Is the Genealogy Really Such a Let Down?

To the first-time reader, the Old Testament can feel like a confusing collection of laws and awkward stories.  Before too long it becomes an amazing epic retelling of God’s preparation for the arrival of his Son into our world.  If you have eyes to see, then the Old Testament becomes a treasure trove of God’s presence and God’s promise.  It is certainly not about heroes of the faith, for God’s people were consistently faithless, and yet God’s faithfulness outshines their wretchedness.  Where God had every right to declare his promises null and void, instead he kept adding to the promise and moving toward the arrival of the Messiah.

Then there is a blank page.  This is it.  This is the moment in a Bible read through that should make your heart leap.  So, you arrive in Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 1.  Here it is!  This is the good news!  And then you find . . . a genealogy.  Disappointing to say the least.  Surely God could have launched the New Testament with something more exciting than a list of old names?

Actually, the genealogy at the start of the New Testament is a reason to celebrate.  More than that, it gives us reason to press on in our ministry.  Here are three reasons to be thankful for the genealogy that launches our New Testaments:

1. The good news that we proclaim is not a fairy tale, it is rooted in history.  

The arrival of God the Son into our world is not announced with a “Once upon a time,” introduction as we would expect of a fantasy tale.  It is announced with a “This is the genealogy of…” that we would expect of a historical figure.  This is so important.  In the midst of our preaching and pastoral care of souls we can forget how alien the good news of Jesus actually sounds to people.  It can sound like a fairy tale that we think might offer hope in the “real world.”  But let us never forget that the Gospel is not a fairy tale, it is rooted in actual events.

The Gospel is not a mythical tale that we speak into the real world to give people a purer perspective by which to live, or a touching tale that sets an example for us to follow in our infinitely more complex experience.  The Gospel is not a suggestion for how we should live.  It is an announcement of what God has done.

Real historical figures had real flesh and blood children who gave birth to actual children, and so on.  This genealogy offers forty-two touchdown points in history as preparation to the touchdown point that transforms history.  If Jesus was merely a myth, or only an example, or somehow just a fairy tale to inspire us, then all this would be so unnecessary.  If Jesus were a fairy tale, then he need be no more than a heavenly interruption in our normal world.  Instead, he really entered right into our normal world.

It is important to note that Matthew’s genealogy is carefully crafted.  He is deliberately selecting generations in order to build a shaped list, rather than an exhaustive one.  He is also tracing a line that diverges from the line that Luke includes in his Gospel.  It is not a contradiction, after all, your genealogy could also take any number of lines down through the centuries.

Read through the genealogy and ponder your ministry.  They faced struggles and uncertainty, yet they were part of God’s great story in ways most could hardly imagine.  We too don’t see the end of our story, but we know we are part of his story.  Thank God that the Gospel is rooted not in myth, but in history.  He came into our world and now we can live and serve him in that same history.  Real people, living real lives, facing real struggles, and always part of his story!

2. The good news that we proclaim is not shaped by our culture’s needs, it is shaped by God’s promise plan.

If we were to try and write the story of a God-sized fix to our hellish plight, we would probably make it a story of an other-worldly super-hero coming to our aid.  We wouldn’t have that hero becoming one of us, and a lowly one of us at that.  We would surely not trace a line down through two millennia of dysfunctional families, men who gave their wives away, men who stole other men’s wives, women of ill-repute, and disobedient nationals humiliated by deportation.

And yet there is a shape to this genealogy.  It is a deliberate shape that Matthew introduces in verse 1 and underlines with summary sums in verse 17.  This is the Abraham to David to Exile to Jesus genealogy.  What is significant about Abraham, David and the Exile?  Surely it is not the giving wife away (twice), stealing a wife and having her husband killed, and the humiliation by deportation … surely these are not the high points of the story?  Actually, no, but as we will see in the next point, this background certainly adds a unique colour to it all.

What is significant about this shaping of the genealogy is that these are three points in history where God leaned forward and added detail to his great promise plan.  God had promised to rescue humanity from sin back in Genesis 3:15.  That promise was developed when God promised to make Abram’s name great and to bless all the families of the earth through his seed.  Tick, tock, the clock was counting down.

King David was blown away by further development on that promise, that his throne would endure forever and his greater son would ascend to it in the future.  Tick, tock, the clock continued to count down.

