Only One Chapter

A train ride

Imagine you’re on a two-hour train ride. In your compartment are just you and one other person, and after a while you strike up a conversation. Your fellow traveler casually mentions being part of a church. A Christian church. This intrigues you, because she’s young, apparently educated, and gives an overall impression of being a normal person. She is not what pops into your head when you think “Christian.”

So you ask a few questions, she asks you some, and the conversation is surprisingly normal. About halfway into the train ride, your seatmate reaches her stop. She says “It was nice talking to you. This is kind of weird, but I have this copy of the New Testament, and I’d like to give it to you. Just read it and see what you think.” That’s it. No hard sell, nothing creepy. She gets off the train.

After a few minutes, you decide to take a look at the book she gave you. It’s a fairly thin paperback. You open it up to the very beginning. The Gospel According to Matthew. You start reading.

The first half of Chapter 1 is basically a list of names. Kind of boring. Then there’s a story about Jesus’ parents, and finally his birth. You close your eyes for a minute, then doze off. You wake up when you hear the name of your stop, and in the rush to pack up and leave, you forget the Bible. You leave it there in the train compartment.

All you read was Matthew 1. The first chapter of the first book of the New Testament.

If you never read another word of the Bible for the rest of your life, what would you know?

After one chapter…

You would know that this is a book about Jesus.  “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matthew 1:1).

You would know that the Bible at least claims to be real history. The genealogy anchors the birth of Jesus not only in his own day, but in a long history of a certain people group in a certain time.

You would know that the Bible teaches that God is active in human history. Again, the genealogy, and also the way God intervenes supernaturally around the birth of Christ.

You would know that Jesus is the Christ. Matthew 1:16 and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ… Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows” (Matthew 1:16, 18).

You would know that the Bible teaches the virgin birth. Matthew 1:18 When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.” This is further emphasized in the quotation from Isaiah (1:23) and in the statement that Joseph “knew [Mary] not until she had given birth to a son” (1:25).

You would know that the New Testament writers believed the Old Testament talks about Jesus. “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet…” (Matthew 1:22).

You would know that the Bible says Jesus is divine. “ ‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel’ (which means, God with us)” (Matthew 1:23).

You would know that the Bible says Jesus came to save sinners. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21).

 

On further reflection

If you had very good reading comprehension, the words might stick in your head, and you might keep thinking about them. Upon further reflection, you might have a few more thoughts:

The Christ was born from a family of human beings. This means that, at least according to Matthew, he is somehow both human and divine.

Jesus was descended from a royal family. Maybe that foreshadows something important about him.

Godly people can defend their rights without humiliating others. That might seem to come out of left field, but it’s exactly what happened with Joseph. His plan, before the angel visit, was neither to marry an adulterous woman nor to shame her publicly. He found a way to defend his own honor without destroying the person who (he thought) had wronged him.

Several women are mentioned in this list of Jesus’ family tree. That might surprise you if you previously thought the Bible treated women like property.

If, by chance, the New Testament you were handed had some simple study notes, you might have learned some helpful background information.

The women included in the genealogy point to some scandal. Not that the women themselves are scandalous. At worst they’re making the best of a bad situation; in some cases they’re great examples of faithfulness.

The fact that there’s literary crafting in the narrative doesn’t mean it’s not historically reliable. Skipping generations in a genealogy, for example, was a common way of giving structure and drawing attention to specific details.

 

What’s the point?

The Bible is a long and complicated book (which is a collection of a variety of smaller books). People spend their whole lives studying it, without getting at everything that’s in there. But the Bible is also refreshingly simple. You can get what you really need to get, without a master’s degree or a particular skill in understanding ancient texts.

Lots of us wish we knew the Bible better. There are great resources to help you do this. But for many of us, the best thing to do is pretty simple: Sit down and read. Take notes. Ask questions. Sit and think about things you don’t understand. Ask the Holy Spirit to give you wisdom and insight. Do all this in community with others.

