Speaking Mysteriously of Mysteries

One of the common features of Jesus’ teaching ministry was his use of parables, stories that illustrated spiritual and moral lessons. One of the things that’s particularly worth noting is the “why” of His use of parables.

Today, in some circles, it’s very fashionable to speak and write in very ambiguous terms. To “embrace the mystery” of Christianity and leave things kind of… mysterious.

But is that the point of teaching? Was that what Jesus was doing when He taught in parables?

Take a look at Matthew 13:10-17 for a second:

Then the disciples came and said to him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” And he answered them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. Indeed, in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says:

“‘You will indeed hear but never understand, and you will indeed see but never perceive.  For this people’s heart has grown dull, and with their ears they can barely hear, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and turn, and I would heal them.’

But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. For truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.

In the beginning of this passage, Jesus’ disciples asked that very question. They said to Jesus, “why do you speak to them [the crowds who came to see Jesus] in parables?”

They wanted to know: Why did He not speak plainly to the crowds? Why was He so mysterious?

And Jesus answered. “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.”

So here’s what He says: Jesus tells them, “I speak in parables because the truth of the kingdom of heaven is not theirs to know. They think they see the truth of My kingdom, but they don’t. They think they understand, but they can’t. If they did, they might turn and repent.”

His parables had a two-fold effect:

  1. They hardened the hearts of some who heard
  2. They caused others to seek out Jesus to ask Him what He meant

The interesting thing is that when people came to Him and asked Him to explain, as the disciples did, He was happy to oblige. Indeed, every time they asked by His disciples what He meant, He patiently explained. Jesus was never mysterious for the sake of being mysterious. He didn’t speak in riddles and vagaries to create a mystique. As I wrote last week, God is not a beat poet.

Jesus’ parables were not meant to be a stumbling block for His disciples; all things were revealed to them by Him. Similarly, the role of the Christian teacher is to patiently explain all that has been revealed with gentleness and humility. If we are going to follow Jesus’ example in teaching, we ought to be careful to not embrace mystery for the sake of being mysterious.

Let Us Imitate Our Father

If God be our Father, let us imitate him. The child not only bears his father’s image, but imitates him in his speech, gesture and behaviour. If God be our Father, let us imitate him. ‘Be ye followers of God, as dear children.’ Eph 5: 1. Imitate God in forgiving injuries. ‘I have blotted out, as a thick cloud, thy transgressions.’ Isa 44: 22. As the sun scatters not only thin mists, but thick clouds, so God pardons great offences. Imitate him in this. ‘Forgiving one another.’ Eph 4: 32. Cranmer was a man of a forgiving spirit: he buried injuries and requited good for evil. He who has God for his Father, will have him for his pattern. Imitate God in works of mercy. ‘The Lord looseth the prisoners.’ Psa 146: 7. He opens his hand and satisfies the desire of every living thing. Psa 145: 16. He drops his sweet dew upon the thistle as well as the rose. Imitate God in works of mercy; relieve the wants of others; be rich in good works. ‘Be merciful, as your Father also is merciful.’ Luke 6: 36. Be not so hard hearted as to shut out the poor from all communication. Dives denied Lazarus a crumb of bread, and Dives was denied a drop of water.

Thomas Watson, The Lord’s Prayer (Kindle Edition, Location 547)

Honor Your Father by Being in Awe of Him

We show our honour to our Father in heaven, by having a reverential awe of him upon us. ‘Thou shalt fear thy God.’ Lev 25: 17. This reverential fear of God, is when we dare do nothing that he has forbidden in his Word. ‘How can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?’ Gen 39: 9. It is part of the honour a son gives to a father, that he fears to displease him. We show our honour to our heavenly Father, by doing all we can to exalt him and make his excellencies shine forth. Though we cannot lift him up higher in heaven, yet we may lift him higher in our hearts, and in the esteem of others. When we speak well of God, set forth his renown, display the trophies of his goodness; when we ascribe the glory of all we do to him; when we are the trumpeters of his praise; this is honouring our Father in heaven, and a sure sign of a childlike heart. ‘Whose offereth praise, glorifieth me.’ Psa 123.

