Be Slow to Judge and Quick to Make Peace: What Pastors Can Learn from Doubting Thomas

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19 Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20 for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.
— James 1:19–20 —

In the Bible Thomas gets a bad rap. In the face of seeing Christ’s death on the cross and not seeing Christ’s resurrection, the apostle, who previously volunteered to die with Christ (John 11:16), is unable to believe. For a whole week this beloved follower of Christ is kept in the dark, and not until Jesus returns to the Upper Room does he believe. But when Thomas does believe—he offers one of the most illuminating testimonies of Christ’s identity: “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28).

There are many lessons we can draw from Thomas’s delayed faith, but one of the most important is that faith is based on evidence. The Christian faith is not a leap in the dark; it is based on the evidential history that Jesus rose from the grave, walked on the earth for forty days, so that he could teach his disciples about the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 15:1–8; Acts 1:1–8). In that time, Jesus revealed himself to 500 disciples at one time, before his ascended to heaven in the presence of his followers (Acts 1:9–11). In short, God granted to those who saw the resurrected Christ.

With respect to Thomas’s doubt, his request for the physical body does not deny his faith; it ensures his faith is placed rightly in the resurrected Christ. Even today, faith is dependent on the eye-witness account of Christ’s physical resurrection (1 John 1:1–3). Thomas did not have that yet, and thus his delayed faith testifies to the need for eye-witness testimony.

At the same time, there’s second lesson to be learned from Thomas and his doubt. It relates to faith and evidence too, but it is not about believing the gospel but believing other believers. Until Jesus showed himself to Thomas, there was a division in the household of faith. Ironically, this is a division caused by Christ himself, as he revealed himself to his disciples at different times. But it is a division nonetheless, and one Jesus remedied when he returned to the Upper Room a week later.

Truth Takes Time to Perceive

Today, believers do not find themselves in the same position as the original disciples. For us, the gospel has come fully formed. Christ is exalted to God’s right hand of God, the Spirit has been poured out, and the New Testament has been finished. Hence, the transitional nature (which led to the temporary division between Thomas and the disciples) is not repeated today.

What is repeated are events in the life of the church where one member or one group come to see or understand something that others have not (yet) understood. This knowledge and belief may be a theological truth, a decision for ministry, or a situation of church discipline.

In such cases, believers may come to understand a doctrine or a situation at different times. Like runners traversing the same course, they may have different opinions on the race—not because they are on different paths but because they are looking at different sections of the course. In such instances, painful divisions can occur and tear apart the body of Christ. But unlike the division which Christ intended in the days following his resurrection, this division is not intended by Christ. Or is it?

Could it be that God plans temporary divisions in the church that cause his people to learn how to listen to one another? Could it be that various churches or individuals have different degrees of theological understanding or practical wisdom on various issues? And could it be that God wants his people not only to be at peace, but to learn how to make peace with one another?

Indeed, if we listen to the Bible, we see that God’s children are not just at peace with God (Rom. 5:1) and one another (Eph. 4:1–3), we are to be peacemakers (Matt. 5:9). And pastors are to be the ones who lead in making peace in the church. Continue reading

Sinai and Zion: How Learning the Terrain of God’s Holy Hill Helps Us Read Isaiah

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[This blogpost is one of many on Isaiah, this month’s focus book in the Via Emmaus Bible Reading Plan. For more resources on Isaiah, see here].

In the book of Isaiah, the word “Zion” and the concept of the Lord’s holy mountain is prominent. Yet, Zion is not something that only appears in Isaiah, it is a theme that runs through Scripture. In the days ahead, I hope to put a few notes down on this concept.

For starters, consider the observations of Stephen Dempster, author of Dominion and Dynasty: A Study in Old Testament Theology. Describing the connection between Zion and Sinai, he writes (on an old blog that had so much promise . . . but little fulfillment :-):

I have been just reading and thinking about the whole relation between Sinai and Zion. Hartmut Gese’s chapter on The Law in his book Essays in Biblical Theology is extremely stimulating. . . . Gese makes the point that the Torah given at Sinai was given to one nation and there was an exclusive emphasis on it—a wall of separation was erected between the Holy and the Unholy. When the covenant was made and the atonement was made, representatives of Israel were allowed to ascend the mountain and eat and drink with God. The text clearly says that they saw God and were not harmed (ch. 24). They had unbroken fellowship with their Creator. Continue reading

How to Use the Via Emmaus Bible Reading Plan

bible 2.jpegYesterday I introduced the Via Emmaus Reading Plan. Today I want to share a few aims of this reading plan, as well as ways to customize it for your personal reading. If what follows sounds like a personal trainer talking, it is. My undergraduate degree (Exercise Science) and one of the most recent books I read (Hearers and Doers by Kevin Vanhoozer) both contribute to the belief that pastors should be fitness instructors for the church. Vanhoozer even calls them “body builders”—very witty and very true!

