“Heap Burning Coals on Their Head” – What Does That Mean?

Every week, Mike and I sit down in front of the camera to film a sermon-extra: a further discussion about the text we studied at White Fields on Sunday.

You can find those videos on the WhiteFields YouTube channel and Facebook page, or you can get the audio on SoundCloud. Check those out and subscribe so you can get keep up with those discussions and content.

Here’s this week’s video in which we discuss the somewhat confusing phrase in Romans 12:20 – “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head”:

What is Expository Preaching? – Some Thoughts from Martyn Lloyd-Jones

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The approach to preaching that we champion at White Fields is called “expository preaching.” I’m also involved with a movement called the Expositors Collective – which will have its next event in Bradenton, Florida on Nov 30-Dec 1, and which has a great podcast you should check out!

What is Expository Preaching?

The root word of “expository” is “expose” – and expository preaching is all about exposing the meaning of the text, as opposed to imposing a meaning upon the text. 

The goal of expository preaching is to let the Bible speak for itself, rather than using it as a “prooftext” to validate what we already think or what we really want to say. As opposed to coming to the Scriptures with a pre-conceived notion or goal and then looking for verses which back that up, expository preaching/teaching is focused on coming to the Bible and understanding what it has to say to us.

For this reason, we usually teach and preach through the Bible in a verse-by-verse fashion, but expository preaching can be done when addressing topics as well.

However, just teaching verse-by verse does not necessarily equal expository preaching. An expository sermon aims to expose as clearly as possible the meaning of the text, which means that it will have an effective structure for doing so, and will bring in other biblical texts to reach that goal.

Martyn Lloyd-Jones on Expository Sermons vs. Running Commentary

Consider these words from Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ classic: Preaching and Preachers

A sermon should always be expository. But, immediately, that leads me to say something which I regard as very important indeed in this whole matter. A sermon is not a running commentary on, or a mere exposition of, the meaning of a verse or a passage or a paragraph.

I emphasise this because there are many today who have become interested in what they regard as expository preaching but who show very clearly that they do not know what is meant by expository preaching. They think that it just means making a series of comments, or a running commentary on a paragraph or a passage or a statement. They take a passage verse by verse; and they make their comments on the first, then they go on to the next verse, and do the same with that, then the next, and so on. When they have gone through the passage in this way they imagine they have preached a sermon. But they have not; all they have done is to make a series of comments on a passage.

I would suggest that far from having preached a sermon such preachers have only preached the introduction to a sermon! This, in other words, raises the whole question of the relationship of exposition to the sermon. My basic contention is that the essential characteristic of a sermon is that it has a definite form, and that it is this form that makes it a sermon. It is based upon exposition, but it is this exposition turned or moulded into a message which has this characteristic form.

A phrase that helps to bring out this point is one which is to be found in the Old Testament in the Prophets where we read about ‘the burden of the Lord’. The message has come to the prophet as a burden, it has come to him as an entire message, and he delivers this. That is something, I argue, which is not true of a mere series of comments upon a number of verses.

I maintain that a sermon should have form in the sense that a musical symphony has form. A symphony always has form, it has its parts and its portions. The divisions are clear, and are recognised, and can be described; and yet a symphony is a whole. You can divide it into parts, and yet you always realise that they are parts of a whole, and that the whole is more than the mere summation or aggregate of the parts.

One should always think of a sermon as a construction, a work which is in that way comparable to a symphony. In other words a sermon is not a mere meandering through a number of verses; it is not a mere collection or series of excellent and true statements and remarks. All those should be found in the sermon, but they do not constitute a sermon. What makes a sermon a sermon is that it has this particular ‘form’ which differentiates it from everything else.

Lloyd-Jones, D. Martyn. Preaching and Preachers (pp. 82-84). Zondervan

He then goes on to make the point that “Spirit-led” does not mean structureless. We must not assume that structure and organization is at odds with being open to the leading of the Holy Spirit.

The ultimate goal of expository preaching is to let God’s Word speak and be understood as clearly, and with appropriate force upon the life of the hearers, that they might know God’s Word to them.

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What is Dual-Covenant Theology and What Does it Mean that “All Israel will be saved”?

