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Fear the flame, not the mask. 

Still thinking through what the scriptures say about the fear of death.

Isn’t this passage, from Hebrews Chapter 2, huge and powerful?

But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, for the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, that He, by the grace of God, might taste death for everyone….Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared in the same, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage.

Is the Word of God saying that, after Adam sinned and fell and had to leave the Garden, it would be the normal human experience to live your whole life with the fear of death (at the very least) in the background of everything…that, in fact, it would be a kind of bondage we all experienced? Seems like it.  It is a normal experience today. And, this passage is clear–one of the things Jesus has done is grant those who trust in him deliverance from that all-too-common fear.

Following on the previous post from Alistair Begg, I found this passage in a sermon of John Chrysostom. This is around 1700 years old, which means that Christians have been thinking and talking about this for a very long time:

Permit me, that I now say to you at a fitting time, “Brethren, be not children in understanding; howbeit in malice be ye children.” (1 Corinthians 14:20)

For this is a childish terror of ours, if we fear death, but are not fearful of sin.

Little children too are afraid of masks, but fear not the fire. On the contrary, if they are carried by accident near a lighted candle, they stretch out the hand without any concern towards the candle and the flame; yet a mask which is so utterly contemptible terrifies them; whereas they have no dread of fire, which is really a thing to be afraid of. Just so we too have a fear of death, which is a mask that might well be despised; but have no fear of sin, which is truly dreadful; and, even as fire, devours the conscience!

And this is wont to happen not on account of the nature of the things, but by reason of our own folly; so that if we were once to consider what death is, we should at no time be afraid of it.

What then, I pray you, is death? Just what it is to put off a garment. For the body is about the soul as a garment; and after laying this aside for a short time by means of death, we shall resume it again with the more splendor.

What is death at most? It is a journey for a season; a sleep longer than usual! So that if you fear death, you should also fear sleep! If for those who are dying you are pained, grieve for those too who are eating and drinking, for as this is natural, so is that! Let not natural things sadden you; rather let things which arise from an evil choice make you sorrowful. Sorrow not for the dying man; but sorrow for him who is living in sin!

Notice Chrysostom’s emphasis. He makes a helpful, clarifying comparison by pitting “fear of death” against “fear of sin.” And then, he simply asks, which one do we fear more?  And his illustration is masterful–he asks, when someone fears a scary mask more than a fire, doesn’t it show that they lack a basic understanding of the nature of the world? If Chrysostom is right, than death is only a scary mask, but sin–that’s a deadly flame. Laugh at one. Respect, and fear, and tightly control, the other. Fear sin–not death.

Home groups tonight, everyone. If you haven’t signed up for one, you can sign up here.

What Matters Most

I would say it’s a safe bet to think that issues of health, life, and death, have been “front burner” for most us in the last calendar year. This passage from Alistair Begg’s, book Pray Big: Learn to Pray Like an Apostle offers some great, relevant insight into thinking (and praying) through these issues. He’s discussing Paul’s prayers recorded in his letters to the Ephesian church. Enjoy:

Something Bigger Than Health

The believers in Ephesus were in one sense just like us. They had concerns for food and for clothes and for shelter. They would have thought about and talked about and worried about being married or getting married…being parents or wishing they were parents, or wishing some days they weren’t parents…employment, paying taxes, wealth, health…but there’s no mention of these matters at all in what Paul prays for them.

In fact, praying about health (which, if we had the chance to listen in on the prayers of Western Christians, would likely come in at number one) is rare – almost non-existent – in the Bible. So why are we praying about it so much?

It’s because we don’t want to die.

We want to live. We’ve got a sneaking suspicion that we’ve got now, this side of death, is actually better than what God has for us then, on the other side of death. So we want to hang on to what we’ve got. But instead, we need to believe – really believe – that these things are true:

God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved – and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. (Ephesians 2:4-7)

You have now been raise with Christ into the heavenly places. You have been made part of a family that will never come to an end. One day, you will live in a new heaven and new earth. You will see your God face to face and, with a heart no longer burdened and distracted by sin, and a body no longer broken and decaying in frailty, you will praise him.

