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

Grace on Display: In Paul’s Ministry and Christ’s Church (Ephesians 3:1–13)

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Grace on Display: In Paul’s Ministry and Christ’s Church

Most of the time when we read the Bible we seek to make direct application to ourselves. Because the Bible is for our instruction and sanctification, this is absolutely right. Sometimes in Scripture, however, we find that the first application is not to ourselves. Ephesians 3:1–13 is one of those instances, and yet it is also a passage bubbling over with grace for the believer.

As I preached on Ephesians 3:1–13, I sought to show the grace of God in Paul’s ministry, the grace of God’s in Paul’s gospel, and the grace that culminates in Christ’s Church. In short, even though this passage Paul reflects about God’s grace to him, it can strengthen our confidence in God’s grace as we understand how God has worked in church history and in what God intends for the church today.

Because my sermon deviated so much from my original notes, I am not including those this week. But you can find the sermon online. Discussion questions and additional resources can be found below.  Continue reading

From Dust to Trust: Rebuilding Shattered Dreams with the God of the Psalms (Psalms 90–106)

the-psalmsWhat happens when your dreams are pulverized? To whom do you turn? Where do you run?

In the Psalms, Book 3 (Psalms 73–89) concludes with the crushing news that the crown of David had been buried in the dust of the earth. In short, because of Israel’s sin, and the sin of David’s sons in particular, God permitted the nations of Egypt and Babylon to plunder and then exile the nation of Judah. In 586 B.C., the final phase of God’s judgment sent the exiles to Babylon, destroyed the temple, and ended the rule of David’s sons.  Second Chronicles 36 tells of this exile. And Psalms 88–89 sing of the horror of these events, wondering even how God could permit his covenant with David to suffer so great loss.

In last week’s sermon, I considered this tragic fall. This week, I moved into Psalms 90–106, where we discover what the God of Israel did to resurrect his people from the dust of death. In short, there is great encouragement in Book 4 of the Psalms. For anyone suffering the calamities of this world, even losing all that they own, this section of the Psalter is a powerful message of hope, as it continues to trace God’s work of redemption from David (Psalms 1–71) to David’s son Solomon (Ps 72) to David’s sons (Psalms 73–89) to the hope God himself dwelling with people (Psalms 90–106) and raising up a new David (Psalms 101–03 and 107–150).

If such a message sounds needed, you can listen to the sermon online or read the sermon notes. Below you will find discussion questions, the four infographics we’ve used to help outline the Psalms, plus a few articles I’ve compiled to help show why reading the Psalms as one story is both biblically faithful and pastorally fruitful. Continue reading

The Necessity of Hardships: Why God Often Leads His Saints Into Dire Straits

sufferingFor we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.
— 2 Corinthians 1:8–9 —

When Jesus announced his impending death, he just as quickly announced the kind of “death” required of his disciples. Luke 9:23–24 reads,

23 And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. 24 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.

The invitation to follow Jesus is not road of glory, even as it leads to glory. And this is part of the plan. God tests the faith of his followers to prove its sincerity. As Peter learned from Jesus (see John 21:18), the path of discipleship is sovereignly tinctured with suffering for the purposes of glorifying God and purifying the saint (cf. 1 Peter 1:7).

Believers, young and old, often struggle with this fact. Often, when God rescues someone from sin and the consequences of sin, the general tenor of life improves. The fruits of repentance are love, joy, peace, etc. Yet, amidst such blessings comes divinely ordained hardship. Jesus spoke of Saul that he would “show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name” (Acts 9:16). And, indeed, God shows everyone of us differing degrees of affliction so we would refuse to trust in self and only trust in him (see 2 Corinthians 1:8–10). One example of this is found in Acts 16 and bears our prayerful meditation. Continue reading

The God of Comfort Who Grants Tailor-Made Mercy

peterThe last two chapters of John’s Gospel are full of personal revelations and tailor-made mercy. John records Jesus’ revelation to Mary in the Garden (20:11–18), to the disciples in the Upper Room (20:19–23), to Thomas eight days later (20:24–31), and finally to seven disciples on the Sea of Tiberias (21:1–23). Each of these “revelations” bring faith in the risen Lord (see Thomas’ response, 20:28), because each of them reveal to doubting eyes the truth of Christ’s resurrection.

