Category Archives: Biblical Meditations

Wingless Bones, not Boneless Wings

“For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven” (Mk 12.25).

The Sadducees made great 1st-century conservatives but even better 21st-century liberals.  They denied all things supernatural, especially any notion of bodily resurrection from the dead (cf. Mt 3.7; 16.1, 11-12; 22.23, 34; Lk 20.27; Acts 4.1-2; 5.17; 23.6-8).  Their creed was Sola Torah (Torah alone); whatever Torah did not clearly teach was not to be believed.  As their Torah did not command a resurrection they denied its reality.

They tried to stump the resurrection-believing Jesus with a stock apologetic argument against resurrection (Mk 12.18-23).  The Pharisees fell for it every time so why not Jesus?  “Riddle me this, Jesus.  Seven brothers marry the same woman according to the law of levirate marriage (Dt 25.5-6).  Who of the brothers has dibs on this woman in the so-called ‘resurrection’ you so firmly believe?”  They were sure they’d stumped the Truth.

But Jesus quickly dismissed their straw man argument on grounds of ignorance of both Scripture and God’s power (Mk 12.24).  They had no clue about the nature of the resurrection life.  It’s not the unending continuation of this life, but a whole new life in a whole new dimension.  Ain’t no marriage in heaven because there ain’t no death in heaven and therefore no need for procreation (Lk 20.3).  Resurrected folk become like angels in that they do not maintain familial or conjugal relationships (v25).  Again, Jesus did not say the brothers became angels at death, but became like angels in the way that they don’t marry and have families.

So let’s be clear: people who were “good” in this life do not become angels when they die.

This may not be news to you, but it will be to many who do not understand Scripture’s teaching on life after death. How many funerals—even those considered “Christian”—have this underlying assumption that our deceased loved one is now floating around in heaven with fluttering wings and a flowing white robe, looking down on us and following us around in the breeze wishing we wouldn’t cry.

I remember at Mom’s funeral (20 years ago this year) how many would console me with the thought that she was now an angel. I didn’t think much about it at the time, but now I realize that wasn’t good news. And it came from folks who should’ve known better. So, let’s make sure we know better before the next funeral!

This news may be a profound disappointment to you or someone you know.  After all, what could be better than becoming angel and flying around wherever you want, being willingly invisible and invincibly powerful for eternity?  Not becoming an angel doesn’t sound like good news.

While it may seem like harmless sentiment, it actually cheapens several important biblical doctrines. So I want to try to defend why it is not good news that people become angels when they die. Stated positively, I want to prove why it is actually good news for the Christian that we do not become angels when we die.  I suggest five theological areas where this “harmless” sentiment actually harms how we understand humanity, Christ, salvation, sanctification and judgment.

Anthropology: God created humans to be physical, corporeal beings.

To discount the body as less important than the spirit is a product of Greek—namely, gnostic—heresy. It was common in 1st century Greek life to assume the body to be evil and the spirit to be good. And as such, one could do whatever he wanted with the body because it’s evil and will be destroyed. What one does with his body has no affect on his spirit.

To assume we become angels at death is to consider the body to be worthless, temporary and unnecessary to being eternally complete as a human being. This is why Paul spent so much time defending the glory and importance of what we do with our bodies:

Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its lusts, and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God” (Rom 6.12-13).

For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body” (1 Cor 6.20).

What we do with and how we treat our bodies matters because our bodies matter to God. God created us as unified, holistic beings with a spirit that impacts the body and vice versa (for examples, see Ps 32.3-4; Is 40.31). By nature, when we suffer spiritual strain we lose appetites. By nature, when we’re sick we feel spiritually drained. This is why the gospel is so radical: it gives strength where there is no strength to be had!

For example, why do post-abortive moms suffer spiritual affects? They’ve been sold the line that it’s their body to do with what they want (there is no connection between body and soul), but they suddenly realize that to monkey with the body has far-reaching spiritual implications.  They realize God has created our bodies to respond to and affect spiritual realities.  This is why our spiritual appetites lead to physical actions (cf. Jas 1.14-15; 4.2).

God did not create us as physical bodies with a spirit, or spirits with a body, but as spiritual bodies to reflect his glory both inside and out. To separate the soul from the body is to be sub-human.

Christology: Jesus’ bodily resurrection anticipates what will happen with all believers in Christ.

God promises to conform all believers to the image of his Son (Rom 8.29). God will “transform the body of our humble state inot conformity with the body of [Christ’s] glory” (Phil 3.21). When we see Jesus we will be like Jesus (1 Jn 3.2).  Therefore, whatever Jesus is in his glorified state is what we will be in ours. And Jesus was raised bodily to become the first fruits of God’s intention for true humanity.

Stated negatively: Jesus did not become an angel when he died. God promises we will be like Jesus. Therefore, we will not become angels when we die.

Stated positively: Jesus was raised bodily. God promises we will be like Jesus. Therefore, we will be raised bodily.

But if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you” (Rom 8.11).

To assume we become angels at death is to say we would rather be an angel to be like Jesus for all eternity. That’s an insult to Jesus.

Soteriology: God’s salvation is complete when our physical bodies are redeemed/glorified in a bodily resurrection.

Given God’s valuing the body, his salvation must necessarily include—and his grace experienced by—the redemption of our fallen bodies.  What happened with the Fall in Eden was the destruction of the body and soul. We die in every sense of the word. We die physically and we die spiritually. In Christ, God reverses that curse so that both body and soul are redeemed restored to unrestrained, eternal glory.

. . . we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body” (Rom 8.23).

For we know that if the earthly tent which is our house is torn down, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For indeed in this house we groan, longing to be clothed with our dwelling from heaven, inasmuch as we, having put it on, will not be found naked” (2 Cor 5.1-3).

Christ’s work is not complete when we die and go to heaven. His work is complete when “all who are in the tombs will hear his voice, and will come forth; those who did the good to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil to a resurrection of judgment” (Jn 5.28-29).

So we don’t breathe a sigh of relief at the funeral of a dead Christian because God has finally taken them to a better place. While we’re thankful that is true, we also groan because there is still something wrong with seeing a soulless corpse decaying in a box. God’s plan of redemption is not yet complete until the redeemed soul is reunited with the redeemed and resurrected body.

The gospel does not end at “going to heaven when you die.” It ends at the resurrection, where recreated body and souls enjoy and worship Christ’s unrestrained glory in the recreated cosmos. It ends when all our senses are redeemed from the curse of sin so that we know God with every faculty of our being.

Sanctifcation: Being human for eternity is necessary for understanding, appreciating and enjoying God’s grace for eternity.

As a sub-category of soteriology, we should say something about the affect this has on our sanctification: our becoming like Jesus by growing in the understanding and enjoyment of the gospel.   God designed the plan of redemption so that he will be worshiped for his being the God of sovereign and unending grace, displayed in Jesus Christ.

He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to himself, according to the kind intention of his will, to the praise of the glory of his grace, which he freely bestowed on us in the beloved” (Eph 1.5-6).

So the content of our worship for eternity will be to glory in God’s grace. It will be praising him that though we deserved the fullness of God’s wrath in hell, we now enjoy the fullness of God’s blessing in heaven. As the smoke of hell rises up forever and ever (Rev 19.3) we will proclaim, “Hallelujah! We’re not there, but we should be! We’re not where we deserve to be, but where God chose us to be!”

The glory of the gospel is that in Christ alone God saves forever those who otherwise deserve to be damned for their sin. They experience God’s grace for no other reason than God chose to love them for his own sake.

