Category Archives: Christianity

Pastors and Politics, Southern Shame, Making Abortion Unthinkable

I’ve been busy writing over at ReadingInBabylon.com.

How can we work in the culture to make abortion not only illegal, but unthinkable?

What are the theological implications of trying to do church in a digital environment? How do we navigate the tension between the ideal of in-person (analog) church and the reality of the coronavirus? Analysis and review of Analog Church.

What do you do when your faith is challenged, not from atheism, but from so-called Christians? How should we respond to the danger of progressive Christianity? My review of Alisa Childer’s new book.

Should pastors “just preach the gospel?” Listen to Episode 1 of the Reading In Babylon podcast.

Finally, check out this piece by David French explaining how Southern shame culture influences evangelicals in the political world.

Where Does the South End and Christianity Begin?

Follow Jesus, no matter the cost

Tomorrow I plan to record my final sermon as Pastor at Wyoming Park Bible Fellowship. On the one hand, I feel some pressure to put it all on the table, to preach a final epic sermon. On the other hand, the practice of our church has always been to simply and methodically preach through the Bible.

I had two series going, one through Jeremiah – which I concluded in September – and one through Mark – which I returned to last week. Then I preached on Jesus’ question to the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” (Mark 8:29) This week I preach on Jesus’ call to discipleship in Mark 8:34-38: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

And so I plan to simply exegete this text and not worry that this is a “last sermon” (at least in this particular role and context). And yet, if somehow I knew that this were my last sermon ever, the central message of the text comes close to what I would choose that final sermon to be: Follow Jesus, no matter the cost.

There’s a cost to following Jesus

Jesus sets the bar for discipleship high: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (8:34). Following Jesus requires radical self denial and cross-bearing. Commitment to him and to the gospel will cost us our very lives (8:35).

When we follow Jesus we follow the path he blazed for us. He described that path just a few verses earlier: “He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again” (8:31). Jesus’s journey involved suffering and death, so will the journey of his disciples. After all, “a servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted [Jesus], they will persecute [his disciples] also'” (John 15:20).

Jesus’ words proved literally true for his disciples. All of them were persecuted and, according to tradition, almost all of them were martyred. Peter was crucified upside down. Christians around the world continue to follow Jesus at the cost of their physical lives.

Every day examples

I will not likely experience that same fate and I don’t expect the members of Wyoming Park Bible Fellowship to either, but the principles of cross-bearing and self-denial are no less pertinent. Following Jesus still entails a death, of a sort. I see this in at least three areas: Our desires, our relationships, and our witness.

Our desires: As James K.A. Smith describes in “You Are What You Love“, to be human is to love. We are shaped by that which we desire. We were made to love, to long for, to delight in, and to desire some vision of the good life. However, because of our rebellion from God, our desires have become disordered and we seek what we desire in harmful and sinful ways.

Following Jesus requires us to align our loves, desires, and longings with his. To do that, we must simultaneously say “no” to our sinful and disordered desires. Paul describes our salvation in terms of the crucifixion of the old and sinful self.

For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin.

Romans 6:5-6

Whereas Romans 6:5 describes something that has happened to us (we have been united with him), Galatians 5:24 expresses the same thing in more active terms: “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.”

Self-denial and cross-bearing in this case means saying “no” to our sinful desires. It means saying no to a vision of freedom that says, “I can do whatever I want.” It means saying “no” to pursuing our vision of the good life through whatever means necessary.

Our relationships: Just as Paul applies the principle of self-denial to our desires in general, he applies it specifically to our life together in relationships with one another.

Consider Philippians 2:1-8. Speaking to the church Paul states “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” In doing so, we are following the example of Christ who “humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!” In other words when, in relationships with others, we look to others interests instead of our own, we follow in the example of Christ, who died for the sake of others.

When we follow Jesus in this way we pay a high price. We give up our own self-interest and our own preferences for the sake of the community.

Paul makes a similar claim when he exhorts husbands to love their wives “just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25).

Our Witness: This applications come right out of the text in Mark: “If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels” (8:38).

Jesus knew that his disciples would be shamed for associating with Jesus. This was not just a fear of physical harm, but the shame that comes from being ostracized from the group. This shame would have been intimately connected to the boldness of the Christian community to live out their lives in the public arena. Shame would have showed itself in Christians who either abandoned their faith or hid it from their Jewish and pagan neighbors.

