Knowing Jesus Is Not Enough

If you asked various people about how to live the Christian life, some of the responses might include: know Jesus, recognize Jesus’ power, read your Bible, and attend church. While all of these are important, they are also problematic. Here’s why: demons did all of these things as well:

Know Jesus: On several occasions when Jesus was casting out demons, the demons spoke about his identity. Mark 1:34 reports that Jesus would not allow the demons to speak “because they knew him.” Luke 4:41 reports demons crying out, “You are the Son of God!” but Jesus silencing them, “because they knew that he was the Messiah.” Although scholars have debated the meaning of these passages, it is likely that Jesus silenced the demons in order to protect his ministry. If he had become widely known as the Messiah at the beginning of his ministry, his journey to the cross would have occurred very quickly. Roman rulers would not allow the rebellion of an unsanctioned Jewish king. By silencing the demons, Jesus secured more time to travel throughout the region preaching the good news of the coming kingdom of God. Even after Jesus’ resurrection, demons continued to proclaim their knowledge of Jesus. When the seven sons of Sceva unsuccessfully tried to exorcize a demon in Ephesus, the demon boldly declared, “Jesus I know, and Paul I know, but who are you?” (Acts 19:15). Knowing Jesus does not mean that one is allied with Jesus.

Recognize the power of Christ: Matthew, Mark, and Luke depict the story of the Gerasene demoniac as a battle royale between Jesus and a legion of demons. In introducing the story, the Gospel writers underscore the power of the possessed man and the inability of the villagers to contain his strength. This (and the huge economic loss of an entire herd of swine) explains why the villagers are terrified, rather than grateful, after the even-more-powerful Jesus frees the man from demonic possession. An intriguing aspect of the story is the fear that the demons have of Jesus’ power. In Luke 8:31, “they begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss” (a prison for spirits). In the next verse, they beg Jesus to allow them to enter the swine instead, and Jesus “gave them permission.” His authority is never in question! Notice, too, that in all three versions, the possessed man calls Jesus the Son of God and begs Jesus not to torment him (Mark 5:7, Matt 8:29, Lk 8:28). Even the demons recognize the superior power of Jesus.

Read the Bible: When the devil tempts Jesus in the wilderness, Scripture becomes a key weapon for both opponents (see Matt 4:1-11, Luke 4:1-13). Jesus deflects the temptations in each case by quoting from Deuteronomy, but Satan fights back by quoting from the Psalms. In trying to get Jesus to throw himself off the Temple, Satan declares that God will command his angels to protect Jesus so that he will not dash his foot against a stone (quoting Psa 91:11-12). How stunning that Satan quotes Scripture in service of his wicked goals! Jesus, of course, recognizes that Satan is twisting the psalm out of its original context; the psalmist refers to a person who trusts in the Lord’s direction and protection, whereas Satan suggests that a person can force God to do one’s own bidding. But Satan aptly demonstrates that it is not enough to read one’s Bible: proper interpretation is necessary.

Attend church: Several of Jesus’ healing miracles occurred in the synagogue on the Sabbath. Some of these included freeing people who were afflicted by demons. Jesus healed a woman who had been afflicted by a spirit for eighteen years (Luke 13:10-17), as well as a man possessed by a demon (Luke 4:31-37). In the latter case, the demon cries out (in the middle of the synagogue!), “Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy one of God!” In this case, too—as we saw before—Jesus silences the demon and casts it out. Nonetheless, it is remarkable that the demon-possessed man attended synagogue services, just like the faithful Jews in his community.

When we consider what it means to live the Christian life, then, it can never be simply a matter of attending church, reading one’s Bible, and recognizing the power and identity of Jesus. Rather, living the Christian life flows out of our allegiance to Christ: knowing Jesus means loving him and wholly submitting to his authority, trusting that the one who died for our sins loves us enough to guide and shape us in life-affirming ways (Rom 6:4). Recognizing the power of Jesus entails running toward that transformative power and not shying away (Rom 12:2). Reading Scripture involves careful study, with a desire to honor God’s will rather than manipulate it (2 Tim 4:2-4). And attending church includes sharing in a faith-filled community, building others up so that God will be glorified (1 Thes 5:11; 2 Cor 4:15). Anything less is, well, simply demonic.

Is Jesus Really “Lord” of our Lives?

“Lord” is an odd word in today’s culture. As Christians, we say “Jesus is Lord” on a regular basis. But this has become a rather churchy word. Non-Christians do not use it; no one walks around saying, “Snapchat is my Lord!” So what do Christians really mean when we say Jesus is Lord?

Often people equate “lord” with “God.” If this is the case, then “Jesus is Lord” simply means “Jesus is God.” It becomes a descriptive statement regarding the identity of Jesus, but says nothing about the relationship of the speaker to God. As James remarks, even the demons believe there is one God (2:19). Thus, it seems that the believer’s proclamation, “Jesus is Lord,” must mean something more.

In fact, “God” is not the only meaning for “lord” in Scripture, and even when the term does refer to God, there is a deeper connotation. On a basic level, the idea of lordship addresses a power relationship. One who is “lord” has power over a subordinate. In the ancient world, a person would address another as “lord” if the latter held a higher social rank: a servant to a master, a citizen to a ruler, a disciple to a teacher, a peasant to a nobleman.

Old Testament authors frequently used the term “lord” for the God of Israel, but it meant something more than simply “God.” They considered God’s name to be so holy that they would not pronounce it aloud. When Jews read Scripture in the synagogues, the term “lord” became the standard replacement for the name of God. It was a fitting term, connoting God’s supreme power and Israel’s deference. God’s covenants with Abraham and Moses similarly display this power disparity, reflecting the suzerainty treaties of the ancient Near East. These treaties ratified agreements between a greater king (suzerain) and a less powerful king (vassal). The entire book of Deuteronomy reflects the style of such treaties, including blessings for the people of Israel when they fulfilled the terms of the covenant and curses when they did not. To declare that God is “lord” in this context meant that one has submitted oneself to God’s rule; it was an acknowledgment of God’s superior power and good will. God was provider and protector. In return, Israel pledged complete loyalty to God’s way of doing things.