And you and I just want to pray that we’d stay healthy and live long!? All that matters may be brought before God, but what we bring before God is not always what matters most.

When the eyes of our hearts are opened to our future, it changes our lives now – it reorders our priorities and our prayers. We pray less about the practical details of this life, and first and foremost about the spiritual realities of our eternal life Eternal matters matter more; the concerns of today less. We live out, and we pray based on the truth that “to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21)

But, time-bound and fallen creature that I naturally am, I often forget the spiritual and eternal element of reality. That’s why the things that fill my prayers are so regularly absent from Paul’s – and why the things that fill his prayers are so regularly absent from mine. He has his eyes fixed on eternity. His prayers are spiritual. We need to make ours so, too.

Guest Post: We Need a New Song

Friends here’s a timely post from for the (still) New Year from Tony Defranco:

We Need a New Song: A Mediation on Psalm 96

It is an undisputed fact that songs are one of the most powerful mediums to communicate a message. Whether it’s communicating a protest of something you won’t stand for, a familiar emotion in a lyric, or just something you turn up with the windows down to blow off steam, songs are what people go to in order to find an expression of how they feel. Even in 2020, with no concerts for most of the year, and artists mostly in quarantine for nearly 9 months, songwriting did not suffer. In a recent article, billboard.com actually attributed our global shutdown as a benefit to Taylor Swift. She wrote, recorded, and released one of the biggest albums of the year during the shutdown and got it out less than a year after her last one. They go on to say that platforms like TikTok gave rise to unknown artists, making them overnight success stories in the midst of a year where most other people were navigating great loss. How does that happen? The article states, “if you thought TikTok was influential before, that of course proved to be a gentle nudge compared to the full-body impact it flexed once the youth of America had less reason than ever not to spend all day on their phones.”

Think on that. In the middle of an incredibly trying year the “youth of America” turned to TikTok to shop for various expressions of how they felt. They discovered new content, aligned themselves with what resonated most, and started singing those songs. When things got difficult, when anxiety hit all-time highs, when forced into isolation, people turned to songs in order to find a voice that communicated how we felt. Songs are powerful.

Heading into 2021 I found myself mediating on Psalm 96:1 which says, Oh sing to the LORD a new song; sing to the LORD, all the earth!

It became very clear to me that throughout 2020 we all aligned ourselves with a “song.” What was the message you rallied behind last year? What was the expression you felt most unified with? What did you sing over the year in conversation, on social media, at work, with friends and family, amongst your church community, or to God in prayer? If we meditate for a few moments I am sure we could identify what we unified under and sang out from our bedrooms in isolation. Was it edifying? Did your “song” build you and others up in your walks with Jesus? Did it express how satisfied you are in God’s glory in the midst of hardship and trial?

Maybe you realize you picked a “song” from the top 100 of 2020. The song of Trump or Biden. The song of masks or no masks. The song of the America of old, or of the “new normal.” The song of love your neighbor, or one of hyper-individualism—I do what I want how I want when I want. The song of “Christians should gather,” or “it’s too dangerous right now for that.” I’ll be honest, I definitely had my fair share of switching my “tune” all throughout 2020. Maybe you can relate. However, at the turn of our new year, I believe the Spirit is saying to us, “2021 needs a new song.”  The “songs” that have been available to us throughout this last year simply won’t do in 2021 (as if they accomplished anything in 2020).

You see, songs throughout history have typically been a unifying expression of society and culture, but the “songs” available to us now are designed to divide humanity and create sides that war against one another. 

We need a new song. 

We need a song that is foreign to 2020, one that will “bless” God’s “name” and “tell of His salvation from day to day.” (Psalm 96:2). I didn’t hear that much last year. It’s time we sing it loud.

