Are You For Us or Against Us?

Joshua 5:13-15
“When Joshua was by Jericho, he lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, a man was standing before him with his drawn sword in his hand. And Joshua went to him and said to him, ‘Are you for us, or for our adversaries?’ And he said, ‘No; but I am the commander of the army of the Lord. Now I have come.’ And Joshua fell on his face to the earth and worshiped and said to him, ‘What does my lord say to his servant?’ And the commander of the Lord’s army said to Joshua, ‘Take off your sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy.’ And Joshua did so.”

In our “us vs. them” world, people are eager to appropriate God for their own agendas, but the Lord will not be reduced to a pawn in our battles. He is the Sovereign Lord over human history and He commands His own heavenly army. We should take care to submit ourselves to Him and His cause.

“Are you for us, or for our adversaries?” is not the right question, so the commander of the army of the Lord responds, “No.” He is no mere human soldier involved in a human battle. The question we should instead ask is, “What does my lord say to his servant?” And whatever we hear, we must do.

As brothers and sisters in Christ, let us not get embroiled in partisanship, but in humility and submission inquire of the Lord together. Don’t ask, “How can I use the Bible to support my opinion?” Ask, “Is my opinion Biblical?” Test every opinion you hold with the straightedge of God’s Word, and ruthlessly eliminate everything that doesn’t line up.

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Can We Lose Our Salvation?

It has come to my attention that my recent sermons from 1 Corinthians have raised some questions about whether or not a Christian can lose his or her salvation. This is a fantastic question, and the fact that this question is being asked shows me that you are paying attention, which is encouraging to me. But perhaps I should have been clearer than I was.

My position on this issue is that of the historic, Reformed view of perseverance of the saints. Here’s an excerpt from my sermon on 1 Corinthians 9:1-27:

In verses 24-25, Paul writes, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things.” Paul is not suggesting that the Christian life is a competition and that only one Christian will receive the price in the end, the point of his analogy is that because each Christian has a “prize” that awaits him at the end of his life, he should exert himself and run with focus and vigor in order to obtain it! This is what Paul had in mind when he said in verse 23, “I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.” Paul never took it for granted that he would obtain the salvation stored up for him in the gospel, he knew that he had to persevere to the end in order to receive it. Passages of Scripture such as Mark 4:16-17, Hebrews 6:5-6, and 2 Peter 2:20-22 teach us that it is possible for a professing Christian who checks all the boxes and evidences all outward appearances of faith could nevertheless fall away from Christ. This is why perseverance is necessary. The doctrine of perseverance of the saints states that all those who are truly in Christ will be kept by Christ and be saved in the end. This is a true doctrine, and we find it in passages like John 6:37-44. However, this does not mean that you will be saved regardless of whether you persevere or not, rather, it means that those who are saved will surely persevere till the end. So your assurance of salvation is inextricably tied to your perseverance in the faith. The more you persevere, the more you will be assured, and the more you are assured in God’s grace, the more you will persevere in faith and good works. There is a prize waiting for us in the end, eternal life, eternal joy, eternal, perfect communion with God, and we must “exercise self-control” and persevere in order to attain it!

Perseverance of the Saints vs. Eternal Security

“Perseverance of the Saints” is a carefully-articulated, historic, Biblical doctrine, while “eternal security” is a less careful articulation of the same doctrine that is prone to misunderstanding. It often gets thrown around as “once saved, always saved,” which unhelpfully gives nominal Christians who are not true Christians false assurance of salvation. A true Christian cannot lose his salvation, because Christ will preserve him to the end. But this does not mean that a Christian is saved regardless of his perseverance. Rather, it means that every true Christian, by God’s preserving grace, perseveres to the end. From God’s omniscient, eternal perspective, all believers have eternal security, from our finite, limited perspective, there is need for perseverance.

The Lord’s Supper: Was It a Passover Meal? (1 of 4)

At Trinity Cambridge Church, we celebrate the Lord’s Supper every week, because we believe that it is an indispensable aspect of the church’s ministry. The more I learn about it, the more I realize how deficient my understanding of it was. Perhaps others are in the same boat. The series will include four posts:

  1. The Lord’s Supper: Was It a Passover Meal? (1 of 4)
  2. The Lord’s Supper: What Does It All Mean? (2 of 4)
  3. The Lord’s Supper: What Actually Happens? (3 of 4)
  4. The Lord’s Supper: How Should We Do It? (4 of 4)

Not a Foregone Conclusion
The Lord’s Supper has historically been understood as a Passover meal, due to its depiction as such in the Synoptic Gospels. Matthew writes that “on the first day of Unleavened Bread,” the disciples asked Jesus, “Where will you have us prepare for you to eat the Passover” (Matt. 26:17-18)? Mark and Luke include similar accounts in their Gospels (Mark 14:12-16; Luke 22:7-13), leaving little doubt that the ensuing Lord’s Supper was a Passover meal.

But recently, scholars have begun to challenge the connection primarily on the basis of Johannine chronology. For example, Scot McKnight (Jesus and His Death), Robert Letham (The Lord’s Supper), and Jonathan Klawans (“Was Jesus’ Last Supper a Seder?”) all argue that the Lord’s Supper was not the Passover meal, but an ordinary Jewish meal imbued with spiritual significance, one day before the Passover. This is a significant debate, because it not only affects modern-day practice (e.g. Christian-Jewish interfaith Seder/Last Supper), but also our doctrine of Scripture (e.g. does John’s account contradict the Synoptic Gospels?).

Their arguments can be classified broadly as exegetical and historical.

Exegetical Arguments against the Passover View
John 18:28 records that the Jews who led Jesus from the house of Caiaphas to the governor’s headquarters for trial “did not enter the [Gentile] governor’s headquarters, so that they would not be defiled, but could eat the Passover.” Since, the Passover meal had not been eaten yet at the time of Jesus’s trial, the argument goes, the Last Supper could not have been a Passover Meal.

