Family Relationships


(An adapted sermon from 3/12/2003 at Hood River Alliance Church in Hood River OR)

Ephesians 5: 22-6:4

One of my desires as an intentional interim pastor is to seek to maximize a congregation’s understanding and insight into how to read the Bible to best understand its context which will help to inform our response and application of the text.

I have a friend who is the Chair of Preaching and Communication at an east coast seminary, who has served as an advisor for VitalChurch in preaching. Several years ago, I submitted one of my sermons to him to be critiqued. When I began reading through his comments, he was being quite kind and generous, and I started to get a little cocky until I read the final sentence of his critique where he said something like, “But I don’t think what you preached on is what the text is actually saying.”

Context really really matters! In preaching classes and workshops, the refrain, “context is king” is often heard.

It’s also good to keep in mind there are multiple genres, scattered throughout the Bible, including… Narrative (or historical), Poetry, Wisdom, Prophecy, Gospels, Parables, Apocalyptic literature, and Epistles, like this letter to the Ephesians. It’s quite helpful to identify the genre of a text in order to interpret it correctly along with the context. What is the author intending to say to the people to whom the letter is written? And then what can we learn in our context?

Fortunately, with the internet, we have more resources available to identify the genre and cultural context than at any time in history. One resource that has recently made a huge difference is The Bible Project. Their video overviews of the various books and doctrines of the Bible are excellent. They will help us to see the genre and the historical context as well as how that book or doctrine fits into the overall objective of pointing us to Jesus Christ as the Redeemer King of Humankind.

It should also be said that the divine genius of the Bible is that even though it was written by about 40 authors over about 1,500 years in three different languages, in several different cultural contexts, every book from Genesis through Revelation points to Jesus – either through describing the coming messiah, a plethora of allegorical images pointing to Jesus, or through celebrating who Jesus Christ is, what He taught, and what He has accomplished on our behalf.

By way of review: The overall context of Eph 5 is, now that we are actively finding our true identity in Christ (the truest thing about us), we can now seek to Be imitators of God (5:1).

Verses 3-14 describe how NOT to be imitators of God.

In verses, 15-21 Paul tells us how TO BE imitators of God and how to live a life of sacrificial love…

  • Make the most of your time (v. 16). Meaning to buy up or ransom, fig. to rescue from loss.
  • Don’t get drunk but be filled with the Holy Spirit (v. 18) Why, because we leak! Chuck Swindoll made this statement… “I don’t know of a more important verse in the NT for the Christian than Ephesians 5:18.” John MacArthur has said, “If we do not obey this command, we cannot obey any other.”[1]
  • Always give thanks for all things (v. 20). As Ruth Bell Graham well said, “We can’t always give thanks FOR everything, but we can always give thanks IN everything.”
  • Submit to one another. Genuine mutual submission from the heart is not possible apart from the Holy Spirit’s filling and empowering. As we’ll see, this admonition to be mutually submitted to one another is the main theme and context for these verses.

There is a disagreement between studied and godly people regarding portions of this passage. I would also mention that this passage has been abused to generate coercive control over women — in the church as well as in the home.

Big Idea: God provides the grace to grow a strong marriage and family through mutual submission and sacrificial love.

As we move toward looking at our passage for today, my desire is to help us to know God better as well as strengthen our marriages and parenting strategies. If you are not married or a parent, there is also a bigger picture for us to see that will help us to worship.

As we prepare to look at the passage, I’d like for us to consider two things:

  • Some historical context
  • What appears to be Paul’s main point in this section

Let’s consider these two thoughts…

Historical Context… Starting in about the 4th century BC, the Greek philosopher Aristotle taught the use of “household codes” to instruct the male heads of homes how to rule their household, specifically their wives, their children, and their slaves. And Paul is using the same sequence that Aristotle used.[2] So, what Paul is doing in this passage is reinterpreting Aristotle’s “household codes” that had been taught in the Greco-Roman world for centuries. And what we’ll see is that he’s turning these “household codes” on their head…

Whereas the “household codes” normally instructed the male householder how to rule, Paul, in this section of Scripture, frames his household codes with mutual submission (see 5:21 and 6:9). Paul is instructing husbands, not how to rule their households but how to love them sacrificially (5:25) and he also calls for gentleness with children (6:4).

We see Paul’s main point in v. 21: Mutual submission is the primary context of this passage: “and be subject to one another in the fear of Christ.”

Many Bible translations begin a new paragraph with v. 22: “Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord.” Some Bible commentators argue that vs. 1-21 are for the larger congregation but would be different for marital relationships. Here’s the problem with that interpretation: The word “subject” is not used in v. 22. Here’s a more literal translation of vs. 21-22:

21“submitting to one another in the fear of Christ. 22 Wives, to your own husbands as to the Lord.”

This may not initially seem like a big distinction, but it is. What these two verses do is make mutual submission to God and one another the main context for ALL of Paul’s reinterpreting of the cultural  “household codes.” I would argue that what we have in these verses is a withering critique of “traditional” patriarchal gender roles. When Paul writes that males and females ought to be subject to one another that would have blown the minds of the Ephesians—especially the men.  What Paul is doing in these verses is reframing submission. He’s moving from a top-down hierarchical form of submission to what we’d call today, a teamwork approach.

“It is wrong to read hierarchy into this verse or into the passage which follows. Rather, we see the development of a sensitivity to others that frees us from pride and enables us to act at all times in loving, caring ways.” (Larry Richards, The Bible Reader’s Companion).

Mutual submission is both husband and wife placing themselves at the disposal of the other. It is, according to a well-regarded and reliable Greek lexicon, a mutual “voluntary yielding in love”[3]

Ephesians 5:21-24: “And be subject to one another in the fear of Christ. 22 Wives, to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church, He Himself being the Savior of the body. 24 But as the church is subject to Christ, so also the wives ought to be to their husbands in everything.”

Still somewhat of a stinging passage for some. So now, we need to unpack the word “head,” or what is called “headship” in Christian circles.

“Headship” (Gk: kephalē) has three perspectives in Scripture:

The first is a no-brainer and refers a physical head: “For a man ought not to have his head covered…” (1 Cor. 11:7).

The next two views are where there is disagreement among godly and studied theologians and bible commentators[4]…

  • A second view would see headship as the source or origin, think fountainhead, as in the order of creation, or what we see in: “[Jesus] is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything” (Col. 1:18).
  • A third view would see headship as the authority: “And He put all things in subjection under His feet and gave Him as head over all things to the church.” (Eph. 1:22).

So, which is it in v. 23? “For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church, He Himself being the Savior of the body.”

To respond to this, I would take us back to v. 21, which identifies the overall context for this whole rearticulation of the “household codes”: “And be subject to one another in the fear of Christ.” I see this verse identifying Jesus as the primary and final authority.  I might add that, this is the only place in the NT where this phrase, “fear of Christ” is found. I would see the calling of each spouse to honor, respect, and cherish Jesus Christ and seek to do what pleases Him.

One theologian and author says, “When first read, it would have been the men in that church who [likely] felt threatened by this counter-cultural teaching of Paul.”[5]

Certainly, some would disagree with my exegesis here. Here’s a way to frame thoughtful theological dialogue…

In essentials of the faith, we must have unity (Eph 4:4-6), in non-essentials there is liberty (Rom 14:1-6), in all things we must have charity (1 Cor 13:1-3).[6]

Let’s now consider how God would have us function in our family relationships, what’s obvious is that Paul is addressing…

  • Wives
  • Husbands
  • Children
  • Fathers

Let’s look at them one at a time…

Wives“Wives, to your own husbands as to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church, He Himself being the Savior of the body. 24 But as the church is subject to Christ, so also the wives ought to be to their husbands in everything.”  –Eph 5:22-24

Paul maintains a fairly conventional expectation that Greco-Roman wives are called to voluntarily submit. The gospel twist is, with Paul’s reinterpretation of the cultural “household codes,” wives now have a mutual voice. Again, Paul grounds this submission in the mutual submission to Christ (as mentioned, the verb “submit” is actually borrowed from v. 21).[7]. His words to wives were relatively unremarkable, apart from the Christian reframing of mutual submission.

Husbands“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her, 26 so that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27 that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she would be holy and blameless. 28 So husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies. He who loves his own wife loves himself; 29 for no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the church, 30 because we are members of His body.”  –Ephesians 5:25-30

Again, Paul’s words to husbands would have been mind-blowing to his audience. This is likely why Paul spends more time and more ink addressing husbands. This thinking is validated by the fact that Paul uses only 40 words to address the wives while using 116 words to address the husbands. Let’s unpack a few of these…

 Husbands, love your wives… (v.25) The Greek word for love is agapaō, and refers, specifically to sacrificial love. It’s the same kind of love Jesus loved us with when He hung on the cross. Paul uses the word “love” 6-times in his 116 words to husbands!

Cleansed her by the washing of water with the word (v.26) When I have the opportunity to speak to men I will often go to this verse and ask the question, “What does it mean to wash our wives with the water of the word?” The Gk word for “word” here is rhēma and refers to the word of the Lord for the moment. Here’s how that plays out for Linda and me… Linda feels washed when she knows that I am prayerfully seeking God’s will for our lives and our marriage. If I‘ve studied and/or prayed and share with her what I’m learning, or if I have a sense of God’s calling or direction for us, I can almost visibly see her being washed.  I wouldn’t say this is a universal principle, but I do think it’s a worthy conversation between those of us that are married.

So, husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies. He who loves his own wife loves himself. (v. 28) This verse reminds husbands again to love our wives with a sacrificial love, yet with a different twist. We are to love our wives as our own bodies. Why? Because Jesus loves the Church as His own body, and this union of Christ and the Church is the basis for the union of husband and wife.

Here’s a summary thought about the marriage relationship…notice in the text that it does not say who should have the final say in important marital decisions.

Children“Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. 2 HONOR YOUR FATHER AND MOTHER (which is the first commandment with a promise), 3 SO THAT IT MAY BE WELL WITH YOU, AND THAT YOU MAY LIVE LONG ON THE EARTH.”  –Ephesians 6:1-3

These household codes, are given a new gospel twist. The obvious words to define are “obey” and “honor.”

The Greek word for obey (hupakouō) means to listen from below or underneath. So, it’s not talking about a mindless obedience. It’s talking about a deep and thoughtful listening and processing from underneath the covering of your parents (or parent). So, children are to think deeply and ask questions respectfully, because, as a reference to the 10 Commandments, this is the first Commandment with a promise attached to it.

The Greek word for honor (timaō) means to treat with reverence and service. To manifest consideration towards, and to treat graciously. Simply stated, to honor means to show positive regard for parents through words and behaviors.

Fathers“Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.”  –Ephesians 6:4

The word provoke (parorgizō) suggests deliberate provocation—perhaps out of frustration or some sense of training. Yet, Paul says this is unwise. Here’s a thoughtful way to describe the discipline and instruction Paul is calling for:

“Discipline is a drawing of our children into the unimaginable delight of heaven.”

