31 December 2012


A 1970 interview. 

An Echo of the New Jerusalem

'For myself,' said Faramir, 'I would see the White Tree in flower again in the courts of the kings, and the Silver Crown return, and Minas Tirith in peace: Minas Anor again as of old, full of light, high and fair, beautiful as a queen among other queens: not a mistress of many slaves, nay, not even a kind mistress of willing slaves.

'War must be, while we defend our lives against a destroyer who would devour all; but I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend: the city of the Men of Numenor; and I would have her loved for her memory, her ancientry, her beauty, and her present wisdom. Not feared, save as men may fear the dignity of a man, old and wise.'
--J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, Book 4, Chapter 5

29 December 2012

Why Tremble?

Luther, 1530:
Christ himself says, John 16, 'Be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.'

This cannot be wrong--I'm sure of it--that Christ, the Son of God, has overcome the world. Why do we tremble before the world as before a triumphant conqueror? It is worth going to Rome or Jerusalem on one's knees to obtain those words of Christ. 
--'Sayings in Which Luther Found Comfort,' in Luther's Works, Volume 43, Devotional Writings II, 172

20 December 2012

Soul Oxygen

The justification of a sinner is instantaneous and complete. . . . It is an all-comprehending act of God. All the sins of a believer, past, present, and future, are pardoned when he is justified. The sum-total of his sin, all of which is before the Divine eye at the instant when God pronounces him a justified person, is blotted out or covered over by one act of God. Consequently, there is no repetition in the Divine mind of the act of justification; as there is no repetition of the atoning death of Christ, upon which it rests.
--William G. T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, Volume 2 (New York: Scribner's, 1891), 545

17 December 2012

60 Reasons Jesus Is Better Than I Think

Listened to some music and thought about Jesus this week. Here's what I jotted down.