We have to completely abandon all other melodies being sung today. 

Identifying with a message to the extent that it is an expression of our lives is an act of worship. Singing, in any form, is worship. We all worship, and there is a “god” behind every song. Psalm 96:4 tells us God is “to be feared above all gods.” We show that reverence to God by removing the expression of every other god out of our lives.

I would encourage you to read Psalm 96 and list all the “new songs” you find available in the passage. Write them down and sing them every chance you get. Who knows, maybe we can unify a generation this year, instead of dividing it.

Making New Year’s Resolutions?

Friends, can you believe we’re staring down the barrel of another new year? A lot of us have thrown shade at 2020, I know. But the truth is, in some way, nothing’s changing as we head into 2021…except what we make of the time God gives us, and what God Himself decides to do in 2021. And I think that those two thoughts should probably keep us from any discouragement or exhaustion that we might be tempted to descend into. Along those lines, I found this, which I originally wrote 10 years ago, and posted for the high school youth group at that time, the last time we were wrapping up a decade. Enjoy:

Since this is the last day of 2010, it’s a great time to stop and think about the lives God gave us to live. One interesting fact about these lives is that God has given us time markers that divide them up into many smaller units of different sizes. Is there a clock ticking nearby you? Every tick is a fresh second to live. Everyday you fall asleep when it gets dark (the earth spins one more time). A month is ending in a few hours (another trip around for the moon).

Why did God do it this way? Maybe because He knew we would tend to just barrel on through life without realizing how much of it was passing and how we were spending it. So He gave us all these markers to remind us that we were in fact moving forward, even if we forget it. So when we hit a new year, we should take it as a signpost on the road of life. Maybe throw some questions at yourself, like: What does God see when He looks at my 2010? Should I continue on the same course in 2011? Are there any adjustments the Holy Spirit would have me make? Did I mean to live 2010 the way I did, or did I plan to do things differently?

And while you’re thinking over your own life, it may help you to read the thoughts of another young person. Jonathan Edwards was a Pastor in New England in the 1700s, born in 1703. On December 18, 1722 (when He was 19) he sat down and wrote 21 resolutions. But they weren’t new year’s resolutions; they were life resolutions. He wanted to set out the principles he would live by. As the days went by he kept adding to the list until he had 70. Many of them have all kinds of things to teach us about what it means to live a biblical and God-pleasing life… Here are the first few, with his introduction:

“Being sensible that I am unable to do any thing without God’s help, I do humbly entreat him, by his grace, to enable me to keep these Resolutions, so far as they are agreeable to his will, for Christ’s sake. Remember to read over these Resolutions once a week.

1. Resolved, That I will do whatsoever I think to be most to the glory of God, and my own good, profit, and pleasure, in the whole of my duration [that is, his whole life]; without any consideration of the time, whether now, or never so many myriads of ages hence. Resolved, to do whatever I think to be my duty, and most for the good and advantage of mankind in general. Resolved, so to do, whatever difficulties I meet with, how many soever, and how great soever.

4. Resolved, Never to do any manner of thing, whether in soul or body, less or more, but what tends to the glory of God, nor be, nor suffer it, if I can possibly avoid it.

5. Resolved, Never to lose one moment of time, but to improve it in the most profitable way I possibly can.

6. Resolved, To live with all my might, while I do live.

7. Resolved, Never to do any thing, which I should be afraid to do if it were the last hour of my life.

14. Resolved, Never to do any thing out of revenge.

16. Resolved, Never to speak evil of any one, so that it shall tend to his dishonor, more or less, upon no account except for some real good.

17. Resolved, That I will live so, as I shall wish I had done when I come to die. [This is amazing… think about what this means…]

18. Resolved, To live so, at all times, as I think is best in my most devout frames, and when I have the clearest notions of the things of the gospel, and another world. [In other words, he wants to always live like he wishes he lived when he was at his “spiritual peaks.”]