This requires that we have the bigger picture, the end goal in mind, realizing that we only have them for a little while.

And If I could provide my best advice on parenting, it would be better to pay more attention to heart issues than behavior issues.

I’d like to go back and use Eph 5:31-32. Paul quotes Gen 2:24, in vs. 31: “FOR THIS REASON A MAN SHALL LEAVE HIS FATHER AND MOTHER AND SHALL BE JOINED TO HIS WIFE, AND THE TWO SHALL BECOME ONE FLESH. This mystery is great; but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church.”

What is the mystery? Certainly, marriage is a mystery, yet I don’t think this is what Paul is talking about…

Jesus left the perfection, beauty, and majesty of heaven—the place where He was at home, to go in search of a Bride. And that bride is you and me. We would do well to contemplate the many-sided ways in which the truth about God and the truth about how we live out our most precious relationships, intertwine and create a God-given beauty the world can only dream about.[8]

[1] There are more than 1500 imperative commands in the NT, so we will have many opportunities to learn to depend on the Holy Spirit’s filling and empowering!
[2] NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible Notes, Eph 5:21-6:9.
[3] Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, ed. Frederick W. Danker, 3rd ed. University of Chicago Press, 2000:1042.
[4] A thoughtful overview of perspectives:
[5] Kevin Giles, unpublished lecture notes. See his related comments in his essay in this volume, and his discussion of “An Egalitarian-Complementarian Reading of Scripture” in The Trinity & Subordinationism: The Doctrine of God & the Contemporary Gender Debate, InterVarsity Press, 2002: 203-08.
[6] Attributed to Rupertus Meldenius. The phrase occurs in a tract on Christian unity written (circa 1627). The saying has found great favor among subsequent writers such as Richard Baxter and has since been adopted as a motto by the Moravian Church of North America and the Evangelical Presbyterian Church.
[7] Adapted from NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible Notes.
[8] Adapted from N.T. Wright. For Everyone Commentary Series, Eph 531-32.

How The Teachings of Jesus Relate to The Old Testament

For the last 500 years, there has been an ongoing debate as to how the teachings of Jesus relate to the Old Testament (OT). There are three basic views:

1. The Reformers believed that it related to a perfect continuity (or, continuousness). That Jesus’ teaching did no more than explain the OT Law. In keeping with this view, when they came across what would appear to be certain corrections in the OT Law where Jesus uses the phrases found in Matthew 5: 21, 27, 31, 33, 38, and 43: “You have heard it said…but I say to you…”  They argued that Jesus was merely correcting the interpretations of the Scribes and the Pharisees.

2. The Anabaptists[1] represented a second view of the Reformation. They said that Jesus’ teaching was a radical discontinuity (or, break) from the OT. That what Jesus said is radically new and He even repealed or rescinded some parts of the OT. Some of the Anabaptists would even argue that Jesus was at odds with some of the specific laws of the OT.

So, of the above two views, one was a radical (or perfect) continuity while the other is a discontinuity with the OT.

3. The third view, which I believe is the correct one because it seems to deal most honestly with the text, is the view that Jesus’ teaching is radically new and supersedes (or replaces or succeeds) the OT, but is also in full, or complete continuity, with the OT. 

One way to think about this third view is to see that Jesus completed, or fulfilled, the Old Testament Law. 

“Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill”  –Matthew 5:17 

“Fulfill” means to complete. An example of Jesus fulfilling the Law is that when Jesus came, He brought an end to the dietary and ceremonial laws around sacrifice – because He became the ultimate Sacrifice. It isn’t so much that Jesus contradicted the Law, but that He fulfilled the law, He validated the Law. That is why cultural critics of Christianity (and sadly, many churchgoers) don’t realize that we are not bound to the OT Law any longer. 

The OT Law was given to point people forward to the promised Messiah (Jesus). Once Jesus came, the Law’s purpose was fulfilled, and it became obsolete. It was not destroyed, but fulfilled by a higher law, the law of the gospel of grace, and God’s radical and revolutionary kingdom was established on the earth.

So, Jesus’ subversive and radical teaching about a New (Kingdom) Covenant supersedes the OT but it doesn’t contradict the OT. Jesus’s teaching was new and radical (and non-violent) and it did not exist before Jesus came. As mentioned above, this is what the Sermon on the Mount is all about (Mat 5-7). Jesus is reinterpreting the Law by moving it from outward rigor to the motivations of the heart.

It’s pretty common these days for people to dismiss Christians as inconsistent because “they follow some of the rules in the Bible and ignore others.” The challenge usually sounds something like this: “When the Bible talks about certain sexual behaviors as sin, you quote that; but when it says not to eat shellfish or not to get a tattoo, you just ignore it. Aren’t you just picking and choosing what suits you best?”

One of the most helpful ways to think about this is to look at the three types of laws there are in the Old Testament.

  1. There were Civil Laws, that were set up so the nation of Israel could thrive in their daily living. What we see in the NT is that Jesus came to establish the KOG on the earth – a spiritual Israel, that we now identify as the Church. We’re no longer bound by the civil codes of Leviticus because God doesn’t have a nation-state on earth anymore. It is true that some civil laws have made their way into the legal systems of the US and have been adopted in much of the world.
  2. There were Ceremonial Laws related to Israel’s worship and were primarily to point people to the coming Messiah. These laws are no longer in effect with the coming of Jesus. These laws were about “clean” and “unclean” things, and various kinds of sacrifices. Other temple practices. illustrate for us God’s holiness, our unholiness, and what God would do about it. The entire sacrificial system was designed to point out just how large the gap was between sinful humanity and a perfect God—and just how costly it would be to bridge that gap. If we accept Jesus, the ultimate sacrifice, we don’t need the lesser sacrifices anymore. In fact, it would actually be offensive to go back to them, because that would communicate that Jesus’ sacrifice wasn’t sufficient.
  3. There were the Moral Laws, which reveal the nature and will of God declaring what God deemed right and wrong—the 10 Commandments, for instance, were fulfilled in Jesus as well, in that he kept all of them perfectly, every day, always, for his entire life. But unlike the civil and ceremonial laws, which were more time-bound, these laws reflected God’s assessment of right and wrong. They reflect God’s character, and since his character doesn’t change, his views on morality don’t either. In fact, whenever Jesus mentioned the moral laws, he either reaffirmed them or intensified them! To follow Jesus is to seek to love what he loved, including the moral law.

This helps explain what can seem contradictory to those who don’t see how Jesus fulfilled the Law. In Romans (7:1-6) and Galatians (3:25) Paul is very clear that we are released from the constraints of the Law.

What does it mean that Jesus fulfilled the Law? It means that every law pointed to Him, and he completed everything they pointed to. Thinking of Jesus as the fulfillment of the Law helps us see why we keep some of the OT commands and (now) “ignore” others because they were fulfilled by Jesus.

The Jesus follower is not under obligation to keep the moral law as a way of earning his or her way to God. Instead, s/he is changed by the presence and power of God’s Holy Spirit to begin to desire to keep God’s laws. This, by the way, is what separates Christianity from every other religion or philosophy of life, it’s not about what we must DO to please and appease God, it’s about what God has DONE through the finished work of Jesus Christ in dying for our sins. So, obedience then becomes the fruit of God’s sacrificial grace and not the goal. The goal is to love God and love people, which is known as the Great Commandment (Mat 22:37-40). In fact, Jesus says the whole OT can be summed up in this Great Commandment (v. 40).

So the next time someone says that Christians arbitrarily pick and choose from the Bible, we can respond with the civil/ceremonial/moral law response. We aren’t being arbitrary we’re being faithful. We’re reading the OT as the New Testament teaches us to. So we can eat our shrimp and get that tattoo without guilt, but let’s not throw away the 10 Commandments just yet.

[1] Meaning to baptize over again when a person has made their own confession of faith – even when they had been baptized as children.

The Mountain

Mark 9:2-29

A sermon prepared for Wintersburg Presbyterian Church in Santa Ana CA. A series adapted from Tim Keller’s book, Jesus the King

Most of us have heard the expression “mountaintop experience.” It’s one of several expressions that come from the Bible and have made their way into secular society.

The term “mountaintop experience” comes from the many times in the Bible when God revealed Himself to people on a mountain.

  • Like the testing of Abraham and Isaac (Gen 22:1-19)
  • Moses receiving of the 10 Commandments (Ex 19:20-21)
  • Elijah learning how to hear the voice of God (1 Kings 19:11-12)
  • The Transfiguration, which we’ll be considering today…

And as we recently closed out Black History Month, I was also reminded of the final speech Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered the day before he was assassinated in Memphis. The speech is regarded as the “Mountaintop Speech,” where he spoke of having seen the Promised Land but was pretty sure he wouldn’t live to reach it…

Mountaintop moments are not to be confined to momentary memories. Like Abraham, Moses, Elijah, (and as we’ll see) Peter, James, and John, mountaintop moments are moments of personal insight and breakthrough that we are to take with us as we head back down into the valley. Because if we’re on a mountaintop there’s nowhere else to go but down. I think it’s important for us to keep in mind that fruit doesn’t grow on the mountaintop. Fruit is grown down in the valley.

Our passage for today is a long one—28 verses, and it contains a pivot point in Mark’s Gospel. As has been noted, Mark’s Gospel can be separated into two parts. Part 1 is describing who Jesus is (and we’ll see the culmination of Part 1 today), and Part 2 is describing what Jesus came out of heaven to accomplish on our behalf.

Part 1 begins to climax in chap 8:29 when Jesus asked His disciples who they thought He was, and Peter answered with conviction: “You are the Christ!” Now, Peter was an impetuous guy and sometimes it got him into big trouble and sometimes his impetuous nature led him to make profound announcements. This is one of those moments. And then Jesus tells His disciples that He must suffer and die—and then be resurrected. And Peter, probably feeling pretty confident, rebukes Jesus. And Jesus then rebukes Peter, calling him Satan.

I think we’re all at least a little bit like Peter. Sometimes we make profound declarations and sometimes we say the dumbest things.

If you can relate to Peter—even a little bit—I think this sermon is for you…

In the final 5-verses of chap 8, we see Jesus clearly stating that true followers must join Him on His journey to the cross. It would be nice to think that Jesus suffered so we wouldn’t have to – and in a way that is true – Jesus is the better Adam and He suffered to restore our access to a holy and righteous God. The writer of Hebrews tells us that, “Jesus learned obedience through the things that He suffered” (Heb 5:8). And the same is true for us as well.

In Tim Keller’s book, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering he states, “The great theme of the Bible itself is how God brings fullness of joy not just despite but through suffering.” This is counterintuitive for most people; but suffering, the Bible seems to say, is the unlikely route to joy. The trouble with us humans is that we too often settle for momentary happiness instead of a deep and lasting joy.