John further dates the crucifixion to the “day of Preparation of the Passover” (John 19:14), that is, on the day before Passover (i.e. Thursday), which would mean that the Last Supper took place on the Wednesday night of Passion Week, full day before the official Passover meal.

John 13:1 seems to corroborate this, since, Jesus is said to have washed the feet of his disciples and had the Last Supper, “before the Feast of the Passover.” Since the Last Supper took place before the Passover, it clearly cannot be a Passover meal.

Robert Letham argues that the Lord’s Supper is connected not to the Old Testament Passover, but to the covenant meal eaten by Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and the seventy elders of Israel on Mount Sinai (Exod. 24:1-11). In this view, Moses’s sprinkling of the blood of the burnt offerings on the altar and on the people is what Jesus has in mind, when he says, “This is my blood of the new covenant.” (The Lord’s Supper, p. 5).

Historical Arguments against the Passover View
Moreover, if Christ instituted the Lord’s Supper during a Passover meal, which is an annual event, it is curious why the early church celebrated it on a daily or weekly basis (Acts 2:46-47).

And if the Last Supper was indeed during Passover, as the Synoptic Gospels indicate, then why is there no mention of the lamb, the main dish laden with pertinent symbolism? They seem to be eating only the bread and wine.

These are strong arguments, but the arguments for the Last Supper’s connection to the Passover are even stronger.

The Chronology of the Synoptic Gospels
First, the Synoptic Gospels are unequivocal in their testimony that the Last Supper took place “on the first day of Unleavened Bread, when they sacrifice the Passover lamb,” and the disciples are explicitly told “to go and prepare the Passover” (Mark 14:12-16; cf. Matt. 26:17-19; Luke 22:7-13; Josephus, Ant. 16.6.2 §§163–64).

Johannine Chronology Can Be Reconciled
Second, it is possible to explain the seeming aberrations in John’s Gospel. John notes that Jesus was crucified on the “day of Preparation of the Passover” (John 19:14), this needs not be interpreted as a day of Preparation for the Passover, but the day of preparation for the Sabbath on the week of the Passover. The fact that the “day of Preparation” (paraskeuh/) is used throughout all four of the Gospels to refer to the day of preparation for the Sabbath lends credence to this interpretation (Matt. 27:62; Mark 15:42; Luke 23:54).

Even in John, the Jews ask Pilate to break the legs of those who were crucified in order to hasten their death, “since it was the day of Preparation, and so that the bodies would not remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a high day)” (John 19:31; cf. Deut. 21:22-23). The “day of Preparation of the Passover,” then, refers to the “day of Preparation (for the Sabbath) of the Passover week.” The crucifixion, then, falls on a Friday, which fits the chronology of the Synoptic Gospels.

John 18:28 poses no greater difficulty. The Jews who led Jesus to Pilate for trial “did not enter the [Gentile] governor’s headquarters, so that they would not be defiled, but could eat the Passover.” The “Passover” here does not refer to the Passover meal, but to the Passover feast, which lasted seven days. The Jews, then, are saying that they would like to continue to partake in the feast.

A quick word study on “Passover” (pa¿sca) confirms this. Matthew and Mark use the word “Passover” exclusively to refer to the day the Passover meal is eaten or to the actual meal itself (Matt. 26:2, 17, 18-19; Mark 14:1, 12, 14, 16), and they prefer the designation “Unleavened Bread” (a‡zumoß), when referring to the entire feast.

Luke uses the term more interchangeably, referring to the “Feast of the Passover” (thØv e˚orthØv touv pa¿sca) (Luke 2:41), and even explaining that “the Feast of Unleavened Bread drew near, which is called the Passover” (Luke 22:1), thus proving that the word “Passover” can be used synecdochically to represent the entire feast. But even Luke generally uses the word “Passover” to refer to the meal (Luke 22:7, 8, 11, 13, 15), and when he wants to use the word “Passover” to refer to the Feast, he always clarifies it by pairing it with the word for “feast” (e˚orth) (Luke 2:41; 22:1).

John, however, is an anomaly. He significantly never uses the term, “Unleavened Bread,” and consequently uses the word “Passover” interchangeably to refer to the meal, day, and the feast (John 2:13, 23; 6:4; 11:55; 12:1; 13:1). He sometimes pairs it with the word “feast” (John 2:23; 6:4; 13:1) to make the meaning clear, but most of the time he uses the word by itself (John 2:13; 11:55; 12:1; 18:28, 39; 19:14). In John 6:4, he states, “Now the Passover, the feast of the Jews, was at hand,” demonstrating that “Passover” can again be used synecdochically to refer to the entire feast. With this usage in John established, it is not difficult to accept the suggestion that “the Passover” in John 18:28 refers to the entire feast and not to the Passover meal, in which case they were probably concerned with eating the feast-offering that was brought on Friday morning (cf. Num. 28:18-19).

Finally, John 13:1 does not prove that the Last Supper took place “before the Feast of the Passover.” The statement applies to the foot-washing, which immediately follows the statement, and not to the Last Supper. What about the part of the passage that says that Jesus “rose from supper” (John 13:4) to wash the disciples’ feet? Jews typically ate two meals during the day, one around 10 or 11 in the morning, and another in the late afternoon. On special occasions (like the Passover meal), the late afternoon meals lasted into the night, and therefore onto the next day (in Jewish understanding the day begins at sundown) (Matt. 26:20; Mark 14:17; John 13:30; cf. 1 Cor. 11:23) (Thomas Schreiner, The Lord’s Supper, p. 20). This means that supper began on Thursday, but lasted into Friday, when Passover officially began. Hence, Jesus could have risen from supper to wash his disciples’ feet before the official commencement of Passover.