19. Resolved, Never to do any thing, which I should be afraid to do, if I expected it would not be above an hour before I should hear the last trump.

21. Resolved, Never to do any thing, which if I should see in another, I should count a just occasion to despise him for, or to think any way the more meanly of him.

22. Resolved, To endeavor to obtain for myself as much happiness in the other world as I possibly can, with all the power, might, vigor, and vehemence, yea violence, I am capable of, or can bring myself to exert, in any way that can be thought of.

“I never made a sacrifice.”

John Piper writes this, about David Livingstone:

David Livingstone was born March 19, 1813. He gave his life to serve Christ in the exploration of Africa for the sake of creating access to the gospel. He was the first European to cross the width of Africa, and the first to set his eyes on Victoria Falls, which he named after his queen. He also laid his eyes on the horrors of the East African slave trade, and devoted himself with passion as an abolitionist.

Many doubted Livingstone’s sincerity as a missionary, since he spent so much of his time exploring. But his own perspective was clear: “As for me, I am determined to open up Africa or perish.” He said, “The end of the exploration is the beginning of the enterprise.”

A year before he died in 1873, he wrote in his journal on his 59th birthday, “My birthday! My Jesus, my King, my Life, my All. I again dedicate my whole self to Thee.”

Here is what he said to the Cambridge students, on December 4, 1857, about what it had meant for him to leave his homeland of England:

For my own part, I have never ceased to rejoice that God has appointed me to such an office.

People talk of the sacrifice I have made in spending so much of my life in Africa. . . . Is that a sacrifice which brings its own blest reward in healthful activity, the consciousness of doing good, peace of mind, and a bright hope of a glorious destiny hereafter?

Away with the word in such a view, and with such a thought! It is emphatically no sacrifice.

Say rather it is a privilege. Anxiety, sickness, suffering, or danger, now and then, with a foregoing of the common conveniences and charities of this life, may make us pause, and cause the spirit to waver, and the soul to sink; but let this only be for a moment. All these are nothing when compared with the glory which shall be revealed in and for us.

I never made a sacrifice.

The Lord of Christmas

“Unto us a Child is born; Unto us a Son is given.”

Who could have ever come up with the story that happens to be the true story?

“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son.”

The God who made everything turned to unworthy sinners and gave… And what He gave was His Son. What He gave was Himself. His life. His Death. His eternal commitment to fix everything and make it right…forever.

John Webster:

What is given is the personal,
communicative self-presence of Jesus Christ,
in and as whom the creative,
redemptive and perfecting works of God,
willed by the Father
and brought to realization by the Holy Spirit,
are enacted

The church’s Lord, Jesus,
is the incomparably comprehensive context
of all creaturely being,
knowing and acting,
because in
and as him
God is with humankind
in free, creative and saving love.

Because he is Lord,
he can only be thought of as Lord;
if he is not thought of as Lord,
and with the rational deference which is due to him as Lord,
then he is not thought of at all.

He is not simply baby Jesus. He is the Lord—given, coming, born.

The baby Lord. The Lord, the baby.

So it was, at the beginning:

And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him. 

And so it was, at the end:

When they saw Him, they worshiped Him…
And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying,
“All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.” 

Merry Christmas, everyone.

Good tidings, great joy.

Luke Chapter 2, verses 8-18:

Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid. Then the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. “For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. “And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying: “Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!” So it was, when the angels had gone away from them into heaven, that the shepherds said to one another, “Let us now go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has come to pass, which the Lord has made known to us.” And they came with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the Babe lying in a manger. Now when they had seen Him, they made widely known the saying which was told them concerning this Child. And all those who heard it marveled at those things which were told them by the shepherds.

“Do not be afraid.”

