Theocentricity in Biblical Theology: A Short Essay on Finding Unity in the Diversity of Scripture

The long, complicated, and contentious history of biblical theology shows that the entire field once needed a savior.[1] Mercifully, one came along a few decades ago, though it had been hiding in plain sight for more than two millennia. The knight in shining armor turned out to be the Bible itself, now released from the shroud of higher criticism, yet still bearing a few scars from the battle. More specifically, it was the supernatural worldview shared by each of the biblical authors as they penned their compositions that finally rolled away the stone. For all the diversity inherent in Scripture, it is the biblical writers’ shared philosophy of life—their overarching conception of reality—that holds together the Bible’s collective witness across the generations. As Thiselton writes, “Continuities within the biblical writings do not exclude diversity, but they witness to monotheism rather than polytheism. To focus piecemeal only on atomistic textual units . . . is to miss the transcendent dimension of the whole.”[2] The biblical authors would agree; the God about whom they wrote was—and still is—transcendent. Therefore, it is not enough for preachers to see the “big idea” of a single text; we must also see the “Big Story” of the entire Bible.[3]

Such a claim implies that Scripture is not merely an ancient record of religious beliefs or a catalog of profound spiritual experiences in response to divine revelation outside itself, though it certainly contains such elements. Scripture itself is divine revelation.[4] The books of the Bible were written by believers—individuals embracing a theistic worldview—precisely because they had encountered the living God who moved them to write what he had deigned to show them (cf. 2 Pet 1:21). To those writers, God was the self-existent creator of the universe, and he personally involved himself in the affairs of men and women whom he created and rescued from folly. The biblical authors’ conviction was that God unveiled himself in history, documenting for posterity his unfolding revelation over time via the apostles, prophets, and evangelists in texts that would eventually comprise the canon. Wherever the authors’ perspectives on reality may have diverged across the full sweep of biblical history, their perspectives on ultimate reality converged without hesitation or deviation: God lives, God loves, God speaks, God acts, and God makes himself known in the world—fully and finally through his anointed one, the promised messiah. As such, their worldview was deeply theological from start to finish. Theirs was a theocentric orientation. 

Now, there is a sense in which appealing to the Bible for its own authority is a kind of circular argument. That, however, does not make invalid. As Grudem notes, “All arguments for an absolute authority must ultimately appeal to that authority for proof; otherwise the authority would not be an absolute or highest authority. This problem is not unique to the Christian who is arguing for the authority of the Bible. Everyone either implicitly or explicitly uses some kind of circular argument when defending his or her ultimate authority for belief.”[5] Grudem offers the following four claims where a similar dynamic is at play: (1) “My reason is my ultimate authority because it seems reasonable to me to make it so”; (2) “Logical consistency is my ultimate authority because it is logical to make it so”; (3) “The findings of human sensory experiences are the ultimate authority for discovering what is real and what is not, because our human senses have never discovered anything else: thus, human sense experience tells me that my principle is true.”; (4) “I know there can be no ultimate authority because I do not know of any such ultimate authority.” In all of these arguments for an ultimate standard of truth, an absolute authority for what to believe, there is an element of circularity involved.[6]

Issues of self-authentication aside, the view advocated here is one of taking the Bible on its own terms, respecting its own supernatural worldview orientation. For interpreters today to ignore the biblical writers’ conception of reality, or even to grant it for the sake of argument while personally dismissing it as primitive, naïve, or wrongheaded, is potentially to misperceive the gravity and gladness of what those authors sought to communicate, even in the very process of analyzing their work. In my own ministries, I use a theocentric approach to biblical theology because it aligns with the worldview of the biblical writers themselves. That is, I start where they started—with God at the center—and I remain open to the univocal worldview that undergirds the diversities they present throughout the canon. Indeed, only a supernatural conception of reality can produce a vibrant biblical theology that serves the church rather than undermines its confessions. Such a theology must be equipped to deal with the witness of Scripture on its own terms, accommodate the church’s longstanding faith tradition and experiences of God, and allow for the possibility of people today encountering that same God through what he moved his people to enscripturate. As such, evangelical pastor-scholars take as their authority in ministry what God has spoken supremely through his living Word, Jesus Christ, as revealed to us in his written Word, the sixty-six books of the Protestant Bible. Such a view requires us to strive to engage in a proper handling of both the Old and New Testament Scriptures, which contain a treasure trove of insights about God and his ways. When we rightly hear the human author who composed the text, we ultimately hear the divine Author who inspired the text. 

Of course, there is no shortage of writers today who adopt a critical view toward the text, but it is beyond the scope of this paper to analyze them. It is enough for me to briefly state and defend my contention that an attitude of openness is preferable to a disposition of doubt when it comes to the canon. Stuhlmacher advocates a “hermeneutic of consent” (as opposed to a “hermeneutic of suspicion”) with respect to the biblical texts, along with an attitude of genuine “receptivity” toward their claims.[7] He does so as a result of his long and sophisticated interaction with the German school of higher criticism and its deleterious effects on the church. While not abandoning the historical-critical method entirely, Stuhlmacher encourages a more thorough examination of its rationalistic assumptions, which are at odds with those of the biblical writers. He is also concerned about the ethical responsibilities associated with biblical interpretation. Handling a biblical text has moral connotations, he says.[8] The locus of meaning cannot be arrogated by the reader alone or become the exclusive domain of higher criticism. The Bible is neither a spiritual ink blot for divination nor an academic code for cracking.