These are things, Peter wrote, “into which angels long to look” (1 Pt 1.12). In other words, angels love to watch God’s plan of redemption working out in the lives of his people. But, they watch it as outsiders looking in. They will never experience what it’s like to be cast under the wrath of God only to be redeemed from that wrath by the work of Jesus. In a word, they will never know what it’s like to experience the fullness of God’s grace.

Neither unfallen or fallen angels (cf. 2 Pt 2.4) will experience the fullness of God’s grace. Only redeemed and resurrected humans will.

So it is better to be created by God, left to fall into sin and under his eternal and just wrath, to be dogged by sin and pain of repentance, and then to be rescued from that wrath by grace through faith in Jesus Christ than to be created as or become an angel.  Becoming an angel at death would actually shortchange the worship God is due and our eternal joy of being the object of God’s sovereign grace.

Wings would actually interfere with our enjoyment and vision of God!

Judgment: God’s ultimate judgment of sin will be the physical, bodily torment of all unbelievers.

Just as the eternal enjoyment of God’s grace in the new creation will be a bodily, physical experience, so will the experience of God’s wrath in hell.  To make light of the body with respect to eternal life is to make light of God’s grace in the gospel. To make light of the body with respect to eternal death is to make light of God’s judgment.

Hell is not en vogue these days (if it ever was!). But all of Scripture, and especially Jesus is quite clear that hell will be the eternal, conscious, physical (bodily) torment of all those who resist Christ in this life.

“If your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. If your right hand makes you stumble, cut it off and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to go into hell” (Mt 5.29-30).

Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Mt 10.28). Satan doesn’t destroy the soul and body in hell. God does!

In Hades he lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and saw Abraham far away and Lazarus in his bosom. And he cried out and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus so that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool off my tongue, for I am in agony in this flame” (Lk 16.23-24).

We’re all familiar with John’s image of the “lake of fire” that will receive all unbelievers and Satan himself (Rev 20.14f.; 21.8).

Every description of hell depicts a physically painful experience of God’s eternal wrath. And regularly the image of hell is a place where people suffer skin-scorching fire and lung-filling toxic fumes. Now, that may all sound fanciful and a bit cartoonish to you. But, even if the language is symbolic then how much more will the reality be!

I’m told that 3rd and 4th degree burns create the most horrific pain we could ever experience. So if you wanted to describe the fullness of God’s wrath it would be appropriate to depict the unending pain of 4th degree burns. Death would be a favor, but there will be no favors in hell.

Hell is not the absence of God, where all unbelievers are left to their own devices. God will be just as present in hell as he is in heaven. Only, he will be present in the fullness of his wrath rather than the fullness of his blessing.  And all those there will have every one of the their senses fully sensitive to that wrath. Just God must raise our bodies to be equipped for heaven (unending life without pain) so must he raise and prepare the body for hell—unending pain without death.

To assume good people become angels at death you must consistently assume bad people become demons. Just as becoming an angel would shortchange joy, becoming a demon would be getting off easy!

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God’s Restraining Grace

“Abraham said of Sarah his wife, ‘She is my sister.’ So Abimelech king of Gerar sent and took Sarah.  But God came to Abimelech in a dream of the night, and said to him, ‘Behold you are a dead man because of the woman whom you have taken, for she is married.’  Now Abimelech had not come near her; and he said, ‘Lord, will you slay a nation, even though blameless?  Did he not himself say to me, “She is my sister”?  And she herself said, “He is my brother.”  In the integrity of my heart and the innocence of my hands I have done this.’  Then God said to him in the dream, ‘Yes, I know that in the integrity of your heart you have done this, and I also kept you from sinning against me; therefore I did not let you touch her'” (Gen 20.2-6).

Though credited with righteousness for his great faith, Abraham did not always live up to the hype.  He was frankly a sneaky man with a trophy wife (Gen 12.11).  Having received the promise of a great heritage despite Sarah’s infertility (Gen 12.1-3), Abraham meandered down to Egypt to escape the famine in Canaan.  He knew that Pharaoh would take a shine to (then) Sarai because men always did.  And what Pharaoh wanted Pharaoh got.  So, Abraham was resigned that he would lose his wife to Pharaoh.  However, if he could convince Pharaoh she was his sister then he could at least save his own head (Gen 12.12).  He sold out his wife to Pharaoh’s harem “so that it may go well with me because of you, and that I may live on account of you” (Gen 12.13).  Mighty Abraham and his great faith didn’t believe God would keep him alive.  He thought he would live on account of “Sister” Sarai rather than Yahweh.

God proved himself able to manage Abraham’s well-being all the same.  He plagued Pharaoh’s house until he returned Sarai to her rightful place (Gen 12.17-20).  God has a habit of punishing those who try to own what is given only to his people (cf. Exod 7-12; 1 Sam 4-5).  Oh, to be a fly on Abraham’s donkey on that long journey back to Bethel (Gen 13)!  “So, honey, how was your stay at Pharaoh’s place?  Were the other gals in the harem nice?  You know I did what I did for us.”

Abraham hauls his estate into Gerar, where he was sure King Abimelech would take a shine to (now) Sarah (Gen 20).  By this time, Abraham had received further revelation that he would have a son by Sarah (Gen 17-18).  Therefore, he could not die until he and Sarah had a son together.  Nevertheless, Abraham invoked Operation She’s-My-Sister again (something that v13 indicates was a regular scheme).  Abimelech fell for it and Abraham slept alone; alive, but alone.

God did not visit Abimelech via plagues this time but a fearful dream.  Return Sarah or else you’re a dead man.  (Oh, how we need men in churches who will declare the same to one another who flirt with disastrous sin!)  Abimelech pled ignorance.  He did, of course, take her on good faith she was Abraham’s sister and there was not DNA test available.  God conceded the point but didn’t let Abimelech assume he was taking the high road.  The only reason Abimelech didn’t touch Sarah was because God restrained him.

Even when Abraham’s scheme was uncovered he still tried to weasel his way out of a loophole.  Instead of owning up to and repenting from his selfish deception, he admitted that Sarah was actually his half-sister and was therefore not technically lying (Gen 20.12-13).  Uh-huh.  And Abraham even had the gall to justify his deception by assuming there was no fear of God in Gerar (v11) and therefore no decorum or respect for a wife’s husband.  Doesn’t sound like there was much fear of God in Abraham!  Abimelech was the one who feared God enough to make it right.

Yet, God struck all Abimelech’s women barren for his “innocent” treachery until Abraham prayed for God’s mercy (vv17-18).  Seems like just the opposite would’ve been more just.  Yet, God will have his man often despite that man!  He is carrying out a sovereign plan that goes through Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, no matter what.  Thankfully, come Genesis 22 Abraham would not try to weasel out of any more impossible situations but would trust God to make good on his promise.

But enough about rascally Abraham.

What would we do were it not for God restraining our sin?  Were God to visit us in our dreams, every night he could say, “I also kept you from sinning against me; therefore I did not let you touch her.”  How can we deny that God often “overrules” our free will to restrain us from doing what we freely want to do?  Abimelech took Sarah because he wanted to have sex with her, but he didn’t.  Was it because Abimelech was an upstanding citizen who wanted only to protect Sarah?  No!  God orchestrated whatever means in order to keep her from touching her.  In so doing, he protected the one-flesh union with Abraham (though Abraham hadn’t!) and the promise of her first son being the promised son.

