Shadows of the Cross, Part 2: The Ram in the Thicket (Genesis 22:1-19)

In watching Jesus carry the wood of the cross to the place of execution, Christians naturally think of the story of Abraham and Isaac in Genesis 22. God said to the patriarch, “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about.” Abraham obeyed God, and Isaac quietly carried the wood up the mountain, preparing to be slaughtered by his own father. 

In many ways, the story is disturbing, repugnant, and infuriating. We want to know what it was that drove Abraham up the mountain to take the life of his beloved son. We want to know why Isaac was so passive and compliant in the whole affair. And we want to know why God intervened at the last possible moment, possibly traumatizing Isaac even further. The entire episode is a bit more comprehensible when we understand that covenants often involved the exchange of firstborn sons. But sending Isaac to live in God’s house would necessitate his death. That’s hard to take.

Yet it was precisely because Isaac’s life was on the line that something even more horrendous than child sacrifice was at issue—namely, the possibility that God could be a liar. After all, Isaac was the child of promise, so if he died, God’s trustworthiness would die with him. Isaac has to live—or be resurrected—if all nations of the earth are to be blessed through his line. Abraham knew this, as the New Testament tells us in Hebrews 11:17. Abraham was convinced that God cannot lie, so he raised the knife. Just then an angel of the Lord called out from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham! Do not lay a hand on the boy. Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you revere God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.” Abraham looked up, and there in a thicket was a ram caught by its horns. He took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering in the place of his son. Amazing.

Genesis 22 is a story about the costly sacrifice of a father, the willing submission of a son, and the gracious provision of the Lord. “He will provide,” said Abraham. “The Lord will see to it.” No wonder Jesus said to his contemporaries, “Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad” (John 8:56). Jesus was now part of a similar story himself, and Abraham had gotten a preview of it. But what did Abraham see when he was standing on Mount Moriah? What did he hear? What did God show him? Did Abraham see the obedient Son of God bearing the wood of the cross to Golgotha—the Son for whom there would be no substitute this time? Perhaps if Abraham had been standing at the foot of the cross and had seen Jesus die right in front of him, he would have looked up to heaven and spoken God’s words back to him: “Lord! Lord! Now I know that you revere me, for you have not withheld from me your Son, your only Son, Jesus, whom you love.”

This message shows how the hardest thing God could ever ask of us is the very thing he did for us—he gave us his only Son.That Son was a descendant of Abraham through Isaac, and all families of the earth are blessed through him. God kept his word. Again. “What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:31-32). Even more amazing.

Contact This New Life directly for the sermon audio file.

Shadows of the Cross, Part 1: The Carcass in the Garden (Genesis 3:21)

It all started in the garden of Eden. One man—made in the image of God—has the privilege of walking with God, talking with God, and enjoying God. His Hebrew name is Adam, which means “humanity.” He is the fountainhead of the human race, and he represents all of us. In this garden, Adam has a choice to make: Say “yes” to God, and all will be well, or say “no” to God, and all will be lost. As the story goes, Adam says “no” to God. In effect, he says to him, “Not thy will but mine be done.” As a result, his paradise is blitzed, the ground beneath him is cursed, and humanity is born again backwards into the darkness. Weeds of alienation start springing up everywhere. Humans are alienated from themselves, from each other, from creation, and from God himself. They’re naked and ashamed, hiding in fear.

But it’s a gracious God who seeks them out. Though he was the one dishonored, God pursues Adam and his wife to start repairing the mess they had made. He replaces the fig leaves they made to cover their nakedness, giving them instead garments of skin to wear (Gen 1:21), a more suitable covering than what they had crafted with their hands. But in order for Adam and Eve to wear garments of skin, God had to take the life of one of his own creatures to make it happen. Somewhere in Eden, then, there lies a dead animal carcass so that Adam and Eve can be spared the death sentence for their cosmic treason. As such, we are introduced on the earliest pages of the Bible to the theological concept of substitution—one dying so another can live.

If that weren’t enough, God gives them a word of hope, a prediction. He speaks of a man who will someday come to crush the head of the serpent, the creature that enticed the first couple to say “no” to God in the first place. In the process, the man will suffer a devastating wound. It’s the first hint in Scripture of the sacrificial death of Messiah to come, but God is determined to see human sin atoned permanently. And so, we wait. For thousands of years, we wait until we find ourselves in another garden. Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane is “the Last Adam” and the fountainhead of a new human race. In this garden, Jesus also has a choice to make: Say “yes” to God, and humanity will be rescued, or say “no” to God, and humanity will stay ruined. Thankfully, where Adam said, “Not thy will but mine be done,” Jesus says to his Father, “Not my will but thine be done.” Gethsemane, then, is reversing the misfortunes of Eden, as the next day, Jesus goes to the tree of death to give us back the tree of life. He becomes the carcass in the garden.

But why was the cross of Christ necessary for our salvation? Why did Jesus have to die? Why is forgiveness not by divine decree? If God can say, “Let there be light,” and it was so, why could he not also say, “Let there be forgiveness,” and it was so? Historically, the former statement has been seen as entailing no violation of God’s nature or ways. The latter, however, has been seen as a violation of at least some of his attributes. On the one hand, God’s holiness and justice require the condemnation of sinners. One the other hand, God’s mercy and grace require the forgiveness of sinners. Which will it be? Is there not a “divine dilemma” here demanding resolution? Is there a way for God to separate sinners from their sin so he can judge the sin while sparing the sinner—thus keeping all of his attributes perfectly intact? 