Disciples of Jesus are called to be willing pay a social price for publicly following him. Even if that price does not result in physical harm or death, followers may yet experience a type of social death. He calls us to pay that price.

Follow Jesus, no matter the cost

The cost of following Jesus is high. You will need to say “no” to many of your desires. In groups you will need to be willing to give up what you want for the benefits of others. In your witness, you must be willing to be a social outcast and pariah. To be a Christian is to live a life of self-denial for the sake of Jesus and the gospel.

Yet, following Jesus is worth it. Jesus uses the language of commerce and unashamedly appeals to our self-interest.

For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?

Mark 8:35-37

He presents us with two options: You can either try to save your life, or you can give it up. If you try to save your life – if you stubbornly hold onto your desires, your rights in the community, your favorable social standing – then you will lose the life that is truly life. You will forfeit that which is of greatest value: Your soul.

But, if you give up your life for Jesus and the gospel, and if you are willing to pay the price, then you are trading up. Your life – your soul – will be saved. Instead of experience the shame of the rejection of the Son of Man (8:38) you will be welcomed into the presence of God with the words “well done, good and faithful servant!” (Matthew 25:23)

Whereas discipleship involves the cost of identifying with Jesus in his death, it also involves the reward of experiencing the joy of the resurrection. This frees us from the power of sin and the fear of man and fills us with eternal and abundant life.

Costly Grace

I do not want anyone to confuse these words with works-based salvation. We do not buy our soul through self-denial. We receive salvation by faith alone through Jesus’s death by which he paid the debt of our sin and through his resurrection through which he gives us eternal life. Jesus’s self-denial and cross-bearing are salvific. Ours is not.

Yet, we too often separate salvation and discipleship in a way that the Bible does not. To freely receive salvation means to become a follower of Jesus. You cannot have one without the other. You cannot become a follower of Jesus without humbling yourself to the point of saying “I have absolutely nothing I can offer, I desperately need your salvation Jesus!” And, you cannot have receive his free grace without also saying, “I will pay the price to follow you.” That we daily fail in this resolve does not mean that such a resolve is any less a part of following our Lord.

Follow Jesus, no matter the cost. The trade – this costly grace (to borrow a term from Bonhoeffer) is worth it, a thousand times over. I will conclude with a quote from “The Cost of Discipleship”

Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, it it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner… Grace is costly because it compels a man to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him; it is grace because Jesus says: “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship

To whom do the promises of Jeremiah apply?

Despite some excellent one-liners (Jeremiah 29:11), Jeremiah presents major challenges to those who would seek to apply its teaching.

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

Jeremiah 29:11

Jeremiah spoke words from God to the ancient Israelite community (2:1). He spoke to kings (22:1), to those going in and out of the Temple (7:1-2), to those engaged in commerce (17:19), to false prophets (23:9), to exiles living in Babylon (29:1), and to the nations (46:1ff). More than anything, Jeremiah warned of impending judgment and, given the inevitability of judgment, the promise of future restoration.

Specifically, Jeremiah warns that if Israel will not repent, God send in a nation from the north to destroy Jerusalem (1:14-16). Many will die from famine, plague, or the sword (14:12). God will send the rest into exile (13:19). God brings about this judgment because Israel has broken their covenant with God – they worshipped idols (2:5), sacrificed children (32:35), and oppressed the poor (2:34). His judgment is the “natural result” of their sin, an active just punishment against wrong-doing (4:18), and a disciplinary measure intended (30:11) to bring about repentance.

But judgment is not the end of the story. God promises that he will bring Israel back into the land (31:8). He will heal them of their incurable wound (30:17). He will restore their fortunes (30:18). Some of this is fulfilled after 70 years of exile (25:12-14). Some of it finds its final fulfillment in Jesus (New Covenant: 31:31ff).

The Individualistic Approach

Here is the challenge: Because we live in a highly individualistic culture we instinctively apply Jeremiah’s message individualistically. This is natural and, to some degree, right. But it also presents challenges. Consider Jeremiah 29:11. Jeremiah wrote this to a community and, in fact, a subset of the community. The “you” in that verse is a community of exiles, the first wave of exiles, the “good figs” of Jerusalem (ch 24). The “future” is 70 years away. Most of those going into exile will not experience this future first-hand.