We should readily confess our sin and thank God for his forgiveness freely given in Christ to all those who believe.  But, oh, how must we thank him for keeping us from sinning against him!  Let us not assume that we avoided sin because we’re that strong or spiritually-minded.  We sin because we want to and we would sin far more were it not for God’s restraining grace.  So listen to your dreams tonight to see if God says:

  • “I also kept you from sinning against me; therefore I disconnected your modem before you could click on that blinking site.”
  • “I also kept you from sinning against me; therefore I ordained that last-minute phone call so that you did not hear what was said about you in the breakroom.”
  • “I also kept you from sinning against me; therefore I had you shop in the same aisle as your enemy so that you would be forced to consider love and make peace.”
  • “I also kept you from sinning against me; therefore I delayed your tax refund so that you would not blow it on a silly gadget that was only on sale this week.”
  • “I also kept you from sinning against me; therefore I afflicted your daughter with an illness so that you would not assume you could live prayerlessly.”
  • “I also kept you from sinning against me; therefore I zapped your satellite so you wouldn’t be tempted to stay home from another Sunday gathering.”

We glory in what Abraham teaches us about justifying faith.  Let us not forget Abimelech, who is a case study in God’s restraining grace.  Sweet dreams.

Seeing God in the Outflow of His Abiding Love in the Church

No one has seen God at any time; if we love one another, God abides in us, and His love is perfected in us (1 Jn 4.12).

In the middle of a literary “love” feast John peculiarly injects the statement that God has forever been unseen.  What does God being forever unseen have to do with God’s radiating love?  Why would John seemingly interrupt a glorious foray into God’s love with the fact that “ain’t no one ever seen God”?  He did so to elevate the power of God’s love displayed in the church to manifest God’s presence.  Though God has never been seen by anyone, his abiding presence is still nevertheless experienced through his perfecting love in the Christian community.

How can we be sure that someone we’ve never seen really lives in our house and loves us?  We see the effects of their presence in the precious gifts they regularly leave for our joy.  How can we be sure of God’s abiding presence and everlasting love?  “We have come to know and have believed the love which God has for us” (1 Jn 4.16a) in the abiding presence of God displayed in his love among his children (v11).  “We know (the) love [lit. ten agapen] by this: that he laid down his life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren” (1 Jn 3.16).  We know God’s love (and see God’s abiding presence) in the life-laying-down ministry of our brothers and sisters in Christ.

We know God abides in us by the Spirit he has given us (1 Jn 3.24; 4.13), the very Spirit who confesses Jesus is the Son of God and Savior of the world (4.14-15).  The very Spirit who manifests God’s love in the joyful, sacrificial love among the saints (4.21).

Therefore, I humbly submit:

1.  Without a local church you can neither know nor believe the love God has for you to the extent God intends.  A deeply-entrenched commitment to the local church is necessary to see God’s love manifest in us.  God hasn’t left us to imagine he loves us, but to tangibly experience and taste his perfecting love in the Spirit-filled ministry of brothers and sisters in the local church.  Those distant from the new covenant community struggle to see, know, believe, glory in God’s love for them.    They’re left to imagine what God’s love might be like rather than tasting what it really is.  How would Jesus minister to you if he were physically here?  He would do what his Spirit-filled brothers and sisters now do in his name.

2.  Without a local church you can neither know nor believe you love God to the extent God deserves.  A key evidence that you are born of God is that you lay down your life for your brothers (and sisters).  The local church is the necessary context in which life-laying-down ministry is cultivated.  Left to ourselves, our life-laying-down ministry consists in some holiday charity work or taking the hypothetical bullet for a hypothetical believer.  But in the local church we’re provided and urged toward the daily ministry of giving our lives away to our brothers and sisters in Christ; and thus provided the constant assurance we’re really born of God.  How would you minister to Jesus if he were physically here?  You would treat him how you now treat his Spirit-filled brothers and sisters (i.e., the “manifesters” of God’s abiding presence in Christ).

3.  Life-laying-down ministry is more than taking the proverbial bullet for your fellow church member.  Jesus did more than “just” die for his people.  He lived for them until he died for them (1 Pt 2.21-25).  He laid down his life in every respect for them.  He emptied himself of all self-advantage in order to become a bondservant to men, even unto death (Phil 2.5-11).  At his own expense, he spent time on them, fed them, touched them, healed them, comforted them, taught them, encouraged them, exhorted them and confronted them.  Our life-laying-down ministry is to look the same.  We don’t pursue our own agendas and stop every so often to serve folks.  Because Jesus bought us and now indwells us, our agenda is service to the brethren.

Though not commending all of Richard Foster’s thoughts, I am impressed by these from his classic Celebration of Discipline:

“When we choose to be a servant, we give up the right to be in charge. There is great freedom in this. If we voluntarily choose to be taken advantage of, then we cannot be manipulated. When we choose to be a servant, we surrender the right to decide who and when we will serve. We become available and vulnerable” (p132).

“If our goods are not available to the community when it is clearly right and good, then they are stolen goods” (p89).

Brothers and sisters don’t steal, they give.  They lay down their lives for each other.  And in so doing they leave tokens of God’s love in Christ for the world to enjoy.

Can You Handle Severe Disease?

In the thirty-ninth year of his reign Asa became diseased in his feet.  His disease was severe, yet even in his disease he did not seek Yahweh, but the physicians (2 Chron 16.12).

Despite King Asa’s successes (2 Chron 15) his eulogy could not be more sad: “His disease was severe, but he still did not seek God.”  So after two fist-shaking years he died in the shadow of his physicians, but under the wrath of God (2 Chron 16.13).

In no way do I suggest dismissing help from doctors and their technologies.  I do suggest we be very careful about why we seek them and how much trust we put in them.  Seeking God does not stand over against seeking physicians’ help.  It does stand above it, however.  That was Asa’s demise.  He sought the physicians instead of God rather than under God.  He suffered what Jeremiah warned against: “Cursed is the man who trusts in mankind and makes flesh his strength, and whose heart turns away from the LORD” (Jer 17.5).  Asa’s affliction was designed by God to make him seek God, but he did not.  He put his trust and hope in his physicians, who were impotent against Asa’s real disease.

I can sit over God’s word and leave unaffected, but I’ve never left the doctor’s office unaffected.  This ought not be.  I don’t suggest become mystics or stoics.  If we love life we will undoubtedly be affected by a doctor’s news.  But, we must be more affected by God’s Good News.  Love health, but love heaven more.  Love medicine, but love resurrection more.  Consult your doctor, but retreat to the gospel.  Google your affliction, but memorize Scripture.

God’s help might very well come through doctors.  But it might also come despite them.  His help might even be at odds with the doctors’.  Maybe God will prevent medical answers so we will seek God’s Spiritual provision (see Mk 5.25-34).  We remain absolutely confident in God, who reads and remedies the heart, and less confident in doctors, who can only read charts and remedy the body.

God intends your disease (severe or not) to be a catalyst for seeking him.  He may or may not cure you.  In fact, he ultimately won’t in this life.  He will let you die despite every guarantee of the world’s finest physicians.  God sees to it we face the depth our sin, either now in faith and/or later in death.  Will we die with disappointed faces as though we’ve been duped?  Or will we rejoice that God promises to all in Christ:  “Your dead will live; their corpses will rise. You who lie in the dust, awake and shout for joy, for your dew is as the dew of the dawn, and the earth will give birth to the departed spirits” (Is 26.19)?

Is it me or do my feet hurt all the sudden?

Can You Handle the Truth?

When a wise man has a controversy with a foolish man, the foolish man either rages or laughs, and there is no rest (Prov 29.9).


How we respond to controversy measures our spiritual maturity, especially when that controversy concerns truth about ourselves.  How do you handle wisely-targeted truth?

If you are foolish, you might immediately and easily get angry: How dare she say such a thing!  Who do they think they are?  What business is it of his?  He’s no choir boy, either, so if we’re going to play this game then I could say something about him.  I’m never stepping foot in that church again. In stomping off we stomp on grace.  No one makes us angry.  We choose to be angry because we are a lustful, envious, selfishly-motivated people (Jas 4.2).  We are foolish.

