Category Archives: Christianity

The incarnation of Jesus and the thoughts of St. John

The apostle John was fixated on the physical reality of Jesus–on the fact that in Jesus, God became a man. In becoming a man, He loved John and became John’s closest friend, and John never forgot the friendship.

In 1 John 1:1-4, the apostle is giddy to be remembering Jesus. He repeatedly emphasizes the sight, sound, and feel of being with the Messiah (“heard… seen… looked upon… touched”), and how the physical reality of Jesus is related to John’s fellowship with God and with the people reading the letter (which includes you and me):

“That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and have touched…the life was made manifest, and we… proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father… so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son… And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.” -1 John 1:1-4 (ESV)

The reality of God in a physical body fascinated John for his entire life. In the verses above there are echos of the opening words of John’s gospel–Jesus was with God in the beginning; Jesus is life; and Jesus is the manifestation of God’s Word in physical form. 

When Peter and John were defending themselves in the temple in Jerusalem, the reason they gave for talking about Jesus was, “for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.” (Acts 4:20). Having seen Jesus was irrefutable evidence of Jesus’ reality as God, and John implies this in the verses above and in John 19:35. Referring to himself, John says, “He who saw it has born witness–his testimony is true, and he knows that he is telling the truth, that you also may believe.” Peter was also captivated by his physical experience of Jesus, as he mentions in 2 Peter 1:16 (“but we were eyewitnesses.”)

Perhaps Peter and John learned their fascination with Jesus’ physicality from Jesus Himself, who emphasized this to the disciples in the upper room in Luke 24:39-43 (“see my hands and my feet”) and famously to doubting Thomas in John 20:27 (“put out your hand, and place it in my side”).

But in 1 John 1:1-4, the apostle also refers to Jesus briefly as “the word of life–the life was made manifest.” Jesus himself also said that He was “the life,” and the reality of Jesus’ physical existence makes His life exuberant and powerful, powerful enough to light a fire under John, and powerful enough to unite distant Christians in fellowship with each other and with the Father.

And the power of Jesus to catalyze fellowship is why John is writing. As he says in verse 3, “that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son.” In the friendship of Jesus and His disciples, the love of God began to spill over into humans, so that if we come to know Jesus, we also can have fellowship with the Father. And through fellowship with the Father, we have better fellowship with other believers.

This is why John was “writing these things so that our joy may be complete.” John already had fellowship with Jesus–it had changed and motivated the entire course of his existence. But his joy was completed when he shared this fellowship with other people, when he could participate in the work of Christ on this earth.

Jesus had spent time with John, and John shared these experiences with other people. These people told other people, who told other people. The cycle continued over millennia, while the Spirit worked in the lives and minds of generation after generation of believers, until eventually somebody told me, and now I am telling you.

I’m writing this post for the same reason John wrote His letter. Jesus is real, and He has lit my life on fire. When I meet other believers, or when I pray, or when I read Scripture, the energy is electric. The Spirit is at work in me, and He is at work in all believers.

“That which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son.”

Why do people fight with each other?

On the day after Thanksgiving in 2008, Jdimytai Damour was trampled to death at a Wal-Mart in Valley Stream, New York. The crowd had lined up for a sale, and Jdimytai was in the way, so they pushed him down and trampled him until he died. When the crowd was told they had to leave because someone had been killed, they didn’t respond in horror–they responded by complaining about how long they’d waited in line.

“You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel.” –James 4:2 (ESV)

Think of the last argument you had. What was it about? What did you want that you didn’t have? All quarrels come from wanting. All of them. My last argument was with my wife–I wanted her to go to a movie, but she didn’t feel like it. I’ve seen people argue about being first in line, because they both want the first spot.

There is only one first spot in line. Everything you could possibly want is limited in supply. The items on sale at the Valley Stream Wal-Mart on Black Friday in 2008 were limited in supply. My wife’s time is limited in supply. If you want something that’s in short supply, you need to compete for it. You need to quarrel for it. You have no other choice.