So here’s a Bible reading plan complete with various stages for different “fitness” levels. For those who have never read the Bible before, there is a way to start reading the Bible and learn about Christ with God’s people. And for those who have been reading the Bible for decades, this approach will hopefully incorporate many familiar practices to help saturate yourself with biblical truth.

For sake of order, I will answer four questions to explain how this Bible reading plan works and how you can tailor it to match your time, interest, and desires. Here are the four questions:

  1. What is the aim of this Bible reading plan?  Or what makes the Via Emmaus Bible reading plan unique?
  2. How does this plan work? Really?!?
  3. How do I read in community? Where can I find a community?
  4. What sort of supplements should I take (read) with my Bible reading? Or, how do I increase of decrease the load?

Let’s take each in turn. Continue reading

Reading for Scripture Saturation: Introducing the Via Emmaus Bible Reading Plan

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How can a young man keep his way pure?
By guarding it according to your word.
10  With my whole heart I seek you;
let me not wander from your commandments!
11  I have stored up your word in my heart,
that I might not sin against you.
12  Blessed are you, O Lord;
teach me your statutes!
— Psalm 119:9–12 —

With 2019 ending and 2020 approaching, many are thinking about how they might read the Bible in the new year. And rightly so—the Word of God is not a trifle; it is our very life (Deut. 32:47). Man does not live on bread alone, but on the very word that proceeds from the mouth of God (Deut. 8:3; Matt. 4:4). So we should aim to read the Bible and to read it often!

Truly, the Bible is not a book to read once, or even once a year. It is meant to be imbibed and inhabited, adored and adorned, studied and savored. Mastery of the Bible does not mean comprehensive understanding of Scripture; it means ever-increasing submission to the Master who speaks in Scripture. This is why in the closing days of the year, it’s good to consider how we can saturate ourselves with Scripture in the next year.

Personally though, I wonder if our daily reading plans help us with this idea of Scripture saturation. Often, such plans call for reading single chapters from various parts of the Bible. And the daily routine can invite checking the box without understanding the book. So my question has been: does such reading help us or hinder us in our Bible reading? Continue reading

Rhythms of Grace: Three Reflections on Worship

sarah-noltner-F5-Z1H7lJaA-unsplash.jpg[This post is written by Matt Wood with a little help from me. Matt is a member at Occoquan Bible Church, where you will often find him engrossed in discussion about theology and leading our congregation in song.]

Do you find yourself in God’s gospel story week to week?

How does the gospel inform worship?

What should we include and exclude in our Sunday morning services?

These are just a couple of the questions Mike Cosper answers in his book, Rhythms of Grace: How the Church’s Worship Tells the Story of the Gospel. Written by a pastor who has led music in the church for decades, his book is fantastic for all worshipers in the church. In what follows, we will see three points about worship from Cosper’s illuminating book. Continue reading

Blessed Are the Peacemakers: Six Old Testament Lessons for the New Testament Church

jonathan-farber-_lpQA9ox6IA-unsplash.jpgWhen the Western tribes of Israel heard that Reuben, Gad, and the half tribe of Manasseh built an altar near the Jordan River, they were ready to go to war (Josh. 22:10–12). This altar threatened God’s favor on Israel, and the obedient sons of Israel were ready to act. Fortunately, before they took up swords against their brothers, they sent a delegation to inquire about this altar.

This peace-keeping mission is what Joshua 22:10–34 describes, and in these verses we find a tremendous model for peace-making in the church today.  In what follows, we will consider six priorities for genuine reconciliation.

Six Priorities for Peace-Making 

First, peace requires a faithful (high) priest.

When the Western tribes learned of the altar, they gathered at Shiloh to make war. Only before proceeding on that path, they sent a priest by the name of Phinehas. Phinehas is well-known to us because of his actions in Numbers 25. There, he atoned for the sins of the people by taking a spear in his own hand and killing Zimri and Cozbi. This appeased God, ended the plague brought on by Israel’s sexual immorality, and proved Phinehas’s faithfulness as a priest.

Now, following his lead, the delegation of Israel went to inquire of their brothers. What becomes apparent in this peace negotiation is that these brothers acted in faith and did not sin against God or them. Thus, a faithful priest was necessary for making peace. Only now with the split between the tribes of Israel, peace is made by putting the sword down and not going to war. The lesson in this is that faithful priests knew how to divide clean and unclean (Lev. 10:11). Phinehas excellence, therefore, is proved by his ability to make this decision.

