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What Are You Worrying For?

Saturday, June 12, 2021

“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life…”

Matthew 6:25a

Someone said, “Ulcers are what you get from mountain climbing over molehills.” We can worry ourselves sick—sometimes literally—by exaggerating our problems. All good teachers repeat themselves and Jesus, in Matthew 6:25-34, repeats his command “do not be anxious” no less than three times (vv. 25, 31, 34).

Paul echoes this prohibition against worry: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:6-7). It is clear, then, that Christ desires his disciples to live an anxiety-free and peace-filled life as they trust in God to provide for them.

But let’s not misunderstand Jesus’ teaching.

We are not exempt from forethought — The King James Version regrettably translates Matthew 6:25 as “take no thought.” Of course we must “take thought.” It is right to take out a life insurance policy. Paul himself said that if we don’t take care of our own family then we are worse than an unbeliever (1 Tim. 5:8). Wisdom instructs us to make prudent provision for the future (Prov. 6:6-11).

We are not exempt from work — Jesus was not advocating we wait idly for God to provide all our necessities. In fact, he tells us to “look at the birds… your heavenly Father feeds them” (Mt. 6:26). But how does God feed the birds? Birds feed themselves on seeds, blossoms, nectar, insects and other animals. God feeds the birds indirectly: they feed themselves on what God provides for them.

We are not exempt from disaster — Jesus was not promising his disciples immunity from harm. True, our Father knows when a sparrow falls to the ground and we are more valuable to God than sparrows (Mt. 10:29). But sparrows do fall and so do human beings.

If we are not exempt from these things, why did Jesus forbid worry?

Worry is incompatible with the Christian faith — Jesus is teaching us to trust in God. If we trust God to sustain our spirit and give us eternal life in Christ, then how much more ought we to trust him to sustain our bodies and provide for our physical needs? Jesus makes his own “how much more” arguments in this passage. If God provides food for the birds and clothing for the grass of the field, how much more will he provide these necessities for us?

Worry is incompatible with common sense — Jesus says, “do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble” (Mt. 6:34). All worry concerns the future (“tomorrow”) but is experienced today. Therefore, worry is a waste of time. Tomorrow has its own troubles, so why do we waste today by trying to anticipate them? If we fear something will happen tomorrow, and it doesn’t happen, we worried for nothing. If those fears do materialize, then we suffer twice instead of once. In either case, worry doubles our trouble.

This passage is all about what we “seek,” what our focus is, what we give ourselves to as the supreme ambition of our lives. Unbelievers tend to obsess over their material welfare (they “seek after all these things”) because they have no faith in God to provide them. But God knows we need these things and he does provide them. So why waste our life worrying about things God already gives us? Jesus says instead to “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Mt. 6:33). When we keep our focus on serving in God’s kingdom and trusting him along the way, “the peace of God will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:7). What are you worrying for?

My Truth vs. The Truth

Saturday, June 05, 2021

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life…”

John 14:6

“To thine own self be true” is a famous line from Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet. Polonius, the king’s minister, is giving his son, Laertes, some parting words of advice before Laertes leaves for France. The speech contains many notable lines like “Give every man thy ear but few thy voice,” “Neither a borrower nor a lender be,” and “The apparel oft proclaims the man.” But Polonius concludes with, “This above all: to thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man.”

Four hundred years later, these words are quoted as definitive human wisdom even though they originally were spoken by a character who was a disreputable hypocrite—Polonius was a bad guy who met a sticky end. The phrase “to thine own self be true” is sound advice about maintaining one’s integrity.

Of course, Christians must be authentic and genuine. “He who walks in integrity walks securely, but he who perverts his ways will be found out.” (Prov. 10:9) Having integrity means being the same person all the time. It’s the opposite of hypocrisy. Integrity is important in all relationships because we build our trust upon it. This, I think, is what Polonius was teaching Laertes when he said, “To thine own self be true,” and what God is teaching us in his word with commandments to be honest, sincere, trustworthy and faithful.

