Imagine . . . : 16 Observations on Imagination, Theology, Discipleship, and the Church

michael-aleo-DpgzNS1yvWg-unsplash.jpg“Imagine there’s no heaven.”
— John Lennon —

“Many churches are suffering from malnourished imaginations,
captive to culturally conditioned pictures of the good life.”
— Kevin J. Vanhoozer —

In seminary I took a class called “The Worshipping Church,” where one of our assignments included visiting churches outside our denomination. In one of those visits, I went to a local Roman Catholic Church, where before, during, or after the service (I cannot remember), the instrumentalist played the song “Imagine” by John Lennon. If you are unfamiliar, the lyrics begin

Imagine there’s no heaven / It’s easy if you try
No hell below us / Above us only sky

Admittedly, the instrumental tune is soothing, but the casual denial of heaven and hell is satanic. And though the words were not sung aloud in the service, to anyone familiar with the song, it was not too difficult to imagine what the song was saying.

I bring up this occasion not to bemoan the presence of that song in church—it’s exclusion from the worship set should be obvious. I bring up the song “Imagine” to observe the lack of imagination that cripples so many of God’s churches. As Kevin Vanhoozer has observed, “Many churches are suffering from malnourished imaginations, captive to culturally conditioned pictures of the good life.”

Going further, Kevin Vanhoozer’s book, Hearers and Doers: A Pastor’s Guide to Making Disciples through Scripture and Doctrine, reiterates the need for churches to engage the imagination. Indeed, this is more than a hat tip to the arts; as Vanhoozer argues, imagination is a necessary (and biblical!) step between theory and practice, between faith and love.

As he has (for years) sought to bridge the chasm between knowledge and action with what he calls “theodrama” or “the drama of doctrine,” Vanhoozer rightly observes the importance of imagination. And in what follows I want to cite sixteen of his observations on this subject and why it is so vital for the church. Continue reading

For Disciples and Disciplers . . . A Short Biblical Survey of Beauty

waterfallAnd we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. . . . In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. 5 For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. 6 For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
— 2 Corinthians 3:18; 4:4–6 —

In recent days I have become increasingly convinced that biblical teaching, preaching, and discipleship must do more than transmit information. We must proclaim the Truth of God with the same beauty that we find in Scripture. Indeed, the Spirit of Truth did not inspire the Word in some drab and dull way. It is filled with poetry, irony, mystery, and symmetry—in a word, beauty. And the more we see such Christ-centered beauty, the more we will understand God’s Word and become like the Word made flesh.

To put it biblically, if salvation comes from seeing the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 4:4–6), than sanctification is beautification, where the disciples of Christ reflect the glory of God in ever-increasing ways (2 Cor. 3:18). As Kevin Vanhoozer puts it, “The ‘holy array’ in which the priests of ancient Israel worshiped God (1 Chron 16:29, RSV) now becomes the righteousness of Christ (Gal 3:27), the humility (1 Pet 5:5) that clothes all believers” (Kevin Vanhoozer, Pictures at a Theological Exhibition129). Continue reading

What Hath the Lord’s Supper To Do with Baptism (pt. 2)

ryan-loughlin--a8Cewc-qGQ-unsplashYesterday, I began to consider the necessary unity of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, or to put it differently, why baptism is the necessary prerequisite for the Lord’s Supper. Today, I will make a biblical-theological case for why this unity should be believed and practiced.

By looking at how the whole Bible sets the stage for Christ’s two ordinances, we find a compelling reason for practicing them together and in order—baptism first, then the Lord’s Table. Or as we will see from Joshua, the Lord’s is for those who have passed over the waters of baptism and entered God’s land. This is physically and historically true with old covenant Israel; this is symbolically and personally true for every member of God’s new covenant.

It will take a little bit of time to see all the pieces of this argument, but for those willing to put in the effort, there is a great reward for seeing how Scripture unifies God’s ordinances and explains their place in the life of the Church and the Christian today. In what follows, I will offer two presuppositions and four reasons for why the Lord’s Supper requires baptism. Continue reading

Glorifying God in the Grind of Life

christ.jpegQ. What is the chief end of man?
A. To glorify God and know him forever.
— Westminster Shorter Catechism, Question 1 —

There is nothing more important than knowing why you exist. And nothing provides a better answer than this: You were created to glorify God.

Speaking to the people he was redeeming from the nations, God says in Isaiah 43:6–7,

I will say to the north, Give up, and to the south, Do not withhold; bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the end of the earth, everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.”