By the time Jesus walked onto the stage of first-century Palestine, however, the Jewish people found themselves under the control of the Roman Empire. Citizens were expected to declare their political loyalty to Rome by proclaiming “Caesar is Lord.” Since some of the caesars (emperors) were considered to be divine, such a proclamation had both political and religious ramifications. To say that Caesar is Lord meant that you promised your loyalty to the Roman Empire, including the various political and religious policies of that government. For a Jew, whose covenant with Yahweh demanded exclusive loyalty to all of God’s commands, one could not also proclaim loyalty to Caesar. The same became true for those who began to understand Jesus as the divine son of God. Declaring “Jesus is Lord” meant that they served Christ in every aspect of their lives. They could not separate their religious beliefs from politics or family or ethics. Christ was Lord over all (1 Cor 8:6, Phil 2:11).

In today’s culture, these power dynamics sound a bit odd. Although we might call someone “Mr.” or “Dr.” out of respect, we are not proclaiming loyalty to that person. In fact, sometimes the term “Mr.” can be laden with sarcasm and disrespect (when Agent Smith hunts down Neo in The Matrix, for example, he repeatedly calls him “Mr. Anderson”). We certainly would not replace the term “sir” with “lord”! And even when we recognize a power dynamic in one sphere of our lives—at work, for example—that relationship does not carry over into our personal lives. We tend to live in a very compartmentalized way. Our boss does not dictate what we buy at the grocery store or where we plant our garden. Our individualistic American culture tends to frown on such restrictive relationships.

The idea that “Jesus is Lord,” then, may be rather difficult to grasp in a culture that prizes independence, compartmentalization, and self-sufficiency. Yet, when Jesus commissioned his disciples after his resurrection, he declared that he had all authority on heaven and earth; with this authority, he told his disciples to make more disciples—instructing them to obey everything Jesus had commanded (Matt 28:18-20). This included the command to love God and love others, the ethical instructions from the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), Jesus’s teachings about caring for the poor and oppressed, and so on. Jesus did not teach about religious life alone—he taught about marriage and wealth and humility and so much more. If Jesus Christ really is Lord, and if we recognize the power relationship inherent in such a statement, then believers are compelled to keep all of Christ’s commands. We are not simply free to pick and choose, ignoring the claims we do not like and keeping the ones we do. When we do that, we become our own lords rather than submitting to the lordship of Christ.

Perhaps rather than asking if Jesus is our Lord, we should ask ourselves who or what has the most power over our lives. What commands our greatest attention during the day? Do we spend more time reading posts on social media than we spend reading Scripture? Are we more concerned with what our boss thinks of us than what God thinks of us? Do we spend so much time taking care of our family or focusing on academics that we are left too exhausted to pray? Do we defend our sexual choices so fervently that being a child of God is no longer our primary identity or authority? Are we so concerned with our own financial security that we fail to heed God’s call to help the poor around us?

Each of us struggles with different “lords” that draw our attention away from Christ and toward our own desires. Anything—sex, wealth, power, celebrity, family, food, social media—can become such a strong power that we choose to live by cultural standards rather than biblical norms. But if we truly proclaim Jesus as Lord of our life, then we must be willing to submit to God’s teaching in all areas of our lives. We do so because we recognize that God is our loving protector and provider. Since God designed us and knows what makes us flourish, submitting to this lordship results in far more blessing than the “lords” of the world can offer.

Is Jesus Really “Lord” of our Lives?

“Lord” is an odd word in today’s culture. As Christians, we say “Jesus is Lord” on a regular basis. But this has become a rather churchy word. Non-Christians do not use it; no one walks around saying, “Snapchat is my Lord!” So what do Christians really mean when we say Jesus is Lord?

Often people equate “lord” with “God.” If this is the case, then “Jesus is Lord” simply means “Jesus is God.” It becomes a descriptive statement regarding the identity of Jesus, but says nothing about the relationship of the speaker to God. As James remarks, even the demons believe there is one God (2:19). Thus, it seems that the believer’s proclamation, “Jesus is Lord,” must mean something more.

In fact, “God” is not the only meaning for “lord” in Scripture, and even when the term does refer to God, there is a deeper connotation. On a basic level, the idea of lordship addresses a power relationship. One who is “lord” has power over a subordinate. In the ancient world, a person would address another as “lord” if the latter held a higher social rank: a servant to a master, a citizen to a ruler, a disciple to a teacher, a peasant to a nobleman.

Old Testament authors frequently used the term “lord” for the God of Israel, but it meant something more than simply “God.” They considered God’s name to be so holy that they would not pronounce it aloud. When Jews read Scripture in the synagogues, the term “lord” became the standard replacement for the name of God. It was a fitting term, connoting God’s supreme power and Israel’s deference. God’s covenants with Abraham and Moses similarly display this power disparity, reflecting the suzerainty treaties of the ancient Near East. These treaties ratified agreements between a greater king (suzerain) and a less powerful king (vassal). The entire book of Deuteronomy reflects the style of such treaties, including blessings for the people of Israel when they fulfilled the terms of the covenant and curses when they did not. To declare that God is “lord” in this context meant that one has submitted oneself to God’s rule; it was an acknowledgment of God’s superior power and good will. God was provider and protector. In return, Israel pledged complete loyalty to God’s way of doing things.

