Seeking God’s blessing

I wrote this a couple of weeks ago.

The sermon today was on John 6:26-36.

Jesus miraculously fed the crowd.
  Spiritual “anointing”
Recently when I taught, God spoke to people through me in an evident way. I love that. But today, in Sunday School, everything I planned went wrong.
They looked for him again because they wanted more.   Me: Lord, I’m so frustrated at how Sunday School went. How can I worship you this morning, when I am angry and discouraged about Sunday School?
Jesus answered them and said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you seek Me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate of the loaves and were filled.   Jesus: Why are you seeking me? What did you learn when I anointed your teaching? Did you learn that I am the source of fruitfulness and meaning? Did you learn that it is worth seeking me above all? Or is it only that you loved the experience of knowing I was doing something supernatural through you?
  Me: (sputtering) Well … well … I know that you give meaning in an eternal sense, but I also wanted things to go well this morning. When it didn’t, that messed up my joy. Maybe it shouldn’t have, but it just did.
Do not work for the food which perishes,   Jesus: Think about it, Kevin. After an “anointed experience”, the joy fades for you in a day or two. How often will you need your anointing fix?
but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you, for on Him the Father, God, has set His seal.” Your joy can be more permanent than that. I know you like to see me at work through you, but, you know, I’m still at work even when I don’t use you. Your joy in what I am doing doesn’t have to fade whenever it isn’t happening through you.
Therefore they said to Him, “What shall we do, so that we may work the works of God?”   Me: OK. So how can I  have that joy now? What do I need to do?
Jesus answered and said to them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent.”   Jesus: Just let go and trust me. You don’t need to be personally successful.
So they said to Him, “What then do You do for a sign, so that we may see, and believe You? What work do You perform?   Me: But how can I trust you to be meaning and fruitfulness for me if you aren’t going to keep giving me experiences like that?
Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘HE GAVE THEM BREAD OUT OF HEAVEN TO EAT.’” After all, that’s how it works with other people! They have all these stories about how you make them fruitful! As long as they obey, and surrender to you, then you reach people through them. As long as they have faith, you show up.
Jesus then said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread out of heaven, but it is My Father who gives you the true bread out of heaven.   Jesus: You miss the point. It was never their experiences of anointing and fruitfulness that mattered. It was always just a matter of God being in it.
For the bread of God is that which comes down out of heaven, and gives life to the world.” What is “anointing” after all? Isn’t it the Holy Spirit’s presence and work? That’s all that was every really important. The anointing isn’t an experience, it’s a Person.
Then they said to Him, “Lord, always give us this bread.”   Me: OK, then give that to me.
Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me will not hunger, and he who believes in Me will never thirst.   Jesus: You know what to do. Just keep abiding in Me.
But I said to you that you have seen Me, and yet do not believe.” The reason you are struggling is because you aren’t responding in faith right now. (Ouch!)



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The sermon today was on John 5:31-47.

The pastor emphasized the four witnesses that testify to Jesus’ deity: John the Baptist, Jesus’ miracles, the Father, the Scriptures.

Here are some questions our family had afterwards.

  • Verse 36 says that Jesus’ miracles show that he was from God. Yet other Scriptures talk about people who are not from God doing miracles. So do miracles prove someone is from God, or not?
  • Jesus says later in John that his disciples would do “greater works” than he did. How can they be greater than raising someone from the dead? What does that verse mean?
  • What is the testimony of the Father mentioned in verse 37? Our pastor first connected it to the testimony Scripture, as mentioned in verse 39. In that case, there are only three witnesses in this passage, with the last being “the Father through the Scriptures”. Later he connected it to the announcement, “This is my beloved Son” at Jesus’ baptism. But then what does it mean, “You have neither heard His voice at any time nor seen His form”?

Our family had a really good discussion about the first two of these questions. We ended up talking about miracles, and about living with the expectation that God may still work supernaturally today.