In addition to connecting the dots from Eden to Gethsemane, this message explores how the cross is God’s crowbar that separates sinners from their sin, allowing them to be forgiven. Indeed, on the cross, God’s holiness and justice are satisfied (sin is condemned), and God’s mercy and grace are realized (sinners are forgiven). God did not sweep human sins under the rug, he swept them onto his Son—with the adult Son’s permission. On the cross, then, God’s attributes “collide” and find their mutual resolution in the death of Jesus Christ. And the restoration of Eden begins.

Contact This New Life directly for the sermon audio file.

Radiate, Part 6: Hospitality & Grace (Hebrews 13:1-14)

Genuine hospitality is one of the tools in our gospel neighboring toolbox. Unfortunately, when we hear the word “hospitality” today, we often think of Martha Stewart, the Cake Boss, or Better Homes & Garden. But those things are a distortion of what the New Testament means by hospitality. The command to show hospitality to strangers (Hebrews 13:2) literally means to show love to people who are different from us. Sadly in our culture, many people sit around mocking people who are different from them. But that is not to be the case with the followers of Christ. Quite the opposite.

Henri Nouwen once said, “There is a sacramental quality to true hospitality.” What is a sacrament? A sacrament is “common stuff” (e.g., the water of baptism, the bread and wine of Holy Communion, the oil of anointing, etc.)—common stuff that, when dedicated to Christ, becomes a vehicle of God’s grace and power to the receiver. So hospitality is common stuff. It’s not “entertaining with perfection.” It’s not a 7-course meal with five-star flourishes. We’re talking about simple soup and salad. Maybe peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Or perhaps a cup of coffee while listening to someone else’s struggles and aspirations—providing hope and encouragement within an atmosphere of cordiality and respect. God works powerfully through conversations like that.

In other words, your gracious hospitality to others is a conduit of God’s grace and power to others. You want the grace of God to come to people who don’t know Christ? Then beat them over the head with the Bible, right? No! Practice authentic hospitality. You want the grace of God to come to people who are destroying the culture? Then get louder and more strident in the culture war, right? No! Try a little authentic hospitality. When we share a common table, we stop—at least for a time—contending against each other. We turn our attention toward rejuvenating our bodies. We lay aside our differences and join together in one of the most basic of human activities. And as we share some common food and drink, we discover the common humanity of the person across the table from us—a person likewise made in the image of God, not a political combatant or a theological sparring partner.

A sinner? Definitely.
A heretic? Possibly.
An unbeliever? Maybe.
An immoral person? Perhaps.

In other words, the kinds of people Jesus ate with! He was friend of tax collectors and sinners. That’s why they called him a drunkard and a glutton. But hospitality breeds friendship and understanding. And disagreements between friends are of an entirely different nature than disagreements between sworn enemies. In the end, hospitality seeks to turn strangers into guests, guests into friends, and friends into brothers and sisters. Hospitality welcomes people that the world excludes. So, let us practice hospitality!

Sermon Resources

Contact This New Life directly for the sermon audio file.

Radiate, Part 5: Turning the Tables (Luke 7:31-35)

Fill in the blank: “The Son of Man came _________.” How would you respond? Teaching and preaching? Healing and forgiving? Loving and restoring? Dying and rising? All good answers, but Luke 7:34 says, “The Son of Man came eating and drinking.” In fact, a major feature of Luke’s Gospel is that Jesus is usually going to a meal, at a meal, or coming from a meal. If you love to eat, Luke is your Gospel. But wait. Does that sound like a holy man to you? More feasting than fasting? More parties than protests? What kind of rabbi is this? The rap on Jesus was that he was “a drunkard and a glutton” (Luke 7:34). Now, Jesus was neither of those things—the Bible says he never sinned—but  he did give his enemies enough ammunition to make the charge stick. And they made it stick not because he was eating and drinking per se, but because of the kinds of people he had at his table—those who were low on the “religious food chain.”

Surprisingly, there’s no indication that such folks ever had to “repent” before they could come eat with Jesus. The fact that they came at all—and enjoyed his welcome—was apparently repentance enough for him. What’s going on here? It’s called grace. And grace is often a threat to the hyper-religious. Tim Chester has said, “In Luke’s Gospel Jesus got himself killed because of the way he ate.” That’s hardly an overstatement. Indeed, before Jesus ever picked up the cross, he picked up the fork. When he did, he turned the tables—and everything changed! Significantly, the one person Jesus pictured as being tormented in Hades was a man who kept others from dining at his table (cf. Luke 16:19-31). It’s a sobering thought. Moreover, Paul’s great exposition of the doctrine of justification by faith in the letter to the Galatians is sparked by a meal—by Peter’s refusal to eat with Gentiles. For Paul, broken table fellowship was a denial of the gospel itself. Why? Because meals are such a central and powerful expression of the reconciling work Jesus came to do. 

In this message, we take a look at the meaning of meals and the potential of meals. Here’s what we discover: Meals remind us that the God who feeds us is hospitable, generous, wise, and good. They demonstrate that we’re not self-sufficient beings but finite creatures dependent on the Creator. Meals also reveal to us the status of our own hearts—who are we willing or unwilling to have at our tables? This is the key issue. Are we trying to protect ourselves and our families from the kinds of people that Jesus wants us to reach? That is not true holiness. The holiest man from eternity ate with the unholiest people in history. Meals, then, enable us to be conduits of God’s common grace to others—to listen to, affirm, encourage, inspire, value, and support other people. They position us to be on mission—to ask questions, share insights, offer challenges, elevate vision, and offer the gospel.