Speaking of the purpose of redemption, Paul says a millenia later that God predestined, called, and justified his people, so that he could glorify them (Rom 8:29–30). While God does not give his glory to another (Isa 42:8; 48:11); he does all things for his glory, including making mankind in his image to reflect his glory to the world.

Indeed, Habakkuk 2:14, echoing Numbers 14:21 and Isaiah 6:3, says, “For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” Indeed creation exists as a canvas for God’s glory and mankind exists to know, enjoy, and magnify God’s glory.

It is impossible to read the Bible for any length of time without running into this theme. And it is equally impossible to find our purpose or God’s purpose for us, without attending to this lofty ideal. Yet, because it is lofty, the idea of God’s glory may seem unreachable or mysterious. What does it mean to live for God’s glory, or Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians 10:31—to eat, and drink, and do all things for the glory of God?

That’s the question I will be trying to answer tonight as our college and career ministry kicks off it’s first meeting. In the coming weeks, our church will host a college and career gathering at 7:00pm on the second and fourth Wednesday of the month. The goal is to equip Christians, explore topics of faith for Christians and non-Christians, and to provide a place of mid-week fellowship for those in this seasons of life.

Because the glory of God is so central to life—and also so enigmatic—we will spend our summer thinking about how the glory of God presses into all areas of life. Indeed, we will not fully comprehend God’s glory in our earthly life, nor in eternity—where we will always be experiencing more of his glory—always satisfied and seeking more.

That said, here’s a part of tonight’s lesson, plus a list of future topics we’ll consider. Continue reading

Learning from the Past to Be Faithful in the Present: Four Reasons Why Church History Matters

church historyGod’s people are a people of history. Because our faith stands or falls with the historical events of Christ’s death and resurrection (1 Cor. 15)—not to mention all the historical events leading up to Christ’s advent—Christians are a people who should care deeply about history. Yet, often we don’t.

Non-denominational Christians, especially, know little about what happened before Billy Graham. Many know something of the Reformation, but few know what happened between John on Patmos and Martin Luther in Wittenberg. This is unfortunate, because we learn a great deal about our faith, the church, and the gospel by looking at all periods of church history.

To that end, this Sunday and next, we will consider deacons from an historical perspective. While our doctrinal formulations and church practices are founded on Scripture, we are benefitted by looking at church history to see how faithful (and unfaithful) churches have thought about and employed deacons. Still, before considering that subject, it might be worthwhile to remember why church history matters and how to rightly approach church history. Continue reading

Reading the Bible Better in 2019

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The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul;
the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple;
the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes;
the fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever;
the rules of the Lord are true, and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb.
Moreover, by them is your servant warned;
in keeping them there is great reward.
— Psalm 19:7–11 —

On the eve of 2019, I want to share a new podcast that our church will host in the new year. In conjunction with our church-wide Bible reading plan, which is based on Robert Murray McCheyne’s classic plan, we are going to offer a weekly podcast that answers questions from the Bible and helps us to read the Bible . . . . and read the Bible better.

If this blog has been helpful to you over the last few years, perhaps this podcast will also be of interest. My hope is to help our church and those who listen in to read Scripture more and better—which I might define as seeing Christ more clearly and more fully in all of Scripture. As Jesus taught his disciples, all the Scriptures point to him (Luke 24:27; John 5:39). Yet, often we can miss how Scripture points to Christ.

For some time, I have found the most helpful books and teachers are the ones who help me see more of Christ from the whole Bible. In this blog, I have sought to share their observations and some of my own with you. In recent months, I have written very little on this blog as I’ve been finishing up a manuscript on a biblical theology priesthood.

That manuscript will be finished, Lord willing, by the end of January. After that I hope to resume more writing here. Until then, and after, I pray this podcast will serve as a catalyst for conversations about Christ from all Scripture and will complement the biblical-theological writing found on this blog.

If you are interested in listening to this podcast, you can find a button on the right side of my website, a webpage on our church website, and (in time perhaps) we’ll be able to link this podcast to Apple or wherever you find your podcasts.

As the hours tick down in 2018, let me encourage you to make plans to read the Bible in 2019. If you don’t have a plan for reading, consider using McCheyne’s reading plan. If you do have a plan, let me encourage you to read the Bible in community—ideally, in your local church. And if this blog or podcast can be of help to you in reading the Bible and reading it with an eye to Christ, then let me know some of the questions you have as you read Scripture. In print or on air, I will seek to answer them, as we seek to know more of Christ together.