It is specious to claim that the Lord’s Supper’s primary Old Testament connection is the covenant meal on Mount Sinai (Exod. 24:1-11), when the Lord’s Supper ostensibly takes place in the context of the Feast of the Passover and not during the Feast of Weeks (Shavuot or Pentecost), which celebrates the revelation of the Torah on Mount Sinai.

The Lord’s Supper Was a Passover Meal
Scot McKnight insists that if it the Lord’s Supper was a Passover meal, it would have made more theological sense for Jesus to say, “this lamb is my body” as opposed to “this bread is my body,” but this argument overlooks three important facts: (1) the bread, which is readily broken, lends itself quite well to representing the broken body of Christ. (2) In fact, Jesus’s use of bread, rather than lamb, in the institution of the Lord’s Supper may explain the early church’s rationale in celebrating the Lord’s Supper more frequently. (3) There is a very good theological explanation for why the Gospels do not mention the paschal lamb, because the focus is on Jesus, who is the ultimate Paschal Lamb about to be sacrificed.

Moreover, regardless of whether or not the Lord’s Supper was a Passover meal, both the Synoptic Gospels and John’s Gospel agree that Christ fulfills the typology of the Passover lamb. “Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed” (1 Cor. 5:7), and this is what we remember and celebrate in the Lord’s Supper.

This is the first of a four-part series on the Lord’s Supper. Stay tuned next week for my second post, The Lord’s Supper: What Does It All Mean?

Eternal Dangers of Surfing (the Web)

The Daily Struggle

Every generation has faced its own set of distractions, but the rise of the internet has made everyday distractions more pervasive and persistent than they have ever been.

While reading a textbook or writing a blog post, you come across something that you would like to learn about, so you look it up on Wikipedia. One interesting article leads to the next, until you’re three articles removed, reading about something that is marginally interesting and vaguely related to your original inquiry.

You decide to refocus, but notice a new email in your Gmail tab and resolve to get back to work after checking it. The email is an inconsequential advertisement, and you jump to Facebook for a brief look to see if anything interesting has come up. A YouTube video that your high school friend recently posted catches your eye and you click on it, which leads to another video, and so on. Then, you realize that it’s been long enough that you may have a new email or a Facebook update to feast your wandering mind and darting eyes upon…

Psychology of Idle Surfing

Why do we scroll through an endless stream of Instagram pictures, Facebook posts, and Tweets? Expanding on Leon Festinger’s social comparison theory, psychologists Myungsuh Lim and Yoon Yang have conducted a research that asserts that people use social media to engage in “upward” (those who seem to have more exciting pastimes, more attractive significant others or families, more followers and likes, and/or more engaging quips) and “downward” (those who seem to have less exciting pastimes, less attractive significant others or families, less followers and likes, and/or less engaging posts) comparison. We, then, assimilate this data and use it to evaluate ourselves and our own social standing. Of course, some of us turn to social media for other, good reasons, but nevertheless we may engage in this social comparison process subconsciously.

For some of us, it may be all-too-frequent visits to ESPN, Wikipedia, or the Huffington Post, indulging our curiosities and reading articles and opinions that range from ponderous to frivolous, but mostly in the middling category of interesting but insignificant. In one way or another, these stimuli activate neurons in our brain to release dopamine, a neurotransmitter which, among other things, rewards certain tasks with a feeling of pleasure. So we keep coming back for more.

Theology of Idle Surfing

In 2 Thessalonians 3:10-12, Apostle Paul admonishes those who “walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies.” The word play between “busy at work” (ἐργαζομένους) and “busybodies” (περιεργαζομένους) makes explicit the connection between neglecting one’s own affairs and meddling in others’ affairs. 1 Timothy 5:13 similarly teaches that “idlers” are prone to become “gossips and busybodies.”

When surfing idly on the internet, we neglect our God-given vocation to meddle in the affairs of others; we lose our vertical mooring and drift horizontally in the waves of others, tossed to and fro by every whim and trend.

Tweet: “When surfing idly on the internet, we neglect our God-given vocation to meddle in the affairs of others.” @shawnswoo http://bit.ly/217j8Lb

Getting Off the Surfboard

So how do we stop mindlessly surfing the web? It is certainly helpful to install extensions like StayFocusd or LeechBlock on your web browser, programs like SelfControl on your computer, and apps like Weblock on your smartphone to block out distractions, but it is even more important to address the false beliefs that underlie our distractions.

Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 9:24-27:

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.

Do we have an appropriately high view of our God-given vocation? Do we live with the awareness that our every waking moment affects eternity? Ultimately, our love for God must constrain us. An all-consuming desire to “do all [things] to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31) is the only thing that can restrain our idle surfing.

What is God calling you to do at this present moment? Stop scrolling through your Twitter feed and work on the project that you’ve been assigned at your job! Stop staring agape at every food post on Instagram, prepare yourself a meal and invite a good friend to join you! Stop replaying that highlight reel on ESPN and go exercise! Stop sleepily scrolling through Your Facebook newsfeed in bed, go to sleep! Stop perking up to check every notification on your smartphone over dinner, be attentive to your wife, husband, or child! Stop reading this blog post even, go pore over the Word of God!

The way to stop being idle is to start applying ourselves to God’s work. We stop being a busybody by being busy at work. Remember that an idle surf is an idol’s turf. Tread with care and intention on the internet.

Tweet: “An idle surf is an idol’s turf. Tread with care and intention on the internet.” @shawnswoo http://bit.ly/217j8Lb

Fasting for Foodies

Enjoying Food

When is the last time you really enjoyed food? When is the last time you really paused to savor every crunch of that toasted bread and whiff of creamy butter, the juicy sweetness of strawberries tinged with refreshing piquancy, and the cleansing, thirst-slaking purity of cold water? If it’s been a little while, it may be that your surfeited appetite no longer appreciates the finer tastes in life.