Ultimately, meals remind us of the eschatological meal to come—the Marriage Supper of the Lamb at the restoration of all things. So mark it down: At the center of the Christian life is a meal—with Jesus himself as the main course. In light of these realities, ask yourself the question: Who is at my table and why? Who might God want me to invite to my table in order to share and celebrate grace? We read in 1 John 2:6, “Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did.” In light of our theme, we might well say, “Whoever claims to live in him must eat as Jesus ate.” Are you up for the challenge?

Sermon Resources

Contact This New Life directly for the sermon audio file.

Radiate, Part 4: The Man at the Well (John 4:1-42)

We’ve seen in this series that messaging the gospel without neighboring the gospel undercuts the credibility of the gospel. In the famous story of the woman at the well (John 4:1-42), Jesus does both—messaging and neighboring—and the results are eternally significant, both for this woman and for much of her hometown. By looking at Jesus—the man at the well—believers can learn what messaging the gospel and neighboring the gospel look like in action. For starters, Jesus overcomes a racial barrier, a gender barrier, and a moral barrier. He then taps into some of the deepest needs buried inside this woman’s soul.

James Huneker once said, “Life is like an onion. You peel off layer after layer only to discover in the end that there is nothing in it . . . except your own tears.” The Samaritan woman probably would have agreed with that sentiment. As Jesus peels back the layers of her life here in John 4, he exposes a heart that desperately needs him—a heart that’s been a fountain of tears for many years. She’s a loner and an outcast, but Jesus spends a significant amount of time with her. For once in her life, she feels valued. Even Jesus’ disciples are amazed by the encounter, which primes this woman to hear the good news. 

But Jesus does not present the gospel as a stale template or a set of canned talking points. He does so with fluidity, spontaneity, creativity, and respect. It’s personal and relational. It’s pointed yet engaging. He finds a way to tap into her real questions and deepest concerns. He also finds a way to turn the conversation to spiritual things for her benefit without ever watering down the truth. Through it all, the woman discovers that Jesus is much more than a mere man, and what he offers is much more than a new religion. By watching Jesus in action, believers today can discover that gospel neighboring and gospel messaging is a solid path to gospel embracing. 

Sermon Resources

Contact This New Life directly for the sermon audio file.

Radiate, Part 3: “Honor Everyone” (1 Peter 2:9-17)

When believers get serious about neighboring the gospel, we soon discover that not everyone shares our love of Christ and our practice of the Christian faith. We may even encounter civil authorities who seek to oppress us for it. That was certainly the case for much of the church in the 1st century, and it’s increasingly the case for believers around the world in the 21st century. That’s part of what makes this passage so radical. In 1 Peter 2:17, the followers of Christ are given a shocking (and world changing) command—to honor everyone. Peter writes, “Show proper respect to everyone.” In The Message paraphrase, Eugene Peterson puts it like this: “Treat everyone you meet with dignity.” 

That’s hard enough to do when relationships are good, but it’s especially difficult when people are unkind to us, or when they mock us, insult us, persecute us, or try to get us to violate our conscience. Yet that’s the lofty vision to which Christians are called. Moreover, we honor others even if they don’t honor us in return. We honor others by going beyond merely tolerating them. We honor others even if we disapprove of their values, beliefs, or lifestyle choices. We honor others by disagreeing with them “with gentleness and respect” (1 Pet 3:15). The Greek verb to honor here means, “to set a price on,” “to ascribe worth to.” It’s what store clerks do when they put price tags on merchandise. To honor people, then, is to treat them with value, significance, dignity, importance, or respect. “Honor” is not a word of emotion but a word or recognition. The point is that people matter because they’re made in the image of God. That’s where their value comes from.

For believers to do what Peter is calling us to do, we have to make a distinction between people and their deeds. Yes, everyone should be honored for their personhood, but respect for their deeds must be earned. The good news is that everyone can be honored because grace allows us to “unstick” people’s bad deeds from their essential personhood. In that sense, the cross of Christ was a heavenly “crowbar” inserted between us and our sin. Jesus—at great cost to himself—pried the two apart. If that weren’t enough, he took our sin and stuck it on himself. Then he took his own righteousness and stuck it onto us. That’s why Paul could write, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21). The problem with many believers is that we’re just too “sticky” when it comes to other people. Peter calls us to “unstick” them in our minds, speech, and manner of life.

Sermon Resources

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Radiate, Part 2: Gospel Neighboring (Luke 10:25-37)

Those who follow in the footsteps of Christ seek to align themselves with the mission of Christ. There are two wings on this bird, and both are necessary to fly well: (1) The followers of Christ will practice gospel messaging; and (2) the followers of Christ will practice gospel neighboring. The gospel, or course, is the good news announcement that a new emperor has ascended the throne—Jesus Christ, not Caesar Augustus (Luke 2:8-14; Phil 2:9-11). It’s the declaration of what God has freely done for his people in Christ (1 Cor 15:1-10a). In his death, burial, and resurrection, Jesus conquered sin and death, and those who believe in him now have their sins forgiven, and they receive a new life—not by righteous things they have done, but because of the finished work of Christ. In other words, salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, who is making all things new in the restoration of the entire cosmos. That’s the good news, and messaging that news is part of the believer’s mission.

But gospel neighboring is the other wing, and it is vitally important, too. In fact, messaging the gospel without neighboring the gospel undercuts the credibility of the gospel (Jas 2:14-17). It’s empty words and hollow bluster. We become resounding gongs and clanging symbols (1 Cor 13:1). Moreover, Jesus said that next to loving God, loving our neighbor is the greatest commandment we could keep (Matt 22:34-40). To “love” our neighbors does not necessarily mean having warm, fuzzy feelings toward them. To “love” our neighbors means to regard them as valuable and important. However wretched certain people may be—and we all have a certain amount of wretchedness in us—they are still made in the image of God. They therefore have intrinsic worth, value, significance, and dignity, whether they’re living up to their lofty status or not.