We have modernized Shakespeare’s words with the common expression ‘be true to yourself.’ But more recently, we have invented one of our own: ‘live your truth.’ This phrase is loaded with serious philosophical and practical dangers because it indicates that what is true for you might not necessarily be true for others. ‘My truth,’ then, is purely subjective; it is whatever I want it to be. According to this postmodern view, truth is not a philosophical absolute, an unchanging point of reference that tethers us to reality, but is relative and elastic.

I think what people mean when they say, “I’m living my truth” is that they are living according to their convictions. But this ignores and undermines the very concept and definition of truth. Truth is not the same thing as conviction or belief. Truth is a matter of an idea or belief corresponding to reality. Our convictions and beliefs may be true or false, depending on whether or not they correspond to reality. I may believe that 2+2=5 but that does not make it true. 

For example, Paul was convinced he should do “many things in opposing… Jesus” (Acts 26:9) and lived his life according to his “conscience” (Acts 23:1). But he later learned that his conscience misled him and that his convictions were wrong. When Jesus revealed the truth to Paul (Acts 9:4ff), he began living according to it.

In moments of honest self-reflection we see that our “heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9) The answer does not lie within ourselves but outside ourselves. To discover what is true—true about God, the world, and ourselves—the revelatory light of Jesus must shine on us (2 Cor. 4:4). We are in darkness and he is light (1 Jn. 1:5), “the true light, who gives light to everyone” (Jn. 1:9).

Used in this way, Jesus is “true” (αλετηινοσ, 1 Jn. 2:8b) not in the sense in which a statement is true as opposed to false (αλετηεσ, 1 Jn. 2:8a), but in the sense in which the real differs from the unreal, the substance from the shadow, the prototype from the type. Christ is the true, or real, light of which physical light is but a reflection, just as he is the true bread and true vine (Jn. 6:32; 15:1). He is the heavenly reality of which these earthly things are mere copies (cf. Heb. 8:5; 9:23f; 10:1). Therefore, to “walk in the light” of Christ is to see and live by the truth (1 Jn. 1:7). “I believe in Christianity as I believe the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” (C.S. Lewis)

Are You Listening?

Saturday, May 29, 2021

“Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one! You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.”

Deuteronomy 6:5-6

One of the most prominent commands in Scripture is to listen to God. Jews refer to the prayer above as the “Shema,” which means ‘listen’ in Hebrew, the very first word of the prayer. Jesus quoted this as the single greatest commandment in the Bible (Mt. 22:37).

In the prophet Jeremiah’s day, God told him to “stand in the gate of the LORD’s house” so that Judah could “hear (shema) the word of the LORD.” (Jer. 7:2) Many call this Jeremiah’s ‘temple sermon.’ Poised in the most conspicuous and spiritually symbolic location, Jeremiah proceeded to courageously preach God’s message.

There was only one problem. God was commanding the people to do the very thing they consistently refused to do, that is, to “listen.” Sure, they heard the words but they had not listened to them in the way God wanted. To listen, biblically speaking, means more than the physical act of letting sound waves in our ears (Prov. 20:12). To “listen” means to pay attention (Gen. 29:33), to respond (Psa. 27:7; Ex. 19:5), even to obey (Isa. 6:9-10; 43:8; Psa. 115:6; Zech. 7:11). This is what God was calling Judah to do: to listen and respond with obedience. And God expects the same today (Jas. 1:22).

In one section, Jeremiah indicts his contemporaries for refusing to listen to God. Notice the themes of Jeremiah 7:21-28.

First, the prophet attacks their sacrifices. God told them, “Add your burnt offerings to your sacrifices and eat flesh.” (7:21) The Jews still observed the sacrificial system according to the distinctions specified in the Law but God said, with the way they were living, it really didn’t matter anymore. They could mix meat sacrifices up and cook it for barbecue. It made no difference to God because their sacrifices were already profaned by their profane life.

Second, the prophet appeals to history. God said, “For I did not speak to your fathers, or command them in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices.” (7:22) Before God had commanded and required these important sacrifices he commanded them to simply listen to him: “Obey (shema) my voice” (7:23). Sadly, from the very beginning, Israel had refused to listen to God’s voice (7:24-26).