If you are foolish, you might laugh it off:  It’s no big deal.  They’re making a mountain out of a mole hill.  She doesn’t understand the situation.  He just blowing off steam.  I know I have some things to work on, but I could be far worse; we should really confront so-and-so. And soon we’ve dismissed ourselves into self-righteous atrophy.  We are foolish.

Whether we rage our way or laugh our way through confrontation, we will not find rest.  Our anger will boil over into slander, gossip and murderous thoughts.  Our laughter will nag us into superficiality and spiritual anemia.  Either way, we will simply not deal with the truth.  And when we repeatedly refuse to deal with truth we will live a lie.  We will create a fantasy world in our minds where we are invincible and untouchable.  Any threat to our self-righteousness will be met with self-justified rage or summarily dismissed as laughable.  God’s rest will continue to allude us.

How has The Wise Man (Jesus) dealt with his controversy with us foolish men?  He did not enrage himself against us.  He did not laugh off our sin.  He laid down his life so that his friends would be free from their self-destructive, soul-destroying lives.  The foolish man in us was dealt his fatal blow at the cross.  Now indwelt with the Spirit of Wisdom we can look in the mirror with an honest heart and say with the psalmist: “Let the righteous smite me in kindness and reprove me; it is oil upon the head; do not let my head refuse it, for still my prayer is against their wicked deeds” (Ps 141.5).

Don’t get mad when I ask this, but who’s laughing now?

Touching on Touchstone

In the latest Touchstone Magazine Daniel Boerman wrote a sweet article entitled “When the Wood is Dry.”  The following excerpt was most edifying:

There is . . . a gospel for sufferers.  Jesus not only suffered in our place; he also suffered as an example for us to follow.  He warns us that obedience in a sinful and fallen world will not be easy.  The world does not appreciate or applaud faithful discipleship.  Living selflessly and loving as we serve God and others will sometimes expose us to serious pain.  And sometimes God may compel us to share in some of the forsakenness and bitterness that Jesus himself experienced.

[God’s silence] is a blessing because it enables me to share just a little of what it meant for Christ to be utterly abandoned by God and man when he was hanging on the cross.  I know something of the desperation and exasperation he felt when he uttered that despairing cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt 27:46).  I realize that my experience was only a tiny taste of the suffering of Christ, but it is nevertheless real.  I count it a privilege and and honor.

Our suffering is a means of God’s grace to remind us about the ineffable glory of the cross and the assurance of our sonship.  Affliction is not necessary for who we are or are not, but who we’re going to be.  After the glorious declaration of Jesus’ God-pleasing sonship at his baptism (Mt 3.17), Satan immediately questioned that sonship.  Jesus is led into the wilderness where Satan prefaced his tempations with, “If you are the Son of God then . . .” (Mt 4.3, 6). In other words, suffering is unbecoming of God’s Son with whom he is well pleased.  Is this the way God treats his beloved Son?

It is certainly the way God must treat sinners.  And if that Son is to become sin for us (2 Cor 5.21) then, yes, it’s the way he must treat his Son (cf. Heb 5.8).  If any son of Adam is to enjoy heaven then the Son of God must suffer hell.

It’s as though God says to his suffering child, “This really hurts, doesn’t it?  Could you suffer it forever?  Could you suffer it million times worse? Could you suffer it a million times worse for the sake of your enemies?  How would you feel toward someone who suffered such pain on your behalf?  That’s what I did for you, child, so suffer well knowing it’s as close to hell you will ever get.”  Paul expressed it this way:  “For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die.  But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5.7-8).

Within hours of his passion Jesus prayed, “Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, be with me where I am, so that they may see my glory which you have given me, for you loved me before the foundation of the world” (Jn 17.24).  Jesus prayed that if he did all the suffering then his enemies-turned-brothers should share in all his pre-existent glory and Trinitarian love.  And Jesus always gets what he prays for.

Cry for Her Now (or Thoughts on Ministry to Widow(er)s)

Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of God and Father is this: to visit . . . widows in their distress (Jas 1.27).

It happens every time.  Dad asks me to eat breakfast with some widowers from his church and I hem haw around.  I eventually and reluctantly agree and belly up to a Buttermilk Five.  And every time I leave wondering why I would ever waffle on one of God’s richest gifts of grace.  Wretched man that I am.

My dad is in his twentieth year of widowhood and recently started a breakfast club for other widowers.  Some buried their wives decades ago, some weeks ago.  But they’ve all suffered the same sting (1 Cor 15.56) and live to tell about it.  I hope I’m listening well.

In today’s world of the “power pastor” we easily overlook what James considered essential religion: care for widow(er)s in their distress.  Who has time for such mundane ministry when programs need administrating, numbers need reporting, buildings need repairing, neighbors need evangelizing, twentysomethings need discipling and services need choreographing?  My own hesitations toward a simple breakfast with some widowers proves my point, at least for me.

I’ve been a terrible pastor to widow(er)s and it’s high time I repent from clear rebellion against God’s commands.  This morning’s breakfast along with seeing two women widowed in the last two weeks compel me to write.  For what little they’re worth, I offer these “lessons” in no particular order to strengthen atrophied pastoral muscles.

1.  Widowhood is one of, if not the, most painful experiences of life in a fallen world.  Men who suffered the Great Depression, confronted Nazi Germany, lived in Vietnam jungles, killed national enemies, endured cancer and buried their children don’t cry like they cry when thinking about their wife.  These are hard men who readily confess nothing is harder than losing his wife.

Lesson: Learn to be a better husband from men who aren’t anymore.  There is great benefit from the flood of new marriage books on the market.  Slick covers depicting Tintselesque couples helping suburban families navigate the American dream.  Read them, learn from them, practice them.  But then go sit down with a Christian man who served his wife faithfully for decades but now sleeps alone.  Watch him cry.  Listen to him laugh.  See his pictures.  Enjoy his stories (again!).  Imitate his faith.  Make sure the thought of your wife makes you cry now so that you can cry without regret later.

2.  Effective pastoral care begins after the funeral.  Arranging funerals is an extremely busy time.  People are constantly around.  There is little time for contemplation and mourning beyond the trite platitudes we might expect.  But that time will come.  His clothes might still be in the closet.  Her favorite coffee cup might still be in the dishwasher.  He always took care of the car and it’s time for an oil change.  She always took care of the laundry and a shirt needs a new button.  He always drove and the doctor’s appointment is tomorrow.  She always wrote the checks and the utility bill is due.  It’s those simple times when the reality of loneliness sets in.

Lesson: Make sure we regularly visit widow(er)s.  They don’t need a sermon every time.  They need light bulbs changed and furniture moved and yards mowed and rides to doctors.  It’s just that simple.  They don’t need someone profound, just around.  You don’t always have to have something to say.  Besides, you’ll find they have far more to teach you than you them.

3.  In our suffering-averse culture, we do anything to escape pain.  Rather than retreat to the gospel we retreat to anything else.  Our impulse is to help everyone we can out of their distress.  Yet, James commands us to visit widows in their distress.

Lesson: Widow(er)s have lost someone, not something.  Helping them is not as easy as encouraging a new hobby, replacing their time or keeping them busy.  They cannot substitue for what they’ve lost.  They have a new normal now and things will never be the way they used to be.  We shouldn’t encourage a hermitic lifestyle, but we must be sensitivite and patient.  So play checkers with them, but get them talking about their wife during the game.