Those in Florida cannot welcome the warmth of Spring like a Winter-weary New Englander, and those who are always full cannot delight in food like those who fast. This is why, if you’re a foodie (or anyone for that matter), you should consider fasting.

Gluttony

But fasting is difficult, because we’re a nation of gluttons. Christians of old used to understand the danger of gluttony (it was numbered among the seven deadly sins), but people nowadays are more concerned about gaining weight than about the more fundamental problem of gluttony.

And you don’t have to be overweight to be a glutton. Weighing in at a whole 125lb, no one would accuse me of being a glutton, but the truth is I fight the sin of gluttony daily, when I’m tempted to grab that one extra chocolate-covered almond, or two, or three, or when I scarf down a bowl of noodles and pour a second helping before the noodles have traversed the length of my esophagus.

Fasting

By exercising restraint when we eat and/or by fasting from food altogether, we counteract this mindless indulgence and rightly order our physical appetites. But isn’t eating good food harmless? Why be so legalistic? John Piper puts it pointedly:

The greatest enemy of hunger for God is not poison but apple pie. It is not the banquet of the wicked that dulls our appetite for heaven, but endless nibbling at the table of the world. It is not the X-rated video, but the prime-time dribble of triviality we drink in every night. For all the ill that Satan can do, when God describes what keeps us from the banquet table of his love, it is a piece of land, a yoke of oxen, and a wife (Luke 14:18-20). The greatest adversary of love to God is not his enemies but his gifts. And the most deadly appetites are not for the poison of evil, but for the simple pleasures of earth. For when these replace an appetite for God himself, the idolatry is scarcely recognizable, and almost incurable (A Hunger for God, p. 18).

The truth is that our appetite for food is connected to other physical appetites, and what we do with, and to, our body has spiritual implications. As embodied creatures, “our mind is helped by what comes to us embodied in concrete form; fasting helps to express, to deepen, and to confirm the resolution that we are ready to sacrifice anything, to sacrifice ourselves, to attain what we seek for the kingdom of God” (Andrew Murray, With Christ in the School of Prayer, p. 85). Fasting helps us understand viscerally (literally), that God, not food, is our most fundamental need, that we do “not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4).

Paul writes, “‘All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful for me,’ but I will not be dominated by anything. ‘Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food’—and God will destroy both one and the other” (1 Cor. 6:12-20). So we are to “exercise self-control in all things” and “discipline [our] body and keep it under control” (1 Cor. 9:25-27).

“Our human cravings and desires are like rivers that tend to overflow their banks; fasting helps keep them in their proper channels” (Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline, p. 56). By subduing our appetite for food, we can restrain other appetites that threaten to control us, whether it is a minor obsession with coffee or serious addictions to cigarettes, alcohol, or pornography.

A Picture of A Godly Foodie

I have a good friend, who, every time he sits down in front of a meal, slowly lowers his face toward the plate and waves his hand over the food toward his nose. He does this in order to get a whiff of the wafting aroma before giving thanks to God for the food. I think this is a perfect picture of a godly foodie.

“So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31). When you eat your meal(s) today, remember and thank God for Christ, our ultimate Bread of Life (John 6:22-59). And when you fast, likewise, acknowledge that your spiritual dependence on the Bread of Life is even more profound than your physical dependence on daily bread. Only when our appetites are rightly ordered and submitted to God, will we truly enjoy food to its fullness.

The Pitfalls of Productivity

Last year, I read half a dozen books on productivity, management, and leadership in preparation for church planting. All the books came highly recommended by friends and coworkers whom I respect, and I reaped tangible benefits from them. In fact, I may even recommend some of these to certain people. However, as a Christian and a pastor, I have a lingering discomfort with the premise of many of these books, and I fear that too many Christians are uncritically accepting their insights.

Nearly all of them speak of investing in tasks that maximize one’s personal talents and yield the greatest return and fulfillment. They emphasize making tough decisions based on your priorities, even if doing so makes you unpopular. “If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will,” they warn. “Whoever it is that’s trying to siphon off your time and energies for their own purpose, the only solution is to put up fences. … so you can head off time wasters and boundary pushers at the pass.”

You instead, should do work that only you can do—work that you love—because “life is too short not to do some things you love.” More specifically, “Focus your attention on the activities that rank in the top 20 percent in terms of importance,” they say, “and you will have an 80 percent return on your effort.” “If something [you’re] doing can be done 80 percent as well by someone else, … delegate it.” One of the books goes even further: “If you rate [a task/option] any lower than 90 percent, then automatically change the rating to 0 and simply reject it.”

My objection to these approaches is twofold: (1) they wrongly assume that your priorities and interests are more important than others’, and (2) they wrongly assume that you actually know what is most important.

My Priorities or Theirs?

When people invade and throng his home, presumably seeking to be healed of their diseases and relieved of their demons (Mark 3:7-12), Jesus does not turn them away. In fact, he’s so busy attending to their needs that he and his disciples “could not even eat” (Mark 3:20). I can hear the productivity gurus protest, “Jesus, you need to establish clear boundaries so that you can keep people who siphon off your time and energy at bay.” “You need to stay focused on your primary mission to “[proclaim] the gospel of God” and tell people to “repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:14-15).

In Mark 6:30-44, Jesus invites his disciples to “come away by [themselves] to a desolate place and rest a while,” the crowd, however, finds and follows them. Yet Jesus fails, once again, to draw clear boundaries and protect his personal time of rest. Instead, he “[has] compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he [begins] to teach them many things” (Mark 6:34). Then later, rather than sending them away to go find food, Jesus does something that goes lavishly beyond what was required or expected of him. He feeds them, all five thousand of them.