The prophets spoke in the context of national failure, in the context of Israel’s flaws being fully revealed by the Old Covenant that the day was coming when God would establish a New Covenant that would change everything.  Tick, tock, the clock was counting down and this genealogy shows us where it ends.

Jesus.

The fulfillment of God’s great sin-conquering, life-giving, problem-solving, Satan-defeating, promise plan was Mary’s son, baby Jesus.

What an encouragement this is to us as we continue to minister two thousand years later.  It is easy to see the mess of humanity.  And it is easy to miss that God has a greater plan being worked out in his own timing.  We can trust him, we must trust him.  We have no other hope besides him.

3. The good news that we proclaim is not coloured by human success, it is coloured by God’s grace for sinners.

We could put on rose-tinted spectacles and see the good in this list.  After all, Abraham was eventually a man of faith.  David was a man after God’s own heart.  Jacob was at least productive when it came to building a nation, and Boaz was an all-around good egg.  There are others we could name in the list, people of noble character, including Ruth, not to forget Joseph and Mary, of course.  Definitely some good people, or in many cases, some good moments.

Nevertheless, the more you study the list, the more you see the sin.  This is not a list of Israel’s finest and greatest.  This is a list of ordinary people who stumbled and messed up and blew it and sinned.  This is not a bland list of empty suits – positions celebrated without recognition that it was real humanity in those roles.  This is not a list brightened by human success, but rather a list coloured in by God’s grace to fallen people.

Did Abraham, Isaac and Jacob deserve to receive God’s good promise?  Obviously not, if you read through Genesis.  Did David deserve to have his throne established over the whole world forever?  Definitely not, if his story is heard in full.  Did Israel deserve the New Covenant?  Not in a million years.

God’s grace transforms human mess.

And perhaps the greatest colour in the genealogy?  Surely it is the colour added by the unusual inclusions … Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and the wife of Uriah.  Four women. Probably four foreign women.  Most importantly, four women with significant question marks over their moral purity.  Tamar dressed up as a shrine prostitute to trick her father-in-law into giving her a son.  Rahab’s name always comes with the title of her profession.  Ruth was a wonderful women, but she did get a man drunk and slip under the covers at midnight.  And Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba, was involved in the greatest scandal ever seen in Israel’s royal court.  They weren’t all bad, in fact, all of them were women of faith.  But they all had that question mark hanging over them.

And that is the colour that sets up the final woman in the list – Mary.  A woman of faith.  And yet a woman with her moral purity questioned by all.  She was pregnant before her wedding.  It was a scandal, even in a sin-stained place like Nazareth.  But this was not more of the same human mess.  This was God’s answer to the human mess.

The genealogy might first appear dull, then at a closer look it seems to contain some great names, but if you keep looking you see the mess of those lives, and if God opens our eyes to see, we start to see the glorious grace of God shining through it all.

That is where this post ends, but it is where hope begins.  When God gives us eyes to see the beauty of his glorious grace shining in the mess of humanity.  The genealogy prepares us for the coming of Jesus, the Christ.  Maybe this genealogy prepares us to press on in our messy ministries too – knowing that God’s great promise plan and glorious grace has already entered our world and brought the hope we all so desperately need.

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A couple of years ago I wrote Pleased to Dwell: A Biblical Introduction to the Incarnation – I hope you can get hold of a copy and enjoy a light biblical read on this critical subject of God’s Son becoming one of us so that we could be one with Him!  It is not just a subject to study at Christmas.  The incarnation is in the very DNA of the Christian faith.

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Preaching Bigger Books in Shorter Series

Let’s say you want to preach from a bigger book, but you like the idea of shorter series – is that possible?  Here are a few suggestions:

1. Preach a shorter section – instead of feeling obligated to preach a whole book every time, why not preach a contained unit from a book for a series.  You don’t have to give equal coverage to the whole book in this particular series, you can always come back for another section another time.

2. Have a Gospel/book of the year – we had a season in our church (over a year) where we were in Mark’s Gospel, but we didn’t want to be preaching it for months on end.  We planned so that we had the Easter section at the right time of the year, but in the months before that we had covered some sections in midweek groups instead of on Sundays.  This meant that our shorter series on Sundays were more focused and could be “branded” separately to allow for renewed energy in each mini-series.  We also had breaks from Mark to spend time in other types of series and other types of biblical literature.

