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.

Spring and summer in music

We love this city, but needed a break.

Turning 30 was a good chance to think about where I’ve been…

… and be grateful for where I am.

A string of tragedies in my extended family made some old truths even more precious.

Now we’re home, rested, recharged, and ready for real life again.

“Go home to your friends”

Mark 5 tells of one of Jesus’ more dramatic exorcisms: a man with a “legion” of demons, who lived among the tombs, couldn’t be restrained even with chains, and ran around screaming and cutting himself with stones. Jesus casts the demons out of the man, but permits them to enter a nearby herd of pigs, which pigs immediately run down a hill into the sea and drown.

The man who’s been freed from this demonic oppression, not surprisingly, wants to join Jesus and the disciples. Jesus’ reply to him is kind of surprising.

As [Jesus] was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed with demons begged him that he might be with him. And he did not permit him but said to him, “Go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him, and everyone marveled.

Lots of times when people become Christians, or when Christians begin to take Jesus more seriously, they can get restless. Could I really be serving God in the job I’m in, in the house I’m in? Sometimes we begin to think that to really serve God, to really be radically committed to Jesus, we need to hang it all up and go into some kind of vocational ministry.

Sometimes, for some people, that’s true. If God’s calling you to step out, then you better step out!

But a lot of the time, he wants us to do exactly what he told this man: “Go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” If everybody becomes a pastor, the people at your office or in your class or playgroup or squash team or neighborhood might not have anyone to tell them how great God’s mercy is.

 

Do the young Reformed only see black & white?

My friend James-Michael Smith raised a question here last week that I think deserves a fuller answer, because it is an example of a regularly-heard complaint against young Reformed types.

Now I’m not interested in getting the young Reformed movement out of every critique from outside; we deserve lots of them. I do think some common critiques are overblown, though, and this is one.

In a comment on my Rob Bell post, JMS asked why guys like John Piper and Kevin DeYoung are so quick to write Bell off, while John Stott, a hero in the Reformed crowd who holds (“tentatively,” he says) to annihilationism, “gets a pass”. In a comment on another blog JMS gave C. S. Lewis as another example of someone loved by Reformed guys, but who held views that are outside the Reformed fold.

I trust JMS won’t be offended if I generalize a bit from his comment. The young Reformed crowd is sometimes accused of having tightly-defined circles of who’s in and who’s out, who’s right and who’s wrong, who’s bad and who’s good. Like most stereotypes, this one is true plenty of times. But I don’t think it holds as a defining characteristic.

Let’s stick with the example at hand. Are Piper and DeYoung inconsistent in criticizing Bell but not Stott or Lewis? In fact, no. I came up with a few examples off the top of my head in about 3 minutes (with verification from Google).

  • In 1992, one of Piper’s weekly letters to his church expressed his disappointment with Stott’s view on hell.
  • In 2009, Piper critiqued one aspect of Lewis’ writing on hell. (He linked to this article again last week.)
  • Last year DeYoung devoted a three-part post (link is to Part 1) to disagreeing with Stott over a much less important topic: gender roles in the church.
  • In January of this year– a few weeks before JMS said he gave Lewis a pass– DeYoung wrote an article with cautions on two big problems in Lewis’ Mere Christianity— a book he appreciates. One of them was Lewis’ inclusivism, which is more or less what Bell advocates in his new book.
  • Piper linked to DeYoung’s Lewis critique with the words, “Kevin DeYoung is more reliable than C.S. Lewis.”

We can go broader than this and look at the young Reformed scene in general. Mark Dever once publicly rebuked J. I. Packer, a friend and mentor, over his signing of Evangelicals and Catholics Together– at an event in Packer’s honor! Piper and Dever disagree strongly on whether paedobaptists should be allowed to join their Baptist churches. A few years ago Piper publicly cautioned Mark Driscoll about letting his “cleverness” get in the way of preaching the Gospel (Driscoll, while thanking him for the critique, said he wished it had been in private). John MacArthur is not shy about criticizing, well, anybody– including Driscoll and charismatics in general, yet has invited C. J. Mahaney to preach at his church. These are all guys who are “in,” yet aren’t “given a pass” when there’s disagreement.

Then we can get anecdotal. I went to a staunchly conservative Reformed seminary. My profs were not shy about expressing their opinions. But it’s not like they would only give somebody a thumbs-up or thumbs-down. One theology prof said he owed his soul, under God, to John Stott– he became a Christian reading Basic Christianity. In the next breath, he said Stott was dead wrong on hell, and that it was troubling. I remember at least 2 other professors saying similar things, specifically about Stott and his annihilationism.

I’m well over my word limit, but another example: N. T. Wright. Piper wrote a whole book against his New Perspective on Paul. The young Reformed crowd is largely dead set against the New Perspective, while many others take it as settled fact. If Reformed guys could only see black & white, one place where you’d definitely expect to see Wright on the black list would be my seminary. But the short take we were given was “He’s very helpful on many things; we have some disagreements with him on justification.” (Similarly, Piper’s interaction with him in The Future of Justification is thoughtful and courteous, appreciating some of his insights.)

 

So, no, we Reformed guys are not afraid to disagree with writers we love. What’s the difference between Stott or Lewis being wrong on hell and Bell being wrong on hell? With Stott and Lewis, it’s a flaw in an otherwise reliable guide. With Bell, it’s one more step on a bad trajectory.