1.      His forgiveness gets down underneath not just our conscious, willful sins, but everything that is broken within us.
2.      He ate lunch with hookers and crooked businessmen, not the conservative seminary professors.
3.      Discipleship to him does not involve attaining a minimum level of competency. No resume is needed. Discipleship to him involves humbling ourselves, putting ourselves low, not high, and anyone can do that, if they will simply let Self die and be swallowed up by light and beauty and joy.
4.      Those in union with him are promised that all the haunted brokenness that infects everything—every relationship, every conversation, every family, every email, every wakening to consciousness in the morning, every job, every vacation—everything—will one day be rewound and reversed.
5.      Those in union with him are promised that the more darkness and hell we experience in this life, to that degree we will enjoy resplendence and radiance in the next (Rom. 8:17–18).
6.      He never, ever asks his friends to walk through a trial that he, as the Pioneer-Author-Founder-Trailblazer (archegos: Heb 2:10; 12:2) has not himself, in an even more profound way, gone through himself.
7.      His sinlessness does not encourage him to be aloof from us, holding us at arms length, but a substitute for us.
8.      Unlike the laws of ritual cleanliness in Leviticus, Jesus’ touch of messy humans like me does not contaminate him. It cleanses me. In the OT, clean + unclean = unclean. With Jesus, clean + unclean = clean (Mark 1:41).
9.      His mercy to sinners is not calculating, scale-weighing, careful. It is lavish, outrageous, unfettered. 
10.  His atoning death means he is free not to scrutinize. He needs not. All has been wiped clean. Faults remain, not just in our past but in our present. But the whole atmosphere in which we live has been transformed from one of scrutiny, both toward us by God and by us toward others, into one of welcome, both toward us by God and therefore by us toward others.
11.  He no longer calls us servants, but friends, and he is the friend of sinners. Of sinners. Many of us are born again, serving the Lord with faithfulness, and have never really swallowed that.
12.  He is not an idea or a philosophy or a theory or a framework or even a doctrine. He’s a Person. His blazing wrath upon the impenitent is matched by his gentle embrace of the penitent. He has nothing to say to the righteous (Mark 2:17).
13.  He doesn’t resent me, as I do others, though I have given him many reasons to.
14.  In all my stumbling and failing, he has not yet said, ‘Enough is enough. I’m out.’ Where sin abounds, grace hyper-abounds (Rom. 5:20).
15.  He is incapable of disgust over his children, even his sinning children.
16.  He gives rest. He is that of which the sabbath is a shadow; Jesus is the shadow-caster. He doesn’t just forgive our sins; he lets the frenetic RPMs of the heart slow down into calm sanity. And no external circumstance can threaten that rest, as we look to him.
17.  The one place in all four Gospels where he opens up to tell us about his own heart—the only place—he says he is ‘gentle and lowly in heart’ (Matt 11:29). Burrow down into the very core of what makes the God-Man tick, the one who wove his own whip to drive the enterprising capitalists from the temple, and you find: gentleness.
18.  He is not a tame lion. He is not domesticate-able, predictable, boring. He cannot be caged. Who would want to?
19.  He does not give us grace. He gives us himself. He is grace. He is the life, the vitality, the flourishing, the shalom, that we desperately, hauntingly, long for.
20.  His brilliant resplendence will, one day soon, make every Hollywood superhero look small and silly.
21.  He is both a lamb and a lion. He is the tenderness of which all that is tender is an echo, and also the fierceness to which all that is fierce alludes. 
22.  His grace is both outside me and inside me. Freely accounted righteousness-grace, through the Son, is credited to me from the outside; freely given godliness-grace, through the Spirit, is worked in me on the inside.
23.  He is not averse to dirty, complex, self-justifying jerks. He is averse to dirty, complex, self-justifying jerks who deny they are dirty, complex, self-justifying jerks.
24.  He found me. I have already been discovered. I do not need to maneuver and manipulate my way into the spotlight.
25.  His coming into this diseased world means that, as Gandalf told Sam, everything sad is going to come untrue.
26.  There was nothing physically attractive about him (Isa. 53:2). He would never have appeared on the cover of Men’s Health. He came as a normal man to both comfort and supernaturalize normal people, not sexy people.
27.  He came as a sinless man, not a sinless Superman. He woke up with bed-head. He had zits at 14. He went through puberty. He is not Zeus.
28.  He didn’t come mainly to give a pep talk. He came to do what every pep talk is trying to get us impossibly unmotivated people to do.
29.  He lost every earthly friend he had while he lived, so that we can have him whatever earthly friends we lose. Even when it's our fault.
30.  He knows what it is to be thirsty, hungry, hated, rejected, taunted, shamed, abandoned, suffocated, tortured, killed.
31.  I cannot get underneath his mercy. I can dig and dig and dig with my shovel of sin. But no matter how deep I go, I never hit rock bottom on his mercy.
32.  I can never outrun his love. No matter how fast Wily Coyote ran, the Roadrunner just ran faster. My failures never outrun his patience; as fast as they run, his love runs faster.
33.  He never misunderstands me. Never interrupts me. Never misjudges my motives.
34.  He likes me. Not just loves. Likes. Whatever else ‘friend’ means, doesn't it at least mean that?
35.  Adam was supposed to multiply physical children throughout the nations and finally to overcome the world (Gen. 1:28). He failed. Jesus came, to multiply spiritual children throughout the nations and overcome the world. He succeeded (Matt. 28:19; John 16:33). I was born in Adam. By grace I have been placed in Christ.
