Christian Truth is in the Service of Christian Love

In the introduction to his book First Theology: God, Scripture and Hermeneutics, Kevin Vanhoozer writes this, which is worthy of a devotional thought for today:

Christian truth is in the service of Christian love. If I speak in the tongues of Reformers and of professional theologians, and I have not personal faith in Christ, my theology is nothing but the noisy beating of a snare drum. And if I have analytic powers and the gift of creating coherent conceptual systems of theology, so as to remove liberal objections, and have not personal hope in God, I am nothing. And if I give myself to resolving the debate between supra and infralapsarianism, and to defending inerrancy, and to learning the Westminster Catechism, yea, even the larger one, so as to recite it by heart backwards and forwards, and have not love, I have gained nothing.

This one thing I know: there is no more vital task facing Christians today than responding faithfully to Scripture as God’s authoritative speech acts — not because the book is holy but because the Lord is, and because the Bible is his Word, the chief means we have of coming to know Jesus Christ.

Those who interpret the Bible rightly — those who look and live along the text, following the written words to the living Word — will have rightly ordered loves and rightly ordered lives. The apostle Paul leaves us in no doubt as to either his first theology or his first love: “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Philippians 3:8).

Kevin Vanhoozer, First Theology: God, Scripture, & Hermeneutics (IVP Academic, 2002), 40-41

Who’s Holding Whom?

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I have a two-year old daughter whom I love with my whole heart. At this age, she is learning and growing so fast, especially in her speech.

Lately, every day she looks up at me and says, “Can I hold you?”

That’s her way of asking me to pick her up. Last night I was holding her, and she asked me, “Can I hold mommy?”

When we pick her up, she holds on tight. I’m not sure if she’s just mixing up her words, and really means to say, “Can you hold me?”, or if she really thinks of it as her holding us when we pick her up. Certainly she is holding on, but at the end of the day, our grip on her is much stronger than her grip on us.

I can’t help but think of this in regard to a believer’s relationship with God.

We are told by the writer of Hebrews that we are to “hold fast” to the gospel (Hebrews 3:14, 4:14, 10:23). We should love Him, seek Him, and cling to Him.

But here’s the good news: if and when you fail to do so, if and when you feel weak, confused and exhausted to the point where you are struggling to hold onto Him – He will still be holding on to you.

My daughter thinks she is holding onto me. But the truth is: I’m holding onto her much more firmly than she’s holding onto me, and I’m much stronger than she is.

2 Timothy 2:13, most likely quoting from an early Christian creed or song, says: if we are faithless, he remains faithful—for he cannot deny himself.

At the church where I served my first few years in Hungary, the pastor would read this passage at the end of every service:

Now unto him who is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy,
To the only wise God our Savior, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and ever. Amen. (Jude 24-25)

Find security in knowing this today: If you are His child, then as much as you might be clinging to Him (and you should be), He is clinging to you much more tightly, and He is infinitely stronger!

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!

Advent Meditations: 1 – An Indictment

For the season of Advent, I’m going to try to share several devotional thoughts over the course of the next few weeks.

Advent is First an Indictment

The word Advent comes from the Latin: Adventus Dominum – “the coming of God”. It is a time when we focus on how God came into our world in the person of Jesus Christ.

My favorite place to begin in the story of Jesus is the first chapter of the Gospel of John. John’s Gospel is different than the others in that John begins his account of Jesus BEFORE Christmas – in eternity past.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. (John 1:1-3)

However, where John is similar to the other Gospel writers is that before he talks about Jesus, he talks about John the Baptist (or “J the B” as I like to call him).

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light. (John 1:6-8)

Why is John the Baptist an important part of the Advent story?  Because the first important thing to know about Christmas is that Advent is an indictment before it is a joy. The very fact that God had to come into this world to save us, shows what dire straights we are in.

J the B came to prepare the hearts of the people for the coming of the Savior. And how did he do it? By calling people to confess their utter sinfulness, and acknowledge their desperate need for a salvation which they were unable to attain for themselves.

We cannot fully appreciate the joy of Christmas until we first come to terms with WHY Jesus had to come: because we all desperately need a Savior and our plight is so serious that none other than God Himself would be capable of meeting that need.

The hard fact is that Advent is an indictment: that your condition is so dire that GOD had to die for you, in order to save you.
The Good News of Advent is that God was glad to die for you, in order to save you.

Maundy Thursday – The Greatest Servant

Today is Maundy Thursday, the day of Holy Week when Jesus and his disciples celebrated their last supper.