Thomas Watson, The Lord’s Prayer (Kindle Edition, Location 177)

The Only True Light

Many people are not interested in heaven, caring only about their present happiness. But have they compared the lights of their liking to the true light of God’s Son? There is no light other than Jesus that can lead to true joy now or to eternal life in days to come: not money, adventure, or success; not the pride of morality; not the pleasure of sin. The only true light is Jesus Christ, and God in His grace sent Him into this world to be our Savior. What will happen to those who reject Him? How will God respond if they do not receive His Son, bowing the knee and opening their hearts to believe and be saved? As John declared, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him” (John 3:36).

Richard D. Phillips, Jesus the Evangelist (Kindle Edition—location 204)

Bear Testimony Not To Yourself, But To Christ

Cross in Winter

It is especially important that we never think that what we are doing for Christ is of ultimate importance. James Montgomery Boice warns us, “Whenever a Christian layman, minister, writer, teacher, or whoever it might be, gets to thinking that there is something important about him, he or she will always cease to be effective as Christ’s witness.” We also must never permit people to glorify us for what God has done in our lives. If people notice that you have changed, you should praise God and tell them that it was Jesus’ work, for they will gain what you have, not by admiring you, but only by believing on Jesus. In some cases, redirecting praise in this manner will result in people who previously admired you becoming hostile; the world hated Christ, and it will often hate a faithful witness to Him. But we must accept this risk so as to bear testimony not to ourselves but to Christ.

Richard D. Phillips, Jesus the Evangelist (Kindle Edition—location 172)

Archaeology and the Seven Churches

This is a fascinating interview with Mark Driscoll and Dr. Andrew Jackson, one of the foremost authorities on biblical history in the country of Turkey.

In the first video, Dr. Jackson explains the history and importance of the city of Ephesus:

In the second, Dr. Jackson discusses the seven churches of Revelation:

The interviews above are well worth your time and provided some particularly interesting nuggets for me. For example, the order of the seven churches listed in Revelation 2:1-3:22 is deliberately organized for the travel circuit through each region is a very helpful bit of information as it means there was a specific reason for why the books were placed in the order they were.

Most of all, the videos remind me just how important the study of history is to our understanding of Scripture. Archaeological expeditions allow us to get a much better sense of what the culture was like, to see some of the remains of the cities where the gospel first went forward and bring believer today that much closer to our earliest counterparts.

And it’s all the more reason to give thanks.

Do you look into archaeological expeditions of biblical sites? If so, what’s been the most interesting you’ve learned?

Rob Bell + Universalism = Fireworks

Update: My review of Love Wins was posted 03/09/2011.

This weekend a big stink was kicked up about the trailer and marketing copy of Rob Bell’s latest book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. Indeed, the brouhaha led to Bell’s name trending on Twitter!

So as you can imagine, this thing is causing quite the commotion among Christians on the interwebs.

The issue came onto my radar yesterday when I saw Emily had been reading this post from Justin Taylor. I read the marketing copy, which after some fairly heavy-handed selling of Bell’s credentials, we get to the heart of the controversy:

Bell addresses one of the most controversial issues of faith—the afterlife—arguing that a loving God would never sentence human souls to eternal suffering. With searing insight, Bell puts hell on trial, and his message is decidedly optimistic—eternal life doesn’t start when we die; it starts right now. And ultimately, Love Wins.

The accompanying video doesn’t help much:

In his previous books and tours, Bell has often been… squishy regarding his take on the wrath of God (even going so far as to reinterpret God’s wrath as a feeling of grief mixed with a desire to reconnect and restore). Indeed, he’s been so ambiguous that it’s caused a great many pastors and theologians to ask the question: Is he a universalist?