By the time Jesus walked onto the stage of first-century Palestine, however, the Jewish people found themselves under the control of the Roman Empire. Citizens were expected to declare their political loyalty to Rome by proclaiming “Caesar is Lord.” Since some of the caesars (emperors) were considered to be divine, such a proclamation had both political and religious ramifications. To say that Caesar is Lord meant that you promised your loyalty to the Roman Empire, including the various political and religious policies of that government. For a Jew, whose covenant with Yahweh demanded exclusive loyalty to all of God’s commands, one could not also proclaim loyalty to Caesar. The same became true for those who began to understand Jesus as the divine son of God. Declaring “Jesus is Lord” meant that they served Christ in every aspect of their lives. They could not separate their religious beliefs from politics or family or ethics. Christ was Lord over all (1 Cor 8:6, Phil 2:11).

In today’s culture, these power dynamics sound a bit odd. Although we might call someone “Mr.” or “Dr.” out of respect, we are not proclaiming loyalty to that person. In fact, sometimes the term “Mr.” can be laden with sarcasm and disrespect (when Agent Smith hunts down Neo in The Matrix, for example, he repeatedly calls him “Mr. Anderson”). We certainly would not replace the term “sir” with “lord”! And even when we recognize a power dynamic in one sphere of our lives—at work, for example—that relationship does not carry over into our personal lives. We tend to live in a very compartmentalized way. Our boss does not dictate what we buy at the grocery store or where we plant our garden. Our individualistic American culture tends to frown on such restrictive relationships.

The idea that “Jesus is Lord,” then, may be rather difficult to grasp in a culture that prizes independence, compartmentalization, and self-sufficiency. Yet, when Jesus commissioned his disciples after his resurrection, he declared that he had all authority on heaven and earth; with this authority, he told his disciples to make more disciples—instructing them to obey everything Jesus had commanded (Matt 28:18-20). This included the command to love God and love others, the ethical instructions from the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), Jesus’s teachings about caring for the poor and oppressed, and so on. Jesus did not teach about religious life alone—he taught about marriage and wealth and humility and so much more. If Jesus Christ really is Lord, and if we recognize the power relationship inherent in such a statement, then believers are compelled to keep all of Christ’s commands. We are not simply free to pick and choose, ignoring the claims we do not like and keeping the ones we do. When we do that, we become our own lords rather than submitting to the lordship of Christ.

Perhaps rather than asking if Jesus is our Lord, we should ask ourselves who or what has the most power over our lives. What commands our greatest attention during the day? Do we spend more time reading posts on social media than we spend reading Scripture? Are we more concerned with what our boss thinks of us than what God thinks of us? Do we spend so much time taking care of our family or focusing on academics that we are left too exhausted to pray? Do we defend our sexual choices so fervently that being a child of God is no longer our primary identity or authority? Are we so concerned with our own financial security that we fail to heed God’s call to help the poor around us?

Each of us struggles with different “lords” that draw our attention away from Christ and toward our own desires. Anything—sex, wealth, power, celebrity, family, food, social media—can become such a strong power that we choose to live by cultural standards rather than biblical norms. But if we truly proclaim Jesus as Lord of our life, then we must be willing to submit to God’s teaching in all areas of our lives. We do so because we recognize that God is our loving protector and provider. Since God designed us and knows what makes us flourish, submitting to this lordship results in far more blessing than the “lords” of the world can offer.

Long-Term Faith in the Age of Instant Gratification

Lately my computer has been running slowly. And by slowly, I mean it takes an extra few seconds for programs to start running. It’s annoying. In those short few seconds I think of all the things I could be doing (responding to emails, checking Facebook, working on a new lecture for class) that have been held up by inefficient technology. The tyranny of the urgent makes me anxious. In times like these I find that God always has a way of bringing me back to reality. In this case, reading the prophet Jeremiah’s words to the kingdom of Judah snapped me back to a better appreciation of time.

The much-repeated and often-misunderstood Jer 29:11 promises, “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’” Many people forget the context of this promise, which God gave to the nation, not to individuals. While the nation as a whole would prosper, this did not mean that every single person would have an easy life. Furthermore, the promise came only after horrific judgment had befallen Judah (and, earlier, the northern kingdom of Israel) because of the people’s great sinfulness. The Israelites were God’s elect people, chosen to be holy and a light to the nations. Instead, the Jews worshiped false gods and oppressed the poor. God’s patience had finally run out, and so the Babylonian armies utterly destroyed Jerusalem, razed the holy temple, and carried off the Jews into exile. False prophets had been declaring the imminent destruction of Babylon, but Jeremiah told the people to make homes in Babylon, because God was not going to bring them back to Jerusalem any time soon. How much easier it would have been to listen to the false prophets! But sometimes the hard word is God’s word.

Ultimately, the promise of restoration was conditioned on the people’s repenting and once again obeying God: “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart” (29:13). Even then, Jeremiah made it clear that the promised restoration would only take place after the Jews had been in captivity in Babylon for 70 years (29:10). Seventy years! Most people in that era did not live to be 70. This means the promise of restoration was for their children. Most of those who had been carried off to Babylon would never again return to their homeland, despite the promise of restoration.

Of course, this isn’t the first time Israel had to wait for God to intervene. The Hebrews were slaves in Egypt for hundreds of years before God brought deliverance through Moses. And since the time of Christ, we are still waiting for the day of his return.

In an age of instant gratification, how do we keep faith when sometimes God takes decades, or centuries, or millennia to fulfill promises? If I can’t wait for two minutes for my computer to load, how can I wait for God’s promises to come to pass?

This is when dwelling on the past can actually be helpful. God’s past faithfulness points to God’s future faithfulness. In fact, Israel focused on this truth regularly. Many of the psalms (such as Pss 78, 105, 106, 132, 135, and 136), for example, recite God’s past promises and provision. Jesus, too, understood the power of remembering mighty acts, so he called his disciples at the Last Supper to remember that special meal. When Christians take the bread and wine of Communion, we remember Christ’s broken body and shed blood, given as a new covenant for the forgiveness of sins. No matter how dark the days of our longing for God’s intervention in a broken world, no matter how slow Christ’s return may seem to be, we cannot forget what Christ has already accomplished. His death on the cross is a fact of history that can never be erased.