Other questions I’ve been wondering about recently:

  • Acts 2:42 refers to “the breaking of bread”. I’ve always assumed it meant communion. A pastor a couple of weeks ago preached that it meant having a meal together. So what does it mean?
  • James 2:26 says “For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.” This is backwards from what I always think it is saying. I think of works as being the body — the outward form — and faith as being the thing that makes them of value to God. Works have spiritual value when they come from a believing heart. But this verse turns it around. I think it says that faith is like the body. It is just the form, the shell. When faith is fulfilled in works it becomes alive. The works that proceed from faith are what provide the life, the power, the “spirit” that animates the faith. The question is, am I right? Am I missing something? What more is there to add that would illuminate this?

I love having questions. Every question is a promise that there is more out there for me to learn.

(By the way, we did come to some satisfying conclusions about most of these questions. I just didn’t tell you what they were!)

Oh, one last thing I almost forget: Go check out my brother’s brand new website. Say something on it. You could even ask him my questions and see how smart he is 🙂

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Praying for our nation

My quiet time verses yesterday morning were the concluding paragraph of 2 Chronicles.

Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia — in order to fulfill the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah — the LORD stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he sent a proclamation throughout his kingdom, and also[put it] in writing, saying, Thus says Cyrus king of Persia, ‘The LORD, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and He has appointed me to build Him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever there is among you of all His people, may the LORD his God be with him, and let him go up!'”  (2 Chronicles 36:22-23).

First, some background. The books of 1 and 2 Chronicles tell of the rise and fall of the nation of Israel. In the last chapter, just before these verses, the nation of Israel was wiped out, its leaders were killed, its capital was burned down, and the temple was destroyed. The chapter makes it really clear that all this was not because God had failed them but because He was judging them.

These two verses hold out a sliver of hope for Israel. It’s the end of the book, but not the end of the story. It shows that God still has some measure of mercy for Israel. Who knows whether He may restore them more fully in the future?

It’s really important that Cyrus acknowledges that all His power, including that over Israel, comes from “the LORD”. When the word LORD is capitalized that way, it means that it is a translation of the Hebrew word Yahweh. In other words, Cyrus is calling Israel’s God “the God of heaven” and giving Him credit for his power.

As I read these verses, it reminded me of the general discouragement that a lot of conservative Christians are feeling about our nation these days. Most of my Christian friends these days feel as though they are under a constant barrage from secularism in politics and in the culture.  I agree with them about this general sense of being under attack. It’s a hard world in which to live as a Christian.

(I don’t think Christians have a monopoly on persecution. I think it’s also a hard world for atheists and gay rights activists and feminists and all sorts of groups that feel like they are battling the status quo. There’s more than enough hostility to go around. More on that some other time, perhaps.)

Anyway, today is the National Day of Prayer. The verses above remind me that even in hostile territory God is in charge. They remind me that even in the middle of judgment God can show a measure of mercy and restoration. They remind me that even leaders who worship other gods can be led to show favor to Yahweh’s people. It encourages me to know that today a lot of us will be crying out to God together for our nation.

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Exodus 23:20-21

In Exodus 23:20-21 God says to Moses and the Israelites:

Behold, I am going to send an angel before you to guard you along the way and to bring you into the place which I have prepared. Be on your guard before him and obey his voice; do not be rebellious toward him, for he will not pardon your transgression, since My name is in him.


When did this happen?

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Why Saturday?

One of my children asked today (Easter) why God waited all through Saturday until Sunday before raising Jesus from the dead.

I think it relates to the Sabbath.

First, consider the very first Sabbath way back in Genesis 2. It says there that God set the Sabbath apart as holy because on that day He rested from all His work.

Why did God need to rest? Because He was tired? Of course not. The significance of God resting is that He was finished. He rested from all His work because it was complete. The Sabbath marked a recognition that there was nothing left to do.

What was one of the last statements Jesus made on the cross? “It is finished.”

I suspect the Sabbath after the crucifixion is meant to remind us that God’s second great work — the work of redemption — was finished with the death of Christ about 2000 years ago. Nothing needs to be added. We don’t have to mix our own good works in with what He did. He doesn’t need to be crucified again. That Saturday in the grave stands for the fact that everything had been accomplished.

A day later, the new creation began with the resurrection of Christ, the “second Adam”.

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Fasting and suffering

I heard a sermon about fasting just a little bit ago. I have lots of thoughts about fasting and lots of questions too.

Generally Christians say fasting is spiritually important because:

  • Somehow the physical process makes us more attuned to the spiritual world.
  • Somehow suffering hunger weakens the hold of the flesh on our lives.

