A New Covenant Perspective on Fasting

kamil-szumotalski-611377-unsplash.jpg

“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)

sermon05

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

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

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

Feeding on the Lord: So Much More Than a Metaphor

breadHunger. It’s one of the most basic of human desires. And in the Bible it is one of the most important concepts related to salvation, faith, and one’s experience with God.

Physically, hunger and our attempts to fill our stomaches are experiences that unite all mankind. While experienced differently in famine-afflicted Africa or affluency-afflicted America, an “empty stomach” is something that speaks to everyone.  We cannot go without food, and thus we search for something to fill us up and give us life.

Spiritually, the language of food, famine, eating, nourishment, and emptiness fills the Bible. From the plethora of fruit trees given to Adam and Eve in the Garden, to the Manna in the wilderness, to the loaves and fishes that Jesus provided for his followers, God has provided physical sustenance. At the same time, food has been a source of destruction—sin entered the world through eating the forbidden fruit; Esau lost his inheritance when he chose stew over his birthright, and Paul says that men ate and drank destruction on themselves when they wrongly ate the Lord’s Supper.

So clearly, food plays a key role in our physical and spiritual pursuit of God. At the same time, Scripture often speaks of eating metaphorically. Psalm 34:8 reads, “Taste and see that the Lord is God.” And Psalm 36:8 says that the children of man “feast on the abundance of your house, and you give them drink from the river of your delights.” Apparently, our experience with food—physical bread, meat, and drink—is meant by God to teach us what it means to feed on the Lord and drink from his streams of life.

Still, I suspect that for all we know about food, we may struggle to understand what it means to feed on the Lord. If God is Spirit (John 4:24), then how do we feed on him? And if he is invisible, where do we go to find fullness in him?

Just this last week, I preached a message on feeding on the Lord. My repeated command: Feed on the goodness and grace of God. But how? I can imagine someone saying, “That’s sounds great, but what does that mean?” So here is my answer to that question: What does it mean to feed on the God who is invisible? Continue reading

A Filter, A Lens, and A Prism: Three Ways Christ Applies the Law of Moses to New Covenant Disciples

law

One of the most challenging aspects of reading the Bible is applying the old covenant law to the new covenant follower of Christ. As the book Five Views on Law and Gospel illustrates, there are multiple ways in which Christians have sought to apply the Old Testament and its legal demands to the church today. And one of the most familiar ways is to differentiate three parts of the law.

Typically divided as moral, civil, and ceremonial, the tripartite approach to the Old Testament argues that some laws are eternal and unchanging (the moral); others are related to the theocracy given to  Israel (the civil); still others are related to the system of priests, sacrifices, and the temple (the ceremonial). In Christ, the civil and ceremonial came to their completion, while the moral law continues unabated.

The trouble with this approach is that the Old Testament never specifies the tripartite division and in many places the moral, civil, and ceremonial overlap. Still, we must make some sense of the way parts of the law continue and others do not. And historically, the tripartite division has a long tradition of helping Christians think carefully about the Bible, the Law, and the Gospel. Still, it is not the only way and there may be better approaches.
lunde

Addressing this subject, I have found help in the way Jonathan Lunde uses three images to describe the way in which Christ fulfills the law. In his book Following Jesus, the Servant Kinghe spends three chapters outlining the way Christ fulfills the law of Moses. Focusing much of his attention on the Sermon on the Mount, he specifies the way Christ functions as filter, lens, and prism. In some ways, Christ brings the laws of Moses to an end (filter); in others, he clarifies what the law already meant (lens); and still in other ways, he heightens the demands of the law (prism).

While these three approaches (filter, lens, prism) are extra-textual and only illustrative, I find them more helpful in getting at what the text says. They make us consider what Jesus does and does not say about the law. And instead of foisting an extra-textual grid on the Bible, like the tripartite division of the law, they make us listen closely to the text itself to see how Jesus mediates between old and new covenants.

Because this approach is explicitly Christ-centered, in a way that the tripartite division of the law is not, I find it to be a surer guide. Likewise, because it does not create a whole system of categorization (which the Bible does not have), it lets the text of Scripture speak. It also permits more freedom to disagree about certain points—as I do below in two ways—and helps us go back to the feet of Jesus to learn how he approaches the old and new covenants. Continue reading

Blessed are the Pure in Heart, For They Will See God (Matthew 5:27–30)

sermon05

Blessed are the Pure in Heart, For They Will See God (Matthew 5:27–30)

Sexual sin. It is a destructive issue we face more often than we like to admit.

Whether it is lust, pornography, adultery, same-sex attraction, or any number of other desires that deviate from God’s good design, we are inclined to bury these parts of our lives in the dark. Yet, in Sermon on the Mount, Jesus wisely and lovingly shines a light on our hearts. Getting to the heart of sexual sin, he explains what lust is, where it comes from, and how, by God’s new covenant grace, it be put to death.

This Sunday we looked at Matthew 5:27–30 to learn from Jesus what lust is and how to combat it. And the answer, which may or may not come as a surprise, is to look more at the beauty and goodness of God than to merely turn away from the flesh. While external barriers and accountability are helpful, it is a heart full of Christ that empowers us to flee from sexual lust.

You can listen to this sermon online, and you can find discussion questions and related resources below. In particular, there are notes below that deal directly with the subject of pornography. Continue reading