We want to read this verse as saying that God will prosper us individually. Instead, it means that for a small subset of Israel, their children and grandchildren will return to the land. What about the rest of Israel? Most of the residents of Jerusalem and Judah will be killed in the upcoming conflict or will die in exile.

For the community judgment is temporary. But for many individuals, judgment is final. God promises that he will not forsake his people but most of the individuals within that community will not experience (at least in this life) restoration, though the faithful will be blessed in exile (29:5-7).

This is complicated further by the fact that a distinction between God’s judgment of Israel and his judgment of the nations. For Israel (and some of the nations) God’s judgment is corrective and temporary and followed by restoration. For others, especially Babylon, God’s judgment is explicitly punitive and final (51:59-64).

All this adds up to say that we cannot woodenly apply God’s promises of restoration to individuals, at least not through Jeremiah alone. When you bring in New Testament writings, you can then make important distinctions between different kinds of judgment. For those who are in Christ, God’s judgment is corrective, intended to bring about repentance and maturity (Heb 12:11). However, for the enemies of Christ, God’s judgment is final. Furthermore, New Testament teaching shows us that while restoration may come in this life, our final hope is for the New Creation.

The Nationalist Approach

Some, recognizing that Jeremiah is not primarily speaking to a nation, have sought to apply his message to an individual nation. So, America is subject to judgment because we have worshipped idols (wealth, status, sex, self), sacrificed our children (abortion), and oppressed the poor and powerless (slavery). God judges the nation through disaster and warfare.

Just as God’s judgments apply, so do his promises. If we as a nation repent, God will restore America to her former glory. We will see peace, justice, and material prosperity.

The problem with this approach is that it ignores key differences between Israel and America (or any other nation). Israel was God’s chosen people, the embodiment of His kingdom, the people with whom God had forged his covenant, a theocratic nation that lived under his law. America is none of those things.

If we are to find ourselves as a nation in Jeremiah, it is more likely to be in chapters 46-51 where God addresses the nations surrounding Israel (such as Egypt and Babylon). Here, the nations are subject to judgment, but do not have the same promise of restoration.

Israel and the Church

Some make the case that all of Jeremiah’s promises only apply to national Israel, either fulfilled 70 years after the initial exile, or to be fulfilled in a millennial kingdom after Christ returns. Depending on your views of the End Times, you may find this convincing. However, even those with a premillennial view of the End Times, should see that many of the promises are fulfilled in Jesus.

For instance, Jesus saw himself as the fulfillment of the New Covenant described in Jeremiah (Luke 22:20). Paul (2 Cor 3:6) and the writer of Hebrews (Heb 8) comes to the same conclusion. That means that there is a correspondence between the warnings/promises to Israel and similar warnings/promises to followers of Jesus: The Church. Peter also drew a connection between the Israelites experience as exiles (Jer 29) and that of the early church (1 Pet 2:11-12).

What, then, is the best way to make sense of God’s warnings and promises in Jeremiah?

First, concerning Jeremiah’s warnings of judgments, draw a distinction between his warnings to the nations and to Israel. When God judges the nations, his judgments are final. When God judges his people (the church) it is corrective and temporary. The Church may very well be under God’s judgment right now. If it is, God calls us to repent. In the meantime, the church will face dangers from without and within connected to our sin. Many will fall away from faith. Many more will compromise their faith. Yet, God will protect a remnant. The Church will never go extinct. The gates of Hell will not overcome her (Mt 16:18).

Second, God will restore his people, the Church. We do not know how long or in what form. The final restoration will have to wait until Jesus returns. At different times and at different places the cycle of judgment and restoration will take different forms.

Third, as we wait for final restoration, the church is called to faithful exile. That means loyalty to God that works itself out in love for neighbor. Faithful exile brings glory to God as God reveals his rescue and blessing to and through his people.

Fourth, we can now see more clearly how Jeremiah applies to individuals. Are you a member of the people of God? If not, your judgment is final. If so, you are part of a community whose judgment is temporary. You enter this community through repentance and faith in Jesus.

As a member of that community are you doing things which lead to God’s corrective discipline? Idolatry or injustice. When you do, are you practicing true repentance or are you taking refuge in mere religious ritual? Are you contributing to a faithful witness to your neighbors or are you compromising your faith to avoid potential conflict?