When we open our Bible and read, God is speaking to us. One of the best ways for us to know him better, experience him more deeply, and protect ourselves against false ideas is simply to listen to his voice. For most of us, if we leave that first New Testament on the train, it’s not that hard to get our hands on another. Maybe even spring for the whole Bible. If we do that, once we reread Matthew 1, there are 928 more chapters waiting to teach us even more of who God is.

 

Vain the Stone

Every Easter we sing one of my favorite lines in a hymn: “Vain the stone, the watch, the seal.”

A few years ago a friend’s father died somewhat unexpectedly. The family had young kids, and our friends weren’t sure how to help them understand what it meant that Grampa was gone and wasn’t coming back. So the dad did something that wouldn’t have occurred to me: He sat with his kids after the graveside service, and they watched the entire burial happen. The casket was lowered into the hole in the ground, and the guys came with the machines and filled the hole with dirt. They tapped it down and covered it with sod. When they were finished, the ground over the grave looked just like everything else. At that point, my friend said, his kids understood what had happened. Grampa’s body was in the box, the box was in the ground, and that was done. Grampa’s soul was in heaven with God.

These little kids were able to understand that burial is final. Once a body is in the ground, that’s it.

Now, contrast this with the approach of Pilate and the Jewish leaders after the death of Jesus.

The next day, that is, after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate and said, “Sir, we remember how that impostor said, while he was still alive, ‘After three days I will rise.’ Therefore order the tomb to be made secure until the third day, lest his disciples go and steal him away and tell the people, ‘He has risen from the dead,’ and the last fraud will be worse than the first.” Pilate said to them, “You have a guard of soldiers. Go, make it as secure as you can.” So they went and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone and setting a guard. (Matthew 27:62-66)

I love what Pilate says: “Go, make it as secure as you can.” Do everything you possibly can to make sure that a dead body doesn’t go anywhere. Do everything you can to make sure that a 2-ton stone doesn’t move. Do everything you can, professional soldiers with javelins and swords, to make sure a bunch of terrified fishermen who ran into the night as soon as their leader was attacked don’t come and steal his decaying body. These guys literally have one job.

Vain the stone, the watch, the seal.

Fast forward to Sunday morning. The professional soldiers, having failed to keep the dead body and the 2-ton stone in place, are in trouble. So what’s the plan? A cover-up.

While they were going, behold, some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests all that had taken place. And when they had assembled with the elders and taken counsel, they gave a sufficient sum of money to the soldiers and said, “Tell people, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ And if this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story has been spread among the Jews to this day. (Matthew 28:11-15)

I want to be at this meeting where the soldiers explain “all that had taken place.” So, boss, here’s the deal. There was an earthquake, and an angel, and we, uh, passed out, and when we woke up the stone had moved and the body was gone.

You notice what the religious leaders don’t say? “Those rascally disciples!” They know that’s not what happened here. But it’s the story they go with. So the narrative becomes:

  • The professional soldiers all fell asleep. Asleep enough that
  • The disciples snuck to the tomb, rolled the 2-ton stone away, grabbed the body, and carried it away.
  • The professional soldiers did not notice all this.

The longer you think about it, the worse of a story it is. But at Matthew’s writing, it was the official version of the events among the Jews. It still is among a lot of otherwise intelligent people. Because they have to deal with the empty tomb.

Vain the stone, the watch, the seal.

Pilate couldn’t stop that body from rising, despite all the resources at his disposal. The religious leaders couldn’t stop the word from getting out that Jesus was alive, despite all the resources at their disposal. Because it had been determined from eternity past that the Son of God would become man, would live a perfect life on behalf of his people, would die for them, and would rise from the dead, having defeated death and sin and hell forever. Nothing was going to stop that.

Vain the stone, the watch, the seal. Vain the schemes of the devil. Vain the lies of God’s enemies. Vain the cowardliness of the disciples. Christ had risen, and the people in charge were powerless to deny it.