Gospel neighboring also means serving those around us, whether they believe the gospel or not (Matt 5:43-47). It’s easy to be kind to those who are like us, but Jesus doesn’t let us get away with finding loopholes in the command to love our neighbor. The story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) drives home the point. But how well do we actually know our neighbors? Mr. Rogers used to sing, “Who are the people in your neighborhood?” Do we even know? If so, how well do we know them? Gospel neighboring starts with getting to know the people who providentially surround us. But this challenge raises many questions. What if we don’t like our neighbors? What if our neighbors don’t like us? What if they’re loud, obnoxious, or annoying? What if they’re immoral, violent, or dangerous? What if I’m an introvert? What if I’m already insanely busy? We have many questions about how to do this well, and we’ll look at some of them over the course of this series. For now, we’re simply getting centered on our need to radiate the gospel.

Sermon Resources

Contact This New Life directly for the sermon audio file.

Radiate, Part 1: The Priority of One (Luke 19:1-10)

If you knew you had only two weeks to live, what would you do? Where would you go? How would you spend your time? With whom would you spend it? What would be the final experience you give yourself before exiting this life and entering the next? Most people (believers included) would spin out scenarios that focus on their own interests, desires, or pleasures. It’s a natural and understandable impulse. By the time Jesus encounters Zacchaeus in Luke 19, he has less than two weeks to live before dying on the cross, and he knows it. But what do we see him doing? We see him focusing his time on “the priority of one.” And the one that Jesus focuses on is the chief tax collector of Jericho! No one was more despised or vilified than the wealthy Zacchaeus. Matthew was a garden variety tax collector, but Zacchaeus was his boss. He cheated the cheaters! 

So, this famous story isn’t just about a mafia thug, it’s about a mafia don—the godfather of the first century. In fact, the rabbis in that day said, “A tax collector could never be saved. It would take a lifetime of lifetimes for him to repent of all his sins.” Jesus didn’t agree with them on that point, so he invited himself to Zacchaeus’ house, causing everybody to “mutter” (Luke 19:7). But it was an encounter that changed Zacchaeus’ life. Indeed, Zacchaeus received Jesus into his home, and somewhere during the visit, he received Jesus into his heart, too. The story is rich with insights about: (1) the gospel message (i.e., how the lost can be found); and (2) the gospel mission (i.e., how the found can impact the lost). It’s a story that teaches not only that God can save anybody, but also that God—and the godly—are on the lookout for the lost.

Quite significantly, in the previous chapter, a rich young ruler comes to Jesus, wanting to know what he must do to inherit eternal life. The man doesn’t like Jesus’ answer, so he goes away dejected. His wealth had become an idol to him, and Jesus tells him to smash his idol and follow him. The man won’t do it. So, Jesus declares as the man is walking away, “It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:25). But those who heard him say it asked, “Who then can be saved?” (Luke 18:26). Hear the panic in their question! The rich young ruler was a man of status and wealth, so he was assumed by most people to have been unusually blessed by God. If he can’t be saved, then who can be? The shocking truth is that Zacchaeus can be saved. In fact, Zacchaeus is the camel that Jesus got through the eye of the needle! “What is impossible with men is possible with God” (Luke 18:27). Listeners are therefore challenged at the beginning of this new year to pray:

Lord, lay some soul upon my heart,
And love that soul through me;
And may I bravely do my part
To win that soul for Thee.

Sermon Resources

Contact This New Life directly for the sermon audio file.

For All Those Who Stumble in the Darkness

Here’s another Advent gem that we sang this morning—Michael Card’s “Immanuel.” I never make it through this one, either, without breaking down at some point. It’s simple, tender, and true. Above all, it’s filled with hope for those of us who know we’re broken deep down and stand in need of a Savior.

Below is a rendition by a collection of school choirs from Cheshire and the Wirral (a peninsula in North West England) joining their voices in Chester Cathedral to celebrate the Incarnation and the Epiphany. A wonderful song is made even more special by the young voices who sing it. The opening line is from Isaiah 7:14, the famous prophecy about a virginal conception and the surprising name given to the resulting child.

im = the Hebrew word for “with”
anu = the Hebrew word for “us”
El = a shortened form of the Hebrew word Elohim, “God”

Jesus is the “with-us God.” And if God is with us, who can stand against us? Be blessed by this choral arrangement of Michael Card’s modern classic—especially if you’ve stumbled in the darkness. We’re the reason he came.

IMMANUEL

A sign shall be given
A virgin will conceive 
A human baby bearing 
Undiminished deity 
The Glory of the nations
A Light for all to see 
And Hope for all who will embrace 
His warm reality

Chorus

Immanuel, our God is with us 
And if God is with us
Who could stand against us?
Our God is with us, Immanuel

For all those who live in the shadow of death 
A glorious Light has dawned 
For all those who stumble in the darkness
Behold your Light has come 

So, what will be your answer; 
O will you hear the call?
Of Him who did not spare His Son, 
But gave Him for us all 
On earth there is no power, 
There is no depth or height 
That could ever separate us from 
The love of God in Christ 

Time to go set up some more Christmas trees. They’re beautiful reminders that “a glorious Light has dawned.”

The John 3:16 of the Old Testament

We’ve been talking this week at This New Life about God’s abundance. The Lord has revealed himself to be generous and openhanded, not stingy and tightfisted. His provisions are bounteous and plentiful, not paltry and miserly. He overflows with love and compassion for his people, not reticence and standoffishness. In short, God is for us not against us. 