Romans 11:26 makes an interesting statement, which has led to much confusion and debate:

“And in this way all Israel will be saved.” (Romans 11:26a)

Context

As we’ve been studying through Romans at White Fields on Sunday mornings, we have come to chapters 9-11, which deal with questions concerning Israel, such as: Has God forsaken Israel? Since the Old Testament contains many promises to the nation of Israel, are those promises no longer valid? How do we make sense of the fact that many Jews have  rejected Jesus as Messiah – and that most Christians are not ethnically Jewish?

In answering these questions, Paul is quick to assert that, No, God’s word has not failed in regard to Israel (Romans 9:6), nor has God forsaken Israel (Romans 11:1).

Paul explains Jewish unbelief in two important ways:

  1. The remnant argument: “Not all who are descended from Israel are Israel,” (Romans 9:4), & “And Isaiah cries out concerning Israel: ‘Though the number of the sons of Israel be as the sand of the sea, only a remnant of them will be saved'” (Romans 9:27).
    Additionally, it is understood that many who are not ethnically Jewish will be added to the “chosen people of God” – As indeed he says in Hosea, “Those who were not my people I will call ‘my people,’ and her who was not beloved I will call ‘beloved.’” “And in the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ there they will be called sons of the living God.’” (Romans 9:25-26)
  2. The responsibility argument: “But of Israel he says, “All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people.” (Romans 10:21)

Dual-Covenant Theology?

In an attempt to explain this idea that “all Israel will be saved”, some have adopted a dual-covenant theology, which basically says that the Jews are going to be saved under the old covenant (law), but Gentiles are saved under the new covenant (Jesus, grace).

The problem with dual-covenant theology is that it goes against everything Paul has been teaching in Romans, and what the rest of the Bible teaches: that Jesus is the only way of salvation for all people, both for Jews and Gentiles (i.e. everyone in the world).

John Stott writes this:

There is no hint of a special way of salvation for the Jews which dispenses with faith in Christ. It is understandable that since the holocaust Jews have demanded an end to Christian missionary activity among them, and that many Christians have felt embarrassed about continuing it. It is even mooted that Jewish evangelism is an unacceptable form of anti-Semitism. So some Christians have attempted to develop a theological basis for leaving Jews alone in their Judaism. Reminding us that God’s covenant with Abraham was an ‘everlasting covenant’, they maintain that it is still in force, and that therefore God saves Jewish people through their own covenant, without any necessity for them to believe in Jesus. This proposal is usually called a ‘two-covenant theology’.

Bishop Krister Stendahl was one of the first scholars to argue for it,47 namely that there are two different salvation ‘tracks’—the Christian track for the believing remnant and believing Gentiles, and the track for historical Israel which relies on God’s covenant with them. Professor Dunn is surely right to reject this as ‘a false and quite unnecessary antithesis’.

Romans 11 stands in clear opposition to this trend because of its insistence on the fact that there is only one olive tree, to which Jewish and Gentile believers both belong. Jewish people ‘will be grafted in’ again ‘if they do not persist in unbelief’. So faith in Jesus is essential for them. Whether or not Dr Tom Wright is correct in the notion of ‘a large-scale, last-minute salvation of ethnic Jews’, his emphasis on present evangelism (‘now’, three times in verses 30 and 31) is healthy: ‘Paul is envisaging a steady flow of Jews into the church, by grace through faith.’

The two-covenant theology also has the disastrous effect of perpetuating the distinction between Jews and Gentiles which Jesus Christ has abolished. ‘The irony of this’, writes Tom Wright, ‘is that the late twentieth century, in order to avoid anti-Semitism, has advocated a position (the non-evangelization of the Jews) which Paul regards precisely as anti-Semitic.’ ‘It would be quite intolerable to imagine a church at any period which was simply a Gentile phenomenon’ or ‘consisted only of Jews’.

Stott, John. The Message of Romans: God’s Good News for the World (The Bible Speaks Today Series) (pp. 304-305). InterVarsity Press.

If not dual-covenant theology, then how will “all Israel” be saved?