This is still the case for us today. Christ is risen. You can deny it if you want, but it’s just like denying that the sun came up this morning. Your denial doesn’t change the reality.

This is bad news for God’s enemies, then and now. But it is very good news for us.

If we are in Christ, the same unstoppable power that raised him from the dead now works for us. The devil can accuse us; our own sin can cause all kinds of problems; our enemies can persecute us; death can even seem to take us out for a time. But it’s all in vain. If God is for us, who can be against us?

Vain the stone, the watch, the seal. Vain every attempt the world, the flesh, and the devil can make against God’s people. The Resurrection proves this is true. He is alive. He lives forever. And because of him, so do we.

What Easter gives us

PRAGUE 1

Each year our church has an Easter sunrise service at about the same place where the above photo was taken. (For those of you who don’t live in Prague, you have my sympathy.) We like to worship the risen Jesus at that spot because we love our city, and it’s one of the best places to get a good look at her as the sun comes up. For some of us the pictures taken from this site were one of the first things that grabbed our attention and drew us to Prague. It’s a beautiful city that has enchanted us, a city we love to call home.

We also know that for all the beauty, there is darkness in this city. Everything from government corruption to the sex trade to a lingering feeling of loneliness, of weariness that many of the people feel.  We know all that stuff isn’t the darkness itself, but symptoms of the darkness.

So we look at this city, knowing the darkness, and yet loving the beauty, especially as the sun comes up first thing in the morning. The beauty is there despite the darkness.

The Apostle Paul came to a city like ours once. It was a beautiful city with great history, yet Paul was “provoked in his spirit” as he saw that it was also filled with the worship of false gods. When he got the chance to address people of that city, this is what he said.

Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, “To the unknown god.” What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.

The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for “In him we live and move and have our being”; as even some of your own poets have said, “For we are indeed his offspring.”

Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.

So Paul gives a fairly straightforward presentation of the Gospel: God is holy, we are created to know him, our relationship to him has been broken by our sin, he commands us to repent. But Paul goes further than that. Unlike most of our gospel presentations, but like most of the ones in the Bible, he goes all the way to the resurrection of Jesus; in fact, all the way to the final judgment.

Paul says all men should repent, because God will judge world in righteousness “by a man whom he has appointed”—Jesus the righteous one will be the Judge. Then he says that God has given assurance of this final judgment by raising Jesus from the dead.

What does that mean?

It means the Resurrection is God’s demonstration that all the promises of the Gospel are true.

It means Jesus really did have the authority to say the outlandish things he said, to call all people to come to him, to command us to repent and believe.

It means Jesus really did die, not for his own sin, but for ours.

It means God accepted Jesus’ death as a substitute for ours; that he could stand in our place.

It means we can escape God’s judgment by believing in God’s Substitute, the Man he has appointed, the Righteous One, Jesus.

It means not only that we should repent, but that we can repent, because God is willing to pardon repentant sinners who come to him by believing in Jesus.

The Resurrection is Jesus putting his cards on the table, saying “I was not bluffing. I really am the truth, the life, the way. I really do lay down my life that I might take it up again. I have defeated death by taking it on myself.”

In other words, Easter gives us a Gospel to preach. It gives us good news for the 1.2 million people in our city, many of whom still walking in darkness. It gives us something to tell them: not just that they must repent, though that’s true, but that they can repent. It lets us tell them that there’s a throne of grace to run to, with a sympathetic and kind and understanding and living high priest.

Easter takes all these things from realm of religious theory, unverifiable and unfalsifiable, and makes them unquestionable. Jesus is either dead or he’s not. If he’s dead, we can believe whatever we want, with no consequence. If he isn’t, the news is better than we could imagine.

Easter gives us a gospel to preach. It gives us good news to believe and to share. Do you believe Jesus is alive? Then that changes everything. Go share that news with your neighbors.