Unfortunately, many people believe that God couldn’t possibly love them like that. He can love other people, perhaps, but not them. Maybe it’s because of their wretched past. Maybe it’s because of some traumatic family-of-origin issue. Maybe it’s because of a deep existential crisis at some point in their lives. Maybe it’s their struggle to be on the receiving end of things rather than on the giving end all the time.

Where do we even begin to help them overcome their reluctance to accepting their acceptance in the grace of God? We commit to being as patient with them as God has been with us. We keep loving and serving them as best we can. And we keep telling the Story that has transformed our own lives—as winsomely as possible.

One story within the larger Story that has always fascinated me is the outlandish request Moses made of God nearly 3,500 years ago. In Exodus 33:18, Moses said to the Lord, “Now show me your glory.” It’s difficult to imagine a greater request that one could make of God. It’s even more difficult to comprehend how God could ever answer such a request. 

In the context of Exodus 33, God’s humble sanctuary was not enough to satisfy Moses’s spiritual longings, but his divine glory would have been far too much for him to endure (cf. Exod 33:20). As a result, God responds to Moses’ request in a mediatorial way, showing him an unparalleled revelation of himself while hiding him in the cleft of the rock: 

“And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, ‘The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin’” (Exod 34:6-7a; emphasis mine). In many ways, the rest of Scripture is a commentary on that one verse, as the statement is repeated in various forms at least twelve more times throughout the Old Testament (cf. Num 14:18; 2 Chron 30:9; Neh 9:17; Ps 86:15, 103:8, 111:4, 112:4, 116:5, 145:8; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2; and Nah 1:3). Allusions to it are also scattered throughout the Hebrew Bible. It’s no stretch, then, to consider this passage the John 3:16 of the Old Testament.[1]

To be sure, the mediatorial nature of God’s self-revelation implies a certain moral inability on Moses’ part to survive a full-throated theophany, but it is important to remember that the story of Scripture speaks of Original Blessing (Gen 1:22, 28) before it speaks of Original Sin (Gen 3:6-7). It is truly glorious, then, to be a human being, even a fallen one.

Indeed, Scripture indicates that all persons are made in the “image” and “likeness” of God (Gen 1:26). Consequently, they possess an intrinsic value, unique significance, and lofty status in creation. Nona Harrison notes that the word “dominion” in Genesis 1:26 “involves (1) dignity and splendor, and (2) a legitimate sovereignty rooted in one’s very being.”[2] This “being” is truly sacred. That’s why Walter Kaiser, reflecting on the sixth commandment, notes that to kill a human being with malice aforethought is “tantamount to killing God in effigy.”[3]

Kaiser’s memorable phrase captures the dignity and splendor of what it means to be human. In fact, five times in the Gospels (Matt 6:26, 10:31, 12;12; Luke 12:7, 24), Jesus declares human beings to be “valuable” (diapherō). In Ephesians 2:10, the Apostle Paul calls human beings “God’s workmanship” (poiēma). Members of the human race are God’s “poetry,” says Paul—a significant affirmation in light of his observation earlier in the chapter that human beings are “dead in sin” (Eph 2:1). 

A thousand years earlier, King David asked God with great wonder, “What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? You have made them a little lower than God (ʾělōhîm), and crowned them with glory (kāḇôḏ) and honor (hāḏār)” (Ps 8:4-5). God in his wisdom has conferred upon the human race a certain majesty, dignity, and splendor. Finally, David saw himself as “knit together” by God himself in his mother’s womb, and “fearfully [yārēʾ] and wonderfully [pālāh] made” (Ps 139:13-14). 

All told, it is “very good [ṭôb]” to be human (Gen 1:31). In fact, it is beautiful to be an image bearer of the beautiful God (cf. Ps 27:4). So, it is never helpful to start talking about Genesis 3 before talking about Genesis 1-2. Not only does the concept of Original Blessing precede the concept of Original Sin, there is copious grace flowing like a mighty river even in Genesis 3 where the fall of humanity takes place: 

  • the gentle pursuit of the fallen pair by the one dishonored and spurned; 
  • the provision of suitable garments for the covering of their nakedness; 
  • the proto-euangelion (pre-gospel) promise of the Seed of the Woman;
  • the fiery sword placed at the gate to prevent humanity’s irreversible damnation. 

At the epicenter of the great spiritual kaboom, then, is a spiritual bunker or “fallout shelter” provided by heaven. “Behold the kindness and severity of God” (Rom 11:22). And the kindness keeps trying to win (Jas 2:13). 

As such, be assured that God knows how to bring people to himself. He knows what it will take to open their eyes to his incomprehensible love. So, watch and wait. Pray and trust. Hope and rest—in “the compassionate and gracious God” who is “slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.” Amen.

Image Credits: getalongwithgod.com; onlyfreewallpaper.com; laparks.org; biblicalarchaeology.org; pexels.com.


[1] John 3:16 in the New Testament says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” This verse is reportedly the most translated sentence in human language, ostensibly because it encapsulates the gospel (“good news”) of Jesus Christ and the only appropriate human response to it—faith.

[2] Nonna Verna Harrison, God’s Many-Splendored Image: Theological Anthropology for Christian Formation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010), 90.

[3] Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Toward Old Testament Ethics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983), 91.

He Shines in All That’s Fair: Why Common Grace Should Be More Common

Rachel Lynde: The murder trials in this Boston paper my niece sent me are real interesting, Marilla. Full of heathen, that place. I hope Anne will never go there again. Can you imagine that new minister going on about how he doesn’t believe that all the heathen will be eternally lost? The idea! If they won’t be, all the money we’ve been sending to the foreign missions will be completely wasted. That’s what.