As we narrow down our focus, there are two parts to our passage for today in Mark 9…

  1. The first 8 verses are about Jesus and the 3-amigos heading up the 9k foot Mount Hermon (the topographic prominence is at about 6k feet). Luke says in his account, that they went up the mountain to pray (9:28).
  2. 9-29 (of Mark) are about coming off the mountaintop experience and going back into the valley with all of its difficulties and disappointments.

Mark 9:2-8: “Six days later, Jesus took with Him Peter and James and John, and brought them up on a high mountain by themselves. And He was transfigured before them; 3 and His garments became radiant and exceedingly white, as no launderer on earth can whiten them. 4 Elijah appeared to them along with Moses, and they were talking with Jesus. 5 Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three tabernacles, one for You, and one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ 6 For he did not know what to answer; for they became terrified. 7 Then a cloud formed, overshadowing them, and a voice came out of the cloud, ‘This is My beloved Son, listen to Him!’ 8 All at once they looked around and saw no one with them anymore, except Jesus alone.”

The big idea: Our glimpses of God’s glory are not to become momentary memories but motivation for devotion.

I would like to ask and provide a brief response to four questions that I asked of this Transfiguration text…

  1. What is the significance of the Transfiguration?
  2. Why Elijah and Moses?
  3. Why do we need to read about Peter’s faux pas?
  4. What is the significance of the cloud and the Father’s voice?

We simply don’t have the time to go into sufficient detail. Nevertheless, let’s look at them one at a time…

  1. What is the significance of the Transfiguration? And He was transfigured before them; 3 and His garments became radiant and exceedingly white, as no launderer on earth can whiten them.
  • Catholic theologian Peter Phan describes it most succinctly, “The full identity of Jesus is revealed in the Transfiguration.”[1]
  • Most scholars agree that the Transfiguration serves two primary purposes:
    • It turns an important corner in the ministry of Jesus – from who He is to setting His course to Jerusalem and the cross.
    • It’s also believed that the 3 disciples needed to be strengthened for the days ahead by this divine affirmation (even though they didn’t understand it at the time.
  • The Greek word for transfigure is the same word we get the English word metamorphosis from and the root meaning “to change.”
  • “The word transfigured describes a change on the outside that comes from the inside. It is the opposite of ‘masquerade,’ which is an outward change that does not come from within.”[2]
  • In Ex 33:18-23 Moses was on Mt Sinai, and he was exposed to God’s glory and Moses reflected God’s glory for several days afterward—like the moon reflects the sun. When Moses went back to the Israelites, he needed to wear a veil to shroud God’s glory (Ex. 34:33–35). But here, Jesus produces the glory of God—because Jesus is the glory of God in human form.
  • Referencing the Transfiguration Paul tells the Corinthians in 2 Cor 3:18, “But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory…” What Paul is saying here is that unlike the glory of the Old Covenant that was given to Moses alone, the glory of this New Covenant is changing us from the inside out. Another word for this ongoing transformation is sanctification.
  • We could say the transfiguration was not a new miraculous moment, but a temporary pause of an ongoing miracle. “For Christ to be glorious was almost a less matter than for Him to restrain or hide His glory”[3]
  1. Why Elijah and Moses? 4 Elijah appeared to them along with Moses; and they were talking with Jesus.
  • Most (western) theologians see that Moses and Elijah represent the whole OT consisting of the Law and the Prophets – Moses representing the Law and Elijah representing the Prophets. The thought behind them meeting is that Jesus is the completion of the Law and the fulfillment of the prophecies in the Old Testament.
  • Lk 24:27 (Road to Emmaus): “Then beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures.” Although the disciples of Jesus wouldn’t understand it at the time, Jesus is telling them in Lk 24 that the whole OT is really about, and points to, Jesus.
  • It should also be noted that both Moses and Elijah had their own mountaintop experiences with God. And in death, both were tended to by God. God Himself buried Moses somewhere on the plains of Moab (Deut 34:5) and Elijah was taken into heaven in a “chariot of fire” (2 Kings 2:11).
  1. Why do we need to read about Peter’s faux pas? 5 Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three tabernacles, one for You, and one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 6 For he did not know what to answer; for they became terrified.
  • Mark tells us that Peter, in his terrified state, blurts out the suggestion of building three tabernacles, but the voice of Heaven elevates Jesus above Moses and Elijah. There is room for only one tabernacle. As Keller says in Jesus the King, “Jesus is the temple and tabernacle to end all tabernacles and temples, He is the sacrifice to end all sacrifices, the ultimate priest to point the way for all priests.”[4]
  • In 2 Peter 1:16-19, Peter recalls this event and reaffirms the authority placed upon Jesus in this event: “For we did not follow cleverly devised tales when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty. 17 For when He received honor and glory from God the Father, such an utterance as this was made to Him by the Majestic Glory, ‘This is My beloved Son with whom I am well-pleased’ — 18 and we ourselves heard this utterance made from heaven when we were with Him on the holy mountain. 19 So we have the prophetic word made more sure, to which you do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star arises in your hearts.”
  • Church fathers going back to the first century, as well as theologians since that time, agree that Peter, himself, informed Mark’s gospel…
  1. What is the significance of the cloud and the Father’s voice? 7 Then a cloud formed, overshadowing them, and a voice came out of the cloud, “This is My beloved Son, listen to Him!”
  • The cloud has come to be called the Shekinah Glory cloud, which shows up several times throughout the OT and has often been described as the “raw presence of God.” (The word Shekinah is not in the Bible, it was introduced by Hebrew scholars and means “dwelling” or “one who dwells,” referring to the divine presence of God.)
  • And it’s worth noting that only twice in the Synoptic Gospels, is a voice from heaven heard: the first time is at the baptism of Jesus, the second time is at the Transfiguration. If the baptism signifies and initiates the opening phase of Jesus’ public ministry, the Transfiguration inaugurates the next, cross-focused phase.
  • We assume that the Father’s voice coming from the cloud is intended to be a rebuke of Peter—and it was, but it was also more than that. Because the disciples of Jesus were having such a difficult time understanding why Jesus must suffer and die, the Father wanted them to both grapple with the words of Jesus and also be encouraged as Jesus moved toward the cross. And I think these words are meant for us as well…

8 All at once they looked around and saw no one with them anymore, except Jesus alone.

So, what we see in this Transfiguration passage is the pinnacle of the first half of Mark’s gospel narrative—who Jesus is and then Mark’s gospel now transitions to what He came to accomplish on our behalf.

As Jesus, James, Peter, and John make their way back into the valley they encounter a father whose son is demonized. And a crowd has gathered wondering why the other disciples of Jesus have not been able to cast the demon out of the boy.

From my perspective, there are two key verses in this section (vs. 14-29)…

  1. The first one is v. 24 where the exasperated father proclaims, “I do believe; help my unbelief.”
  2. “His disciples began questioning Him privately, ‘Why could we not drive it out?’ 29 And He said to them, ‘This kind cannot come out by anything but prayer.’” (28b-29)

In the light of the Transfiguration of Jesus and His call to His followers to take up our cross and follow Him, here are some application points for us to consider as we live most of our lives down here in the valley…

  • The gospel narratives show us that the cross must proceed the crown. The arc of Scripture from Genesis to Revelation is that God doesn’t take His people, or Jesus, around suffering loss, and grief; He takes us through suffering, loss, and grief. The good news is that He goes with us and we go in His strength and power. I find myself thinking often of Job 42:5: “I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear; but now my eye sees You.”
  • We are facing a very broken world each and every day—and some days the best we can muster is, “I do believe, help my unbelief.” We notice that the father of the boy came to the disciples of Jesus and then to Jesus Himself, in helplessness and vulnerability. What we see in these verses is an exasperated father bringing to Jesus what was most precious to him—his beloved son who was repeatedly being tormented by the god of this world. What can you bring to Jesus during this Lenten season?
  • Last week Pastor Dave spoke to us about how idolatry is a constant temptation for us to find our comfort, joy, and delight in people or in things that are less than the glory and the majesty of the transfigured Jesus Christ.
  • When Jesus cast the demon out of the boy it appeared as though the boy died (v. 26). For that moment, things seemed to get worse before they got better. When we surrender our lessor source/s of glory it will be painful, but it will eventually be replaced with the glory of Christ. What is your lessor source/s of glory today (money, power, status, sex, family, a relationship, an ability, or education)? As we move through this Lenten Season, how can you turn it over to Jesus?
  • And finally, in v. 29 there is the call to prayer. Prayer is the focusing and directing of our faith in specific requests to God. Both faith and prayer remind us that [real] spiritual power is not in ourselves but in God alone, and both wait and trust in His promise to [deliver and] save.[5] The most important thing you can do during this (hopefully) final stage of this long transition season is prayer.
  • I have great hope and excitement regarding the next season of fruitful ministry here at WPC. I would only remind you of two things as we draw to a close:
    1. That faith coexisting with doubt is normal. It’s always going to be both/and.
    2. And that Jesus meets us in our admitted helplessness and vulnerability.

As Tim Keller in Walking with God through Pain and Suffering restates the gospel saying, “Jesus lost all His glory so that we could be clothed in it. He was shut out so we could get access. He was bound, nailed so that we could be free. He was cast out so we could approach. And Jesus took away the only kind of suffering that can really destroy you: that is being cast away from God. He took that so that now all suffering that comes into your life will only make you great. A lump of coal under pressure becomes a diamond. And the suffering of a person in Christ only turns you into somebody gorgeous.”[6]

See Christ only…

Joy and woe are woven fine,
A clothing for the soul divine,
Under every grief and pine,
Runs a joy with silken twine.
It is right it should be so,
We were made for joy and woe,
And when this we rightly know,
Through the world we safely go.

~ by William Blake[7]

[1] Peter C. Phan. Being Religious Irreligiously: Asian Perspectives on Interfaith Dialogue, Orbis 2004.

[2] Warren Wiersbe, Be Diligent (Mark): Serving Others as You Walk with the Master Servant (The BE Series Commentary), Cook; (2nd ed.): 107.

[3] C. H. Spurgeon. Spurgeon’s Sermons Volume 47: 1901 (No. 2729), Christ’s Transfigured Face (

[4] Pg 114.

[5] Pillar NT Commentary. DA Carson, Ed., Mk 9:28-29.

[6] Viking 2013: 180-181.

[7] Auguries of Innocence (1863).

Finding JOY in Perilous Times

MATTHEW 5:3-10

This is from a sermon I delivered at First Baptist Church of Ojai (CA)…

We certainly find ourselves living in perilous times. What we are witnessing in these 18+ months is nothing I ever would have imagined in my lifetime. The following passage sums it up. Unfortunately, we are seeing these characteristics inside the Church almost as much as we are seeing them in the culture. It’s no wonder people are leaving the Church – and that’s on us fellow believers.

“But know this, that in the last days perilous times will come: For [people] will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, despisers of good, traitors, headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having a form of godliness but denying its power. And from such people turn away!”