I am particularly skeptical of the last claim. I think the value of suffering is overrated.

I find this verse really convincing:

If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, “Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!” (which all refer to things destined to perish with use)—in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men? These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence. (Col 2:20-23)

This says it straight out: at least sometimes “severe treatment of the body” is “of no value against fleshly indulgence”. I’ve heard there were people who flogged themselves in order to gain spiritual status or power somehow. That seems very mixed up. How is it really any different to say that the pain of hunger is what makes fasting beneficial?

There is a value to being willing to suffer. While suffering has no spiritual value of its own, it is nevertheless the side effect of some good things. That is why people can say “no pain, no gain”. For some things, if you aren’t working hard enough at them that it hurts, you aren’t working hard enough at them to help either. It isn’t the suffering itself which is beneficial, though, it’s the other stuff. If we shy away from suffering too much we can lose out. It’s in this sense that Paul said

Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win. Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air; but I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified. (1 Corinthians 9:24-27)

It’s not that beating up on his body made him more spiritual; it’s that being disciplined means being willing to suffer for the sake of a more important goal.

Because of that it is sometimes practically helpful to resign ourselves to suffering. Once we expect it as a matter of course, we can have the will-power to keep pushing through it. I think that’s what this verse means:

Therefore, since Christ has suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same purpose, because he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, so as to live the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for the lusts of men, but for the will of God. (1 Peter 4:1-2).

Often we need to suffer for others. Love usually involves sacrifice of some kind. The point of the sacrifice, though, is that it will actually help someone in some way. It usually doesn’t make my love any purer to hurt myself just for the sake of proving how much I am willing to lose.

This verse is interesting:

Then David said to Ornan, “Give me the site of this threshing floor, that I may build on it an altar to the LORD; for the full price you shall give it to me, that the plague may be restrained from the people.” Ornan said to David, “Take it for yourself; and let my lord the king do what is good in his sight. See, I will give the oxen for burnt offerings and the threshing sledges for wood and the wheat for the grain offering; I will give it all.” But King David said to Ornan, “No, but I will surely buy it for the full price; for I will not take what is yours for the LORD, or offer a burnt offering which costs me nothing.” (1 Chronicles 21:22-24)

In this story, David is offering a sacrifice to express his repentance to God for having sinned. It would be evading responsibility for him to shift the burden of that sacrifice to someone else. So, again, first of all, the cost isn’t really the point; it just follows logically that if you give a gift to God, it costs you.

But it may be that in this case David is saying something more than that. He may be saying that the very cost of it is the point somehow. He may be saying that a sacrifice that hurts is worth more. If so, I think we should understand it as saying that offering something of value to him was a better expression of his desire to give to God than offering something worthless would have been. Perhaps there are times when we give someone something to show we love them, and we choose to give something that costs us because it communicates how deeply serious we are in our love.

In the case of fasting, I don’t think that suffering is the point. I do think suffering is linked to it, though.

  • First, I think fasting is often an expression of distress. Thus people often fasted when they were already suffering. (In fact, when people are suffering enough, they lose their appetite anyway.)
  • Second, in many cases in Scripture, fasting was an expression of deep repentance. It is associated with sackcloth and ashes. People are setting aside their sense of entitlement to luxury and comfort to say, “we recognize we have sinned and no longer claim happiness as our right”. The point is, though, that people who fasted weren’t seriously planning on starving to death, nor were they throwing away all their clothes when they put on sackcloth. These things weren’t suffering, exactly, they were symbols. That’s why the Scripture connects fasting not with suffering but with humiliation. In repentance, fasting was a sign of having lowered one’s pride,of having renounced one’s self-centered demandingness.
  • Third, there are other verses about fasting as an ongoing discipline (once a week, say). As a matter of practical fact, when fasting has become a discipline, it just won’t feel humiliating or painful every time. It will become a matter of course. If fasting was all about the suffering, that would remove the point of the fasting. But if fasting is a symbol, then it doesn’t have to hurt. It just has to mean the right thing.