The birth of Jesus (the incarnation) answers all human fear. Why? Because it says that God has already begun to enact the solution to all the things that scare us. At the bottom of every human fear is the fear that we’ll be ruined and destroyed forever—that pain and darkness and loneliness and futility will never end. But fear not—the man who will end all those things, forever, has been born. The birth of Jesus guarantees that no matter what you’re facing now, that hard situation is meant to be temporary.

“For behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people.”

The announcement that we don’t need to be afraid comes with the announcement of the best possible news. It’s the kind of news that, if you hear it and understand what it means, it fixes you on the inside—you find something called joy welling up in your heart—the happy, life-filled exuberance that floods away fear and pain and says, “It’s all going to be ok. In fact, it’s all going to be awesome.” And the announcement is that this joy is meant for everyone. No culture, no country, no ethnic group is left out—all our culture’s obsession with division and oppression is answered in one stroke. If anyone denies that this message transcends boundaries, heals old wounds, ends oppression, and sweeps away the logic of intersectionality, well, the angels say they’re wrong. Jesus Christ is Lord of all, and no one can keep his joy out.

“For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”

Jesus is a savior. He Knows how to rescue us all, out of everything. He can sort out the mess. He can sort out our mess. And he can keep us alive and well in the process.  He comes from the ancient line of kings—he is the promised son of David, the messiah, and the king of everyone and everything. When he is born, it is time to start telling the world that he’s arrived. This changes everything. The angels know it. And now the shepherds do too.

“And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.”

Here is the Christmas part of the whole thing. God shocked us all with this way of doing it. It’s so big and crazy and awesome that we go nuts once a year for like a whole month—we decorate our houses and set up indoor pine trees and string lights and sing songs and give gifts and make everything look way better than it usually does—all because God shocked us with how generous, and big-hearted, and courageous, and close to us he was willing to be. God the baby, looking up at us out of little human eyes. All the global pessimists, worry-mongers and dooms-dayers should think about that. One baby ruins all your predictions.

“And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying: ‘Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!’”

Peace hasn’t grown up and taken over the world yet. But it was born. The King of Peace was born, he grew up, and he’s already done the hardest part of his work. When he became a man he lifted up the burden of all human evil, and he carried it to the cross, where they killed him, and he died under the weight of every one of our sins, and then rose again from the dead. And that means that the good news is now even bigger than the news that he was born. It’s the news that he also died and rose again, and that anyone who believes that he’s the king and savior, and repents of their sins, will be fully forgiven of their sins, and will have Jesus Christ’s guarantee that they will be rescued from the wrath of God when God decides to end the history of human evil, and push it into the background forever, and bring to the foreground the new history of divine blessing and human good that he began that night in Bethlehem. The kingdom of God is already 2000 years in the making, and when it arrives in full, it will complete the awesome thing that happened on this night.

On that night…

  • He came into …our sickness. …our political upheaval   …our incompetent society   …our ignorance and bigotry  …opposition to God’s work.
  • He was not afraid …to be a baby …to live under a repressive government …to face misunderstanding   …to contend with people who loved sin.
  • He was not defeated …by darkness   …by lies   …by Satan   …by sin    …by death.
  • He was born …to live …to die …to pour out his spirit …to return  …to reign.
  • He preserved Humanity. He cemented God’s glory on earth. He ensured God’s ultimate plan.
  • We will praise his name no matter if we face …darkness …lies …Satan  …sin …death …sickness …political upheaval …incompetent society …ignorance and bigotry …opposition to God’s work.

There is nothing more important than the Glory of God and the Kingdom of Christ.

There is nothing more important than obeying his commands and testifying to the fact that he defeated death. There is nothing more important than living, gathering, and spreading the message of repentance in the face of the coming kingdom. And so, there is nothing more important than continuing to hold and proclaim the news that God the Son became a man, so that we could be with him forever.

Families, Resistance Cells

One of the most powerful parts of Rod Dreher’s Live Not by Lies is Chapter 7, entitled “Families Are Resistance Cells.” In it, he writes:  

Family is where we first learn to love others. If we are lucky, it is also where we first learn how to live in truth.