2 Timothy 3:1-5 (NKJ) [1]

This “turning away from such people” means that we may need to establish some emotional and ethical boundaries, and, possibly, withdraw from some relationships as being too toxic.

On the other hand, it is most helpful to distinguish between the “world” and the “world system.” John 3:16 – “For God so loved the world…” means that God LOVES people vs. the “world system,” which is rooted in corruption, greed, lust, pride, and envy that are too often operating below the surface. God loves the world but hates the “world system.”

No need for us to withdraw from the political system, the public square, or meeting people where they are – just like God met us.

My own opinion is that for the last 18-months Jesus has been in The Temple (i.e., Church) turning over tables… He’s wanting to get our attention.

So, how do we, as intentional followers of Jesus, combat the craziness that is going on in our world today? That is what I would like us to consider in this post. A subtitle might be: The Unlikely Route to Joy.

We are going to be taking what I hope is a fresh look at a VERY famous portion of the NT – The Beatitudes, which are the opening salvo of the most famous sermon ever delivered – The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). 

The SOTM takes about 11 minutes to read, so this is most likely Matthew’s Cliff Notes version. What Jesus was doing here is leading the crowd to a place on the mountain, where they could hear Him and then He sat down and began to teach.

The late pastor, theologian, and missiologist John Stott referred to the SOTM as Jesus’ manifesto for a revolution. “It is the nearest thing to a manifesto that [Jesus] ever uttered, for it is His own description of what He wanted His followers to be and to do.”[2]

Jesus is the MOST revolutionary person who ever lived and the purpose of His coming was to initiate a counter-intuitive and subversive revolution. 

I have come to see the Beatitudes as our surrendered response to the “gospel of the kingdom of God” that we see Jesus proclaiming in Matthew 4:23.[3]

For the purpose of this blog, let’s view the Beatitudes as a step-by-step spiritual formation (or, discipleship) process that moves us toward a revolutionary gospel joy, spiritual depth, and emotionally healthy spirituality. 

Charles Spurgeon (The Prince of Preachers) referred to them as, “a ladder”[4] – one rung at a time. (stable base then one rung at a time)

I would add that this becomes cyclical as we circle back around, we grow deeper and deeper in our faith. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones the great English preacher in his seminal work: Studies on the SOTM continually refers to our need to keep showing up at Mat 5:3, asking the Holy Spirit to refine our heart and fill us afresh. To quote Lloyd-Jones: “We are not told in the SOTM, ‘Live like this and you will be a Christian;’ rather we are told, ‘Because you are a Christian [it is possible to] live like this.’”[5]

I would refer you to the graphic at the top of the page. In the Beatitudes there is an emptying and then a filling. Simply stated, we cannot be filled until we are first empty.[7] As we are emptied there grows in us a grateful hunger, a deep longing to please and honor God that begins to change our relationship with people. This is what the Church needs to focus on — and it’s not just a onetime deal, it’s a lifelong journey of sanctification.

So, with all that said, let’s read Matthew 5:3-11…

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the gentle, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

Matthew 5:3-11

So, the question becomes: how do we live like this? The one thing that is SO important to reiterate is that each beatitude is produced by grace alone.[6]

Think of yourself standing at the foot of the Matterhorn in the dead of winter with no climbing equipment whatsoever. It is simply a human impossibility. We can’t get there from here… God’s grace, however, will do IN us and THROUGH us what we could never do on our own.

Following, is a VERY brief overview of each beatitude to show how one leads into the other.

Blessed are the poor in spirit…

“You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.” (E. Petersen – MSG paraphrase)

“Happy are those who know their need for God.” (JBP paraphrase)

Prodigal Sons (Luke 15:17ff) – The younger prodigal became poor in spirit. We don’t know if the older brother did or not…

To be “poor in spirit” means that we seek to experience a desperateness of soul that is weary of living in it’s own strength and longs for God’s mercy and grace to come and refresh the soul. 

Blessed are those who mourn…

As we are honest about our own sinful tendencies there will be a transforming grief and lamenting, which includes repentance, which surfaces – not only for our own lives, but also for the injustice, greed, the abuse, the suffering that grips our world. (4.5m COVID deaths worldwide, racial discord, climate crises, sexual exploitation and trafficking, political polarization, the Afghanistan fiasco, etc.). Mourning, grieving, and lamenting are overlapping concepts that are a way in which we take all of the emotional upheaval in our lives and bring it before the Lord.

We have the book of Lamentations in the OT and approximately 42 Psalms are Psalms of Lament (30 individual 12 are communal). The Bible Project, in their overview of Lamentations, provide 3 purposes for lamenting…

1. A form of protest

2. A way to process our emotions

3. A place to voice confusion (some deconstruction is appropriate in this season)

This is where divine paradox[8] comes into play. The Beatitudes are paradoxical or, counterintuitive. We go down to go up; death always precedes resurrection; we get to the land of joy by traveling through the land of grief. Our soul wants to find a way around grief and mourning, but God says, “No, you must travel through grief to get to joy (like He did) – and the good news is, He tells us, “I’ll go with you AND we will do it in My strength and power.”

Blessed are the meek…

The concept of meekness is not weakness; it’s almost the opposite – strength under pressure; like a wild stallion that has been “broken” (broken-in?). We can either surrender to Christ and invite His breaking, His training, or we can remain undisciplined and wild. I believe it was Rick Warren who said that meekness is the power of your potential under Divine control.

Grieving over sin and suffering cultivates a holy meekness in us and delivers us into a humble learning posture. Remember, disciple means learner.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…

Again, we see this Beatitude as a bridge from being emptied to beginning to be filled. Spiritual hunger and thirst is the growing desire to be liberated from those things that don’t reflect God, and initiates hunger-pangs for wholeness. And out of worshipful gratitude we want to please, worship, and honor God. Obedience is not the goal of the Christian life, it’s the fruit of a holy hunger and thirst for righteousness.  

And then, as the diagram above points out, there is a turning point, a filling. An overview, or summation, of these first four Beatitudes might summed-up by the phrase “where there is great humility there is great grace”

Let’s look at what it means to be filled…

Blessed are the merciful…

Mercy is entering into another person’s feelings – attempting to see things from another person’s perspective – all with understanding AND acceptance — just like Jesus has done for you.

Mercy doesn’t overlook the consequences of sin but comes alongside to offer unexpected or unmerited compassion. And as we receive God’s mercy, we begin to give mercy – to ourselves and to others.

Blessed are the pure in heart…

Mercy cleanses our heart and restores purity to our lives.

Did you know that spiritual and emotional virginity CAN be restored? (This is good news for sexual abuse survivors.)

For I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy; for I betrothed you to one husband, so that to Christ I might present you as a pure virgin. But I am afraid that, as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, your minds will be led astray from the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ.

2 Corinthians 11:2-3

Blessed are the peacemakers…

Purity gives way to a personal serenity and peacefulness. Peace is not the absence of conflict, but the absence of anxiety, or dread, in the midst of inevitable conflict – and when others encounter it, they want it too.

If we had more time I would want to talk about the ancient Hebrew concept of peace, which is SHALOM – and speaks of a universal flourishing, that was the original design of Creation.

But here I will limit my remarks to considering the difference between a peacemaker and a peacekeeper.

To be a peacemaker does not mean peace at any cost.  It means we have the courage to “speak the truth in [genuine] love” –Ephesians 4:15.

Peacekeeping creates a false peace that eventually erupts into a conflagration of conflict.

Blessed are the persecuted…

Living life from a kingdom of God perspective will place us in conflict with those that oppose it and usually it’s the “religious” people!


Church-wide renewal (or revival) begins with individual renewal – and individual renewal begins with owning-up to our own issues and showing-up once again at Matthew 5:3. Or, maybe for the first time??

The gospel has the greatest potential to captivate us when we understand that we are more depraved than we ever realized and simultaneously more loved that we ever dared to imagine (Tim Keller).

What will a genuine revival cost the Church? James Burns, in his book asks the question: Do we want a revival?  Do we really?  And then he answers…

To the church, a revival means humiliation, a bitter knowledge of unworthiness and an open humiliating confession of sin on the part of her [pastors] and people.  It is not the easy and glorious thing many think it to be, who imagine it filled the pews and reinstated the church in power and authority.  It comes to scorch before it heals; it comes to [convict] people for their unfaithful witness, for their selfish living, for their neglect of the cross, and to call them to daily renunciation and to a deep and daily consecration.  That is why a revival has ever been unpopular with large numbers within the church.  Because it says nothing to them of power, or of ease, or of success; it accuses them of sin; it tells them they are dead; it calls them to awake, to renounce the world [system] and to follow Christ.[9]

Jesus has been turning over tables in Church-land. What could He be seeking to say to us? I believe the most succinct and comprehensive prophetic word to the Church can be found in 2 Corinthians 11:3, can we get back to the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ?

[1] NIV= “terrible times;” ESV = “times of difficulty;” NASB = “difficult times;” AMP = “dangerous times [of great stress and trouble];” TLB (paraphrase) = “in the last days it is going to be very difficult to be a Christian.”

[2] The Message of the Sermon on the Mount, IVP 1993: 15.

[3] Mat 4:23: “Jesus was going throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every kind of disease and every kind of sickness among the people.”

[4] C.H. Spurgeon. The Beatitudes (#3155), Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit: 1873.

[5] D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. Studies In the SOTM, 1997:16-17.

[6] Lloyd-Jones: 35.

[7] Lloyd-Jones: 42.

[8] Paradox = a seeming contradiction.

[9] James Burns. Revival, Their Laws & Leaders, London: Hodder and Stoughton 1909:50.

Parenting with Wisdom

This is a sermon I delivered at Moraga Valley Presbyterian Church on Sunday, Aug 22, 2021

If we haven’t met, my name is Gregg Caruso and I serve as a Managing Partner at VitalChurch Ministry and I also lead the Diagnostic Division. As such, I led the diagnostic process here at MVPC last summer, gave the initial oral report, and wrote the final report. I have heard good reports over the last year on how you are building on your numerous strengths and preparing for the upcoming permanent pastor search process. (I would just remind you of something I said in both the oral and written reports: The more you accomplish in this transition season, the higher caliber of pastor you will attract.)

As we saw in the bumper, we are in a series called The Grind, because sometimes life can be a grind, and last weekend Pastor Dave spoke on Parenting with Grace, and today we will be considering Parenting with Wisdom from Deuteronomy 6:4-12.

Before we read the passage together, just a bit more about me…Linda and I recently celebrated 43 years of marriage. We have four grown children and seven grandsons. Parenting is a big deal to me. Here’s why: Back in the ‘80’s, in one of my early seminary classes, the stated objective was for each person in the class to write a Life Purpose Statement along with a set of Personal Core Values. Here is what I wrote (shortened):

My life purpose is to continue to emerge as a father in the faith (1 John 2:12-14), believing that effective, reproducing fatherhood is the highest calling for a man in the body of Christ. As this relates to my immediate family, it is my intention to prayerfully and lovingly stimulate [them] to love God and honor God in all that they are, say, and do. As this relates to my ministry function, it is my intention to further expand the kingdom of God through leading, teaching, motivating, and mentoring leaders and potential leaders to fulfill their destinies in Christ.