3. Preach a landmark tour – this is a way to preach a book without giving every verse equal attention.  You can preach the landmarks of a Bible book over the course of a few Sundays.  For example, you might preach Romans by starting in 1:16-17 to launch, and then touching down in other keys texts like 3:21-25; 5:1-8; 8:1; 12:1-2, etc.  Obviously, you will need to give some overview of the flow for this approach to work, but it allows you to zero in on the golden passages. If done well then the church will be motivated to read the whole book.  You can also supplement with midweek discussions that cover more ground, although that is only one approach to take.

4. Preach different sized chunks – this is similar to number 3, but is more intentional about covering the whole book.  You could launch a Romans series with 1:1-17, but then cover greater ground with a couple of the messages in a series covering several chapters.  For instance, you might have a message covering 1:18-3:20, then maybe one covering 3:21-5:21, etc.  You could preach an 8-week series with three or four of the messages covering three chapters and then the other four focusing in a bit more – i.e. chapter 8 on its own, or chapter 12.

Have you found other ways to run shorter series on longer books?

Easter Does Not Fade

Easter has come and gone for another year.  But Easter will never fade for God’s people.  Think about the Apostle Peter, for instance.  He was a rugged fisherman called by Jesus to become one of his core followers.  He watched and experienced all that we read about in the Gospels.  He was at the heart of most of the action.  When it came down to it, he wanted to be there for Jesus.  When it came down to it, he couldn’t make it faithfully through the night.

Then things went from bad to worse.  Jesus was killed.  The disciples were in hiding.  Peter had not been able to say sorry for his denial of the man he so dearly loved.  Saturday passed.  Sunday morning came.  Women came to report that the tomb was empty.  Peter raced John to the tomb and that day he met the risen Christ more than once.  Surely in their private conversation, Peter would have expressed his heart to Jesus over what had happened?  Two weeks later, on a Galilean beach, Peter was given the chance to express publicly his love for Jesus.  He had failed, but he was not finished.

Every encounter with the risen Jesus must have thrilled their hearts, but before too many weeks had passed by Jesus returned to His Father and they waited in Jerusalem.  On Pentecost, it was Peter that boldly stood to declare what was going on.  Peter pronounced persuasively that the pangs of death could not keep hold of Jesus and he had risen from the dead!

Easter was very real for those who saw the real Easter.  And for a few weeks, their enthusiasm is to be expected. But surely the delight must fade?  Every event eventually fades, doesn’t it?  Not for Peter.

Fast forward over three decades and Peter writes a letter to some dispersed and discouraged Christians in Turkey.  As soon as he launches he is gushing about the reality of Easter again!  Thirty-plus years and his passion remains undimmed!  Peter could not help but write about the covenant mercy of God that led Him to cause us “to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead!”

Peter went on to write about that hope: an inheritance kept where it cannot die, be defiled, or disappear.  The heavenly hope was, for Peter, no “pie in the sky when we die” – it was a real and life defining certain expectation.  But the hope Peter spoke of was more than just the heavenly inheritance to come. It was also a present tense living hope.

How does the resurrection of Jesus shape our lives today?  What do we have as well as the hope that lies ahead?  Peter writes that we have perspective in the midst of challenging trials.  The suffering that besets God’s people now has purpose – it proves the miracle of our faith.  The suffering we endure now with faith results in greater glory to the God we look to in the midst of the trials.

As well as perspective, Peter writes that believers have an unexplainable love for Jesus.  Because he rose from the dead, Jesus is not simply the object of our nostalgia, like a spiritual Elvis or JFK.  Jesus is alive and that means that while we do not see him, we do love him.  As hard as it is to explain the hope that characterizes God’s people, it is even more difficult to explain the love that we have for Jesus Christ.  It is a first-rate spiritual miracle for a self-absorbed and incurved human heart to be turned inside-out so that it doesn’t hate Jesus (our natural condition), but loves him from the heart!

Finally, as well as perspective and love, the believer also has inexpressible joy.  When we see Jesus our joy will overflow, of course, but now, even though we do not see him, we rejoice with a joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory.  True believers suffer, true believers endure, but true believers are people of joy.  It comes from the perspective we have, it comes from the love that is birthed within us, it comes because Jesus has conquered the greatest enemy – death itself.