Lesson: Death is hard and is not supposed to be easy.  Jesus wept at Lazarus’s tomb  knowing he was about to raise him from the dead (Jn 11.35).  The gravity and extent of the Fall is a painful reality and only the sovereign grace of God can make it easier.  A dear friend who recently buried her son confessed in a hug, “This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”  That’s right, it is.  And it must be so that we will grope for grace.  It must be hard so that our God can be big.  We must hate the grave so that we can love the resurrection.  God must leave us speechless so we might finally hear him.

Lesson: Widow(er)s are not afraid to talk about their deceased spouses.  In fact, they love to!  They fear not talking about them.  They fear folks forgetting them.  They fear folks acting like nothing has happened.  It’s not taboo to bring up memories or ask about pictures.  It’s actually helpful.

4.  We’re obsessed with answers and demand explanations.  We want a black-and-white world where everything is either right or wrong.  We often fail to realize God’s mysterious providence.  The gospel demands we trust a Sovereign Savior who doesn’t owe us explanations.  The cross is a sufficient witness that whatever he does he does in infinite love and for our eternal benefit.  He may hide his specific reasons, but he has put the cross on glorious display to alleviate all doubt that he is good.

Lesson: Be careful of ascribing right/wrong distinctions to a widow(er)’s decisions.  I don’t mean decisions involving sinful or dangerous behavior, but decisions involving mourning and comfort.  In 1990, my dad buried Mom in her hometown of Itta Bena, MS.  Fifteen years later he hated not being able to visit her grave as often as he wanted.  So he had her casket moved to where they spent their whole married life together.  He asked me if that was right or wrong.  It’s neither, Dad.  He doesn’t deny the doctrine of the resurrection.  He doesn’t doubt Jesus will raise her from the dead, whether her body be in the Delta or down the street.  He doesn’t think there is a ghostly power associated with her body.  He’s just a widower who wants to visit his wife’s grave and remember their 38 years together.

Widow(er)s make many decisions along these lines.  Maybe he keeps her clothes in the closet for a year.  Maybe she goes back to work soon.  Maybe he doesn’t go back at all.  Maybe she still wears her wedding band.  Maybe he keeps her car in the garage.  Maybe he keeps her perfume on the kitchen sink.  Maybe she keeps his work shoes outside the back door.  It doesn’t matter what you would do in their situation.  They don’t need to explain why because it’s often the cry of their heart rather than the reasoning of their mind.  It’s not a matter of right or wrong, but of comfort and consolation.  Simply be there and listen and help.

Now, when is that next breakfast?

The Kohath Privilege and Pastoral Temptation

Then Yahweh spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying, ‘Do not let the tribe of the families of the Kohathites be cut off from the Levites.  But do this to them that they may live and not die when they approach the most holy objects: Aaron and his sons shall go in and assign each of them to his work and to his load; but they shall not go in to see the holy objects even for a moment, or they will die’ (Num 4.17-18, 20).

Not only am I not a tabernacle expert, I’m not worthy to untie the shoes of one.  I am nevertheless intrigued (probably naively so) by the role of the Kohathites in the tabernacle administration.  Kohath was one of Levi’s three sons and therefore part of the priestly function in Israel (Num 3.17).  Each on of these sons and their lineage would have particular responsibilities for the administration of the tabernacle.  The Kohathites were in charge of the “most holy things” (Num 3.31; 4.4).  When Israel would pack up and move the Kohathites would chauffeur the most important items: the Ark, the Table of the Bread of the Presence, lampstands, altar and all the utensils.  They were an indispensable part of safely moving the tabernacle in a way that protected God’s holiness and Israel’s worship.

But as important as their function was, no Kohathite son ever set eyes on the very things he was raised to carry.  Imagine carrying the most holy objects in all of Israel, but never being allowed to see them “even for a moment” (Num 4.20). Only Aaron and his sons see them.  By the time you are called in for your assignment Aaron and his sons have already covered them up under several layers of protective skins and cloths (Num 4.5-15).  You don’t poke your head in to see how Aaron was progressing.  You don’t sneak a peek when the wind blows up a corner of the cloth (perhaps why heavy porpoise skins top the items).  And although you must not see them, you must carry them.  It’s like an Air Force One pilot who will will be shot on sight should he ever see the President out of the corner of his eye.

God charged Moses and Aaron to make sure the packing job is done perfectly well so as to protect the Kohathites (Numb 4.17-19a).  If Aaron misses a button or slips a knot then a Kohathite life is at stake (v20).  God is supremely holy and no one sneaks a peek at God’s holiness.  No one treats God’s holiness like a giggly schoolgirl who wants to see what her boyfriend got her for Valentine’s Day.  God’s “otherness” is not be trifled with.  Like it or not, God decides who sees him and how.  If you’re a Kohathite you do your job of carrying holy things because your life (literally) depended on it.  You leave them at the entrance of the tabernacle and joyfully go home thanking God for the privilege.  You praise God for what he allows you to do without resenting him for what he restricts you from seeing.  Any peek at the goods would lead to pride rather than worship.

It may be a stretch, but a helpful one to consider how the Kohathites might help pastoral ministry.  We tend to most holy things.  We deliver them to God’s people so they may worship the right God rightly.  We’re not the priests, but agents of the High Priest to make sure his things get to his people unprofaned and intact.

But Monday always comes when we’ve dropped off the most holy things at the hearts of men and women.  We’ve gone home to leave the unpacking of those goods to Someone else.  And what God may do with them is above our pay grade.  Yet I demand that God show me exactly what it is that he is doing through my service.  If he would have me preach then he owes me a peek at what lies under his mysterious providence.  If I’m going to carry the most holy things then I deserve to see some affect of doing so.  It’s not enough that God grant the sheer privilege of tending to the most holy things.  I deserve see what no one else is allowed to see.  Let me peek under the cover to see more people, more commendation, more money.  All the while, God restrains such insight for our own good and maybe our own lives.   Any peek at the goods will lead to pride rather than worship.

We must not insist on seeing what God hides under the surface of our ministry.  We deliver the gospel as God has packaged it in Christ.  We care for the gospel with acute attenion and keen consciences so that men do not die.  We take no credit for the gospel or the privilege of preaching the gospel.  “For if I preach the gospel, I have nothing to boast of, for I am under compulsion; for woe is me if I do not preach the gospel” (1 Cor 9.16).  The Kohathites received no praise for carrying the most holy things so well.  They were a means to an end: the honoring of God’s holiness among the people of God.  Likewise, we get no praise for preaching the gospel.  We’re errand boys.  We’re couriers.  We merely bring God’s truth to God’s people and leave whatever progress that truth makes to the Most Holy God (1 Cor 3.6).

So what did God do yesterday in our preaching?  Did he convert a soul?  Did he convict a tempted believer?  Did he encourage a faint heart?  Did he prosper a gift?  Did he amaze the masses?  I don’t know.  And as much as I want to know, I cannot know and must not know lest pride sow its sneaky seed.  Our assignment was simply to pick up the gospel as God has packaged it in Christ and deliver it safely to God’s people.  How and when he unpacks it is up to the High Priest to do with it what he wills.  In the meantime we go home joyfully, thanking God for the privilege and waiting for our next assignment.

“For not man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. . . . but each man must be careful how he builds on it” (1 Cor 3.11, 10b).

Ministry on the Cheap

However, the king said to Araunah, “No, but I wll surely buy it from your for a price, for I will not offer burnt offerings to the LORD my God which cost me nothing.”  So David bought the threshing floor and the oxen for fifty shekels of silver.  David built there an altar to the LORD and offered burnt offerings and peace offerings.  Thus the LORD was moved by prayer for the land, and the plague was held back from Israel (2 Sam 24.24-25).