While the claims of higher criticism should always be heard, those claims need not go unchallenged as if they were settled law in every jurisdiction where biblical theology is done. As even Barr noted two decades ago, “A certain weariness with historical criticism has been an important part of the reaction which produced biblical theology in its twentieth-century form.”[9] By shedding the hermeneutics of suspicion in the 21st century, biblical theology has become even more robust.[10] What was long seen as a severe criticism leveled at the biblical writers—that they were driven in their composition by an underlying theological agenda (i.e., a “bias”)—is actually a compelling rationale for pursuing a truly biblical theology. If we start from the vantage point of accepting the biblical record as an account of what actually happened in history, we can then produce a biblical theology that the biblical writers would not only recognize but wholeheartedly embrace. Fueled by a theocentric approach to both worldview and Scripture, biblical interpretation—and the biblical theology that derives from it—can keep pulsating with life. 

One development that has sucked the life out of biblical theology over the last three hundred years is the Graf-Wellhausen (JEPD) Documentary Hypothesis and its various descendants—views that claim the Torah assumed its present shape not from the hand of Moses and his contemporary aids, but from multiple contradictory sources that were compiled and redacted over the centuries in a developmental (and therefore uninspired) fashion. Because of my work under Drs. Buckwalter and Dorsey, and my own work on biblical literary structure since Dorsey’s passing, I view all such theories of origins with suspicion, giving the benefit of the doubt to the biblical text as we now have it.[11] Indeed, I give literary criticism priority because it often serves as a better tool for rationalizing a text’s formation and, more importantly, uncovering an author’s intended meaning, whatever its oral pre-history may have been. While the arguments of source criticism should be heard and evaluated on a case-by-case basis, the fact remains that the extant biblical manuscripts have been found largely intact, so the textual “fossil record” does not support a “divergent evolution” model of canonical development. 

Applying the methods of source criticism to, say, The Lord of the Rings, may well lead to the hypothesis that multiple authors from successive generations synthesized various traditions with conflicting storylines. After all, Aragorn, like Yahweh, goes by many names throughout the epic tale, including Strider (S), Estel (E), Thorongil (T), the Dúnadan (D), and several others. Moreover, the novel has been criticized for its plot holes, minutiae, violence, racism, lapses in logic, and other missteps, not unlike the charges often leveled against the Hebrew Bible. One can only imagine Tolkien’s response to such an analysis of his work.[12] Moreover, as Kaiser rightly insists: “A good exegete will have nothing to do with hypothetical sources which have never materialized in any form. These sources are deductively ‘authenticated’ and then inductively ‘proven’ from the same document in what becomes a most vicious circle. What you put in, you get out.”[13] Rather, the burden of proof should fall on source critics who must reconcile the teleological nature of biblical texts with an evolutionary model of their origin. The explanatory power of such models is often insufficient to account for the literary artistry and intentional patterning we now know permeate the Hebrew Bible (and even the New Testament). In the end, literary criticism may not answer every question we have about the compositional history of a particular passage, but granting this tool priority over source criticism can help reduce the endless speculation and frustration inherent in the quest for textual origins, not to mention the unnecessary cynicism that evolutionary models often display toward the final form of biblical texts. The more exquisite a block of biblical text, the less likely it is that many hands contributed to its final form in a complex redactional process spanning the centuries. As in the kitchen, so in the scriptorium: too many hands spoil the broth.

One way to test the legitimacy of higher criticism’s rationalistic assumptions is to apply both a naturalistic hermeneutic and a theocentric hermeneutic to a particular biblical phenomenon and then determine which approach better accounts for the evidence. For example, does the Israelite religion as portrayed in the Old Testament mirror the faith—or even borrow from the faith—of its ancient Near Eastern neighbors, or is it unique and exceptional as it is? A naturalistic hermeneutic tends toward the former because of anti-supernatural presuppositions as well as thematic parallels found in correspondent literature. But a solid case can be made for the latter. Indeed, the Bible everywhere affirms Israel’s uniqueness, and its historical claims are not easily divorced from its theological claims. To mythologize the history is to neuter the theology. Indeed, a naturalistic worldview has to dismiss divine revelation as a legitimate source of knowledge because it presupposes a world beyond the senses and the existence of a realm that one cannot see or control. It is a fully supernatural, theocentric realm, so it is rejected out of hand by historical criticism. Yet a theocentric approach to Old Testament texts actually strengthens the claim to historicity, affirming Israel’s uniqueness and distinction. As Oswalt argues:

When we ask the Israelites where they came up with these fantastic concepts, they tell us they did not ‘come up’ with them. They tell us that God broke in upon their lives and dragged them kicking and screaming into these understandings. They tell us that they did their best to get away from him, but that he would not let them go. He kept obtruding himself into their lives in the most uncomfortable ways. If that report is not true, we are at a loss to explain where the fundamentally different understandings of life in the Old Testament came from.”[14]

Oswalt’s observation is perceptive. To strip the biblical world of its theocentric orientation is to be left mystified by the sociology that remains. The community’s rich theology is boiled off by skepticism, leaving only a historical stain at the bottom of the cup. But the sparse residue lacks sufficient explanatory power to account for the historical, theological, and textual phenomena. No one ever would have fabricated the theology that Israel embraced, as it placed them too far out of step with the rest of the ancient Near East—especially when it came to the prohibition of idols, the observance of Sabbath, the wearing of tassels, and the keeping of laws protecting widows, orphans, immigrants, and slaves. The Israelites were a strange and quirky people in the midst of a dark and hostile world. It was only their submission to divine revelation and their sense of identity as God’s covenant people that kept them willing to remain strange. Even then, their drift toward syncretism was a constant temptation. As Oswalt points out, much of their history involved a fair amount of “kicking and screaming” against the God who had graciously revealed himself to them. 