Even creation itself is inscribed with reminders of God’s faithfulness. The apostle Paul declares in Rom 1:20 that God’s eternal power and divine nature are visible in creation itself. If we have eyes to see, we will recognize God’s handiwork in the beauty of orchids, the intricacy of DNA, the structure of a snowflake, or the commanding sprawl of the Grand Canyon. We are surrounded by reminders of a powerful God who continues to sustain creation.

We need these reminders in times of darkness, silence, and waiting. Yet such times are not devoid of opportunity. Desperate longing for God gives us a chance for introspection and growth, a time to ask, “Am I following God with my whole heart?” In an age where more than a three-minute wait for a coffee in the drive thru seems like forever, waiting on God helps us to listen, refocus, and reprioritize.

Despite the cultural demand for instant gratification, some things simply take time to shape: the Grand Canyon, a coral reef, a medieval cathedral — or a human being created in the image of God. Two seconds or two minutes of waiting is insufficient for such beauty to develop, and yet somehow we mistakenly believe that God should always act quickly. We must not let the tyranny of the urgent convince us that God is not at work.

Beauty and Danger in Our Prayer Lives

One of God’s amazing creations, foxglove, contains the potential for great healing as well the potential for sickness and death. Despite its great beauty, the plant is quite toxic. Yet the right amount of the plant can heal various illnesses; for example, the heart medicine digitalis is made from foxglove extracts.

A similar balance is operative in our prayer lives. While Christians generally recognize the need for regular prayer in order to draw closer to God, the way we practice that spiritual discipline may leave us so out of balance that we grow spiritually sick without realizing it.

Prayer can become unbalanced in a number of ways. When we look to Scripture, we find examples of prayer that encompass praise for who God is (Ps 103), thanksgiving for what God has done (Ps 135), confession for our sins (Dan 9:4-19), supplication for our own needs (Ps 109:26-29), and intercession for the needs of others (Luke 23:34). At different moments in our lives, we might gravitate more towards one form than another: praise may be the go-to prayer when experiencing the joy of a newborn child or the blessing of a spiritually growing church, while supplication may become our sole focus when we face illness or family strife. But in the long-term, prayers that fail to encompass all of these various aspects can result in a sort of spiritual toxicity. If our prayers focus solely on praise of God but disregard intercession, then we are not loving our neighbor enough to bring their concerns to God. If we focus on confessing our sins but fail to praise the God who forgives, then we can drown in our own despair. If we constantly intercede for others but neglect our own confession, then we may be avoiding our own issues or experiencing spiritual pride.

Another area of imbalance can occur when we ask for prayer requests, whether in church or another context. I ask for prayer requests at the beginning of the classes I teach, for example. Most often, I receive requests for various personal needs, whether healing for a loved one from illness, help with upcoming exams, or wisdom in resolving a difficult relationship. None of these requests are problematic in and of themselves — after all, James tells us to pray for those who are sick (5:14). But it is rare for me to hear a request for God’s intervention in other parts of the world, or for the growth of the church, or for strength and wisdom for our pastors.

This is all the more striking when we compare typical modern prayer requests with the way the apostle Paul prayed. Nearly all of his recorded intercessions focus on the spiritual growth of the church – prayers that the Corinthians will not do anything wrong (2 Cor 13:7), that God will strengthen the Ephesians with power through the Spirit (Eph 3:16), that God would give the Romans a spirit of unity (Rom 15:5-6), that God would fill the Romans with great joy and peace (Rom 15:13), for the Lord to make the Thessalonians’ love for one another increase (1 Thess 3:12), for the Lord to strengthen and encourage the Thessalonians (2 Thess 2:16-17), for the Lord to give peace to the Thessalonians (2 Thess 3:16), and so on. When Paul offers praise and thanksgiving, he also focuses on spiritual matters, such as praising God for the faith of the churches to which he ministers.

Jesus’s instruction in the Lord’s prayer is strikingly similar. Of all the statements, only one (“give us this day our daily bread”) concerns our physical needs. The rest address spiritual concerns. Jesus instructs us to cry out for God’s kingdom to become a reality here on earth. How would our lives and the atmosphere of our churches be different if the majority of our prayer time focused not on personal needs, but on God’s bringing the kingdom to earth?

I confess that I, for one, do not spend enough time praying for the church, although I am trying to remedy that failure. It seems appropriate, then, to finish this post with a prayer for the church:

Lord God, we praise you for the great love you have shown to your people by sending your son, Jesus Christ, to redeem us from our sins. After you raised him from the dead you sent your Holy Spirit so that we might have resurrection power in our lives. We thank you for the preaching of the saints, who have taught us your Holy Scriptures and have shown us how to walk in holiness. Yet we confess that as the body of Christ, we have not loved you fully, nor have we shown love to one another as we should. Our own selfish desires consume and deceive us. We let petty rivalries separate us from one another — both within our local church and in the ways that we behave toward other churches in our community. Forgive us, we pray. Reveal to us, Lord, our spiritual pride and humble us so that we might be more willing to work with one another and serve your kingdom purposes. Help us to see those in our communities who are hurting, and release creative energies to provide solutions to their need. Encourage us, strengthen our faith, and help your church to become not just a light on a lampstand, but a blazing fire in the darkness, inviting others to join the warmth and life-giving power which only you provide. In Jesus’s name we pray, Amen.