On this day, we read that they rented a room in which to eat the traditional Passover meal, full of symbolism, of which Jesus was the ultimate fulfillment.

Being that people wore open sandals and that the roads were dirt, it meant that if they had been walking around outside, people’s feet were dirty.  Not only were they dirty from dusty roads, but without modern sewage systems, a lot of waste would end up in the streets, adding to the level of grime and filth on a person’s feet after simply going about a day’s business outside. Especially, considering that dinner was eaten sitting on pads on the floor, this foot washing was important because of the close proximity people would be in to each other’s feet – smelly feet ruin appetites.

For this reason, the custom was for people who entered a house to remove their sandals and wash their feet. If you were a guest at someone’s house, usually that foot washing would be taken care of by the host, or if the host could afford it, by a servant.

However, Jesus and his disciples were using a borrowed room, so there was no host to welcome them, and no servant assigned to wash people’s feet.

Luke’s Gospel tells us that as they sat at this dinner table, eating the passover – the disciples began to argue over which of them was the greatest. Presumably, part of this discussion was also to determine which one of them was the least – which one of them should become the servant of all and wash everyone’s feet.

And then something happened which no one expected: Jesus stood up and wrapped a towel around his waist and one by one, he washed the feet of his disciples.

Peter, seeing this, protested! How could he let Jesus serve him?! He should be serving Jesus!   But Jesus told Peter: If you don’t let me serve you, you can have no part in me.

And Jesus explained to them – that if anyone would be the greatest in His Kingdomhe must become the servant of all. In His Kingdom, those who humble themselves are the greatest, and those who exalt themselves will be humbled. Jesus explained: “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But it will not be so amongst you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the least, and the leader as one who serves.”

At another point Jesus had said: “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

How are you doing as a servant? Pursue true greatness and be like Jesus: a servant.

Sold into the Hand of Sisera

Last Sunday I preached on 1 Samuel 12, which is the speech that Samuel gives to the nation at the re-coronation of Saul.

There is a very intriguing statement in this section, which I didn’t address in the sermon, but I think is worthy of consideration.

And Samuel said to the people, “The Lord is witness, who appointed Moses and Aaron and brought your fathers up out of the land of Egypt. Now therefore stand still that I may plead with you before the Lord concerning all the righteous deeds of the Lord that he performed for you and for your fathers. When Jacob went into Egypt, and the Egyptians oppressed them, then your fathers cried out to the Lord and the Lord sent Moses and Aaron, who brought your fathers out of Egypt and made them dwell in this place. But they forgot the Lord their God. And he sold them into the hand of Sisera, commander of the army of Hazor, and into the hand of the Philistines, and into the hand of the king of Moab. And they fought against them. And they cried out to the Lord and said, ‘We have sinned, because we have forsaken the Lord and have served the Baals and the Ashtaroth. But now deliver us out of the hand of our enemies, that we may serve you.’ And the Lord sent Jerubbaal and Barak and Jephthah and Samuel and delivered you out of the hand of your enemies on every side, and you lived in safety. (1 Samuel 12:6-11, ESV)

Samuel says: Let me tell you of all the righteous deeds of the Lord that he performed for you.  Then he tells them that God “sold them into the hand of Sisera,” a Philistine general.

Notice – he didn’t ‘allow them to fall into the hand of Sisera’ – it wasn’t a passive allowance, but an active SELLING! He SOLD them into the hand of Sisera – and THIS, of all things, is given as an example of one of the righteous acts of the Lord, which he performed on behalf of the people of Israel because of his love and care for them!

This is a little bit different picture of God than what we usually get in the “moralistic therapeutic deism” which is passed for Christianity these days in many places – where God exists to be your friend, make your problems go away and make your wishes come true. When bad things happen, usually we are told that God passively allows these things to happen to you, so that you can grow through them.

But isn’t that a bit trite and simplistic?  Not to mention – that viewpoint has no capacity to deal with real evil – or even with scriptures such as the one mentioned above. The vision of God given here is of a God who is willing to sell you into the hand of Sisera if that’s what it takes to get you to turn back to Him! To God, in this story, it was obviously more important to Him that the people of Israel turn back to Him and pursue Him than that they be comfortable and problem-free.

What about you? Is it possible that the difficulties in your life have not just been passively “allowed” by God, but actively sent by God into your life for the purpose of moving you in a certain direction or getting you to a certain place, either physically or spiritually?

Could it be that God has sold you into the hand of Sisera in order to do a work in your heart, because He loves you?