Are you a person with authority, either in a religious, commercial, or civil environment? Are you using that power for the good of all or to enrich yourself? Are you pursuing justice or tolerating oppression?

These questions and more help us faithfully apply individual/communal calls of Jeremiah.

No worries in the year of drought

The Year of Drought

For many of us, 2020 is a year of drought, a year when the precious rains of social, emotional, spiritual, and economic resources have been withheld, locked away in clouds that turn to vapor on the horizon. We wither under the heat.

The people in Jeremiah’s time knew this feeling, only more so. Their whole way of life was crumbling before their eyes. Collectively they faced the plague, famine, and the sword. To them Jeremiah wrote:

“But blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord,
    whose confidence is in him.
They will be like a tree planted by the water
    that sends out its roots by the stream.
It does not fear when heat comes;
    its leaves are always green.
It has no worries in a year of drought
    and never fails to bear fruit.”

Jeremiah 17:7-8 (emphasis added)

How do we become like that tree?

Careful readers of the Bible will immediately see the connection between these words and Psalm 1:

Blessed is the one
    … whose delight is in the law of the Lord,
    and who meditates on his law day and night.
That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
    which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither—
    whatever they do prospers.

These two trees share a common trait, they are planted by a stream. That stream provides unfailing resources by which the tree can sprout leaves and bear fruit, even during a season of drought. In Jeremiah 17:7 identifies that stream as trust in the Lord and confidence in him. The psalmist marks the stream as continual meditation on the law of the Lord.

To be a tree without worries in a year of drought we must take nourishment from God and his word.

Where is your trust?

Jeremiah 17:7-8 stands in contrast to 17:5-6

 “Cursed is the one who trusts in man,
    who draws strength from mere flesh
    and whose heart turns away from the Lord.
That person will be like a bush in the wastelands;
    they will not see prosperity when it comes.
They will dwell in the parched places of the desert,
    in a salt land where no one lives.

Trust in God stands in contrast to trust in man. The people of Jerusalem had made a terrible mistake. Instead of trusting God, they put their trust in Egypt and Assyria to save them. They put their trust in idols and those who made them. They put their trust in false prophets. As a result, they neglected to trust God, stopped listening to him, and stopped obeying his Word, especially as it related to undefiled worship and public justice.

Instead of drawing their strength from God, they drew their strength from mere flesh. “They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.” (Jeremiah 2:13)

To be a tree without worries in a year of drought we must beware of putting our trust in the wrong things.

Why trust God?

We can trust God – and draw strength from him – by looking to the past, present, and future.

The past: We know that God is trustworthy because of how he has acted in the past. For Jeremiah, two events stand out: He created the universe and he brought Israel out of Egypt and into the promised land.

The present: Even while the circumstances of Israel’s present were about as bad as they could get, Jeremiah had confidence that the circumstances did not alter God’s character, especially his everlasting love and unfailing kindness.

The future: Israel’s destruction and captivity would be long and painful, but ultimately temporary from a national perspective. Jeremiah calls the exiles to hope by pointing them to a future restoration.

To be a tree without worries in a year of drought we draw strength by recalling God’s past acts of salvation, contemplating his presence and faithfulness, and looking forward to his future restoration.

As we progress through this year of drought now is the time to send those roots down deep into the banks of the stream. God invites all who are thirsty to come and drink from the living water.

Don’t conform!

Do not conform to the pattern of this world… (Rom 12:2)

Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought (Rom 12:3)

Do not be proud… do not be conceited (Rom 12:16)

Do not repay anyone evil for evil (Rom 12:17)

Do not take revenge (Rom 12:18)

Do not be overcome by evil (Rom 12:21)

Do not rebel against authority (Rom 13:2)

Do not harm your neighbor (Rom 13:10)

Put aside deeds of darkness – carousing, drunkenness, sexual immorality, debauchery, dissension, jealousy (Rom 13:12-14)

Stop passing judgment on one another (Rom 14:13)

Do not by your eating [your “freedom”] destroy someone for whom Christ died (Rom 14:15)

Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food (Rom 14:20)

But be transformed by the renewing of your mind (Rom 12:2)

Think of yourself with sober judgment (Rom 12:3)

Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves (Rom 12:10)

Never be lacking in zeal (Rom 12:11)

Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer (Rom 12:12)