The Emaciated Soldier Wearing the Armor of God

A recent — and unfortunate — trend in Christian culture is the growth of the “dones.” These are Christians who at one time were active in the church but, for a variety of reasons, have washed their hands of religious institutions. (See Joshua Packard, “Meet the ‘Dones’,” Christianity Today.) You may have heard them say, “I love Jesus, but hate the church,” or “Why do I need to go to church? My personal relationship with Jesus is just fine as it is.” They firmly believe that they can stand strong in their Christian faith on their own.
The apostle, Paul, however, regularly addressed his letters to communities of believers and exhorted the church to build up one another in the faith. Contrary to many popular interpretations, one of the greatest exhortations to stand strong in the faith, Eph 6:10-17, was not addressed to individual believers, but to the body of Christ as a whole. Our English translations of the text, unfortunately, do not capture the group-oriented emphasis of the passage. In Eph 6:13 Paul (or one of his disciples) gives the command to “put on the full armor of God so that you can stand your ground on the evil day….” The section continues to urge the soldier of God to put on “your” armor in various ways. But both the original Greek and the larger context of Ephesians make it clear that Paul is not focused on the individual believer, but rather the church as a whole.

First, the Greek language uses a second-person plural form that English does not have. Think of the southern “y’all” (or “all y’all”) that gets used for a group of people. In every instance in 6:10-17, Paul uses this plural form. Even when he is speaking about a body part, he is using the plural (“stand with the belt of truth around y’all’s waist” might be a better translation). He has in mind a group of people, operating as a single body, wearing this armor.
Second, elsewhere in the letter to the Ephesians where Paul describes the body, he is metaphorically referring to the church as a whole and not to individual believers (1:22-23; 2:16; 4:4, 12, 16; 5:23, 30). The one exception is 5:28, where Paul specifically refers to a husband’s physical body. Thus, in 6:10-17 when Paul is depicting armor being placed on a body, he is referring to the way the church as a whole should be clothing itself.
Despite the military imagery, this clothing promotes a quiet strength rather than raucous violence. The soldier of God wears truth, justice, peace, faith, and the assurance of salvation in order to defend, while the primary offensive weapon is the word of God. And so the warrior of God — that is, the church — must ask how effectively it wears this armor.

  • Does the church promote God’s truth? Not only does the body of Christ as a whole preach God’s truth, but do members also interact with one another with integrity of character (Eph 4:21-25)?
  • Does the church promote justice in the community? Does the church care for the poor and oppressed? Do church members treat the poor as well as they treat the rich (Jas 2:1-13)?
  • Does the church preach the gospel of reconciliation, working to unify all believers (Eph 2:14-16)? Does each church partner with other churches in the community to work together to promote kingdom values, or do competition and parochialism handicap the body of Christ?
  • Do church members help one another to strengthen their faith in Christ? Do they remind one another that Christ has defeated death and now sits on the throne with God in heaven (Eph 1:20-23)? Do they teach one another about the heroes of the faith and celebrate the great crowd of witnesses that have gone before, so that the church might continue to be strong in the faith (Heb 11:1-12:1)?
  • Does the church regularly remind believers of the salvation they have through faith in Christ (Rom 5:1-11)?
  • Does the church wield the sword of the Spirit by preaching and teaching the word of God? Does Scripture — rather than moralistic storytelling or popular self-help fads — become the focus of Sunday sermons, Bible studies, and discipleship groups (2 Tim 3:14-17)?

If the church as a whole is not working together to live out the truth of the gospel, then the warrior of God will become emaciated. This also occurs when individual believers deny the need for participating in the body of Christ. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his classic book Life Together, aptly described the pitfalls of such individualistic faith: “the one who seeks solitude without fellowship perishes in the abyss of vanity, self-infatuation and despair.”

Paul emphasizes that it is only as members of the church work together, bear with one another, and encourage one another that we are able to withstand the evil day. Yet we do not do this out of our own strength; rather, as Eph 6:10 reminds us, we are empowered through the Lord’s mighty strength. The God who was fierce enough to defeat death will use that same power to fortify the church — if only we will band together to accept it.

Male Privilege, Ministry, and the Mike Pence (Billy Graham) Rule

Vice President Mike Pence recently made headlines because he said he will not eat alone with a woman who is not his wife. This principle is modeled after Billy Graham, who refused to travel, meet, or eat with a woman alone.

To those on the outside of the Christian faith, this practice might look like a draconian, sexist philosophy that views women primarily as temptresses. Within many conservative Christian circles, however, Pence and Graham are viewed as trying to follow biblical admonitions to avoid any “appearance of evil” (1 Thess 5:22, KJV).

Nonetheless, an unintended consequence of the rule is the reinforcement of male privilege, that is, the societal advantages reaped by a man as the result of his gender. Within the context of ministry, where women still only comprise 25% of United Methodist clergy, the Pence/Graham rule benefits men in a number of ways:

  • Male pastors can easily meet together for mentoring relationships, whereas a junior female pastor would be prohibited from such one-on-one meetings. I recently spoke with a female student who lamented that she did not receive the same training in her internship as a male intern, because he was able to meet with the supervising pastor in one-on-one social settings and she was not. Thus, male pastors have more access to informal learning.
  • Many female doctoral students in biblical studies and theology do not have access to female mentors, since the vast majority of supervisors in these fields currently are male. If the Pence/Graham rule were applied in their situation, these women would not be able to meet with their doctoral supervisors alone in their office. Thus, male students have more access to formal education.
  • Sometimes the best ideas come from informal meetings, whether on the golf course, at the coffee shop, or over dinner. Male pastors regularly meet in such locales to brainstorm with a colleague; if the Pence/Graham rule applies, then a female pastor would be excluded from such sessions. Not only would she not be able to receive great ideas, but she would be limited in her ability to contribute great ideas. Thus, male pastors have more voice in planning and decision-making.
  • Female supervisors, whether head pastors or district superintendents, would have difficulty fulfilling their job descriptions under the Pence/Graham rule, because certain duties require closed-door meetings (e.g., annual reviews, disciplinary meetings, or simply providing a confidential opportunity for a colleague to let off steam). A male pastor once told me that he would not even meet alone with his female district superintendent without his wife present. (It made me wonder how a female pastor would be viewed if she insisted on bringing her husband to any meeting with her boss.) Thus, male supervisors have more flexibility in how they perform management duties.