All of which, I realize, has answered my question for me. Someone tonight said that fasting is “cutting off the flesh”. But that isn’t it – rather, fasting is the expression of having already “cut off the flesh”. If we renounce the flesh in our hearts then fasting is a natural way to symbolize and affirm that choice. If we don’t, fasting doesn’t help at all. Fasting doesn’t cause renunciation of the flesh, it proceeds from it.


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Faith and weariness

I read this yesterday:

But remember the former days, when, after being enlightened, you endured a great conflict of sufferings, partly by being made a public spectacle through reproaches and tribulations, and partly by becoming sharers with those who were so treated. For you showed sympathy to the prisoners and accepted joyfully the seizure of your property, knowing that you have for yourselves a better possession and a lasting one. Therefore, do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God, you may receive what was promised.

“For yet in a very little while,

He who is coming will come, and will not delay.

But my righteous one shall live by faith;

And if he shrinks back, my soul has no pleasure in him.”

But we are not of those who shrink back to destruction, but of those who have faith to the preserving of the soul. (Hebrews 10:32-39)

I was struck by the phrase “you have need of endurance”. The people addressed in this letter had once joyfully endured persecution, but now they were getting weary of believing. Their determination was flagging. The writer exhorts them to keep hanging on until the end.

One of the things I’m struggling with these days is having faith. In my daily life, I keep encountering things that overwhelm me with fear and I just give up for a day or two. God keeps pulling me back to the place where I have to make a conscious decision to trust him again and move on in joy.

The challenges to my faith are not big things, not major persecution or anything. Just things like a class that didn’t go well, or a car that broke down and will cost more than we have to fix it, or having to confront someone about their sin when it makes me very uncomfortable to do so. What God seems to ask me to do is not just follow through but do so with confidence and joy.

The interesting thing is that having faith like that – choosing to trust and stop worrying – is exhausting for me. I find myself completely worn out at the end of the day if I’ve done well. I can’t quite figure out why. My suspicion is that fear and other strong emotions are pulling hard at me at a deep, mostly subconscious level, and I’m spending all day fighting them off without quite realizing it. Because of that, having faith these days is literally hard work.

Things ought to get easier with practice. Whatever emotional resistance I’m encountering these days will eventually be trained out of my default psychological setting, and believing with joy will come more naturally. That’s what character growth often consists of.

I think it’s interesting that faith can be tiring. I haven’t heard other Christians say they’ve experienced this, but I’ll bet a lot of them have. I think the taxing nature of faith is linked in some way to several Scriptures besides the one above, such as: Luke 22:40-46 (note v 45), Romans 4:18-21, Galatians 6:9, or James 1:2-4.

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The second-born in the Old Testament

Abraham had two children, Isaac and Ishmael. Ishmael was first-born, but the line of Israel came through Isaac. Then Isaac had Esau and Jacob. Esau was first-born, but gave away his birthright and the line came through Jacob. The Jacob had a whole bunch of sons, but the one God used for his purposes was Joseph, nearly the last of the twelve.

Why this emphasis on the first-born not being the important one?

I don’t think it will do to say, “There is no significance. It just happened that way historically.” Old Testament Jewish readers, at least, would have expected the pattern to mean something important to their identity as a nation chosen by God.

Does it emphasize that being the chosen people is up to God rather than man? (Compare Romans 9:11). Or that God is more concerned with a person’s heart than his position? (Compare 1 Samuel 16:7). It can’t be straightforwardly Messianic: Jesus is definitely pictured by a first-born, not a second-born, son. (John 3:16, Colossians 1:15).

Hmmm …

Any suggestions?

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Submitting to authority

[I’m back! After a two-month hiatus. I apologize for my long absence!]

In a recent post in my philosophy blog, I explored the relationship of morality to the laws and traditions of the culture we live in. I suggested there that possibly “we have no moral obligation to obey either the laws or tradition, but we have a moral obligation to be willing to obey the laws and to be willing to follow tradition, which is almost (but not quite) the same thing.”