Since death is defeated we live, present tense, with a living hope, with victory-shaped perspective, with unexplainable love, and with inexpressible joy.  We live, present tense, because Jesus lives, present tense. Since death is defeated, Easter must not and cannot fade for us.

Preaching and Perspectives

When we preach, we present a perspective.  When we preach, we provoke a perspective.  Here are five perspective prompts to help us consider the perspective we give in our preaching:

1. God spoke vs God speaks

We need both perspectives.  We need to know that God has definitively revealed and communicated his very being through the incarnation and the work of the Holy Spirit in revelation that we can access with confidence in our Bibles.  That canonized revelation is priceless and people need to be confident that we can stake our life and eternity on what it says in The Book.  At the same time we do not have a God who is far away and unengaged.  As we engage with the Bible we are engaging with God in the present.  Some preachers speak only as if God spoke long ago and far away.  Others preach as if God’s voice is heard predominantly today apart from the Bible.  Both extremes are problematic.  God spoke and through that, God still speaks.  Our mission is to offer both to our listeners.

2. My World vs The World

Ever since the Fall we have all fallen inward like human-shaped black holes. We naturally think our world is the whole world, when actually there is a whole lot going on beyond me.  As a preacher you address both.  You speak God’s Word into a personal sphere that God does, in fact, care deeply about.  God’s personal love and concern for each of us is nothing short of astonishing.  At the same time we all need to have our horizon expanded beyond the sphere of self to see there is so much more beyond my life, my issues, my concerns, my comfort. The preacher speaks a message that is intensely personal, yet also expansively global in scope.

3. Past vs Future

People live in the bubble of their present concerns.  Preachers point outside of that bubble.  We point back to the world of the Bible and God’s definitive invasion in the person of His Son.  The incarnation, the crucifixion, the resurrection and the ascension are all definitive points in past history.  At the same time we point through preaching into the future to the historical moment when Christ will again enter into our world.  Past events, future events, all shaping our present lives.  Preachers point backwards and forwards and listeners need us to do both.
 
4. Under The Sun vs Under The Throne

We live our lives in light of what we can see, but there is more.  The preacher points to both.  As well as offering divine commentary and insight into the visible world around us, the preacher also pulls back the veil and shows the reality above.  Stephen lived, preached and died in a terrifying whir of political tensions and angry voices, but above the sky there was a reality that he got to glimpse before his death – the Son of Man standing at the right hand of the throne on high. Daniel 7 is such an important passage – while we live in the raging foment of kingdoms rising and falling, terrifying the saints and waging war against them, all the while there is a higher throne, God is on it, and judgment is given into the hands of a human who is there at the side of the throne.  We can live our lives and die our deaths in light of that reality … but preachers need to help people to see what is unseen.

5. Me vs Him

This may be the ultimate perspective issue in preaching.  People naturally focus on themselves and yet do not see clearly.  The preacher shines a light on the true self, and yet aims to draw the gaze of listeners away from self and to Christ.

In all of these ways preachers influence perspective through preaching.  Does your preaching lean one way and not the other in any of these categories?  Is there some perspective shift needed in you so that your preaching can bring about that good in others?

Journey in the Dark

darkness2God delights to transform lives.  There are many ways to depict this journey of transformation, but let’s focus on one example from the Old Testament.  In Psalms 130 and 131 we have a three-picture portrayal of a life transformed by God’s goodness.  In this progression of pictures we can find a helpful perspective as we care for the souls of others, and as we take stock of our own spiritual state too.

These Psalms come in the collection known as the Psalms of Ascent (120-134). These were probably a collection of songs used by the Israelites as they journeyed up to Jerusalem three times each year for the pilgrim feasts.  When we think of pilgrimage we tend to think of a difficult journey with a spiritual goal – typically the idea that there is some merit in taking the journey and therefore some benefit. However, the Jewish feasts were actually celebrations of a salvation to which they had contributed nothing.  It was not about earning anything, but about celebrating God’s goodness.

When we focus in on Psalms 130 and 131 we can notice a repeated phrase introducing the conclusion in each Psalm, “O Israel, hope in the LORD!”  Intriguingly this phrase is only found here in the whole book of Psalms.  This at least opens up the possibility that these two Psalms work together in some way.  Then recognition of the progression of imagery underlines the idea that thesecan be read together.  So let’s look at these three images and what they show us:

1. Our desperation for the forgiveness God gives.  In Psalm 130 the writer begins with the terrifying image of being swallowed up by the sea.  He describes the cry of desperation from someone as they sink below the waves of the sea into the darkness of the depths below.  This isn’t a literal situation (unless you are Jonah, of course), but it is a description of what it feels like to realize your guilt before God.  It is a cry for mercy that reaches upwards.