36.  His death means my death is a beginning, not an end. A door, not a wall. An entrance, not an exit.
37.  He makes me human again. He didn't come to make me superhuman, a superspiritual being who only ever lives and prays and praises in a disembodied state. He has angels for that. He came to give me back my humanity. He understands and delights in the fact that I am a human being. He is not disappointed that I need sleep, food, and the bathroom. Through him I was made this way (Col. 1:16). He himself experienced all the same things.
38.  He does not hold over me his deliverance of my helplessness. He delights to deliver. It is who he is.
39.  He does not bring pain into my life to coldly punish but to gently help. He brings pain to clear away the static in my communion with him. He was punished so that all my pain is not punitive but paternal.
40.  My union with him means that even self-inflicted pain can only ultimately work out my glory and beauty.
41.  When I am prayerless, he is not. He intercedes for me. And because in Gethsemane his prayer was unanswered, every prayer he makes now on my behalf is answered.
42.  His undentable record is mine and cannot be taken away, even by my own ongoing failures. It was God, not me, who united me to him in the first place. It is God, not me, who is alone capable of un-uniting me from him. And because justice has been satisfied, God never will. The universe would have to come undone for me to be separated from Christ.
43.  I cannot experience a temptation he has not (Heb. 2:18).
44.  Every heart-stabbing poem, every story of redemption, every novel that evokes longings, every reading of Tolkien and Wendell Berry and John Donne and a thousand others who make the tears flow—it all points to and terminates on him. He is the only one in the universe that is not a pointer to something else. Everything else points to him.
45.  His resurrection means my body will one day be restored to me and this time will not run down. Cells will replace cells, I suppose, as God created us—but without resulting in wrinkles and balding and stiffness and aches.
46.  His promised second coming means that I need not secure perfect justice now against those who have wronged me. All will be put right. One day all resentment will evaporate.
47.  He was born in Bethlehem. Out of the way, backwoods Bethlehem. I am freed to live and serve in an unknown place. Significance is not sacrificed; worldly significance is sacrificed.
48.  He withdrew to pray and be alone at times. Flawless ministry does not mean being perpetually available to people.
49.  ‘And they all left him and fled’ (Mark 14:50). Had he lived today, every last Twitter follower would have un-friended him. So that he could be my ever-present friend. They all left him, so that he could say: ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you’ (Heb. 13:5).
50.  Had he blogged today, no one would have blogged more wisely and no one would have received nastier anonymous blog comments. And he would be as patient with them as he is with me.
51.  He loves weakness. He works with weakness. He is repelled by strength. That qualifies me for his help. 
52.  His grace is sufficient. It needs no Dane-generated supplement. All he requires is need. Nothing more, nothing less. Desperation. The bar of divine favor is low, so low that the proud cannot get under it.
53.  David said Yahweh is the Shepherd who makes him lie down in green pastures (Psalm 23). Jesus said he is the Good Shepherd (John 10). It is supremely in Jesus that God makes me lie down in green pastures. Jesus leads me beside still waters. Jesus restores my soul. My weary, depleted soul.
54.  Jesus gathers up all the various and seemingly disparate threads of promise and hope and rescue and longing that dot the landscape of the Old Testament and snowball down through the centuries of redemptive history. The virtue of every OT saint is filled out in him, and the failure of every OT saint heightens the longing for, and is paid for by, him.
55.  He is the perfect prophet who not only speaks God's word to the people but is God's final Word. He is the perfect Priest, who represents the people to God. He is the perfect King, who represents God to the people.
56.  The whole Bible is his, and about him (Luke 24:27, 44; John 5:39, 46). The Bible is not a manual for life, not a guidebook, not a rulebook, not sage suggestions, not even a doctrinal repository. Not mainly. At its heart, and cover to cover, the Bible is the Word of God about the grace of God in the Son of God for the people of God to the glory of God. When I open the Book, I get him.
57.  If he is the firstfruits, then when I look at his raised invincible body eating fish and able to appear in locked rooms, I am looking at my future. I am a part of the one single harvest of resurrected embodied invincibility of which he is the firstfruits, the first ingathering (1 Cor. 15:20-22). The resurrection of the dead has already begun. The first instance is already among us. 
58.  When he walked out of the grave, Eden 2.0 dawned. Against OT expectation, the old age continued steamrolling right alongside the dawning new age. This is why this world can feel like heaven one day and hell the next. But the overlap of the two ages also means there is still time, still a chance, for any who recognizes he has been born into the old, hellish age to lay down his arms and be swept up into the dawning sunrise of the new age. 
59.  And one day, even the horrors of the old age will die away. We will pass through the wardrobe into Narnia. Middle-earth will be cleansed and the Ring destroyed. We will be home at last. ‘I will bring them home,’ God said (Zech. 10:10). We will weep with relief. We will see him face to face (Rev 22:4).
60.  All because he refused the glory he rightly deserved to enter the hell and mud of our world to grab us and drag us, kicking and screaming if need be, into the new order, the new world of shalom and flourishing and sun and wine and calmness and non-frivolous laughs. All of sheer grace. All to be simply received. Available to anyone who refuses to pay for it.