Only one chapter later, Jesus faces yet another test of his focus and resolve. Will he adhere strictly to his priorities this time? A Syrophoenician woman begs Jesus to cast out the demon from her daughter, but Jesus knows that his mission before his death and resurrection is to the Jews, and not to the Gentiles. Nevertheless, Jesus acquiesces upon the woman’s heartfelt insistence (Mark 7:26-30).

Consider the time when Jesus welcomed the children whom his disciples had deemed a nuisance (Mark 10:13-15)? Or that time when Jesus healed a blind beggar whom many sought to silence and ignore (John 10:46-52)? Or that time when Jesus turned water into wine at a wedding party at the request of his mother, even though “[his] hour [had] not yet come,” as he said so himself (John 2:1-12)? How extravagant and superfluous!

Even a cursory examination of Jesus’s life exposes the profound selfishness and individualism of much productivity advice. But Christians are to be different. They are to “do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than [themselves], … [looking] not only to [their] own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Phil. 2:3-4). Why should I think that my priorities are more important than others’ priorities?

It’s this kind of utilitarian mindset that counsels pastors (as I found in one pastoral ministry book) to avoid the neediest people, because they consume the most time but add the least value to the church. The time is better spent, they say, in discipling and training people who show promise. But Christians are to “admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, [and] be patient with them all” (1 Thess. 5:4). The pastors, of all people, should have the Father’s heart to leave the ninety-nine sheep to go out in search for the one lost sheep (Luke 15:1-7)!

Moreover, doing only what we alone can do and only what we love to do are not viable options for a vast majority of people throughout the world. This line of thinking divides people into two classes and privileges the first: (1) those who do what they love (usually creative, intellectual, and/or socially prestigious activities) and (2) those who do what they have to (usually mundane, repetitive, and/or menial activities). Those whom we delegate to are essentially relegated to unimportant, invisible roles that serve our purpose.

As a pastor, I am primarily called to minister the word and pray. I feel that I am true to who I am and what God has gifted me to be when I am discipling and teaching others. But what about printing the bulletins, listening to voicemails, setting up chairs, and cleaning church facilities? Are these tasks beneath the dignity of the pastor, but not beneath the dignity of the industrious faithful who sacrifice their time and energy to serve the church?

My conviction is that the pastor should be involved in some kind of “menial” activity for the church, like our Lord who washed his disciples’ feet (John 13:1-20). This cultivates humility, servanthood, and a deeper appreciation for the interdependent members of the body, and models these values for the church. Similarly, a pastor should not only invest in gifted, responsive members, but also in some people who are particularly needy and slow to change. This cultivates, love, humility, and a dependence on God’s grace, and models these values for the church.

What Are My Most Important Priorities?

You might object that Jesus never strayed from his mission and always did what the Father willed—that even the examples I adduced reveal the coming of the kingdom of God and therefore are directly related to Jesus’s central mission—and you would be right. But this actually proves my second, related point: that many books on productivity wrongly assume that we know what the most important priorities are. Yes, Jesus never strayed from his mission because he knew the Father’s will perfectly, but we do not.

Furthermore, if the seemingly ancillary and extraneous things that Jesus did happened to be integral to his calling, how can we so easily dismiss things that appear ancillary and extraneous to us? How can we be so cocksure that we know what is most important and therefore must be prioritized?

Reflecting on my own calling, how does a minister know that certain people are worth discipling and others are not? How does he know that a particular counseling situation demands his attention while another does not? How does he know which missions opportunities he should pursue?

Of course, there are answers to these questions, but these answers are, at best, provisional. What if God is doing a mighty work in seemingly small and insignificant people? What if God is weaving together an improbable series of events to advance the kingdom of God in the details that we overlook?

In Acts 16:6-10, we see the Holy Spirit disrupt Paul, Silas, and Timothy’s priorities and redirect their missionary journey. As missiologist Leslie Newbigin correctly observes, “the significant advances of the church have not been the result of our own decisions about the mobilizing and allocating of ‘resources,'” but of “the free and sovereign deed of God” of which we have no advance knowledge.

Therefore, our prioritizing and strategizing should be submitted, first of all, to the leadership of the Holy Spirit. It should begin and end with the prayer of humble relinquishment, “Your will be done.” The rigid utilitarianism and clinical efficiency of “productivity” neither give due weight nor credit to divine intervention.

I do not say these things to discount the value of strategic planning. I well understand its importance, and that is why I read these books in the first place. Those who lack clear priorities and have a tendency to overextend themselves should read these books and benefit from them. But we must remember that faithfulness, not efficiency, is the goal of Christian vocation. God’s glory, not success, is the goal of Christian life. Let us not hide selfishness and self-importance behind the facade of “productivity.”

Loving God and Neighbor

The sermon I preached at King of Grace Church (Haverhill, MA) on November 1st, 2015.

“The love of Christ enables our love for God and neighbor.” LISTEN

Mark 12:28-34
28 And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” 29 Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”32 And the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher. You have truly said that he is one, and there is no other besides him. 33 And to love him with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” 34 And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And after that no one dared to ask him any more questions.

Servants of the Gospel

The sermon I preached at King of Grace Church (Haverhill, MA) on May 17th, 2015, when I was ordained as a pastor.

“God makes gospel ministers according to His grace, to prepare the church, by preaching Christ crucified.” LISTEN

Ephesians 3:7-13

7 Of this gospel I was made a minister according to the gift of God’s grace, which was given me by the working of his power. To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages inGod who created all things, 10 so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. 11 This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord, 12 in whom we have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in him. 13 So I ask you not to lose heart over what I am suffering for you, which is your glory.

Does Digital Bible Reading Make Us Biblically Illiterate and Spiritually Immature?