Since Paul has made it clear that “not all who are descended from Israel are Israel,” i.e. not every ethnically Jewish person is part of Israel, i.e. the remnant of God’s chosen people who will be saved – and that additionally, many non-ethnically Jewish people will be grafted into the “olive tree” (Israel) as “wild branches”, from which many “natural branches” have been cut off (Romans 11:17-24), it is in this way that we understand that “all Israel” (the remnant of believing Israel) will be saved, along with the “fullness of the Gentiles” (Romans 11:25) who will be “grafted in”.

Here’s a short video discussion we had about this topic this week:

Inputs and Outputs for Growth and Maturity

A few weeks ago I got a copy of Daniel Im’s new book No Silver Bullets in the mail to read and review.

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I got to know Daniel Im by listening to the New Churches podcast that he was part of along with missiologist Ed Stetzer, and was glad to receive this copy of his book, which I have enjoyed reading. What stands out to me about the book is the focus on not looking for a “fixes” or “gimmicks,” but rather simple strategies for how to better pastor and shepherd people towards Christ.

In one section of the book, he references a research study done by Lifeway Research called the Transformational Discipleship Assessment, which took place between 2007-2011 and studied 2500 Protestants in order to determine which “inputs” tended to lead to the greatest amount of spiritual maturity, progress and growth over time.

“Inputs,” according to this study, were spiritual disciplines that a person can do. The “outputs” were indicators of Christian maturity, namely: Bible engagement, obeying God, denying self, serving God and others, sharing Christ, exercising faith, seeking God, building relationships and transparency.

Here are the most interesting finds of the survey:

  1. The most important “input” (spiritual discipline) a person can do to have the greatest impact on their life, is reading the Bible.
    This may sound obvious, but you might be surprised to discover how much this is neglected even in many Christian circles. If you want to grow, and if you want to help other people grow, there is no substitute for the Word of God; reading it, studying it, and teaching it.
  2. One input which most powerfully affected people in spiritual growth was confessing sins.
    The Bible encourages us to confess our sins, both to God and to one another.

    If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9)
    Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. (James 5:16)
    Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy. (Proverbs 28:13)

    In fact, what was most interesting, was that confessing one’s sins was found to positively influence an individual’s proclivity to share Christ with others.

  3. The three most impactful inputs that the study showed helped people to grow in their faith and as disciples were: reading the Bible, regular church attendance and participation in small groups or classes.

Are those things a part of your life?

Was Jesus in the Grave Three Days and Three Nights? Here’s How It Adds Up

In Matthew 12:38-41, we read about how some of the scribes and Pharisees asked Jesus for a sign that he really was who he said he was: the Messiah. Jesus responded that only one sign would be given to them: the “sign of the prophet Jonah.”

For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the Earth.

Here’s the problem: If Jesus died on Good Friday and rose on Easter Sunday, that doesn’t add up to 3 days and 3 nights. At most it adds up to 2.5 days and 2 nights.

So… does that mean that Jesus didn’t stay in the grave long enough to fulfill his own prophecy?

Nope. Jesus really was in the grave three days and three nights, which is why the early Christians also taught that he was raised on the third day (Acts 10:40, 1 Corinthians 15:4). Let me explain how it adds up, but be prepared: it’s going to change the way you think about “Good Friday.”

Some Basics to Start With

  1. The Jewish calendar is lunar (based on the cycles of the moon), whereas the Roman calendar (which we use) is solar (based on the rotation of the Earth around the Sun). As a result, they don’t always correspond, hence the reason why the date of Easter changes every year. Today in Western Christianity, Easter is celebrated on the Sunday following the Paschal Full Moon. For more on why the date of Easter changes each year, click here.
  2. We tend to think of the new day beginning when we wake up, but in the Jewish mindset, the new day begins at sunset. So, when the sun sets on Monday, it is not considered Monday evening, it is considered the beginning of Tuesday.
  3. We know that Jesus resurrected on a Sunday, “the first day of the week” (Matthew 28:1; Mark 16:2,9; Luke 24:1)

What is a “Sabbath”?

The word sabbath means “rest,” and it refers to a holy day when no work is to be done.

Every Saturday is a sabbath, but there are other sabbaths as well – also known as “special Sabbaths.” Some of these “special Sabbaths” are celebrated on a specific calendar date, no matter what day of the week that date falls on – kind of like how we in the USA celebrate Independence Day on the 4th of July, and we observe that holiday no matter what day of the week it falls on.