None of this means that men and women should throw caution to the wind in their relationships with one another. As pastors, we are all too aware of the human propensity to sin, and thus we should be wary of potentially compromising situations. It does mean, however, that creative solutions should be found rather than hard-and-fast boundaries. For example:

  • The installation of office doors with glass panels allows both privacy for conversations and transparency for accountability.
  • Meetings outside of the office should take place in a public setting.
  • Clear communication with one’s spouses is essential. That is, a pastor should discuss the time, place, and approximate length of the meeting with his or her spouse prior to the meeting.
  • Trusted friends should be given permission to ask tough questions. For example: “Are you spending more one-on-one time with your coworker than you are with your spouse?”

If the church is sincere about including half of its population in leadership, then women should not be treated with suspicion or excluded from opportunities to learn, grow, and lead. Even in the patriarchal culture of the first century, Jesus was willing to engage in one-on-one conversation with a Samaritan woman while his disciples were away buying food (John 4). Because Jesus crossed social boundaries and engaged in theological conversation with this woman, she was able to proclaim the good news of the coming messiah to her whole community (4:39).

John’s Gospel also describes the resurrected Jesus as first appearing to Mary Magdalene when she was alone at the empty tomb. Jesus did not allow social boundaries to trump the spread of the gospel. Rather, he commissioned Mary to tell the disciples that he had risen.

Imagine how different history would be if the cry, “I have seen the Lord!” had been quenched.

God with Us

As Christmas season comes and goes, it’s all too easy to read the same Scriptures as last year, think heavenly thoughts, then move on to the next season of busyness once the wrapping paper has been thrown away and the tree taken down. But sometimes God shakes up your routine and speaks into your heart in new ways. This year, the phrase “God with us” has been swirling around my brain like an earworm. It started when I was preparing to preach a sermon for the first Sunday of Advent. I began to delve into the birth narrative in Matthew’s Gospel, and was struck by the oddity that Matthew gives us two names for Jesus. First, the angel commands Joseph to name Mary’s baby “Jesus,” a Hellenized form of the Hebrew “Joshua,” which means “God saves.” The angel explains the reason for this name: Jesus will save his people from their sins. But in the same breath that Matthew reports this angelic command, he also notes that this took place to fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy that the child would be named “Emmanuel,” or “God with us.” So which name is it? Jesus or Emmanuel? It seems that Matthew wants his readers to make the connection that God does not save from afar; rather, the God who saves is the God who is with us. The creator of the universe — who spoke and worlds came to be — had the power to simply speak and change the course of history. But instead, this God chose to get into the muck with us to rescue us.

Matthew wants to make sure we get the point. He repeats it throughout his Gospel. In 18:20, Jesus tells his disciples that where two or three have gathered in his name, there he is in their midst. He is with them. And then Matthew bookends his Gospel by including the idea of “God with us” in 28:20. The resurrected Jesus commands his followers to make disciples of all nations, baptizing and teaching them to follow all of his instructions, and then Jesus says, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Matthew’s whole Gospel is framed by the idea of God with us.

But this theme is not just bracketing Matthew’s Gospel. It bookends the entirety of Scripture. In Gen 3, God is with Adam and Eve in the garden. Despite the sin that marred humanity’s relationship with God, the rest of Scripture shows how God works to bring salvation. At key points in salvation history, God reassures the people that “I am with you.” God encouraged Moses (Exod 33:14), Joshua (Josh 1:5), David (Ps 23:4), and all of God’s people (Jer 15:20; Isa 41:10), regularly providing hope and inspiration when they faced doubts, fears, or difficult circumstances. Sometimes God reminded the people in miraculous ways of his presence. Who could argue with being led by a pillar of cloud by day or a pillar of fire by night (Exod 13:21)? Sometimes God was more subtle, making his presence known through silence (1 Kgs 19:11-13). But always God was there.

Yet “God with us” is not just part of the history of Israel or a mere reflection on Jesus’s life that we remember at Christmas time, it is also a present reality and a future hope. For those who believe, the Holy Spirit continually lives within us, empowering us to live a life pleasing to God as we await the return of Christ (Rom 8). The theme of “God with us” concludes in Revelation with the picture of a new heaven and a new earth descending, and God dwelling with his people (Rev 21:3). This is the final consummation of all things — and God is with us. We shouldn’t be surprised at this, really. If Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Heb 13:8) and Jesus is God with us, then the presence of God will continue to be with us long after the Christmas season has faded and the batteries in the kids’ new toys have worn out.

During this Christmas season, when advertising jingles and cutesy carols about snowmen and Santa tend to get stuck in your head, let the sound that replays be the whispering, comforting, encouraging voice from God reminding us that God is with us. Yesterday, today, and forever.

The Call to Study as an Act of Worship

I’m not a patient person. I hate waiting in lines. I hate being bored. I am one of those people who, when left with a few blank moments in life, pulls out her phone to find the most interesting political or life commentary posted on Facebook. And so I resonate with the desperation of King Saul who, when faced with an unanticipated and prolonged wait for Samuel to appear, took the burden of the priesthood on himself and offered the burnt offering reserved for the prophet to perform (1 Sam 13:5-14). When Samuel arrived shortly thereafter and confronted the king, Saul defended his actions by arguing that the pressure of impending battle had forced him to make the offering, because he knew he had to entreat the favor of the Lord.

To put it more crassly, Saul knew he had to jump through the right hoop in order for his plans to succeed, and he couldn’t wait any longer to get through the hoop and get on with the real work.