With this book it seems we might have an answer, in much the same way Brian McLaren dropped his pretence of trying to remain orthodox in A New Kind of Christianity.

However, I don’t know if it’s safe to say that for certain because, well, the book hasn’t been released yet. Because the material is in Bell’s typically ambiguous style so it can be taken one of two ways:

  1. He is playing “Devil’s Advocate” (oh, how I loathe that term) and presenting legitimate questions
  2. The trajectory he’s been on for years has reached it’s destination and he’s outright abandoned the gospel

My hope would be the former. But if I had to be honest, my expectation is the latter. And  this is not something I find delightful or comforting.

Here’s what I would hate to see: If it turns out that he has indeed abandoned the gospel and embraced universalism (“Christian” or otherwise), that is cause to weep. Rob Bell’s influence is enormous and, if he does indeed advocate for universalism, then he will be preaching people straight into hell.

We can’t get away from the reality of hell. The Bible is clear that there will be eternal punishment for those who do not repent and turn to Jesus for salvation.

And love doesn’t win unless there’s something from which to flee.

(Thanks to Erik from J.C. Ryle Quotes for the title of the post.)

Bid Them To Count the Cost

If we desire to do good, let us never be ashamed of walking in the steps of our Lord Jesus Christ. Work hard if you will, and have the opportunity, for the souls of others. Press them to consider their ways. Compel them with holy violence to come in, to lay down their arms, and to yield themselves to God. Offer them salvation, ready, free, full, immediate salvation. Press Christ and all His benefits on their acceptance. But in all your work tell the truth, and the whole truth. Be ashamed to use the vulgar arts of a recruiting serjeant [sic]. Do not speak only of the uniform, the pay, and the glory; speak also of the enemies, the battle, the armour, the watching, the marching, and the drill. Do not present only one side of Christianity. Do not keep back “the cross” of self-denial that must be carried, when you speak of the cross on which Christ died for our redemption. Explain fully what Christianity entails. Entreat men to repent and come to Christ; but bid them at the same time to “count the cost.”

J.C. Ryle, as published in J.I. Packer, Faithfulness and Holiness: The Witness of J. C. Ryle, p. 181

My Memory Moleskine: Jesus Plus Anything Equal Nothing

Memory Moleskine - Image by Tim Brister

This week’s section of Philippians finds Paul doing some amazing setup. He begins by writing:

Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you is no trouble to me and is safe for you.

So far so good, right? Seems like this is going to be a great encouragement. Next verses:

Look out for the dogs. Look out for the evildoers. Look out for those who mutilate the flesh. For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh—

And there it is. Paul lets this outstanding warning fly—look out for dogs, evildoers, mutilators of the flesh… Here, Paul’s talking about the Judaizers who plagued his ministry—those who were trying to say that salvation was through faith in Christ plus keeping the Mosaic Law.

And as we know from reading Paul’s other writings, Christ plus anything equals nothing.

So Paul lets this this fly and then reminds his readers that if it were a question of confidence in the flesh, “I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also.”

If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day; of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.

Let those credentials sink in for a second.

Paul was serious business. A Hebrew of Hebrews; a Jew by birth, able to trace his line back to Abraham. A pharisee, a persecutor of the church, blameless in his keeping of the law.

That’s a tough act to follow. And if that’s what we were to have to do to be saved, we’d all be completely lost.

Fortunately, it’s not the end of Paul’s rebuke against the Judaizers and encouragement to the Philippians. All this is just set up for what comes next:

But whatever gain I had, I counted it as loss for the sake of Christ.

Jesus plus anything equals nothing.

How’s your memorizing been this week? What’s God been teaching you through it?

Counterfeits Are Like Candy

From Trevin Wax‘s forthcoming book, Counterfeit Gospels:

Christians and non-Christians are often drawn to counterfeit gospels. Even those of us who have walked with the Lord for many years may be inclined to cheap imitations of the truth. Why? Because they are easy. They cost us less. And they make us popular with people whose opinions matter to us.