In John 19:31, we read this about the day when Jesus was crucified:

Now it was the day of Preparation, and the next day was to be a special Sabbath. Because the Jewish leaders did not want the bodies left on the crosses during the Sabbath, they asked Pilate to have the legs broken and the bodies taken down.

The special Sabbath referred to here was the Feast of Unleavened Bread, a holiday which is always observed on the 15th day of Nisan according to the Jewish calendar.

According to Leviticus 24:4-14, there are three special holidays in the month of Nisan: Passover (the 14th of Nisan), the Feast of Unleavened Bread (15-22 of Nisan) and the Feast of First Fruits which was held on the Sunday following the Passover.

Let’s Sum This Up

Jesus actually died on a Thursday. Friday and Saturday were both sabbaths: Friday was the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, and Saturday was the weekly sabbath.

Jewish Month of Nisan

How can we be sure that this is what happened?

Several decades ago, the London Royal Observatory took on the challenge that since they could theoretically identify the position of the planets and start on any date in history, to figure out if around the time of Jesus there was such a time when Passover fell on a Thursday. Since the Jewish calendar is lunar, there is always a full moon on Passover, so this is pretty easy to figure out. Not surprisingly, there were several years around the time of Jesus when this took place. It’s really not that uncommon – just like how Christmas falls on a Tuesday every few years.

Even More Interesting…”Coincidences”?

According to Exodus 12:1-13, God told the Israelites that they were to select the Passover Lamb on the 10th day of Nisan. They were to examine it from the 11th to the 13th to make sure it was without blemish, and they were to sacrifice it on the 14th.

If the 14th was Thursday – and Jesus was crucified on “the day of Preparation” (Matthew 27:62, Mark 15:42, Luke 23:54, John 19:31) which was the day when Passover began and the celebration began with the eating of the Passover meal (Jesus and his disciples then would have eaten the last supper Passover meal on Wednesday evening). Then what this means is that when Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, that was on the 10th of Nisan – the day when the Passover lambs were to be selected!

Furthermore, remember that the Sunday after Passover was the Feast of First Fruits (Leviticus 23:9-11) – which means that Jesus resurrected on the Feast of First Fruits. This is what Paul the Apostle is making direct reference to in 1 Corinthians 15:20-23, where he says:

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.

So there you have it:

Jesus was indeed in the grave for three days and three nights. It really wasn’t that much of an anomaly, but it resulted in two sabbaths back to back – something which regularly happens every few years.

So “Good Friday” was actually on Thursday, “Maundy Thursday” was actually on Wednesday, and “Holy Saturday” was actually two days long.

However, it is incredible to see how God orchestrated and prepared for this to happen as it did for thousands of years before it happened. In reality, the Bible tells us that God had planned this whole thing out from eternity past (see Revelation 13:8) – and all of it so that you may have life in His name by believing! (John 20:31)

 

Carried by a Donkey

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On Sunday mornings at White Fields, I am currently teaching through the Book of Exodus. This past Sunday, we studied Exodus 13 in our study titled “A Cloud by Day and Fire by Night” (audio here).

After bringing the people of Israel out of Egypt, God established 2 annual feasts that they were to observe so they would never forget the deliverance He had worked on their behalf: the Feast of Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread.

Here the people of Israel were told that when they come into the Land of Canaan (the Promised Land) they were to sacrifice to God the first-born of both man and beast.

But wait! There are a couple problems with that…  First of all, human sacrifice was forbidden and considered an abomination. Secondly, some animals were considered “unclean” and therefore they could not be sacrificed either.

The solution?  The first-born of the humans and the first-born of the unclean animals both had to be “redeemed,” through an act of substitution. Specifically, it is mentioned that unclean animals were to be redeemed by substituting a clean animal in their place. In the text, an example is given: a donkey, as an unclean animal, could be redeemed by substituting a lamb in its place.

The donkey is a picture of me: pretty stubborn, not very cute, but worst of all: unclean by nature and condemned to death, but I have been redeemed, I have been saved by the substitutionary sacrifice on my behalf of the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ.

But there’s one more part to the story of the donkey:

Hundreds of years after the Passover, Zechariah the Prophet prophesied about the coming King of Zion – AKA the Messiah, that when he entered into Jerusalem, he would come on the back of donkey.