Share with the Lord’s people. Practice hospitality (Rom 12:13)

Bless those who persecute you (Rom 12:14)

Rejoice with those who rejoice. Mourn with those who mourn (Rom 12:15)

Live in harmony with one another (Rom 12:16)

Be willing to associate with those in low position (Rom 12:16)

If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone (Rom 12:18)

Overcome evil with good (Rom 12:21)

Be subject to the governing authorities (Rom 13:1)

Give to everyone what you owe them – taxes, revenue, respect, honor (Rom 13:7)

Love your neighbor as yourself (Rom 13:9)

Clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ (Rom 13:14)

Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters (Rom 14:1)

Make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister (Rom 14:13)

Make every effort to do what leads to peace and mutual edification (Rom 14:19)

Each of us should please our neighbors for their good, to build them up… for Christ did not please himself (Rom 15:2, 3)

Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God. (Rom 15:7)

What Does the Structure of Mark 6:31-8:30 Teach Us About Spiritual Growth?

Talk about a click-bait title!

The Bible teaches, not only in its content, but also in its design and structure.

Check it out. The structure of Mark 6:31-7:37 is as follows:

  • Jesus feeds the five thousand (6:31-44)
  • The disciples cross the sea and land (6:45-56)
    • The disciples show a lack of faith and understanding
  • Jesus conflicts with the Pharisees over the nature of defilement (7:21-23)
  • Jesus talks to a woman about bread (7:24-30)
  • Jesus heals a deaf and mute man (7:31-36)
  • The crowd makes a confession of faith (7:37)

Mark 8:1-30 follows this sequence:

  • Jesus feeds the four thousand (8:1-9)
  • The disciples cross the sea and land (8:10)
  • Jesus conflicts with the Pharisees over the need for a sign (8:11-13)
  • Jesus talks to the disciples about bread (8:14-21)
    • The disciples show their lack of faith and understanding
  • Jesus heals blind man (8:13-21)
  • Peter makes a confession of faith (8:27-30)

Some of the parallels are clear, like feeding of the crowds and healings – in both cases Jesus uses spit in the healing process (7:33, 8:23). Other parallels are less obvious. But I am convinced that the overall structure holds. This begs the question: Why did Mark structure his book like this or, the related question, why did Jesus repeat similar miracles like feeding the crowd?

There may be many reasons for this, but I think the most obvious is this, our first lesson about spiritual growth: Jesus knows we need to learn and re-learn the same lesson. We need repetition before we “get it”. Take a look at the disciples. In both sequences, though at slightly different times, the disciples lack of faith and understanding is pointed out:

Mark 6:50-52

Immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” 51 Then he climbed into the boat with them, and the wind died down. They were completely amazed, 52 for they had not understood about the loaves; their hearts were hardened.

Mark 8:14-19

14 The disciples had forgotten to bring bread, except for one loaf they had with them in the boat. 15 “Be careful,” Jesus warned them. “Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod.”

16 They discussed this with one another and said, “It is because we have no bread.”

17 Aware of their discussion, Jesus asked them: “Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened?18 Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear? And don’t you remember? 19 When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?”

The disciples don’t get it, which is kind of surprising given that they have had the inside track since he called them. They left everything to follow him. Jesus explained the parables to them when their meaning was hidden from the crowds. They saw the miracles of the loaves and the fishes. And yet, they are still described as lacking in spiritual insight. They have ears but don’t hear and eyes that don’t see. At this point, they are much more like the hard soil than the good soil, except for the grace of God.

And this teaches us the second lesson about spiritual growth: Most of us don’t totally “get it” all at once. We need repeated encounters with Jesus.

When I think back over my life I can think of a handful of pivotal moments of spiritual growth but, in all honesty, even those “big ones” only produced a small amount of the spiritual fruit that I’ve seen in my life. Most of my growth (if I can point to any) has come from “routine” encounters with Jesus and his people: Reading scripture, study, attending church, prayer, confession, and working through daily toils.

Will a single sermon change your life? Maybe not, but a lifetime of them will.

Will you have an epiphany the next time you open Scripture? Possibly, but it is more likely that your daily routine of reading the Bible will slowly but steadily enlighten your mind and align your values.

Will that camp experience bring about lasting transformation? Yes, but only if it is followed up through discipleship in a community of faith.