Approximately 35 years later I can tell you that my Life Purpose remains the same. I am passionate about effective and reproducing fatherhood.

If you’re a parent, I probably don’t need to tell you that wise parenting is both the hardest and most rewarding job on the planet. And today, I would offer a special thank you to those of you who are adoptive parents and foster caregivers.

With this in mind, I’d like to read our text for this morning, Deut 6:4-12 (NASB):

Hear, Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one! And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart. And you shall repeat them diligently to your sons and speak of them when you sit in your house, when you walk on the road, when you lie down, and when you get up. You shall also tie them as a sign to your hand, and they shall be as frontlets on your forehead. You shall also write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. 10 “Then it shall come about when the Lord your God brings you into the land that He swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to give you, great and splendid cities which you did not build, 11 and houses full of all good things which you did not fill, and carved cisterns which you did not carve out, vineyards and olive trees which you did not plant, and you eat and are satisfied, 12 be careful that you do not forget the Lord who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”

[v. 7 – can appear to be sexist — the Hebrew word for sons is ‘ben’ and is used almost 5,000 times in the OT. About 140 of those times the word is used for children – both male and female.]

What’s significant about the book of Deuteronomy is that it records a series of sermons that Moses preached to the nation of Israel just before they entered the promised land. He’s coming to the end of his life, he’s raised his own children and essentially two generations of Israelites and he’s learned a few things about parenting and leadership. The essence of his final words to this generation is, “As you head into this promised land…this is what it means to follow God in your family, in your community, on the job, and in worship.” What he is essentially saying is, “all of this is connected to wise and proactive parenting.”

So, from our passage for today we will see (at least) three principles from Moses on how to parent with wisdom:

  1. There’s a truth to teach.
  2. There’s a way to live.
  3. There’s a story to tell.

Let’s look at them one at a time…

There’s a truth to teach.

Verses 4-5 are the basis for one of the most famous and important prayers contained in the Bible and one we see the Hebrew people repeat over and over again throughout the Old Testament. “Hear, Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one! And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” 

This prayer is called The Sh’ma, which is the Hebrew word for listen or hear. The word can also mean pay attention to or focus on. What’s important for us to understand is that the word and concept of Sh’ma means to both listen and obey. In ancient Hebrew there is no separate word for obey, meaning that, for them, hearing and doing are two sides of the same coin.

Many of you will recognize these words as part of what is referred to in the New Testament as the Great Commandment. In Mark 12 and Matthew 22, some legalistic religious people were seeking to trap Jesus by asking Him which was the greatest commandment (of 613!).

Jesus repeats the Sh’ma as the first and greatest commandment and then adds Leviticus. 19:18 as the second greatest commandment: “And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

The New Testament tells us that these two commandments sum up (or consolidate) the entire Old Testament: Love God and Love People.

Wise parenting (or grand-parenting, or god-parenting, or babysitting, or working in the Children’s or Student Ministry) means that, first and foremost, we seek to consistently model Loving God and Loving People.

Let’s quickly review how we get to a place where we CAN become increasingly consistent in Loving God and Loving People.

Some of us were raised in a church context where we were taught that obedience is the primary goal of the Christian life. This is incorrect. Loving God and Loving People is the primary goal of the Christian life. A good Presbyterian will know this…The first question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism is: “What is the chief end of humankind? The answer is: Our chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever.”

So, how do we get there from here?

The Apostle John, who was the best friend of Jesus, states it succinctly in 1 John 4:19 that “We love because he first loved us” (emphasis added). You and I do not have enough willpower to make ourselves consistently obedient in Loving God (or Loving People). For the active intentional follower of Jesus, our obedience is not a fearful or legalistic striving to please God but a grateful and joyous response to the love He has already loved us with. God has welcomed and embraced us through the provision of the finished work of Jesus on the cross. God’s love made the first move.

This is the gospel, it’s not about what we do or don’t do, it’s about what God has already done for us IN and THROUGH Jesus Christ. As you and I surrender into that sacrificial love, God’s empowering presence begins to do IN us and THROUGH us what we could not do on our own – and we grow in our capacity to LOVE God.

Here are two application points…

  1. When we blow it, we need to own it. When you’re around your children (or anyone) and you blow it and act in a way that doesn’t reflect loving God or people, we need to own that and confess that (even with toddlers). I’m a reactor on a lifelong journey to become a responder.
  2. One of the best tools available is an app called New City Catechism. It’s an excellent family devotional and discipleship tool.

There’s a way to live.

There’s a Truth to Teach and There’s a Way to Live… Verses 6-9 provide us with two significant insights into how we are to live…

Verse 6 is interesting: “These words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart.” Why ON our hearts and not IN our hearts? That’s the same question a student asked of his Hasidic rabbi. This is how the rabbi responded:

“When you study the Torah, it places Scripture on your heart, [because] only God can put Scripture inside your heart, and then when your heart breaks, the holy words will fall inside.”

Over the years I’ve heard hundreds of parents say, “I just want my kids to be happy.” No, you don’t. You want your kids to be joyful. There’s a big difference between happiness and Christian joy. The word happiness comes from the same root as the word happenstance. Happiness is circumstantial, it will come and go throughout our lives, but Christian joy is residential. Christian joy is not merely an emotion, it’s an inner state of being that is a gift from God (Rom 15:13), which grows in our inner being as we learn to continuously surrender to God’s love and care.

Heartbreak and suffering happen as a part of our maturation process. God doesn’t take us around heartbreak and suffering, He takes us through heartbreak and suffering. The good news is He goes with us. Job 42:5 has been on my heart for the last several years, “I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear; but now my eye sees You.” A contemporary paraphrase might be: I’ve known ABOUT You, but now I KNOW You. Or, as as Tim Keller has said: “We go from understanding to standing under.”

Then, as we consider a way to live, the keyword in verses 7-9 is found in v. 7, it’s the word diligently“You shall teach them diligently…”

  • NIV – “Impress them on your children…”
  • Eugene Peterson’s The Message paraphrase gets it right when it says: “Get [God’s Words] inside of you and then get them inside your children…”

Most translations use the word diligently and the Hebrew word means, “to sharpen.” Again, it’s important for believers to note that we don’t sharpen or stay sharp in our parenting by reverting to willpower, legalism, or regimentation. It’s more about the outflow or overflow of our own worshipful relationship with God. John 7:38 tells us that out of our innermost being shall flow rivers of living water.

Here’s an important and wise parenting tip: Your kids are not going to do what you tell them to do. They’re going to do what you do.

By way of a possible application here… Linda and I raised our children with (only) two core values in mind that helped us make the bulk of our parenting decisions…

  1. We desired for our children to be tenderhearted before God and people.
  2. We desired our children to be learners (disciple means learner).

The implication of these values is that we paid more attention to heart issues than behavioral issues.

There’s a story to tell.

So, we have a truth to teach, we have a way to live, and finally, we have a story to tell…

In vs. 10-12 Moses is lovingly admonishing the people to remember and repeat their testimony of God’s amazing grace. They are about to take possession of the Promised Land with cities they didn’t build, houses full of all good things they did not fill, water wells they did not dig, vineyards and olive trees they did not plant, and then v. 12 says: “then watch yourself, that you do not forget the Lord who brought you from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”

These verses are a clear parallel to the New Testament salvation experience where God meets us in our captivity and His transforming and empowering grace liberates us to take possession of the life He has always planned for us.

I’d like for us to encounter a bit of Catholic author Brennan Manning’s story today. Brennan Manning struggled through alcoholism and divorce. He is probably best known for his book, Ragamuffin Gospel, but this (condensed) quote is from a subsequent book entitled, All Is Grace: A Ragamuffin Memoir:

“My life is a witness to vulgar grace – a grace that amazes as it offends…A grace that hikes up the robe and runs breakneck towards the prodigal reeking of sin and wraps him up and decides to throw a party no ifs, ands or buts…A grace that is the pleasure of the Father, fleshed out in the carpenter Messiah, Jesus Christ, who left His Father’s side not for heaven’s sake but for our sakes, yours and mine. This vulgar grace is indiscriminate compassion. It works without asking anything of us [except to acknowledge our sin condition] …[God’s] grace is sufficient even though we huff and puff with all our might to try to find something or someone it cannot cover. Grace is enough. He is enough. Jesus is enough.”[1]

The sincere followers of Jesus will have our own ongoing testimonies of God’s “vulgar” and incomprehensible grace. And if you don’t have a testimony of encountering God’s incomprehensible grace, I would invite you to ask God to show you, over the course of your life, where His grace has intervened – and as God’s intervening grace becomes clear to you, I would invite you to surrender your life and all it contains to the living God. This is how wise parenting begins.

In conclusion, I’d like to review the wise parenting tips that Linda and I have learned over decades of walking with God (sometimes stumbling with God), raising children, and pastoring people. And I will add one final tip…

  1. The most essential tip is to live and love and raise children as active intentional followers of the risen Savior, Jesus Christ.
  2. When you blow it, own it (even with toddlers).
  3. Join me in the lifelong journey of migrating from reacting to responding.
  4. Download the New City Catechism app.
  5. Remember that your kids are not going to do what you tell them to do. They’re going to do what you do.
  6. Be more intentional about dealing with heart issues than behavioral issues because behavior is the fruit of what’s occurring in the heart

My final and closing tip is to make attending church a priority. What’s happening in a worship service is a review and a restatement of the gospel that is designed to culminate in a (fresh) surrender to the gospel which our souls need every week. When church is optional, I believe we set up our kids to fail. The whole family needs to be refreshed in the gospel on a weekly basis.

Closing Benediction…

May the presence of God go with you, and give you rest (Exodus 33:14); Let your words as parents and caregivers be helpful for building up children according to their needs (Eph 4:29); and may God grant you, parents and caregivers, a wise heart, so that your words will be gracious like a honeycomb, bringing sweetness and health to your family and this church family (Proverbs 16:23-24). Go in peace.

[1] Brennan Manning. All Is Grace: A Ragamuffin Memoir, Multnomah 2005: 193-94.

I AM the Good Shepherd

Jesus presents Himself to us as the Good Shepherd… “I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep. He who is a hired hand, and not a shepherd, who is not the owner of the sheep, sees the wolf coming, and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hired hand and is not concerned about the sheep. I am the good shepherd, and I know My own and My own know Me, even as the Father knows Me and I know the Father, and I lay down My life for the sheep. I have other sheep, which are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will hear My voice, and they will become one flock with one shepherd. For this reason, the Father loves Me, because I lay down My life so that I may take it again. No one has taken it away from Me, but I lay it down on My own initiative. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This commandment I received from My Father…

27 My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; 28 and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand. 29 My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.”  –John 10:11-18; 27-29

Three introductory points to help us understand what The Good Shepherd does.