So, how do we end quarreling? How do we create peace in the world? The only way is to stop wanting the things that are in the world, because all of these things are limited, and all of them will require us to quarrel with other people in order to get them. The only way to create peace is for each of us to want nothing.

The problem is that we all want things. It’s difficult to want nothing–in fact, it’s impossible to want nothing. We can’t create peace by wanting nothing.

We can create peace by wanting something that’s not limited. But the only not-limited thing is God–the eternal, all-knowing, infinitely-loving God. We can all want God, and we don’t need to quarrel for Him, because He’s available to us in unlimited supply. Actually, the Lord wants us to want Him: “He yearns jealously over the spirit that He has made to dwell in us.” (James 4:5, ESV)

He has made a spirit of wanting to dwell in us, and that spirit can only be peaceably satisfied when it wants Him and nothing else.

“For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. But…a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace. What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions… Draw near to God, and He will draw near to you.”

-James 3:16-4:8 (ESV)

For what does it profit a man?

“And he said to all, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?'” -Luke 9:23

“Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” -Luke 12:15

“Sell your possessions, and give to the needy.” -Luke 12:33

“Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no theif approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” -Luke 12:33-34

“Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.” -Matthew 5:42

“Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more.” -Luke 12:48

“And at the time for the banquet he sent his servant to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come, for everything is now ready.’ But they all alike began to make excuses.” -Luke 14:17-18

Forgiveness (a quote from What’s so Amazing about Grace? by Philip Yancy)

“Forgiveness–undeserved, unearned–can cut the cords and let the oppressive burden of guilt roll away. The New Testament shows a resurrected Jesus leading Peter by the hand through a three-fold ritual of forgiveness. Peter need not go through life with the guilty, hangdog look of one who has betrayed the Son of God. Oh, no. On the backs of such transformed sinners Christ would build his church.”

Yancy is alluding to is John 21:15-17. Earlier, when Jesus was taken to be crucified, Peter had denied knowing Jesus three times out of fear. He then ran and wept uncontrollably. In this passage, Jesus, now crucified and risen from the dead, guides Peter into professing his his love for Jesus three times. The other passage is Matthew 16:17, where Jesus tells Peter that he is a rock, and that Jesus would build His church–His kingdom–on Peter. I love the connection between Peter’s sin, transformation, and reception of grace with this passage in Matthew. The church is built on grace, which comes from God. We are all sinners, and without pardon from the Lord, there would be no church.

A perfect retelling of ancient truths

The other day I overheard someone saying that Christian stories are actually not very original, and that in ancient history there are scores of other stories very similar to those of the Scriptures. Predictably, the Epic of Gilgamesh was mentioned as an example.

The implication was that the Christian Scriptures are merely one tradition among many traditions, and they are insignificant when considered alongside the parallel myths of other cultures.

Actually, the implication is exactly the opposite. If you look in multiple places and in multiple different contexts, and you see the same truths expressed, shouldn’t that convince you that perhaps these things are extremely important? God has revealed truth to everyone:

“For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.” -Romans 1:19-20 (ESV)

If the stories of Scripture are true, we should expect to find some of them told in various forms in other cultures. Many of the stories predate the Bible, but this shouldn’t surprise us either. We see in Scripture that the Lord has been speaking to men and women since humanity was first created. Scripture is not an imitation of these ancient stories, it’s the crystallization of the truths in these ancient stories. After all, these truths “have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world.” 

“Those who are of faith are blessed”

History hinges on Genesis 12:1-3. Prior to this we have seen God working on the world as a whole. At least in what we have recorded, God did not significantly select one nation over the others until Genesis 12, when He calls Abraham. Here, the call becomes exclusive. God chooses Abraham. He tells Abraham that he will become a great nation. From here onward, Scripture records the history of Israel, not the history of Babylon, England, China, the United States, or any other nation.

