that whole system. For my own clarity, I have broken it down into the following pieces and parts:

An ultimate good: Idolatry always aims towards some end. In Keller’s definition this is the “what only God can give” part. This ultimate good is usually abstract. Examples: Security, wellness, justice, recognition, meaning, etc.

A divine being: This was central to the belief structure of the ancient near east, and in the paganism of Jesus’s day. The divine being was said to have the power to grant you the ultimate good if you pleased it. Today, divine beings are often unacknowledged, though I suspect they are still at play in unseen ways.

An idol – a symbol said to have power within itself: Here things begin to get concrete. When we imbue an object with some sort of mystical power or if we treat an object with a special reverence that ought to be reserved for God (i.e., prayer, allegiance) then we can begin to fall into an idolatrous mindset. Examples: Use of crystals to gain a connection with spiritual beings to gain wellness, the use of a rabbit’s foot for luck, outsized reverence to a flag.

A created power: Something in this world that has a limited power to bring us a glimpse at an ultimate good. Money, for example, really can give us a level of personal security (the lack of it sure makes security difficult). The right foods can make us healthy (if our ultimate good is health). The right (in another sense) can give us happiness and comfort (if those are our ultimate goods).

A ritual or sacrifice: This is something that we can do to gain access to either the spiritual or physical powers. Israel prayed to idols to get them into contact with the divine beings. They paid tribute to kings to help the acquire the power of physical armies. Some religious systems today have certain rote prayers or incantations, but less religious people still have rituals which help them acquire the power associated with money or status. In one of its most blatant forms, the powerful practice oppression in order to maintain their hold on power. Oppression becomes a sacrifice to the god of power to achieve an ultimate good of security.

How then should we treat created powers?

Sometimes idolatry is obvious – you might be an idolater if you’re setting up a statue in your house or praying to a false gods.

But what should we do with our relationship to the “created powers” all around us – money, clothes, food, relationships, etc.? How do we know if we are treating these things in a way that is idolatrous or not?

I think the key distinction is found in the way that we relate to those created things. We can either view them as gifts from a generous God or we can view them merely as things we can use, apart from God, to achieve an ultimate good. Money can either be a gift from God that we can enjoy or give freely back to him or it can be merely a means towards which we achieve happiness. Politics can either be a gift from God which we can use to love our neighbors, or it can be a way to gain status and power for ourselves. Relationships can either be a gift to be enjoyed to the mutual benefit of all involved or they can be used to increase our status or give us a sense of meaning.

If we receive the world as a gift from a generous Creator God, we respond in worship in service. If we view the world as a means to power, we are falling into the trap of idolatry.

God is a generous God. He gives us both the ultimate good and the gifts to enjoy that ultimate good. He even gave us Himself and it is there we find all the ultimate goods wrapped up together.

The Most Interesting thing I read last Week: God’s judgment, kinism, and foster care month

Depending on how consistent I am, this will be a new weekly blog installment. It’s a new attempt to curate the media I’m consuming, either in books, online, or via podcast.

Book Big Idea: The Skeletons on God’s Closet

Big idea: In Scripture, God’s judgment is for “insiders” before it is for “outsiders”

More, a quote: “I began to realize that God’s coming judgement is not so much an evangelistic tool used to frighten outsiders into the kingdom, as it is a house cleaning tool used to weed out hypocrisy and call insiders back to the faith they proclaim.”

The Skeletons in God’s Closetcovers three tricky topics: Hell, Judgment, and Holy War. This quote is from the section on Judgment. Butler’s main point is that the Bible usually directs “judgment” language at those who would consider themselves insiders, at people who claim to be God’s people, at the religious, at Israel, and those in the church. God uses judgment language to call his people back to repentance. Butler’s quote fits with the language/order of the prophets (whose call was to Israel), Jesus (who used judgment language for the religious insiders), and Peter (Judgment comes first to God’s house, 1 Pet 4:17).

Why this is interesting to me: In general, I find theology and biblical study interesting. In particular, I am reading and preparing to preach out of Jeremiah, which is full of the language of judgment.

Critique: I found the first section of this book, on the nature of Hell, somewhat weak. But I think Butler is spot on here. The Bible talks about judgment in two main ways (1) Purification for his people (2) Salvation by kicking evil out of God’s good world – Butler hits on both of these themes.

Articles/Podcasts worth sharing: 

I’ve been haunted all week by the fact that the Synagogue shooter attended an evangelical church and proclaimed an evangelical faith. Here are a couple articles that I found interesting.

An explainer at TGC by Joe Carter: Kinism, Cultural Marxism, and the Synagogue Shooter

A call to repent of Christian Nationalism, by Mark Galli at Christianity Today.

Additionally, May is Foster Care Awareness month. To that end, I recommend this TGC podcast: How You Can Encourage Foster Parents.

I’m becoming increasingly concerned about the amount of political bias I have been seeing from fellow believers. Here are two articles worth reading:

First, a response to those who were offended by the use of the term “Christian Worshippers”. Frankly, I believe that pettiness on this issue does real and needless damage to our Christian witness.

Second, a call from Ed Stetzer to stay on point in the Age of Outrage.

One more thing: Did you know our churches publishes our sermons? Check out Pastor John’s most recent sermon. As a bonus, you get a great explanation of the conscience.

 

What’s the most interesting thing YOU read this week?