The loosening of family ties and of traditional commitments to marriage has left Americans without the kind of refuge in the home that anti-communist dissidents had. US Christians, alas, are not especially different from unbelievers.

There is a strong model of anti-totalitarian resistance based in the Christian family: the Benda clan of Prague. The Bendas are a large Catholic family who suffered greatly in 1979 when the Czechoslovak state sentenced their patriarch, Vaclav, to four years in prison for his activities fighting for human rights. Vaclav Benda and his wife, Kamila, both academics, were among the only believing Christians working at the topmost level of the Czech dissident movement.

[Benda wrote,] The family cannot survive as a community if the head and center is one of its own members. The Christian statement is simple: it has to be Christ who is the true center, and in His service the individual members of this community share in the work or their salvation. One hopes that the well-grounded family can exist even without it distinctively religious affiliation; however, the focus of service to something “beyond”, whether we call it love, truth or anything else, seems essential…

Benda said that the family house must be a real home, “that is, a place which is livable and set apart, sheltered from the outer world; a place which is a starting-out point for adventures and experiences with the assurance of a safe return” – in other words, a haven in a heartless world. The loving, secure Christian home is a place that forms children who are capable of loving and serving others within the family, the church, and the neighborhood, and indeed the nation. The family does not exist for itself alone, but first for God, and then for the sake of the broader community – a family of families.”

About all this, Dreher observes:

In the coming soft totalitarianism, Christians will have to regard family life in a much more focused, serious way. The traditional Christian family is not merely a good idea – it is also a survival strategy for the faith in a time of persecution. Christians should stop taking family life for granted, instead approaching it in a more thoughtful, disciplined way. We cannot simply live as all other families live, except that we go to church on Sunday. Holding the correct theological beliefs and having the right intentions will not be enough. Christian parents must be intentionally counterculture to approach to family dynamics. The days of living like everybody else and hoping our children turn out for the best are over.

The Benda family model requires parents to exercise discernment. For example, the Bendas didn’t opt out of popular culture but rather chose intelligently which parts of it they wanted their children to absorb. To visit the Benda family home is not to step into Spartan barracks but rather into a place filled with books and art and life. The Benda family judged that they could be open to the good things in the world around them because of the disciplined moral, intellectual, and spiritual lives they lived within the family.

And they acted with openness to the world. Vaclav Benda taught that the family does not exist for its own purpose but for the service of something beyond itself. When you pay a call on Kamila, you sit on chairs and sofas that are well worn from years of hosting guests invited to share in the joy of her clan’s Christians lives. True, they had to judge carefully who to let their home and what to say around them, but there was not doubt in the minds of Vaclav and Kamila Benda that their role as Christians was not to draw the shutters and hide, as so many Czech Christians did, but to be of active service to the church, and the world. For those who survive Vaclav – Kamila, her children, and grandchildren – it still is.

There is a lot to think about here. And it is all very relevant to the young adults of our church–especially as you think about founding a household. Maybe that is what we should say to ourselves when we consider marriage: “I am about to found a household.” We are called not only to marriage (if singleness for the kingdom is not your gifting and calling), but to bearing children (assuming God grants that blessing), and therefore, to founding and cultivating and guarding a family, a mini-society in which children can grow and the world can be ministered to for Christ’s sake. The health of the church, and the spread of the gospel, the continuation of the knowledge of the faith–all these things are (at least partly) carried on by God’s institution of the family.

So, if you’re just beginning one, or getting ready to start one, let these thoughts shape your decisions. And, if you’re not there yet, cultivate a life of following Jesus now that will flow seamlessly into this other kind of life, when your opportunity arrives.

Help them see.

“You need to confess him and worship him in such a way that people can see that this world is a lie.”

–Yuri Sipko, Russian Baptist pastor. Quoted in Live Not by Lies

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