In fact, God promises here to fight for the descendents of Abraham:

“I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” -Genesis 12:3 (ESV)

This is what we see throughout the Old Testament. God fights for Israel. He fights for them against foreign nations, but He also fights for them against their own sin and corruption. When Israel becomes corrupted, God brings Assyria and Babylon to crush them, leaving only a remnant of faithful people who will again establish the nation of Israel as it was meant to be.

Repeatedly, God chooses one thing, but not another. He chooses one nation, and not another nation. God encourages one kind of behavior, and he condemns another. Here in Genesis 12, God has chosen Israel.

The call was not one-sided. I’m sure that, if Abraham had chosen not to obey the Lord, then God would not have blessed him or fought for him. But Abraham “went, as the Lord had told him.” Just like throughout all of Israel’s history, Abraham’s obedience was a sign that he accepted God. By doing “as the Lord had told him,” Abraham was signalling to God that he would allow God to bless him and his offspring.

History hinges on Genesis 12:1-3 because in choosing Abraham, God chose you. God’s intent in exclusively choosing Abraham was that “all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” In Galatians 3:9, God tells us, in the words of Paul, that “those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.”

Abraham demonstrated that he accepted God by going where God told him to go. Through Abraham’s faith, everyone in the world can be blessed. Through Abraham’s descendants, God raised up a nation that understood Him, a nation that would be prepared for the coming of Jesus, a nation that called Jesus their Messiah, their expected One, the One who would redeem them. And through Jesus, God calls each of us. The symbol of Abraham’s faith was obedience, and the symbol of our faith is identification with Jesus–believing in Him.

But still, God’s call is exclusive. God hates evil, suffering, greed, and everything that’s wrong with the world. God blesses “those who are of faith”, but He curses evil, and if a person does not choose God, they choose evil. There are only two choices: God, or not-God. God is calling you, just as He called Abraham. Are you “of faith”? If so, Scripture is not just Israel’s history, but also your history.

“Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham.” –Galatians 3:7 (ESV)

when through you I vindicate My holiness before their eyes

God created us in His image. We were, originally, intended to be “shadows” and “pictures” of God Himself. He made us to display His holiness, power, and glory to each other and to everything on earth (see Genesis 1:26-31). But Adam sinned, and since him, each of us has sinned. In sinning, we’ve profaned God’s name. We’ve done terrible, unloving things, and instead of seeing God’s holiness in us, people around us have seen our greed, pride, and selfishness.

The beauty of redemption is that God will undo what we’ve done. Not only will He forgive us, but if we believe in His Son, He will use us to glorify Himself–to “vindicate” His holiness:

And I will vindicate the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them. And the nations will know that I am the Lord, declares the Lord God, when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes.

-Ezekiel 36:23 (ESV)

This passage was written for ancient Israel, but I believe it applies directly to modern Christians. We are the fulfillment of this prophecy. We are sons and daughters of Abraham. We have inherited the ancient Jewish privilege of being God’s people. We’re not yet perfect, but we’re being sanctified each day by the Spirit. The closer we grow to the Lord, the more He can show “the nations” His holiness in us. This is tremendously gracious. God is working for His own glory so that people can know Him, but He using us in the work. What a privilege.

If you’re redeemed, are you allowing God to vindicate His holiness through you? If you are not redeemed, why don’t you let Him begin undoing what you’ve done?

An open letter to Janet Parshall on the insignificance of politics in the kingdom of heaven

Dear Janet,

Thank you for laboring to spread the gospel of Jesus among our nation and among all the nations. I’m glad you’re a devoted sister, and I’m glad that God has blessed you with a voice, a mind, and a place to be heard.

Today, I listened to your radio show on my ride home from work. You were talking about immigration reform. In particular, during the time that I was listening, you were talking about the need find a compassionate way to deal with the some 10 million illegals who are currently in our country, and to stop new illegals from coming. You said there was a Biblical basis for enforcing our immigration laws because the Bible supports upholding the law.

On other shows, I recall hearing you talk about economic policy, middle east foreign policy, and the US Jobs bill. These are controversial issues. I believe you are doing great damage to our witness for the Lord by giving these issues such a prominent place on your radio show, and by implying–by virtue of your prime-time presence on Moody Radio–that these are important issues in our walk with the Lord.