The first intro idea for us to reflect on this morning is that the motif (or sub-theme) of the shepherd is found throughout the Bible – from Genesis to Revelation. We read in Gen 4:2 that Able, Adam and Eve’s second-born son, was a “keeper of flocks.” Also in Gen. 48:24, as Jacob was dying, he summarized his life, declaring that God had been his “shepherd all of his life to this day.”  In Rev. 7:17, when the saints who come out of the tribulation are brought before God, John brings together two of the most striking images of the scripture by stating, “for the Lamb in the center of the throne shall be their shepherd and shall guide them to springs of the water of life; and God shall wipe every tear from their eye.”  This becomes a most glorious paradox: The Good Shepherd became the Lamb of God to take away the sin of the world. It’s also important to notice that the motif of shepherding is NOT confined to the Hebrew Scriptures and Christian Bible. Kings and rulers in ancient times also considered themselves to be shepherds of the people they were governing. The main idea behind a king or queen’s scepter was that it represented a shepherd’s staff.

The second intro idea related to shepherding is an important historical implication. Ancient Hebrew shepherds apparently did not use sheepdogs. There are two reasons for this. Dogs were considered unclean at the time and rabies was rampant (the two may be related). What this means as we consider the role of the shepherd in the biblical text is that flocks were not driven, they were led. So, if flocks were not driven but led, what are the implications of that? The shepherd’s voice and the shepherd’s touch become the primary means of a shepherd’s wholesome and tender leadership. And as you’re probably aware, shepherds often played an instrument and the music (whether it was good or bad) no doubt, became quite familiar to the sheep. The implication for us, as part of the Church, is that musical worship also helps us to follow the Shepherd well.

The third intro idea is that John’s Gospel is a work of literary genius. There are several sub-texts, or layers in John’s gospel and the self-disclosure statements of Jesus are just one of them. Throughout his Gospel John is asking his readers to continually reflect on the question, “Who is Jesus?”

In John 10 with Jesus saying I AM the door of the sheepfold (or pen) and then saying I AM the Good Shepherd; John is combing the OT shepherd motif with the encounter that Moses had at the burning bush. Moses is in his second career as a shepherd. He had been raised as a prince in Egypt and God calls Moses to lead the Hebrew slaves out of captivity and into the Promised Land.

But Moses is reticent and he tries to talk God out of it…Finally he says (in Ex. 3:13-14)…“Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is His name?’ Then what shall I tell them?” 14 God said to Moses, “~I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘~I am has sent me to you.'”

So, with the I AM statements in John’s Gospel, Jesus is claiming to be the voice that spoke to Moses at the burning bush…and John is weaving all this together in his gospel account. It’s pretty genius…

Six Ways Jesus is Our Good Shepherd

In John 10, Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd” (John 10:11, 14). In this chapter Jesus spells out what it means for Him to be our Shepherd and for us to be His sheep…

  1. V. 11 & 15: The Good Shepherd lays down His life for His sheep. Everything Jesus endured in His ministry and on Good Friday was for His sheep. When He gave Himself into the hands of the arresting battalion in the Garden of Gethsemane, it was for His sheep. When, as an innocent man, He was condemned to death, it was for His sheep. When He was beaten and tortured, it was for His sheep. When He hung on that cross in agony and finally died, it was for His sheep. (And this idea of laying down a life is also a good picture of marriage, parenting – and of the Church. Because of what Jesus has done, we follow His example with the help of the empowering Holy Spirit.
  2. V. 12: The Good Shepherd will never leave or abandon His sheep – like the hired hand, who is just in it for the money, might do.Heb 13:5 (see also Deut 31:6, 8; Josh 1:5):“I will never leave you, nor desert you, nor will I ever forsake you.”  Whether we feel his presence or not, He is there.
  3. Vs. 14-15: The Good Shepherd knows His sheep completely.“I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father…”  Jesus Christ knows you completely—inside and out! He knows our secret and besetting sins; He knows our deepest fears and our foibles. There may be times when you are a mystery to your yourself of your loved ones, but you are never a mystery to Jesus. He knows you completely. And here’s the thing…because He knows you completely, He is able to lead you effectively. The good shepherd knows what you need, and He is able to give you what you need at precisely the time that you need it.
  4. V. 16: The Good Shepherd called His sheep and brought them to Himself.“And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.”  We are the sheep in His pasture. Gentiles (non-Jews) are the sheep “not of this fold.”
  5. V. 28: The Good Shepherd gives His sheep eternal life. “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish…”  We’re all going to have eternal life and we’ll either be WITH Jesus or we won’t…
  6. V. 29: The Good Shepherd sees His sheep as a gift from the Father. “My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.” So, how would you know if you are one of Christ’s sheep? How would you know if you have been given as a gift by the Father to the Son? The identifying marks of a sheep belonging to the Good Shepherd are clearly stated in these verses: “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (10:27).

But what does it mean to hear his voice? The sheep belonging to the Good Shepherd seeks to live in a state of humble attentiveness to the Good Shepherd’s voice—and out of joy, or responsive obedience, seeks to follow the Good Shepherd.

How can we learn to know and trust God’s Voice? We line-up the three lights. I heard this illustration decades ago…There was a port city with a treacherous harbor. When merchant ships attempted to navigate their way into harbor, they would run aground because of the rocks beneath the water. So, the city council set up three lights for the sea captains to line up in order to navigate safely into the harbor. And just like that port city, there are three “lights” for us to line up in order to effectively hear and act on the voice of our Good Shepherd.

  1. The subjective skill of hearing God’s voice (for me it’s mostly an impression). It’s like “sound of a gentle blowing” (1 Kings 19:12) that we read about in when Elijah was running away from Jezebel and was looking for God’s direction. There was a mighty wind, an earthquake, and a fire but the Lord’s voice was not heard in those it was heard in a gentle it what amounts to a gentle whisper. Another passage that points to the quietness wherein we are able to hear the voice of the Good Shepherd is Psalm 46:10, “be still and know that I am God.”
  2. When we believe that we have heard from God, it must be confirmed by the written word of God (Scripture) because there is no extra-biblical revelation.
  3. And finally, we should seek to have what we think we have heard from the Good Shepherd confirmed by those we respect and trust in the Lord. We don’t need people to hear FOR us but we do need people to hear WITH us—especially in the big decisions of life. Proverbs 13:10 reminds us that,“wisdom is with those who receive counsel.”

So, what’s the takeaway?

  1. Are you secure in The Good Shepherd’s sheepfold? You’re not going to be driven, you’re going to be led.
  2. Have you received the death and resurrection of Jesus as accomplished on your behalf?
  3. Do you accept His eternal commitment to never leave you or forsake you?
  4. Can you surrender into God’s love knowing He knows you better than you know yourself?
  5. Can you receive the gift of eternal life with Jesus and His other sheep?
  6. Can you see yourself as a heavenly gift from God the Father to the Good Shepherd of your soul?

Small Group or Self Study Questions

It would be helpful to read Psalm 23 as we consider the Good Shepherd.

  1. What are some ways we have seen God act as the Good Shepherd in your life or your church in the last year-and-a-half?
  2. What are the main differences between a flock being driven or being led?
  3. Why do you think it’s difficult for so many people to not be able to see themselves as a gift from God the Father of Jesus the Good Shepherd (v. 29)?
  4. How often have you sensed God speaking something directly to your heart?
  5. What are your thoughts on “lining up the three lights” of the subjective skill of listening/hearing, confirmed by Scripture, and confirmed/affirmed by those we trust in the Lord?
  6. What do you think of people needing to hear with us but not for us?

Good News on Bad Friday

Why do we call it, Good Friday? Just in case it seems confusing to you, Good Friday commemorates the day Jesus yielded Himself up to suffer and die as the only person in history to live a perfectly obedient life. God’s holiness demands perfection in order to gain access to the presence of God. The essence of the Good News of the Gospel is that upon our conversion we are clothed with the righteousness that Jesus earned by His perfect obedience. Isaiah correctly refers to salvation as a “robe of righteousness” (61:10).

We cannot ease our guilt, nor overcome our sinful tendencies by accumulating good deeds. Jesus did what we could never do for ourselves on that first Good Friday. May this day truly become “Good Friday” for us, as we confess our sins and put our faith and trust in Christ—perhaps for the first time.

Let’s consider Hebrews 12:1-2…“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, 2 looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”

I’d like to try and address three important issues in these two verses…

  1. What does it mean to “lay aside every weight and sin”?
  2. What was the “joy that was set before Him”?
  3. What does it mean for Jesus to have “endured the cross”?

I will address these questions in reverse order…

3. What does it mean for Jesus to have “endured the cross”?

First, we need to notice that Jesus suffered physically, emotionally, and spiritually…

Physically, Is. 52:14: “everyone who saw Him was even more horrified because He suffered until he no longer looked human” (CEV).

Emotionally, Is. 53:3: “He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces He was despised, and we esteemed Him not.” 

It’s thought that Jesus suffered from a rare condition while He was praying at Gethsemane called Hematohidrosis, when some capillary blood vessels that feed the sweat glands rupture, causing bleeding. This condition occurs under extreme emotional (and sometimes, physical) stress.[1]


2 Cor 5:21: “God made Him who had no sin to be sin for us.”

1 Jn. 2:2: “[Jesus] is the propitiation [appeasement] for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”

Spiritually, Jesus bore the weight of every sin; past, present, and future.

It’s been said that whatever Jesus endured physically and emotionally, were like a fleabite compared to what He suffered spiritually, bearing the weight of our sin.

2. What was the “joy that was set before Him”?

In a word, it was you.

Eph 1:4: “He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him.

1. What does it mean to “lay aside every weight and sin”?

Once our heart is awakened to what Jesus endured in willingly going to the cross and that you (and I) ARE the joy set before Him, we can more freely and more joyfully lay aside every weight and sin.

The phrase “lay aside” could easily be transliterated, “lay down,” as it is in Acts 7:58 when men “laid down” their cloaks at the feet of Saul (when Steven was being stoned to death).

So, because of what Jesus has done, we lay aside, or lay down, those things that weigh us down and our sinful tendencies.

It’s “get to” instead of “have to.” It’s always better to “get to do something” instead of “having to do something.” Right?

And we must ask the question, What’s the difference between a weight and a sin?

The word “sin” literally means to miss the mark (think of a bull’s eye), so anytime we deviate from God’s perfect will we miss the mark – or sin.

So, what’s a weight? This is where we take hold of the rock that we were given on the way in tonight.

A weight is anything you’ve already been forgiven for but you’re still holding on to. One example would be that God has forgiven you but you can’t forgive yourself.

