Are You Going To(o) Fast? (Matthew 6:16–18)

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Are You Going To(o) Fast? (Matthew 6:16–18)

Fasting.

If you have read the Bible, you’ve probably come across it. It’s mentioned about 75 times. Maybe you’ve even tried to it. But what is it?

Some testify to the miraculous results of this ancient practice. Others just skip over it, an impossible practice that is for “major league” Christians. And still others may be confused by the whole thing, or practice it for the wrong reason(s).

In Matthew 6:16–18, fasting for the wrong reason is what Jesus is targeting. Still, his words are not just relevant for his first century context; they also teach us important truths about denying ourselves and seeking God’s reward.

The truth is, everyone fasts every week, but I suspect most of us don’t think of it as fasting. Yet, how we deny ourselves and indulge ourselves is one of the most important things about who we are and who we are becoming.

Therefore in this week’s sermon I sought to answer a number of questions related to fasting and how Jesus’s words instruct all of us how to tune our fasting to seek the reward of knowing God. You can listen to this sermon online. Further resources about fasting can be found below, along with a few discussion questions. Continue reading

A New Covenant Perspective on Fasting

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“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret;
and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
— Matthew 6:16–18 —

This Sunday our church comes to Jesus’s words about fasting in Matthew 16:16–18. In preparation, I have read many commentaries and articles on the subject, but one question lingers: How does the new covenant impact fasting?

In his immensely helpful chapter on fasting, Donald Whitney identifies fasting as numerically greater than baptism—77 uses of fasting in the Bible, compared to 75 uses of baptism. Yet, does that mean fasting is equally important for the new covenant Christian?

I am not sure. While the Bible regularly talks about fasting, most of the occurrences are found in the Old Testament. And while every word of Old Testament is useful for our instruction, I wonder how fasting relates to the covenants? Or to turn it the other way, is there a difference between fasting under the Law and fasting under the Gospel (i.e., the Law fulfilled)? Could that explain the difference in emphasis? That is what I will try to answer below. Continue reading

Drinking Deeply from Our Father in Heaven: Nine Observations about Giving, Praying, and Fasting (Matthew 6:1–18)

didin-emelu-329478-unsplashIn the middle of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gives instructions about giving (vv. 2–4), praying (vv. 5–15), and fasting (vv. 16–18). In our church we have taken one sermon per “spiritual discipline,” but really in the structure of Matthew’s Gospel, we should read these three disciplines together. And in fact, when we do there are some observations we discover that we might not find on our own.

So here are nine observations about Matthew 6:1–18 and Jesus’s instructions about these critical elements of worship, discipleship, and spiritual communion with God.

1. Giving, praying, and fasting make up the center of the Sermon.

Sermon on the Mount Overview copy

From the structure of the sermon, we discover verses 1–18 should be read as the center of the sermon. Even more specifically, giving (vv. 2–4) and fasting (vv. 16–18) should be seen as a concentric ring around Jesus’s instructions around prayer (vv. 5–15), which itself is centered around the Lord’s Prayer. And that pray too is shaped to put three imperatives on both sides the words “on earth as it is in heaven.”

In other words, the shape observed in the image above continues right to the summit of the mountain, where we discover that prayer in the presence of our heavenly father is the goal of the Law (5:17–48) and the Prophets (6:19–7:11), as well asthe center of Jesus teaching about discipleship (6:1–18).

Moreover, because of this intentional shaping and the balanced presentation of giving and fasting around prayer, we may find that these various disciplines are not as independent as we often think. In fact, to get the full meaning of Jesus’s words we should read them together. Continue reading

Like Father, Like Sons: A Father-Oriented Approach to Christian Maturity (Matthew 5:43–48)

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Like Father, Like Sons: A Father-Oriented Approach to Christian Maturity (Matthew 5:43–48)

“Be mature as your Heavenly Father is perfectly mature.” It doesn’t have the same ring as “Be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect,” but it may be closer to the reality of what Jesus is saying in Matthew 5:48.