Marilla Cuthbert: I wouldn’t fret if I were you, Rachel. Goodness knows, the world is full of beggars, and it’s a pretty pass if we can’t help out a fellow being in need, Christian or not. 

Anne of Green Gables, The Sequel


John Murray once raised the question, “How is it that this sin-cursed world enjoys so much favour and kindness at the hand of its holy and ever-blessed Creator?”[1] The answer to Murray’s question is found in a distinction made by theologians between God’s “special” or “saving” grace on the one hand, and his “common” or “non-saving” grace, on the other. By God’s design, this common grace is always at work in the broader reaches of human society. 

Common grace is hard to miss once we’ve thought about it for any length of time. God clearly bestows blessings on all human beings—believers and un-believers alike. For example, Jesus said his Father “causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matt 5:45). That is, God doesn’t just water the crops of believers; he waters the crops of the unbelievers, too. He gives good gifts to all of humanity—whether they know him or not, believe in him or not, or thank him or not. God’s goodness extends to all his creation. 

While God’s general goodness and gifts might not always result in the final redemption of every human being on whom it is showered (after all, at some level, salvation encompasses an individual’s personal belief), common grace is still a magnanimous display of his kindness and generosity to persons made in his image. Indeed, all that is good ultimately comes from God, regardless of whose lap it falls into here on planet earth. Maltbie Babcock’s hymn captures an aspect of common grace with these lines: 

This is my Father’s world, the birds their carols raise,
The morning light, the lily white, declare their Maker’s praise.
This is my Father’s world: He shines in all that’s fair;
In the rustling grass I hear Him pass;
He speaks to me everywhere.

“He shines in all that’s fair.” That’s common grace. Both saint and sinner alike can appreciate a good sunset. Both can enjoy a breathtaking opera. Both can get a lump in their throats when their children get married. Both can enjoy a slice of hot apple pie with vanilla ice cream on top and a dollop of whipped cream dusted with cinnamon and sugar and a cup of piping hot coffee next to it right after dinner. (Yes, taste buds are a form of common grace!) Specifically, God demonstrates his common grace by:

  • Giving all humans a conscience, by which right and wrong can be known (Rom 2:15)
  • Sovereignly maintaining order in human society through government (Rom 13:1-5)
  • Enabling all people to admire beauty and goodness (Ps 50:2; Dan 2:21)
  • Setting up governments and putting leaders in power to maintain peace (1 Tim 2:2)
  • Allowing everyone (in or out of Christ) to do good (Luke 6:33)
  • Allowing all people to experience a vast array of emotions (Eccl 3:4)
  • Giving people the ability to truly love each other (1 John 4:7)
  • Allowing people to turn from evil (Job 1:1)
  • Protecting people from constant evil and torment (Job 1:8)
  • Keeping the ocean within its borders (Job 38:11)
  • Allowing everyone to rest (Deut 5:12)
  • Providing people with the necessities to live (Ps 104:14; Matt 6:30)

Tim Keller has said, “This gift of God’s grace to humanity in general demonstrates a desire on God’s part to bestow certain blessings on all human beings, believer and non-believer alike. Understanding common grace provides the basis for Christians to cooperate with and learn from non-Christians.”[2] Really? Learn from and be blessed by people outside the formal covenants enumerated in Scripture? Oh yes. God often works that way. Some biblical examples include:

  • Melchizedek blessing Abraham
  • Rahab serving the Israelites
  • Ruth accepting Yahweh and serving an Israelite family
  • The pagan sailors acting more ethically than Jonah
  • The pagan kings promoting Daniel in their realms
  • Cyrus the Persian funding the rebuilding of the temple
  • The magi worshiping Christ shortly after his birth
  • The Roman centurion acknowledging Jesus’ lordship while the disciples are hiding
  • Accurate statements made by unbelievers and cited in the Scriptures to serve the cause of truth

Without an understanding of common grace, believers wind up committing the genetic fallacy on a regular basis. (e.g., “The MBTI is untrustworthy because it’s based on Jungian psychology.” No, it’s validity and reliability must be determined independently of the original proponent.) We also marginalize people who don’t share our faith, preventing them from being a blessing to us as God may intend. But if God can use Cyrus the Persian to bless the Israelites’ journey home from exile, can I not likewise let my dentist bless me even if he’s an unbeliever, or my brain surgeon even if she’s a Muslim? Just get the job done right, thank you very much. On a related note, much of the world’s music can be raunchy, but some of it is rather pleasant or insightful. Common grace allows it to be so.

If common grace is so common—both in Scripture and in the heart of God—should it not be more common in the lives of believers? Indeed, should we not make loving our neighbor more common than it probably is? Salvation belongs to the Lord (Rev 7:10), not me. I cannot make it happen it my own life let alone anybody else’s. Moreover, Jesus said we can trust him to sort out the wheat from the weeds at the end of the age (Matt 13:24-30). That’s not our job right now. Nor is it Rachel Lynde’s.

Image Credits: pexels.com; gettyimages.com.


[1] John Murray, “Common Grace,” in Collected Writings of John Murray, II:93.

[2] Tim Keller, Sermon Archives.

Needing and Needling: The Challenge to Find Good Christian Community

Authentic Christian community is hard to find. It’s even harder to create. The biggest challenge, perhaps, is to sustain it once we’ve found it. But the search is well worth the effort. Having made the rounds in all kinds of churches, fellowships, small groups, and denominations, I can assure you, it’s out there. Where and with whom might surprise you, but it’s out there—a place where the “one anothers” of Scripture are practiced, and edification takes place on a regular basis. Even when it’s hard. Even when it’s electronic or digital. True connection can transcend physical proximity. Where it often struggles to succeed is in transcending human nature.