The disciples had their ups and downs and so will we. Jesus was patient with them, and I am incredibly comforted by that fact. The best news is that the disciples ended well. God faithfully completed the work he started in them – by teaching and re-teaching them through his power and presence.

Hand Washing and Defilement

We have a lot in common with the Pharisees these days. We are obsessed with hand washing.

In Mark 7, the Pharisees confront Jesus because they saw “some of his disciples eating food with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed” (7:2). My wife would confront me about that, too. But, the concerns of the Pharisees were a different from those of my wife. The Pharisees were concerned less about a viral infection than they were about moral infection or, as they called it, defilement.

We have hand washing charts. The Pharisees had “the tradition of the elders.” Both involve rule and ritual to defend against an unseen contagion. Let us consider more closely the logic of the Pharisees: God had established the Israelites as the holy people of God – a people set apart from the nations. As such, everything they did should be holy. Since the priests had rituals for washing their hands and they were set apart, it followed that the people, also being set apart, should follow the practices of the priests. In doing so, they set apart even common meals as holy meals.

The opposite of holy and set apart is common, and a synonym for common is defiled. So, to fail to wash your hands in the right ritualistic way defiled your food. Add to that the idea of defilement as a contagion that spreads and eating defiled food with defiled hands defiles the person who eats it. Defilement, like a viral infection, comes from the outside, and we need to protect ourselves against it through rule and ritual. Such was the logic of the Pharisees.

The logic has a certain appeal to it, but it fails on two counts.

First, in practice, it was hypocritical.

We err when we think that the Pharisees were simply too strict in following God’s laws. We often use the word legalism to mean something like that. But, according to Jesus, their problem was not that they were too strict, but that they disregarded God’s law. He says they “let go” (7:8), “set aside” (7:9), and “nullified” (7:12) God’s commandments in favor of human traditions. Some of their “traditions of the elders” were not just unnecessary add-ons, but downright contradictory.

Jesus gives the example of the practice of Corban which prevented children from following the commandment to honor father and mother by preventing them from using property set aside as “Corban” (banned) for such a “common” use.

Their practices, then, were hypocritical because while they gave an appearance of piety, below the surface they exposed “hearts far from God” (7:6). Or, as Jesus says elsewhere, they were greatly concerned about tithing on the mint and cumin, but neglected for justice, mercy, and faithfulness (Matthew 23:23).

Second, in principle, it misplaced the source of defilement.

The hand washing rule showed that the Pharisees were concerned about defilement from an external source – unclean food or unwashed hands. After revealing their hypocrisy, Jesus next shows that they have misunderstood the source of defilement: “Nothing outside a person can defile them” (7:15). Food just goes into the stomach, Jesus says, not the heart.

What goes in does not defile. What comes out does. Our thoughts and behaviors defile us – they make us unholy. And what comes out has an interior source: our hearts. Our hearts – the core of our being – lead to what we think and do. What we think and do defiles us.

The fact that moral defilement comes from inside is both good and bad news. The good news is that nothing outside of us can make us morally dirty – not the food we eat, not dirt on our hands, not a virus or disease, not evil that someone else has done to us. Many people live with a sense of shame because of the wicked actions of others. Jesus’s words here are a comfort.

Bonus: In saying this, “Jesus declared all foods clean” (7:19) so… bacon!

The bad news is that the only way for us to avoid defilement is for someone to transform our hearts. We need to be cleansed – not through healthy eating or hand washing – and utterly remade. Thanks be to God, that’s exactly what Jesus does for us.

Postscript: Food and hand washing still matter

The Bible does not denigrate the body. There is a moral component to how and what we eat. Our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit and the agents of how we carry out much of our service and obedience to God.

We have a responsibility to care for our bodies. But that’s not to say that some foods are inherently “clean” or “unclean” (the language of having a dietary “cleanse” is oddly religious language), but that how we treat our bodies comes from the heart – a heart interested only in pleasing the flesh or a heart concerned with keeping in step with the Spirit.

A Really Long Saturday

Dear Church,

Today is Holy Saturday, the day of anxious waiting between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. The disciples waited in fear but, on this side of the resurrection, we wait with anticipation.

But this Saturday, things feel different. Instead of gathering together for a pancake breakfast, lively worship, and the warm company of friends and family, we will turn on your computers, watch a sermon, and maybe have a Zoom call. It will still be a celebration, but a muted one. This is a reason to grieve.