The prophet concludes his sermon by outlining Judah’s persistent refusal to listen (7:27-28). The verb ‘shema’ is repeated five times in verses 21-28. Israel was deaf to God’s voice. No generation listened to the prophets (v.25) but Jeremiah’s generation was worse than them all (v.26). They refused to listen or answer when spoken to (v.27). They were thus defined by their deafness (v.28): “This is the nation that did not obey the voice of the LORD their God or accept correction; truth has perished and has been cut off from their mouth.” But why would God command Jeremiah to preach to people who refused to listen? The prophet was forbidden to even pray for them! (7:16-20) There are at least two reasons:

  1. Preaching God’s word to the spiritually deaf reveals the condition of their hearts. By hearing but not responding to God’s word, they proved that their condemnation is just (cf. Mt. 13:10-17; Jn. 12:48).
  2. Preaching God’s word to the spiritually deaf reveals that God never acts in judgment without warning.The Lord always gives fair warning before acting in judgment in the hope that some will listen, repent and live (2 Tim. 2:4; 2 Pet. 3:9).

Jesus often said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear” (Mk. 4:9). As we read biblical texts like Jeremiah 7, it is as if God is asking us the question, “They didn’t listen, but will you?”

Christ Emptied Himself

Saturday, May 22, 2021

“Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.”

Philippians 2:6-7

Paul’s phrase “emptied himself” has caused much controversy and confusion for people of faith. It can mean “to pour out” so as to make empty or void or to render useless (Rom. 4:14; 1 Cor. 1:17) or it can be used metaphorically to “give up status or privilege.” Some have interpreted this verse to mean that Christ relinquished his divinity when he became human but this would contradict Paul’s writings elsewhere and is not even consistent with his portrait of Christ in his letter to the Philippians.

To gain a better understanding of the phrase we must allow context to determine its usage. In Philippians chapter 2, Paul calls upon the Christians to unite in love and humility (1-4) which is exemplified by Christ’s humble service (5-11). He draws on Old Testament texts like Adam’s rebellion (Gen. 1-3) and Isaiah’s poems of the Suffering Servant (Isa. 40-55). This poetic explanation of Jesus’ humility, self-giving love, and submission to the Father is meant to inspire the Philippians to follow in Christ’s footsteps.

The command for unity (1-2) — “So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.”

Paul is not doubting that any of these are so. Rather he uses the condition (“if”) to provoke the Philippians to unity and love. He is saying, ‘Because all these graces are a reality in Christ’ “complete my joy” by being unified in love. Remember, Paul was writing from jail (1:12-13). Although he maintained his joy through his trials, to hear that the Philippians were behaving like Christ would “complete” his joy or bring it to perfection (3 Jn. 4).

Being “of the same mind” and “of the same love” does not imply a boring uniformity, like a hive of bees or a group of robots. Rather, the Philippians were to retain their individual identities and diversity of gifts and employ them in a cooperative spirit for the glory of God and the good of others (cf. 1 Cor. 12; Rom. 15:2).

The command for humility (3-4) — “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”

Rather than looking to advance their own agenda through self-centeredness and self-promotion (like Paul’s opponents, 1:17; 2:21) they were to be humble. “Conceit” is looking after oneself exclusively while humility does not merely apply the same level of concern for self to others but counts others as even “more important” than oneself. It must be said that humility is not thinking less of oneself but rather thinking more of others, raising their esteem in one’s own mind. But who possibly live in such a way?

The perfect example of humility (5-11) — “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

To motivate this radical way of life, Paul traces the Messiah’s journey from heaven to earth and back again. Jesus set the pattern for spiritual maturity: the Christian life is the opposite of a selfish power grab, it is the selfless surrender of power for the love of others. All Christians should possess this way of thinking (“have this mind”).

Before his incarnation, Jesus pre-existed in a state of glory and “equality with God” (Jn. 1:1; 17:5, 24). He shared the “form” of God, his exact nature (Heb. 1:3) and became the visible expression of his glory (Col. 1:15). Amazingly, Jesus did not think that possessing this equality should lead him to hold onto it at all costs. Instead of holding onto it he let it go all for the benefit of others (Rom. 15:3). This is love and humility par excellence.