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Arthur Schopenhauer’s well-known fable comes to mind—the one where two porcupines find themselves in a serious dilemma. On the one hand, the creatures need each other, so they huddle up to keep warm in the winter. On the other hand, they needle each other while they’re together, so they have to separate to avoid the pain of getting poked by each other’s quills. The cycle repeats and never ends.

We’ve all been there, haven’t we? I’ve been punctured by plenty of needles over the years, and I’m sure I’ve done my own share of puncturing. I forgive the former and lament the latter. In fact, the latter is sometimes harder for those who have a tender conscience. It’s easy to feel pain when you know you’ve caused pain. (Guilt is a worthwhile subject for another post, as is the common human ailment of hurting other people because we ourselves have been hurt somewhere back on the timeline of life.)

Here’s the perennial problem of human intimacy and fellowship: Can the individuality we display permit the closeness that our interdependence demands? Said another way, can we truly master the delicate balance of the guardedness we need for self-protection and the vulnerability we need for deep connection?

And the answer is not without grace.

Only grace can mitigate the endless cycle of needing and needling each other. Love covers a multitude of pokes. And grace says, “Let’s try this again” after a relational collapse. But grace can be its own thorn, too. According to Jesus, divine grace especially pierces the self-righteous.

Can the individuality we display permit the closeness that our interdependence demands? Not without grace.

Just ask the older brother in Luke 15. Or the religious bureaucrat in Luke 18. Or Simon the Pharisee in Luke 7, whose spiritual debt was a whopping 450 denarii less than the sinful woman’s debt—yet Jesus said he couldn’t pay his bill, either, so he forgave them both. (How humbling it must be to find yourself in bankruptcy court needing the protections of Chapter 11 when you thought you were so rich!)

Jesus’ grace toward the sinful woman was a thorn to Simon. But the forgiven woman now had more to offer her community. She had more love (cf. Luke 7:47), without which community cannot survive. It’s not the broken who destroy community. It’s the self-righteous, high-minded religious police who do that. That’s why bars often feature a better community feel than churches. Folks get real and raw with one another in an atmosphere of authenticity, even if they have to communicate between hiccups.

It’s not the broken who destroy community. It’s the self-righteous, high-minded religious police who do that.

Few people have done more reflective work on the subject of Christian community than Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Here are some gems from his book, Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian Community.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Wherever you are in the needing-needling cycle, may these words help you find, create, and sustain authentic Christian community.

•  “Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest, and sacrificial.”

•  “God hates this wishful dreaming because it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. Those who dream of this idealized community demand that it be fulfilled by God, by others, and by themselves. They enter the community of Christians with their demands, set up their own law, and judge one another and even God accordingly.”

•  “Because God has united us in one body with other Christians in Jesus Christ long before we entered into common life with them, we enter into that life together with other Christians, not as those who make demands, but as those who thankfully receive. . . . We do not complain about what God does not give us; rather we are thankful for what God does give us daily.”

•  “Will not the very moment of great disillusionment with my brother or sister be incomparably wholesome for me because it so thoroughly teaches us that both of us can never live by our own words and deeds, but only by that one Word and deed that really binds us together, the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ? The bright day of Christian community dawns wherever the early morning mists of dreamy visions are lifting.”

•  “The Christian community has not been given to us by God for us to be continually taking its temperature. The more thankfully we daily receive what is given to us, the more assuredly and consistently will community increase and grow from day to day as God pleases.”

•  “Let him who cannot be alone beware of community. . . . Let him who is not in community beware of being alone. . . . Each by itself has profound perils and pitfalls. One who wants fellowship without solitude plunges into the void of words and feelings, and the one who seeks solitude without fellowship perishes in the abyss of vanity, self-infatuation and despair.”

•  “There is a kind of listening with half an ear that presumes already to know what the other person has to say. It is an impatient, inattentive listening, that despises the brother and is only waiting for a chance to speak and thus get rid of the other person. This is no fulfillment of our obligation, and it is certain that here too our attitude toward our brother only reflects our relationship to God.”

•  “I can no longer condemn or hate a brother for whom I pray, no matter how much trouble he causes me.”

•  “Self-centered love loves the other for the sake of itself; spiritual love loves the other for the sake of Christ.”

When it comes to community, are we better at the “needing” or the “needling”? Will we choose the coldness that comes with isolation or the puncture that comes with interaction? Or might there be a third way—the way of Christ? The way of grace?

Image Credit: Barcroft Media.

A Look at ‘Love (III)’ by George Herbert, from ‘The Temple’

George Herbert (1593-1633) was a highly regarded poet and priest in the Church of England. His “metaphysical” poetry is top-tier reading in my world—always passionate, ponderous, and elegant in its devotion to Christ. His composition “Love (III)” is a gem of image and inspiration, written as a dialogue between a host (divine Love) and a guest, who is the speaker.

The poem comprises three stanzas with six lines each, and an ABABCC rhyme scheme. The meter alternates between a loose form of iambic pentameter and iambic trimeter. It can be read as a prompt and response. Below is the text of the poem, my brief analysis of it, and a short reflection on why it speaks to me. Additional biographic information on Herbert can be found here

George Herbert ( 1593-1633). Welsh-born English poet, orator and Anglican priest. Engraving, 18th century.

1
Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back 

                              Guilty of dust and sin.