With swelled head David ordered a census to determine just how many people he ruled.  Joab’s protest went on record but he complied with David’s order nonetheless.  Nine-and-a-half months later the tally was in.  David was the proud ruler of 1.3 million able-bodied men.  That news did not excite David as expected.  It rather disturbed him instead.  His stunt earned God’s disfavor and David pled for mercy.

God gave David three options: a seven-year famine, three months on the lam, or three days of pestilence.  Knowing God would be far more merciful than 1.3 millon starving men or his chop-licking enemies, he chose door #3: a three-day plague from God.

Three days and 70,000 funerals later God stayed his hand at Jerusalem’s city limits.  The plague reached the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite (i.e. Jerusalemite) before David stood in the breach, pleading that God take the shepherd rather than another innocent “sheep” (v17).  God commanded David offer a sacrifice on Araunah’s threshing floor in order to stave off any further progress of the plague.

Imagine Araunah’s surprise as he looked out his window to see a huge dust cloud along his driveway.  As the cloud dissipated he noticed the motorcade strangely resembled the king’s entourage.  What in the world could King David possibly want with little ol’ Araunah?  Little did Araunah know he would be king for a day!

David informed Araunah that he must buy his threshing floor in order to prevent the plague from taking any more life.  Araunah thought this proposterous.  Buy his threshing floor?  The king could have it for nothing and all that was required for the burnt offerings.  Everything Araunah owned was at the king’s disposal to use as he saw fit.  Who would be so arrogant as to profit from the king’s and Jerusalem’s desperation?

David would have none of it.  Sacrifice must be costly and he would not take the easy way out.  He’d done that far too much, which is what caused their trouble in the first place.  Araunah received the king’s silver.  David turned the threshing floor into an altar.  And 2 Samuel ends with God’s mercy.

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EXCURSUS

As a theological sidebar, note that God had promised the plague would last no more than three days (vv13, 15).  Yet God demanded sacrifice be made to end it.  God ordained the plague and the means by which the plague would be stopped.  The presumption is that had not David offered burnt and peace offerings the plague would’ve leveled Jerusalem as well.  God has his people from eternity but sacrifice must be made to save them.  Election does not save (and sharing the doctrine of election is not evangelism), but marks those for whom Christ sacrificed his own life.  They must not only be chosen, but died for, if God is to have them at all.  God sovereignly saves through sovereignly ordained means; namely, the cross.

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David understood the gravity of God’s mercy.  The ministry God deserved in response to his promise of mercy could not be offered on the cheap.  God’s name wasn’t an afterthought trinket you picked up at the checkout counter after you’ve bought a cartful of the world.  No. David must buy Araunah’s threshing floor and all the oxen to boot, or else.

How easy has modern church commitment become?  How much does God’s name really cost us?  How much is God’s mercy really worth?  Ironically, we have facilitites and gadgetries that cost us everything to have ministries that cost us nothing.  There is no need to choose between the world and worship because they’re nearly one in the same.

“Come when you can.  And when you come we’ll do everything for you.  In fact, don’t even bring a Bible because Screen will give you what you need.  When you leave we’ll demand little of you as long as you stay sober, heterosexual and Republican.  We promise to stay out of your business because you’re important to us.  Don’t worry about investing the gospel in your kids because we’ve got that covered for you as well.  All you have to do is drop them off and pick them up.  If the world offers you something better then let us know.  We’ll try to provide a similar experience or opportunity so you don’t feel like you have to choose between the two.  We don’t want you to feel like you must trade fun and entertainment for church membership.  After all, why buy Araunah’s threshing floor when you could get it for free?”

I don’t suggest worship and church commitment (i.e. membership) should be painful and laborious.  But, it should be costly.  Churchmanship is not dull but it is sober.  It’s not that we attempt to repay God for his mercy but that he’s bought our devotion with the life of his Son.  Christ’s blood did not come cheap and neither does the worship he is due.

William Edgar writes in Give Praise to God: A Vision for Reforming Worship (p346):

C.S. Lewis says somewhere that he could tell what kind of person you are by whether you began the day reading the newspaper or the Bible.  Becoming disentangled with the world is more than following a list of rules.  It means radically changing one’s behavior patterns.  Often that means looking into the deep fabric in the surrounding culture.  David Inge famously remarks, “If you marry the spirit of the age you will soon find yourself a widower.”  Marriage is a good analogy, here.  This present evil age is not manifest simply with a few clearly perceived idols.  Avoiding the world’s seductions is not simply a matter of rejecting certain temptations to sin.  Rather, since the attachment is like a conjugal alliance, the remedy is divorce!  And following divorce, we must continue to avoid any compromise, any ambiguous relational patterns.

It is no honor to a man’s wife to have his mistress praise her.  And it is no honor to Christ to use the world’s cheap wares to praise him.  We must not offer worship to the LORD our God which costs us nothing.

Stay in Your Lane

Then Manoah arose and followed his wife, and when he came to the man he said to him, “Are you the man who spoke to the woman?” And the man said, “I am.”  Manoah said, “Now when your words come to pass, what shall be the boy’s mode of life and his vocation?” So the angel of Yahweh said to Manoah, “Let the woman pay attention to all that I said.  She should not eat anything that comes from the vine nor drink wine or strong drink, nor eat any unclean thing; let her observe all that I commanded” (Judges 13.11-14).

Living by Ft. Hood the last four years has allowed me some initiation into Army life.  Soldiers live by strict chains of command mediated through circuitous acronyms.  I’ve yet to figure out all the various levels (it is the Federal government after all) but I have picked up on a few “Armyisms.”  I’ll thrown in a “Roger that” when Amy wants to do lunch.  I am a hopeless romantic.  Why answer “no” to a question when “negative” will do just fine?  And don’t call sargeants “Sargeant” around here unless you want to be pegged a silly civi’ tourist.  Greet them “Sar’nt” with a “Hooah” and you’ll be one of the boys (or girls, as the case may be these days).

There one Armyism, however, that I absolutely love.  Assume Private Jones asks Sar’nt Williams the reason behind a recent order.  Maybe Sar’nt Williams will tell him, but more often than not he’ll say, “Just stay in your lane, Private Jones.  Just stay in your lane.”  In other words, just do your job as commanded and trust that you’ll know what you need to know when you need to know it.  Some information is, as they say, above your pay grade.

I thought about this when reading about Manoah this morning (Judges 13).  Manoah, a Danite, was married to an unnamed and infertile woman.  God (the angel of Yahweh) appeared to her and promised to open her womb.  And during her pregnancy she must give up her nightly glass of Bordeaux and refuse all unclean food.  Her soon-to-be son will be a teetotaling, long-haired Nazirite and the one to deliver Israel from Philistine oppression.  He would be Samson.

She told Manoah this news and he prayed to hear it for himself.  When God appeared again to them Manoah begged for more information (v12).  What will become of this boy?  What will he do for a living?  What sort of man will he be?  What are we supposed to do when he gets older?  Cloth diapers or Pampers?  Football or choir?  College or trade or military?

God responded to Manoah’s questions like Sar’nt Smith does Private Jones.  The Maxwell Revised Libertarian Verson reads vv13-14 thusly: “Manoah, just stay in your lane.  Make sure your wife does what I’ve already told her to do.  Flush all your wine and keep a strict kosher diet.  You need not concern yourself with anything beyond that.  Trust me.  I’ll let you know what you need to know when you need to know it.”  Samson’s parents had no idea, and couldn’t know, what God intended for their son (see Judg 14.4).