“Of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” He is not here. He is risen. Amen.

(this post was adapted from my sermon at this year’s Easter sunrise service)

Breaking and bruising

When Jesus knew Peter was about to deny three times that he knew who Jesus was– while Jesus was suffering to save Peter’s skin– he spoke to him very gently.

“Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” (Luke 22:31-32)

When Peter had just been the first of the disciples to confess Jesus as the Messiah– for which Jesus praised him– and then tried to talk Jesus out of doing something that was going to be very hard, because he loved Jesus and didn’t want him to suffer, Jesus was not as gentle.

But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” (Matthew 16:23)

Many times Jesus spoke gently, reassuringly. This follows Isaiah’s prediction of how the Servant of the Lord would proclaim God’s word:

Behold my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my Spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a faintly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice. (Isaiah 42:1-3)

Other times, sometimes with the same people, he could be very forceful. And we haven’t even brought up his words to the Pharisees.

Pastors, along with all Christians, should look to Jesus to learn how to treat people. He never broke a bruised reed, and neither should we. He never spoke harshly to someone who needed to be reassured, to the downcast who needed their heads lifted up. But you might say that he did bruise some reeds. He spoke strong words to those who were unbroken in their sin, who needed to be humbled so they might seek God’s grace. Sometimes that’s a pastor’s job. Sometimes that’s every Christian’s job.

Who is sufficient for these things?

If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. (James 1:5)

The only thing there is

On Sunday, 9 June of this year I was rehearsing with the band at church when I got a text from Melissa: “Kels just called. They’re taking your mom to ICU.” Mom was in the hospital with pneumonia, but I had talked to her the day before and she sounded ok. Now her blood pressure was dangerously low. By that night they had her on a ventilator, and we decided I needed to fly to Georgia.

As I lay down for a couple hours of fitful sleep, some words played on a loop in my head. “Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken, nor my covenant of peace be removed, says the Lord, who has compassion on you.” I’m not sure I’d read those words on a page in 10 years or more.

When I was in college I spent a lot of time memorizing Scripture. I did some in seminary and afterward too. I’m embarrassed to say I don’t do much memorization anymore, though I have a big stack of index cards on my desk. But that day, while on a long flight not knowing whether my mom would be alive when I got off the plane, lots and lots of Bible verses came to mind, many of which I had memorized a dozen years ago or more.

In those moments, there was no clever tweet, no episode of Arrested Development, not even a John Piper sermon that kept me sane. Only God’s word could do it.

Mom rallied. After two weeks I came home to Prague. I had a wedding to prepare for the week I arrived. Then I spent a week clearing off my desk, and planned to start all my regular meetings back the next week.

Except that at the end of desk-clearing week, my daughter was diagnosed with cancer, and our old life ended, and a new life started.

We have had 9 or 10 hospital stays of varying length. Our boys have been with lots of different people and watched more tv (and gotten more care packages) than usual. Most of our test results have been good, though the waiting never gets any easier. E has gone under general anesthesia six times. And we have stayed sane. I attribute this mostly to Scripture and prayer.

I certainly don’t mean we get up early every day for a long and substantial quiet time. It would be better if we did, but we don’t. I do mean we cry out frequently, and we remind ourselves of what we know to be true: not the vague assurance that everything will be ok (it might not, not the way we want it to be), but the actual promises God makes to us. I mean our friends copy and paste from their devotional reading and remind us. Like the IV that gives Eliza the fluids and nutrition she needs, God works by his Word and Spirit to keep us.

On Eliza’s first night in ICU after her surgery the wheels were coming off for me. There was a point where they wouldn’t let us in and we didn’t know what was happening. It turned out not to be a problem, but it was the most scared I’ve ever been. Then her numbers just weren’t as stable as they had been through the afternoon, and the stress of staring at them was driving me up a wall. I went outside and paced back and forth in the cool night air, reciting Psalm 46 out loud over and over. God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. The Lord of Hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. The Lord of Hosts is with us. The Lord of armies is with us.