By giving so much attention to controversial issues on a radio show that’s listened to by thousands of people, you are distracting from what should be our main concern as followers of Jesus: to love God and to love people–to glorify God and to see unbelievers come to know the Messiah as their Lord and Savior, so that they may glorify God as well.

Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

(Mark 12:28-31 ESV)

I’ve noticed that, on many of these issues, you take a conservative approach. I have no problem with this. In fact, Jesus tells us to “render to Caesar what is Caesar’s” and in a democracy, that means our vote and our honest thoughts and discussion on political issues. So yes, I affirm that Christians probably should seek to influence society through politics. However, I do not affirm that your radio show is a good place to do this. Christians disagree on whether they should be liberal or conservative. I have many good brothers and sisters in the Lord who are liberal. If we as Christians spend too much time focusing on politics, we create division within our church, and we also alienate any liberal unbelievers who might be seeking Jesus.

In the kingdom of heaven, these political issues do not matter. Jesus tells us that the kingdom He has redeemed us into is not a kingdom of this world. In fact, he completely rejects a political goal to his mission. Since we are the body of Christ, there is also no political goal to our mission as the church:

Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.”

(John 18:36 ESV)

Politics divides. Not only does politics divide, but politics does not matter in the vast, beautiful sweep of history that God is working out, and that we as Christians are blessed to be a part of. Because politics doesn’t matter, I think it qualifies as a “foolish controversy”, and Paul gives us explicit instructions about “foolish controversy” in Titus:

Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people.

(Titus 3:1-2 ESV)

But avoid foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless. As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned.

(Titus 3:9-11 ESV)

Janet, Titus was written to the leaders of the Christian church in the first century, and I believe you are one of the leaders of our church in this century. Rather than focusing on politics, which divides the church, why not focus on the gospel, on doctrine, on God’s love for unbelievers? I have heard you talk about many of these things on your show, and I have been blessed by them. Please, could you consider spending more time on these core issues and no more time on politics and other divisive issues? Earlier in Titus, Paul instructs Titus to “teach what accords with sound doctrine” and when you do this on your show, it is very good.

What concerns me the most is that these political things may stop unbelievers from coming to know Jesus as their Savior. Scripture also has words of instruction about trying to reach people outside the church. Overall, the theme is that we should avoid offending people if we don’t have to. Telling people that Jesus is the only way to be saved and that all have sinned is offensive, but those things are the core of our faith and we cannot compromise on them. Paul tells us to be at peace with all people so that we can tell them about God’s plan of redemption and renewal for their lives. (Clearly, given the widespread persecution of Christians in the world, it is not always possible. In this country, it is more possible than we often allow.):

To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.

(1 Corinthians 9:22-23 ESV)

If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.

(Romans 12:18 ESV)

Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.

(Hebrews 12:14 ESV)

We are to be “salt” in the earth, and I believe that means we are to be about our Father’s business–seeking to tell the good news, to love God, and to edify the church. This is tied inextricably with being “at peace with one another”:

Salt is good, but if the salt has lost its saltiness, how will you make it salty again? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

(Mark 9:50 ESV)

As sort of an aside before I close, I’d like to note that it may have been possible to take a different view of immigration. Our worldly government focuses on the threat of illegal immigrants to our nation’s integrity. As Christians, I believe we should think carefully about the opportunity to love and care for illegal immigrants. Ancient Israel was explicitly instructed to do this:

He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the alien, giving him food and clothing. And you are to love those who are aliens, for you yourselves were aliens in Egypt.

(Deuteronomy 10:18-19 NIV)

How can we, as a church, “love those who are aliens”? I’m not sure, but I think discussing that question may have made for equally, and perhaps more gospel-centered radio.

Janet, I don’t know you, but I love you as a sister in Christ. I hope you’ll write me back with your thoughts, and I hope you’ll carefully consider what I’ve written here. I’m posting this as an open letter on my blog, because I believe these are issues that the church as a whole needs to consider more carefully. I’ve also copied some of my friends whom I’ve discussed this with–it’s something that’s been on my heart for awhile, since Moody is the main Christian radio station in Chicago. Thanks for considering these things!