At the same time, it is vital to see that a priest is still needed to make peace. In the new covenant, Christ is the peace of his people, one who has made peace by his cross and one who preaches peace to those far and near (Eph. 2:14–17). Moreover, Jesus lives to intercede for his brothers (Heb. 7:25). Thus, the unity of the church is preserved by Christ and his priesthood.

Likewise, Jesus as our great high priest also teaches God’s people how to be priests to one another. As Matthew 5:9 says, those who make peace prove themselves to sons of God, which is to say, they prove themselves to be faithful priests in God’s household. (Faithful sonship was always the source of true priesthood). Today, if the church has any unity, it is because Christ is the one who is mediating the new covenant and praying effectively for his people to become peace-makers. Continue reading

A City on a Hill: What the Levitical Cities Teach the Church About Glorifying God Together (Joshua 20–21)

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A City on a Hill: What the Levitical Cities Teach the Church About Glorifying God

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus called his followers a city on a hill (Matthew 5:14–16). This title has often been used to speak of America, as well as other institutions of moral influence. Yet, it is most appropriately applied to the church. This is seen throughout the New Testament (cf. 1 Peter 2), but we also find this idea in the Old Testament.

In this week’s sermon on Joshua 20–21, Israel’s role spreading God’s light to the nations is seen in the cities God established for refuge and instruction. In fact, by learning about the purposes the cities of refuge (Josh. 20) and Levitical cities (Josh. 21), we learn much about God’s purposes for his people. This has historical relevance for understanding the nation of Israel. But it also has theological application for Christ and his new covenant people.

You can listen to this sermon online. Discussion questions are additional resources are available below.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds Continue reading

The Wisdom of God at Work in Israel and the Church: 10 Things About Joshua 20–21

michel-porro-vfaFxFltAvA-unsplashAfter seven chapters about dividing the land, Joshua 20–21 focuses on two types of cities in Israel—cities of refuge (ch. 20) and cities of Levites (ch. 21). From the role of these cities, we learn a great deal about God and his plans for his people—both in Israel and today. Here are ten things about Joshua 20–21.

1. Joshua 20–21 are unified with Joshua 13–19.

While many commentators legitimately distinguish the distribution of the cities in Joshua 20–21 from the distribution of the land, the order of the chapters shows us how Joshua 20–21 provides balance to a chiastic structure that ranges from Joshua 13–21.

A Introduction (13:1) – Joshua was old and advanced in years

B1 Remaining Lands (13:2–7)
B2a Eastern Lands with Moses (13:8–33)
B2b Western Lands with Joshua (14:1–5)

C Caleb (14:6–15) – Son of Judah Receives the Future Royal City of Hebron

D1 Judah (15:1–63) – The Greatest Emphasis is Placed on Judah
D2 Joseph (16:1–17:18) – Ephraim and Half of Manasseh

E Levi (18:1–10) – The Center of Israel’s Worship at Shiloh

D1’ Benjamin/Simeon (18:11–19:9) –  2 tribes associated with Judah
D2’ Five (19:10–48) –  5 tribes associated with Joseph

C’ Joshua (19:49–51) – Son of Ephraim

B1’ The Cities of Refuge (20:1–9)
B2a’ The Levitical Cities Outlined (21:1–8) – Primary Focus on Sons of Aaron
B2b’ The 48 Levitical Cities Listed (21:9–42) – Primary Focus on Aaron and Hebron (vv. 9–19)

A’ Conclusion (21:43–45) — All that God had promised the forefathers has been fulfilled

The importance of this literary structure is what comes in the middle, namely the arrangement of the land around the tabernacle (Josh 18:1–10). From this central feature, we are keyed to see how the association of Aaron with Hebron foreshadows the later connection between David and the priesthood. Moreover, the role of the Levitical cities helps us to understand how the whole nation was blessed by the Levitical priesthood and how the Levites directed the attention of the people to God’s dwelling place.

In what follows, we will see how these priestly themes recur in Joshua 20–21. Continue reading

Give Thanks For the Gifts Jesus Gives You: A Thanksgiving Meditation on Ephesians 4

pro-church-media-p2OQW69vXP4-unsplash.jpgBut grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it says, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives,
and he gave gifts to men.”
— Ephesians 4:7–8 —

As we approach Thanksgiving, it is good to remember that thanksgiving is more than a feeling prompted by turkey and stuffing. Thanksgiving is a way of life for those who have been redeemed by the blood of Christ. And thanksgiving is one of the chief ways that Jesus builds up his church.

Here’s what I mean: Scripture teaches us that we are created to give thanks to God for all that he has given to us. We praise him for his good gifts in creation, and we adore him especially for his mercy in salvation. Yet, in Paul’s letters to the churches, there is peculiar focus on giving thanks for the people whom Christ has given us. And it is worth considering this particular gift as we celebrate Thanksgiving. Continue reading