Another way to view a weight is a besetting sin in our lives. A besetting sin is something that keeps cropping up in our lives.

In my experience, besetting sins are often tied to our family of origin. We will tend to deal with stress the same way our parents did. Or, anger, conflict – even parenting styles.

One Christian author has said, “You may have Jesus in your heart, but you have grandpa in your bones.”[2]


The most important question of our lives is: How can I run like this?

  1. Take notice of what Jesus endured.
  2. See yourself as the joy that was set before Him.
  3. And in the light of those two certainties, let’s lay aside every weight and the sin that so easily entangles us.

[1] Freddrick Z., Dr Hematidrosis. Available from: http://enwikipediaorg/wiki/hematidrosis.

[2] Peter Scazzero, The Emotionally Healthy Leader: How Transforming Your Inner Life Will Deeply Transform Your Church, Team, and the World, Zondervan 2015.

What About My Brokenness?

Owning What I Can Own Plus a Look at Nehemiah 1

(This post is adapted from a sermon given on June 7, 2020.)

In the church I am currently serving as an intentional interim pastor we have been walking through the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). What we are discovering is that the sermon is NOT about moral conformity to a new set of New Testament rules (i.e., moralism), neither is it “picking and choosing” Bible passages that we think are relevant for today (i.e., secularism).

The SOTM is identifying a third way to live as a follower of Jesus… through the removal of our sin by God’s grace through faith, through the restructuring of our heart from the inside out, and through a whole reversal of values.

In this article, I’d like for us to take what we’re seeing in the SOTM and consider the events of the last few months by asking the question, “What is God trying to say to His Church in this season?

Here’s an overview:

  • Over the years, I have found Nehemiah’s response to crisis to demonstrate an appropriate and godly pattern of engagement – and I’d like for us to look at the highlights of that today.
  • I also want to begin to provide some specific action steps for us to take in the coming days, weeks, months, and years. I have also begun a list of resources on our church’s website blog
  • I also want to share two defining moments in my life – as a man, as a follower of Jesus, and as a pastor. Both of these defining moments happened when I was the permanent pastor of a church – one in the late 1980s and the other one in the early 1990s. I will share the first upfront and I’ll share the second one at the conclusion.

In the early 90s, I became involved in a 2-year racial reconciliation group for pastors from across our city that was facilitated by Spencer Perkins (the son of John Perkins) and an Anglo man named Chris Rice (Spencer’s family and Chris’ family lived in community under the same roof). In our pastor’s group, there were Anglo, Latino, African American, and a Japanese American…

That 2-year time period became, in itself, a defining moment for me but two specific occasions were particularly impacting…

One of the African American pastors grew-up on the East Coast (S.C. I believe) and the other one grew up on the West Coast (L.A. area). Both of these pastors grew-up in Christian homes. Here’s what both of them believed growing up: They did not believe that white people could be Christians because of the way they treated black people. That moment took my breath away and opened the door for me to begin to see the effects of institutionalized and systemic racism and the cocoon of white privilege.

The other profound moment came on Oct 3, 1995, the day O.J. Simpson was acquitted for the deaths of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ron Goldman. Do you know what my first thought was when I heard the verdict? This is the tiniest glimpse of the repeated injustice that African Americans have been subjected to in this country – for centuries!

These two related experiences were moments of profound clarity for me that grew in me a heart for reconciliation that has only become more and more impassioned over time.

The horrific video of George Floyd being murdered on a street in Minneapolis MN is, I believe, symbolic of the United States of America having our collective knee on the necks of not only African Americans, but Native Americans, Latino Americans, and Asian American people in this country.

Institutional, Systemic Racism is a gruesome and undeniable stain on our national conscience – and I believe we need to own it as Americans.

White Privilege doesn’t mean that the average white person hasn’t needed to work hard for what we have attained; White Privilege means that us white folks have, generally speaking, have (present tense) greater access to power and resources than people of color [in our same situation] do.

Let me speak in the “I.” The question for me is not, “Am I a racist?” I am a racist. I have it in me and on me by virtue of Institutional Racism, White Privilege, and my own insensitivities. And I have come to hate it. Here’s the question I must continue to ask myself: “Where am I still a racist?”

What I have just shared may be deeply uncomfortable for you. I get it. Let me take it a step further – I would like you to engage in some personal reflection, some reading, and some praying to locate yourself in this opportune moment in history. We have a grace disguised opportunity in our country as well as in the Church. None of us would have chosen to be here, but we are.

With that said, let’s look at what Nehemiah did in one of the most severe crisis moments in his lifetime…

I would like to look at Nehemiah 1 and list for you the specifics and priority of Nehemiah’s response…

V. 2 – Nehemiah inquired. We need to ask questions and we need to listen.

I have spoken with some non-white friends to inquire about how they are doing and to get their perspective and advice. In regard to asking questions and listening, one of my friends told me the greatest investment we can make is spending time. He said time is our most valuable resource and it takes time to really get to know someone. Taking time is not quick encounters to ease our guilty conscience but a commitment to building ongoing relationships with people who are different from us.

V. 4 – “I sat down and wept and mourned for days.” We see this same calling as the SOTM begins – to acknowledge our spiritual poverty and to mourn over our own sinful/selfish condition. We need to mourn (or grieve) over the current condition of our country. And this includes not only the racism but also the 117,000+ (as of 6/15) COVID deaths in the US and almost 428,000+ deaths around the world.

I want to introduce a biblical term that most of us have heard but perhaps have not understood. Lament. One-third of the Psalms (50) are categorized as “Songs of Lament.” Jeremiah wrote the book of Lamentations (it comes just after Jeremiah).

What does it mean to lament? Lament is a prayer (or prayers) that believers offer to a sovereign God when life doesn’t fit with what they know to be true about Him, or the coming of God’s promises seem to be woefully delayed.

Psalm 13: “How long, O Lord, will you forget me? Forever? How long must I take comfort in my soul having sorrow in my heart all the day?”

So, a prayer of lament is a prayer from a place of pain and complete honesty that leads to trust.  One author said, without prayers of lament we tend to fall into one of two ditches — either the ditch of denial, everything’s fine, or the ditch of despair, I can’t do this.[1]

In prayers of lament we take our sorrows to God and we talk to Him about them.

V. 6 – “Me and my father’s house have sinned.” I hope you see what’s happening here. Nehemiah is taking on and owning the sins of his forefathers. I believe we must do the same.

The Church as a whole has failed miserably in the areas of justice that include race, sexism, conflict resolution and reconciliation, and immigrant care.

One of the core beliefs and practices of VitalChurch Ministry is the perspective that corporate (or, all church) renewal begins with personal renewal, and personal renewal begins with each one of us owning our own issues. (If we’re honest, we’re much better at owning other people’s issues.)

Here is a succinct review of what we see, not only in the first chapter of Nehemiah but in the whole book…

  • Nehemiah listened
  • Nehemiah learned (he took four months to pray, fast, and to plan)
  • Nehemiah lamented
  • Nehemiah loved (Not only did Nehemiah lead in the rebuilding of the walls of desolate Jerusalem but he also helped to lead a spiritual renewal, along with Ezra, after the wall was completed – all because of a deep love for God and the Jewish people returning from exile.

I want to invite you into that space. God has been up to something since the pandemic began. As I said earlier, the SOTM is about the removal of our sin through admitting our spiritual poverty and receiving God’s grace through faith, it’s about a restructuring of our heart (individually and collectively) from the inside out, and a whole reversal of values.

There’s been a lot of fluff in the Christian Church in America. The easy believeism, the me-centered choruses, the lack of doctrinal sermons, and the lack of integrity, which the culture has noticed (is noticing?) and we have been pushed back out to the margins of society. The good news, of course, is that the Bible was written to people who resided out on the margins.

My second defining moment that shaped me as a man, a Jesus follower, and as a pastor will, I hope, will sum-up much of what I’ve been trying to say. (I hope this is the beginning of a church-wide dialogue.)

It was the late 1980’s and I was pastoring the same church I spoke of earlier and the AIDS Epidemic was in full-swing and I decided to take a class from the Gay and Lesbian Task Force on caring for AIDS patients. My mother was a Hospice Nurse, so I grew up in an environment of care and compassion.

As one might imagine, when the two guys who were teaching the class found out I was a pastor it caused a bit of a stir and I ended up staying late after a few sessions to talk about God, Gays, and the care of AIDS patients.

Here’s something I learned from them… It involves the difference between sympathy and empathy – and for the sake of time, I’ll condense several conversations into learnings…sympathy says, “I am SO sorry!” Sympathy says, “I will certainly pray for you.” Or, sympathy will write a check. Those are good, awesome, and appropriate responses.

Empathy, on the other hand, says “WE have a problem and what are WE going to do about it?” Empathy is shoulder to shoulder.

My defining moment happened when I clearly made a distinction between sympathy and empathy – and how both are necessary in their own time and in their own way, yet they are distinctive. And then these two guys told me something that broke my heart…They told me that, while they had both received sympathy from the Church, they had never received empathy.

Friends, it’s shoulder-to-shoulder time. We have work to do. Let’s start a conversation that leads to action. And I hope you see that I’m not just talking about sexual identity issues regarding sympathy and empathy. I’m also talking about racism, sexism, and immigrant issues – reconciliation of all kinds that is rooted in the gospel.

To be rooted in the gospel means that Jesus Christ, the Great Reconciler, is our greatest hope and boast, our deepest longing and delight, and our most passionate song and message. To be rooted in the gospel means that the good news of God’s empowering grace is what defines us as Christians, unites us as brothers and sisters, changes us as both sinners and saints, and sends us as God’s people on mission. When we are rooted in the gospel, the gospel is exalted above every other good thing in our lives and triumphs over every bad thing set against it.


Discussion/Reflection Questions

Read through the Bible verses addressing ethnicity as well as the definitions of racism and white privilege on the blog.

  1. After reading through the verses is there one or two that stand out to you? Why?
  2. After reading the definitions of racism and white privilege, what stands out to you that you either may have not thought about for a while or that you are seeing for the first time?
  3. Just like there are sins of both commission and omission, do you think there could be both explicit as well as implicit racism ingrained in American culture? How about ingrained in the Evangelical Church?
  4. What does it mean to be “rooted in the gospel”?
  5. In considering Nehemiah’s response to crisis (1:2-6), he listened, he learned, he lamented (and repented), and he loved. Which of these responses do you feel are strengths in your life and which ones would you identify as weak?
  6. In considering the difference between sympathy and empathy, where do we need to grow as a church? Where do you need to grow?
  7. Do you have specific thoughts of what God is seeking to say to the Church during this COVID and Racial Injustice Protest moment?


[1] Mark Vroegop. Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy: Discovering the Grace of Lament, Crossway 2019.

What About My Anger?


Matthew 5:21-26.