A similar interchange happened between Jesus and Peter (Jn 21.18-23).   Jesus assured Peter he would die for loving Christ and serving his sheep.  Peter saw John in the corner of his eye and asked Jesus what will become of his dear ol’ friend.  Jesus responded in v22, “Peter, just stay in your lane.  I love you and have custom-designed your sanctification.  So tend my sheep like I’ve told you and don’t worry about what I’ve planned for John.  That’s between him and me.” (MRLV)

How often we complicate God’s will by demanding to know what God would not have us know yet.  God commands an obedient step and before we take it begin asking about the six steps later.  For examples: If I forgive her then what will happen if she does it again?  If I give my stuff away then what will I do if I might need it again?  If I initiate that difficult conversation then what will happen to our relationship down the road?  If I move there then what will our life look like in ten years?  If I love him again then what if he doesn’t reciprocate?  If I leave this ministry then what will happen with it next year?  If I take on that ministry then what will become of it? Why do I need to this since it wasn’t what so-and-so needed to do in their situation?

Before long we complicate ourselves into paralysis.  Because we can’t know everything we don’t do anything.  But we simply cannot know all that God is doing “under the radar.”  God will be trusted for who he is, not what he can prove.

Stay in your lane.  Take the step in front of you, not the one you can’t see yet.  Obey what God has clearly commanded you now and trust Him for what comes later.   God is not mystical about his will.  He knows us too well for that, which is why he calls us sheep.  He is our Kind Father who knows to light our way just enough.  He is our Gracious Father who gives us all that’s necessary to obey.  He is our Good Father who will always do what is right for us.  The next step may not be easy, but it will be clear.

So go back home, Manoah, and fluff your wife’s pillow.  She’ll need the rest.

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Arpachshad: God’s Lucky 7?

As my Bible-reading plan rolls through Genesis this time each year, I am repeatedly overawed at the detail of God’s providence.  There are often new details that confuse me and force some important questions, but one thing remains constant. God has ordained every detail of history to serve his appointed ends; namely, the eternal display of his grace to his people through Jesus Christ.

Either God has gotten lucky for ten thousand years (or ten katrillion, which only strengthens my point), reacting perfectly to all human behavior so that Jesus happened on the scene in the nick of time and the church holds on by the skin of her teeth.  Or, God has orchestrated all of human history – favoring one person rather than another, allowing this event and not that one, preserving one life and not the ten next to it – to prove he alone is God and will get all glory for the salvation of any one man.

This year a certain phrase garnered my attention as I labored through Genesis 11: “and he had other sons and daughters.” By my count, that phrase is used eight times in vv10-25 (it was used nine times in Gen 5.4-30).  Noah had three sons: Shem, Ham and Japheth.  Genesis 11.10-30 concerns itself only with Shem’s lineage beginning with his son Arpachshad on its way to Abram.  But if Shem “had other sons and daughters” then why is Arpachshad singled out?  Why not any one of Shem’s other sons?

Arpachshad and I have something in common: we both welcomed children at 35.  He had Shelah at 35, but over the next 403 years “he had other sons and daughters.”  But they’re lost to history and only Shelah has been immortalized in the biblical witness.  And so goes Shem’s line, getting more and more specific until the spotlight shines on one man: Shem’s great-you-do-the-math-grandson Abram.  All along the way everyone was having “other sons and daughters.”

In a stroke of literary brilliance, the author (Moses?) stops us dead in our tracks.  He’s ended each generational iteration with “and he had other sons and daughters.”  When he gets to Terah, he mentions Terah’s three (not one) sons: Abram, Nahor II and Haran (v26).  Haran died (v27), thus ending that line, leaving Abram and Nahor to continue whatever God started with Shem and Arpachshad.  Abram married Sarai and Nahor Milcah (v29).

Verse 29 leaves us hanging in suspense.  Which son will enjoy being “begat” and which one swept into the “other sons and daughters” category?  In v30 we read with amazement: “Sarai was barren; she had no child.”  In a chapter carried along by the rhythm of fertility, each stanza ending with the refrain “and he had other sons and daughters,” the song ends abruptly with this crescendo of barrenness.  If Shem was a movie, it was a short one.

Naturally, in light of this minor detail, we should expect v31 to begin “So Nahor became the father of Uz” but we don’t hear that until Genesis 22.20.  No, whatever God is doing through the line of Shem will go through Abram, husband of Barren Sarah; not Nahor, husband of fertile Milcah.  Nahor fades from the scene and the next twelve chapters are, as we say, history.

Did God get lucky that Shem had a son, and every son thereafter had a son until Abram went and married that barren woman?  If God were merely reacting to history then he should’ve chosen Nahor, who did have a fertile wife and did bear a son.  Why insist on “interfering” with the seeming natural order of things by imposing himself on an impossible situation?  How many details must “fall into place” so that an Arpachshad could be born?

It must be that God has sovereignly ordained the most minute details of history – even which son will inherit his favor – to serve his good and wise purposes.  Otherwise, every generation was a roll of the cosmic dice.  Why favor Seth and not Cain?  Why Shem and not Japheth?  Why Abram and not Nahor?  Why Isaac and not Ishmael?  Why Jacob (the liar) and not Esau?  Why Joseph and not one of his 11 other better-suited brothers?  Why little David and not one of his strapping brothers?  There were always other sons and daughters to use who were just as, if not more, fit for God’s purposes!

And on and on until we read of a teenage virgin who is pregnant.  And we thought a post-menopausal Barren Sarah becoming pregnant was something!

And in the end we must ask ourselves, “Why me and not him?  Why him and not her?”  Dear sister, why do you love Christ and not your younger brother who grew up in the same house?  Dear brother, why do you believe the gospel and not your older sister who sat beside you in the same pew every Sunday?  Dear friend, why would God use you in his kingdom and not your neighbor who gives twice as much to charity?  Among all the better people in the world, who have done far less to offend God, why would God favor you and not them?  Why did God adopt you rather than the hundred other spiritual orphans next door?  Why should my salvation possibly happen?

Are we not left to answer, “So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy” (Rom 9.16).

All the genealogies of Scripture are of a piece of this one lineage: Our Heavenly Father’s only begotten Son.  And this Son has many brothers and sisters “who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (Jn 1.13).  And this Son’s bride is not barren, but fertile, to beget God’s many sons and daughters into his kingdom through his gospel (Mt 16.18).

As the gospel’s aroma wafts through heaven and the stench of hell reaches our nostrils (Rev 19.3), we will spend eternity confessing “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph 2.8-9).  Dead sinners can take no more credit for their eternal life than post-menopausal barren women and teenage virgins can for their pregnancies.  And so goes the romance of sovereign grace.

Whose Nations Are They After All?

My 2009 Bible-reading plan took me to Pss 1-2 this morning.  Psalm 2 is a coronation psalm wherein God declares the inauguration of His King-who-is-Son.  All ambitious kings who aspire to the Son’s throne humor God to the point of anger.  This one is the King of all kings because he is Son of all sons.  After conferring sonship on the newly installed king (v7), God invites him to “Ask of me, and I will surely give the nations as your inheritance, and the very ends of the earth as your possession” (v8).  Psalm 2 is a glorious Messianic text that proclaims the kingship of our Lord Jesus Christ.

I then remembered singing “back in the day” a popular song by the Hillsong bunch entitled “You Said.”  The song climbs to the crescendo:

You said, ‘Ask and I’ll give the nations to you’
O Lord, that’s the cry of my heart
Distant shores and the islands will see
Your light, as it rises on us

O Lord, I ask for the nations (repeat)

The lyric is from the Bible, but it’s not biblical.  I confess that I sang it and repent from ever singing it again.  Only the King-Son receives the nations, not me.  God didn’t tell me to ask for them, but the King-Son to ask for them.  And according to Matthew 28.18, Jesus has received all authority in heaven and on earth.  His prayer of Ps 2.8 has already been answered (cf. Eph 1.21).  Therefore, for God to give me the nations means he must take them from Jesus to do so.  This a treasonous request that eternally endangers the nations.