For most of my Christian life, I would have said that we do have a definite moral obligation to obey the law. I held a pretty hard-line view of the importance of submission to authority, which I was sure the Bible supported. I would have pointed to the following Scriptural ideas:

  • The original sin by Adam and Eve was rebellion against God’s authority, and in one sense rebellion is still at the root of every sin. (Genesis 3:1-7)
  • God has placed authority over us for a purpose, and if we want to trust God we must be willing to submit to that authority. (Romans 13:1-5, 1 Peter 5:5)
  • There are specific spheres of authority in our lives and we are commanded to submit to authority in each of the relevant spheres. The spheres are: family, church, work, and government. (Colossians 3:18-25, 1 Peter 2:13-3:6, Hebrews 13:17)
  • Even when an authority figure is rejecting God, we are expected to honor their authority and wait for God’s deliverance. (Example of David and Saul. For example, see 1 Samuel 24)
  • When two authorities order us to do conflicting things, we should obey the higher authority. Especially, if obeying an earthly authority would require us to disobey God, then we must obey God instead. (Acts 5:27-29, Daniel 2, Daniel 6).
  • In addition to submission, we need to be respectful and show honor to those in authority, for the sake of their position. (Acts 23:3-5)
  • God is able and willing to change the mind of those in authority over us when we need Him to. (Proverbs 21:1 and several other verses)

I still agree with most of this, but my emphasis would be very different. Two things have changed my mind.

First, my interpretation of 1 Peter 2:13 changed. Here’s 1 Peter 2:13:

Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution …

A couple of verses later, it adds:

Act as free men, and do not use your freedom as a covering for evil, but use it as bondslaves of God.

I used to read these verses as saying,

“By God’s design, you are under the authority of various human institutions. Now that you belong to Christ, stop rebelling and be a submissive person.”

Now I read them in light of the truth that we are no longer citizens of this world, but citizens of the kingdom of God. We are here only as ambassadors – foreigners who live here but whose allegiance is to another land. Therefore I take them to be saying,

“You are now free from human authority, and serve God instead. However, for the sake of His reputation, and as good ambassadors, and as those under His command, continue to humor the human systems around you by submitting to human authorities. That will serve God’s purposes best.”

The practical result is the same: obey human authority. The reason is very different: obey not because you are under human authority, but because you are under God’s authority.

So we have an indirect moral obligation to obey the laws, but no direct moral obligation to do so.

Second, I’ve begun to realize that if the Bible has, say, a gazillion warnings (by command or example) about the dangers of rebellion, it must have about two gazillion warnings about the dangers of unjust authority. Just as powerful as our desire to rebel is our desire to be tyrants.

I think a Biblically balanced view of authority will be careful to emphasize the warnings given to those in authority at least as strongly as the warnings given to those under it. It will encourage a healthy suspicion that those in positions of power will tempted to abuse that power. I believe my previous way of looking at things was too naively trusting of systems of authority.


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Think hard, think well (1 Corinthians 1)

I mentioned these six points last time in discussing 1 Corinthians 1:17-2:5, 2:14-16:

  • Think hard, think well. 
  • Don’t demand that things always make sense. 
  • Don’t value intellectuals about non-intellectuals in Christianity. 
  • Discern cultural strongholds of intellectual pride. 
  • Understand what it means to have the mind of Christ. 
  • Keep the gospel pure.

I’d like to consider the first one. 

Think hard, think well. 

Although this particular point isn’t found in 1 Corinthians 1-2 (at least not much), it is an important thing to consider as we look at that passage.

Intellectual humility is never an excuse for intellectual laziness. Whatever God has given me intellectually I should use for Him. That’s part of what it means to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30).  

Why does God want me to use my intellect? Not because He needs it! (See Job 38.) Nor is it in order to win the intelligentsia to Christ. On the contrary, God has specifically worked things out so that the opposite is true: “For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God,God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe … God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise … the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are,so that no man may boast before God.” (1 Cor 1:21,28,29). God has deliberately ordained that people will not get saved by being won over by the brilliance of Christian intellectuals.

No, the point is that whatever I do for God, I need to do as well as I can. Serving Him with all my might will mean, in the intellectual realm, that I try to think accurately and honestly about everything the very best that I can.

This is all the more true if I am gifted with a good mind. In that case, I need to set the bar high for myself. (Compare 1 Timothy 4:14-16 and 2 Timothy 2:15.) I should not be content to reason sloppily. Instead, I should strive to grow in intellectual honesty and fair-mindedness. I should cultivate curiosity and a love of learning. I should establish a habit of working hard to search out truth. I should seek to become saturated by Scripture.

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