Yet a counterfeit gospel will always leave our souls impoverished at just the point we should be enriched. Counterfeits leave our hearts and affections for God depleted at just the time we should be overflowing with passion to share the good news with others. Counterfeits are like candy. They may be pleasant to the taste, but they leave us spiritually malnourished.

In extreme cases, a counterfeit gospel may lead to heresy, a distortion of the biblical gospel so devastating it leads straight to hell. But in most cases, counterfeit gospels represent either a dilution of the truth or a truth that is out of proportion. There may still be enough of a saving message to reconcile us to God, but the watered-down version never satisfies our longings. Nor will it empower us for service, or embolden our witness before a watching world.

Trevin Wax, Counterfeit Gospels: Rediscovering the Good News in a World of False Hope, p. 13

(Audio)Book Review: Jesus in the Present Tense by Warren W. Wiersbe

Title: Jesus in the Present Tense: The I AM Statements of Christ
Author: Warren W. Wiersbe
Publisher: David C. Cook/ChristianAudio (2011)

It’s easy for us to be caught up in the past—the mistakes we’ve made, the opportunities we’ve lost, the sins we’ve committed. When we spend all our time focusing on these things, it robs us of our joy. We don’t feel as connected to Christ, nor do we feel the freedom to serve and to give of ourselves fully. But this does not have to be our experience—and by examining the I AM statements of Christ in his latest book, Jesus in the Present Tense, author Warren W. Wiersbe offers readers (and listeners) the hope and freedom that comes from living our lives in the present tense with Christ.

The “I AM” statements of Jesus found in John’s gospel are some of the most poignant examples of Christ’s proclamation of His divinity—and understanding them is crucial to our growth in our love for Christ. After initially dealing with the “I AM” statements that are found throughout the Old Testament, beginning with Moses’ conversation with the Lord in the book of Exodus, Wiersbe addresses with the seven metaphorical “I AM” statements:

  1. I am the bread of life (John 6:35; John 6:48; John 6:51)
  2. I am the light of the world (John 8:12; John 9:5)
  3. I am the door of the sheep (John 10:7; John 10:9)
  4. I am the good shepherd (John 10:11; John 10:14)
  5. I am the resurrection and the life (John 11:25)
  6. I am the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6)
  7. I am the true vine (John 15:1)

He also takes a couple of surprising turns in dealing with what are known as the absolute I AM statement of Christ (found in John 6:20; John 8:24; John 8:28; John 8:58; and John 18:5) and also what he calls the neglected I AM—Psalm 22:6: [Read more...]

My Memory Moleskine: God’s Timing for Certain Texts

Memory Moleskine - Image by Tim Brister

This week I’ve been working through Philippians 2:19-30 while at the same time preparing to preach on Psalm 1:1-6.

What’s been interesting is how God’s been using Psalm 1 to apply the principles I’m learning through memorizing Philippians. Here’s what I mean:

In Psalm 1, the Psalmist writes that the man who delights in the law of the Lord, who meditates on it day and night is blessed. Why? Because the Holy Spirit is working on him and in him, conforming him more and more to the image of Christ, giving him a heart for the things that He cares about. The man who delights in the Word of God bears much fruit.

In memorizing Philippians this week, that’s what I’ve noticed in Timothy and Epaphroditus. There is no one like Timothy, Paul says, “who will be genuinely concerned for your [the Philippians] welfare.” Likewise, Epaphroditus longs to see the Philippians again and is “distressed because [they] have heard he was ill.”

These two model the command Paul gives in Phil 2:3-4. In humility, they count others more significant than themselves, and look not only to their own interests, but also to the interests of others.

They are, as the psalmist wrote, “like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither.” (Psalm 1:3) The Spirit’s work is evident in them and they are bearing fruit.