So pay attention to what you sing and ever more attention to the Son, that he not become angry and you perish in the way (Ps 2.12).

The “We-ness” of Adoption

But when the fullness of time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, so that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons.  Because you are sons, God has sent for the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” (Gal 4.4-6)

There is a fraternal relationship among those in the “adoption community.”  Someone who is adopted is not generally readily forthcoming with that information.  But when they hear that we adopt children they say, “Hey, I was adopted, too!”  They’re glad to find company with others in the world of the “unwanted.”

That said, I venture today into the Gal 4.4-6 room.  Adoption describes more than how I relate to God (or better, how God relates to me). It’s primarily that, but it’s not entirely that.  Adoption also describes how I relate to my other adopted brothers and sisters in the family of Christ.

Paul uses precise language in Gal 4.5: we (1st person plural apolabomen) receive the adoption (singular huiothesian). We all share together in the same adoption.  The gospel is the great equalizer despite our Christian classes (born-again, Spirit-filled, emergent, fundamental, contemporary, etc.).  We don’t all receive our own specialized adoption that we hoard and share alone with God.

There is one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all (Eph 4.4-6); and might I add “one adoption.”  We’re all born equally estranged from God and equally desperate for God’s grace to declare us in fact what we’re not by nature – his sons and daughters.  When I meet another believer I meet an adopted brother or sister in Christ.  We may not share the same sanctification progress, but we can joyfully say, “Hey, I was adopted, too! Wasn’t the day of our Father’s justifying grace a sweet day!”  As vines vitally connected to the same Branch we’re also vitally connected to one another (Jn 15.5; cf. Rom 12.5; Eph 4.25).

Our oldest (and adopted) daughter Lydia understands this better than I even though she doesn’t know all the fancy language.  She has two new siblings who showed upon our doorstep one day (literally!).  She knows she’s adopted and she knows we’re soon to adopt her brother and sister.  Adoption is a no-brainer to her as though that’s the way it’s suppose to be.  She doesn’t care from whence they came or that people have to come “see” her siblings from time to time.  She shares the same last name and that’s all she needs to call them brother and “Sissy.”  Oh, to have the same childlike love for one another within the church!

Adoption is not a nice doctrine to describe God’s work of salvation.  Adoption is the outworking of the gospel by which we all cry out to our common Father.  Adoption is the gospel’s power to make otherwise estranged, unrelated people into one glorious, harmonius, peaceful family.  Risking extremism, I dare say we can understand the nature of the church apart from the theme of adoption.

This came into sharper focus one night last week.  We were sitting in the van waiting for Mom to come out of a store.  Out of nowhere (from where all kid’s questions come) Lidi asks, “Dad, has Mom gone to get us another brother.  We need another brother.”  It’s just that easy for her!  Moisty-eyed I said, “No, honey, Mom’s not gone to get another brother.  That’s not exactly how it works.”  A few minutes pass when another woman came out of the store with a son in tow (it was dark, mind you).  Lidi exclaimed, “There’s Mommy with our new brother!” before she realized it was someone else.  She caught herself and then asked, “Dad, whose belly is our brother in right now?”  I know, pass the Kleenex.

I pray for the same eagerness for adoption in the family of Christ.  “Our Great Heavenly Father, where is our new brother and sister right now?  Where are you preparing them and when will you send us to get them?  Please send us to them soon so we can welcome them into the family?”  Maybe Lidi can teach me about that some day.

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Room With a View

“. . . we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body” (Rom 8.23).

New Year’s Eve 2008 will be much different for us this year.  We would otherwise join most in an afternoon watching BCS also-rans and wiping Rotel dip from our chins.  We will, however, squeeze into family court where a judge will declare our two foster children Maxwells.  What God has done to orchestrate this so quickly is beyond explanation.  It would be like trying to describe the thrill of the world’s greatest ride by explaining how the ride works.  Even we are not quite sure of all the secret things God has done on our behalf.  We only know he’s done it and He owes no further explanation.

If adoption were a house there are a thousand rooms to open.  Each room has its own theme and contribution to make to the whole structure.  We and our children will spend the rest of our lives opening new rooms and enjoying the Light each room provides.  In so doing, we will see and enjoy more and more of Jesus.  For readers of this blog, I’m afraid you might be in for a long season of adoption-themed meditations.  You may grow quickly bored, but I pray you’ll remind my children to read them when they get older.

The room I open this morning is the “Romans 8.23 Room.”  It’s a suite, really, with windows on every wall peering dimly into the glories of heaven.  Paul declared that we are already adopted (Rom 8.15) but that we still await our adoption.  The apostle is not schitzophrenic or contradictory.  He’s helping us understand the already/not yet principle of redemption. Christ has redeemed us and will consummate that redemption in the last day.

In this life and age, those in Christ are indeed sons of God (v14).  But we’re not yet home.  We live in various places under various conditions.  The church is a “sibling group” split up and under the earthly care of national boundaries, oppressive rulers, wealthy democracies, economic classes, sinful appetites, language barriers, and a million other “parents.”

Though we may share nothing else there is one thing we all share: we all groan to be home.  We all wait eagerly for our adoptive Father to take us home.  He’s long promised to do so.  He’s paid the ransom, applied the downpayment for our souls and has prepared our eternal home (Jn 14.3).  But our bodies are not fit for such a glorious place so they must die first and be raised.  So we wait until that cosmic “New Year’s Eve” when the Judge of the Universe says, “Dear children, you’ve spent enough time in “the system;” it’s now time you come home and be with me forever.”

We can hardly stand waiting two more weeks for an earthly judge to make an earthly ruling.  How much more eager should we be for the eternal reality behind it all!

While sitting on the window sill of this Romans 8.23 Room, I daydream about what God might be feeling as we groan and eagerly wait.  We must tread softly and carefully here.  We must never assume that because I feel a certain way then God must feel the same way, too.  Too often we assume the “If I were God” mentality to can help us understand who God is.  In fact, it was precisely that mentality that got is all in eternal trouble in the first place! We’re not free to trust our interpretation of our Unchanging, Infinite God through our fickle emotions.

But . . .

From time to time, Jesus does appeal to our experience as image-bearers of God in order to draw our minds to the nature of that image.  This appears in some form as the formula “If you/it are/is like x then how much more must the Eternal, Holy God be like x.”  For example, if Jonah would’ve died over a plant he had nothing to do with creating how much more should God care for the Ninevites he had everything to do with creating (Jonah 4.10-11).  In Mt 7.9-11/Lk 11.11-13 Jesus said that if we evil parents inherently desire to give our children good thing, then how much more must our Holy, Heavenly Father desire the same.  If God takes so much care to feed ravens and grass, how much more does he care for his children (Lk 12.24, 28).  If a (biblically-minded) husband does not inherently hate himself, but knows to nourish and cherish his wife then how much more must Christ nourish and cherish the church (Eph 5.28-29).

With all humility and fear, I cannot fathom what God must be feeling toward those for whom he crushed his son.  If I feel what I do toward my two new adopted children – for whom I did not die and who will die themselves one day – then how much more must God feel toward his blood-bought sons and daughters!

I cannot imagine eagerly awaiting anything more than our adoption finalization on New Year’s Eve, 2008 (of course, my wedding would be included but that’s another biblical metaphor for another time!).  If I feel so soul-busting full towards a finite, earthly event how much more does God anticipate our eternal redemption?  If God feels toward his adopted children to the an infinite degree what I feel toward mine then how can I stand one more second away from home?

I could spend all day in this room, but there are many more to explore.  I’ll leave the door open, though, in case you want to want to wander around.

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