On this Saturday we find ourselves, again, in a period of anxious waiting, not only for 24 hour hours, but for who knows how long (at least through the end of April) when we can once again gather together as the body of Christ.

I’ve been thinking all week – and actually the week before that, too – about Romans 8:18-25. It contains within it the lens by which we can view this period of waiting, and not just this short period, but the whole of where we stand in history.

As I read over the text, I made four observations:

First, all of creation is groaning: For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For creation was subjected to frustration” and “We know that the whole of creation has been groaning.

Why is creation groaning? Why has it been subjected to frustration? Because of Adam and Eve’s rebellion in the garden. Their rebellion led to a curse upon the ground. The world, once perfectly suited to the well-being of mankind, was corrupted. While it retains much of what makes it hospitable, it is now also decidedly hostile.

We may ask, “why is the Coronavirus here?” And, while there might be more than one correct answer, at least one of the answers is this: We live in a created world that has been “subjected to frustration” because of the sin of humanity. This is part of what it means to live in a fallen and groaning world.

Second, we, too, groan: Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firsfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly.

The “we” in this passage is those who have the Spirit, who believe in and have been saved by Jesus. Christians are not immune from the sorrow, suffering, and sickness of this world.

I saw an interview where a woman was attending a large church service that was still being held despite calls to avoid social contact. When asked if she was worried about contracting the virus or giving it to others she said, “No. I’m covered in the blood of Jesus.” I love the atonement as much as anyone, but that’s not how the atonement works. Christians do not get a special immunity from disease. We live in the same fallen world.

In fact, being a Christian will open you up to another sort of suffering; suffering for the sake of Christ. When Paul talks about his “present sufferings” in 8:18, he’s probably talking about the troubles and persecutions he has had to deal with on his missionary journeys.

Third, we have hope in the redemption of our bodies: We groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we are saved.

We mourn and wait, but not as those who have no hope. We hope for the redemption of our bodies, an event described in 1 Corinthians 15, when our mortal bodies will be clothed with immortality, our corruptible flesh with that which is incorruptible. We hope for the resurrection when Christ returns. Our new bodies will not be subject to disease or decay.

How can we have this incredible hope? Because we have the firsfruits of the Spirit. That is, we have the immortal and incorruptible life of Jesus present with us through the Spirit already. Paul elsewhere describes Jesus as the firsfruits, the first among many who will be raised from the dead. Because we believe in the resurrection, and because we have the seal of the Spirit producing evidence of that resurrection life, we wait in hope.

Fourth, all creation, too, will be liberated: “Creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.

The God who makes us new will make all things new. He will redeem, restore, and remake this fallen and decaying world. When he brings us who are his children into glory, he will set free his creation from the curse. The old will be swept away. If you think the present creation is beautiful – which it is – just imagine what is to come!

So, this Saturday, wait. Mourn if you must. That inward groaning that comes from seeing that things are not the way they are supposed to be, is both natural and appropriate. But wait in hope.

That sense of anxious waiting you feel right now is but a microcosm of where we have stood in history for over 2000 years. We have the firstfruits of the Spirit through the resurrection. Easter is not canceled because it has already occurred. But, we do not have the full experience of the adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. For that, we continue to wait.

Do you long for the time when we can gather again for worship? Good. I certainly do. Now long – and wait expectantly – for the day when we will be gathered on the New Earth when Christ returns.

In hope,

Steve

Rejecting an image of Jesus

Read Mark 6:1-6. Jesus was rejected in his hometown, not because the people knew too little about it, but because they that they knew too much.

Or rather, they thought they knew who Jesus was, and their preconceived notions about him blinded them to his true identity.

They were familiar with him and with his family and they couldn’t get past that familiarity. Even though they heard of his miracles and were amazed at his wisdom, they just didn’t – couldn’t – believe that this carpenter was someone special.

I suspect the same dynamic in this post-Christian world is true today. Many of us are so familiar with Jesus – or rather, with a preconceived notion of Jesus – that we fail to recognize the real man. We have constructed an image of Jesus (a self-help guide, a political mascot), found that image wanting, and then rejected it. We tried the Jesus thing, and gotten past it.