Indeed, God’s Word is an incredible gift to us. May we see it as the treasure it is and shape our lives to read it and read it better, so that our wet be changed by it and our triune God would receive the glory he deserves!

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

The Cost of Discipleship: How the Historical Context of Hebrews Teaches Us How to Read This Book

hebrewsTonight we begin our verse-by-verse study of Hebrews in our weekly Bible study. Last week we looked at the book as a whole. You can find the audio and introductory notes here.

This week we will consider the first four verses, which introduce Hebrew’s “word of exhortation” (13:25) to a people suffering oppression (10:32–34) and tempted to shrink back from their Great High Priest. Indeed, as the book unfolds we become quite aware that the author of this book has a great concern for the enduring faith of these afflicted disciples. To understand, therefore, the pastoral intent of Hebrews we need to know something of the historical context.

And while many particulars about Hebrews are impossible to discern (like who wrote the book), we can put together a fairly accurate picture of who is addressed, where, and when. In fact, in his short commentary on Hebrews (A Call to Commitment), William Lane provides a clear picture of the letter’s background from the available content of Hebrews and the history of Rome in the first century. Here’s what he finds, Continue reading

Be a Table Host, Not a Dinner Party Speaker: Ten Ways to Create Meaningful Discussion in Your Next Bible Study

priscilla-du-preez-697322-unsplash.jpgIn the Bible we learn that preaching is not the only way God’s Word is communicated. In the Old Testament, the Levites are seen explaining the Law to the people of Israel (Nehemiah 8:7–8). And in the New Testament, Paul says of his ministry, “I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house” (Acts 20:20).

In both of these contexts, teaching occurred in small groups, where God’s teachers could answers questions, give the sense of the word (Nehemiah 8:8), and lead discussions about applying the Law to life (see Ezra’s approach in Nehemiah 8:10). Today, teachers of the Word are called to do the same, and experienced teachers will master the art and science of leading discussion that is fundamentally different than just declaring what Scripture says.

To lead this kind of dialogue profitably is challenging and takes time—a lifetime even—to master, but it is invaluable for helping disciples of Christ learn to read Scripture, ask questions, think with others, and apply truth to life. And in what follows, I want to suggest ten principles for leading a good discussion. Four of them simply relate to question-asking; the other have to do with developing a conviction for the value of discussion and the need to change your preparation habits for leading discussion, as opposed to preaching.

I pray these principles may be helpful. If there are other ways you have learned to facilitate discussion, please share in the comments. Continue reading

The Truth about Treasure (Matthew 6:19–24)

sermon05The Truth about Treasure (Matthew 6:19–24)

What hath Athens to do with Jerusalem?

This is Tertullian’s famous question contrasting the difference between divine truth and man-made philosophy. And it highlights the challenge of living in this world with our eyes fixed upon another.

In a similar fashion, we might ask the same question about our rewards: What hath dollars to do with eternal destinies?

Indeed, in a world where money motivates, secures, comforts, and corrupts, we are painfully aware of the problems that money (and its lack) bring. Yet, as Jesus instructs us in Matthew 6:19–24, our earthly riches also provide an important avenue for discipleship and increasing our eternal joy. The question is how!

With that in mind, Sunday’s sermon considered Jesus’s teaching about earthly and heavenly reward. You can listen to that sermon online. Discussion questions and additional resources can be found below.

Continue reading

God’s Currency Exchange: How God Funds His Gospel Mission

pina-messina-465025-unsplashOver the summer, our church considered many of the things Jesus said about money. In a Sunday School series following Randy Alcorn’s The Treasure Principle, we learned much about how to invest our lives in things eternal. This Sunday, in our Sermon on the Mount series, we will again look at Jesus’s words about storing up treasure in heaven and not on earth.

Reflecting on this passage, I am reminded of an article I read more than 15 years ago on the subject of money and how it can be and should be “converted.” “Transmuted,” not converted, is actually the word R.A. Torrey used in his article, “Our Lord’s Teaching about Money,” but converting earthly riches into heavenly gain is the idea.

This article is actually more than 100-years old now, included in the historic 12-volume set The Fundamentals, but the truths contained therein are just as relevant today as they were in 1909. Indeed, God’s truth is eternal and his principles about all of life, including money, are evergreen. Yet, the point about converting currency into earthly treasure is one I haven’t heard often, thus I share Torrey’s point here.

Currency Conversion: How God Funds His Gospel Mission

In Torrey’s article on money, he lists nine “laws” Jesus taught about money. Each are worth considering, but it’s his final point about converting money into eternal rewards that has always stuck with me. And so I share it here: Continue reading