Parallels in correspondent literature can be explained in other ways besides mirroring or borrowing. Indeed, one of the most striking features about correspondent literature is the myriad points of contrast not comparison, as if the biblical writers sought to critique or parody much of that literature. Yahweh feeds his people, not vice versa. Yahweh clothes his people, not vice versa. Yahweh illuminates his people, not vice versa. Yahweh leads his people, not vice versa. Yahweh gives rest to his people, not vice versa. Yahweh helps his people, not vice versa. Most of what we read in the Torah reverses a vast array of ancient Near Eastern conceptions of the divine, standing many of those ideas completely on their head. Quite significantly, to discover something about the character of God in an Old Testament text is to discover something about the character of Christ as well, for “in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (Col 1:19), and “he is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (Heb 1:3a). For the Christian interpreter, then, theocentricity leads naturally to Christocentricity; they are not mutually exclusive considerations. When I come to the end of my interpretive work on an Old Testament passage, I should be able to say, “Like Father, like Son. I can see how the God who inspired this text is the same God who took on flesh in Christ.” 

That said, biblical theology is more than a mere academic discipline; it is a reconstruction of ancient thought patterns with crucial spiritual implications for today. Failure to attend to the biblical authors’ theological interpretation of God’s acts in history is to stop short of biblical interpretation itself, for such an approach either avoids or minimizes the impetus behind their rationale for writing in the first place. Consequently, simply analyzing biblical texts is incomplete until a truly biblical theology emerges. As Rosner has said, “No one would dispute the legitimacy of studying Shakespeare’s plays for their artistry and language, or to consider the evidence they provide of the social mores or political conventions of their day, or to trace their impact on the history of literature and ideas. But to do only this is by no means to engage in the interpretation of Shakespeare. The same principle applies to the Bible.”[15] In Christian terms, one could likewise say it is possible to “study” Jesus without actually following him, but the results would be both intellectually and spiritually deficient (cf. e.g., Luke 7:36-50; John 5:39-40). I must always guard against this drift into theological intellectualism. Academizing the faith is no guarantee of spiritual maturity. 

In the end, it is only a theocentric approach that enables the church to hear God’s voice in Scripture and respond with joyful obedience. The hermeneutic of suspicion is a muzzle to that voice, for it concludes that no such voice exists. A hermeneutic of consent, on the other hand, is a megaphone to that voice, for it recognizes that God is still speaking today by his Spirit through his Word. God has revived biblical theology in our day, and we are enjoying the fruits of it.

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[1] For a brief overview of the consternated history of biblical theology, see, e.g., Charles H. H. Scobie, “History of Biblical Theology” in New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, eds. T. Desmond Alexander and Brian S. Rosner (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2000), 11-20; James K. Mead, Biblical Theology: Issues, Methods, and Themes (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2007), 13-59; and Edward W. Klink III and Darian R. Lockett, Understanding Biblical Theology: A Comparison of Theory and Practice (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), 14-17.

[2] Anthony C. Thiselton, “Introduction” in Canon and Biblical Interpretation, Scripture & Hermeneutics Series, vol. 7, eds. Craig Bartholomew, Scott Hahn, Robin Parry, Christopher Seitz, and Al Wolters, eds., (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006), 5.

[3] The slogan of one famous preaching ministry today is, “Unleashing God’s truth one verse at a time.” A better approach might be, “Unleashing God’s heart one story at a time.”

[4] See John S. Sailhamer, Introduction to Old Testament Theology: A Canonical Approach (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), 13-15.

[5] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Academic, 2020), 68-69.

[6] Ibid.

[7] See Peter Stuhlmacher, Historical Criticism and Theological Interpretation of Scripture: Toward a Hermeneutics of Consent, trans. Roy A. Harrisville (London: S.P.C.K., 1979), 83, 90.

[8] Ibid.

[9] James Barr, The Concept of Biblical Theology: An Old Testament Perspective (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1999), 8.

[10] Mead writes, “The field of biblical theology has entered a new century with a tremendous surge of interest and vitality. Scholars and students from many and diverse communities are reading the Bible theologically, seeking to understand its message and shape the methods whereby we approach the Bible.” See Mead, Biblical Theology, vii.

[11] Two can play the suspicion game. Those of us with a high view of Scripture can be provocateurs, too.

[12] Analogy first suggested to this author by Paul Elliott, Concordia University Irvine, via personal conversations with Phil and Sarah Bollinger.