Lessons learned

A new category. (All of you use my categories for quick references all the time, right?) First entry:

Just because things are boring doesn’t mean they’re not important.

Memo to Christian artists

If people have been singing a song for a few hundred years, chances are your edit isn’t going to make it better.

Mike Kruger Dismantles Bart Ehrman

Read my professor/pastor/mentor/friend Mike Kruger’s review of the latest book from the predictable-but-always-available-for-an-NPR-interview Bart Ehrman.

Ehrman is chair of the Religious Studies department at UNC-Chapel Hill, and in odd-numbered years he tends to put out a book basically alleging that everything orthodox Christians believe is wrong. This year it’s Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don’t Know About Them).

***

UPDATE: More than one intelligent person hasn’t picked up on it, so I need to point out that I’m being sarcastic/ironic/less than serious in the following.

(Incidentally, In the process of making sure I got Ehrman’s title right for this post, I noticed this:

Bart D. Ehrman is the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He came to UNC in 1988, after four years of teaching at Rutgers University. At UNC he has served as both the Director of Graduate Studies and the Chair of the Department of Religious Studies.

This is the most confusing thing I’ve ever seen. Which is it? Is he a Distinguished Professor, or is he the department chair? Or is he head of Graduate Studies? We’re obviously looking at a conglomeration of at least 3 original sources, all of which had differing– and mutually exclusive– views of Ehrman’s job. Someone doesn’t want us to know the truth.

Moreover, if Ehrman can’t even get his own story straight, why are we supposed to trust that whatever he says about the Bible is right?)

New sermon audio

In July I preached on Romans 15:14-33 at our home church, Uptown Church in Charlotte. I got this text because we were in a series on Romans, but it turned out to be a great missionary passage. Right click & “save as” to download:

Where No Man Has Gone Before: Paul’s Missionary Vision

Ordination Vows

On August 16, I was ordained as a Teaching Elder and Evangelist in the PCA. (Pictures, video, details over at the family blog.)

Far from a mere formality, this worship service involved me taking vows that bind me for life– not unlike those I made almost seven years ago before God to Melissa. I plan to reread them often to remind myself of my calling from God, my obligation to keep my word, and my accountability to my brothers in the Lord. Following are the vows I took, with a couple of explanatory comments.

Do you believe the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, as originally given, to be the inerrant Word of God, the only infallible rule of faith and practice? Since our denomination has a confession, it’s important to show that Scripture, not the Confession, is our ultimate standard.

Do you sincerely receive and adopt the Confession of Faith and the Catechisms of this Church, as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures; and do you further promise that if at any time you find yourself out of accord with any of the fundamentals of this system of doctrine, you will on your own initiative, make known to your Presbytery the change which has taken place in your views since the assumption of this ordination vow? This one makes a couple of points:

  1. I agree that the Westminster Confession of Faith contains the system of doctrine taught in Scripture. Again, the authority is Scripture, not the Confession. Incidentally, this is why it matters when a Presbyterian minister teaches something out of accord with WCF: not because WCF has the same authority as Scripture, but because the minister has taken an oath affirming WCF as an accurate summary of Scripture.
  2. If my view changes (acknowledging that it could, as I’m bound by Scripture), I have the responsibility to report that to my presbytery so they can determine what the change means for my continued ministry. This applies only to the fundamentals of that system of doctrine.

Do you approve of the form of government and discipline of the Presbyterian Church in America, in conformity with the general principles of Biblical polity? I like this one because it doesn’t claim that the PCA has the only legit form of church government, only that I approve of it, and that it’s in line with the general principles of Biblical polity.

Do you promise subjection to your brethren in the Lord? This is because Presbyterian government is based on the plurality of elders. Each individual is accountable to the body as a whole.

Have you been induced, as far as you know your own heart, to seek the office of the holy ministry from love to God and a sincere desire to promote His glory in the Gospel of His Son? This one is a big deal. I thought about it a lot.

Do you promise to be zealous and faithful in maintaining the truths of the Gospel and the purity and peace and unity of the Church, whatever persecution or opposition may arise unto you on that account? Also a big deal. I now have a sworn responsibility, as a Christian and as a pastor, to preach the Word faithfully no matter what happens.

Do you engage to be faithful and diligent in the exercise of all your duties as a Christian and a minister of the Gospel, whether personal or relational, private or public; and to endeavor by the grace of God to adorn the profession of the Gospel in your manner of life, and to walk with exemplary piety before the flock of which God shall make you overseer?

Do you now undertake the work of an evangelist, and do you promise, in reliance on God for strength, to be faithful in the discharge of all the duties incumbent on you as a minister of the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ? PCA trivia: Being ordained as an evangelist means that I’m not taking a charge at a particular PCA church, but am being sent outside the bounds of the presbytery (all the elders in a given geographic region) as a missionary. Otherwise question 8 would bind me to take charge of a specific church and keep the terms of the call they had offered me. As it is, it’s more broad, since the circumstances vary pretty widely for missionaries.

Sermon audio available

The sermon I preached at Uptown Church last week is available for download (right-click & “save as”): “Where No Man Has Gone Before: Paul’s Missionary Vision (Rom 15:14-33)”.