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem!
Behold, your king is coming to you;
righteous and having salvation is he,
humble and mounted on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey. (Zechariah 9:9)

Why a donkey? Many people believe that in contrast to conquering warrior kings who would enter a city on the back of a horse, an animal of war, by entering Jerusalem on a donkey, the message would be that the Messiah came in peace. Indeed one of the names he is given by the Prophet Isaiah is “Prince of Peace”.

Several hundred years later, Jesus of Nazareth came to Jerusalem, and he entered the city on the back of a donkey, declaring Himself to be the Messiah – and he was received as the Messiah by the people.

Now when they drew near to Jerusalem and came to Bethphage, to the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village in front of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her. Untie them and bring them to me.
Most of the crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. And the crowds that went before him and that followed him were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” (Matthew 21:1-2,8-9)

Now here’s the thing: Just as Jesus entered the city of Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, an unclean but redeemed creature – he still enters into the cities of this world in the same way: carried by those who are unclean, but redeemed.

Christian, you are that donkey!

The way that Jesus has chosen to enter into the cities, the homes, the workplaces of this world, is by being carried on the backs of us “donkeys”: creatures who are unclean by nature, who have been redeemed by the sacrifice of the lamb on our behalf.

Paul the Apostle reminds us that God loves to use the foolishing things of this world (see 1 Corinthians 1:26-30), and that includes us: “redeemed donkeys”.

The Problem with Facades

In Exodus 34, we read an interesting story: when Moses went to meet with God on the mountain to receive the tablets of the 10 Commandments, it caused Moses’ face to glow.

It says that when he came down from the mountain, the people were frightened to see his face glowing. In another place we are told that they couldn’t look upon it, because the glow was so bright.

behind-the-veilBut then an interesting thing happens; if you read the text it says that Moses would first let the people look at his face (or at least see that his face was glowing), then he would cover his face with a veil (supposedly for their sake), and then whenever he would go in before the Lord, he would remove the veil, get “charged up,” then come back, let the people see that his face was glowing again, and then put the veil back over his face.

Now, think about it: If the reason Moses covered his face was for the sake of the people, so as not to blind them by the glow on his face, then why let them look at his face first, and only then cover it up until the next time he went in before the Lord?

There is something implied there which is made explicit in another place in the Bible: in 2 Corinthians 3, Paul tells us that the reason Moses covered his face was because he didn’t want the people to know that the glow was fading away…

In other words, Moses hid behind the veil in order to keep up an appearance before the people, that wasn’t really true. Moses didn’t want people to know that he was just like them. He liked having people look up to him and be in awe of him, so he hid his face, lest everyone see that the glory was fading.

It was a facade.

That’s what a veil is: it’s something you hide behind. It’s a kind of mask that you use to cover up your blemishes, lest people see the real things about you that might change their image of you.

As a pastor, I see this a lot.

There are many examples of this today, in our own culture. Oftentimes people are willing to help other people deal with their “messiness,” but they don’t want anyone to know about the messy things in their lives. People tend to be quick to offer help, but reticent to admitting that they need help, or accepting help when it’s offered. They’d rather keep up a facade that they’ve got their stuff together, that their face glows with the glory of the Lord, even when that’s not the case.

In other words: “Life is messy, and that’s okay – as long as it’s not my mess.” “Community is about serving each other, and that’s great, as long as it’s me serving others and not me being served.”

Veils hinder true fellowship and community. Facades can hinder people from getting help when they need it. If your curtains are on fire, but you don’t want to call the fire department, lest your neighbors see that there was a problem at your house, then the fire will spread until the entire house burns down. All too often, that’s exactly what happens.

If your curtains are on fire, but you don’t want to call the fire department, lest your neighbors see that there was a problem at your house, then the fire will spread until the entire house burns down.

Furthermore, when leaders put up a facade, like Moses did, that things are better than they actually are, or that they are more spiritual than they actually are, it creates a culture which encourages people to not be honest about where they are really at. I believe that people deserve to have leaders they can look up to, and that they should expect more from leaders: to be a leader means to be out in front; after all, how can you follow someone, unless they are a few steps ahead of you? However, it should be authentic and not contrived. What Moses did was contrived.