Anger is an old foe of mine. I have struggled with anger for most of my life (mostly focused on myself with a few exceptions). The way I have come to describe my anger over the years is that sometimes I feel like a pinball machine with a ball of anger bouncing around my soul. When I was younger, I got into a fight and went into a blind rage and put another young man into the hospital. It terrified me. The upside is that it probably moved me toward Christ because I felt so out of control. The downside is that when Linda and I were first married and would get into a disagreement I feared that I could lose control. I tended to earn inward in those moments instead of engaging in a healthy and biblical way. So, I’m speaking to you as a fellow traveler today – not someone who has it all together…

Here’s what I’ve learned about anger:

  1. Anger is a good thing. God gets angry and so should we. (This seems contradictory to what the text actually says but we will also consider the larger context.)
  2. Our passage for today is one of the premier relational passages in the whole Bible.

We will be looking at Matthew 5:21-26 and before we read it, we need to grasp the context of the verses we will be looking at (context is king!).

Last week I pointed out that the keyword for the whole sermon is righteousness. Jesus says that if we want to go to heaven our righteousness must exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees (v. 20) – a shocking statement to anyone within earshot.

To try and put it succinctly there are two overlapping ways to understand this call (not invitation) to righteousness…The most common way is to see righteousness as the effect of our conversion. At conversion, we receive the complete and total righteousness of Jesus. (The theological term is justification.) Isaiah likens justification to a “robe of righteousness” (61:10). If you have more of an accountant’s mindset you could think of it as a full and total reconciling of the books – all your bills are paid, the mortgage is paid off, and you have enough in reserves to last the rest of your life.

The other overlapping way to understand righteousness is our response to God’s gift of justification, there’s a longing or desire or hunger and thirst for God that wants to honor God, please God, worship God, and pursue God. What Jesus is saying to us in the SOTM is that our spiritual vitality, and what will get us to heaven, will come from spiritual hunger for God. [Are you hungry for God?]

This is the primary focus of Jesus’ statement about our righteousness needing to be greater than the scribes and Pharisees, who focused more on external righteousness, but Jesus is looking for heart longing. And if you were with us last week you might remember that I said if you don’t have this hunger and thirst for God (5:6), you’re probably not a Christian.

Beginning with our passage today Jesus reinterprets six commands from the OT Law and addresses the need for heart change and not just external obedience. So, with all that said, let’s look at Mat 5:21-26…

“You have heard that our ancestors were told, ‘You must not murder. If you commit murder, you are subject to judgment.’ 22 But I say, if you are even angry with someone, you are subject to judgment! If you call someone an idiot, you are in danger of being brought before the court. And if you curse someone, you are in danger of the fires of hell.

23 “So if you are presenting a sacrifice at the altar in the Temple and you suddenly remember that someone has something against you, 24 leave your sacrifice there at the altar. Go and be reconciled to that person. Then come and offer your sacrifice to God.

25 “When you are on the way to court with your adversary, settle your differences quickly. Otherwise, your accuser may hand you over to the judge, who will hand you over to an officer, and you will be thrown into prison. 26 And if that happens, you surely won’t be free again until you have paid the last penny.  –Matthew 5:20-26

There are four things we must know about anger in order to redeem it:

  1. The POWER of Anger
  2. The POTENTIAL of Anger
  3. The PROBLEM of Anger
  4. The PRESCRIPTION for Healing Inappropriate Anger

I will attempt to address what this passage is saying about inappropriate anger as well as looking at the larger context – why anger is a good thing.

Let’s look at them one at a time…

The POWER of Anger — Anger has been referred to as the dynamite of the soul.  It can have devastating consequences…

It can wreak havoc on our bodies — A sound mind makes for a robust body, but runaway emotions corrode the bones.  –Pro. 14:30 (Medical studies affirm this)

It can wreak havoc on our relationships — See to it that no one comes short of the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springing up causes trouble, and by it many be defiled.  –Hebrews 12:15

It can wreak havoc on our capacity to make wise and intelligent decisions — He who is quick-tempered exalts folly.  –Proverbs 14:29b (Anger can actually become addictive – it’s usually masking deeper woundedness.)

The POTENTIAL of Anger — The Bible repeatedly speaks of God’s anger. Another phrase we see in Scripture is, “The Wrath of God.” A lot of people struggle here because there’s a fairly common perspective, especially among cultural critics of the Christian faith, that really wants to assume that, if God is love, God would never get angry. Here’s the problem with that perspective: If you have a God that never gets angry, you can’t have a God of love because if God never gets angry, He can’t really love anything.

If there is someone we love, and that person is threatened you will – and should become angry. Martyn Lloyd-Jones is SO succinct when he says, “our anger must only be against sin.”[1] Sin of all kinds should make us angry. First and foremost, your own sin—and then the sin in the world around us.

This is what the 2nd Beatitude up in 5:4, blessed are those who mourn is addressing. We’d say things like, “I hate slothfulness, I hate abuse, I hate oppression and greed.” We hate expressions of sinfulness. Just a reminder here that Paul reminds us in Eph 4:26, “be angry but do not sin.”

In our passage today in v. 22 it says, if you are even angry with someone, you are subject to judgment! If you call someone an idiot, you are in danger of being brought before the court. And if you curse someone, you are in danger of the fires of hell.”  (How convicting is THAT!) What Jesus is saying here is that we MUST separate the sin from the sinner.

And finally, anger and wrath also contain longing. Say your spouse or your kid does something really stupid and you get angry…isn’t part of that anger a longing for the person to make good decisions? The same is true for God’s anger and God’s wrath.

The PROBLEM of Anger — Anger is often a secondary emotion, not a primary emotion.  So, our anger can mask, or disguise primary emotions such as frustration, grief, fear, or offense. Here’s a crude graphic that illustrates this…

Anger becomes a problem when it gets out of control and when it hurts people emotionally or even physically. An important key to understanding the PROBLEM of anger is for us to see anger as an opportunity to look deeper into the heart of God.  Our anger can become a window through which we can discover – and deal with the woundedness we bring into our Christian experience.[2]

Another way to illustrate this is to liken anger to the engine light on a car. If the light starts flashing it tells that something is wrong.

When you feel anger let’s view it as an opportunity to explore what may be below the surface – what the anger may be masking. The purpose of examining our emotions is not merely to better ourselves, but to reveal what separates us from God and others.

The PRESCRIPTION for Healing Our Unrighteous Anger — Three quick thoughts for you to consider:

  1. If we were to condense vs. 23-26 into a single thought it would be, when reactive or contemptuous anger surfaces deal with it quickly. Again, Paul says in Eph 4:26 we are not to let the sun go down on your anger. (The longer we’re married the less we take that verse literally.)
  2. And then vs. 25-26 indicates that the proudful failure (or unwillingness) to reconcile could result in a prison sentence. This is true spiritually as wellit may be the prison of resentment, or bitterness (which Heb 12:15 says will eventually defile many people). It may be the prison or fear, or sadness, or guilt, or shame, or envy, or depression. These are all very real prisons that we can end up confined to if we’re not dealing with the emotions that result in anger.
  3. Finally, go to the blog and take the anger eval questionnaire.

The gospel tells us that Jesus absorbed our vitriol and our anger. He also absorbed the wrath and anger of God toward a proud and stiff-necked people. Because Jesus did it for us – let’s continue to be patient and kind with one another by His strength and by His power.

[1] Lloyd-Jones: 226.

[2] Adapted from Allender, Dan & Tremper Longman. The Cry of the Soul, NavPress new ed. 1999: 10.

Anger Self Evaluation Questionnaire

This week I’ve been restudying Matthew 5:21-26 in preparation for a sermon this weekend. It appears that anger has taken root in our culture and even in the Church. What can we do about that?

My thinking is that this crisis is the result of an inadequate discipleship process in the Evangelical Church over the last few decades, which has been principle-driven to a fault. Certainly, Scripture is full of principles to be learned and practiced. Where we’ve fallen short, in my opinion, is not helping people to integrate those principles into practices.

“Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved complete, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  –1 Thessalonians 5:23

This passage is not meant to be a singular proof text, it is one of many biblical texts that indicate God wants access to, not only WHAT we do but WHY we do what we do. Our spirit, soul, and body represent the overlapping distinctives of our human nature. Embedded in these distinctives are our intellect, will, and emotions. One of the late R.C. Sproul‘s descriptions of the sanctification process is the ongoing “mending of all human imperfection,” which will be completed at the Second Coming of Jesus. In the meantime, we are constantly learning principles and (hopefully) putting them into practice to strengthen our spirit, soul, and body through the teaching, convicting, and empowering presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

The idea of integrating emotional health into the sanctification and discipleship process is learning how to manage our feelings and emotions in appropriate ways. One example of a failure of effective discipleship would be the guy (who might even be a pastor or a church leader) who knows the Bible really really well, yet is prone to outbursts of anger. This becomes confusing to people both inside and outside the church and waters down both our witness and effectiveness.

What is Emotional Health?

Emotional health is what occurs when my feelings are being placed under the power of the cross in an ongoing way so that they are acknowledged as present (as opposed to denying them), listened to for what they communicate about me, expressed adequately and appropriately to others, and acted upon in ways that are appropriate and (begin to) reflect the character of Christ. They exist, but they no longer dominate my behavior. I begin to respond more than I react and when I blow it, I own it and apologize. My emotions are recognized and given their rightful place in the course of godly conduct.

With the above in mind, please take some time to consider if anger has taken-up too much residential space in your soul…

Anger Self Evaluation Questionnaire

The following inventory can help you in the recognition process as you seek to determine whether your anger is reaching a destructive level in your life.

  • I become impatient easily when things do not go according to my plan.
  • I tend to have critical thoughts toward others who don’t agree with my opinions.
  • When I am displeased with someone, I may shut down any communication with them or withdraw entirely.
  • I get annoyed easily when friends and family do not appear sensitive to my needs.
  • I feel frustrated when I see someone else having an easier time than me.
  • Whenever I am responsible for planning an important event, I am preoccupied with how I must manage it.
  • When talking about a controversial topic, the tone of my voice is likely to become louder and more assertive.
  • I can accept a person who admits his or her mistakes, but I get irritated easily at those who refuse to admit their weaknesses.
  • I do not easily forget when someone does me wrong.
  • When someone confronts me with a misinformed opinion, I am thinking of my comeback even while they are speaking.
  • I find myself becoming aggressive even while playing a game for fun.
  • I struggle emotionally with the things in life that aren’t fair.
  • Although I realize that it may not be right, I sometimes blame others for my problems.
  • More often than not, I use sarcasm as a way of expressing humor.
  • I may act kindly toward others on the outside yet feel bitter and frustrated on the inside.

Scoring: If you recognize 4-8 of the above, your anger is probably more present than you would prefer. If you identified with 9 or more boxes, there is a strong possibility that you have an ongoing struggle with anger or rage, whether you are aware of it or not.

(Adapted from “The Anger Workbook,” written by Dr. Les Carter and Dr. Frank Minirth)