[13] Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Toward an Exegetical Theology: Biblical Exegesis for Preaching and Teaching (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1981), 64.

[14] John N. Oswalt, The Bible among the Myths: Unique Revelation or Just Ancient Literature? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), 17.

[15] Brian S. Rosner, “Biblical Theology” in New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, eds. T. Desmond Alexander and Brian S. Rosner (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2000), 4. Emphasis mine.

Happy Taste Buds at Christmas

I may be rolling into the New Year. My sister-in-law, who’s an expert baker, brought a trove of goodies to our house for the Christmas break. Alas, my tongue is craving more than my stomach can handle. Among her delectable treats are:

  • Pizzelles
  • Pinwheel Snickerdoodles
  • Shortbread Cookies
  • Buckeyes
  • Pecan Tassies
  • Peanut Butter Cookies
  • Yule Log Cake Roll
  • Chocolate Covered Pretzel Sticks
  • Butterscotch Smoothies
  • Other Assorted Cookies

Joan is a high-power exec at her company, so it’s a wonder she has the time to do all this work. And not just do it but do it well. Her husband John is an expert bread maker and a boss at the grill. So, I’m raising the white flag today because I can’t come close to competing with these skills. (Not that this is a competition.) 

I will say, however, that my peanut butter blossoms—topped with Wilbur buds—are right up there in taste. And, as I like to say: Chocolate is proof of God’s existence. Peanut butter is proof of God’s power. And the two together are proof of God’s goodness.

All of this divinity, however, is giving me a sugar headache!

The Danger of Playing God (James 4:11-17)

The expression “messiah complex” is not a clinical diagnosis, but its symptoms closely resemble those found in individuals suffering from delusions of grandeur. It’s a real and documented condition that many unfortunate individuals have endured over the years. But mentally healthy people can be just as delusional—foolishly living our lives as if we were God himself. We would never come right out and say that, but we sure do act it sometimes. And we do so by granting ourselves powers that only God himself has. According to James 4:11-17, we tend to play God by: (1) claiming to know what’s in other people’s hearts; and (2) claiming to know what’s in our own future. 

Specifically, we recklessly slander and judge other people, says James, and we foolishly practice the illusion of “life control” for ourselves. But James reminds us—and the whole world learned firsthand in the chaotic year that was 2020—that we do not know the future. Rather, we are called to live life and make decisions in line with God’s will. Indeed, James warns us here that playing God is a dangerous game that nobody wins. The idea of “giving God control” of our lives is little more than a delusion. We do well to remember that we never actually had control in the first place. The only thing we can do, then, is give God our fear of his control over our lives. 

Sermon Resources

Contact This New Life directly for the sermon audio file.

A Couple of Gift Pics

I mentioned yesterday that I got way too many gifts for Christmas—all of them special and much appreciated—with two from my kids that truly captured my heart. Here are snaps of those two gifts.

The wooden Phillies mug on the right is made in the shape of—and out of the same material as—an MLB bat. It’s so tall I needed a chopstick to stir the creamer! Drew has a way of getting us the most unique gifts—the kinds of things we would never buy for ourselves but bring a smile to our hearts when he gives them.

My daughter and son-in-law choked me up with a canvas made on their cricut that says, “Fall on your knees, Oh hear the angel voices, Oh night divine, Oh night when Christ was born,” a line from my mom’s favorite Christmas carol, “O Holy Night,” the same one we were singing to her when she passed away. Next year, Lord willing, I’ll write more about that carol and its history. It was an awful lot of work for Bethany and Micah to put this together.

It was a memorable day. (We even had a bit of snow for a few hours!) The greatest gift of course, was the child in the manger. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.”

UPDATE: I forgot to mention that Andrew also made each of our likenesses into a 3D-printed comic figure. (I am Batman, haha!) We’re still waiting for the USPS to deliver them, but we have printouts of what they will look like. How in the world did I get such creative kids?

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And He Is in the Manger Now

I hope your Christmas was as delightful as ours. The morning was quite leisurely—just hanging out in our pajamas and waiting for our daughter and her husband to arrive. Our son stayed over night last night after the Christmas Eve service, and we watched It’s a Wonderful Life together before going to bed. He and I had wonderful conversations and plenty of laughs this morning.

That was after I got up at 4:30 a.m. to place baby Jesus in the manger. Knowing of our tradition, my son-in-law last night placed Mary in a supine position (unbeknownst to me) to simulate her posture in labor. I chuckled when I saw it this morning, but I wasn’t sure at that point who the culprit was. I found out later it was Micah. I told him that Mary probably delivered her child on a birthing stool while holding onto an overhead rope. He said he’ll try to simulate that next year, and we’re all eager to see what he comes up with!

I made hot cinnamon rolls for breakfast, and we had a special blend of Brazilian coffee to help wake up. I then set out all the Christmas candy and goodies we’ll be grazing on over the next several days when the out-of-town family members arrive tomorrow. Many of these treats were selected because they’re the same kinds we had in my childood:

Milk and dark choloclate Wilbur buds; milk and dark choloclate covered pretzels; red and green Hershey kisses; red and green M&Ms; red and green peanut butter cups; chocolate filled straws; nonpareils; and choclate-mint truffles. The cookie collection includes peanut butter blossoms, sugar cutouts, and chocolate chips.