Maybe that’s true for you. Have you rejected Jesus? Consider whether you have rejected Jesus, or an image of Jesus. Approach Jesus in the gospels themselves. Approach him in prayer.

Maybe it’s true for your friends. Consider that they have a false notion of Jesus but may experience that their notion of Jesus as over familiarization: “I already know all about Jesus, I don’t want to know any more.” Through God’s grace, point them to the real man.

Don’t let over familiarization with Jesus lead you away from him. In the narrative of Mark 6, this attitude led to offense, and, in Luke’s account, violent rejection. Instead approach him as a disciple, as a new wine skin ready for his new wine.

Why Jeremiah? Key ideas and contemporary applications

As a Pastor at Wyoming Park Bible Fellowship I have been preaching through Jeremiah. You may ask: Why Jeremiah? Certainly, the book has its challenges for modern readers. It is one of the longest books of the Bible and is dominated by poetry and scenes of judgment. Yet, “all Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (1 Tim 3:16). Jeremiah has a unique word for modern Christians. Here are some of the key ideas, and their contemporary applications, that we can learn from Jeremiah.

Idols are worthless. Jeremiah’s most consistent charge against the people of Judah and Jerusalem is that they have exchanged the glory of the Creator God for images that they made with their own hands. These idols are worthless: they cannot save from judgment and they themselves will be judged.

Contemporary application: Idolatry is still a problem, though now in a different form. Whenever we put our ultimate trust or allegiance in another thing or person, instead of in God, we are practicing a form of false worship.

False worship and oppression are linked. Next to the sin of idolatry, Jeremiah places the sins of oppression and violence, especially against the poor and vulnerable. The two are linked. First, idolatry led to pagan cultic practices like child sacrifice. Second, when Judah abandoned God, they also abandoned his just laws and replaced them with laws that favored the strong over the weak. The Kings of Judah bore the brunt of the guilt, using their power for personal gain.

Contemporary application: We sometimes want to separate personal private sin (false worship) with public social sin (violence and oppression) but Jeremiah would have us see the connection. God’s people should be concerned both about right worship and right action. They should put aside idols and pursue justice for the oppressed.

God hates sin and brings judgment against it. Jeremiah’s language of judgment is strong and unrelenting. He is trying to wake up the people of Judah from their false sense of security that the prophets and priests have been feeding them for years. They’ve lost a sense of shame over their sin and they have no fear of the Lord. Jeremiah weeps over them, because he knows that the callousness of their hearts will lead to their destruction and exile.

Contemporary application: We’re always in danger of winking at sin, especially our own. We’ve lost our sense of shame and speak only of God’s judgment in hushed whispers. This isn’t to say we should rail against “the world.” Jeremiah does declare judgment against the nations, but his first and most sustained declarations of judgment are against the people of God.

Religion is worthless. Despite their idolatry and violence Jerusalem maintained a form of the worship of the Lord. They continued to enter into the temple and perform sacrifices. They continued to pray to the Lord and ask him to save them. These religious activities were shown to be false by their obvious hypocrisy. They fled to religion for safety, but not to God. If they had fled to God, they would have also returned to his ways: true worship and justice.

Contemporary application: Religious ritual (church attendance, baptism, prayers, etc.) are good if they bring us close to God and his ways. When we disconnect them from the God who gives them, however, they become worthless. Worse, they give us a false sense of security. The religious person needs to ask: Am I trust in my religion or in the God of my religion?  

God will restore his people. Jeremiah follows the pattern of the prophets: God’s people have turned away from him. They are guilty. God will bring judgment. And: God will restore. His restoration comes out of his own character, his faithfulness to the covenant he made, his mercy and compassion. He will discipline Jerusalem and Judah, but not forever, and when he sets things right, he will establish a “new covenant” that will transform the very hearts of his people.

Contemporary application: Jeremiah unmistakably points us to the gospel. God ultimately restore his people through the person and work of Jesus. In him he establishes a new covenant and, through the Spirit, transforms the hearts of those who trust him. He restores us purely by his character: his grace, mercy, and faithfulness. And, because we are restored to God now in Jesus through faith, we can look forward with confidence to an eternal restoration when Jesus returns.

You can find the sermons on Jeremiah on our church’s podcast, along with sermons on Mark and great sermons by Pastor John in 1 Corinthians and other books: https://anchor.fm/wpbiblefellowship