That was enough to calm me down enough for that hour. Nothing else was working. I memorized that psalm when I was in seminary, and however long it took has paid off richly in the last three months.

God is always so eager to speak to us, to reassure us, to give us a firm foundation to put our feet on. His Word is so rich, so deep, so powerful and effective. And we are– I am– so eager to run to cheap things like the iPad I’m writing this on for fun.

I am 20 years older than I was in June. I hope some of the changes last. I still like to zone out plenty, but I have less patience with trivial and more desire for real. I have less energy, so I think hard about what will sap it and what will increase it. I want to pick up that stack of index cards again.

Please run to God’s Word. Do it when it feels good and when it doesn’t. When the earth beneath your feet gives way, his truth is all you have to stand on. It’s the only thing there is. It is sweet, solid ground.

Hating evil without being hateful

Zion hears and is glad,
and the daughters of Judah rejoice,
because of your judgments, O LORD.
For you, O LORD, are most high over all the earth;
you are exalted far above all gods.
O you who love the LORD, hate evil!
He preserves the lives of his saints;
he delivers them from the hand of the wicked.
(Psalm 97:8-10 ESV)

God’s people are supposed to love what is good and hate what is evil. We’re to rejoice at God’s righteous judgments, including his judgment against sin.

God’s people are also supposed to be marked by our love, by our eagerness to forgive, by our mercy toward sinner and victim alike. We’re to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (and, by implication, for those who are neutral toward us as well).

So there has to be a way to hate evil without being hateful.

To be sure, we will at times be misunderstood. There are some opinions you cannot hold without being called hateful, no matter how nice you are. That fact tempts us not to hate evil, or at least to change the subject whenever possible. But then we’re not being faithful, just like we’re not being faithful when we demonize those we’re supposed to pray for. If we only stand up for socially acceptable truths, our faith isn’t worth much.

We must hate evil. Hate it. We must not be hateful toward people created in God’s image.

As in so many things, I suspect the key to getting this right has to do with being amazed that God would save sinners like us. A sinner like me.

“This man is not from God, for ________”

Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath.”
(John 9:16)

Jesus has just healed a man who had been blind his whole life. But, as is so often the case, the Pharisees aren’t happy. This time it’s because he’s healed on the Sabbath.

The Pharisees had lots of rules about what you could and couldn’t do on the Sabbath. We’re not talking about biblical rules here, God’s rules– we’re talking extra rules added to make double-sure the people didn’t break God’s rules. Healing was work, Jesus healed on the Sabbath, therefore Jesus worked on the Sabbath, therefore Jesus doesn’t keep the Sabbath, therefore Jesus isn’t from God.

Problem: the Pharisees are wrong. Not wrong because Jesus doesn’t care about the Sabbath. Wrong because their interpretation of the Sabbath isn’t the same as God’s interpretation. Theological error leading to spiritual abuse of God’s people, and worse, rejection of God’s Son.

We do this too: write people off because they don’t check all the boxes we think they should.

  • “This man is not from God, for he’s not a 6-day creationist.”
  • “This man is not from God, for he is a 6-day creationist.”
  • “This man is not from God, for he’s in favor of female deacons.”
  • “This man is not from God, for his church has a steeple and he wears a robe.”
  • “This man is not from God, for he wears product in his hair and preaches on a screen.”

Of course, any time the Pharisees criticized Jesus they were wrong. That’s not the case with us– we can have entirely legitimate critiques of pretty much anybody. There are good times, good reasons and good forums to confront or debate on those critiques. When we’re deciding who to work with, who to read or listen to, who to recommend, these things matter.

But we should remember: we have our own issues too. Chances are we’re actually wrong on some of the issues we’re passionate about, and most of the people on the other side are doing good work for the Kingdom. Remember how the Pharisees missed the boat entirely, and don’t miss God’s work through people who think and work differently.