The changing medium

From the stone slabs used by Moses (Ex. 24:12; 31:18), to the various wooden, clay, or metal tablets used by the prophets (Is. 8:1; 30:8; Hab. 2:2; cf. Ezek. 27:5), to papyri scrolls (Jer. 36:2; Ezra 6:2; Ps. 40:7), to parchment codices, and finally, to paper books, the Word of God has been preserved and communicated through a wide range of media.

Currently, we are witnessing the ascendancy of yet another kind of medium: the electronic hand-held devices (e.g. e-readers, tablets, and various smart phones). But is this a good development?

This is an important question, because there is no such thing as neutral media. As Marshall McLuhan’s famous saying goes, “The medium is the message.” In other words, the medium influences the message, because the content cannot be extricated from its form.

Are digital texts making us Biblically illiterate and spiritually immature?
Recently, a bevy of writers from prominent Evangelical gatekeepers, such as Gospel Coalition and Modern Reformation, have criticized digital texts for their lack of “thereness” or physical presence. Their objection is that Christ’s incarnation demands respect for the physical Word of God, and that the disembodiment of Scripture fosters nothing less than deficient discipleship and substandard worship.

However, the uniqueness of Christ’s incarnation and hypostatic union precludes any argument from analogy. In fact, it borders on bibliolatry to identify the incarnate Son of God with Scripture. Jesus himself instituted the sacraments when he said of the bread, “This is my body,” and of the wine, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood” (1 Cor. 11:24-27). He never said of the Scripture scroll, “this is my body.”

Furthermore, before the invention of the printing press, most Christians could not afford a physical copy of the Bible, were these Christians inferior disciples than we? Stephen the martyr? Barnabas the encourager? Philip the evangelist? I think not.

Most of the critics of digital Bible-reading are professors at Christian colleges or seminaries who attribute the increasing Biblical illiteracy of their students to digital reading, but correlation is not necessarily causation. The reason young Christians cannot locate books and chapters of the Bible is not because they are used to the decontextualized approach of locating books and chapters via the search function, but because they simply don’t read the Bible.

(As a member of this Biblically illiterate generation, I have dozens of friends who own physical Bibles yet never open them outside of church on Sunday.)

As Alan Jacobs argues, “It’s not reasonable to think of technology–in the usual vaguely pejorative meaning of that term–as the enemy of reading” (The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, p. 82). Our reflection on the intersection of emerging technologies and Bible reading must be more nuanced.

Theology of books
In his article in The New Atlantis, Jacobs unpacks his ideas further and suggests that the codex, a collection of manuscripts in book form, recommended itself to early Christians for its economy, portability, integrity, and sequentiality. 

We may call this the “theology of books.” The theological reasons for reading from books rather than from papyri scrolls or any other media. First, a book was economical, because it allowed for writing on both sides of the leaves (unlike scrolls). Since Scripture addresses not just the affluent, but all people “small and great” (2 Kings 23:1-3), a book’s affordability was a plus.

Second, a book was portable, because it was condensed (double-sided) and bound without the scroll roller. This enabled Christians to study and apply the Scriptures everywhere they went (Deut. 6:4-9; Prov. 7:1-3).

In The Epigrams of Martial (Book II), the 1st century Spanish poet writes:

You, who wish my poems should be everywhere
with you, and look to have them as companions on a
long journey, buy these which the parchment confines
in small pages. Assign your book-boxes to the great;
this copy of me one hand can grasp.

The “book box” was a scroll capsule that Romans used, which was much more cumbersome than a codex (not counting hefty codices like the Codex Sinaiticus, which also served ornamental purposes). Therefore, Martial is recommending a codex version of his poems for its portability.

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Third, a book showcased Scripture’s integrity. Combined in a single volume, the book showed that the Scriptures are not disparate documents open for cherry picking, but a single, united witness of the Holy Spirit to divine revelation (2 Pt. 1:21; 2 Tim. 3:16-17).

Fourth, a book was a visual demonstration of the sequential history of redemption. The Bible was arranged by the Jewish rabbis (OT) and Christian bishops (NT) to reflect theology, not chronology. The Old Testament proceeds from creation to covenant, covenant to desolation, and desolation to consolation, and the New Testament proceeds from Christ to the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit to the Church, and the Church to the New Creation, altogether demonstrating God’s covenant faithfulness and proclaiming the Kingdom of God.

So then, there are good theological reasons why Christians are known as the “People of the Book,” but does Bible-reading on hand-held electronic devices forfeit these qualities?

Bible-Reading on Electronic Devices
Not necessarily. Most of the Bible apps are free, so if you already have a smart phone, tablet, computer, or an e-reader, they are very economical. And obviously, they are much more portable than physical books, especially considering that you can carry related resources such as Bible dictionaries and commentaries on the same electronic device:

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ESV Study Bible [Hardcover]          ESV Study Bible [Kindle]
Price: $30.83                                       Price: $9.90
Dimensions: 6.5 x 2.2 x 9.2″          Dimensions: N/A
Shipping Weight: 5.2 lb                   Shipping Weight: N/A

Bible Readers can also preserve the integrity and sequentiality of Scripture in its presentation. My Bible Reader, Olive Tree, allows me to change the setting and turn my phone into a virtual scroll so that I can swipe from top to bottom continuously–from Genesis to Revelation, thus preserving the context. And the fact that you can check the cross references without leaving the current passage showcases the remarkable unity of Scripture!