Before we opened our gifts, I read the story of the Magi from Matthew 2. I got a bit emotional—as I do almost every year—because I was reading from the Bible that belonged to my dearly departed father-in-law, who was also a pastor. We then gathered around the manger to remember Emmanuel, “God with us.” After that, the kids served as elves and distributed the gifts.

There are far too many presents to mention here, but I’ll note two from the kids that captured my heart. First, my son gave me an incredibly unique wooden Phillies mug—made out of an actual bat! I can’t wait to try it tomorrow morning! My daughter and son-in-law made me a gift that got me super choked up. It’s a cricut canvas that says, “Fall on your knees, O hear the angel voices.” That’s a line from the hauntingly beautiful Christmas carol “O Holy Night,” the same one we were singing to my mom when she passed away. 

We then had Christmas dinner, which consisted of oven-baked turkey, Pennsylvania Dutch potato filling, green beans, dried (Cope’s) corn, salad, crescent rolls, apple pie, and sparkling cider. All of us are stuffed. And grateful.

We’re now watching a movie as the day winds down. It was Micah’s turn to make the selction this year, and he chose Elf, which is one of his favorites.

I’m so glad we don’t live in a world where it’s “always winter and never Christmas,” to borrow a phrase from C. S. Lewis. Rather, the manger is full. And so are our hearts. 

Thank you, Jesus.

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“Big Enough to Be Small” (Philippians 2:5-11)

People don’t usually look for ways to get demoted. They try to go up the ladder of success not down. But if the eternal Son of God had a birthday on that first Christmas, it was a voluntary choice for demotion. It was the ultimate pay cut. It was the ultimate story of riches to rags. And he did it willingly. The Creator willingly became part of his creation. The Master Artist willingly became part of his painting. The Eternal One willingly became part history and subject to time. The One who is called in John’s gospel “the Light” took off his robe of light and wrapped himself in skin, winding up in Bethlehem’s manger two thousand years ago. The Apostle Paul’s Carmen Christi (“Hymn to Christ”) in Philippians 2:5-11 describes just how low he went. And then how high. It’s a summary of his full journey. 

The Swiss theologian Emil Bruner was the first to suggest that we can represent this three-fold movement of our Lord’s ministry using the mathematical formula of a parabola (y = x2), a journey from glory to humiliation, and back to glory again. This Christmas Eve sermon focuses on the first part of Jesus’ parabola. “For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven.” It’s hard to get our minds around such a mystery. Deity in diapers? Elohim with elbows and eyebrows? How can this be?  T. S. Eliot described the newborn Christ as “the word within a word, unable to speak a word.” In Disney’s Aladdin, Genie (Robin Williams) described his own spatial paradox like this: “Cosmic, phenomenal power, itty bitty living space!” That was even more true of Jesus! He was big enough to be small. Indeed, he made the crucial decision to have a birthday in Bethlehem, leaving the splendors of heaven to be with us in our distress. 

After his atoning death on the cross, God the Son rose from the dead to give his people a “new birth” day. “Born to raise the sons of earth. Born to give them second birth.” Indeed, God wanted so much for us to become part of his family that he became part of ours. And now he lives inside his people by the Holy Spirit. Lest you think you’re not worthy to have Christ come and live inside of you, consider all the dark and dreadful places he’s already been, all the places he’s already chosen to go: The dark womb of a teenager. The rough manger of Bethlehem. The red-light district of Nazareth. The corrupt temple in Jerusalem. The flogging post of a Roman torture yard. The bloody cross of Mount Calvary. The dark, damp ledge of the garden tomb. Do you think Jesus could be surprised by any dirt or darkness he might find in your in your own heart? No—that dirt and darkness is precisely why he came. “Call his name Jesus, for he shall save his people from their sins.” Give him your sin, and he will give you his divine life. Merry Christmas.

Sermon Resources

Contact This New Life directly for the sermon audio file.

God Has Landed: Harry Potter and Jesus

God has landed! Right in a manger. Right on top of cow spit and barnyard bacteria. Jesus came a long way to save us. Two thousand years ago, the eternal Son of God stepped across the stars of the universe to become a zygote in the womb of the Virgin Mary. And then he was born as one of us. “Manhood and deity in perfect harmony—the Man who is God,” wrote Graham Kendrick. 

Christmas, then, is the ultimate display of meekness and majesty in one person. “Glory to God in the highest,” was the angelic response. They easily could have said, “Glory to God in lowest,” too. God is with us now in the person of Jesus Christ. On earth.

Magi from the east were among the first to welcome him. Following the natal star, they set out on a journey to find the newborn king. I have a hunch it was more than curiosity that drew this caravan of dignitaries and polymaths to Jesus. It was God himself. They saw him at work in the sky—speaking their language—and they wanted to go meet with him. 

No doubt they connected the Hebrew prophecies left in their own towns during Israel’s exile with the celestial phenomenon they were observing. God is beautifully sneaky that way. We often hear it said, “Wise men still seek him,” but it was God who was seeking them. Sometimes he stirs things up, even to the point of rearranging his universe because he has something vitally important to tell us. 

Are we listening? 