12 December 2012


Frodo, Sam, and Gollum approach Mordor.
The remainder of that journey was a shadow of growing fear in which memory could find nothing to rest upon. For two more nights they struggled on through the weary pathless land. The air, as it seemed to them, grew harsh, and filled with a bitter reek that caught their breath and parched their mouths.

At last, on the fifth morning since they took the road with Gollum, they halted once more. Before them dark in the dawn the great mountains reached up to roofs of smoke and cloud. Out from their feet were flung huge buttresses and broken hills that were now at the nearest scarce a dozen miles away. Frodo looked round in horror. Dreadful as the Dead Marshes had been, and the arid moors of the Noman-lands, more loathsome far was the country that the crawling day now slowly unveiled to his shrinking eyes. Even to the Mere of Dead Faces some haggard phantom of green spring would come; but here neither spring nor summer would ever come again. Here nothing lived, not even the leprous growths that feed on rottenness. The gasping pools were choked with ash and crawling muds, sickly white and grey, as if the mountains had vomited the filth of their entrails upon the lands about. High mounds of crushed and powdered rock, great cones of earth fire-blasted and poison-stained, stood like an obscene graveyard in endless rows, slowly revealed in the reluctant light.

They had come to the desolation that lay before Mordor: the lasting monument to the dark labor of its slaves that should endure when all their purposes were made void; a land defiled, diseased beyond all healing--unless the Great Sea should enter in and wash it with oblivion. 'I feel sick,' said Sam. Frodo did not speak. 
--J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, 'The Passage of the Marshes'

11 December 2012

Wounded, Healed

The sweet beams of [Christ] the Sun of righteousness heal the wounds of believers' souls. When they have been wounded by sin and have labored under the pain of wounds of conscience, the rays of this Sun heal the wounds of conscience. When they have been wounded by temptation and made to fall to their hurt, those benign beams, when they come to shine on the wounded soul, restore and heal the hurt that has been received. 
--Jonathan Edwards, 'Christ the Spiritual Sun,' in Works, Yale ed., 22:56

07 December 2012

Aslan's Other Name

C. S. Lewis to 11-year-old Hila Newman, from New York:
As to Aslan's other name, well I want you to guess. Has there never been anyone is this world who (1) Arrived at the same time as Father Christmas. (2) Said he was the son of the Great Emperor. (3) Gave himself up for someone else's fault to be jeered at and killed by wicked people. (4) Came to life again. (5) Is sometimes spoken of as a Lamb (see the end of the Dawn Treader). Don't you really know His name in this world. Think it over and let me know your answer!
--The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Vol. 3 (HarperCollins, 2007), 334

05 December 2012

How Do We Read or Preach a Text Like Psalm 15 in a Gospel Way?

In the Psalms these days. Came upon Psalm 15 this week. I cringed.

Jesus said the Psalms (probably referring to all the OT poetry) were "about me" (Luke 24:44). How in the world does Psalm 15 fit in to that?

Here's the whole text of the short psalm. Verse 1 asks a question (who measures up?). The rest of the psalm gives the answer (the person who acts in such and such a way, that's who).