The bar graph that runs along the bottom represents all of the chapters in the Bible. Books alternate in color between white and light gray. The length of each bar denotes the number of verses in the chapter. Each of the 63,779 cross references found in the Bible is depicted by a single arc - the color corresponds to the distance between the two chapters, creating a rainbow-like effect. (http://www.chrisharrison.net/index.php/Visualizations/BibleViz)
The bar graph that runs along the bottom represents all of the chapters in the Bible. Books alternate in color between white and light gray. The length of each bar denotes the number of verses in the chapter. Each of the 63,779 cross references found in the Bible is depicted by a single arc – the color corresponds to the distance between the two chapters, creating a rainbow-like effect. (http://www.chrisharrison.net/index.php/Visualizations/BibleViz)

Nicholas Carr (The Shallows) and Mark Bauerlein (The Dumbest Generation) have raised the important point that a truncated approach to literature, devoid of a linear, progressive orientation, conditions our brains to think in facile and fragmented ways. This danger can be avoided through thoughtful setup of the electronic device.

Interestingly, many of the people who criticize digital reading of the Bible seem to be fine with using screen projectors to display Scripture at church. As Jacobs notes, this is the primary, if not the only, way in which millions of Christians view Scripture, completely devoid of context and any semblance of integrity or sequentiality. This is a far more pernicious medium than phones or e-readers.

Shutting out distractions
But aren’t we more prone to get distracted reading from a smart phone? After all, you can switch from the Bible to Twitter, Facebook, or your email with a simple tap on the screen. Doesn’t the very versatility of the smart phone threaten sustained focus in reading?

First, distractions are not exclusive to digital reading. (How many times have you put down your physical Bible because you remembered that one thing you had to do right at that moment?) But given the sheer number of distractions on electronic devices and their siren pull, I concede that this is potentially a genuine disadvantage of digital reading. However, it is not an insurmountable disadvantage. Here are some steps I take to shut out distractions while reading my Bible on the phone:

  1. Silence the phone.
  2. Disable alerts. ImageOn the iPhone, you can go to Settings → Notifications, and disable alerts from individual apps so that nothing pops up to distract you while you’re reading the Bible. I actually keep the alerts disabled at all times, because I don’t want to feed the habit of instant gratification by checking things as soon as they appear, and prefer to check things on my own schedule.
  3. Start with prayer. Before I read the Bible, I pray through Psalm 19, which I have committed to memory for this purpose. It’s a magnificent psalm that talks about God’s general revelation of himself through creation (vv. 1-6) and his special revelation of himself through Scripture (vv. 7-14). God’s disclosure in Scripture is for his people who know him personally, which is why God is addressed generically as “God” (אֱלֹהִ֑ים; elōhîm) in vv. 1-6, but personally as “Yahweh” (יְהוָ֣ה; yhwh) in vv. 7-14. I pray through the verses, “Lord, through your Word, refresh my soul and make me wise (v. 7), bring joy to my heart and light to my eyes (v. 8), and fill me with the fear of God and righteousness (v. 9). Help me to desire and treasure your Word (v. 10), and be warned by it and kept from sin (vv. 11-13). May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing to you (v. 14).” This exercise centers my heart and prepares my mind so that I can submit to God’s Word and be shaped and molded by it, rather than subject it to fit my whims.
  4. Meditate on Scripture. We don’t read the Bible just to “download” information. We read it to encounter God through the illumination of the Holy Spirit. So instead of reading just to get through it, dwell on a passage of Scripture. Read at a slow, deliberate pace and be attentive to the promptings of the Holy Spirit.

The ability to read without getting distracted is a skill and discipline that we can, and need to, cultivate, regardless of what media we use.

Between two worlds
When I was at Urbana Missions Conference in 2006, Jim Tebbe, the Vice President of Intervarsity at the time, had the 22,000 people gathered there lift up their cell phones on one hand, and their Bible on the other. It was an amazing sight. Then, he prayed that God would reveal what the Bible had to say to our world, represented by our phones.

This is similar to John Stott’s statement that when he prepares a sermon, he takes “the Bible in one hand and the daily newspaper in the other” (Between Two Worlds, p. 149), in order to apply the unchanging Word of God to the ever-changing world of man.

Reading the Bible on our phones, then, can serve as an apt reminder of this application. If we reach for our Bibles as often as we reach for our phones, and if we search the Scriptures as often as we search through our inboxes, Biblical illiteracy would be the least of our concerns…

The Prude and Prurience: An Essay About Christian Modesty

There has been a fascinating dialogue on the Q-Ideas forum between Jessica Rey and Rachel Held Evans about female modesty in clothing.

Objectification of Women
Jessica Rey is an entrepreneur who started a popular line of Audrey Hepburn-inspired swimsuits that tries to steer past the Scylla and Charybdis of skimpy bikinis and frumpy one-pieces. In her viral video, she cites studies by scholars from Princeton and Stanford, which used fMRI scans to determine:

  1. that heterosexual men associated scantily-clad, or “sexualized,” women with first-person action verbs (e.g. “I handle”), while associating fully-clad women with third-person action verbs (e.g. “She handles”),” and
  2. that visual stimuli of sexualized women sometimes deactivated regions of the male brain associated with perceiving human agency (e.g. thoughts and feelings) and only activated regions of the male brain associated with tools (e.g. screwdrivers and hammers).

The lead researcher Susan Fiske commented that this “lack of activation in this social cognition area is really odd, because it hardly ever happens,” and concluded that men are prone to see sexualized women as objects to use rather than as agents to relate to. For this reason, Rey promotes her fashionably modest swimwear by arguing that skimpy bikinis lead not to the empowerment of women but to their objectification.

Prudery = Prurience?
Rachel Held Evans, a popular blogger and Christian feminist, responded to Rey by arguing that prudery and prurience are different sides of the same coin. In her post, Evans claims that both the sexualized popular culture and the Christian modesty culture disempower women by telling them to dress a certain way (i.e. provocatively or modestly) in order to please men.

Modesty and Materialism
As intriguing as that sounds, the arguments she adduces to support her claim are flimsy at best. First, Evans argues that Biblical injunctions about modest clothing refers not to immodest adornments but to materialism.