At the same time, each of these revelations are intensely personal—meaning, they cater to the weaknesses and experiences of each individual. For instance, with Thomas Jesus answers his need to see the wounds in Jesus flesh (20:24–25) with an invitation to “put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side” (20:27). Jesus command (“Do not disbelieve, but believe”)—an instance of the effectual call?—is undergirded by giving Thomas the personal revelation he needed to trust in Jesus.

The same is true with Peter. After Jesus had appeared, Peter went back to fishing—not knowing Jesus’ plans for him. John makes a clear connection between Jesus words around the “charcoal fire” (21:9) and Peter’s denial, which also took place around a “charcoal fire” (18:18). In this personal visitation, Jesus restores Peter with his three-fold question: “Do you love me more than these” (21:15–19)? If it is to the fish he is speaking, Jesus is very personally addressing Peter. He is bringing up his painful past and using it against him—rather for him! Continue reading

Typological Pairs: From Suffering to Glory

david solomonConcerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories. It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look.
— 1 Peter 1:10–12 —

What does it mean that the Spirit of Christ foretold of the Messiah’s suffering and glory?

Surely, there were many ways, as Hebrews 1:1 indicates. Nationally, the people of Israel regularly experienced enemy oppression (after they sinned) followed by powerful deliverance that set God’s elect over his enemies. Individually, Joseph, Job, David, and Daniel all experienced humbling affliction before being exalted. Textually, there are some individual passages displaying a suffering-to-glory theme—e.g., Isaiah 53 speaks of the Servant’s humiliating death (vv. 1–9) only to close the chapter by announcing his glorious reward for his vicarious suffering (vv. 10–12). Or see the pattern in the Psalms; both the whole Psalter and some individual Psalms (see especially Psalm 22) reflect this pattern.

It seems that everywhere you look in the Old Testament you find (1) God’s people suffering, followed by (2) cries for mercy. In response, (3) God hears their prayers, and (4) responds with saving compassion in the form of a deliverer—a Moses, a Samson, or a David. The result is that (5) the people are saved and the mediator is exalted.

In the light of the New Testament, these incidents are illuminating shadows of Jesus Christ himself. In fact, in the words of Peter, it’s not too much to say that the Spirit of Christ is a cruciform spirit, who leads his people (under the Old Covenant and the New) through valleys of death to bring them into places of honor and service. This is the Christian way—to be brought low unto death, so that God can raise us up to life (see 2 Cor 1:8–9).

That being said, I am persuaded that there is another way in which suffering-unto-glory might be seen in the Old Testament. Instead of containing the pattern to the nation, individuals, or texts, there are some pairs of people who display the pattern. That is, repeatedly throughout the Old Testament, there are individuals related by kinship or ministerial calling whose composite lives function to display the pattern observed in 1 Peter 1. In other words, the Spirit of Christ was directing their lives such that the first person foreshadowed the sufferings of Christ and the second person reflected his subsequent glories.

Admittedly, I haven’t seen this proposal written down anywhere. So, I’d love your thoughts. Does it work? I think there is merit in the proposal and am writing it out (in part) to explore the idea. (That’s what blogs are for, right?) I think, in the end, such pairs may help reflect the binary nature of Christ’s ministry–first in weakness and humiliation, then in power and glory. Or at least, that’s what I will try to show below. Let me know what you think. Continue reading

Rescuing Jabez from the Soft Prosperity Gospel

jabezYesterday I had the privilege of preaching in chapel at Columbus Christian High School. Of all the texts I could have preached I decided to preach on a little, obscure passage in the book of 1 Chronicles—story of a man by the name of “pain.”Yes, that’s right, I preached “The Prayer of Jabez.”

Despite those who have written off Jabez and his prayer because of the way it has been used to promote the soft prosperity gospel, I am increasingly convinced Jabez is a type of Christ standing between Melchizedek and Jesus. More than that, his story gives us an overwhelming testimony of God’s grace to those who are in pain. For that reason, I preached “The Pain of Jabez and the Comfort of Christ.”