The Magi were listening, and that’s why they traveled hundreds of miles across the desert to go see the newborn Christ. They were men of wisdom and learning. They were into math, medicine, astronomy, and human nature. Some of them were superstitious. We get our word “magic” from their title. Call them “wizards” if you like. It was the cast of Harry Potter who came to see Jesus.

For the most part, Magi just wanted to know the Power behind the universe. They pondered the great questions of life: “Where did we come from? Why are we here? Where are we going? Why is there something rather than nothing?” And because the Magi were so into the stars, God put a fantastic light in the sky on that first Christmas to get their attention—a star unlike anything else they had ever seen before. 

We’re fascinated by the natal star, but a good sign always points away from itself to something else, so Matthew doesn’t go into detail about it. Besides, it’s not the stars that direct the course of history, but the Maker of the stars. He’s the director of the show. And it’s a transformational show for hungry souls on a quest for spiritual reality. Indeed, God tends to meet people at the level of their deepest longings. G. K. Chesterton put it like this: 

Men are homesick in their homes 
And strangers under the sun…
But our homes are under miraculous skies
Where Christmas was begun.

If the Magi teach us anything, it’s that it’s never enough for us to just be amazed at the wonders of God; we have to set out on the journey and follow him. Our calling is not just to stand in awe of creation but to get to know the Creator. 

God wants everyone to come and worship his Son. He wants you to worship his Son.

Even if you’re a wizard.

Merry Christmas from This New Life. May God richly bless you this day and always. Feel free to contact me if you’d like to know more about who Jesus is and how you can have a personal relationship with him.

Christmas Bonus. My son Andrew took Coverton’s Christmas remake of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and aligned it with scenes from the 2014 Son of God series. We showed it last night at the Christmas Eve service. The finished product is quite impactful. (Thanks, Drew!) Enjoy!

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O Holy Night: Candlelight Service Tonight at 7:00 p.m.

Our Christmas Eve candlelight service will be held live tonight at 7:00 p.m., Thursday, December 24, 2020, at Evangelical Seminary in Myerstown. The worship packet and sermon outline are attached below for those who will be live streaming the service by Zoom. Contact us if you need a link.

Whether you join us on ground or online, I hope you will be able to participate in this most beautiful service of the church year. Featuring traditional Christmas carols, Scripture readings, and candle lighting, this worship experience will last about 75 minutes and be held at:

Dech Chapel
Evangelical Seminary
121 S. College Street
Myerstown, Pennsylvania 17067

Plenty of parking is available around the building and in the student parking lot. Attendees who are less ambulatory may use the smaller faculty lot along Route 501. The ground floor elevator can then be taken to the chapel, which is located on the first floor. 

We ask that on-ground participants wear masks and practice social distancing while on site. Every other pew will be roped off to assist us in spreading out across the sanctuary.

Christmas Eve 2020: ‘She’s Still the Same Girl’

“It’s the most wonderful time of the year.” And the most frazzled, too! But it’s a good frazzle. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. Final preparations are now being made in the sanctuary and on the sermon for the candlelight service tonight at church. We’ll be on-ground and online this year because of the virus.

Final cleaning and food preparation is also taking place in our home, as we’ll be having more guests than we did for Thanksgiving. With my mother-in-law’s cognition declining, her kids and grandkids want to gather while she still knows who they are. It’s a good reminder for all of us to live life to the fullest while we have a life to live.

Lorena is a godly woman, and she’s most like herself when she prays. I’ve asked her several times not to say, “Amen” so we can all enjoy “the old her” longer. But she forgets and says, “Amen,” anyway! 

Lorena Moore, holding the Christmas flowers she just received from her brother Tony, who lives in California.

The “new her” is still her, and we seek to honor her for who she is. God’s entire point in giving the fifth commandment through Moses was so Israel would be a good place for people to grow old. Our calling is now to live out that same vision for Lorena.

It’s often challenging (e.g., answering the same question dozens of times; adding an hour or two to cookie baking, etc.), but the Golden Rule helps keep us on track. I might be old some day, too, so I need to treat her the same way I would want to be treated if I were in a similar situation. Most of the time that approach works well, but I have lost my patience a few times. Thank God for the Savior, whose birth we celebrate tonight and tomorrow.

I also think of that poignant Twila Paris song, “Same Girl” in regard to Lorena. It captures well how I want to regard her, even today.

Look behind the lines till you remember
She’s still the same girl

So, there are lots of emotions swirling around today. There’s the awe and wonder of the incarnation. There’s the “thrill of hope” in the salvation that Jesus brings. There’s the joy and laughter of extended family members gathering to celebrate. There’s the pain and disappointment of suffering and loss. 

And then, of course, there’s a lot of nostalgia this time of year, too. Emotional triggers can come in the form of seeing old Christmas decorations, hearing old Christmas songs, writing out new Christmas cards, and smelling great Christmas recipes we don’t make the rest of the year.

One trigger for me is an old Santa pin that my siblings and I used to wear this time of year. You could pull a string, and his red nose would light up. It’s a silly thing, really. A worthless trinket. But it touches something inside me, although I’m not exactly sure what.

The Santa pin on the left is my original—now well worn and aged. The one on the right is a re-make. 

Maybe it’s the extra love we felt as kids at Christmas. Dad was a little nicer at that time, and mom was a pargon of positivity. We could also stay up later and eat more junk food. And, of course, we got a few gifts. What’s not to like about Christmas when you’re a kid?