But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack 

                             From my first entrance in,

Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,

                             If I lacked any thing.

2
A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:

                             Love said, You shall be he.

I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,

                             I cannot look on thee.

Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,

                             Who made the eyes but I?

3
Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame

                             Go where it doth deserve.

And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?

                             My dear, then I will serve.

You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:

                             So I did sit and eat.

Introduction

In the preceding poems, “Love (I)” and “Love (II),” Herbert has labored to rescue the word “love” from its inferior meanings in secular usage. God, he claims, is the “Immortal Love,” and his “Immortal Heat” is totally other than human love, which is often selfishly expressed. Here in “Love (III),” Herbert shows the selfless nature of divine love, portraying not only that God is “Love,” but how God is “Love”—he is a gracious and welcoming host to broken people.

Analysis

Lines 1-2
Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back / Guilty of dust and sin.

In the presence of pure Love (i.e., God), the poet instinctively shrinks back. The next couplet explains why, but the opening line communicates Love’s disposition by echoing the sentiment of Song of Solomon 5:6, “I opened for my lover, but my lover had left; he was gone. My heart sank at his departure.” The reason for the poet’s hesitancy is then revealed; he feels “guilty” in the presence of Love. Indeed, he is guilty—on two counts in Herbert’s theology: he is sinful by birth (“dust”) and sinful by action (“sin”).

Lines 3-4
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack / From my first entrance in,

Love is portrayed here as an attentive host, noticing immediately the poet’s hesitancy (“slack”) to be in his presence. The adversative “but” indicates a strong disposition on the part of Love to overcome the poet’s hesitation. Who will win the battle of wills—the poet or Love?

Lines 5-6
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning, / If I lacked any thing.

Love steps toward the reluctant poet, not in aggression but in gentleness. He comes “sweetly questioning” him, harkening back to God’s gracious pursuit of the disobedient Adam in Genesis 3, an encounter that arguably features more grace than judgment. Moreover, Love acts here as both a selfless and other-centered host, asking if the poet “lacked any thing.” Clearly Love wants to overcome the poet’s fear and shame of being in his presence, speaking and acting in such a way as to put him at ease.

Lines 7-8
A guest, I answered, worthy to be here: / Love said, You shall be he.

The poet responds that he lacks a person worthy to be in Love’s presence. In other words, it’s not so much that the poet has a lack; he is the lack! He feels that he does not deserve to be there. Love disagrees, resolutely stating that the poet himself will be deemed worthy.

Lines 9-10
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear, / I cannot look on thee.

The poet refutes Love’s contention that he could be considered worthy. After all, his defining attributes include being “unkind” and “ungrateful”—the very opposite of Love’s defining attributes. Such a disparity in moral character renders the poet incapable of looking directly into the eyes of Love (“I cannot look on thee”).

Lines 11-12
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply, / Who made the eyes but I?

Love initiates a gentle touch, employing a smile to indicate acceptance of the poet and delight that he’s there despite his feelings of guilt and shame. Love poses another question, forcing the poet to consider a new, more hopeful perspective: “Who made the eyes but I?” The implication is that Love is the poet’s Creator, and he did not create those eyes to look away from him in guilt but toward him in fellowship. Love is pressing the poet here to find his identity in Love’s original design for him, not his sullied record.

Lines 13-14
Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame / Go where it doth deserve.

The poet protests again, resisting Love’s continued kindness because he has “marred” (i.e., stained or compromised) his eyes through un-love, possibly referring back to the deficient expressions of human love portrayed in the previous sections of the poem. The moral crimes producing his sense of shame render him worthy of condemnation and, thus, unworthy of Love.

Lines 15-16
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame? My dear, then I will serve.

Love reminds the poet that Someone “bore the blame” for his moral crimes, a reference to Christ and his atoning work on the cross. Captivated by the reminder that no blame remains, the poet now feels compelled to serve Love (“My dear, then I will serve”). His attitude is reminiscent of the prodigal son’s intention to return to his father as a hired hand, not as a son (Luke 15:18-20). 

But as the next couplet indicates, such an economic arrangement is not Love’s intention. The poet is made worthy by Love, so Love will serve him, not vice versa. The image is taken from Luke 12:37, where, quite shockingly, cultural norms are stood on their head when the master starts serving the servants: “It will be good for those servants whose master finds them watching when he comes. I tell you the truth, he will dress himself to serve, will have them recline at the table and will come and wait on them.” The biblical scene is almost scandalous, but this is what Love looks like, and this is what Love does. 

Lines 17-18
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat: / So I did sit and eat.

In the end, Love wins (“So I did sit and eat”). But he wins by overcoming the poet’s reluctance with kindness, not coercion. And “winning” here takes the form of Love serving the poet a meal made by his own hands (“my meat”). Love doesn’t win by punishing the poet for his moral crimes; the claims of justice for those crimes have long since been satisfied. Consequently, all that remains now is for the poet to allow his guilt and shame to melt away in the presence of Love. When that happens, a delightful meal of peace is shared at the table of brotherhood. That was Love’s aim all along.

Why This Poem Speaks to Me

I could well be the broken poet. I have plenty of moral crimes to my name, and they render me “unworthy” in the presence of Love. But God’s deepest desire has never been to play the part of my vindictive Judge; his desire has always been to be my gracious host and share a meal with me at his table (cf. Rev 3:20). He can do so without compromising his holiness because Someone “bore the blame.” My blame. 

Consequently, my own guilt and shame can melt away in the presence of Love, and I can look at God again—in the face of Jesus Christ.

So can you.

Contact me if you’d like to know more about how to begin a journey with Jesus.