On Sunday we finished the last of six expositions of the law that Jesus gives in Matthew 5:43–48. And as Jesus addresses the topic of love and hate, we learn how to grow up in Christ and to become more like our Heavenly Father.

You can listen to the sermon online. Discussion questions and further resources are listed below.  Continue reading

What Should We Think About the Imprecatory Psalms?

angel-clouds-weather-vera-161199Imprecatory psalms (e.g., Pss 5, 10, 17, 35, 58, 59, 69, 70, 79, 83, 109, 129, 137, 140) are those psalms which call upon God to destroy the enemies of God. They come from the anguished hearts of persecuted Israelites, and they include some of the most shocking words in the Bible. Take just a few examples.

Psalm 35 provides one of the most acceptable imprecatory Psalms. Verses 4–6 read,

Let them be put to shame and dishonor
who seek after my life!
Let them be turned back and disappointed
who devise evil against me!
Let them be like chaff before the wind,
with the angel of the LORD driving them away!
Let their way be dark and slippery,
with the angel of the LORD pursuing them!
(Psalm 35:4–6)

In Psalm 109, the language gets more severe as David calls for the personal ruination of the wicked.

Appoint a wicked man against him;
let an accuser stand at his right hand.
When he is tried, let him come forth guilty;
let his prayer be counted as sin!
May his days be few;
may another take his office!
May his children be fatherless
and his wife a widow!
May his children wander about and beg,
seeking food far from the ruins they inhabit!
May the creditor seize all that he has;
may strangers plunder the fruits of his toil!
Let there be none to extend kindness to him,
nor any to pity his fatherless children!
May his posterity be cut off;
may his name be blotted out in the second generation!
May the iniquity of his fathers be remembered before the LORD,
and let not the sin of his mother be blotted out!
Let them be before the LORD continually,
that he may cut off the memory of them from the earth!
(Psalm 109:6–15)

Finally, in Psalm 137 David pronounces a benediction on those who destroy the children of the wicked:

Remember, O LORD, against the Edomites
the day of Jerusalem,
how they said, “Lay it bare, lay it bare,
down to its foundations!”
O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed,
blessed shall he be who repays you
with what you have done to us!
Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones
and dashes them against the rock!
(Psalm 137:7–9)

Due to their graphic violence and divine approval—they are in the Bible, after all—many Protestant liberals have charged the God of Israel with violence unbecoming a deity. Other modern readers have written off Christianity entirely because of the imprecatory Psalms and Israel’s violent history. Even for gospel-loving, grace-proclaiming Christians, the inspired cries for vengeance make us feel uncomfortable. They don’t immediately fit our normal grid for a God who is love. What, therefore, should we think about the imprecatory Psalms?

A few years ago, my PhD Supervisor and good fried, Stephen Wellum, gave a Sunday School lesson on these psalms, and what follows is an amplified outline of his lesson. Continue reading

Common Grace: How God Blessed the Nations in the Age of Abraham

rainbowGod’s covenant with Noah is often described as the covenant of common grace, and rightly so. In the wake of God’s judgment on the earth, the heart of humanity remains unchanged (cp. Gen. 6:5 and 8:21), yet for God to bring redemption to the world, some measure of preservation must be granted. Therefore, with strong covenantal language—berith occurs 7 times (vv. 9, 11, 12, 13, 15, 16, 17) in Genesis 9—God promises to uphold creation: “While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease” (8:22).

These promises to Noah envelope all creation and articulate God’s common grace—his universal beneficence towards a world filled with sin. In other words, common grace is common because it encompasses all humanity universally, not because it is mundane. Common grace is distinct from saving grace in that the former does not atone for sins or grant eternal life. Rather, it grants “grace” to the righteous and the unrighteous (cf. Matthew 5:45) and provides a historical context for saving grace to operate.

That being said, common grace is not equally apportioned. It is not like the periodic table, where every element possesses the same atomic weight. Rather, common grace is specific in that it often depends upon the saving grace given to God’s chosen people. In other words, just as common grace is promised through the Noahic covenant, so common grace continues to be mediated through other covenantal mediators. In Scripture, the first instance of this is Abraham.
Continue reading

The Lord’s Supper as the Origin of Christ-Centered Hermeneutics

jesus.jpegThere are many arguments for reading the Bible with Christ at the center. But where do they come from? Are they the product of biblical interpreters? Or is there a source found in Scripture itself?