In any event, I’ve met quite a few folks who had these pins growing up, and they always brighten up when they talk about them. They’re usually connected to pleasant memories “of Christmas long, long ago.” (We’re all getting older, aren’t we?)

So, yes, it’s the most wonderful time of the year—even when life is hard. “For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.”

I can hardly wait to fall on my knees tonight.

Picture with me if you can
A little girl in a younger land
Running, playing, laughing
Growing stronger
Now the aging limbs have failed
And the rosy cheeks are paled
Look behind the lines till you remember

She’s still the same girl
Flying down the hill
She’s still the same girl
Memories vivid still
Listen to her story
And her eyes will glow
She’s still the same girl
And she needs you so

Picture with me if you will
A long white dress and a wedding veil
Two young dreamers pledge their love together
Now her lifelong friend is gone
And she spends her days alone
Look behind the lines till you remember

She’s still the same girl
Walking down the aisle
She’s still the same girl
With the shining smile
Listen to her story
And her eyes will glow
She’s still the same girl

Same girl
She’s still the same girl
Wiser for the years
She’s still the same girl
Stronger for the tears
Listen to her story
And your heart will glow
She’s still the same girl
And we need her so
She’s still the same girl
And she needs you so

Impossible Journey: Our Down-to-Earth God

From majesty to manger. Heaven to hay. Blessedness to Bethlehem. The eternal Christ came all the way down. The trip no doubt was long and difficult. In fact, it was impossible. An infinite journey by definition can never reach its destination. Yet Jesus entered our realm and arrived safely on that first Christmas Day. 

We call it the Incarnation—the enfleshment of God. “Remaining what he was, he became what he was not,” said Gregory of Nazianzus. “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see,” wrote Charles Wesley. “Hail th’incarnate Deity.” Theologians have tried to articulate it, but maybe it’s better left a mystery to be adored than a concept to be explained. 

After all, how could we ever fathom stepping out of eternity and entering into time? How could we ever comprehend coming from a place of pure light and entering into a womb of utter darkness? How could we ever wrap our minds around leaving the world of invisible spirit and entering into the world of visible flesh? Christmas is the profoundest of all God’s miracles.

Maybe a better question than how he did it is why he did it. Scripture gives us many answers to that question, so perhaps we can summarize them all like this: God wanted so much for us to become part of his family that he became part of ours. That’s why he took the impossible journey—for us.

Athanasius said of Christ, “He became what we are, so that he might make us what he is,” that is, children of God bearing the image of God in all of his beauty, truth, and goodness. Here. Now. On earth. Indeed, Jesus is our down-to-earth God.

Moreover, Jesus kept going lower and lower to serve us while he was here. Yes, he descended from heaven to earth in his incarnation. But then he descended to the lowest point of the earth in his baptism—the Jordan Rift Valley. Then he fell to his knees before the crucifixion to wash his disciples’ feet in the Upper Room and pray for strength in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Finally, he descended below the earth in his death and burial on our behalf. Love keeps going lower and lower to reach the lowest. Love bends down to lift up the fallen. 

In his book, Mortal Lessons, Dr. Richard Seltzer, a surgeon, tells of a poignant moment in the hospital when he caught a glimpse of this kind of love. It was a love that reoriented his entire life. He writes:

I stand by the bed where a young woman lies, her face postoperative, her mouth twisted in palsy, clownish. A tiny twig of the facial nerve—the one to the muscles of her mouth, has been severed, and she will be like this from now on. Oh, the surgeon had carefully followed the curve of her flesh; I promise you that. Nevertheless, to remove the tumor from her cheek, he had to cut that little nerve. 

“Will my mouth always be like this?” the woman asks. “Yes, it will always be so. The nerve has been cut.” She nods and is silent.

Her young husband is in the room, and he smiles, and he looks at his wife with a love so absolutely generous that it stuns the surgeon to silence. All at once, I know who he is, and I understand and instinctively lower my gaze, because one is not bold in an encounter with [such people]. The groom bends down to kiss her mouth. And I am so close that I can see how he twists his lips to accommodate hers.

Here is a groom not put off by his bride’s unfortunate distortion, but one who bends down to meet it, reassuring her of his abiding love. How much more does our heavenly groom do that for his people?

Two thousand years ago, Jesus bent all the way down to meet us where we are, kissing a broken planet disfigured by sin. He did so to reassure us of his abiding love.

Gregory was right. Remaining what he was, Jesus became what he was not. Knowing this, how could we ever remain what we are? 

Image Credits: shutter

Just between You and Meme (12.23.2020)

A few slices of wit and wisdom to enjoy or ponder.

Christmas Bonus

“Veni Redemptor Gentium” (“Come, Redeemer of the Nations”) is possibly the first Christmas hymn ever written. Others may have preceded it, but we have definitive provenance for this text. St. Ambrose of Milan wrote it in the 4th century. The current Wikipedia entry contains J. M. Neale’s brilliant translation.

Divine Hospitality: God at Home in a Fractured World

“Oh, there’s no place like home for the holidays.”
– Al Stillman

No doubt you’ve heard this line from the 1954 Christmas song by Al Stillman and Robert Allen: “Oh, there’s no place like home for the holidays.” It was covered most famously by Perry Como and later the Carpenters, and has remained a holiday favorite for nearly seven decades. But did you realize there’s good theology in its message? 