“I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God.” -1 Timothy 2:9-10 (NIV)

Evans correctly notes that this passage, like its parallel in 1 Peter 3:3, is emphasizing that a woman’s “beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes.” “Outward adornment” is clearly contrasted with “inward beauty,” “the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit” (1 Peter 3:4). These passages are clearly a polemic against the materialistic focus on physical beauty.

However, to argue that these passages refer only to materialism and not to modesty is an unwarranted restriction of its range of meaning. While Evans is right that the word “modestly” does not mean “bashful” or “unassuming” as we might imagine, but rather “orderly,” “appropriate,” or “respectable” in this context, the descriptor that immediately follows the word “modestly” is “decency,” which refers to a “sense of shame” and a “sense of honor” in contrast to shamelessness (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament).

In Greco-Roman culture, outward adornments were often perceived as instruments of seduction (see Philo, On the Virtues 7.39; Plutarch, Advice 30), and women’s hairstyles were becoming increasingly elaborate, with curls, braids, wigs, and ornaments. In fact, historians can date the representations of women by the relative complexity of their hairstyle. Archaeologists have discovered coins minted throughout the Roman Empire that depict empresses as well as numerous prominent statutes of empresses, and their fancy fashions were quickly emulated by the well-to-do. To illustrate, Messalina, the empress and wife of Roman Emperor Claudius, as well as Poppaea, the Empress and wife of Emperor Nero, were notorious for their promiscuity, and for using their sexual allure to gain power. In this context, where elaborate adornments were associated with licentiousness, one can understand the apostle’s warning against external adornments.
Thus, the Bible condemns both materialism and immodesty. After all, what is the point of immodest adornments? Isn’t it to enhance or highlight physical beauty? Isn’t it to bring attention to one’s outward, physical features as opposed to one’s inward, spiritual qualities? Immodesty is rooted in materialism, and to say that Apostle Paul is addressing materialism and not immodesty is a false dichotomy.
A Biblical Theology of Clothing

The “sense of shame” that comes with physical exposure attests to the innocence that we have lost due to sin. In the beginning, Adam and Eve, created in the image of God, were naked yet without shame (Gen. 2:25). Then, after sinning against God, they suddenly realized that they were naked and attempted to cover themselves with fig leaves (Gen. 3:7). After seeing their woeful attempt at a covering, God himself clothed them with garments of skin (Gen. 3:21).

The loss of humanity’s spiritual innocence was reflected in their shame in physical nakedness. This is why wearing clothes is an exclusively human phenomenon. This is why the language of “covering” is used to describe forgiveness of sin (Rom. 4:7; Ps. 32:1). This is why God tells the Church in Laodicea to buy “white garments so that [they] may clothe [themselves] and the shame of [their] nakedness may not be seen” (Rev. 3:18).

Therefore, when God took animal skins to make leather garments for Adam and Eve, his act foreshadowed Christ who would be sacrificed to become the garment of righteousness for God’s people (Gal. 3:27). Christians are those who have clothed themselves with Christ (Rom. 13:14).

Physical clothing, then, serves to remind us of the glory we have lost, and immodest exposure, as well as other increasingly popular forms of public nudity, are defiant acts of rebellion against this moral reality. To encourage men and women to dress modestly, then, is not to make them ashamed of their bodies, but to help them put their hope in the future glorious bodies that they will have through Christ (Phil. 3:21).

Modesty and the Gospel
Evans is absolutely right that Jesus places the blame squarely on the men for lusting over women, and not on the women for dressing immodestly (Mt. 5:27-30), but does it follow that is it wise or loving for Christian women to dress provocatively since it’s not their problem or responsibility after all?

Our culture of individual entitlement says, “dress however wish, since it’s for yourself and nobody else,” but Christianity is all about surrendering our “rights” for the sake of the gospel (1 Cor. 9). Didn’t Apostle Paul say that he would even forego such basic rights as eating meat or drinking wine if doing so would cause a fellow Christian brother or sister to stumble (Rom. 14:13-23)? Should we not, then, exercise Christian charity in the way we dress?

As Martin Luther once said, “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” As Christians we are to “look not only to [our] own interest, but also to the interests of others” (Phil. 2:4), because this is precisely what Jesus did for us. Christ, “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:6-8).

So to put it bluntly: we don’t dress just for ourselves. In fact, we don’t do anything just for ourselves. We do everything for the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31), which includes the way we dress. Christian women who dress modestly don’t do it to please men, they do it ultimately to honor God!

What About Men?
“Well, then, shouldn’t men dress modestly too?” Yes, of course! Women shouldn’t show too much cleavage, and men should use belts so that they can wear their pants on their waists, where they belong, and not on their knees.

There is empirical evidence that men, in general, respond more to visual sexual stimuli than women do. (Just consider the fact that out of the 40 million adults who view pornography annually, only 28% are female, while the rest are male.) This is why the focus is usually on women when it comes to modesty, but men are certainly not exempt. I would totally wear a t-shirt at beaches if my abs made women stumble, but I have not found this to be the case in the U.S.

Isn’t Modesty Culturally Relative?
It is true that modesty is culturally-defined, but every culture covers something. In some cultures, showing one’s shoulders or bare arms is considered immodest. In others, showing one’s buttocks or the upper thigh is considered immodest. The questions that should guide us are: (1) Does the article of clothing in question cause shame? (2) Does it bring attention to outward, rather than inward, beauty? And finally, (3) Is it loving? Will it tempt others? Because, in all things, we ought to be constrained, not by our rights, but by our love for God and one another.

Three Ukrainian men, wearing trunks and briefs, attract attention for immodesty relative to the local norm in Bangladesh.
Three Ukrainian men, wearing trunks and briefs, attract attention for immodesty relative to the local norm in Bangladesh.