   1  A psalm of David. O LORD, who shall sojourn in your tent?
         Who shall dwell on your holy hill?
   2  He who walks blamelessly and does what is right
         and speaks truth in his heart;
   3  who does not slander with his tongue
         and does no evil to his neighbor,
         nor takes up a reproach against his friend;
   4  in whose eyes a vile person is despised,
         but who honors those who fear the LORD;
       who swears to his own hurt and does not change;
   5  who does not put out his money at interest
         and does not take a bribe against the innocent.
      He who does these things shall never be moved.

Here are the steps I would go through in preaching this text or in teaching it in a small group or in using it in a seminary classroom as a test-case of how to take a difficult, seemingly gospel-vacuous OT text and communicating it in an appropriately Jesus-mindful/whole-Bible yet non-artificial way.

1. Let it land. 

Let the full hortatory weight of verses 2-5 land on us.

Running backs are taught to be patient, waiting for the hole to open up as blockers do their job. If they try to hit the hole too soon, the play collapses. Gospel-excited preachers need a similar discipline of patience. We can't run to the gospel or Christ too soon out of a fear of becoming moralistic etc. Let the play develop. Let the people hear that this is the life to which they are summoned. Don't soften it. Let it land.

And not just in a second-use-of-the-law kind of way that drives us to Christ. If the extent of your preaching of this this psalm is to say "Well, none of us can do any of this--but thank God for Jesus, who did it in our stead!" you are hitting the hole too early. Not letting the play develop.

2. Remind them of the audience. 

Then make clear that this earnest life of virtue to which they are called is a summons given to the redeemed.

You might note the obvious fact that this is a psalm, an ancient hymn from Israel's songbook for their own worship.

Or, you might note the use (twice) of "the LORD," the covenant name of God, the name given to Moses and which for generations after evoked the redemptive event of the exodus.

3. Go deeper with verse 1. 

Clarify what precisely verse 1 is asking. On first reading it sounds like a bare challenge about who is good enough for God. But in point of fact it is drawing together some loaded language from God's mighty acts in Israel's history, language rife with redemptive significance.

Yahweh's "tent" would evoke in the Hebrew mind the tabernacle/temple motif, further strengthened by the reference to "dwelling" on God's "holy hill." "Dwell" here is the Hebrew verb used to speak of God's templing glory (the noun form of this verb is Shekinah). "Holy hill" isn't a vague reference to a sacred area of raised ground; the text might woodenly be translated "the mountain of your holiness." The reference is to Mount Zion, where Jerusalem stood, the place of God's special dwelling to which the nations would one day stream (Isaiah 2; Micah 4). Indeed, the verb "sojourn" is used throughout the OT to speak of the one who dwells as an alien/Gentile in the midst of Israel.

Verse 1 is asking: Who will receive God's promised inheritance? Who will be part of God's covenant blessings? Who will enjoy Eden restored? Who will be included in that final vision of which the physical temple is merely an echo, a glimpse, a shadow?

4. Go deeper with verses 2-5.

Then clarify what exactly the traits in verses 2-5 are. Note that while on first reading it sounds like an arid list of virtues to dutifully execute, these verses in fact focus on the inner state of the heart.

Inner health and outer action are of course closely linked (Matt. 12:33), but it is easy and natural to the flesh to exhort external moral conformity divorced from the heart. We do this because it lets us pacify the conscience through the outer conformity while allowing us to hang on to our secret idols that we love. So, mindful of Jesus' words about the inside of the cup and whitewashed tombs and all that, it would be helpful to explain that this psalm has in view a holistic integrity, inside and out, and not bare externalized action.

The psalm speaks of one who is truthful "in his heart" (v. 2). Someone "in whose eyes a vile person is despised" (v. 4)--they have a certain moral internal compass or perspective. Someone who "honors those who fear the LORD" (v. 5)--i.e., those who live lives in reverent devotion to the Lord, inside and out. Not all the characteristics of verses 2-5 are clearly internal, but enough of them get at the inner person to correct a view of these characteristics that would be exclusively behavior-oriented.