In Genesis 3, we read about the first time people tried to cover up their shame: Adam and Eve had been naked and unashamed until they rebelled against God, but when sin came into the world, they were overcome with a sense of shame, and they tried to hide it by covering themselves with leaves. Leaves are good for a lot of things, but they made terrible coverings. They’re itchy. They’re drafty.

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Here’s what God did: he said, “I will make a covering for you,” and he made them coverings of animal skins. Do you know how you get animal skins? By killing an animal. In other words: because of their sin, an innocent creature had to die, in order to cover their shame.

Are you picking up what the story is putting down? The only way for us to be covered, is by the death of another. That other, the ultimate covering for our sin and shame, was Jesus – the “lamb of God.”

Any of your attempts to cover yourself will be not only uncomfortable and drafty, they will be insufficient and unhelpful. Facades create unnecessary barriers which hinder fellowship and growth. Embrace the covering of Jesus, and pursue authenticity rather than facades in your relationships and in your spirituality!

Beauty Out of Ashes – Video

This past weekend I spoke at Calvary Aurora, while Jack Curran, a great brother from our fellowship, taught at White Fields.

I shared a message about Jesus’ genealogy, specifically about the terrible and messy story of Tamar and Judah from Genesis 38, and how it is a surprising picture of redemption.

I’m pretty sure I was their first (and maybe last) guest speaker to teach from a biblical text that included the word “semen”.

Here’s the video of the service:

Was Paul Suicidal?

Recently at White Fields I have been teaching through Paul’s Letter to the Philippians in a study titled, The Pursuit of Happiness.

This past Sunday I taught on Paul’s famous saying: “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain” – and I explained how the gospel gives new meaning to our lives and it redefines what death means for us. Audio of that message can be found here.

In that sermon, I didn’t get to what Paul says after that famous phrase. Here’s the rest:

For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith, so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus, because of my coming to you again. (Philippians 1:21-26)

A reader of this blog sent me a message this week about this passage:

I have always wondered if Paul was experiencing a period of depression when he wrote this epistle. What he says in verse 1:22, “yet what I shall choose I cannot tell” even makes me consider that he was in some ways considering “suicide”. I know that sounds preposterous, and I’m not suggesting that he actually thought of killing himself but rather maybe purposely doing something that would result in his death. In todays world it might be called “suicide-by-cop”. It seems as he continues through the remainder of the chapter that he convinces himself that it is better to remain for the benefit of others. It could be that he was just experiencing a time when his death seemed imminent and he was preparing the readers for that eventuality, but I think that he was experiencing a great amount of stress during this time. As always, he was able, through the Spirit, to overcome his stress and turn it into a beautiful, encouraging letter. I believe it probable that all men of great faith experience times of doubt or fear brought on by the enemy.

That’s an interesting thought. Certainly Paul was facing dire circumstances, and I fully agree with the final sentence, but I wouldn’t go so far as to agree that Paul might have been having suicidal thoughts – even to the degree of doing something that might provoke someone else to kill him.

To me, the tone of the letter is one of triumph in the face of harsh circumstances, even death.

I believe that what’s going through Paul’s mind as he writes those words is that he wants to explain something important to the Philippians: That although as Christians, the ultimate hope of the Gospel is the hope of eternal life in paradise with God, that should never minimize the purpose that God has for our lives here on Earth.

This seems to have been a problem amongst some of the early Christians. 2 Thessalonians was written, in part, to let the Christians know that Jesus had not yet returned, that the Parausia, the Second Coming, was still to come – but that as we await Jesus’ imminent return, we should not be inactive;  we should still work hard. That’s why he says:

If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. (2 Thessalonians 3:10-12)

The context of that, is that the Thessalonians were eagerly expecting the return of Jesus any day – as all early Christians did, and as it seems that Jesus intended all Christians to do, which is the reason for his vagueness about when his return will take place.

The point is this: We should not have a Christianity in which we encourage people to just believe in Jesus and then hang on and wait for death! I think Paul wanted to Philippians to understand that: that Christianity isn’t only about going to heaven when you die, it’s about living this life for Christ – as much as, and as long as possible.

It’s not only that because of the Gospel, DEATH IS GAIN – but also: because of the Gospel, TO LIVE IS CHRIST!