Most people don’t live constantly aware of the gravity of their situation.  Nonetheless, without God’s mercy, all are sinners living in anticipation of horrifying judgment.  Sometimes a glimpse will peak through and the fear will grip them before they distract themselves again.  Without God’s mercy things may not feel bad, but the reality is there nevertheless.  If God were to watch out for our sins in order to keep track of them, if He marked iniquities, then nobody could stand before Him.  But there is great news for the sinner – God forgives.

God forgives sinners, the first step in bringing great peace to the guilty.  He forgives fully, finally, freely and forever.  And when the wonder of God’s forgiveness grips us, we live wide-eyed in awe of God’s remarkable kindness toward the undeserving.  Fully forgiven, forever, really?

2. Our hope is in God himself.  The second half of Psalm 130, from verse 5 onwards paints a second picture.  No longer is it the overwhelming darkness and terror of judgment, but it is the darkness of night that is portrayed.  Having been gripped by God’s forgiveness, the next stage in the transformation of the believer is to discover that we are given so much more than an offer of forgiveness (amazing as that would be).  God gives us His Word (v5), He is a God who makes promises and keeps them.  God gives us Himself (v6).  And with God comes not only forgiveness (v4), but also steadfast love (v7) – the committed self-giving love of God that is ever and always loyal to the undeserving.  He loves us for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, etc.  And with God comes plentiful redemption (v7).  This is forgiveness-plus!

As we grow in relationship with God we discover that He forgives, and He gives so much more – ultimately He gives us Himself.  So we still live in a dark world, but we are like watchmen who have learned over the years to watch for the light of dawn.  Morning always comes.  We live in darkness, but we live with hope.  And our hope is God Himself.

3. Our growth to find peace in the presence of God now.  As the believer matures in the transformation that God’s love brings, we come to the final picture in Psalm 131.  The mature believer is not caught up in their own significance, or in their own ability to make sense of everything.  Almost strangely the image pictures the believer as a child.  How can this be the picture of greatest maturity?

Well this is a weaned child (v2).  That is, a child that no longer screams and grabs for the sustenance they need.  Rather, it is a child that is at peace in the arms of their mother.  We’ve all seen a child who leaves the pile of toys to go and peak in the other room to make sure mother is still there.  We’ve seen a child who wants a story read not so much for the thrill of the tale, but for the security of the embrace.  A weaned child can be in the dark, but all is well, because the mother is there holding them.

A mature believer grows to not only hope for deliverance in the future, but also to enjoy the peace that is found in God’s presence now.  Not self-focused and grasping for things, but content to know that they are safe in God’s embrace.

From the terrifying darkness of despair, to the hope-filled darkness of anticipation, to the contented peace in the midst of darkness – this is the progress of God’s transformation work in our hearts.  God gives great peace to the guilty, because God gives Himself to us!

The Pathway to Spiritual Maturity

Pathway2The epistle of James is a remarkable document. He was the skeptical half-brother of Jesus who became a key leader in the church in Jerusalem. While Jesus was going through his season of public ministry, James thought he was mad. Then we discover that the risen Christ “appeared to James” (1Cor.15:7). Resurrection from the dead was enough to convince and transform skeptical James. He became a passionate follower of Christ and a leader who longed to see all who called themselves Christian living sold out lives for God.

The first chapter of his epistle starts as he means to go on. He gets right into the nitty gritty of life, but he does not want to simply offer pragmatic instructions.  James’ great concern was spiritual maturity. He wanted his readers to live fully for God.

So he launches into the issue of the various kinds of trials we face in life.  James sees trials as inevitable – for he does not write, “if you face trials,” but “when you face trials.”  James sees trials as painful – for otherwise why would he tell the reader to “count it joy when you face trials.”  The kind of processing resulting in a bottom line evaluation that this is a joyful thing is not an automatic response to suffering.  But James also sees trials as purposeful and fruitful.  Trials lead to steadfastness, which in turn brings about maturity.

That is a great promise, but how can we “count it all joy?”  How do we get there?  After all, most of us naturally will “count it all misery” when we suffer.  How can we get the perspective that James’ is advocating, and thus how can we move toward maturity?