How often do we refer to the work of preparing to lead the church as jumping through hoops? Filling out charge conference forms, submitting paperwork for ordination, and finishing the 78-plus credit hours needed for an MDiv — at times these may seem more like bureaucratic nonsense than the work of the Lord. We impatiently complete these steps in order for our end goal of a successful ministry to come to fruition.

Saul, too, was looking ahead to his end goal. He knew what needed to be done, and he was ready to charge into battle. But somewhere along the way he had forgotten that obedience to the Lord is a step-by-step process, and not simply an end goal. So Samuel rightly rebuked Saul because he had not kept the Lord’s command. In his hurry, Saul had forgotten his place — he was the king; Samuel was the prophet and priest. It wasn’t Saul’s role to offer the sacrifice; his role was to lead the people by demonstrating the sacred nature of the offering. It wasn’t to be performed lightly or perfunctorily. The sacrifice was an act of worship, a moment in the midst of mayhem during which all hearts and eyes were focused on the offering to the Lord, remembering the God who saves. Such holy moments give strength for the effort to come because they point to our own humility, our own desperate need for the Creator of the universe to enter into our mess and set things right, to once again bring order out of the chaos.

And so the required ministry steps — which may seem to us like hoops for trained circus animals to jump through in order to receive applause — serve instead to remind us of our sacred task. Charge conference forms requiring lists of new members force us to grapple with our calling to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matt 28:19-20a). Ordination paperwork reminds us of the journey by which God called us, and it compels us to contemplate our preparation for the path ahead, so that we take seriously our commitment to wash the feet of others (John 13:14). Seminary coursework sharpens our focus, reveals our hidden assumptions, increases our understanding of the story of God, hones our skills, and prepares us to enter fields that are ripe for the harvest (John 4:35). These tasks should not be performed lightly or perfunctorily. They are not simply a step that must be taken in order to get on with the real work. These are opportunities to pause in the midst of the mayhem and focus our eyes and hearts on the God who saves.

In seminary, especially, we have the opportunity to drink deeply from the well of our own humility by recognizing our need for further training. The research papers, the projects, the internships, the difficult exams — they each shape us in new ways and bring fresh light, if we have eyes to see. But if we impatiently study for a grade rather than study to learn, we may be guilty of Saul’s sin — forgetting that obedience is a step-by-step process and not an end goal.

God hasn’t called seminary students merely to get a degree, but to submit to a focused time of learning new ideas and sharpening key skills. Obedience to the call to study is thus an act of worship in which students humbly acknowledge their need for the Creator God to further shape, order, and define their lives. This practice of learning is not a temporary activity that is completed when the student walks across the graduation stage, but a lifelong posture of waiting on the Lord before entering any battle.

God of Oblique Angles

One of the difficulties of the Christian life lies in trying to understand a God whose plans are different than ours, whose ways are higher than ours (Isa 55:8-9). Especially in the current political climate — both in America and in the United Methodist denomination — we may find ourselves scratching our heads and saying, “God, I just don’t get it. What on earth are you doing?” We find it easy to believe in God when we receive a “yes” to our prayers, and sometimes even when we hear a clear “no.” But when God works at oblique angles — giving less-than-straightforward answers and taking us in odd directions we never expected — we may grow frustrated and perturbed.

When trying to make sense of God’s sometimes unusual choices, I often turn to the story of Jeremiah’s meeting with the Rechabites (Jer 35). Jeremiah receives a word from the Lord that he must invite the Rechabites to the house of the Lord and offer them wine to drink. If God had given me this message, I would have expected that a party was about to take place. If God says, “Offer them wine,” you would expect that they are supposed to drink, right? But instead, the Rechabites refuse to drink, and they tell Jeremiah about the vow they made to their ancestor Jonadab and have faithfully kept: they must not drink wine. The text doesn’t indicate that Jeremiah was shocked at God’s initial command to offer the Rechabites wine, which would suggest that Jeremiah did not previously know of their vow or predict the direction his conversation with them would take. As a result of the surprising refusal, Jeremiah must have experienced some confusion. Did he hear God’s voice correctly? Had he just committed a faux pas against his guests for which he must now profusely apologize? Had he lost his prophetic edge? After all, he thought he had been faithful to the voice of God — so why did this happen?

God then announces to Jeremiah that the faithfulness of the Rechabites stands in stark contrast to the unfaithfulness of the people of Judah, who have repeatedly sinned and chased after other gods. The whole point of the invitation was to provide a visual demonstration of faithfulness. Thus, the straightforward direction we might expect the story to take — offer them wine, and they will drink — is not at all the direction God intends to go. God often works through oblique angles.

Sometimes we refuse to see the direction God will take because cultural expectations cloud our view of what God is doing. When Samuel goes to Jesse’s house to anoint the next king of Israel, for instance, he is at first fooled by the appearance of Jesse’s eldest son Eliab (1 Sam 16:6). The cultural expectation that the firstborn should inherit greater blessing and responsibility likely contributed to Samuel’s error in judgment. But God made it clear that the unexpected needed to take place: the youngest son would become king, because God does not look at the outward appearance, but on the heart (v. 7). God works at oblique angles.

At other times, our own desires or concerns may prevent us from hearing God’s will clearly. At the end of Acts, for example, Paul is compelled by the Holy Spirit to go to Jerusalem (20:22), whereas the disciples in Tyre tell Paul through the Spirit not to go to Jerusalem (21:4). If the Holy Spirit does not contradict itself, then someone must have misinterpreted the message. A clue to sorting out this dilemma comes from Paul’s description of the Holy Spirit’s revelation in 20:22-23: Paul does not know what will happen to him, but he will face imprisonment and afflictions. If this is the same message that the disciples in Tyre heard, their concern for Paul’s well-being may have caused them to add to the message: rather than hearing only “pain and suffering awaits,” they added, “…so don’t go!”