Anyway, that’s pretty much been my week in the text. Like I said, I’m preaching this weekend, so if you could keep me in your prayers, I’d greatly appreciate it.

What’s God been teaching you through your memorization this week?

20 Things God Does When He Saves You

A helpful breakdown of 20 things that God does when He saves you, courtesy of Norm Millar, Senior Pastor at Harvest Bible Chapel London.

When God saves you, He…

  1. Regenerates you, moving you from spiritual death to life. (John 3:1-8)
  2. Redeems you, buying you out of slavery to sin. (1 Peter 1:18-19)
  3. Justifies you, declaring you innocent in His sight. (Romans 5:1-9)
  4. Sanctifies you, setting you apart as holy. (1 Cor 1:2,30)
  5. Forgives you of all your sins. (Ephesians 1:7)
  6. Cleanses you, removing from you the stain of sin. (Hebrews 9:14)
  7. Reconciles you to Himself. (2 Corinthians 5:17-19)
  8. Seals you with His Spirit as a guarantee of your future hope. (Ephesians 1:13)
  9. Indwells you, sending the Holy Spirit to live in you. (Romans 8:9)
  10. Adopts you, making you His child. (Romans 8:14-17)
  11. Baptizes you into Christ’s body, the Church. (1 Corinthians 12:3)
  12. Illuminates your mind so you can understand the Scriptures. (2 Corinthians 4:3-4)
  13. Makes you a new creation. (2 Corinthians 5:17)
  14. Reveals you as one of His elect. (Ephesians 1:4, Romans 8:29-30)
  15. Grants you eternal life. (John 11:25-27, 1 John 5:11-13)
  16. Names you an heir with Christ. (Romans 8:17)
  17. Grants you an inheritance. (1 Peter 1:3-4)
  18. Declares you a saint. (Romans 1:7, Colossians 1:2)
  19. Grants you new citizenship, making your home heaven rather than this world. (Philippians 3:20)
  20. Makes you a slave of Christ, a slave with the greatest, most glorious Master that any could ask for. (1 Corinthians 7:22-23)

Praise God for the assurance that comes from these great truths.

Complete message audio: : (Download to listen later.)

My Memory Moleskine: Philippians 2:1-18(ish)

Last week, I put together a video update (and recited Philippians 1:1-30 with only a couple of minor flubs) and all the while have continued to work hard on Philippians chapter 2. This week on the schedule is Phil 2:1-4, however, I’ve been tracking ahead a fair bit.

Last week, I briefly spoke about false humility (something that verses 1-7 reminded me of), and this week’s reading only continued to reinforce that message.

This struck me most vividly in Paul’s exhortation in Phil 2:12-18:

Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence, but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you both to work and to will for His good pleasure. Do all things without grumbling or questioning so that you may be blameless and innocent, Children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, holding fast to the word of life so that in the day of Christ, I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain. Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering on the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all.  Likewise you also should be glad and rejoice with me.

One of the interesting things that has come out of this project so far is how it seems to get almost easier to memorize the text. This is good in that it allows me more time to chew and if a hard verse is coming up (and I’m sure that there’s going to be some really complicated stuff in chapters 3 & 4), I can eat up some of the “extra” time I’ve gained.

On the downside, it’s a breeding ground for pride. “Look at me and how smart I am; look at how keen my mind is,” and all that nonsense (people who know me well know this is a big enough problem as it is).

But verse 13 reminds me that, even though I’m working hard at this it’s God who is at work. I can memorize Scripture because the Holy Spirit is (hopefully) searing it into my conscience and heart. And Paul’s command in verse 14, to do all things without grumbling or questioning, it’s a reminder of the need for humility in obedience. Considered in light of Phil 2:1-8 and his vivid description of Christ’s humility, how can I not make it my desire to submit well, as it has been granted for Christ’s sake that I “should not only believe in Him, but also suffer for his sake” (Phil 1:29).

So, that’s what God’s been teaching me through this project this week. What’s He been teaching you?