In the birth of Jesus, God made this fractured world his own home. Indeed, the incarnation of Christ was the ultimate display of divine hospitality. On that first Christmas, God set a table for broken people everywhere, inviting them to come feast at Bethlehem’s manger. And it’s an all you can eat buffet!

After all, as noted previously, this is the God of “immeasurably more” than we can ask or imagine. Jesus, the Living Bread, came down from heaven to nourish everyone starving for the love of God. (Quite significantly, Bethlehem means “house of bread.”) When Christ was here in the flesh…

  • His life showed us how to live. 
  • His death made us ready to die. 
  • His resurrection gave us new life—and the confidence that, in him, all will be well in the end. 

At the end of God’s cosmic story is a new heaven and new earth. Eden, our original home, will be restored—only better than before. All God’s people will finally be made whole (and holy) forever. No more tears. No more sorrow. No more pain. No more shattered dreams and broken relationships. No more deadly diseases and debilitating disappointments. No more night. God’s immeasurable love in Christ heals beyond our imagining and invites us to come home to stay. With him. Forever.

Through his Spirit living in us, Jesus is still at home with us today. That’s why believers are called to extend his hospitality to others in our day. We’re his hands and feet on planet earth. The Christian faith is an embodied faith; we seek to live what we proclaim, even though we fall short many times. We seek to live as “earthen vessels” containing the divine “treasure” (2 Cor 4:7).

That’s exactly what Mary was. She was the original host of God’s Christmas hospitality. For nine months she literally was the first earthly home that Jesus had. But how could she possibly host that which cannot be contained? Solomon had a similar question. “But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built!” (1 Kgs 8:27). And yet, the God of “immeasurably more” became “measurably less” at Christmas. He did dwell on earth—as a baby! 

It’s hard to get our minds around such a mystery. Deity in diapers? Elohim with elbows and eyebrows? How can this be? T. S. Eliot described the newborn Christ as “the word within a word, unable to speak a word.” In Disney’s Aladdin, Genie (Robin Williams) described his own spatial paradox like this: “Cosmic, phenomenal power, itty bitty living space!” That was even more true of Jesus. He left the splendors of heaven to be with us in our distress—at great cost to himself. Christmas, then, was the ultimate transition—divine to human, heaven to earth, riches to rags, power to powerlessness—all of it to invite us to our true home with God. 

As we celebrate God’s hospitality at Christmas, we can rightly sing, “For the holidays, you can’t beat home, sweet home.” That very impulse comes from the God who made us, and then became one of us in Christ.

So, welcome to Jesus.

And welcome home.

Image Credits: shutterstockcom;;;

This Year’s Christmas Cookie Adventure

After all these years, I’m still learning the secrets of baking. Not just the recipes, but the techniques as well—things like temperature, pressure, consistency, mixing, cooling, decorating, and so forth. Let’s just say I have a long way to go! Here are the “win, place, and show” awards for this year’s Christmas cookie adventure.

Win—Peanut Butter Blossoms

The best cookie this year turned out to be the peanut butter blossoms. They’re delicious! We used an online recipe this time around and deviated from the instructions only by putting Wilbur Buds on top of them instead of Hershey Kisses. Half got the dark chocolate buds, and half got the milk chocolate. Readers of TNL will know that I’ll be eating the dark chocolate ones first! Everything about this particular cookie—the look, smell, taste, and ease of preparation—was top notch.

Place—Sugar Cut Outs

The sugar cookies turned out to be wonderful this year, too. They’re just a whole lot of work. And, sheesh, the flour can wind up in the strangest places! With all the rolling, cutting, trimming, and re-rolling of excess dough, the process can get tiring after several hours. We used my Nana’s cookie cutters, which always puts a lump in my throat. They may be 60-70 years old by now, and they bring back a lot of beautiful memories. She was a gem of kindness, and I was always in awe of her baking skills. We put red and green sugar sprinkles on the cut outs. They’re fun to look at and fun to eat!

Show—Chocolate Chip Cookies

Oh, what a near disaster! The chilled dough seemed “spot on” in terms of consistency (and taste), but I must have botched the recipe somehow. The first tray didn’t bake correctly, leaving us with greasy blobs of unrecognizability all over the oven. (I now know what a pregnant amoeba looks like.) I semi-rescued the rest of the dough with added flour and baking soda, and the subsequent bakes were okay-ish. Still, I was frustrated. Chocolate chip cookies have never been a problem before. Ugh!

My frustration led to other miscues on my part (e.g., kitchen spills, misplaced utensils, etc.), which just made me more disappointed with myself. I was not at the top of my game for part of the night, so I never got around to whipping up the snickerdoodles. 

* – bottom lip out – *

The unseen benefit was the reminder—once again—of how much I need a Savior. Fortunately, we have one in Jesus. The cookies were made in his honor, anyway. Eating them this year will be a kind of communion with him. But most of them will be given away to the neighbors when we go Christmas caroling tonight.

Except the chocolate chip cookies. Those are staying here. They’re not ready for prime time.

But, hey, two out of three ain’t bad!