Sincerely,

Ben

Edit: Janet Parshall graciously replied to my email to her. I’m sure she is a very busy lady with lots of emails, and it was very kind of her to reply. She pointed out several errors in my original post. The errors do not change the point of my letter, but the errors were these: (1) I wrote that she said to deport illegal immigrants–she did not in any way say this. (2) I wrote that she has spoken of gun control on her show–she has not ever addressed this issue. (3) I wrote that she said these issues are important in our walk with the Lord–she has not said this.

I’m sorry for these errors. They were indiscretions, and I should have more carefully edited before writing. I have now corrected these above–the main ideas in my letter are not changed by the corrections. In regards to the third error, I have changed only a single word, because I still submit to you that, by discussing these things “in the marketplace”–on a prime-time radio show on Christian radio–she is implying that they are central to our faith.

Janet was gracious in her reply, and I hope I have been gracious in this letter. These errors were not gracious, and I’m thankful that she took the time to correct me on these points.

I will put a new spirit within you, but not for your sake

These are the themes in Ezekiel 36:22-38.

  1. In order to glorify Himself, God would restore Israel. Israel did not deserve to be restored, but by restoring Israel, He would demonstrate the holiness of His name. “It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned.” (vs. 22)
  2. God would make Israel clean again. He would change their hearts, bending their thoughts, desires, and inclinations to do His work. God’s Spirit would come to dwell within His people, and He would restore them inwardly. “I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you…And I will put my Spirit within you.” (vss. 25-27)
  3. All the nations would see God’s restoration of Israel, and they would know that God is God. “Then the nations that are left around you shall know that I am the Lord; I have rebuilt the ruined places and replanted that which was desolate. I am the Lord; I have spoken, and I will do it.” (vs. 36)

Lectio divina: Ezekiel 36:22-38

Awhile ago my pastor spent a bit of time talking about lectio divina and suggested that it was a good way to study the Scripture. I’ve tried this a few times, and the Lord has used it in my life. I would encourage you to try it as well if you’re looking for a different way to structure your quiet time. For me, it just involves reading a text repeatedly over a few days or weeks, praying about the text, and writing about the text. The idea is to spend a prolonged period of time in a small section of Scripture, so that God uses the Scripture to transform your mind and focus you on Him.

I’m going to spend a bit of time on this Scripture, and I’ll be writing my thoughts here as I do so:

“Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord GOD: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came. And I will vindicate the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them. And the nations will know that I am the LORD, declares the Lord GOD, when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes. I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God. And I will deliver you from all your uncleannesses. And I will summon the grain and make it abundant and lay no famine upon you. I will make the fruit of the tree and the increase of the field abundant, that you may never again suffer the disgrace of famine among the nations. Then you will remember your evil ways, and your deeds that were not good, and you will loathe yourselves for your iniquities and your abominations. It is not for your sake that I will act, declares the Lord GOD; let that be known to you. Be ashamed and confounded for your ways, O house of Israel.
“Thus says the Lord GOD: On the day that I cleanse you from all your iniquities, I will cause the cities to be inhabited, and the waste places shall be rebuilt. And the land that was desolate shall be tilled, instead of being the desolation that it was in the sight of all who passed by. And they will say, ‘This land that was desolate has become like the garden of Eden, and the waste and desolate and ruined cities are now fortified and inhabited.’ Then the nations that are left all around you shall know that I am the LORD; I have rebuilt the ruined places and replanted that which was desolate. I am the LORD; I have spoken, and I will do it.
“Thus says the Lord GOD: This also I will let the house of Israel ask me to do for them: to increase their people like a flock. Like the flock for sacrifices, like the flock at Jerusalem during her appointed feasts, so shall the waste cities be filled with flocks of people. Then they will know that I am the LORD.”

-Ezekiel 36:22-38 (ESV)