You might further note that v. 1 speaks of dwelling in, not entering into--verses 2-5 therefore describe the character of those walking in glad communion with God, not the minimum bar required for God to bring someone into communion with him in the first place.

You might also note that "blamelessly" in both OT and NT refers not to sinless perfection but holistic loyalty that cannot be publicly impugned. The Hebrew word used here in v. 2 refers to wholeness, soundness, inner health (not far different from shalom).

5. Say what would never be said in a Jewish synagogue about Psalm 15.

Finally, after (and only after) wrestling with the text with a narrow-angle lens, zoom out, as Jesus demands (John 1:45; 5:39-46; Luke 24). Make plain that there is only one person who ever really enjoyed the blessings of verse 1, and only one person who ever really walked the walk of verses 2-5.

But as you do this, don't be trite and predictable. Do it in a textually responsible and convincing-to-the-hearer way. Really work at the text. Wrestle with it. Use your Hebrew concordance, do some Bibleworks searches. When I did, here's what I discovered.

Verse 1 speaks of dwelling on God's holy mountain. Strikingly, this exact phrase is used earlier in the Psalter in what is according to the NT one of the most christologically charged psalms, Psalm 2. In Psalm 2:6 Yahweh says: "As for me, I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill" (same Hebrew phrase as 15:1). In Psalm 2, though, God is not asking who will dwell on this holy mountain. He is declaring whom he has himself set there--a man the NT (especially Hebrews) identifies as Christ himself.

Who shall dwell on God's holy hill? Jesus.

And, in him, both representatively (by imputation) and then actually (by his Spirit), us. 

To dwell on God's holy mountain means to pass into and abide in the temple. But Jesus didn't simply come to the temple; he came as the temple. Jesus dwells on God's holy hill not by entering a humanly-made building to meet with God but by entering a divinely-made body to meet with us. The Word "tabernacled" among us (John 1:14). He is what the temple was meant to do--restore man to God, rejoin earth to heaven, bring the "walking together in the cool of the day" of Eden back to reality once more.

The NT goes on to explain that believers are themselves part of that temple, of which Christ is the cornerstone (1 Pet. 2:4-8). It is not, then, simply that we now go to Jesus the temple rather than a temple building. United to him, we are ourselves part of the temple. We are, with him, the sacred intersection of heaven and earth, sacred and profane, a temple made up not of stones but of redeemed souls (Eph. 2:19-22). 

In verses 2-5 it is verse 5 that intrigues me most. The conclusion to the psalm is: "He who does these things shall never be moved." I noticed this week that "be moved" here is the exact same verb in the exact same form (niphal) as "be shaken" in the very next psalm, at Psalm 16:8. "I have set the LORD always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be shaken." The very text Peter quotes in Acts 2 when arguing for Christ's resurrection (Acts 2:24-28). A careful reading of what what Peter does with Psalm 16 in Acts 2:24-33 indicates that Peter views Christ as the ultimate one who in Psalm 16 is "not shaken."

Jesus did Psalm 15. In that glad knowledge we the redeemed, in union with the true temple, are summoned into the life of light-filled joy and integrity portrayed in verses 2-5. United to and walking with Jesus, the friend of sinners, we will never be moved.

Paul said the OT was written so that "we might have hope" (Rom. 15:4) and to make us "wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus" (2 Tim. 3:15). Psalm 15 is not excluded from that.

The Innkeeper

God's ways are high and you will know
in time. But I have come to show
you what the Lord prepared the night
you made a place for heaven's Light. 

03 December 2012

Truly Human

God is God, and man is man. God has come to redeem man and lift him up to Himself; yet He does not thereby make him into a demigod, but enables him to be truly human. 
--A. G. Hebert, The Throne of David: A Study of the Fulfillment of the Old Testament in Jesus Christ and His Church (London: Faber & Faber, 1941), 208