What follows is part of the interpretive outline I unpacked in the sermon.  Continue reading

Life is Good? How God’s Goodness Redefines the Good Life

good life“And as he was setting our on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?'” And Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.”
— Mark 10:17-18 —

Knowing the difference between good and evil is fundamental to being made in the image of God. When God created Adam and Eve, he put them in a garden filled with delights and with a solitary tree that would instruct them how to know good and evil (Genesis 2:17).  Likewise, knowing the difference between good and evil is essential to maturation and becoming a responsible adult.  Isaiah 7:15, uses the idea to describe the difference between young children who do not know the difference between good and evil, and then those children who mature and begin to understand that difference.

Sadly, it is possible that many Christians fail to know what “the good” is.   Continue reading

Pastors, Teach Your People About Suffering

crossYesterday, I preached on the theme of suffering from Matthew 5:10-12, something that I had a chance to consider in the most recent Southern Baptist Journal of Theology. In that journal, I was asked to answer the question: How can a pastor prepare his people for suffering? My answer lists five things that pastors can do.

Below is an abbreviated response to that question.

First, pastors must highlight the theme of suffering in the Bible. Outside Eden depravity, disease, and death are normal. So, pastors must routinely address the origin of suffering, God’s solution, and the means of grace available to pilgrim saints. . . .

Second, pastors must give their people a theology as big as God himself. In other words, for people to suffer well, they must stand on sound doctrine. In particular, pastors must gird their people with a theology that strengthens faith in God’s sovereignty and hope in Christ’s victorious return. While the particulars of suffering are a human mystery, it is vital to reassure believers that their plight has purpose. . . .

Third, pastors must tie all suffering to Christ’s death and resurrection. To every form of suffering, the cross is the answer. On the cross, Jesus bore God’s wrath for our sins and he identified with humanities deepest pain—death. In this act of love, God dealt with the ultimate source of suffering and its deadly effect. For Christians, then, personal suffering is not God’s testimony against us, as it was perceived to be under the old covenant. Rather, in Christ, suffering indicates our fellowship with our Lord (Phil 3:9-10) and God’s fatherly love (Heb 12:3-11). Pastors must remind their people of this regularly. . . .

Fourth, pastors must inform their people about church history. The church victorious stands in heaven awaiting Christ’s return. The church on earth suffers and bleeds. In our Western context, Christians need to hear the stories of faithful saints. Names like Ridley, Latimer, Elliot, and Saint should be as familiar as Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln. . . .

Fifth, pastors must call attention to the persecuted church. In obedience to God’s word (Heb 13:3), pastors must lead the charge in praying for and supplying aid for persecuted Christians. Yet, the ministry of the persecuted church is not a one-way street. We must also champion the persecuted church because we need to see what it means to treasure Christ above life itself. . . .

For more on the subject of suffering, take a look at the new journal. For the rest of my answer, you can find it at the end of the SBJT Forum.

Soli Deo Gloria, dss

Suffering: Playing Your Part With Passion

Recently, archaeologists discovered what they think is a missing section of 1 Samuel. It is a section of the book which describes what Saul did after he chased David out of his courtroom. You might remember, David was ‘hired’ by Saul to play his harp in order to sooth Saul’s soul when evil spirits tormented him (1 Sam 16:14-23).

The recent discovery tells of how after David departed, Saul was left with no choice but to call on Israel’s philosophers to come and comfort him. And apparently, it did not go well. Instead, of refreshing his soul, these debaters of the age reasoned why bad things happened to good people and why men like Saul suffered as they did. The missing section claims that these foolish lovers of wisdom only exacerbated the problem and that Saul actually pinned a couple of them to the wall with his spear.

Apparently, they were not as agile as David. Nor were they as existential as David, either—meaning, they did not exist.

In truth, there is no such archaeological account and there were no such philosophers. But you already knew that because surely no king would hire philosophers for solace and comfort. Philosophers do well to afflict the comfortable, but they are less skilled at comforting the afflicted. Continue reading