In answer to this question, the best place to see the Bible’s Christ-centeredness may come from Christ himself. Not only does he say explicitly that all Scripture speaks of him (John 5:39), but in the Passover he interprets the most important event in Israel’s history as his own. As Alastair Roberts and Andrew Wilson note, “Jesus is specifically identifying the unleavened bread as representing his body, . . . and he is telling his Jewish followers to celebrate the Passover in memory of him, not just their liberation from slavery in Egypt” (29). Continue reading

Approaching the Lord’s Table *Together*

debby-hudson-589680-unsplash.jpgFor the last century, entertainment has becoming increasingly individualized. From the inception of record players, to drive-in theaters with individual speakers, to the release of headphones, and now the ever-common individualized playlist, we are a people trained to consume the world as individuals.

And when we bring that approach to God, we can easily think of our spiritual lives as “me and Jesus” time. We are encouraged to devote time to our personal devotions, to listen to our favorite iPod teachers, and make confession in journals (we may never share with others). And while there is something good about a personal relationship with the Lord, it can train us be far too individualistic when we approach the Lord.

And if this is true in general, it is especially true at the Lord’s Table. Continue reading

Discipleship and the Church: 12 Quotes from Mark Dever’s Book on Discipling

discDiscipling: How to Help Others Follow Jesus by Mark Dever is one of the most practical books on discipling I’ve read on the subject. And the reason why it is so practical is its unrelenting focus on the local church.

While many books on discipleship talk about how Jesus discipled others, or how we can make disciples, Discipling sets discipleship in the context of the local church. More than how-to book for individuals, it persuasively argues that the church is theplace for discipleship. In fact, only as churches disciple will they grow in vitality. And only as discipling takes place in the church will disciples grow in the place designed by the Lord.

Indeed, because this focus on the church is often missed in discussions about discipleship, I would highly commend anyone who cares about the church or the growth of Christians to read this book. This week, our church men’s group will be discussing its contents, and in preparation for that, let me share a dozen or so quotations from Discipling. These quotes highlight the ecclesial nature of discipleship found in Mark Dever’s book, and hopefully they both capture the shape of his argument and whet your appetite to read the book. Continue reading

How Does Jesus Fulfill the Law? Christ, His Teaching, and the New Covenant

jon-tyson-195064-unsplashIn Matthew 5:17 Jesus says that he has not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets, but to fulfill them. And as D. A. Carson has observed about these verses, “The theological and canonical ramifications of one’s exegetical conclusions . . . are so numerous that discussion becomes freighted with the intricacies of biblical theology” (“Matthew,” 141).

In other words, it is really easy to import one’s biblical framework into Jesus’s words. For how one understands the law and its use in the New Testament and how the New Testament relates to the Old Testament, will in large measure impact the way one understands Jesus’s words, which in turn reinforces, or reforms, our biblical-theological framework.

Therefore, the question before is, “How do we stay on the line of Scripture when we interpret Matthew 5:17”? By comparison with Matthew 10:34 (“I have not come to bring peace, but a sword”) and Matthew 5:9 (“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God”), we learn that Jesus “non-abolishment clause” in Matthew 5:17 may not be absolute. Sharing the same structure as Matthew 5:17, Matthew 10:34 does not mean Jesus has forsaken his peace-making ways. Rather, his peace-making will include the restructuring (and severing) of family relations in order to make a new family of  peace.

From this analogy, we learn there are some things in the Law that have come to an end—e.g., Hebrews indicates that Christ’s sacrifice ends the old covenant system of animal sacrifice. Therefore, we should go back to Jesus’s words to learn how to apply the Law. And thankfully, because of Matthew’s repeated and technical usage of the word “fulfill”/”fulfillment” (pleroō), we can get a good idea of how to understand the relationship of the Law to Christ and from Christ to us.  Continue reading