When we find it difficult to understand what God is doing and the Spirit’s directions don’t make sense, we need to consider whether God is working at oblique angles. It can be difficult to clear away the clutter of cultural expectations and our own distracting desires, but faithfulness does not require us to immediately understand the directions of the God whose ways are higher than ours. Faithfulness requires us to listen and obey the God who speaks — the God who sometimes says, “yes,” sometimes, “no,” and often simply: “This is the way; follow me.”

Leaders in the Bible (Who Happen to Be Women) (2)

When we think of leaders in the Bible, names like Abraham, Moses, David, Peter, and Paul jump easily to mind — and rightly so, for these men played key roles in the drama of Scripture. But one of the great lessons of Scripture — as people like David and Paul can attest — is that God delights in using unlikely heroes to further the gospel. Despite living in a culture of patriarchy, numerous women faithfully led others to a new understanding of God’s work in the world. In my last post I mentioned the daughters of Zelophehad, Deborah, the Samaritan woman at the well, Rahab, Phoebe, Priscilla, and Ruth. Today’s list includes more women whose chutzpah, wisdom, and faithfulness rival that of their more well-known male counterparts.

Abigail (1 Sam 25): When David and his men were on the run from Saul, they asked a wealthy man named Nabal for food. They had treated his shepherds well and expected that Nabal would return the favor, but the ill-tempered Nabal refused to help. David and his men prepared to attack in vengeance. When Nabal’s wife, Abigal, learned of her husband’s treacherous lack of hospitality, she intervened by riding out to meet David and his troops with stores of bread, wine, figs, and other food. Abigail gave an impassioned speech in which she begged for forgiveness for her husband’s foolishness and prayed for blessings on David. He was so impressed that David granted her petition and spared the lives of the men in her household. Later when a hungover Nabal heard about these events “his heart died within him; he became like stone” and ten days later he died. After Nabal’s death, David married Abigail. Throughout the story, Nabal’s foolishness is contrasted with Abigail’s good sense and godliness. When David proclaimed that “the Lord has kept back his servant from evil,” he was referring to Abigail as an instrument of God for David’s protection.

The Bleeding Woman (Matt 9:18-26; Mark 5:21-43; Luke 8:41-56): This ritually unclean woman with her constant flow of blood was desperate to find a cure. For twelve years she had suffered, and she grew impoverished while trying to purchase various cures. But when she heard that Jesus was in town, she bravely entered the crowds — despite her impurity — and reached out to touch Jesus. Her belief in his healing power was so strong that she trusted that a simple touch of his cloak would be enough to heal. Jesus called the woman “daughter” and proclaimed her great faith in front of the whole crowd.

The Syro-Phoenician Woman (Matt 15:21-28; Mark 7:24-30): This desperate mother would not take no for an answer. Although she was a Gentile approaching a Jewish teacher, she refused to let ethnicity stand as a barrier between her demon-possessed daughter and the one person who could bring about healing. Jesus put her off just long enough to allow the woman to make a cogent argument for the inclusion of the Gentiles in the blessings of God, and then through his healing actions affirmed her faith, wisdom, and tenacity. Who else in Scripture goes head-to-head theologically with Jesus and wins?

Esther (Book of Esther): In contrast to Daniel, who resisted foreign culture in exile, Esther was forced to assimilate to her new culture. Subjected to beauty treatments and forced to sleep with a pagan king, the demure Esther followed the instructions of her uncle and waited until the crucial moment to approach her regal husband and make her request. In a culture that marginalized women and considered them powerless, Esther shrewdly used her beauty, wits, and patience to gain the king’s favor, save her people, and defeat her enemies.

Mary, the Mother of Jesus (Matt 1-2; 12:46-50; 13:53-58; Mark 3:21, 31-35; 6:3-4; Luke 1-2; 8:19-21; John 2:1-12; 6:42; 19:25-27; Acts 1:14; Rom 1:3; Gal 4:4): This thirteen-year-old girl took her life in her hands when she agreed to bear God’s son, since Joseph could have had her stoned to death for being an adulteress. After running for their lives when Herod the Great tried to kill Jesus, she and Joseph settled down to a relatively quiet existence. She watched her son grow up, and when he entered the preaching scene, her quiet life was shattered forever. Although she at first didn’t understand what he was doing and she had to bear the torture of seeing her son die a horrible death, Mary was among the earliest believers of the fledgling church. She led by choosing God’s design for her family — a design that flew in the face of her culture and her own expectations.

Junia (Rom 16:7): Often overlooked, Junia is described (along with Andronicus) as “prominent among the apostles.” The two were relatives of Paul (although the word could simply mean they were fellow Jews) who believed in Christ before he did, and who had been in prison with him. Richard Bauckham makes a credible argument that Junia is the same person as Joanna, the wife of Chuza (Herod’s steward [Luke 8:3, 24:10]; Gospel Women: Studies of the Named Women in the Gospels [Eerdmans, 2002], 109-202).) Since Junia was called an apostle, this would indicate that she had seen the risen Christ and had held a significant leadership position within the early church.

Women at the Empty Tomb (Matt 28:1-10; Mark 16:1-11; Luke 24:1-11; John 20:1-18): Although the details vary, all four Gospels report that women were the first witnesses at the empty tomb and the first preachers of the risen Christ. In my favorite version, Matt 28:1-10, the big, tough Roman soldiers ironically fainted at the sight of the angel, while the weak women eagerly spoke to the angel and met the risen Christ before boldly reporting everything to the disciples.

Scripture regularly testifies to the ways women provided leadership in God’s kingdom. We need to regularly preach these stories (and others) to remind our congregations that the most important qualification for leading God’s people is not a Y-chromosome, but a faithful heart.

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Diversity is an intrinsically complex concept. It is not redundant, nor a case of circular reasoning, to say that there multiple ways to think about diversity. The term itself invites as …

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