First James counsels the reader to ask God for the perspective, or the wisdom, that is needed in times of trial (see vv5-11).  God is a loving father who loves to give good gifts, including the trials that mature us, so we need only ask.  Actually James really is at pains to underline the importance of pursuing 100% God’s perspective in these times.  Our natural approach will be to make sense of our trials from our own perspective, or with worldly wisdom.  Our natural approach will be to blame our lack of resources, or rely on our own resources to face the things that we have to face.  But James wants his readers to go 100% for God’s perspective.

God wants to give perspective to us in times of trial, and also hope to help us remain steadfast in the midst of it all (see v12).  But don’t miss where he goes next, for this is not describing some kind of Christian fatalism.  Yes God gives good gifts, including ones that feel negative, but God never gives us temptation.  I am more than capable of generating enough of that from my own heart, but it is a comfort to know that God has never once tried to get me to sin.

He gives good gifts like a Father loves to give his children good food.  He gives good gifts like a father loves his child and therefore gives the nasty tasting cough medicine when it is needed.  He gives good gifts – tasty food, nasty medicine, but never poison.  God is consistently and persistently a loving Father, so we should look to Him for perspective and hope in the midst of trials.

But when we ask for God’s wisdom in the midst of our trials, how do we hear from Him?  The end of the chapter shifts from vv19-25 to address the role of the Bible in our journey toward spiritual maturity.

He seems to begin with some slightly random relational wisdom – be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to anger.  Maybe you have worked or lived with someone who is slow to listen, quick to speak and quick to become angry.  It is very difficult.  Maybe you are that person around others? Know that this is a description of natural humanity, or what we are like in our spiritual immaturity.  James is not giving random relational insights, he is addressing the issue of our response to God’s word.  Verses 20-21 make it clear that he is addressing our natural default response of self-protective anger when confronted or challenged by God’s word.

Instead of flaring up in anger when God’s word challenges us, let us instead receive the implanted word of God with meekness or humility.  Notice two things here:

First, the word is “implanted” – which refers to it not being acquired, but natural. James is speaking of salvation and how the Spirit of God plants within us the word of God, through which we are saved. That means that we are now heart-level Bible people . . . we don’t instantly know everything, but we now have a heart-level resonance with the Scriptures. We start to find them beautifully attractive, and personally relevant. The Bible is not just an object to be studied, but a means to an encounter with God to be enjoyed and experienced.

Second, notice the attitude with which we are to receive this implanted word – with meekness.  This is a humility that is not defensive, not self-protective, not angrily resistant, but instead humbly receptive to how God wants to put His finger on issues in our life.

James goes on to describe a further aspect of truly receiving God’s word.  We are also to put into practice what is shown to us as we look intently into the Bible. This is the living word of God that will pinpoint issues in us that God invites us to responsively address.  James wants “doers who act” in response to the Bible. Notice two things in verse 25 that are really important as we mature spiritually.

First, he advocates a persevering approach to gazing into the word of God.  Like a man looking in a mirror, we won’t easily or naturally see ourselves clearly. Instead our inclination will be to see what we want to see in the mirror of the word.  But James wants the readers to really look intently and to get a clear sense of God’s perspective on us.  Seeing ourselves clearly in the mirror of the word of God is vital, but it is not enough.  In fact, to miss James’ point here and focus on ourselves would be dangerous.

Second, notice his reference to the “perfect law” which he calls the “law of liberty.”  This is not just a reference to the standard of God’s written word.  It is, I believe, a reference to the fulfilled law that we find after Christ came – a law no longer written on tablets of stone, but now etched into our newly living hearts, indwelt by the Spirit and characterized by intimacy with God.  It’s not that we must simply receive the word with humility and respond to it.  No, we go into our Bibles for more than information and self-diagnosis, we are to receive the word with humility and respond to Him.

The pathway to spiritual maturity is littered with trials – little ones like losing our keys, and big ones like losing a loved one.  How are we to engage with these trials?  By engaging fully with God.  We should ask Him for wisdom, relying solely on His character and goodness, not simply mixing that in with our self-protective narratives and self-reliant resources.  We ask Him for wisdom, and look to the Bible to hear his answer.