Unlike Adam who tried to seize equality with God, a thing he had no right to do (Gen. 2:16-17; 3:5), Christ, who rightly possessed equality with God, gave it up to become human. He “emptied himself,” that is, he relinquished the status and privileges of heaven but not his divine nature. This dual nature of Jesus as both divine and human is one of the great mysteries of our faith. Instead of trying to explain it, Paul assumes its truth and argues from it.

From there, Paul shows the great depths of humility to which Christ willingly and lovingly lowered himself. Not only did God become “human” but he took on the “form” (cf. v.6) of a “servant.” Not only was he a servant but was perfectly “obedient” and his humble obedience led him to “the point of death.” This was not just any death but the worst kind of death, “even death on a cross.”

Paul takes us from the divine majesty and perfection of heaven to the ultimate form of degradation and humiliation. But Christ’s humiliation serves as the grounds for his exaltation. For his demonstration of perfect love and obedience (“Therefore”), God raised him from the dead and entrusted him with the highest name and authority (Mt. 28:18; Acts 2:33; Rev. 19:16). Not only this, but Paul quotes Isaiah 45:23 to show that the one true God of Israel (YHWH) consists of God the Father and the Lord Jesus. In the day of judgment, all of creation will universally recognize his Lordship.

Paul gives this robust Christology so that we would be like Jesus and serve others in humility. If we strive for love, unity and humility we will be exalted with Christ (Rev. 3:21; 22:4).

"It is the Gift of God"

Saturday, May 15, 2021

“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”

Ephesians 2:8-9

Perhaps no other text in Scripture summarizes so succinctly and beautifully the doctrine of salvation as the text above. God accomplishes our salvation “by grace… through faith.” Paul goes onto say, “it is the gift of God,” so that all human boasting is excluded.

But what is “the gift of God”? The belief of many is that “the gift” refers to our “faith.” God either gives faith to us so that we can be saved or he withholds it. This reading would imply that we are completely passive in the process of salvation.

The argument goes something like this: In a state of spiritual death (2:1-3), we are utterly incapable of making any free and rational choice to obey the gospel. So we must be made alive (2:5-7), which God chooses to do on his own initiative and according to his own wisdom. Only then can we can accept God’s grace and be saved. Therefore, according to this view, “faith” must be a gift given to us by God.

Due to the subtle mixture of truth and error within this view, it is difficult to untangle. While it is true that the act of salvation is God’s alone and we are utterly dead and lost without him, it is also true that God has endowed us with freewill to respond to him rationally. If we examine the grammar of this passage, we will see that “faith,” by itself, is not what Paul refers to as “the gift of God.”

“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”

In the Greek language, like modern German, every noun has a gender that is either masculine, feminine or neuter. The gender of the noun “faith” (pistes) is feminine. The gender of the pronoun “this” is neuter. Therefore, the antecedent for “this” is not the word “faith”. “Faith” cannot be the “gift of God” because Paul’s own grammar won’t allow it. For “this” to refer to “faith” would require the corresponding pronoun to be feminine. For the same reason, “this” cannot refer to “grace” either, because “grace” is also feminine.

If this is the case, what are the pronouns referring to? What is “the gift of God”? When the pronoun is neuter it is referring back to a general thought or phrase. So, “this” is referring to the entire preceding clause, namely, salvation by grace through faith.

Therefore, the “gift of God” which Paul refers to with the neuter pronouns “this” and “it,” is not just “faith” or “grace” but the whole process by which God chooses to save us — “by grace… through faith.” We might put it like this for the sake of clarity: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this [being saved by grace through faith] is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”

God has chosen to save all those who have faith in Christ (Jn. 3:16). This is the gift of God, the wonderful way in which he saves us. He extends his grace to all humanity “bringing salvation for all people” (Titus 2:11) because he “desires all people to be saved” (1 Tim. 2:4). Yet, God has designed it in such a way that only those who have faith in the good news of Jesus can be saved (Rom. 1:16).

Though the act of salvation is entirely God’s work (only God can give life to the dead), he gives us the dignity of choice in the matter (Gen. 2:16; Deut. 30:19; Josh. 24:15). That way, as CS Lewis put it, “no soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. Those who knock it is opened.” This self-choice is what makes love a possibility, and for this God has destined his children (1 Cor. 13:13). “Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift!” (2 Cor. 9:15), the gift of salvation “by grace… through faith.”

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