Another reason why I think Paul was not discouraged when he wrote to the Philippians is because he closes the letter by saying:

Greet every saint in Christ Jesus. The brothers who are with me greet you. All the saints greet you, especially those of Caesar’s household. (Philippians 4:21-22)

What this means is that members of Caesar’s household, including the Praetorian Guard (members of which were chained to Paul 24 hrs a day in 6 hr shifts), were becoming Christians through his being there in jail. I think Paul was feeling particularly encouraged after facing years of discouragement prior to this. Finally he was starting to see some fruit and the purpose for which God must have allowed this series of terrible difficulties and injustices happen to him. Many of us may never get to see that in our difficulties, but when we do it helps to encourage us that God is indeed in control and using all of the frayed strands to create a beautiful tapestry.

 

What is Baptism with Fire?

This past Sunday I was out of town, officiating the wedding of some friends in Minnesota. It was my first time in Minnesota, and it was really nice! I can see the appeal of the lakes.

So this past Sunday I was out of town, but the week before that I preached a message titled “Baptism by Fire” in which I taught about the events of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came upon the church in fulfillment of the promises of not only Jesus, but also of God from even the Old Testament. I made reference to the words of John the Baptist, who said that he baptized with water unto repentance, but that one (Jesus) was coming after him who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire, and I talked about how the fulfillment of that is found in Pentecost, when the believers were baptized with the Holy Spirit, and as a sign of them each individually receiving this baptism, tongues of fire rested on each of their heads.

Afterwards, someone asked me a great question: Whether the baptism with fire that John the Baptist was talking about was a description of the baptism with the Holy Spirit (like I had taught), or if John was speaking of the fire of judgment – because in the very next verse, John the Baptist says: “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” (Matthew 3:12)

Here was my response:

I am familiar with that interpretation you mention, and I think it’s entirely possible given the context of what John was talking about — which is promise of the Messiah and a warning of judgement. In this interpretation, the assumption is that Jesus is saying: he will baptize some people with the Holy Spirit and other people he will baptize with fire — i.e. the same fire of judgment that he refers to in the following verse (vs 12).

Is that what John meant by those words? I agree with you (and many Bible interpreters) that it is quite possible that this is what he meant.

The other main interpretation about this, is that the “fire” is a reference to the Holy Spirit and the purpose of the tongues of fire on Pentecost was that they were a sign that these words of John were now being fulfilled. This is the line of thinking that I took in my sermon. Here’s more on that from the Holman Bible Dictionary:

Fire is one of the physical manifestations of God’s presence. This is illustrated several times in the Bible: the making of the covenant with Abraham (Genesis 15:17 ), the appearance in the burning bush (Exodus 3:2), God leading the Israelites by a pillar of fire by night (Exodus 13:21-22; Exodus 14:24; Numbers 9:15-16; Numbers 14:14; etc.), His appearance on Mount Sinai (Exodus 19:18; Exodus 24:17; Deuteronomy 4:11-36; Deuteronomy 5:4-26; etc.), and others (1Kings 18:24,1 Kings 18:38; 1 Chronicles 21:26; 2Chronicles 7:1,2 Chronicles 7:3 ).

Fire was used symbolically in Israel’s worship to represent God’s constant presence with Israel (Leviticus 6:12-13 ). God’s presence as fire represented both judgment and purification (the words purify and purge come from the Greek word for fire). To be in God’s presence is to be in the presence of absolute holiness where no sin or unrighteousness can stand. To be in the presence of God is to have the overwhelming sense of one’s uncleanness and the overwhelming desire to be clean (see Isaiah 6:1-6 ). God is able to judge and destroy the sin and purify the repentant sinner.

To be baptized with the Holy Spirit has a wider application than this; but when the Holy Spirit is coupled with fire, the particular aspect of the Holy Spirit’s work as described here is in view.

One thing I would add to this excerpt is that fire is a cleansing agent, and one of the roles of the Holy Spirit as he indwells us is sanctification, e.g. Rom 8:13.

This is one of the difficulties of Bible interpretation — to figure out what exactly was meant by a particular word or phrase in its context. In this case, both options are theologically sound and contextually possible, so it’s kind of a win-win. I’m glad to have the chance to explain a little more about the fire aspect and what the significance of it might be.