How easily we can make this passage a pragmatic set of suggestions, but really it is an invitation to a sold out, all for Jesus, God and God alone, fully-His relationship.  May we be leaders that seek God’s perspective alone in the trials of life.  May we be those who persevere in His word so that we hear from Him, and act on what He shows us.  Maybe then our lives and ministries will be reflective of His character as James summarizes at the end of the chapter – concern for God’s values and care for others, a genuinely Christlike maturity.

Life Now

Life2We can easily make the Martha mistake.  I don’t mean the Martha in the kitchen mistake though.  At the end of Luke 10 we see Martha graciously rebuked by Jesus for desperately trying to love her neighbor as her first priority, when she should have first loved the Lord and allowed Him to minister to her before she tried to minister to others.  We easily and maybe regularly make that Martha mistake, but I am not referring to that.

We can easily make the Martha in the street mistake.  In John 11 we see Jesus at a key point in his ministry coming to Bethany where Lazarus was ill and then died.  Martha runs to Jesus and expresses her grief, that if Jesus had been there, then Lazarus would not have died.  Jesus loved Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. But now Lazarus was dead and buried, Jesus was too late, and Martha understandably made a mistake.  What was it?

Jesus told Martha that Lazarus would rise again. What do you say to a grieving sister?  Maybe this was just one of those platitudes that we hear at Christian funerals.  Comfort, but distant.  Martha took it that way.  She assumed that Jesus comes to us and points off into the distant future – comfort for the by and by.  She was mistaken.

When Jesus told Martha that “I am the resurrection and the life,” he was not just referring to the far off future.  What she didn’t know was that this person stood before her was about to reinforce the Jerusalem leadership’s decision to kill him.  What she didn’t know was that this person stood before her was soon to enter into death deliberately and with dignity.  And what she didn’t know was that in a few weeks this person stood before her would stand up and walk out of his own tomb as the conqueror of death.

If Martha could have seen the next few weeks, then she might have anticipated more in the next few minutes.  Jesus is the resurrection and the life, and Lazarus was about to be miraculously resuscitated after four days of stone cold death.

We can easily make the Martha mistake.  We can assume that Jesus comes to us in the tough times of life and ministry in order to point our hearts into the future – that far off time when we will be with him and all the tears will be wiped and the presence of sin dusted away and we will forever enjoy what we were made for, fellowship with the Trinity.  This is all true.  But this is not all.

Jesus comes to us in the midst of hurt, and sorrow, and challenge, and struggle, and betrayal, and fatigue, and tears . . . and he comes to give us life now.

Too many gospel presentations offer only a ticket to heaven when you die. And too many Christians are walking around with hope of comfort tied exclusively to that end of life anticipation.  Jesus is the kind of Savior who comes to us, by his Spirit, in the midst of the mess we experience.  Jesus is the kind of Savior who gives us life now.

Martha misunderstood the physical implications of Jesus meeting her that day.  We can misunderstand the spiritual implication of Jesus meeting us today.

As conqueror of death and Lord of life, what is it that Jesus offers us today as his beloved friends and family?  He offers us hope for the future and a new standing with God, of course.  But never let the good news diminish into a merely status-based future hope.  Jesus offers us the loving intimacy of the Trinity by the Spirit poured out into our hearts reassuring us of God’s love, urging us to call God our Abba.  Jesus offers us eternal life now, which is to enjoy fellowship with God our Father and Jesus Christ whom he has sent.  Jesus offers us transformed hearts, filled hearts, tenderly loved hearts.  Jesus offers us his presence, his comfort, his concern and his companionship.  Jesus offers us life, now.

I thank God for Martha.  Her mistake in the kitchen in Luke 10 is a mistake I make all the time.  Jesus’ gentle rebuke of Martha resonates deeply as a loving rebuke for me.  And her mistake in the street at Bethany in John 11 is a mistake I make all the time.  I too tend to live my life as if Jesus’ presence is nice today, but the difference Jesus offers lies off in the distant future.  Jesus lovingly corrected Martha’s grieving error by giving her the embrace of her brother that day.  Jesus lovingly wants to correct our similar error by giving us his embrace, today.  That is life, eternal life.  It is not only life forever then.  It is, in the midst of all the mess I experience, life now.

Legalism’s 5 Misses

Legalism4Legalism will always contain a rich dose of truth, but it will miss something far richer and more helpful.  Here are a few of the great misses of legalism:

1. Legalism is a misunderstanding of the Gospel. God did not offer us pardon on condition of ongoing obedience to His law. God offered us life as the bride of Christ, the children of God, the friends of God, and as members of the body of Christ. We enter into the Sonship of Christ and so desire to obey as He does – not to fulfill an obligation, nor to merit the Father’s love, but rather as the natural response of a loving heart. In the Gospel we are offered that transformation of heart, that union by the Spirit, and that freedom to enjoy pleasing Him.  Legalism pushes God into the distance and throttles the life out of our obedience.

2. Legalism is a misreading of the Galatian heresy.  Paul was so strong in his critique of believers who were drawn away from Christ and toward the flesh-driven pursuit of maturity via law-keeping.  Two thousand years on and many of us still live under the spell that says we get saved by faith, but then will grow by self-stirred effort.  Galatians is not just a critique of this law-based approach to living for God, it is also a glorious presentation of the opposite – of life lived in response to Him who loved me and gave Himself for me, the promised One who gives the promised Spirit so that we can be sons rather than slaves.

3. Legalism is a misrepresentation of initiative.  The Bible puts God’s grace up front as the initiator, but my legalism turns that around.  Now God is seen to be reticently gracious. He is hesitatingly good.  He must be conditioned into being kind by my initiative through a self-stirred obedience. God becomes the responder to us mini-gods who twist His arm by our self-starting acts of obedience.

4. Legalism is a misdirected gaze issue. When my life reflects an inner passion to gaze at the Law, or myself, or others, then I am living the lie that God himself, as revealed in Christ through the Spirit is not worthy of my loving gaze.

5. Legalism is a weird and twisted version of marriage. If I were to apply legalistic descriptors to a marriage, we would find it very strange. In a marriage we make a great effort for the sake of the other, but we don’t dwell on that effort.  We do it gladly because we love the person. A marriage defined by my obsession with my own effort is weird. It is also weird in union with Christ.

John Piper wrote that “the essence of legalism is when faith is not the engine of obedience.”  With that, let’s bring this series to a close.

Legalism and Preaching – part 3

Legalism2Legalism is not only possible for Christians, it is likely.  The default leaning of our flesh is toward autonomy. That autonomy can manifest in overt rebellion (antinomianism) or in self-righteous religiosity (legalism), but both are manifestations of a separation of God’s Law from God Himself.

You probably see the label “antinomian” being used. It is a serious charge. It suggests that someone is anti-law and therefore, by implication, pro-sin. It tends to be used of those who don’t elevate the Law as much as they apparently should. Undoubtedly there are some antinomians who are genuinely pro-sin, but I haven’t met many. I have met a lot who might be labeled “antinomians” who do not see the Law as the solution to the profound reality of sin, and who, incidentally, live lives characterized by greater integrity and with more fruit of the Spirit evident than some who like to criticize them.

As preachers we need to wrestle with these issues. We stand and speak not only of how to be saved, but also about living the Christian life. For many those are two separate messages. We are saved by grace, they say, but we live the Christian life by determined obedience to the Law.  Somehow this two-part message should feel very awkward for us.

We need to devour our Bibles and get a sense not only of the instructions in there, but also the source of those instructions.  Jesus seemed to suggest that His way would mean a greater and a deeper holiness, one that would surpass that of the fastidious Pharisees.  Yet we tend to think of the Old Testament folks as having a far more demanding legal code than we could cope with. Are we missing something?  Should we demand more strongly that our listeners keep more laws?  Or is there something implicit in the New Covenant that Jesus instituted that leads to a greater awareness of sin, and a greater victory over it?

The New Testament is clear that this life will be a struggle between the flesh and the Spirit, so perfection is unrealistic.  But is there something in the New Covenant that means we can keep in step with the Spirit, that we can delight to please our God, that we can live lives of greater moral integrity out of a heart-stirred delight rather than through external pressure?

Let’s beware of an inadequate understanding of sin and a wholly inadequate approach to living lives that please God – for that is what legalism is: weak on the problem and a flimsy solution to it.

Perhaps it would do us preachers good to take a book like Galatians and read it through again and again. If we bring with us the question of what does it look like to live the Christian life, what is sin and what is the solution for the believer?, then these questions might gradually open up Paul’s teaching there and bring new life to our ministry. It cannot hurt. Twenty, thirty, fifty times through Galatians would help us all.  Shall we?